Step into the study, pour yourself a cup of coffee, get comfortable and let’s enjoy the Gospel of Mark.
Our passage today is Mark 1:21-28 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
In this passage we see Jesus in two roles that are essential to understanding him: teacher and exorcist. Certainly most Christians are comfortable with the image of Jesus as a teacher and this image influences a great deal of our conception of Christianity. Picturing Jesus as an exorcist, however, raises problems for many modern, western minds. Exorcism is associated with a primitive and pre-scientific world-view, particularly in the area of mental and physical illnesses. It is interesting to note that those Christians who embrace this aspect of the Gospel presentation of Jesus are rapidly growing all over the world, while those churches that have accommodated the modern worldview and exorcised the demonic from Christianity are dwindling in influence and numbers.
First, a few words about context and setting. Mark is not very precise with time, not letting us now how long Jesus and the disciples were in Capernaum before the Sabbath of these events. Capernaum was a large and important city in Galilee, a headquarters of government and commerce and an international crossroads. Jesus choice of this city as his homebase for his ministry in Galilee shows that he was not a “country” preacher or a recluse. The remains of a later synagogue in Capernaum are prominent for any visitor to view. Jesus lived in the time when synagogues were evolving from a secular and religious function as a “community center” to a more purely religious purpose.
Being invited to teach in a large synagogue in a prominent city was not something done without thought or significance. This is a clue that Jesus had already achieved considerable notoriety as a teacher and perhaps as a miracle worker. Jesus status as a “teacher” or rabbi is accepted even by his opponents, indicating that Jesus was well known in this regard. I am always intrigued by those aspects of the Gospels that we do not know about, for instance, how did a man from a tiny village with no formal education receive the respect and fame that Jesus did so quickly? It is an indication of what an extraordinary person Jesus really was from the outset.
This story introduces the “teachers of the law” or scribes who will be Jesus’ opponents throughout his ministry. These men were not copyists but scholars, experts in the “traditions” by which the Jews interpreted and lived out the Torah. As custodians of the interpretation of scripture, the scribes were fulfilling a good and serious function and we should never cast them in the role of “the bad guys.” Their passion was to construct an entire life built around the foundation of the law. In this they left no stone unturned and tried to leave no question unaddressed. Jesus does not oppose them for their function, but -as Matthew 23 stresses- for their misinterpretations and hypocrisies.
As scribes, these teachers based their interpretations on other interpretations of scripture. It was considered essential to place any practice on the clear statement of scripture and the proper tradition of interpretation. (Modern Christians should understand this as we generally not only cite scripture, but out favorite preacher or teacher as further authority for our beliefs.) This is why Jesus immediately was a controversial figure. Though some of Jesus’ statements are in agreement with the rabbis of his time, there is no doubt that 1:22 is on target- Jesus taught as one having authority. Matthew captures this in the Sermon on the Mount with his repeated use of “You have heard it said……….But I say unto you.” I doubt if any of us can imagine the impact of this sort of teaching unless we picture what our reaction would be to someone who said “Well, I know the Bible says such and such, but I say…..” Even this cannot capture the personal authority that accompanied Jesus’ teaching. He taught as one who “had” authority.
One of my frequent themes with young people is the question of authority. I believe that everything in life is related to the question of what is my authority? Whether we are dealing with the highest levels of philosophy or simply writing a check at the store, we cannot escape the fact that we are always under authority and that we are created to possess certain amounts of authority and to use this wisely. The person who rejects God’s authority, selectively obeys human authority and misuse their personal authority will have a miserable life. Yet “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7) In this area, the Christian stands at a radical difference from the non-Christian. We believe that only under God’s authority can we know anything and live rightly. The world believes we possess our own, intrinsic authority. Such a view is the essence of foolishness.
Accepting the teaching authority of Jesus is integral to the Christian life. He is our Lord. All he says to us is ours to obey without question. Christianity is afflicted with masses of people who have the silly idea that Christ is savior but not (yet) Lord of their life. So in many areas of life- sex, relationships, money, work, politics- these people live without any real interest in the authority of Jesus in these matters. Further, Jesus clearly sees the Old Testament- fulfilled in Him- as authoritative and tells us that the true teaching of the Apostles is also an extension of His authority. While Protestants and Catholics may disagree on the extent to which this authority is mediated through the church, there should be no disagreement that Christians are responsible to the authority of Jesus in all things.
The demon appears in the midst of Jesus’ teaching. In Mark’s Gospel, demons know exactly who Jesus is: “The Holy One of God” with the power to destroy them. They recognize his authority as well (an interesting point as we contemplate the attitude of many religious people!) In the first century, demons were considered a common explanation for many physical, mental and emotional problems. The particular demonology of Jesus day was derived more from Persian sources than from purely Jewish ones, but the important point is that in a pre-scientific worldview, it is not “ignorant” or “primitive” to see spiritual forces at work in these sorts of situations. We also should not ask that the Gospels present us Jesus with a scientific and psychologically sophisticated point of view on questions of mental and physical illness. It is entirely appropriate that Jesus be a man of his time and world.
At the same time, we would be wise to remember the following points: 1) The Bible presents a spiritually charged universe, with divine, angelic and human levels. 2) The fall of angelic spirits into the world is an unarguable fact of the Bible’s view of the world. 3) No where does the Bible tell us that all demons are responsible for all evil, but undeniably demons are responsible for some aspects of evil. 5) Even modern “science” recognizes that complex human problems are more complex than science can fully explain. 6) It is not surprising that demons would confront Jesus during his time on earth.
My own ministry with troubled teenagers leads me to believe that the demonic is real, but not the primary issue in most human problems. I believe those who reject this aspect of the Gospel portrait of Jesus are seriously damaging the truth of who Jesus is- He is the authority over demonic powers. In his name, Christians may oppose any and all forms of evil, both personal and corporate. At the same time, I have learned that many Christians who do take this seriously have gone overboard. No where does the Bible suggest that demons are the primary problem- our problem is sin (our own), sin (others) and sin (its combined effects.) We live in a world affected by sin and this is the center of God’s redemptive work. The Bible tells us that humanity’s fascination with the occult is even a manifestation of sin more than of demons. (I Samuel 15:23) However, the breaking of the power of demons indicates that the Kingdom of God is breaking into human history. This is important. But Christianity is not demonology; once we are in Christ, we are free from the power of the evil one. The Bible does not teach a dualistic worldview of the “good” God on one side and the “bad” God on the other. All of the demonic operates in a universe where God is sovereign and even demons believe and tremble. Those who approach every problem as a demonic attack rather than a manifestation of sin have forgotten this. At that point an unhealthy focus on the demonic is demeaning to the salvation and victory of our Savior.
Here is an illustration that helps me. Where there is garbage, there are rats! The garbage of human sin is the problem in our world. Rats, with all their diseases, etc. are only a manifestation of the garbage. If you get rid of the rats (demons), you still have the garbage. However, when Christ gets rid of the garbage (sin’s power, influence and guilt) the rats go as well.
Jesus was not the first exorcist in his culture. They were common in his time. But their methods were hardly similar to his! Those who were possessed were often subject to days of beatings and verbal abuse in the attempt to drive out the spirit. Jesus simply commanded and they left! This was the cause of tremendous amazement because Jesus did with his word what others would nearly kill someone trying to accomplish. This manifestation of the authority of Jesus underlines his teaching authority, but most of all his identity as the Holy Son of God. (By the way, a word to modern exorcists. One should be careful in trying to imitate Jesus if he does not control our lives. See Acts 19:13-16!)
A final word. Mark often will show Jesus commanding spirits not to say who he is and commanding those experiencing his power to not tell anyone. This puzzling behavior is only found in Mark and scholars have called in “Mark’s Secret” for many years. Liberal scholars have claimed this shows a strong tradition that Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God during his ministry. The extent to which Jesus claimed to be anything during his ministry is not always clear, but it is clear that Mark and the other Gospel writers want us to know that those who were with Jesus knew without a doubt he was the Son of God, as did demons and even unlikely Gentiles! The “secret” actually shows us that Jesus did not want to become so famous as to lose control of his mission. He was surrounded by people inclined to see him as a political, even military ruler. Yet Jesus knew his identity and mission would only become clear after the cross, something that could not be taught or explained. So he tells people and demons to be quiet. You get the feeling it didn’t often work.
Next week we will move to the other area of Jesus active ministry- healing.
1. What does the word exorcist bring to mind? Do we ever think of Jesus as an exorcist?
2. We often see the teachers of the law as the “bad guys” in the Gospel story. Why did Jesus often have harsher words for religious leaders than ordinary sinners (if all sin is sin.)?
3. What is your reaction to Michael’s statement that all of life comes down to a question of authority?
4. Why do so many Christians have little concern for the authority of God in their lives? Is this a special problem of generations since the 1960’s and the anti-authoritarian spirit of those times?
5. How could Jesus be so different from the other religious leaders yet be treated as a rabbi and a teacher himself?
6. Christians are known for shouting when they want to speak with authority. How should we relate to others if we are under Kingdom authority and wish to communicate that authority into lives and situations?
7. Explain Michael’s desire for balance on the issue of the demonic and modern science and medicine?
8. How is Christianity affected when we reject the supernatural?
9. How is Christianity distorted when we overemphasize the demonic?
10. Jesus was a preacher, a healer and an exorcist. How comfortable would you be if asked to minister in these three areas today?
11. How would you respond to the person who says “The devil made me do it?”
12. What is your response to the illustration of rats and garbage?
13. What might have happened if Jesus had been proclaimed King early in his ministry? How might it have affected Christianity?
14. While people in Jesus day were amazed at his authority and power, much of Christianity speaks and lives with no authority and denies his power. Yet Jesus claimed to have given his followers his authority and his power. What has happened?