The Christ who is not Safe -- Matthew 8:23-34

There has always been a tendency among religious people, including Christians, to emphasize technique in order to achieve a certain spiritual end.  It might involve technique in order to achieve a better prayer life, better meditation, more peace and serenity, a more productive quiet time or Bible study, or any number of things.  Each of these things are worthy goals and technique is not necessarily bad.  But they are not ultimate goals.  A better prayer life is meaningless unless it brings you before God.  It doesn’t really matter how much or how long or how eloquent your prayer life is – or even how personally satisfying – if it doesn’t bring you personally before the living God.  There are plenty of people who have developed techniques to achieve a more peaceful spirit, but they may know little about the true God.  You see, the danger is to take a technique and replace God with the technique.  You can have a very robust spiritual life without God, and the danger is to miss that because the technique you use to achieve a spiritual life is so seemingly successful.  Another way to put this is that it is so easy to mistake religion for true and real godliness.  I’m not saying that either religion or spirituality is bad – but I am saying that they are equally useless if they leave us without a knowledge of the God who is Holy.  And I think one of the telltale signs of this is an overemphasis on technique.

And we emphasize technique because we can control a technique.  A technique is a procedure, a method; it is something that we can manage.  We like to be in control and to call the shots, even in the religious realm.  It is part of our sinful human nature.  But the problem is that you cannot control God, and if you try you will inevitably fail.  You cannot tame him.  In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, someone asks whether Aslan the lion is safe, and the reply is, “Safe? . . . Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”  Aslan is the Christ-figure in Lewis’ books, and he was trying to communicate a very important truth about him.  He isn’t safe; he isn’t under your thumb.  But he’s good!

Any religion that overemphasizes technique has a domesticated god.  He has been tamed.  You have put him on the leash of your religious performances.  But the God of the Bible is not tame.  He is not safe.  He is the sovereign King of the universe.

I think the Evangelist Matthew would be disappointed with us if we looked at this narrative about our Lord and just looked for techniques to have a better spiritual life.  I don’t think the point of either the story about the boat in the storm or about the demon-possessed man, is how to have a more peaceful life.  The point is the authority and power of Jesus Christ.  The reason Matthew wrote these stories down for us – the reason why the Holy Spirit inspired these stories about our Lord – is to cause us to look to him.  The main thing you need is not peace, or courage, or strength to endure temptation.  You and I need these of course, but these are not the main things that we need.  Our greatest need is to know Christ.  And if we know him, we will have peace and courage and strength to endure temptation.

This was the apostle John’s reason for writing his epistle, and I think it applies equally to the Synoptics as well: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn. 20:30-31).  So why did Matthew write these things in Mt. 8:23-34?  “That ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  This is the most important thing for any person.  Knowing Christ is essential because you cannot have eternal life apart from it: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (Jn. 17:3).  To know God truly is to be known by him (cf. Gal. 4:9), and I cannot think of anything better than that, for to be known by God is to be loved by him and to be cared for by him.

So what I want to do this morning is to let Matthew turn our eyes toward Jesus, and to meditate with him on the power of God demonstrated in two events.  I chose to consider these two events together because they are so complimentary and I don’t think it was by accident that Matthew put them together.  Of course, in the narrative one event follows the other.  Jesus has embarked on a boat to get away from the crowds (ver. 18).  As they travel across the Sea of Galilee, they encounter this storm (ver. 23-27).  When they get to the other side, they then encounter two demon-possessed men (ver. 28-34).  Jesus stills the storm and delivers the demoniac men from the legion of devils that possessed them.  But both events demonstrate in a remarkable way our Lord’s authority, first over the natural and then over the supernatural.  The power of Christ!

These events are also tied together in the way people responded to his power.  You see this more clearly in Mark’s account (Mk. 4:35-5:20).  When Christ stilled the storm, we read in Matthew that “the men marveled” (ver. 27), but Mark says that the response of the disciples was that “they feared exceedingly” (Mk. 4:41).  R. C. Sproul points out that Mark has used the term “great” (Gk. mega) three times in this story: once with reference to the storm (ver. 37), second with reference to the peace that followed (ver. 39), and lastly with reference to the fear of the disciples.  But you also see this response of fear following our Lord’s healing of the demoniac: “And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid” (Mk. 5:15).

Here we have the Gospel’s witness to the fact that our Lord is not like us.  People are scared by people who are not like them.  They are afraid of people who don’t act like them or who don’t know their customs or culture.  It’s why it is so easy to fall into xenophobia – the fear of strangers.  There is an Andy Griffith Show episode where a stranger comes into town who has never been there before and who is recognized by nobody, but who knows all sorts of detailed information about the townspeople.  He knows their names, their professions, their likes and dislikes, and so on.  It scares the people of Mayberry that he knows so much about them when they know nothing about him.  And they try to run him out of town.  So you can understand why the disciples were frightened.  Here was a man – a man who could speak and stop the wind from blowing and the sea from raging.  Here was a man – a man who could take two men who were completely uncontrollable from a human standpoint and put them in their right mind and bring them from insanity to sanity, from being demon-possessed to wanting to follow Christ (cf. Mk. 5:18).  And they understandably became afraid.  Here is a man who is not like us.

And we probably have never really come to grips with who Jesus is if we haven’t known a little of this fear that the disciples experienced.  Before a person will ever come to grips with his/her need for Christ, he or she must see that Christ is infinitely great – great in majesty, great in holiness, great in power.  You will never think sin is that big of a deal if you don’t realize that the Lord whom you have offended is indescribably great.  And when you see this, there will inevitably be a healthy fear in your heart.  It’s a healthy fear because it leads to repentance and faith.  It’s the fear that Isaiah experienced when he encountered God (Isa. 6:1-8).  It’s the fear that the apostle Peter experienced in another episode involving Jesus’ presence in his fishing boat, and that led him to cry out, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:1-10, ver. 8). 

Jesus isn’t safe because he isn’t like us.  And that provokes fear.  But he is also good.  Power apart from goodness is an awful thing to contemplate.  We see what happens every time evil men get control of a government.  With sinful human beings it is a truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  But Jesus is not a sinful human being.  He is powerful and good.  He is not like us, and that is what makes him the perfect Savior for sinful men and women.  Should we fear him?  Yes.  But we should also trust in him and love him.

So let’s consider how our Lord’s power is demonstrated first in the storm on the sea in verses 23-27. 

In verse 23, we are told that he “entered into a ship.”  Several of the disciples were fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, and so there would naturally have been a boat available for our Lord’s use.  This boat was probably about 27 feet long[1], big enough for all the disciples and our Lord, but not too large and “without sails.”[2] 

They began to sail across the Sea of Galilee.  It is well-known that storms can arise very suddenly on this body of water.  This is because the Sea of Galilee sits at 700 feet below sea-level, making it the lowest body of fresh water on the earth, and it is surrounded by tall cliffs and mountains.  Valleys and gorges that lead to the sea funnel winds that come west from the Mediterranean Sea or east from the desert.  Evidently, normally these sudden storms usually happen during the day, so that fishing was done at night (cf. Luke 5:5), and if you wanted to cross night was the best time to do it.  We are told by Mark that this was precisely when they chose to cross, “when even was come” (Mk. 4:35).  Thus, they would not have expected to encounter the storm that they did.

Our Lord went to sleep (ver. 24).  Mark adds the detail that he was asleep on a pillow (Mk. 4:38).  I think it is interesting to ponder the strange juxtaposition of our Lord’s weariness and need of rest and his subsequent demonstration of power over the elements.  If the disciples had just made up this story, would they have included this detail?  How strange is it that Jesus who is Lord of heaven and earth was so exhausted that he not only fell asleep, but would have slept through this terrific storm had not the disciples awakened him!  I once saw a photograph of an American GI during the Vietnam War sleeping on a pile of firewood in pouring rain.  I can’t imagine being that tired.  But our Lord’s situation wasn’t that much different.  Matthew tells us that “there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves” (ver. 24).  Water was filling the boat and they were in danger of sinking.  The disciples were terrified, but our Lord was asleep.

The disciples figure that they are about to die, so they wake up Jesus: “And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish” (ver. 25).  According to Mark, they added, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” (Mk. 4:38).  They were obviously scared.  They thought they were about to die.  And yet, they had enough faith to ask Jesus to save them.  I think that’s important – they could have handed Jesus a bucket and told him to get busy.  But they are not looking for another hand.  They aren’t looking for someone to augment their own efforts.  They are at the end of their tether.  They’ve got nothing at this point.  Jesus must save them or they will perish.  In the same way, if you would come to Jesus, you have to come to him, as the hymn puts it, with “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”  That’s the kind of faith that our Lord responds to.  Faith recognizes that I am powerless and the Christ is powerful.

But Jesus then delivers two rebukes.  First, he rebukes the disciples (ver. 26a): “And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”  Notice that he calls them “ye of little faith.”  They had faith in him and demonstrated that in reaching out to him to save them.  They believed to some extent in his power.  But it was “little” faith because they had doubted his care for them.  “Carest thou not that we perish?”  True faith not only trusts in God’s goodness and protection when the seas of life are still but also in the midst of storms.  Their faith was mixed with sinful fear.  It was also “little” because they didn’t understand fully the power of Christ.

And yet, our Lord responds to their “little faith”!  Thank God that he is like that.  God may rebuke us, but he is gentle towards us, and responds even to defective and little faith.  “Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm” (ver. 26b).  He simply speaks a word and the winds and the waves obey his voice.

There is no one besides Jesus Christ that has this kind of power.  Men are constantly trying to figure out ways to harness the power that is in nature.  We have power plants to harness the power of water and wind.  But in the end, men cannot completely control either wind or water and we see this constantly with tornadoes and hurricanes.  Our Lord, however, is in complete control.  As it has been said, there is not a maverick molecule in the universe.  All bow to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

Paul put it this way, speaking of our Lord: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Col. 1:16-17).  In other words, Jesus didn’t just create the universe; he also holds it together.  In the same way, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus as the Son of God, “whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:2-3).  He is still sovereign over nature with his word.

Do you believe that?  Whatever the disciples thought or believed about Jesus, this event must have led to an immediate reordering of their thinking about the Christ.  “But the men marveled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!” (ver. 27).  They were afraid.  Even though they had been terrified of the powerful storm that had nearly destroyed their boat and their lives, they now realized that they were standing in the presence of someone who was more powerful than the storm of which just seconds ago they had stood in awe.  This is the Lord we serve!

But our Lord is not just sovereign over nature.  He is also sovereign over the supernatural realm, and that is what is demonstrated in the next event narrated in verses 28-34. 

When they made it over to the other, eastern, side of the Sea of Galilee, they were in a region known as Gadara.  This was a Gentile region, as can be seen by the presence of a herd of several thousand pigs.  Jesus had gone there ostensibly to get some rest from the crowds, but he is immediately confronted by two demon-possessed men.

Interestingly, Matthew mentions two men here; Mark mentions only one.  But this is probably because subsequently one of the two became more well-known among the Christian community and therefore was the one most people remembered.  In any case, there is no discrepancy here; it is like when people tell you that they had seen a friend they hadn’t seen in a long time without mentioning the fact that their spouse was there as well.  The fact that Mark mentions one doesn’t mean that the other wasn’t present!

Now consider what Jesus was confronted with here.  First of all, these men were demon-possessed (ver. 28).  Mark says that at least one of them was named Legion because he was possessed by man demons (Mk. 5:9).  In the Roman army, a legion consisted of about 6500 men.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that there were exactly 6500 demons in the man; people used that word to denote any sufficiently large group of things (even as we do today).  So not only were they demon-possessed, they were inhabited by a multitude of devils. 

Let me just say now that though we don’t need to attribute every bad thing that someone does to the devil, neither should we deny the reality of Satan or demons.  They are real.  They can hurt people.  Demon possession is a real thing.  Paul refers to demons as the “rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12).  Peter refers to the Devil as our adversary who goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8).  The Bible begins with the Devil’s tempting mankind to rebellion and it ends with his overthrow in a lake of fire.  So it’s obvious that to deny his existence is to fail to take God’s word seriously.  These two men didn’t just have a mental illness.  This was not just a matter of a chemical imbalance in the brain.  They were controlled and inhabited by supernatural evil spirits who hate God and hate people who are made in the image of God.

And they tried to make life as miserable for these men as they possibly could: these men were “exceeding fierce, so that no man could pass by that way” (ver. 28).  Mark adds: “And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit” (Mk. 5:2) – remember tombs in Roman Palestine were not holes in the ground but caves in the sides of hills, and probably it was in these caves where these two men dwelt.  It also meant that they were unclean, on account of their living with the dead.  But more than this, “no man could bind him, no, not with chains: because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones” (Mk. 5:3-5).  Can you imagine a life more unbearable, more miserable?

Note that no man could help this person.  No one could tame him.  And when they failed to do that, no one could imprison him.  He was uncontrollable and inconsolable and unsavable.  This sets the stage for our Lord to again exert his power over a situation that no mere man could control.

Mark says that “when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him” (Mk. 5:6).  Now we shouldn’t read too much into that word “worshipped” (Gk. proskuneo).  It doesn’t necessarily carry all the connotations that we normally associate with it.  Literally, it means to kneel in obeisance, which sometimes even rebels are compelled to do in the presence of their sovereign.  One reason we know this is what is happening here is because of what the Legion says.  The text says that he “cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?  I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not” (Mk. 5:6-7).  Now Matthew makes it clear that the demoniac was speaking these words under the influence of the demons: “And behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come to torment us before the time?” (ver. 29).  They weren’t about to call out a hymn; they were simply terrified about the possibility that Jesus had come to send them to hell before the appointed time.  Though many men do not realize this, these demons knew that the fact of the matter is that Jesus Christ is the judge of all and that all will give an account to him and that there is no power in heaven or hell that can deliver you from his sovereign rule.

As with the storm, Jesus heals these two men with a word: “Go” (ver. 32).  We are told in the previous two verses of a herd of pigs (Mark says that there were 2000 of them, Mk. 5:13) and the demons’ request to be sent into the pigs.  Our Lord allows them to do so.  Here we see the power and authority of Christ in two ways: first, in that by a word he heals the demon-possessed; second, in that not even demons can move from Point A to Point B without his permission.  As Martin Luther put it, God has the devil on a leash.

Now this sets up a problem: why did Jesus let the demons go into the herd of pigs?  Wasn’t this unkind to the men to whom they belonged?  (Better yet, wasn’t it unkind to the pigs?)  After all, as soon as the demons entered the pigs, “behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters” (ver. 32).  Why did our Lord do this?

I think D. A. Carson is right when he suggests that there are a number of reasons why Jesus might have allowed the demons to do this.  First, the fact of the matter is that Jesus is Lord over nature and therefore its proper owner.  The ultimate owner of the pigs was not the men who tended them but Jesus Christ.  And he can do with his own what he wills.  Second, the fact that he allowed the pigs to be handed over to the demons illustrated to all that he had delivered the demoniacs from the grip of the devils.  It might have been hard for people to believe that they had changed, but after such a dramatic display, it would be even harder for people to deny it.  Third, it could be that in allowing this, “the loss of the herd became a way of exposing the real values of the people in the vicinity.  They preferred pigs to persons, swine to the Savior.”[3]  Far from rejoicing it the deliverance of these two men, the whole city came out and “besought him that he would depart out of their coasts” (ver. 34). 

But again, the most amazing thing here is the change that happened to these men.  Jesus got back into the boat in response to the people’s plea to leave, but at least one of the former demoniacs wanted to go with Jesus: “And when he was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him.  Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.  And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel” (Mk. 5:18-19).

This is the power of Christ.  These men didn’t ask Christ to save them; the demons completely controlled them and all they were worried about was their own skins – they didn’t want to be sent to hell right away.  But Jesus, seeing their miserable condition, threw the demons out and not only gave them back their sanity but also a love for the Son of God and a desire to be with him.  He saved them not only from demons but from their sins – which as the next chapter will demonstrate is really the greater miracle.

Later in the Matthew’s gospel, we read of another time when the disciples marveled.  It was when the rich young ruler walked away from our Lord’s call to follow him.  We read: “When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?  But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men it is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:25-26).  Even so, our Lord is the one who can do the impossible because he is the Son of God.  He can calm the sea, he can cast out devils, and he can save sinners who deserve nothing less than hell.  He can take the blackest heart and make it clean.

What should be our response?  Simply this: to recognize Jesus for who he is.  He is good and he is powerful.  And to recognize us for who we are: we have nothing.  Don’t hand Jesus a bucket and ask him to help you to bail out your sinking ship.  That’s not what he came for.  He came to seek and to save those who are lost.  Look to him, find life in him, the Son of God!

[1] R. C. Sproul, Mark (St Andrew’s Expositional Commentary), p. 90.
[2] D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 214.
[3] Carson, p. 219.


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