Seeing the Other Side: How the Gadarene Demoniacs Pull Back the Curtain on the Spirit World and Summon Us to Worship Jesus

Note from Rachel: This is a long one. It’s also written from the perspective of a Westerner who lives in North America, so all the references to “our culture” are to that culture. My apologies to everyone reading who doesn’t share that “we” and “our” … I’m glad you’re reading, and may you find much of value here too!

When He had come to the other side, to the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met Him as they came out of the tombs. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What do You have to do with us, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:28-29)

For the original readers of Matthew, this encounter with the Gadarene demoniacs wasn’t worthy of comment except for its climax — that Jesus cast the demons out. They took the existence of demons for granted.

And if you grew up going to church and attending Sunday school where stories like this got told on a regular basis, you may not find this worthy of comment either. You might also take it for granted that demons are real, that they can possess people, and that Jesus encountered them often.

After all, Matthew has already mentioned demons three times (in chapters 4:24, 7:22, and 8:16), always in a context of deliverance — that is, of people being possessed by them and needing to be set free.

But for us, in the 21st century, I think this opening is worthy of comment indeed. It highlights something that should go without saying, but often doesn’t: We live in a supernatural, spiritual world.

Not only that, but we also live within a wider story, a narrative that is playing out all around us and of which we are frequently unaware.

As it turns out, this has immense relevance to how we live and think about the gospel. Let’s unpack the story in a little more depth.

We Live in a Supernatural World

In the story, Jesus encounters two men who are living destroyed lives amongst the tombs in a region called the Gadarenes, on the southeast side of the Sea of Galilee.

The story highlights their inhuman living conditions and their violent behavior, so bad that they’ve been driven from society and now pose a threat to anyone who tries to pass by.

Matthew indicates that in fact, most people didn’t try to pass through the area anymore. The men had a reputation.

It’s a reputation Jesus ignores — or maybe, given the end of the story, it is the reason he decided to take this road in the first place.

Whatever the case, as soon as the men come out of the tombs to meet him, the curtain is pulled back on the other side of life.

Because it isn’t the men who greet Jesus.

Instead, invisible spirit beings called demons speak through their mouths, confronting Jesus in a mix of anger and fear.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …”

We don’t live in a culture that is comfortable with the idea of invisible spirit beings possessing humans … or existing at all. But that’s exactly what confronts us in this story.

In just a few sentences, Matthew dismantles any purely materialistic view of the universe. There are creatures, beings in this world that we can’t see, that are personal in nature and that are more than capable of taking over the cognitive and physical functions of human beings.

They are also, in this case, evil.

The world is supernatural. It is spiritual. It is more than what science or pure rationalism can describe to us. The Bible demands that we believe this.

In Matthew’s world, these creatures were not unknown. They were “demons”; wicked, fallen spirits of some kind.

(The common belief that demons are “fallen angels” is possible but not actually spelled out in Scripture, and it requires that we go a lot deeper in defining “angel” than we usually do.)

Intriguingly, the demons did not merely manifest themselves through these men. They also knew who Jesus was, in a way that the people in Jesus’ world did not.

We Live in a Bigger Story

As Jesus approaches, the demons shout, “What do You have to do with us, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”

Two things are immediately obvious: that Jesus’ identity is well known to these spirit beings, even though he had not yet fully declared himself to his human contemporaries, and that they were aware of some larger story, of which both they and Jesus had a part — “Have you come here to torment us before the time?”

The demons could see things human beings could not see, and they knew things human beings did not know.

They knew they were destined for defeat. There was a “time” coming when they would be subject to torment.

Interestingly, the word for “torment” has to do with testing the quality of a metal and is used of examining an enemy prisoner. The implication may be that in a future day, these creatures expected to be examined regarding their loyalty, and they knew it would not go well for them.

But that day had not yet come. They react to Jesus’ approach with a tone of surprise and outrage: he is calling them on the carpet early, and they respond with an outcry of, “It’s not fair!”

Whatever the bigger story these spirits understood, we see only glimpses of it. In our own day, we’ve lost so much of the Bible’s kingdom paradigm that I think the story is even more cloaked than it needs to be.

But this encounter reminds us that it’s there. A narrative is unfolding, one that has a hero, villains, and an expected end.

Two Captivities: The Physical and Spiritual Captivity of Israel

The setting of this encounter sheds more light on the narrative at hand. The “region of the Gadarenes” likely takes its name from Gadara, a city in the Decapolis, the region east of Galilee that had been settled by the Greek and Roman conquerors of the Jewish and surrounding peoples.

The ten cities of the Decapolis were centers of Greek culture and political power. They were Hellenistic colonies, reminders that the people of Israel had lost their inheritance in the land and now faced the twin threats of political domination and cultural assimilation.

In other words, the whole region stood for a physical captivity that threatened and pained God’s people.

The presence of the demons indicates an even more insidious captivity. In fact, any cursory reading of the gospels should highlight something: there was an unusually heightened degree of demonic activity and control in the promised land in Jesus’ time.

The people of God were tormented, mocked, and oppressed by spiritual powers that should have been subject to them — but were not.

At this point in the narrative, the villains are winning. Deliverance is needed on every front.

A Triune Name: The Son of God as the Son of Adam, Israel, and David

The name given to Jesus by the demons is directly related to this need for a deliverer: they call him “the Son of God.”

Again, thanks to Sunday school, this probably doesn’t strike us the way it should. We know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; so we immediately link this reference with the virgin birth and divinity and think that yes, of course Jesus is the “Son of God.”

But in context, this probably isn’t a Trinitarian reference, nor does it necessarily directly relate to the virgin birth. The only person in the gospel of Matthew to call Jesus “Son of God” prior to this is Satan, during the temptation in chapter 4. And Jesus extended the term to his followers when he said, “The peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

So what does the term mean, if it’s not necessarily a direct reference to Jesus’ divinity?

Once again, it’s the Old Testament that offers us illumination.

Three Old Testament figures (individual and corporate) are referred to as “sons of God.”

The first is Adam, the first human being and king of creation, made in the image and likeness of God (see Luke 3:38). The second is the nation of Israel itself (Exodus 4:22-23), and the third is a son of David whose reign will last forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16).

This last reference seems to refer both to the Davidic kingly line generally and to a specific individual, God’s “Anointed One” or Messiah, who would be descended from David and whose rule would spread to encompass the entire world.

Psalm 2 also speaks of this individual:

I will declare the LORD’s decree:
He said to Me, “You are My Son;
today I have become Your Father.

Ask of Me,
and I will make the nations Your inheritance
and the ends of the earth Your possession.
(Psalm 2:7-8)

Within the context of captivity we’ve already discussed, the significance of this term becomes clearer.

Adam opened the gates of earth to the very same spiritual powers we see squirming and screaming in the presence of Jesus in the Gadarenes.

Israel lost their land because of unfaithfulness to God, opening the doors to the Gentile presence — complete with pagan temples and religions — that was so prominent in the Decapolis.

And David’s line lost their throne for the same reason, sending God’s people into an extended period of captivity under foreign kings and rulers.

But now Jesus has arrived. Jesus, “the Son of God,” will restore all that Adam, Israel, and David lost. He will do what they failed to do. He will establish the eternal kingdom of God, restore the inheritance of God’s people, and deliver humanity from the dark powers that oppress and torment them.

Personal Spirituality in a Postmodern World

Throughout the course of history, and for reasons that would take way too long to outline here, the Western world embraced a materialistic, rationalistic worldview in the 18th and 19th centuries, one that severed off our day-to-day existence from the “spiritual realm” of God or else denied God altogether.

Even though postmodernism has arrived to question materialistic assumptions (and everything else), we still operate on largely secular, materialistic premises. Tell people that you believe in God, the virgin birth, miracles, and evil spirits, and you’re going to get some funny looks.

But one of the major implications of this encounter in Matthew, and really of the entire Bible, is that the world isn’t purely materialistic. Nor is “heaven” (or “the heavens,” as a more literal rendering would say) far away.

As the invisible realm of God, angels (of many kinds), demons, unclean spirits, and who knows what else, heaven is a reality intertwined with this one.

And along with that comes another revelation that challenges our culture: not all “spirituality” is good.

The demoniacs had a fully realized spirituality. Among the tombs, they lived with daily experience of spiritual beings.

And they knew a lot about how dangerous, malevolent, and anti-human some sectors of the spirit world actually are.

In our culture today, it’s common to hear people say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” The anti-materialist backlash of the 1960s, with its hunger after transcendent experiences — largely sought through the almost-spiritual trio of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” — took a left turn in the 70s into the New Age movement and its mishmash of various spiritualities and teachings.

Young people decided that Christianity’s ancient religious answers didn’t apply to spiritual questions, so we needed to look elsewhere.

(I think this is the church’s fault, by the way. By and large, we stopped teaching people about spiritual realities and living a spiritual life and replaced that with materialism and moralism.)

And all of this has a continuing impact on us today.

On top of that, today, the global gates have been kicked open. We don’t get to live in a Western-materialist bubble anymore, and that’s probably a good thing. We’re now in constant contact with people who remind us of something they’ve always known, and we temporarily forgot — that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Walking by the Spirit

In a culture that is rediscovering spirituality, which is simply a way of saying that we live with an awareness of spiritual realities, including our own spirits, it’s imperative that we don’t lose our grip on the Son of God.

Not only for Israel, but also for the whole earth, the Son of God stands as the One who redeems creation, sets the captives free, and enables us to walk by the Spirit — His own Holy Spirit, in sharp contrast to the “unholy spirits” who tormented the demoniacs in the Gadarenes.

Jesus is the one who restores the image of God in us, as it was originally seen in Adam. He is the one who blesses the nations with the life of God, as was promised to Abraham’s descendants.

And he is the One who sits on the throne of the heavens and rules, from there, even the earth.

In a world where spirit is a real thing, where natural is superseded by supernatural, it matters supremely where our loyalty lies, who we know, who we worship.

It’s not enough to be “spiritual” in a worshipless, vague, and drifting sense. Spirituality without the Messiah can lead to captivity and emptiness just as surely as materialism, secularism, and rationalism do.

The whole world, spiritual and natural, is part of a great story headed toward an expected time, an end in which loyalties are tried and the kingdom of God will fully come.

The kingdom of light will triumph over the kingdom of darkness. Transference from one to the other is available now, today, through the deliverer — the Son of God.

And that is what the gospel truly is.

For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God.

May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves. (Colossians 1:9-13)


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!

This is Part 110 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


This blog, Revelatory Creative, is a labor of love. My goal is to spend time studying and writing about the kingdom of God so that the church—you and me—can find our place within this largely forgotten but central Bible message. But I can’t do it without your support.

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5 responses to “Seeing the Other Side: How the Gadarene Demoniacs Pull Back the Curtain on the Spirit World and Summon Us to Worship Jesus”

  1. Michael A Price Avatar
    Michael A Price

    Beautiful, powerful description and revelation of humanity’s relationship with God and the supernatural, spiritual realm. We praise God for Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross that redeems us from the curse of the Law and from our spiritual enemies.

  2. William Avatar

    Having been somewhat of a modern day demoniac that Jesus set free, I will say that your article is very good. For someone under demonic influence, nice words such as “Jesus loves you” just isn’t good enough. It takes the supernatural power of God. Also it takes more than just knowing scripture to truly understand the awesome love of God. It takes a supernatural revelation of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 3:14-21. Romans 5:5.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks for sharing from your experience, William! I love what Paul says … the kingdom of God is not just words but power.

  3. Talia Avatar

    Wow, the timing of this post was perfect for me! I’m writing a book about spiritual warfare, or at least I’m trying to. I quickly learned that I don’t actually know much about spiritual warfare, and I realized that most of the time, I forget that we are actually living in a bigger story. It’s too easy to focus only on the world we can see.
    I’ve been praying that God would make me more aware of the spiritual realm. I think the story I’m trying to write is something our culture needs to hear.
    Thanks for the post!! 🙂

    1. Daniel Broom Avatar
      Daniel Broom

      Good for you Talia!
      I’d love to read your book when your done with it. 🙂

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