Commentary on Luke 8:26-39
At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, we find him in a synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16)1. From this starting point, Jesus is always on the move, leaving people before they are ready (for example, 4:42-43) and arriving after they’ve been expecting him (5:15, 17; 6:17-18; 8:4). He alternates ministering to crowds (5:1) and to individuals (5:4), in public (4:31) and in private (4:38), in accordance with and subversive to the people’s expectations (for example, 4:20-22 and 4:28, respectively). Along the way, he gathers disciples (5:11; 8:1-3) as well as enemies (6:11) at a rapid pace. Luke’s eighth chapter brings about a dramatic interruption, where Jesus takes an apparently spontaneous trip across the lake of Gennesaret to a place where his presence will be altogether unexpected, except by the demons there.
After a dramatic journey across the lake (Luke 8:22-25), Jesus steps for the first and last time into Gentile territory. (Note that Luke omits Jesus’ journey to Tyre and Sidon, see also Mark 7:24-37). Once there, Jesus encounters a man possessed by demons. It is a scene marked by tombs and swine (8:27, 32)—a location riddled with ritual impurity.
This is not Jesus’ first encounter with demons (4:33; 6:18), uncleanness (5:13; 7:14), or even Gentiles (7:1-10, see also 4:25-27), yet Luke infuses this story with more intensity than the other episodes. While the perils of nature have assailed them on their lake journey (8:22-25), this demon-possessed man threatens with superhuman strength and tortured madness (8:29). The name Legion (8:30) connotes great numbers as well as military force, both reminding Luke’s reader of Roman power and indicating that Jesus is engaged in a formidable spiritual battle. Luke’s use of the term “abyss” (8:31) suggests that the battle takes place on a cosmic plane, in its allusion to the apocalyptic prison of demonic powers (Revelation 20:1). What role does this confrontation play in Jesus’ overall ministry, that it is treated with such intensity?
One key to this question lies in Jesus’ declaration of his mission to travel from town to town, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (4:43) and assisted by a growing band of disciples (5:10; see also 9:2; 10:11). We see how this mission expands geographically in Luke 4-8, moving from the synagogues to all the surrounding towns and countryside, before extending to the land across the lake opposite Galilee (8:26). Here, there is no eager crowd, like the one that waits for Jesus on the Galilean side (8:40). Jesus engages the location of the Gerasenes on his own (his disciples are not mentioned anywhere in the account), in a place that anyone in their right mind would avoid. No one greets him apart from “Legion.” In this unlikely setting, Jesus performs one of his most extraordinary miracles and brings comprehensive healing to an unlikely recipient (Green, 336).
After Jesus exorcises the demons, those who had tended the pigs that were destroyed announce news about the man’s restoration to the surrounding area (8:34). The people of the region beg Jesus to leave them (8:37), a stark contrast to the Galilean Jews who earlier had begged Jesus to stay with them (4:42). It seems the Gentile lands are not yet ready for good news of the reign of the one true God.
Yet, the mission across the lake is not without fruit, for Jesus gains one new disciple. The healed demoniac sits at the feet of Jesus, revealing his new discipleship status (8:35; Bovon, 324). This newest disciple becomes a witness to Jesus and his power, for although the man begs to return with Jesus, Jesus sends him back to his home to proclaim what God has done for him (8:38-39). Jesus not only heals this individual; he also leaves a witness behind for everyone who has initially rejected him.
In subsequent chapters, Jesus’ missionary movement will expand further, from the twelve (9:1-2) to the seventy-two (10:1), and finally, to all the disciples who remain after his resurrection and ascension (Luke 24:33; Acts 1:15). These early disciples will carry the good news of the kingdom all the way to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
This strange and frightening encounter provides two points of impetus for preaching. First, the account prefigures the geographical and missionary expansion of the good news of the kingdom. Yet it indicates that Gentile reception of the good news will not be uniformly positive. In fact, this episode stands in sharp contrast to the exuberant, albeit mixed, reception by Jesus’ own people so far in Luke. It also marks the end of Jesus’ geographical expansion to Gentile territory within the Gospel, all the while foreshadowing the Gentile mission that will move ahead in Acts (Acts 1:8). Yet to all people who are receptive, Jesus will prove to be “a light for revelation to the Gentile and for glory to [God’s] people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
Second, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ power in this passage. Not even a “Legion” from the demonic realm can keep Jesus from restoring this person in torment and allowing him to return to his home (8:39). Jesus takes on evil on its own turf, as it were, and is victorious over these forces of evil and death. Luke will soon narrate Jesus’ ultimate victory over death and will connect it closely with the gospel going to all nations (24:26-27). Today, we can preach with confidence that Jesus has the power to bring life from death. This is truly good news for all people.
Bovon, François. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
- The author would like to acknowledge Narah Larson, MA student at Bethel Seminary, who contributed significant insights and writing for the first draft of this commentary.