He Sets the Captive Free
Topic: The Glory of Christ Passage: Mark 5:1–20
HE SETS THE CAPTIVE FREE
An Exposition of Mark 5:1-20
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: October 4, 2020
Series: Mark: Knowing and Following God’s Son
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In the early chapters of Mark, much of Jesus’ ministry took place in the seaside town of Capernaum, which sits on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee. Throughout Chapter 4, Jesus was teaching “a very large crowd” right there “beside the sea” (Mark 4:1). After a day of teaching, Jesus said to His disciples, “Let us go across to the other side [of the sea].” (Mark 4:36) And so off they went, sailing several miles to the southwest. Of course, in the midst of their journey across the sea, they encountered “a great windstorm” (Mark 4:37) that made the sea convulse and put their lives in danger. But Jesus “rebuked the wind” and quieted the sea (Mark 4:39).
Now, just hours later, Jesus ran into another kind of storm on “the other side of the sea” (Mark 5:1) – not a storm caused by the pressure of air and wind, but a storm caused by the pressure of “unclean spirits” (Mark 5:13). The “great windstorm” had put the sea into fits, but the legion of unclean spirits had put a man into fits. Would Jesus calm the man in the same way that He had calmed the sea?
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Holy Scripture says:
1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.
14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened.15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. (Mark 5:1-20)
WALKING THROUGH THE PASSAGE
I would like to walk through the passage in five parts:
- The Place of Action (v. 1)
- The Plight of the Man (v. 2-5)
- The Power Encounter (v. 6-13)
- The Impact of Jesus’ Action (v. 14-20)
- The Point to Take Home
PART 1: THE PLACE OF ACTION (v .1)
So let’s begin by taking note of the place where the action takes place. Verse 1 says, “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.” This part of the world is also called “the Decapolis” in verse 20. “Decapolis” literally means ‘the ten cities’ and these cities lay mostly to the south and to the east of the Sea of Galilee. While the Decapolis stretched around 60 miles inland, the events of Mark 5 took place right by the sea.
It is important to understand that in leaving Capernaum and in coming to the Gerasene region, Jesus left a predominantly Jewish area and came to a predominantly Gentile area. From a Jewish perspective, Gentiles were cultural outsiders and spiritually unclean. But if that was the perspective about Gentiles in general, the particular situation that we see in Mark 5:1-13 is hyper-unclean. First, you have “a man with an unclean spirit” (Mark 5:2). Second, this man is “[living] among the tombs” (Mark 5:3). Third, the man is walking around naked (implication of Mark 5:15, which tells us he was “clothed” after Jesus healed him). And fourth, there is in plain sight a herd of two thousand pigs (Mark 5:13), which the Old Testament regarded as unclean animals whose meat was off limits for God’s people. So this seaside port, full of unclean spirits, tombs, and pigs, is not the kind of place where a respectable Jew would go. In fact, Isaiah 65:4 describes “a rebellious people” (Isaiah 65:2) as those “who sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat pig’s flesh, and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels” (Isaiah 65:4).
But Jesus, the Holy One, full of the Holy Spirit, is able to go into unclean and unholy places without fear of contamination. And that is really good news, because when you remove all the religious and moral facades, the fact of the matter is that prior to the arrival of God’s grace, every place where sinners dwell is an unclean and unholy place. But Jesus is not afraid to go there and go to work there!
PART 2: THE PLIGHT OF THE MAN (v. 2-5)
In this manifestly unclean place, we meet a man in a miserable predicament. This man’s desperate plight is described in verses 2-5.
First, this man has “an unclean spirit” (v. 2). What this means is that “an unclean spirit” – which may also be called a demon – had taken up residence inside the man. An unclean spirit is not a metaphor for a corrupt heart; an unclean spirit is actually a spirit being – a personal spirit – with ambition and the ability to act. Satan is “the prince of demons” (Mark 3:22) and has an entire realm of demon beings under his sway. Demons like to take human beings captive and make them subject to their destructive will.
To be clear, every unconverted sinner is under the life-shaping influence of Satan and his minions. As Paul wrote to believers about what they were like before their conversion:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Every unbeliever is in a very real sense under the sway of the satanic realm. However, not every sinner is held captive and oppressed to the degree of the man here in Mark 5. Every sinner is demon-influenced, but not every sinner is demon-possessed. Every sinner is in bondage to sin, but not every sinner’s individuality and personality is overhauled by the indwelling presence of an unclean spirit. But the man in Mark 5 is in deep. The unclean spirit controls him.
Second, the man “lived among the tombs” (v. 3). This is one of the most ironic statements imaginable. Let it sink in: he “lived among the tombs”, he lived among the symbols and remains of the dead, he did life in the region of death. According to Luke 1:79, every sinner “[sits] in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). But what is true of every sinner in a spiritual sense, may show up in a very pronounced and tangible way in a demon-possessed man. When you combine his “[living] among the tombs” with his going around naked (again, this is the implication of Mark 5:15, which tells us he was “clothed” after Jesus healed him), then you have the picture of a man who is cut off from human community. In the nearby towns and villages, life is happening – there are families eating meals together in homes, there are community events, there is buying and selling in the marketplace. But this man is isolated from all that, and he suffers an anti-social existence.
Third, the man was uncontrollable – that is, he was unable to be subdued by other people. It says starting in the middle of verse 3: “And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces No one had the strength to subdue him.” (Mark 5:3-4) This reminds me of the great Samson, except Samson was empowered by the Holy Spirit. This man of Mark 5 is empowered by an unclean spirit.
The reality, of course, is that this demon-possessed man raised the blood pressure of people throughout the region. It is not difficult to imagine how unnerving it is to know that there is a highly disturbed, wild, and unruly individual on the outskirts of your neighborhood, roaming the hills and the cemeteries. That is unnerving, disconcerting, anxiety-producing. You would feel safer if the man was under lock and key at the Gerasene Insane Asylum. There was a time in the past when they could “bind him” – but even then he would break himself free. But now they couldn’t even bind him. This man was literally a demonic stronghold, and “[no] one had the strength to subdue him.”
Fourth, the man was in anguish: “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out” (v. 5). This is part of the reason that his presence was so disturbing to the larger community. A wild man “always crying out” is very unsettling. But the fact that “he was always crying out” indicates that he was miserable and conflicted in his own spirit. There was no peace for this man. He was like the sea in the midst of the storm: agitated, churning, and thrashed about. He is not to be despised, but pitied.
Fifth, the man was self-destructive: “he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (v. 5). It is a great sadness that people should descend to the point that they are cutting themselves. Cutting has been around for a long time. In 1 Kings 18, the prophets of Baal “cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.” (1 Kings 18:28) They were attempting to get Baal’s attention, but to no avail. Now in Mark 5 the demon-possessed man also “[cried] out and [cut] himself with stones.” What these two circumstances have in common is that Satan wants his subjects to destroy themselves. The Lord Jesus wants you to live, which is why He was crucified for you. But Satan wants you to perish, which is why He leads you to crucify yourself. The Lord Jesus wants you to see His worth and His great love for you, so that you would turn to Him. But Satan wants you to see yourself as worthless and unloved, so that you turn against yourself.
All sin is self-destructive, but the deeper we go into sin, the more obvious our self-destructive behavior becomes. Sinners, by nature, self-destruct. Sinners, but nature, self-destroy. Sinners, by nature, pursue death.
Looking at verses 2-5 as a whole, we need to understand that demonic activity and its effect on human beings in terms of deception and mental illness and self-destructive behavior, is part of the long shadow of death that hangs over our fallen world. When you see human languishing – the moral fabric torn, relationships broken, and the soul in shatters – remember: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:10)
In the final analysis, the unclean spirit has de-humanized the man. The unclean spirit has robbed the man of his dignity as a creature who was created for the high purpose of bearing God’s image. The unclean spirit’s assault on the man is, in fact, an assault on the Lord who made the man. And the rightful Lord of the man has just landed on the dock. What now?
The Lord didn’t create us for death, but for life. The Lord didn’t create us for self-flogging, but for flourishing. The Lord didn’t create us for misery, but for peace. And when He decides to show mercy to a demon-possessed man, He uses His power to set the captive free.
PART 3: THE POWER ENCOUNTER (v. 6-13)
Next, we come to the power encounter in verses 6-13. The two powers in play are: 1) the power of Jesus, who had recently commanded “the wind and the sea” (Mark 4:41), and they obeyed Him; and 2) the power of the unclean spirit, who held the man captive under his malicious rule. As we can see, human beings are caught up in a cosmic spiritual battle. No mere human being “had the strength to subdue him [the demon-possessed man]” (v. 4), and the demon-possessed man himself didn’t have the ability to free himself from the demon inside of him.
The demon-possessed came near to Jesus as soon as “Jesus had stepped out of the boat” (v. 2). This face-to-face encounter is described further in verse 6: “And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him.” Now at this point it is important to remember that the demon-possessed man is under the control of the demon. Since the conversation in verses 7-13 is between Jesus and the demon (even though the demon is speaking through the man’s voice), we should probably assume that the man’s action in approaching and “[falling] down before [Jesus]” is likewise the demon acting through the man (see Mark 1:26, 3:11). The conversation begins in verses 7-8:
“And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!””
The unclean spirits are unclean, but they are not ignorant. They know that Jesus is the Son of God. They know that Jesus has authority over them. They know that Jesus has the ability to torment them – to cast them out of their chosen host, send them packing, and consign them to a place of punishment. And this unclean spirit knows that Jesus intends to evict him from the soul of this particular man, because Jesus had already issued the order: “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Jesus’ order will be obeyed, but first Jesus allows a discussion to take place. And the unclean spirit makes it clear that he doesn’t want to conduct business with God’s Son, because he knows it is a losing proposition: “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” What business do we have with each other? The unclean spirit feels so threatened that he invokes God’s name and pleads, “[Do] not torment me.” Demons are tormentors, but they themselves do not want to be tormented.
Next, “Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”” The demon answered, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” (Mark 5:9) In the world of ancient Rome, a legion was a military unit of over 5,000 soldiers. So what we learn here is that it is not a single demon that has invaded and conquered this poor man, but a legion of demons. A large military unit of demons, a brigade of unclean spirits, has wreaked havoc on this poor man who roamed the mountains and tombs.
For whatever reason, this company of demons was quite comfortable in “the country of the Gerasenes” (v. 1), so Legion “begged him [Jesus] earnestly not to send them out of the country” (v. 10). Then, with “a great herd of pigs… feeding there on the hillside” (v. 11), “they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.”” (v. 12) The sovereign Lord Jesus Christ granted their request, and off they went: “And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.” (v. 13)
Let this sink in: do you understand the great oppressing power of the legion of demons that were living in that one man? So great was their power that they immediately drove an entire herd of two thousand pigs absolutely mad and ‘off the deep end’ to their death. That great and cruel power had been in control of the demon-possessed man. And what those unclean spirits did to the pigs is exactly what they wanted to do to the man – they wanted to destroy him! And this same cruel power is still at work in our world today. There can be no casual approach to gospel ministry and there can be no casual approach to the Christian life, when you grasp the reality of spiritual warfare “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
But Jesus’ power is far greater. By speaking, Jesus subdued the demons and quieted the demon-possessed man: for the demon-possessed man had been raging because of the demons in the same way that the sea had been raging because of the storm. But at Jesus’ command, the demons departed “and there was a great calm” (to use the language from Mark 4:39) in the man’s spirit (Mark 5:15). He was at peace for the first time in a very long time. The demons are dismissed, the pigs are drowned, and the man is free.
PART 4: THE IMPACT OF JESUS’ ACTION (v. 14-20)
Now this highly visible and very tangible ‘power encounter’ was bound to make an impact beyond the event itself. So we want to notice the impact that Jesus’ action had on the people of that region and also on the demon-possessed man.
The Impact of Jesus’ Action on the General Population
First, notice the impact that Jesus’ action had on people who lived in that area. These people responded to what happened with a disorienting fear and with a strong desire for Jesus to leave. They were freaked out by Jesus’ presence and they were ultimately repelled by His holy and transcendent power.
According to verse 14, the news of what happened spread quickly, and people came to the scene of the miracle in order to check things out. They were startled by what they saw: “And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.” (v. 15) The last they knew, that demon-possessed man was over-the-top crazy mad, insane, out of the control, and unable to be subdued by men. But now he was normal, sane, and relaxed. When they noticed the change, their first reaction was not ‘Praise the Lord!’ or even ‘Yay, the man is well, what a miracle, let’s celebrate!’ Instead their initial reaction was that they were spooked. They were spooked that Jesus, this strange Man in front of them, brokered in a supernatural power greater than the power that had oppressed the demon-possessed man. At the end of Chapter 4 the disciples “were filled with great fear” (Mark 4:41) because Jesus had the authority to calm the storm-tossed sea. Now in Chapter 5 the residents of that area are also overcome with fear because Jesus had the authority to calm the demon-tossed man.
A little explanation about what had happened did not alleviate their fears: “And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region.” (v. 16-17) They were profoundly frightened that this Man had power over the spiritual and material world – over the world of demons and over the world of men and even over the world of pigs. In just a short time their entire world was turned upside down: the lunatic was well and the pigs were dead. It was too much for them to handle. If Jesus stays here, what is going to happen next? They would rather have a wild man wandering in the tombs and their pigs feeding on the hillside, than to have a holy Man re-ordering their world. Frankly, it is disconcerting and disorienting to be in the presence of holy power. It raises too many questions. It challenges too many of my assumptions. It confronts too many of my sins. They would rather have the familiar and the unclean, than to have to reckon with the strange and the holy. So they wanted Jesus gone. Further, as James Edwards said: “Two thousand pigs represented an enormous livelihood, and their loss an economic catastrophe.” If the invasion of redemption meant economic loss, they weren’t interested. The Savior of the world was in their midst, and they told him ‘no thank you’ and ‘go away’. They preferred to remain in the darkness with which they were so well acquainted.
The Impact of Jesus’ Action on the Demon-Possessed Man
But the impact of Jesus’ action on the man who was demon-possessed was wonderfully different. The demon-possessed man was profoundly transformed by his encounter with Jesus. Notice three things.
First, the demon-possessed man was subdued by the mercy of Jesus. When the man was in the grip of the demons, “no one could bind him” (v. 3) and “[no] one had the strength to subdue him” (v. 4). Of course, these other people were attempting to subdue him by putting him in shackles and chains. But let’s be clear: the best way to subdue someone is not by forcing physical pressure from the outside, but by freeing their spirit on the inside. And that is what Jesus did for the man: he removed the oppression from his heart and set him free. The picture of redemption in the middle of verse 15 is absolutely beautiful: the demon-possessed man was now “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.” The dehumanized and contorted and self-destructive soul was gone. Now his mind was like a clear sky on a sunny day. Now he found the greatest place to be in the universe: “sitting” in the presence of the Holy One who shows mercy to undeserving sinners.
Second, this man wanted to remain with Jesus: “As he [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.” (Mark 5:18) Like a true disciple, the man wanted to follow Jesus and be with Jesus. What was Jesus’ intent with the twelve disciples when He appointed them as apostles? “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him” (Mark 3:14) – the fellowship between the Lord and His disciples is central. And that’s what the man of Mark 5 wanted, and he was right to want it. Faithful believers don’t receive divine mercy, then make a run for the hills in order to live life on their own terms. Instead, faithful believers receive divine mercy and then stay close to the Giver of mercy.
Third, this man obeyed Jesus. Even though the delivered man wanted to remain in Jesus’ physical presence, Jesus refused to allow it:
“And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.” (Mark 5:19-20)
The man had wanted to accompany Jesus on the boat to the other side of the sea. But Jesus wanted the man to remain on this side of the sea and be an evangelist to the Decapolis – to the ten cities. This dark Gentile land that was a dwelling place of unclean spirits and that was once home to a herd of pigs and that remained full of spiritually blind people who wanted Jesus to leave town, now had one evangelist who was able to bear witness to the abundant mercy of Jesus. Like a true disciple, he obeyed the Lord Jesus and told others “how much Jesus had done for him” (v. 20), and people were blown away.
PART 5: THE POINT TO TAKE HOME
Finally, we come to the point to take home – the lesson for you to remember and apply in your own life. And the point to take home involves understanding who Jesus is.
Do you recall the question that had concluded Chapter 4: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41) That is the question that concludes Chapter 4 and that question must be on our mind as we read through Chapter 5. And Mark 5:1-20 provides one part of the answer. Who is Jesus? According to Mark 5:1-20, Jesus is the One who exercises His divine authority in order to set self-destructing sinners free from the demonic realm. And whenever He exercises His authority in that way, it is mercy, it is stunning, and it is disconcerting to all the people who don’t really get what is happening.
As you participate in Jesus’ mission, remember that Jesus is the One who exercises His divine authority in order to set self-destructing sinners free from the demonic realm. When Jesus saved Paul and set him apart as a missionary, Jesus told him: “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:17-18) Gospel mission is an assault on the gates of hell – an attack on the kingdom and power of Satan. We cannot successfully carry out this mission in our own strength, but Jesus’ strength will cause His mission to succeed. Depend on the strength of the Lord!
As you minister to people who have been taken captive by the devil, remember that Jesus is the One who exercises His divine authority in order to set self-destructing sinners free from the demonic realm. Paul told Timothy: “And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24-26) We cannot rescue people from the devil’s snare, but the Lord is able to rescue them. Our job is to tell them about the Lord and the Lord’s Word – and we are to do it with kindness, patience, and gentleness.
Finally, as you watch over you own soul, and as you pursue faith and holiness and love in your own life and in your own family, remember that Jesus is the One who exercises His divine authority in order to set self-destructing sinners free from the demonic realm. Scripture says: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:10-12) Remember that the legion of unclean spirits ruined a herd of pigs in a matter of minutes, and they are attempting to ruin you, too. If you are not strong in the Lord, then you will not be strong. But if you abide in the Lord’s strength, then you will stand.
In the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther, one of the verses says this:
“And tho this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph thru us.
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him –
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure:
One little word shall fell him.”
Indeed, the word of Christ shall prevail, and His kingdom shall have no end.
Let us pray.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002: p. 158-159.
James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 2). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.
James W. Voelz, Mark 1:1–8:26 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013.
Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.