Preliminary sermon thoughts on Mark 1:21-28

This is not a sermon; this is simply my study notes as I have been engaging with the Biblical text today. Hopefully they might be useful to other preachers as we meditate on scripture in preparation for next Sunday.

Text (NRSV)

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘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.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

 

Exegesis

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

Setting up the context here, Mark has begun his gospel by announcing that he is proclaiming to us ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (v.1). ‘Good news’ to Jewish people recalls the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55 about God coming to rescue his people from exile, and to Romans it would be reminiscent of birth announcements of sons and heirs to the emperor. So Mark is telling a story of how God’s Son is coming to rescue God’s people from the power of evil and bring them home from their spiritual exile.

Mark then sets up the story of John the Baptist with a composite quote from Isaiah and Malachi (vv.2-3), and a brief account of his ministry (vv.4-8), culminating in the story of the baptism of Jesus (vv.9-11). His account of the temptation in the wilderness (vv.12-13) is brief and doesn’t go into the detail about the three temptations that we find in Matthew and Luke. Finally, in last week’s gospel we have the story of Jesus coming into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, and calling people to repent and believe. He then calls fishermen to become his disciples – to ‘follow’ him – and promises to make them into the kind of people who can fish for people, and Andrew and Simon, James and John respond to this invitation.

Jesus now leads his disciples on their first ‘fishing expedition’ (or at least the first one that Mark has recorded) to the Galilean fishing village of Capernaum, and on the Sabbath day he goes to the synagogue. Jesus is a loyal worshipper of the God of Israel, not someone starting a new religion. Luke underlines that going to synagogue on the Sabbath was Jesus’ habit: ‘he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom’ (Luke 4:16). Jesus’ teaching may be ‘new…with authority’ (v.27), but he does not intend it to be a rebellion against his ancestral faith.

So he observes the Sabbath and he goes to worship with God’s people in the synagogue. The synagogue would have been ruled by a council of elders, whose job it would be to ensure that each week there would be someone to expound the scriptures and teach the people. We see an example of how this might work in the book of Acts during Paul and Barnabas’ visit to Antioch in Pisidia:

‘And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it”’ (Acts 13:14-15).

Presumably something similar has happened here in the Capernaum synagogue; perhaps Jesus has been called on to read the appointed scripture passages of the day (as is definitely the case in Nazareth in Luke 4), and then after the reading is finished he begins to teach from the text he has read.

 

22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

‘ “Authority” can mean either the right or the power to do something, or both. Although Jesus’ teaching was undoubtedly powerful, his right to speak is underscored by the contrast between his teaching and that of the scribes. They taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means. Furthermore, his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scripture or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes’. (Lamar Williamson)

‘Scribes quoted other rabbinic authorities and weighed traditional arguments but did not err on the side of originality. But Jesus is different, bold, dynamic, demanding, and exhilarating’ (R.T. France).

It was apparently the custom for rabbis and teachers to back up their teachings by citing numerous references (as I have just done [!], and as indeed is still the case in orthodox Judaism with discussions of the Talmud – ‘Rabbi so-and-so says such-and-such about this text; rabbi so-and-so disagrees’ and so on). Mark doesn’t describe exactly what he means when he says that Jesus taught them as one having authority, but we can perhaps safely assume that it means Jesus didn’t follow this custom. If he follows the pattern of the Sermon on the Mount, he is perhaps more likely to say, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’ To some people this would be offensive; they would ask, ‘Who does he think he is?’ There’s no indication that Jesus went to any rabbinical schools, so there would have been some professional resentment on the part of the religious establishment as well.

‘Who does he think he is?’ is of course exactly the question that Mark wants us to ask; indeed, this seems to be the major question of the first half of his gospel, leading up to 8:27-30 when he asks his disciples who they think ‘the son of man’ is, and Peter responds ‘You are the Messiah’. If Jesus is not speaking and acting with the authority of God, he is an imposter and a charlatan; what mere human being, acting on his own authority, has the right to say ‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’? In episode after episode Mark is going to show Jesus speaking and acting in ways that would have been considered outrageously provocative for a mere mortal, and each time the question is underlined in our minds: who is this?

23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘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.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

All of Jesus’ contemporaries would have accepted without question the existence of the devil and of lesser evil (‘unclean’) spirits. Indeed, the whole New Testament assumes this belief – that behind the evil in the world there is a powerful malevolent force, which is in rebellion against God and is determined to dominate human beings and use them for its evil purposes. Modern people (not so much post-modern people, I’m guessing) have rebelled against this idea, seeing it as a holdover from a pre-scientific, superstitious age. Modern interpreters are more likely to see the man as suffering from some sort of mental illness, and Jesus as somehow being able to reach into his tortured psyche and bring healing.

This is not my view; I think that if Jesus and his apostles accepted the existence and power of the unclean spirits, then I have no reason to disbelieve. Furthermore, I’ve seen enough in my own pastoral experience to know that, as Hamlet puts it, ‘There is more to this world, Horatio, than is dreamt in your philosophy’. Interestingly enough, at least one modern psychiatrist agrees. Dr. Scott Peck, in his book The People of the Lie, fully accepts the traditional belief in evil forces and even in exorcism, and defends this belief from the point of view of a clinical psychiatrist.

However, even if we follow the path of modern interpretation, what happens here is truly amazing. Most psychiatrists, dealing with mental illnesses such as MPD or schizophrenia, have to spend long hours in counselling sessions over periods of months and years, often with the help of the appropriate drugs, to even begin to heal these troubled souls. Jesus simply speaks a word of power, the man goes into convulsions, and then is at peace. Significantly, Mark does not use the learned term for a seizure in verse 26. Hippocrates or Aristotle might have used the Greek word epilepsia (whose literal meaning is simply ‘a seizure’), but Mark attributes the man’s convulsion to the work of the unclean spirit, and so uses a different word, sparaxan, which is variously translated as ‘convulsed’ (RSV/NRSV, and NEB/REB/NJB similar), ‘shook the man violently’ (NIV 2011), ‘shook the man hard’ (TEV), and ‘thrown into convulsions’ (Strong’s).

‘In this story we notice how the spirit immediately recognizes Jesus as someone special, “The Holy One of God”, and assumes that his arrival spells disaster for the powers of evil (notice the ‘us’), and how Jesus needs no elaborate ritual or magical formulae (as other exorcists usually did), but dismisses the spirit with an almost contemptuous “Shut up and get out!” No wonder people were astonished, and Jesus’ fame began to spread’. (R.T. France)

Understandably, the people are amazed and wonder who this can possibly be. The unclean spirit, however, is not in doubt: “I know who you are – the Holy One of God”.

‘ “Holy One of God” is what the unclean spirit, speaking through the man, calls Jesus. The term can be understood in a weak sense as describing God’s representative (see Psalm 106:16, 2 Kings 4:9 and ‘God’s Holy Messenger at Mark 1:24 TEV) or in a strong sense as affirming Jesus’ unique relationship to God (see John 6:69, Acts 3:14, 4:27,30, Revelation 3:7). This is one of many examples of two-level communication in Mark. Without defining his nature of precise relationship to God, the demons recognize Jesus and tremble (James 2:19). Readers, however, are expected to remember the title of the Gospel and to understand that this Holy One of God is Christ, the Son of God (1:1)’. (Lamar Williamson)

The question of the unclean spirit, ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ (v.24), is a telling one. The healings and exorcisms of Jesus are not just arbitrary acts, nor are they simply acts of compassion done for the sick and suffering. If Jesus had been motivated solely by compassion, then surely he would have healed every sick and suffering person in Galilee. Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God by his words and his actions. When God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, there will be no more sickness, no more suffering, no more people troubled by forces of evil and unclean spirits. The kingdom has come in Jesus, but it has not yet arrived in all its fullness. His healings and exorcisms are signs of the kingdom, assurances that when it arrives in all its fullness the power of evil will indeed be destroyed forever.

 

27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Modern readers of this passage tend to fixate on the question of the existence of evil spirits and the so-called ‘magical’ elements of the text. Ancient readers would not have done so – to them, there was no doubt that these spirits existed. To them, the emphasis would have been on the authority of Jesus, and Mark emphasizes this by using the word exousia twice in the text. Jesus’ teaching is authoritative, and so is his encounter with the forces of evil. Indeed, in both cases it is the authority of his word – the word of teaching, and the word of command he speaks against the unclean spirit. I’m reminded of the Genesis story where God simply speaks a word and all things come into being, and of Isaiah 55 where God says,

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God’s word makes things happen, and Mark wants to show us that Jesus’ word has the same effect. I’m also reminded of the prologue to John’s Gospel where Jesus is seen as the Word of God incarnate.

R.T. France has a telling comment: 

‘For most Christians in the Western world today the idea of possession by a personal force of evil, and of the expulsion of a demon, leaving the “host” changed and restored to normality, sounds at best exotic and at worst decidedly suspect. They would much rather not know about it. But there are times even in glossy western society when the reality of spiritual evil cannot be ignored, and in some other parts of the world witchcraft, voodoo, and the occult are part of daily experience. In Jesus’ world, and for Mark, the demonic dimension was as real as the divine, and a Messiah who left the forces of evil unchallenged would be of little interest. There is no sphere of life that falls outside his extraordinary authority; there is no predicament into which people may fall from which he cannot rescue them’.

People are tired of religious chatter, but in Jesus they see something different – words of power and authority. The message spreads, and people want to hear and see more from this amazing man. 

Application
Sometimes preachers jump immediately from this text to the modern church and say ‘We should be like Jesus – we should speak with authority and we should be able to cast out the forces of evil with a word as he did’. There usually follows an invitation to the modern church to feel guilty and inadequate, and the preacher’s idea about how we can recover the authority of true apostolic ministry.

However, this is somewhat arrogant and betrays a misunderstanding of our proper relationship to Jesus. He is the one who can speak and act on his own authority as Son of God; we are not! We are in a similar position to the scribes; we are ‘dependant on a prior authority and responsible to a scriptural tradition’ (Williamson), and we deceive our hearers (not to mention ourselves!) if we try to pretend this is not the case. 

It’s true, of course, that later in the gospel Jesus gives his apostles the same authority to cast out unclean spirits (i.e. it’s not in them inherently; it comes from him). But that’s not the point at this stage in the gospel story. The point at this stage is precisely that Jesus is doing in this passage what no other man could do. Whether or not he has the right (and of course this would be a matter of opinion for his hearers) he is speaking directly with the authority of God rather than appealing to human authorities to back up his views. But just as people are asking themselves who he thinks he is, he shows by his confrontation and victory over evil that this is not just impotent talk – he has real power, power of the sort his hearers have never seen before. 

Mark is painting us a picture of the strong Son of God, God’s anointed king, who is boldly walking into a world full of lies and evil, speaking the truth and setting people free. He can do things no one else can do, because he isn’t just like anyone else. The unclean spirit speaks the truth: this is the Holy One of God, God’s anointed servant, the Son of God himself. This isn’t just another religious philosopher giving us timeless religious wisdom on the same level as the others who came before and after him. What is happening in Jesus is unique, and the further Mark gets on with his story, the more we’re going to realise that we are called on to give some sort of response to this man. Who do we think he is? And what are we going to do about it?

 

Commentaries:
R.T. France: ‘Mark’ (‘Doubleday Bible Commentary’/’The People’s Bible Commentary’ [1998])

Pheme Perkins, ‘Mark’ (‘New Interpreter’s Bible’ [1995])
Lamar Williamson, ‘Mark’ (‘Interpretation’ series, [1983]).
Tom Wright: ‘Mark for Everyone’ (2001)

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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