Doing some reading recently, I was amazed to learn about the terrible trend our society is seeing in the area of self-injury or self-mutilation, which some are calling an epidemic among young people. One example is the practice of cutting oneself, usually on the arm but sometimes on the chest, stomach or other parts of the body. It’s estimated that as many as 3 million people in the United States, mostly young women, engage in this practice of cutting themselves in an effort to relieve anxiety or low self-esteem.
A lot of cutters are teenage girls, but it also impacts young women such as Maria, a 30-year-old pre-med student who lives in New York City. She sits in an isolated stairwell of her apartment building and cuts her arm with a razor blade, then cleans up after herself so no one will learn what she is doing. It becomes an addictive behavior, because those who are cutting themselves use the physical pain to feel a temporary relief from the emotional and psychological problems that burden them. The therapist who is working with Maria describes it this way:
“Self-mutilation is cutting yourself, burning yourself, lacerating your skin, attacking your skin in a variety of ways to perceive the pain and to feel the pain involved, because the pain involved and the blood that is seen distracts people from their emotional pain…We are not talking about people (who have) healthy, intact relations to people. We are talking about people who feel profoundly lonely and profoundly separate from the rest of the world.”1
It breaks my heart to think about young women and men who are burdened with such internal pain that it leads them to this kind of self-abuse. It points us to a story of a man in Scripture, who was consumed with pain—and who cut and abused himself until He encountered the One who could bring healing to his soul, as well as his body. Read with me from Mark’s Gospel, the fifth chapter, beginning in verse 1:
“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. 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. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.”
Pause just a moment and think about this man and about the context in which Mark tells this story. Recall last week we read about how the disciples had been with Jesus on a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a terrible storm rose up and threatened to destroy them. They cried out to Jesus, and with a word He calmed the storm, demonstrating His power over the natural world. In the aftermath of this miracle, the disciples are asking themselves, “Who is this?” In the episode to follow, the demons themselves will answer that question about who He is.
Immediately after the storm, they landed on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, in what is Gentile territory, and encountered a different kind of storm. They saw a horrible scene: this man whose life has been devastated by evil forces, who lives alone among the tombs, all day and all night, crying out in agony and cutting himself, trying try to counteract the pain in his heart and mind. This was a man who is consumed by madness and pain.
Apparently the people who lived in that area had tried to control him by chaining him, but he was so strong that he had broken free from the chains. Demonic forces had occupied his life, and they had brought him great strength…and great pain. Then, much to their surprise, they saw Jesus. Others may not have known who Jesus was, but these demons had no question about who He was; they were terrified as He approached. Continue reading in verse 6:
“And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before Him. 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 [that is, I solemnly appeal to you], do not torment me.’ For He was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’ And he begged Him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged Him, saying, ‘Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.’ 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.”
No doubt people had long been running away from this dangerous madman, but Jesus approached him and commanded the demons to come out of the man. It’s the same word that was used to describe how Jesus commanded the storm to be still. Under the influence of these evil forces, the man fell down before Him—as if in an attitude of worship—and begged to be left alone. Did you notice the man immediately knew Jesus, calling Him “Son of the Most High God”? Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, as Son of God, is still in the distance; but these demonic forces knew Him, and they knew the kind of power He had over them.
Just as they have referred to Him by name, Jesus asked the man his name. He said, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A Roman legion consisted of about 6,000 soldiers—just a bit larger than the size of a battalion in the American military. He’s not necessarily saying there are 6,000 demons inside of him; his response is intended to convey that he’s under the control of multiple evil forces—a demonic mob.
These demons knew Jesus could destroy them with a word. They understood what Mark wanted us to understand: that just as Jesus has authority over natural forces, as we saw when He healed the paralyzed man and when He calmed the storm, so Jesus has authority over spiritual powers. That’s the purpose of this passage, to help us understand there is nothing beyond His power and authority. Because of that power, Jesus can transform your pain into freedom.
You may not be experiencing the tragedy that embroiled this man, but into every life storms are going to come—sometimes they are physical, sometimes emotional and psychological, sometimes spiritual—but whatever the storm is that is pressing on your life (or that may be pressing on you someday soon) you can rest in the confidence that there is nothing beyond His power and authority. Because of that power, Jesus can transform your pain into freedom.
As Tom Wright said, “That’s what we need to know as we ourselves sign on to follow Him. He isn’t just somebody with good ideas. He isn’t just somebody who will tell us how to establish a better relationship with God. He is somebody with authority over everything the physical world…and the non-physical world…can throw at us. This is a Jesus we can trust with every aspect of our lives.”2
The demons knew Jesus had the power to remove them from the man, so they begged Him not destroy them. They asked Him to allow them to flee into a nearby herd of pigs, recognizing their fate was completely under His authority. As James Boice said, “We don’t know much about demons beyond what the Bible describes, but apparently they are spirit beings who don’t like to be in a disembodied state. Because they were about to lose the human body which they’ve been occupying, they begged to be allowed to go into the pigs.3
Jesus granted them permission; but much to their surprise, as soon as the demons fled into the pigs, the herd rushed down the bank and fell into the sea to their death—tens of thousands of bacon strips gone in a moment! Yet it was a vivid demonstration of what Jesus had just done in freeing this man from the demonic shackles that had been holding him.
As you can imagine, the herders who were responsible for the pigs were shocked and ran to report on this turn of events. Look back at Mark 5 and let’s continue the story at verse 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. 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. 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. As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged Him that he might be with Him. 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.”
People came to see what had happened to the pigs, but they were more shocked when they saw what had happened to the madman of the tombs. No longer shrieking in agony, he was now clothed and sitting calmly with Jesus. The One who has authority over storms of every kind had calmed the storm in this man’s life, and they saw him transformed. The demoniac had become a disciple.
That is the greatest miracle you will ever see. There are miracles of physical and emotional healing. There are miracles that demonstrate God’s power over the natural world. However, the most compelling miracle is the one in which Christ removed a sinful heart from my life and replaced it with a new heart in which He sits on the throne. The most amazing miracle ever done is the one in which He forgives your sin and rebellion and adopts you into His forever family. There is nothing beyond His power and authority. Because of that power, Jesus can transform your pain into freedom.
No matter how amazing such a transformation is, it’s not enough to convince everyone. The people came to see the results of a miracle, but for most of them that didn’t lead to faith. They were fearful at what had taken place, and they resented the loss of their pigs. Sure, this man had been saved, but at what cost!
That’s one of the most important things we can learn about Jesus: There is nothing more important than saving a person from death into life. The townspeople thought the cost was too high, but not Jesus. He was willing to pay any price for our salvation, which He did on the cross outside Jerusalem. He paid the price of suffering and death so we might receive His love and grace in our own lives.
Then there was this man, whose name had been Legion, but that no longer fit. Perhaps we can rename him Liberty, because the power of Christ freed him. As the locals were begging Jesus to leave them, Liberty asked to go with Jesus as one of His disciples. However, Jesus had a different purpose in mind for him. The Lord told him to go back to his hometown and tell his friends and family about what had happened to him. Mark tells us he didn’t stop there; he began traveling around the 10 Gentile cities of the Decapolis proclaiming the good news of who Jesus is and what He had done. We may think of Paul as missionary to the Gentiles, but here is the first missionary to the Gentiles!
It’s a reminder to us that there is no more powerful witness to others than the man or woman, the boy or girl, who can say, “Here is what Jesus has done in my life.” We gather here on Sunday to worship and learn, but this is not the end; this is just the launching pad for our purpose in Christ. He calls you and me to go into the normal pathways of our lives with a new message, to tell others what the Lord has done for us personally. We are called to announce that there is nothing beyond His power and authority; and because of that power, Jesus can transform your pain into freedom.
If you’ve ever read the book or seen the movie The Cross and the Switchblade, you’ve heard the story of Nicky Cruz, a Puerto Rican boy born to a family that practiced spiritism. As a boy, he was abused, and his mother called him the Son of Satan. Not surprisingly, Nicky began to get into trouble with the law, and at 15 his parents sent him to live with his brother in New York City. Nicky soon ran away and started living on the streets, joining the Mau-Mau Gang, eventually being elected warlord and then leader of the violent street gang.
Soon after becoming leader, Nicky encountered a street preacher named David Wilkerson, who told Nicky that Jesus loved him. The gang leader slapped the preacher and then threatened to kill him. Wilkerson told Nicky that he could cut the preacher into a thousand pieces, but that every piece would still proclaim that Jesus loves him.
When David Wilkerson announced an evangelistic meeting in the neighborhood, Nicky decided to take some gang members and teach the preacher a lesson. However, as they arrived at the St. Nicholas Arena, God began to work in Nicky’s heart. After David preached, he asked the Mau-Maus to take up the collection. As you can imagine, people gave generously! He was tempted to run with the money, but Nicky was moved by the fact that someone had trusted him in this way. When David then extended an invitation to come to Christ, several gang members responded, including Nicky Cruz.
The next day, those gang members went together to the police station and handed in a collection of guns, knives and other weapons. Nicky ended up with a call to ministry, and after finishing school he returned to the neighborhood to preach and share Christ. Through the years since then, he’s written 18 books, and he continues to speak in inner cities, prisons and stadiums, sharing the transforming power of Christ’s love. He went from being called Son of Satan to someone The Wall Street Journal called “the Billy Graham of the streets.”
That’s what Jesus Christ can do in a life…2,000 years ago and still today. There is nothing beyond His power and authority. Because of that power, Jesus can transform your pain into freedom.
2 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part One (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 94
3 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Baker Books, 2001), p. 143