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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 5

Verses 1-20

The Anny of Demons (5:1-20)

Again we meet "a man with an unclean spirit," this time in a story which is told with great relish and at great length. As background for this contest we recall several points. Jesus had demonstrated his Messiahship by his successful struggle with Satan, his control over demons proving the reality of God’s Kingdom. The casting out of demons had also been evidence of the forgiveness of sin and the social reconciliation of men. When Jesus had authorized the Twelve to proclaim the good news, he had given them power over demons. But their alarm at the storm had proved their unreadiness to use this power. They were still dependent on Jesus to overcome their enemies. He had been able to exorcize the demons in the wind and the waves, but not they. Now they are confronted with a case of a man as storm-tossed by the demons as the disciples’ boat had been.

The diagnosis is detailed. The man is clearly insane. He has broken away from contact with normal society; he lives in the cemetery, contaminated by his contact with the graves. He resists all efforts to restrain him, breaking chains with superhuman energy. Night and day he disturbs others with his shrieking and damages himself in self-torture. So diverse are his actions, so strong his delirium, that the demon’s name is fittingly called Legion. As there were 6,000 men in a Roman legion, there was a comparable contingent of demons in this man.

The conversation between Jesus and this demonic multitude is fascinating. The man met Jesus as he came out of the boat. In fact, so eager was he to meet Jesus that he ran. The man even worshiped Jesus, He was unable to escape the Legion, but he clearly wanted to escape. Jesus responded to the man’s eagerness by commanding Legion to get out. Legion protested in effect, "Let me alone . . . We have nothing in common." Jesus would not grant such a petition. He gave notice that he was about to expel the Legion. Recognizing Jesus’ intention. Legion at the last moment proposed a compromise. If he must be cheated of a human lodging, he preferred to inhabit swine rather than to migrate from the country. Jesus accepted the bargain. To the swine the demons were to go. As the sequel shows, there were enough demons in the one man to drive 2,000 swine crazy. In this climax we may detect sharp satire. Though the demons get their request, the joke is on them, because this residence leads to the dramatic death of the swine, with the result that the demons themselves return to the sea, that agelong home of the Devil, which Christ had already overcome in the previous episode.

In this highly developed account it is difficult to detect profound theological or moral values. It was told with gusto for its own sake, because it suggested what terror shook the demonic army when the Messiah began to use his power to free men from their fears and frenzies. Like other wonder stories, this one could easily arouse doubts. Did it really happen? The story itself provides a triple attestation. There is the word of the herdsmen, bemoaning their loss. There is the surprise of those who had known this man before and after his healing (vs. 15). And there is the report by those who had seen the curious happening. We might expect that this episode would bring a huge increase in the number of followers, or a crusade to have Jesus extend his stay in this place. Quite the contrary. Men "were afraid." That is, they themselves were far from being immune to the demons. Exactly like the Legion, they wanted to win safety from eviction by increasing their distance from Jesus (Mark 5:17; compare vs. 7). Only the man who had been healed, it seems, was grateful. He wanted to accompany Jesus. We might expect Jesus to welcome him into the ranks of disciples. Jesus commanded him rather to go home to his friends and tell others about the new gift of health.

Verses 21-43

The Belief of the Unbelieving (5:21-43)

Mark now turns to a double story in which two separate incidents have been telescoped into one. For purposes of interpretation we may separate the two. Both episodes present difficulties to the modern reader, who is bound to raise dozens of questions which cannot be answered with assurance because of the absence of evidence. We cannot be certain at many points, nor should we claim greater confidence than we possess. We shall be content if we can understand why Mark wanted his Roman audience to know these stories.

The first story tells of Jairus. Jairus was a Jew, of course, who had been chosen as president by the board of elders in the synagogue. His office would be of special interest to Mark’s readers because in all likelihood Christians had found such leaders obstinate in their opposition to believers, especially if they supported Mark’s attitudes toward the Law (see the comment on Mark 2:1 to Mark 3:6). "Surely a person of such importance from among our enemies could not become a Christian," they might say. The tradition, however, tells of just such a person who had been impelled to come to Jesus for help when his daughter was dying. Had he allowed the debates over the Law to keep him away from the Master when emergency struck? Not at all. He had shown his reverence for Jesus by falling at his feet. He wanted health and life for his daughter, and therefore he wanted Jesus to bless her. But there had been a delay, a delay which increased the tension, because the girl died before Jesus could arrive. Surely now the trip would be futile. The Teacher might be able to heal, but not to restore life. Jairus should cancel his request. But Jesus acted as if the death of the child had not changed the situation. The initiative passed from a man seeking help to a Lord seeking to give help. He ordered Jairus to replace his fear with faith. He limited his entourage to the three disciples whom he wanted to train in the saving of life. When he heard the women keening over the death, he told them to stop wailing as if there were no hope. He spoke with authority to the girl, "Stand up." Then he forbade people to talk about what he had done. At every point they were amazed — and so is each reader. Why is the story told in this fashion? Why is nothing said later on about the girl, or her father, or the neighbors?

The only actors who reappear later are Jesus and his three disciples. Mark’s readers were especially interested in them. Peter, James, and John had been there. What had they learned? That Jesus had shown compassion for a potential or real enemy. That he had disclosed his power over death. That this power was not to be publicized (vs. 43) until after his own resurrection from the dead. That people should be helped even though they had not joined the Church. These are among the possible implications of the story for Roman Christians. They should be willing to do as the three Apostles had done: to go with Jesus to such a home, to proclaim there a Master who had triumphed over death, to carry his compassion wherever there was genuine mourning.

As in other stories, the expositor must confess that no single set of comments is adequate to explain the text. The narrators of this incident took for granted the power of Jesus over death and life. They assumed that a proper posture before this Lord was to prostrate oneself. They themselves had known how the hands of Jesus could bless, how his word could raise the dead. They naturally associated his power with that of Old Testament heroes (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37). They recalled how Jesus had commissioned the Apostles to "raise the dead" (Matthew 10:8), and they had heard accounts of how this commission had been carried out (Acts 9:40). Also they knew how easy it was for weeping to give way to laughing (Mark 5:38; Mark 5:40), but how difficult for fear to give way to faith.

The second story (vss. 25-34), an interlude in the first, tells of an unknown woman whose twelve-year illness had proved the helplessness of other physicians, had left her penniless and defenseless. Her illness, a continuing hemorrhage, had extended the period of ritual uncleanness for twelve years (Leviticus 15:25-27). But she had not become hopeless. The excitement over Jesus had revived her spirit. She touched his robe and was healed instantaneously. Some stories would have ended there, but not this one. A strange dialogue ensued between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus, aware that "power had gone forth from him," wanted to know who had received it. His disciples in effect said, "The crowd is too large to find out. How can you expect us to know such things?" What would Mark’s readers think of this? Disciples should know when people have been healed by the Lord’s power. There follow the closing words between Jesus and the woman. On her part there was a humble confession of her secret "theft." On his part there was a benediction, the sort of benediction which Christians had heard and which it was their duty to use in similar cases of need: "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." Thus both of these stories show how frequently Jesus found faith where his disciples had expected nothing but unbelief. Like him, Christians should minister not to the well but to the sick (Mark 2:17). They should sow the word even on the least likely soil (Mark 4:4-7). A sense of desperate need is often the occasion of faith among the outsiders.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 5". "Layman's Bible Commentary".