A Teacher Unlike Any Other
Mark 1: 21 — 28
Those who take time to ponder the previous passage in verses 14 — 20 will find a unique presentation — an icon in words, carefully crafted to present Jesus commencing his mission. He is seen to proclaim the message of salvation, in continuity with John the Baptist, and then call his first disciples. It is a Biblical treasure in its own right.
Mark continues the opening scenes by next reporting Our Lord to be in Capernaum where in eight verses he presents another absolutely core truth about the future ministry of Jesus yet to be unfolded. Some readers who are not very familiar with the Gospels (and, perhaps, some who are) may find it uncomfortable to talk about "being possessed by an evil spirit" which calls out to Jesus from within a person. There are many explanations about this phenomenon for modern people. We recommend that you do not allow that to be the only focus in this Gospel text; in other words, lets keep it in perspective, and thus be able to discern the whole lesson for the Church, which incorporates all parts of our reading.
Some Notes On The Text
Verses 21 — 22
Our Lord, in orthodox custom and practice, devoutly attended synagogue and Temple worship. The president of the assembly on this occasion obviously invited him to comment on the Holy Scriptures chanted during the service. There was always a reading from the Law, i.e. the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and a second from the Haphtorah, i.e. the Prophets.
Mark does not tell us any of what our Lord taught: only the powerful effect it had on his listeners. The common rabbinic style included many references to the interpretations of other rabbis. (This custom has carried over into Western style court hearings.) In all of Jesus' teaching, he did not cite multiple rabbinic opinions and interpretations. To some, this would have seemed cavalier; to others, a reminder of the prophets who had been absent for 400 years from Israel until the appearance of John the Baptist and his cousin.
Our Lord's listeners were "amazed at his teaching", not just because of its content, but because he spoke "as one who had authority" i.e. he did not hesitate to assume a personal authority.
The people loved it!
Verses 23 — 26
Just when Jesus seems to be going well, suddenly a voice abruptly calls out a rather incomprehensible question: "What do you want with us?" Although the speaker referred to here as "an evil spirit", addresses Jesus as the "Holy One of God", he makes it quite plain that the teaching of Jesus is irrelevant to him and he will have nothing to do with it. He and Jesus have nothing in common!
Jesus, just as abruptly, orders the evil spirit, "Be muzzled" (literally). Mercifully, he orders the odious being to leave the poor victim, which he does but not without causing as much alarm and terror as he can.
We need to note that the preaching of Jesus initially did not necessarily bring peace and bliss for all concerned, but often division and strife. However, it did result in delivery and restoration, even if the man possessed had no great desire to be freed. What our Lord's on-lookers heard and saw was terrifying but necessary. His disciples were to learn that they would be confronted with the same hideous encounter with evil; and it would become deeply entrenched not only in individuals, but also in the body of the Church.
Verses 27 and 28
For the second time "the people were all so amazed." First Jesus taught with great authority and then he commanded the evil spirit to desist with similar authority. The convulsion of the poor man may have had the appearance of epilepsy or dementia but the people sensed the connection of the two manifestations of authority: word and power. They knew that this was no mere stage performance of some itinerant preacher, whose actions generally led more to wonder than genuine belief.
Here Jesus manifests the primary purpose of his miracles: to demonstrate that when he speaks, he does so with power and authority never before witnessed. This is not to say that he did not work miracles out of his compassion for the sad state people may have been in: for we know he did. But the primary role assigned to these great events was to bring people to see and understand who he was and why he had taught them or healed them. This is so very important.
In our text, the people ask, "What is this?" In fact the question is really, "Who is this? — since Mark notes: "News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee".
Jesus spoke with the same miraculous power by which he acted. Those who answer his call to help spread his good tidings will meet the same insults and opposition. But when (and only when) they proclaim sound, genuine, Gospel teaching, that teaching will carry the same authority Jesus demonstrated. It may not appear in such dramatic circumstances, like this, but it will carry his authority. Wherever and whenever his word is heard, his power will be present to heal people from the forces of evil which wreak havoc in the lives of so many.
Our Lord does not seek followers whose faith is produced merely by the spectacular and the abnormal. Those who genuinely try to convey the beautiful message of God's love and care for us will see much greater miracles than mass hypnotic hysteria and publicly paraded virtue. They will see the Word of God effect the most amazing changes against all odds in a world which finds religious values too restrictive and often very offensive. Actually, it is happening already, and there is much to be thankful for. But the tide is turning fast against Christian culture and its values, and we will need to increase our understanding of Jesus and his message if we are to hold ground.
It is significant that Mark places this account at the beginning of our Lord's ministry. It is, so to speak, a prophetic warning to the Church. What occurred in our text to an individual is just as real in the life of the whole Body of Christ: the Church. There is an evil spirit just as active in the Church, causing the same deadly effects. It has all the right vocabulary calling God the Holy One and shouting praises to Jesus. It causes all manner of miracles and amazing sights and sounds. When scrutinised, however, it is woefully obvious to the discerning that it is fraudulent. It distracts the true attention of people away from the Gospel teaching of Jesus towards an insatiable preoccupation with ever-new signs and wonders. Just how much of a hoax it is becomes apparent when one tries to shift the focus back on to Jesus and his teaching as recorded in the Gospels: try this and all hell breaks loose, literally! The last thing this alien spirit wants is for signs and wonders to disappear, and the simple, plain Gospel message to be heard in everyday language of people making it accessible to all — instead of just those who think they have been given special spiritual gifts. This is indeed the great hoax of our age and it is wreaking havoc in the Church — a Church which is increasingly being hoodwinked into believing the unreal and absurd instead of the plain truth of Jesus as he presented it and commanded it be passed on.
This was always going to be a problem for the Church: that the message of the Gospel would take second place to the need for a constant flood of signs and wonders to meet the demands of some of its members for constant spiritual titillation. Is it any wonder the Gospel message is seen as irrelevant by the whole world when it becomes sidelined within the Church!
This is what the Gospel according to St. Mark is all about. Be ready to have your life turned around!
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