In one of the strangest stories in the Gospels, Jesus delivers a demon-oppressed man, only to send the demon(s) into a herd of pigs, which promptly charges down a cliff and drowns in the sea. You can read it in Mark 5:1–20, and it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.

I remember an older pastor telling me the three questions he’d been asked most often during his 40 years of ministry: What happens when you die? Can I lose my salvation? And what’s the deal with the pigs?

Faced with strange passages like this, it is easy to reach for tenuous points of application. Jesus wanted to show people that one man is worth much more than 2,000 pigs. Mark wanted to remind us how unclean pigs are to Jewish people. Before casting out a demon, you should always ask it for its name. And so on. Even if these things are true (and some of them aren’t), they don’t really get to the heart of the story.

Instead—and this is the case for many passages in Scripture—it is helpful to read the story at three levels. There is always an individual level to biblical texts: What is happening to the particular people in this story? Why? What was it like for them? How does God reveal himself to them? What do we learn from it all? Read like that, Mark 5 is a lovely story of freedom for a damaged man, but the bit about the pigs is still pretty baffling.

Then again, scriptural passages can also be read at the national level. Where are we in Israel’s history? In which phase of the biblical narrative—Eden, Election, Exodus, Empire, Exile, Easter, End—does this story appear? Which covenant is in view? How does the passage shed light on what is happening to Israel (or any other nations represented) through this incident?

Questions like this open up all sorts of insights. We notice that the scene is set in Israel, yet with unclean Gentiles all over the place (why else would people be herding swine?). We notice that the demon-oppressed man, who is presumably Jewish, needs to be freed from uncleanness; we notice, too, that this uncleanness closely resembles Israel’s in Isaiah 65:1–5 (alone at night, living among tombs, surrounded by pigs, telling others to keep away).

Then we observe that the name of the demon oppressing him, “Legion,” is the standard word for the Roman military units stationed throughout the country. So when Jesus frees the (Jewish) man from the (Roman) demon, by sending it into the (Gentile) pigs who immediately drown in the sea, there is more than a hint of a joke here. “It is a kind of political cartoon,” explains New Testament scholar Richard Hays. The Roman soldiers are given the boot by Israel’s king; they go tumbling down the cliffs into the waters from which their ships first emerged. Israel, by contrast, is liberated from uncleanness and oppression. She is restored and reconciled—set free to live out her destiny as God’s chosen people.

Having seen all this, we finally read the text at the universal (we could even say the evangelical) level. What is happening to the world in this story? Where is the gospel? Where is the church? Where am I? How does this reflect the saving activity of God in Christ, through the Spirit? How should we respond?

Suddenly, we see ourselves in this man. He is unclean, impure, an outsider, unable to access the presence of God. So were we. He lives among the tombs, surrounded by death, naked, without hope and without God. So did we. He is oppressed by the powers of darkness, trapped in pain and brokenness, beyond the reach of any human power. So were we.

But then he meets Jesus, who not only sets him free from the Devil’s tyranny but humiliates his enemies (and ours) by driving them into the depths of the sea. He is restored to his right mind and clothed in new garments. He is visibly transformed by the encounter, such that those who had known him before come to fear the power of Jesus. He is desperate to follow his new Master and Savior. As the story closes, he is given a new mission: to return to his community and “tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

So are we.

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author of Echoes of Exodus (Crossway). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.

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Spirited Life
Spirited Life is a collision between biblical reflection and charismatic practice, aiming to make people happier in God.
Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King's Church London and author most recently of Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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