‘What do You want with us, Son of God? Have You come here to torture us before the appointed time?’ Matthew 8:29
Are these the ravings of mentally ill outcasts, or do they represent something more? Without trying to explain or rationalise the finer points of this encounter, let’s take it at face value and see what it might teach us. These dramatic events are told in full in three Gospels, although Matthew is the only one who has two demonised men involved; Mark and Luke have just the one. The Matthew version is 8:28-34.
These two men have reached such a state that their lives are controlled by spiritual forces that drive them insane, and give then the superhuman strength of madness, so that they have been driven out of all normal society, and everyone leaves them well alone. Did Jesus just happen to land in their territory, or was He making straight for them?
We are making the uncomfortable assumption, based on the whole encounter, that these questions are being asked by spiritual beings through the mouths of unwilling human hosts. Sounds like something out of science fiction? You heard it first here in the Bible. Amazingly, these creatures recognise Jesus instantaneously to be exactly who He said He was, a feat that His human companions spend over three years trying to understand! Up until now, only Gabriel has given Him the title ‘Son of God’ when announcing His birth, satan when tempting Him in the wilderness, and other evil spirits He has already cast out of sufferers. Very few people will declare it openly during His lifetime: Nathaniel (John 1:49), the disciples after He calms the storm (Matt 14:33), Martha just before He raises Lazarus (John 11:27) and the centurion at the cross (Matt 27:54). We don’t know how these creatures knew, but they must have been able to perceive Jesus in a way that is veiled to us. One day that veil will be lifted for everyone and we will see Him is His glory, and then everyone will know Him as He really is.
For these spiritual beings, that knowledge was accompanied by great fear. Matthew notes that the questions were shouted, and this ‘rapid-fire’ style is very rare in the Bible. Whilst those around are busy being frightened by the two men, Jesus causes fear in the frighteners. You would have thought that, if the evil spirits were completely in control, they would have run in the opposite direction, but their human hosts may have been desperate enough to understand something of the situation and recognise their only source of healing in Jesus, defying their tormentors and heading towards Him. This battle is reflected in the Mark account, where the personal pronoun changes from singular to plural within the same sentence (Mark 5:9).
When is ‘the appointed time’? We can only assume that they are well aware that they, along with all created beings, are going to be judged by Jesus on that ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’. For them, its reality is unquestioned and immediate.
Thankfully, Jesus deals with the situation and reveals the human souls underneath the layers of spiritual oppression. They are wonderfully set free to serve Him. Sometimes we are reluctant to look at the supernatural elements in the Bible, but it is safe to do so when we are in Jesus’ company. They reflect something different about His glory, and remind us that He is something more than a friend and companion, but also a heavenly King.