Sunday Church School Lesson
Sunday, April 17, 2016
“Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  And when He came out onto the land, He was met by a man from the city who was possessed with demons; and who had not put on any clothing for a long time, and was not living in a house, but in the tombs.  Seeing Jesus, he cried out and fell before Him, and said in a loud voice, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me.”  For He had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For it had seized him many times; and he was bound with chains and shackles and kept under guard, and yet he would break his bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.  And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.  They were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss.  Now there was a herd of many swine feeding there on the mountain; and the demons implored Him to permit them to enter the swine. And He gave them permission.  And the demons came out of the man and entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.  When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they ran away and reported it in the city and out in the country.  The people went out to see what had happened; and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting down at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they became frightened.  Those who had seen it reported to them how the man who was demon-possessed had been made well” (Luke 8:26-36, NASB).
Most modern readers of the Bible are aware that the land of Israel was controlled by the Roman Empire during Jesus’ life. Israel was, however, on the extreme eastern edge of that empire, literally on the frontier of Rome’s influence. A bit farther north, an area known as the Decapolis (literally, “ten cities”) was situated. The Decapolis was an independent but unofficial league of city-states. These municipalities were not under Rome’s control but were allies of the empire. This area is where today’s lesson is situated. The heritage of the population of the Decapolis was very mixed: some inhabitants came from native Arabic people-groups; some were Greek and Roman colonists and business people; some had migrated from lands farther east (the old Persian and Babylonian empires); some were Jews who had moved to the eastern side of the lake. Jesus had entered Gentile territory as we come to Luke 8:26. (Parallel accounts of today’s encounter are found in Matthew 8:28-34 and Mark 5:1-16.)
- Conquering a Legion, 26-33.
The word they refers to Jesus and the 12 disciples. Their mode of travel is by boat. The group arrives at the country of the Gadarenes, which matches Mark 5:1. But Matthew 8:28 says the area is “the country of the Gergesenes.” Actually, these refer to the same area, with the towns of Gadara and Gergesa (from which come the designations Gadarenes and Gergesenes, respectively) both located in the region. This is one of Jesus’ rare trips into Gentile territory. Disembarking from the boat, Jesus experiences a strange welcome as He is confronted by a demonized man. This man’s condition has existed for a long time. Apparently, there had been a time when the man was in control of himself, a time when he was not yet afflicted by devils. Luke moves us right to his current status: the man now subsists—somehow—without the basics of clothes and housing. We can imagine that at some point in his torment he stripped himself naked and ran from the town, only to end up milling about in a nearby cemetery. We do not know if he is Jewish, but the Law of Moses establishes that contact with a dead body makes one unclean (compare Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 5:2; 19:11; Matthew 23:27). This makes the tombs where the man dwells the most unclean place imaginable. The social and psychological consequences of the man’s bizarre behavior and lifestyle almost go without saying: the man clearly has no job, no social connections, etc. To be demonized does not always mean that one is driven to the fringes of society or becomes an outcast altogether (Luke 4:33, 34; 9:38, 39). But it does mean just that in this particular case. Everyone who knows or encounters the man fears him. He seems to be more animal than human, apparently incurable. What the disciples think as they observe the crazed man is not recorded. But whatever their level of anxiety, it certainly does not match the level of distress exhibited by the devils that indwell the man! Here as elsewhere, the cause of their distress is quite interesting: the demons are well aware of Jesus’ power; consequently, they fear what He may do to them. It is fascinating that the spiritual forces of darkness readily acknowledge Jesus’ true identity as Son of God most high while the experts in the Law of Moses are unable or unwilling to do so. Jesus casts out demons simply by commanding them to leave. A significant aspect of our story relates to the reality that Jesus can resolve even the most difficult problems—including problems that are not of a medical nature. The attempts to bind the demonized man with chains and in fetters should not be seen as acts of cruelty. People apparently have tried to keep him from harming himself and others in the only way they know how. Luke is clear that this individual’s problem is supernatural in nature: the man is under the control of the devil. Names are viewed as symbols of identity and power in the ancient world. To know the true name of a supernatural being is thought to have power over that entity. For this reason, ancient exorcisms typically invoke names as a way to gain command over supernatural beings. Jesus’ question forces the devils to disclose that there are in fact many spirits indwelling the troubled man. Legion is the designation of a Roman military unit of up to 5,400 men. As the Roman legions had taken control of the land of Israel and oppressed its inhabitants, so also the devils have assumed total control over this helpless individual. Whether there are literally 5,400 devils or figuratively just lots and lots of them indwelling the man ultimately doesn’t matter because they now meet their match. The word translated the deep in verse thirty-one is the bottomless pit in Revelation 9:1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3. In the passages from the book of Revelation, this is a place where certain enemies of God are temporarily imprisoned. Following release from there, these enemies are defeated and thrown into a lake of fire (see Revelation 19:19-20:10; compare Matthew 25:41). The evil spirits who inhabit the man seem to be well aware of the fate that awaits them! The presence of an herd of many swine is a further indication that Jesus and the disciples are in Gentile territory since pigs are unclean animals to Jews. This older use of the word suffer means “allow” or “permit,” so Jesus grants the demons’ request. They realize that they cannot challenge Jesus’ authority and power, so they bargain for the best possible outcome. The dramatic conclusion to the one-sided battle underscores Christ’s ability to defeat the forces of evil. The new home of the devils turns out to be quite temporary. They seem unable to control their new hosts: the herd immediately stampedes down a steep place into the lake and drowns, forcing the demons to flee to unknown quarters.
- Restoring a Life, 34-36.
They that fed the swine are the herdsmen. Even if the herdsmen have not been able to hear the conversation between Jesus and the demonized man, they certainly can see the result! So they depart quickly to report the incident to anyone in the city and in the country who will listen. Those who come to see what was done undoubtedly include the owners of the swine. Those owners have just suffered a substantial loss financially, so it’s natural to expect them to be among those who come to investigate. In due course, they and others find Jesus talking with a familiar figure. The man who is now sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind is the very one who had been often bound with fetters and chains. The witnesses at the scene, which include the disciples, relate the full story. The man’s new condition, contrasting so markedly from what it was before, testifies to the totality of his cure. Even so, the reaction of the crowd is troubling. Jesus has just offered a remarkable display of God’s power, and at the very least the result solves a problem for those living nearby. The locals, however, are afraid. This is not fear in the positive sense of “reverential awe” of God, but rather fear in the negative sense of “apprehensiveness,” of being alarmed to the point of wanting to have nothing to do with something. The result is that “the whole multitude of the country of the Gadarenes round about besought him to depart from them” (Luke 8:37). They see both good and harm side by side in the case at hand: the cure of a man and the loss of a herd. In asking Jesus to leave, they reveal what concerns them more.
Into the Lesson
Ask, “How do we know that the people of the first century AD knew the difference between mental illness and demon possession?” Challenge learners to back up their responses with Scripture. If no learner does so, mention Matthew 4:23, 24, which lists “possessed with devils” as distinct from other maladies. Note that mental illness (without demon possession) is mentioned also in 1 Samuel 21:13, 14; Daniel 4:31-36; and Acts 26:24, 25.
Make a transition by saying, “Today’s story centers on a man who was not in his right mind; he was in desperate need of Christ’s healing. The symptoms of his problem might sound similar to those of mental illness, but the problem was that he was possessed by demons. We should not confuse what the Bible describes as demon possession with mental illness. Even so, those who suffer from mental illness, or who have cared for those who do, will be able to empathize with the man in today’s story and find hope in the outcome.”
Into the Word
Say, “In Luke 9:1, 2, Jesus was about to send His disciples on a mission to preach and heal.” Read that passage, then say, “Prior to that sending, Jesus demonstrated His power and authority over nature, disease, and death.” Summarize quickly the events of Luke 8:22-25 (calming the storm) and 8:40-56 (raising a dead girl and healing a woman). Continue: “Between these accounts, Jesus demonstrated His lordship over the spirit world.” Point out the location of the events of today’s text on a map.
Have two learners read Luke 8:26-39 aloud, alternating verses. Review the text as a class by outlining on the board the events as recorded in Luke. Explain that this story is also recorded in Matthew and Mark, but each record has different details.
Divide the class in half. Assign Matthew 8:26-34 to one group and Mark 5:1-16 to the other. Ask each group to compare and contrast its assigned passage with Luke’s account as outlined. After a few minutes, call for conclusions to be shared with the class as a whole. Use the information in the Lesson Background to add clarity.
Conclude the discussion by noting how the demon-possessed man identified Jesus (Luke 8:28; Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7). Discuss why demons acknowledged Jesus’ identity when so many Jews of the day seemed unable or unwilling to do so (John 10:20; etc.). Dig deeper by discussing how these accounts contribute to our own understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission.
Option. Distribute copies of the “Traveling with Jesus” activity from the reproducible page, which you can download. After no more than one minute of individual work, have learners call out their conclusions. Compare and contrast results.
State, “Demon possession seems to have been much more widespread in Jesus’ culture than it is in our own, and Luke 10:18 may give the reason why. In any case, Jesus is in charge, not Satan. Jesus can handle seemingly impossible problems, including problems that do not originate in this world. Let’s take a minute to write a two- or three-sentence prayer thanking God for the real and figurative demons (fear, anxiety, temptations, etc.) that He has driven from our lives.” After learners do so, ask for volunteers to read theirs, but don’t put anyone on the spot.
Option 1. Distribute copies of the “The Differences Christ Makes” activity from the reproducible page to be completed and discussed in groups of three.
Option 2. Invite a Christian mental health professional to suggest ways the church can assist in adding a spiritual component to the healing process of those being treated for mental illness. Discuss also how the church can assist primary caregivers of those suffering from Alzheimer’s, etc.
Standard Lesson Commentary 2015-2016 (KJV).