New Testament Jews avoided the Decapolis, a region dominated by pagans.
The area east of Galilee was known as the Decapolis during Jesus' time. This region was once home to Israel's half tribe of Manassah but eventually came under the influence of pagan groups.
In Jewish tradition, the Decapolis was known as "the land of the seven," representing the seven pagan nations driven from Israel in Joshua's day. Jews believed the area was dominated by the devil. The pagans were known for worship of fertility gods, and many of their practices were detestable to God's people.
But the Decapolis also boasted a sophisticated culture. Its cities had many attractions, including gymnasiums, baths, and theaters. Not wanting to be tempted by pagan culture, Jews rarely visited the area, despite its location within view of the Jewish communities near the Sea.
Jesus challenged these norms by taking his message to the dark corners of the Decapolis. He fed a group of 4,000 there. And he likely healed a demon-possessed man in the city of Kursi, one ten pagan cities in the Decapolis.
Bread for Pagans
Jesus' miracles in the Decapolis showed that he came to bring life to Jew and pagan alike.
Mark 6 records a familiar gospel story. In a place near Capernaum, Jesus fed 5,000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes. But the real message of the miracle came as the disciples picked up the leftovers.
The miracle happened in "the land of the twelve" where devout Jews, descendants of Israel's twelve tribes, continued to worship God. And twelve baskets were picked up after the meal. Through this miracle, Jesus clearly communicated that he was the bread of life for the Jews.
Later in Jesus' ministry, a similar miracle happened. This time, Jesus fed a crowd of 4,000 people and seven baskets of bread were left over. But this miracle was done across the lake, in "the land of the seven"—the Decapolis area dominated by pagans.
Through his feeding miracles, Jesus presented a wonderful message: Not only was he going to save the Jews, but he also came to save the pagans. The Messiah showed his audience, in a very concrete way, that he was truly the bread of life for the world.
Across the sea
Jesus challenged his disciples' fear of pagan gods by showing his power over the sea.
As Jesus taught his disciples, he often traveled among the Jewish cities of northwestern Galilee. Most of his disciples came from that area and probably thought of the Decapolis as a place to avoid—an area dominated by evil gods.
Jesus challenged his disciples' beliefs and fears about the Decapolis. And he gave them undeniable demonstrations of his power over evil.
One of these moments came during a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus told the disciples to head "to the other side," an expression used to describe the Decapolis. The disciples started off, probably questioning the wisdom of traveling to pagan territory, and soon found themselves in a terrible storm.
As they struggled against the waves, the disciples were terrified. They thought of the sea as an abyss where evil spirits lived—and they were right in the middle of it, in the midst of a fierce storm.
Fearing for their lives, they woke Jesus, who had been sleeping, and asked him why he didn't care that they might drown. Jesus challenged them, asking "Do you still have no faith?" (Mark 4:40).
Rebuking the wind and waves, Jesus calmed the storm—and showed his disciples that he had power over nature and over the supposed gods of the Abyss.
LIght in the Darkness
After healing a demon-possessed man, Jesus used that man's story to bring light to the spiritual darkness of the Decapolis.
After their stormy night on the sea, Jesus and the disciples arrived in the Decapolis area, probably near the town of Kursi. The first person they encountered was a demon-possessed man, so wild that "no one could bind him anymore" (Mark 5:3).
Though his disciples probably felt like avoiding the demon-possessed man, Jesus confronted the demons with power. He cast them out of the man and sent the demons into a herd of pigs. The pigs—sacred animals to Decapolis pagans—plunged into the sea from a steep cliff.
Jesus' miracle presented a clear message: He came to be the light of the world, and his light could penetrate even the darkest corners of the world.
When nearby townspeople saw the miracle, they asked Jesus to leave. No doubt they were shaken and scared to see a Jewish rabbi displaying such power over the spirits of their area. The healed man was eager to travel with the Messiah, but Jesus encouraged him to stay in the Decapolis and to share his story with others.
Later, when Jesus returned to the area, he was greeted by "great crowds?"of people who wanted to learn about him. Apparently, the simple testimony of a formerly demon-possessed man had tremendously impacted his culture.
Light in the Darkness
As Christians, we cannot let fear cripple us. Despite our uncertainties, we must confront darkness rather than running away from it.
Most children are afraid of the dark. Gazing into a dark basement, they imagine bogeymen and monsters that will gobble them up.
Though they eventually outgrow their childish fantasies, most people still fear the dark. As they look at the dim corners of culture, from abortion clinics to drug-ridden ghettos and corrupt business offices,they fear the consequences of confronting darkness.
As Christians, we cannot let this fear cripple us. Despite our uncertainties, we must confront darkness with light, rather than running away from it.
No doubt Jesus' disciples struggled with fear as they followed their rabbi into the darkness. But they were also inspired. They saw Jesus overcome the greatest of evils, and they realized that God was stronger than any fear they might face. Eventually, those disciples took Jesus' message to other dark corners of the world.
Today, spiritual darkness hangs over our culture; Jesus understands how overwhelming this darkness can seem. But he seeks disciples who will go there anyway.
As we confront the darkness today, Christians must never forget the importance of a story.
Hundreds of years ago, a man in the Decapolis was willing to talk about his shady past, a past of craziness and demon-possession, so that people would understand what Jesus had done for him.
His simple story brought hope to one of the darkest regions of the world.
As we confront the darkness today, Christians must never forget the importance of a story. The Spirit can use our testimonies to impact the hardest of hearts.
And that's exactly why the devil works so hard to keep Christians quiet. He tempts us to care about our own reputations more than the souls of those around us. He wants us to build walls around our personal lives, to avoid exposing our weaknesses.
But how will our non-Christian friends and neighbors find true hope if we refuse to share our stories with them? How will they understand God's grace if we pretend that we do everything in our own strength?
Some will listen to our stories and criticize us. Some may call us liars and accuse us of ulterior motives. But others will be transformed. Just like the man in the Decapolis, we each have a story that can shine into the most impossible darkness.
What's your story? Do you believe that it could transform the world?