“Then they went into Capernaum, and right away He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and began to teach. They were astonished at His teaching because, unlike the scribes, He was teaching them as one having authority. Just then a man with an unclean spirit was in their synagogue. He cried out, “What do You have to do with us, Jesus — Nazarene? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are — the Holy One of God! ” But Jesus rebuked him and said, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit convulsed him, shouted with a loud voice, and came out of him. Then they were all amazed, so they began to argue with one another, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” News about Him then spread throughout the entire vicinity of Galilee.” (Mark 1:21-28 HCSB)
As I sit down to write these words, the state of our world is in turmoil over the actions of Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While I would certainly call you to prayer for the people of Ukraine, I mention this because of the “authority” that Putin was granted by Russia’s Federation Council and then exercised. They authorized Him to utilize the Russian military to act beyond Russian borders. In other words, they authorized him to go to war. Putin was able to act only under the authority granted to him by his government’s elected leadership council. He had no direct authority to take his people to war. To be honest, I didn’t realize he needed the Federation Council’s permission to invade Ukraine. While I knew he had been elected as President, I guess I had assumed he acted with dictatorial powers.
Our focal passage, this week, will focus on the authority Jesus has, especially over unclean spirits. This is not a power and authority that has been granted to Him by some human or heavenly council or group but is a part of His identity, the Holy One of God. Mark is building on the groundwork he has already laid regarding Jesus identity and authority as seen evidenced in the events following His baptism – the Spirit coming into Him and God’s voice affirming Him as His Son. Last week we saw His authority on display as He called Simon, Andrew, James and John as disciples and they abandoned their fishing businesses and joined themselves to Him.
Mark then tells us that Jesus left the sea’s fishing port and headed back into town, into Capernaum. This is a small town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and, what I’ll call, Jesus’ headquarters. He was from the village of Nazareth but had made Capernaum his base of operations for His early ministry. Up to this point, it appears that Jesus had kept a very low profile and was relatively unknown by the people, but that’s all about to change. Mark tells us Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and began to teach. While the specific details of what He taught are not given, the response is sufficient for Mark to make his point: “They were astonished at His teaching because, unlike the scribes, He was teaching them as one having authority.”
The phrase “entered the synagogue on the Sabbath” is plural and indicates that this was not a one time event. It’s important to remember, the synagogue was used on a daily basis as a place for people to meet, a school for the children, and a place for worship. It was much more like a community center and the hub of community life than a modern church building that is used once or twice a week. While Jesus may have been new to the area, word must have been spreading about Him because He is invited to teach in the synagogue.
As mentioned, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught but he does tell us the results – they were astonished. Astonished may not be quite strong enough in this instance for us to catch the real intent. They were awestruck, dumbfounded or blown away by His teaching. Mark then draws an important comparison: “He taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes.” So, Jesus taught them with an authority they had never seen or experienced before. We may not immediately grasp the importance of these words, but Mark makes it very clear in the events that follow. So, I want to relate those events and focus on the clear demonstration of authority and then come back and make application of it to our lives and our churches.
Mark draws our focus to a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. Why unclean and not “evil”? The term unclean links back to the baptism and the deep need for personal repentance. No, not ritual cleansing and religious feelings associated with the act of baptism. This is about real contrition and true repentance. This is about our submission to God and His kingdom reign in us and over our lives. The spirit was unclean because it refused to submit to God, to repent and to allow God to rule over him.
“You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it; You are not pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart.” (Psalms 51:16-17 HCSB)
Next, the unclean spirit cries out and confronts Jesus directly. The phrase, “what have You to do with us,” is an Old Testament phrase that basically means “why are you here, go away and leave us alone” and may be implying their authority over earthly things (see Eph. 2:1-10). The spirit then calls him by name, Jesus of Nazareth, and seems to be an overt attempt to exercise that authority and control over Jesus. Jewish exorcists believed that the use of a demon’s name gave them the authority and ability to exercise control over the demon and to cast it out. It seems that the demon tried to use this method of control in this situation and over Jesus, but it backfired.
The demon not only identified Jesus but also His mission and His source of authority: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who You are – the Holy One of God!” Jesus exercises His authority by two simple commands, “Be quiet! Come out of him!” The spirit convulsed the man and came out with a loud shriek and the people were AMAZED and began to argue with one another about what had happened. They had seen it, but they were dumbfounded by what had happened. “With authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” With authority…
If you haven’t realized it yet, the theme of this story and Mark’s focal point is Jesus’ authority. So, that’s what I want us to focus on as we consider the implications of His authority over our lives and our churches. Mark has shown us how God affirms Jesus’ identity and authority in His baptism. Now Mark shows us Jesus’ identity and authority as unclean spirits acknowledge His identity and flee under His authority.
First, notice the surprise and shock of the people when Jesus teaches and acts with authority. Why were they so surprised? They had never experienced the power and authority of God in their midst. The scribes didn’t teach with authority and couldn’t because they didn’t know the personal presence and power of God. The personal presence of God was unknown to their religious leadership and the power of God was but a distant memory from their past. But, it didn’t have to be unknown or a past memory and John the Baptizer had been calling them to repentance in preparation for His coming.
I fear that far too many American churches would be surprised by the actual presence and power of God in our lives and in our church services. In many ways, we look like the synagogues of first century Christianity. We know about God’s presence and we’ve heard stories of His past power but we’ve not personally experienced it in our lives. Mark would tell us that we need to go back and listen to that story about John the Baptizer – it all begins with real repentance and the coming of His Spirit.
Next, notice how we look and sound more like the unclean spirit as we try to exercise authority over Jesus by citing the right formula. We want to say the right words and get Him to bend to our wills so that we can control the outcome and determine the direction for our lives. We don’t want to repent, we want Him to bless our uncleanness. Yet, these disciples had abandoned everything in an attempt to follow Him because they saw in Him the presence and the power of Almighty God. They had abandoned their nets (livelihoods and desires) because they saw in Him the hope for a better future.
Pay attention to how the unclean spirit responds to Jesus’ presence, “Why are you here? What to you have to do with us – Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Did you catch the fact that this unclean spirit was in their synagogue and had gone completely unnoticed until Jesus came onto the scene? If Jesus showed up in our services, do you think He’d walk away saying “Wow, those guys really got it right. I don’t think they need to change a thing.” I suspect His presence might elicit a response from us that is more akin to the unclean spirit, “Are you trying to destroy everything we’re trying to do?” In other words, I fear that much of what we do in the modern church is more in line with our will and desires and less in line with God’s will and desires.
Let me put this another way, I doubt the unclean spirits of today are fearful of the church’s authority and power because we tend to be less concerned with personal holiness and spiritual cleanness and more concerned with personal achievement and monetary success. While I recognize that Mark’s story is about establishing the identity of Jesus and His direct and powerful authority over unclean spirits, it must speak to us about these same dire conditions in our own churches and personal lives. These Jews had gathered to worship God and, yet, an unclean spirit resided in their midst completely comfortable, unnoticed and unprovoked by their worship and their spiritual practices. This unclean spirit wasn’t threatened by their worship of God until Jesus appeared and taught them scripture, with authority.
Let that sink in a bit and, hopefully, rattle your sensibilities. I’m hopeful it might knock all of us off our perches and cause us to see ourselves in Mark’s story. We may have been granted Jesus’ authority and power but it is tied to our holiness, our submission to God, His will and His Spirit. Oh? You didn’t realize that? Here’s a little reminder…
In John 14, Jesus had just told the disciples that He was going away and that they knew the way to where He was going. Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus responded, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one come to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” Philip then joins in, “Lord, show us the Father and that’s enough for us.” Jesus said, “Have I been among you all this time without your knowing Me, Philip? The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works.”
Ok, so I suspect most of you can read those words and agree. I believe those things, don’t you? Yet, how does that grant Jesus’ authority and power to you and me? Well, let’s let Jesus continue…
“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (See John 14:1-11).
I know, I know… we always qualify Jesus’ words “whatever you ask in My name, I will do it.” But, it is important and necessary to do so. Why? Well, because I know me and my heart far too well and I’m sure you know yours, too. In what way? How you and I would likely respond if we could “ask” for whatever we wanted in Jesus’ name and He’d do it. Oh yeah, it would be like Aladdin and his lamp. Rub the lamp, ask for anything we want. Am I right? But God isn’t our genie and Jesus NEVER acted in a manner that was inconsistent with God’s will and He only spoke what He heard the Father saying. What’s my point? I believe that when we act in a manner consistent with God’s will and speak only the words we hear from the mouth of the Father, then God’s presence and power will flow in and through us and we will speak with a Godly authority, too.
“For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:5-6 HCSB)
Is today’s church acting in a manner consistent with the Father’s will? Is she speaking only the words she clearly hears the Father speaking? Is she focused on the Father’s glory? Or is she more focused on her own desires, the things of the flesh and the things that will bring her glory? Better yet, what can you and I do about it? The voices of today’s church are our voices, yours and mine. We must confront the fact that we are often more interested in what we can get out of God and His blessings than how we can be holy for Him, obedient to Him, sacrificially serving Him, or bringing honor and glory to Him. When we begin to passionately desire and relentlessly pursue those things then our message will be spoken with authority, too.
I’m ready to pursue that, are you?