Kingdoms in Conflict

I saw a picture of an allegedly Russian submarine passing through the Bosporus, possibly in violation of an international treaty. Recent events in Asia have raised international tensions, and some may be testing the US, which has certainly projected its power and influence. Matthew 8:28–34 gives you a glimpse of a greater power struggle between two kingdoms.

Recognize the conflict between the kingdoms. The demons are part of the forces of darkness. The text leaves you with some unanswered questions. Some manuscripts have variant readings on the location. Gadara was a town not too far from the southeast shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the area where Jesus landed was apparently under its control. The parallel accounts (Mark 5:1-17 and Luke 8:20-37) are longer, and mention only one demon possessed man. Remember that each of the Gospel writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, selected his material for his own purposes, and includes details relevant to his purposes. The whole issue of demon possession raises questions. In the Scriptures, most of the recorded cases of possession occur during the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is almost as though Satan is giving mock imitations of the incarnation. Evil spirits, apparently other fallen angels, enter and control the bodies of people, who were made in God’s image. We are not told why Jesus allows the demons to enter, and then destroy, the pigs. Be cautious about questions of demon possession today. Don’t evade responsibility—exorcism doesn’t replace the need for repentance. Satan is a real enemy, and must be taken seriously. At the same time, do not attribute omnipotence to him. Remember, as this passage reminds you, that he is a defeated enemy. The demons are representatives of the spiritual forces opposed to Jesus. Their destructive, negative purposes are evident in the violence displayed by the two men, and in what results when they enter the herd of pigs. There they carry out the destructive action from which they had been hindered in their possession of the men. “When Christ appeared on earth, this ‘prince’ [Satan] concentrated his power against him, not only by assaulting him personally and persecuting him relentlessly, but also by surrounding him on all sides with demonic forces in order to thus break down and resist this work. The (demon-)possessed in the New Testament were not ordinary sick folk. . . . The exceptional features of the (demon-)possessed are that out of their mouths speaks a subject other than themselves, that this subject recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, is totally hostile toward him, and leaves the patient only at Jesus’ command (Matt. 8:29, 31; Mark 1:26, 34; 3:11; Luke 4:34, 41; 8:2, 30; Acts 16:17–18; 19:15).” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, pages 189–190).

Even the demons have to submit to Jesus. If the demons represent the kingdom of darkness, Jesus is not just a representative of the kingdom of God. Rather, he is the King himself! The question of the demons recognizes the incompatibility of the two kingdoms. The demons recognize Jesus. Although many failed to recognize Jesus for who he is, these demons address him as “Son of God.” Further, the demons recognize their impending judgment. Their question, interestingly, does not doubt that judgment, but simply questions the timing. They seemed to know that their final punishment lay in the future. At Jesus’s word they depart the men, leaving them healed.

Rejoice in the triumph of the kingdom of God. Christ’s word controls even the forces of Satan. Notice how Matthew arranges this incident. It falls between the calming of the storm (Jesus is Lord over the forces of nature) and the forgiving and healing of the paralytic (Jesus not only heals, but forgives, which God alone can do). Jesus simply speaks, and the demons leave the men. Their going into the pigs is only by Jesus’ permission, and that has the effect of further displaying their destructive intent. “Jesus does not negotiate with the demons. Nor is their entry into the swine their undoing, but rather, the (provisional) self-maintenance of the demons. For their purpose and work is the destruction of God’s creation. Jesus’ compliance with their request is due to the fact, we think, that also in Jesus’ opinion ‘the time’ of the torment of the demons has indeed not yet come.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 112).

Christ’s miracle anticipates the fullness of his kingdom. Isaiah 42 promised a Servant who would set free those who were captives, who would be a light to the Gentiles. Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ kingship is evident in the birth narratives. The account of the temptation precedes the introduction of Jesus preaching and healing ministry. Matthew is telling you that two kingdoms are in conflict. The phrase, “before the appointed time” from the demons reminds you of what will happen in the last day. Not only will the wicked be judged (Matthew 7:19, 23), but Satan and his hosts will pass into eternal punishment. Matthew is assuring you that even now Satan and his hosts are defeated enemies. His Gospel will end with Jesus claiming all power in heaven and on earth. No, Satan is not gone. Take him seriously. But remember the far greater power of your Lord. His eternal triumph has reached back into history. You see a piece of it in the liberation of the two men. You see it as you break sinful habits and glorify your Lord.

Respond to Christ with trust. Notice the reaction of the local inhabitants. Ignoring the curing of the two men, ignoring their increased safety (see verse 28), they focus on the loss of the herd of pigs, and implore him to leave. They would rather have the forces of darkness than the Son of God in their region! Matthew’s account forces you to ask, which kingdom do you choose?

Two kingdoms are in conflict. There is no peaceful co-existence. Only one will triumph. Which kingdom do you choose?