READ : Mark 1:27
And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Mark 1:27 rsv
One day in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus met a man with an unclean spirit. The keynote in this encounter was clearly authority. Listen. I’m reading from Mark, chapter 1, beginning at verse 22: “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” And later in the same passage, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Let’s try to understand what was happening there.
It was on the Sabbath day and Jesus had been invited to teach in the local synagogue. As He spoke, the result was scarcely what people had expected. This was teaching of a different order and they were stunned by it. It had the unmistakable ring of authority.
The teaching of Jewish rabbis in those days was largely based on tradition. The appeal was to doctrine handed down from the past. “Rabbi Hillel said this. Rabbi Shammai said that. Their followers made these additions. And the greater number of scholars have taken this position.” All this was instructive but highly predictable, sound and safe.
Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to represent another strand in Jewish teaching: the prophetic. Prophets did not make their appeal to revered scholars. Theirs was the authority of a direct commission from God. They were not echoing the past but rather heralding God’s message to the here and now. It was not a matter of comparing sources with them or counting votes. This was the word of the Lord. It didn’t propose matters for discussion. Rather, God’s Word claimed total obedience.
That’s the way Jesus taught – with authority and not as the scribes. Remember the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, thus and so,” but Jesus continued, “But I say to you . . . .” He was clearly claiming in that way an authority beyond that of the rabbis. He spoke from God as one with an absolute right to pronounce and command.
His words in the synagogue that day had electrifying power. The people, we read, were astonished, amazed. They had never heard anyone speak like this. When Jesus encountered people, this reaction of amazement was common. The gospel writer Mark calls attention to it again and again. He shatters our common stereotype of “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” What the real Jesus said apparently shocked people. What He did sometimes startled them. The effect of His presence was at times frightening, almost overpowering. People were frequently awed by Jesus and never more than when He spoke with His compelling authority.
AN UNCLEAN SPIRIT
One of the persons who heard Him on this particular occasion is described by Mark as “a man with an unclean spirit.” This was a description frequently used by Jewish rabbis. It was their way of referring to the phenomenon called “demon possession.” A man with an unclean spirit was a driven person, dehumanized. His personality was so damaged, so disabled, that the demon somehow usurping the place of the self was able to speak through him.
It’s evident to any reader of the New Testament that the realm of the demonic is taken seriously there. Satan is not a mythical figure to Jesus and the apostles but a real malignant adversary. Demons are personal spirits subject to Satan, seeking entrance to the lives of people, sometimes through physical infirmity, sometimes through traumatic experiences, sometimes through a sinful pattern of behavior.
It is sometimes argued that demon possession is simply a primitive way of explaining certain kinds of diseases. “These persons,” we’re told, “were really epileptics or manic depressives or schizophrenics. Today we understand those conditions and have no need for the quaint, bizarre conceptions of a bygone age.”
But does our understanding of brain chemistry and neural discharges really dispel the mystery in such diseases? The more I learn about schizophrenia, for example, the less sure I am that anyone understands this strange and tragic affliction. There’s doubtless a physical component in it that can be treated by medication. It has a psychological element, for which counseling can in some cases be helpful. And I believe also that there is a spiritual dimension in which faith and prayer have sometimes remarkable effects.
In the thought world of the New Testament, physical illness and demon possession were not viewed as identical. Jesus healed many sick people by a word, by a touch, even through the hem of His garment. But these were simply acts of compassion and power. Exorcisms were quite different. Here the afflicted person sometimes had the symptoms of a disease but his or her deliverance involved a personal encounter. Jesus spoke to the demons and they to Him. He rebuked them, commanded them to flee. To make a person whole in such situations required a kind of power struggle, a word of authoritative command.
SUPERSTITION OR REALITY?
Let’s pause for a moment on this. Are we dealing with superstition here or with a profound reality? Are demons and evil spirits merely figments of a wild imagination or do they still oppress and afflict people today?
We need to recognize that questions like these cannot be resolved by scientific investigation. We can and do examine the symptoms of disease. We can analyze the behaviors of driven persons. We can even know a good deal about the onset of such diseases. But whether or not demonic activity is involved in these things cannot possibly be determined by what we call the scientific method.
That shouldn’t trouble or surprise us, especially when we realize that science is incapable in a similar way of either proving or disproving the existence of God. Christians believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, not because this has been demonstrated in a laboratory or proved in an experiment. They believe that God has revealed Himself in the history of His people Israel, in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and supremely in Jesus Christ. Responding in faith to that revelation, they then see many evidences in the world around them and in their own experience which confirm this conviction. But in no way do they claim scientific proof.
As one prominent New Testament scholar has pointed out, the evidence in the Bible for the existence of Satan and evil spirits is of the same character as that for the existence of God. Christians believe accordingly that Satan is a real adversary, that he has emissaries called demons and that he works through human sinfulness and weakness to hold people at times in bondage. They believe that he is a tempter, a deceiver, a destroyer, working behind the scenes in human history, opposing God and seeking to blight the human beings made in His image. Believers credit these things on the basis of the clear witness of Scripture. They also see evidence in history and in human life that seems to confirm these views, to bear out this explanation of reality. They see evidences of evil and destructiveness in human relations, for example, that seem to go beyond the failings and frailties of the persons involved. Is there a better explanation for the malignancy behind Nazism, blood feuds, and apartheid? Are there more satisfying ways to understand the depth of evil in the abuse of children, the torture of prisoners, the systematic practice of genocide?
Christians do not insist that belief in the demonic is the only way to account for these ugly things in human experience. They simply maintain that this awareness does at least as much justice to the available evidence as any alternative explanation does.
In this situation as Mark describes it, the demon speaking through the man in the synagogue challenged Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
The first question sounds like this: “Jesus, what have we and You in common?” or “Why do You interfere with us?” It was almost as if to say, “Mind Your own business, Jesus.”
Again, “Have you come to destroy us?” We sense here fear and defiance mingled. The foreboding of the demon comes from recognizing Jesus’ identity. Destruction of evil spirits was something expected on the great final day of the Lord. Was it going to happen now, before the time?
When the voice says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God,” the demon is not necessarily calling Jesus the Messiah of Israel. It’s rather speaking of Jesus as someone from beyond this world who belongs to God and comes from God.
It’s significant that Mark would record an encounter like this in his Gospel. The unusual character of it points to Mark’s authenticity. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the early church inventing the idea of demons who call Jesus “the Holy One of God.” Relating that would hardly have value for convincing others. It would not likely persuade people to believe. It would more probably give occasion for mockery or even the charge that Jesus was indeed in league with the demons.
These and other confessions we read about in the gospel are not testimonies extorted from demons against their will. They’re rather desperate attempts to get control of Jesus or render Him harmless. The idea in that time was that if you used the correct name of a person you could gain some kind of mastery over him.
Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Why did Jesus silence the demon? This was in accord with the whole purpose and manner of His incarnation and His ministry. There was always an indirectness, a veiledness about His coming. To let the demons’ assertion go unrebuked would compromise God’s gentle, subdued way of revealing Himself. Jesus did not want anyone, let alone the powers of evil, advertising who He was.
The demon departed, we read, but not without struggle. There was a loud outcry. The possessed man was thrown into convulsions. But then it was over. He was free at last.
Then followed an amazement more profound than what had first greeted Jesus’ words. “What is this?” they said. “A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!”
SIGN OF THE KINGDOM
For Jesus and the early church these exorcisms were signs of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, signs of the royal, redeeming power of Jesus. They were an integral, important part of His work. We cannot really understand His ministry from a New Testament perspective without them. The fact that some modern people would describe these afflictions differently does not in any way alter the fact that Jesus delivered many who suffered in this way, that His word of command freed them completely. There were other exorcists in those days. They customarily identified themselves with some divine name. They often used spells, incantations and magical actions. The striking thing about Jesus was that He did this by word alone. People had no frame of reference into which they could fit this kind of sovereign authority. A word from Jesus was invested with power for which there were no parallels in their experience. It was a teaching qualitatively new in its authority over people. No wonder they were alarmed.
This same Jesus now risen from the dead is proclaimed to you today as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All authority is given to Him in heaven and on earth. You are invited to put your trust in this Jesus Christ, this risen king, to surrender your life to His gracious rule. And here is the joy and comfort of all who do so. Jesus possesses all of that authority and power not to tyrannize over us, but rather to set us free and to make us God’s dear children. Alleluia!
PRAYER: Father, for the great and gracious power of Jesus to set us free from every evil, we give You thanks and pray that all who share this message may enter into this freedom which Jesus gives. In His name. Amen.