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Amazement at Authority

Category Articles
Date January 21, 2004

Gospel Reading: Mark 1: 21-28

Two weeks ago we had a man most had never met come into our congregation to preach God’s Word. We knew that Dr. Derek Thomas was a seminary professor, an author, and a staff minister who preaches regularly at a large Presbyterian Church. But we have never experienced him as a preacher or in any other capacity.

Yet, when he took the pulpit on Friday night, we immediately knew we were in the presence of a preacher. We could tell he knew how to interpret and to proclaim to us the Word of God. There was an obvious integrity, authenticity, power, and, yes, authority about his preaching that led us to receive him as God’s messenger.

Something like that, only far weightier, happened when Jesus visited and spoke in the synagogue in Capernaum early in His ministry in Galilee. This visit demonstrated the unique authority of Jesus in two ways. We observe His authority in teaching and His authority in exorcising.

I. Authority in Teaching

Jesus was in Capernaum, the hometown of Peter and Andrew, and possibly of James and John. The town was located at the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, not far from where the headwaters of the Jordan River flow into the Sea. It had a Roman tax office, a garrison of Roman soldiers, and fishing industry. While in certain areas of Galilee there were many Gentiles mixed in with the Jewish population, the Capernaum had a predominantly Jewish population. In Jesus’ day its population may have been as high as 10,000. That would have made is a significant town in Galilee. It seems that Capernaum became something like a “base of operations” for Jesus. During his public ministry it was more His home than Nazareth, the place of His growing up.

On the Sabbath Jesus, and the men He had called to follow Him, went to the synagogue. There was only one place where sacrifice could be made – the Temple in Jerusalem. But the Jews had established places where worship and spiritual nurture could take place. There was a system of synagogues all over the world where there were Jewish populations. The synagogue service was simple, consisting of prayers, singing of Psalms, reading of the Scriptures and teaching. The Sabbath, which in the Old Testament was the sixth day of the week, was the day for synagogue services, and it was the habit of Jesus and His followers faithfully to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath. Anyone looking for support for the idea that there is not holy day set aside by God and that we need not worry too much about gathering with God’s people for worship and nurture on that day will not find it by observing Jesus. The day of Sabbath observance was changed after the resurrection from Saturday to Sunday, but there continues to be a Sabbath on which our primary duty is corporate worship.

On this particular Sabbath Jesus was invited to do the teaching. That means that He was not unknown in Capernaum. He had done enough teaching in the region that He had a reputation as a teacher, so the synagogue president offered Him the opportunity to teach. Last week we noticed that Jesus began His ministry in Galilee preaching or proclaiming that the time appointed by God for the kingdom of God to draw near had arrived and that people should repent and believe this good news. We are not told what Scriptures Jesus read or what the content of His message was, but we can be sure that the basic message was about the arrival of the kingdom of God. Luke, in his record of what Jesus did when He taught in the synagogue of Nazareth, gives us a good idea of what His teaching was like. Jesus read from Isaiah 61 about the Spirit of the Lord being upon a man who is anointed to proclaim good news and then said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 16-20). He pointed to Himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of a coming day of good news.

When we looked at Jesus’ preaching we pointed out that preaching is the urgent proclamation of what God has done and is doing. There is an intensity about preaching. But in the synagogue Jesus is described as teaching. Are these two different things? They can be, at least in our popular usage. For us teaching implies a dispassionate lecture, or perhaps a teacher led discussion. But what Jesus did in the synagogue was something like preaching/teaching. He read and explained the Scriptures, but, as He did so, He proclaimed that in Him the kingdom of God had arrived. There is always a teaching element in good preaching for the preaching is tied to the opening of the meaning of a text, but never indifferently. The explanation of the Scriptures is delivered as an announcement of God’s Word that calls for faith and repentance.
What Mark underscores is the way the congregation of the synagogue responded to Jesus’ teaching. They were astonished. They had not heard teaching like this before. It amazed them. It even scared them a little. This was not what they were used to.

What was different? It was the authority with which Jesus spoke. He spoke as someone who knew what He was talking about and who could call for response. His teaching stood out in contrast to the teaching of the scribes. The scribes were experts in the interpretation of the Old Testament. They also taught and sometimes, in cases with legal ramifications, issued something like court opinions on the meaning of the text. These scribes were also responsible to know the traditions of interpretation and application from the teachers who had gone before them. So, often their teaching was a sort of “on the one hand this but on the other hand that” kind of teaching, as they quoted the various opinions of those who went before them. But there was a ring of truth, of authenticity, of confidence, of power, and of authority in what Jesus said. He was like the prophets of the Old Testament who could say, “Thus says the LORD,” rather than like the scribes who said, “Rabbi so and so said this, and Rabbi so and so said that.” If you want to catch a sense of the authority with which Jesus spoke read the Sermon on the Mount, especially the section in the chapter five of Matthew where He interprets and applies God’s Law. For instance He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That’s authority. And, of course we have an advantage the congregation in Capernaum did not. We have the opening statement of Mark’s Gospel so we know why His authority exceeds that not only the scribes but even of the prophets. He is the Son of God, and, when He speaks, He speaks with the authority of God Himself.

The question we have to ask is, “Were the only people who ever heard Jesus speak with authority those who were heard His teaching in Palestine during the three years of His public ministry? Is it impossible for us to hear Him speak to us with authority?” The answer is that we, too, can hear His authoritative speaking. Where? First and primarily in the Scriptures, which are unique writings because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus infallible and inerrant, authoritative in and they teach and command. Not just in His own recorded words, but in all the words of Scripture, Jesus speaks to us.

But the Reformers would have said something additional to us, and I think they were right. They would have said, “If you really want to hear Jesus speaking with authority go to church. There, in the company of God’s people, you will hear the Word of God read. You will also hear it preached by a man God has called for this ministry. He is not inspired by the Sprit, nor is he infallible, as were the prophets and apostles, but he is the living link between the Word of God once spoken and the Word of God now spoken. If he is faithful in the interpretation and application of the written Word, you will hear the voice of Jesus speaking to you with authority, and creating faith and confidence, as you listen to the words of the preacher.”

II. Authority in Exorcising

As Jesus carried on His teaching with authority, the service was interrupted by a man described as having “an unclean spirit.” People in this condition are also described as having demons. Whether this man was a part of the congregation or came in as the service was going on we do not know, but it is clear that, while Jesus was teaching, this man disturbed the service.

What is the meaning of a man having a demon or an unclean spirit? Well, it is not physical condition that was misunderstood by the Gospel writers. We are not talking about epilepsy or some other seizure disorder that was thought to be the activity of an evil spirit. Nor is it a psychiatric disorder. There are such disorders that can cause bizarre behavior, but that is not what Mark is describing. What then is this? Well, as Mark, and Matthew and Luke, describe it, it is a case in which an evil spirit, allied with Satan takes possession of a human being to such an extent that, at least at times, the person acts as directed by the spirit, or even becomes a conduit for the deeds and words of the demon. This gives rise to physical and psychiatric symptoms, but these are caused by the demon’s domination of the person.

Another question we need to ask is why there seems to be so much demonic activity in the world that Jesus lived in. There are two factors that help to explain it. One is that the devil had much greater power and authority in the world before Jesus completed His work than after. Jesus came to bind the devil and to rob him of his possessions. During the week leading up to His crucifixion Jesus said, “…now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12: 31). The devil and his allies had a much freer field of activity before the completion of redemption. But there is another factor that explains a level of demonic activity during the ministry of Jesus that is not found anywhere else in Scripture. It is that the devil knew that the coming of the Son of God into the world meant the decisive turning point. If Jesus were successful, it would mean the end for the devil. So the devil focused all his efforts at opposing the trying to destroy the Lord Jesus.

The man with the unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” This is the language of challenge and impending conflict. The unclean spirit says through the man, “We don’t have anything in common. Go away and leave us alone.” Then it is clear the demon knows that the presence of Jesus is threatening to him. “Have come to destroy us?” expresses more than a question; it expresses fear, even a dreaded expectation.

Then he identifies Jesus: “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit has supernatural knowledge of Jesus’ identity. This is something that the congregation in the synagogue does not know and that even Jesus disciples will struggle with understanding. He knows who Jesus is, when others do not, but that does not change him, The apostle James addresses a warning to us, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” Right knowledge does not guarantee salvation. This spirit knows who Jesus is, yet he remains as evil as ever.

And who is Jesus? He is “the Holy One of God.” This recognizes that Jesus is holy and pure in contrast to the evil nature and intent of the demon. But it also points to Jesus unique relationship with God. The angel told Mary, the mother of our Lord, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God”. Jesus is holy in the absolute sense as God is holy, moral pure and utterly separate in being, majesty, and glory from all creation. It is because Jesus is the Son of God, who has God’s nature and attributes, that He is the Holy One of God.

Jesus spoke directly to the evil spirit, rebuking him, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus speaks sharply and briefly to the demon. It’s pretty close to saying, “Shut up and get out of that man.” Jesus does not require any kind of magic or incantation. His word is enough. And the demon has no choice by to obey. He came out of the man immediately, though not without showing his true nature. The evil spirit convulsed the man and cried out with a loud voice as he came out of the man. From that there can be no doubt that the power of a demon is destructive – his purpose in dominating the personality is to destroy it. But with that he came out of the man. He had no choice but to comply.

We are not told what happened to the man. We know only that he was freed from the oppression of the demon. The attention rather is focused on the congregation. They began to question one another: “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” They did not have a category in which to fit what they had witnessed that Sabbath in their synagogue. They had to wonder and to ask each other what was going on. They had already marveled at his teaching. Just hearing what He taught and how He taught it had impressed them with His authority. But now they had seen how all He had to do was speak and even the unclean spirits had to obey Him. All it took was a word – nothing added to make it more powerful – just a word and the unclean spirit had to go. This is a kind of authority they had never seen before. This kind of power in words they had not experienced. They did not know what to make of Jesus, but they knew there was something very different about Him that set Him apart from all the other religious teachers they had encountered. The report of what happened in the synagogue in Capernaum could not be contained. The fame of this Teacher with authority spread throughout the region.

All this is part of Mark’s unfolding of who Jesus is and what He has come to do. He is the One who speaks with the authority that compels men to decide whether to believe in Him and submit to Him. But He also is the One who can free us from the devil. The Apostle John tells us, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1John 3:8). He had the power to do that because He is the Son of God. And He did it by His life, death, and resurrection. We may not see evil spirits controlling personalities as happened in the Capernaean synagogue. Thank God that because of Jesus we do not. But we do see the destructive works of the devil in human lives. He dominates human lives by enslaving them to the guilt and power of sin. But Jesus came to save us from all that.

Believe in Him and submit to His gracious authority and He will save you from the devil and all his evil works.

William H Smith

Westminster Presbyterian Church

Huntsville, Alabama

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