Continuing in Mark’s Gospel, we’re looking at five stories in chapter 1, all with the same basic point. Although they start from different angles, each story ultimately shows how Jesus has authority. We saw yesterday how Jesus has authority over people – to call them to discipleship and ministry. We now look at two other ways in which Jesus has authority.
Authority in teaching1:21-22 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and [Gk: immediately] began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.
In Jesus’ day, the laypeople – particularly the literate laypeople – led people in worship in the synagogues. This was before ordained Rabbis started to be the norm a few centuries later. A certain class of laypeople had arisen: the Scribes, who had particular expertise in the scriptures.
Their authority to teach was derived from other people: quoting what Rabbi so-and-so had said about Rabbi so-and-so’s commentary on the book of Exodus, for example. It’s like undergraduate essays: you can’t say something unless you can find several sources to back it up, and appropriately footnote them.
But Jesus’ authority to teach was different to that of the scribes: he didn’t appeal to a succession of human authorities. He was more in the style of the Old Testament prophet – speaking a direct word from God – because he was God. And everyone who heard him recognised this authority – whether they chose to obey it or not.
Sometimes today, we can put too much stock in human learning about the scriptures, and be distracted by the science of interpreting the bible (known as Hermeneutics). When we hear a sermon, or even someone’s answer at bible study, we are quick to run it through our interpretational filter:
Did it have one big idea? Did it put it in its proper historical and literary context? Did it preach Christ at every point? Did it apply it properly? Did it have three points beginning with the same letter?
I’ve heard people return from conferences and retreats saying ‘that was great teaching; the preacher applied the bible really well’. Fine. Good stuff. What I want to ask is, what did you learn? Is it going to make a difference in your life? The science of interpreting and applying the bible is too often held in higher regard than the message from God it is seeking to discern. My method is better than your method.
Imagine a person who wants to buy a car; they meticulously seek out the best model for them, in terms of comfort, economy, and styling. The save up and finally purchase it. Then they tell you all about how perfect their car is, in loving detail. But when you ask them ‘have you driven it yet’, they look at you, puzzled, and say ‘Why would I want to do that? Anyway, have you seen the interior…’
Good, accurate, methodical bible teaching, utilising as much theological learning as possible – this is something to which we should all aspire. As preachers, to do; as a congregation, to be listening to. But like a car that is never driven, unless we submit to its message – to its authority – it’s totally useless. If we hold ‘teaching’ at arm’s length, examine it, and pronounce it ‘good’, it is of no use to us whatsoever.
It only becomes useful when we recognise that its ultimate authority rests not on the methods we use or the commentaries we consult, but on the fact that it is from God. And when we yield to his authority, and obey it. (Funny – this sounds a bit like parts of James we studied last month.)
Authority over demonsMk 1:23-28 Just then [Gk: immediately] a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly [Gk: immediately] over the whole region of Galilee.
Jesus had authority over the demons. He had control over them. And they knew it. They knew exactly who he was, and the authority he possessed – unlike the crowds and disciples, who were still coming to grips with it all.
All Jesus had to do was say ‘be quiet’ – more literally, ‘be muzzled’; the equivalent of ‘shut up’. And they fell silent. He said ‘come out’, and they came out.
This prefigures a significant theme in Mark’s gospel: Jesus’ power over the spirit world. Jesus came to destroy the powers of darkness, and he had authority to do so.
Most of us don’t have much contact with demons. The discipleship course ‘Christianity Explained’ uses this chapter in Mark’s to demonstrate Jesus’ authority in the world, and one of the points is his authority over evil spirits. When I’ve used the material, I’ve often found this point a bit of an embarrassment – and skip over it quickly – because most Westerners don’t really believe in evil spirits, much less are they aware of contact with them! I prefer to get to the resurrection, show how Jesus is God, and then deal with the existence of demons later. It’s a consequence of coming to faith, rather than a precursor for most people I know.
However, one time someone I know was doing this course with people who originally came from a country in South East Asia. They ended up spending the whole first night on this topic, because they had seen first-hand the effects of demons. The fact that Jesus had authority over demons was more than just an intellectual point – for them, it had a practical bearing on life.
For us, we should remember that although it might not be as obvious – we are involved in a spiritual battle. And further, we are on the winning side. Jesus has already won. Far from being a footnote in Jesus’ authority, this is actually the most important point. if Jesus couldn’t defeat the powers of darkness, we wouldn’t have eternal life.