Authority Issues

“Christ Preaching at Capernaum” by Maurycy Gottlieb

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“They went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

When you mention the word “authority,” it’s likely you’ll have to qualify what you mean. Depending upon the audience’s background—and the current context—“authority” may have an extremely negative connotation. It may suggest oppression by a dictatorial governmental official, an overbearing boss, or an abusive parent. In that setting, an “authority” is a ruler—a ruler who uses you for his own advantage. And so, it’s no wonder that many of us have authority issues.

But there are good authorities as well—ones who use their authority for the benefit of others instead of themselves. This use of authority is seen as beneficial and orderly for society. Good parents, good teachers, good bosses, and good governmental officials—ones who develop trust in the people of their charge.

Jesus exercised good authority. Like other good authority figures, Jesus didn’t seek authority; it was given to Him (Matthew 28:18). In His state of humiliation, Jesus submitted Himself to the will of the Father, using His Father’s authority for the good—for the salvation—of all mankind. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus demonstrates His authority by His teaching and power over demons.

The scene is familiar. Jesus enters the city of Capernaum, a place where He lived for some time. Its situation on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and at the intersection of several important trade routes made Capernaum an ideal base for carrying the Gospel into the regions of Galilee and beyond. Besides, Capernaum was also the home of Zebedee and his sons, James and John, and the home of Peter, whose mother-in-law was living with him.

On the Sabbath following their selection to become fishers of men, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, together with Jesus, attended the synagogue service. Since synagogues had no resident ordained ministers, the rulers of the synagogue would invite some rabbi or scribe present to teach the lessons. So, it happened that Jesus was often invited to address the congregations.

The synagogue served mostly as a place of the Word. Whereas the temple was mainly a place of worship and sacrifice, the service of the synagogue would consist of prayer, reading Scripture, and an exposition of the Word. Therefore, the synagogue was the ideal place for the true Word, Jesus, to reveal Himself.

What Jesus’ specific message was on this Sabbath, Mark does not tell us; he does tell us about the impression His preaching made on the worshipers. They were amazed, for Jesus did not teach as the scribes did.

The scribes extracted rules and regulations from the Torah for almost any situation. Generation after generation of scribe passed down this oral law, which was committed to memory. Since they were the experts of this unwritten code, they were also the ones judging individual cases. They were considered the final authority on interpretation of God’s Word, particularly regarding moral living.

Jesus wasn’t preaching about endless circumstances for choosing the right behavior, but rather sin and grace. His message wasn’t “What should I do?” but rather “What has God done for me—because of what I’ve done and left undone?” Jesus was boldly preaching contrition and faith, the full counsel of God. He simply told them how it is—on no less authority than God Himself. This wasn’t just some new teaching, but a dusting off of timeless teaching. It was a teaching that through the coming of the Messiah, forgiveness would be won for helpless man. Jesus is the final authority. He is the one who in word and deed reveals to us the undeserved love of God for sinners incorporated in His own person. Through Him and His Word, God’s authority issues. His, is the final Word.

But this refreshing message of good news isn’t always received with joy and amazement, is it? Often, we see, even in quite different settings, the rejection of the good. Because of our sinful nature, we all have authority issues. We all want to have the final say, to be our own god. And the sinful world and Satan are all too eager to help us toward this deadly end.

“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And 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’” (Mark 1:23-24).

At this crucial moment in Jesus’ ministry, why should there be a demon-possessed man showing up in the synagogue, that gathering place of God’s people? We might expect a holy, secure setting for Jesus’ teaching. Yet, this is the beginning of His ministry, a beginning that recalls Genesis 3 and the unanticipated appearance of Satan in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. It has been said where God builds a cathedral, Satan sets up a chapel next door.

It is not at all surprising that Satan, despite his recent defeat in the wilderness, was not ready to let such a message and such a preacher go unchallenged. It was the devil who caused this man in that synagogue to cry out against Jesus, for it is clear that this man was not speaking for himself. He could not of himself have known what he said about Christ.

However, Satan and the evil spirit that possessed this man knew who Jesus of Nazareth was and what His purpose was. They knew He was the Son of God and that He had come to destroy Satan’s hold over mankind. With his words Satan revealed himself wiser than many modern theologians. This knowledge did him no spiritual good; it only filled him with fear and trembling. He knew that He faced hell and the Gospel was not meant for him.

But Jesus wouldn’t take it anymore. Even though what the demon said was true, it certainly was no endorsement. It was like having Adolf Hitler as your character witness. Besides, Jesus was not yet ready to proclaim openly that He was the Messiah. Most of His audience would have read political aims into that word. So, Jesus shut him up. Literally, in the Greek, He “muzzled him.” Jesus says three little Greek words—that’s all it took to vanquish the wicked one. No magic show—no long incantation—just three words: Be silent and come out!

“The unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 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 1:26-27). This is what Satan and his angels most despise: to be put in their place, to be reminded that they never had, and never will have, ultimate authority. They can never be God. Jesus is God.

So, it’s a nice story and all, Jesus speaks with authority and casts out a demon, but “What has this to do with us?” you may be asking.   

I would like to go back and have you to listen more closely to the language of the unclean spirit. The spirit confronts Jesus and cries 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.” Notice how it speaks in the plural: “us.” Mark clearly tells us the spirit is singular (it is “an unclean spirit”). Yet, the spirit speaks in the plural: “What have You to do with us?”

This could be a case where the spirit is one of many, like the situation of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:9). Or it could be the spirit is speaking of a realm of uncleanness. Or it could be the spirit is intentionally seeking to deceive Jesus, presenting itself as many when it is only one. I wonder, however, if the spirit could be making a bolder claim. Is it possible the unclean spirit is claiming the people in the synagogue as its own? This unclean spirit already has laid claim to this man. The man is described as, “in the unclean spirit,” and the spirit is later able to convulse him. Is it possible the unclean spirit sees things differently than we do?

We look at the synagogue and see God’s people gathering in worship. The spirit, however, sees uncleanness and lays claim to all which is unclean as its own. God’s people have gathered in worship while there is a war going on, and this war has two opponents: The Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. There is no middle ground. You are either Satan’s or you are God’s.

When the spirit first appears in the story, Mark makes it sound like there may be a middle ground. “And immediately, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” The synagogue belongs neither to God nor to Satan but to the people of Capernaum. The spirit then makes a claim. Its claim is that all the people gathered in worship are the spirit’s. They are unclean and cannot be in the presence of the “holy One of God.” What does God have to do with those who are unclean? Nothing. So, the spirit cries out and reveals that the people of Capernaum, gathered in worship, are under the threat of being claimed by Satan.

But then Jesus reveals who He truly is. He is more than a man from Nazareth. He is more than a prophet like Moses. He is more than a teacher with authority. He is the cosmic Christ. This is His synagogue, and these are His people. His rule is over all things, visible and invisible. His power is without equal. He has come into this world to fight against Satan and to defeat him. He will set free all the people Satan claims as His own.

How are the unclean made clean? How are the captives set free? By the gracious work of Jesus, bearing the curse of our uncleanness on the cross that He might rise and bring the blessing of God’s holiness to us in His authoritative Word.

For almost a year now, we have been experiencing the disruptive effects of COVID. One of the things that has happened is it has changed how we view our ability to gather in worship. I fear some have found worship to not be so essential. But many others have begun to see why being able to gather for worship is truly a gift. Mark’s Gospel this morning takes us one step further. He reveals the divine gift of worship. We are Christ’s Church. The One we worship is the One who has come to rescue us from the power of Satan. We live in the midst of a battle. Satan seeks to lay claim on our lives. But for us fights the valiant one: Jesus. The cosmic Christ who has come today claims us as His own.

Jesus’ authoritative teaching and power over the unclean spirits create an immediate stir among those beholding Him in the early days of His ministry in Galilee. Today, we often see the same thing. People continue to be interested in and even amazed by Jesus’ teaching, and yet many fail to depend on Him for life and salvation. By the power of His authoritative Word and Spirit, however, others are indeed brought into saving faith and life.

As He promised, the Lord our God has raised up “a prophet” like Moses, namely Jesus, our brother in the flesh. “To Him you shall listen,” because the Word of the Lord is “in His mouth” (Deut. 18:15–18). Indeed, He is more than a prophet and more than a scribe of the Scriptures; He is the incarnate Word, and He speaks “a new teaching with authority” (Mark 1:22, 27). He enters “the synagogue” of His Church and provides true Sabbath rest, using His authority to silence and cast out “even the unclean spirits” (Mark 1:21–27). By His Word of the cross, He removes the accusations of the Law and of the devil, and He cleanses our consciences before God the Father.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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