Today, we’re going to talk about the problem of evil.
I don’t mean the philosophical problem of evil. There’s no shortage of questions about that. If God made the world good, where did the devil come from? Why does God let good things happen to bad people? What exactly is evil? Why does God not stamp out the badness in the world right away?
No, I mean the real problem of evil as we experience it. There’s evil on the news. Unbelievable acts of cruelty, that make you wonder how any human can be so inhuman. There’s evil that gets done to us. People do things to us that can be described as either a bit evil, or as a great evil. And if we’re honest, there’s evil in our heart. Who hasn’t been surprised at times by their capacity to hate, to be nasty, to wish harm on others.
This is the real problem of evil. Evil is not a mental puzzle. It’s something we experience. Something we cause.
Which means the big question we want answered is this: Is Jesus of Nazareth able to eradicate evil? Is he stronger than evil? Does he have a plan to eliminate evil from this world, and from our hearts?
Context: Matthew’s Gospel
Let me remind us where we are in Matthew’s gospel.
We’ve recently had the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught with great authority, and the crowds were impressed. But he asked for all or nothing. He calls us to follow him, to shape our whole lives around his priorities.
The question is whether Jesus is all talk and no action. All mouth, and no muscle. Does he have the kind of authority that his public speaking would suggest? Can he carry the weight of us giving everything to him?
Enter Matthew chapters 8 and 9. Matthew’s showing us Jesus in action. He doesn’t just speak with authority; he acts with authority as well.
We’ve watched him heal the sick. Matthew’s told us stories of individuals who were healed, so his readers can check the facts with them. Matthew’s told us stories of vast crowds who never left disappointed, so his readers can be sure that nothing was a one-off fluke. And he’s shown us that this is exactly what the Old Testament foretold. When God sent his promised king, he would cure our sickness, because he would die to cure our sin.
Jesus’ authority is certainly impressive. If he’s the one the Old Testament foretold, he’s going to come back and bring about a perfect world, free of sin, pain, sickness, suffering and death.
The problem is that curing the whole world is a much bigger task than curing a leper, a paralysed soldier, a malaria sufferer, or even a crowd with their maladies.
So Matthew then records another group of 3 miracles that show that Jesus’ authority goes beyond just power over sickness. Last week, we saw Jesus’ control over the natural world. And today, we come to the problem of evil.
Story: Healing a demon possessed man
Here’s how the story runs. Jesus’ healing ministry has made him very popular. He’s being flocked by large crowds. So he gives the order to cross the lake in a boat just large enough for him and his disciples. On the way over, he calms a violent storm. All in a night’s work. And so he comes to the other side. He’s now in Gentile territory, no longer among the Jews. That’s why there was a pig farm there.
Near where they landed was a graveyard, probably a series of small caves in the hills that were used for burials. Two men had made those tombs their home. Matthew tells us that the men were p0ssessed by demons, who made them so strong and violent that nobody dared go anywhere near. Much as you might go the long way round if there was a bull in a field, no local people ever dared use that footpath. The demons had reduced these men to violent savages.
They come out, yelling at Jesus. “What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”
Here’s the funny thing. The disciples were still scratching their heads wondering who Jesus was. Verse 27: “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” Meanwhile, the demons knew exactly who Jesus was. They also knew that the day would come when Jesus would banish them to suffer forever. So why’s Jesus turned up today? Has the punishment, the banishment, the torture, the end come early?
Some distance off was a large herd of pigs. Matthew doesn’t tell us how many, but Mark tells us there were about 2000. That’s a lot of pigs. Jesus sends the demons into the pigs. And we know they went because the whole herd stampeded down the bank into the lake. The pigs were drowned.
Pause: Who are demons?
It’s a wonderful story, but it’s about demons, which means it is also a bizarre story to our ears. We need no introduction to evil. But demons are a little outside of most our experience. What are these demons?
Let’s start with angels. We’re more used to them, even if you’ve never met one, because they occur in the Christmas and Easter stories. As well as all the animals you can see, God also made creatures you can’t see. Creatures like angels, who occasionally make themselves visible when God needs them to.
Well just as there are good angels, so there are bad angels. Or at least, bad creatures that you can’t see. Particularly as you read the 4 gospels, you find that these demons could possess people. You get it elsewhere in the Bible as well, but there was a big cluster of this during Jesus’ life on earth. One or several demons taking control of a person, so that they aren’t their normal self.
Sometimes the symptoms of this are similar to other conditions that we can label. Even other conditions that they could label. Things like blindness, deafness, or epilepsy. Other times, like here, the demons haven’t caused any single disease, but a general loss of control.
What is clear is that these two men were not just mentally ill. They had supernatural strength. They knew immediately who Jesus was when nobody else had worked it out. And then there are the pigs. Jesus told the demons to leave the men and enter the pigs. The very next moment, the entire herd stampeded into the lake. There’s no other way to explain a herd of 2000 swine going berserk, and there’s certainly no way to explain how this happened immediately after Jesus sent the demons into them.
That’s demons in the time of Jesus. When it comes to today, demons still exist. But they weren’t behind all evil even in Jesus’ day, and that’s even more so today. We mustn’t dismiss demons, but neither should we look for them under every stone, or label other people’s problems as demonic.
Jesus’ Encounter with Evil
Matthew records Jesus’ encounter with these two demon possessed men. Because there are demons involved, not just evil, we get to watch Jesus come up against evil in such a way that the evil is personal, the evil can talk. Which gives Matthew the chance to show us two wonderful truths.
Firstly, Jesus will destroy all evil. One day he will. The demons knew this. They knew there was an appointed time when they would be banished, tortured forever. It’s just a matter of when.
And second, Jesus is more powerful than demons. Once again, he simply has to speak and something happens. It’s one word, in verse 32: Go!
In the previous passage we had the power of the storm. The sailors could not control it. Jesus only had to speak, and everything went quiet. Here we have the same thing. The power of these demons. Nobody else dared go within half a mile of them. And Jesus only had to speak, and these men went quiet, freed from the torment of these demons.
For those of us who long for evil to end, who long for Jesus to have an answer, this is a truly glorious passage. We see Jesus’ power over evil. It’s not a close-run battle and he just comes out on top. There’s no contest. Jesus is in charge. And we see that his power over evil on earth is simply a foretaste of the eventual total destruction of evil at the end of time.
A truly wonderful scene.
The question is how you react.
The towns people react poorly. They want Jesus to leave their region.
To put it bluntly, they valued their pigs more than they valued the me who had been freed. This should have been a day for celebration. Declare a public holiday. Finally those two men are free. Hallelujah!
They should also be amazed at Jesus. Like the disciples in the boat, they should have asked the question: If Jesus can drive out demons like this, then what kind of man is this? Even the demons obey him?
But no: They’re far too busy resenting what they’ve lost. Lost revenue in hog roasts means they can’t rejoice or marvel.
It’s the same today. Many modern readers of this story are too busy feeling sorry for the pigs to notice the wonder that Jesus is able to control evil this vicious. Here we meet a man who is powerful enough to control all the evil in the world. One day he’s going to destroy all the evil in the world. It’s what we long for as we watch the news, suffer at the hands of others, and look into our own hearts. And yet many people never notice, because Jesus is too inconvenient. If I hand the tiller over to him, things might have to change, it might cost.
The towns people react poorly.
But there’s another way to respond to this Jesus.
It’s to see what’s presented to us here. Jesus really does have power over evil. One day he will come back and destroy it totally.
So when he calls us to come and follow him, we don’t need him to ask twice. Our life is at his disposal.