Bible Passage: Mark 1:21-28
How much authority does Jesus really have over our lives?
American culture has always been known for being resistant to authority. If you go to other countries and other cultures, it’s sometimes hard for Americans to understand how people in other countries are often pliant and deferential to certain authority figures in government, schools, and their families. In America, we are usually of the opinion that we will obey outside authority only to the extent that we have to and only to the extent that it benefits us.
This relationship with authority in America has both upsides and downsides. On the upside, we have an independent country, a high level of personal freedom, and a high level of innovation and entrepreneurship because we don’t really want to be told what to do. On the downside, however, you can talk to any school teacher or police officer who is here, about the effects that teaching kids to disregard authority is having on the future of some of the students they teach or the people they interact with on the street or in jail. Many of you have grown up in situations that you would describe as pure chaos simply because there was either no authority or bad authority exercised on you throughout your life.
One of the keys to living a well-ordered life is to be able to distinguish between legitimate authority and illegitimate authority. There is never any shortage of people, things, ideas, and institutions who will claim authority over some aspect of your life. For example, Kim Jong Un has set himself up as the sole unitary authority in North Korea to the point of anybody there who even deigns to worship Jesus is automatically in danger of death. In America, you see all kinds of figures and ideas perpetuated in the media that will claim authority to the point of, you should agree with this and pay homage to this idea, or else be ostracized from society. Once again, the authority of someone you don’t even know telling you what you are allowed to think is an illegitimate authority. George Orwell called them thought police.
Legitimate authority, on the other hand, is instituted by God through His word. Christians have generally accepted that God institutes different authorities in order to serve people in different spheres of life. No one earthly authority has total authority over every area of your life. Some of these spheres are things like public safety, education, the workplace, the church, the family, etc. We are to honor God-ordained authorities because we honor God.
The authority of Jesus is central in the Bible’s presentation of who he is and what is necessary for a person to be saved. Take the great commission in Matthew, for example:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When we come to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, authority is not a subject that we should pull out only when it’s time to tell kids that they need to obey their teachers or their parents. Christ’s authority is total and encompasses every sphere of life that we can imagine. That’s why last week we spoke about following Jesus as an absolute, complete, no-holds-barred giving up your rights to anything that you hold precious.
The beginning of Jesus’ ministry demonstrates his authority in three specific areas.
- Christ’s authority is demonstrated in his teaching
- Christ’s authority is acknowledged by demons
- Christ’s authority is seen in his command of spiritual forces
The first area where Jesus demonstrates his authority is in his teaching.
21 And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
The scene of Mark has already shifted from the southern part of Israel, an area called Judea, to Jesus’ home territory of Nazareth. In verse 21 he enters into the city that will become more or less his home base for the next three years.
Capernaum was basically what we would describe as a small city on the shore of the sea of Galilee. I would compare it somewhat to how we might think about Gastonia. There were a good number of people who lived there. Most of those people had jobs. There were thriving industries and a lot of trade with the outside world. Because there were people and at least some degree of moderate wealth, Capernaum had its own social institutions, like a synagogue. Capernaum was not, however, a leading center of social influence and power. It was not a capital city and was not the first place where all of the cultural elites went to hang out. It was a normal city for normal people.
When Jesus comes to the city, we are told in many places that his custom is to go to the synagogue to teach. A synagogue was simply a gathering place where Jewish people in a particular area would come together on the Sabbath day for reading and teaching from the Law and the Prophets (what we call the Old Testament). Jesus’ reputation had no doubt preceded him in Capernaum. There was a great deal of curiosity and interest about what this man would have to say. It was a normal custom for any man of stature to be invited on the Sabbath to read and teach in the local synagogue. In the case of Jesus, it was not simply because it was a custom, but because people genuinely wanted to know what he had to say.
The curiosity turned into astonishment as Jesus opened his mouth. He did not teach in any way that people were used to hearing learned and educated religious scholars teach.
Teaching the Bible in those days had become more about the knowledge and credentials of the men doing the teaching and less about what it was intended to be. The words of the scroll were the words of God and needed to be loved, respected, and obeyed. Religious scholars would come to a text of Scripture and instead of telling people what it meant how they should love and obey it, they would begin giving ten different theories from eighteen other rabbis over the years who had taught all of these things about the text. What the religious scholar said may or may not have had anything to with what God was actually saying in His word. It certainly did not have much power to motivate or empower people to love and obey God’s word.
The way that Jesus spoke about the Scripture was completely different. He did not need to cite eighteen different rabbis or tell you what Brother so-and-so said in 1785. Jesus spoke as the ONE who had AUTHORITY. The reason Jesus could teach the Scriptures with authority was because he is ultimately the one who had given the Scriptures.
2 Timothy 3:15-17 is where Paul reminds his young protégé, Timothy, about what Scripture is, where it came from, and what it is for;
15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
We see there that the Bible is authoritative because it comes from God. Its power is to bring us the knowledge we need for salvation. Its usefulness is to build us up to actually obey God and worship him with good works.
We don’t know what Jesus taught from the Scriptures that day in Capernaum, but we have a record of another time that he taught the religious elites in John 5:39-40
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
Any view or teaching of Scripture that ignores the presence, power, and authority of Jesus is the ultimate exercise in missing the point. Churches are filled with people who week after week, month after month, and year after year fill churches, listen to Christian radio, and maybe even read their Bibles. But they miss the point because they have no sense of the authority of what they are reading or hearing taught. They think that Scripture is there to puff up knowledge, but they forget that the authority of the Scripture is because it came from and is about Jesus. It is the power of God to save you from hell and enable you to live abundantly.
You can only imagine the astonishment to hear the man who gave the words step up and tell us that they are coming to pass right before our very eyes. It was only natural that there would be some sort of confrontation with evil.
Jesus authority is acknowledged by the demons
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 “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.”
To be completely honest with you I find demon possession to be a very difficult thing to teach about in a church in America in 2021. Many people will read this and deny that it is the reality of what is going on. Many people will offer some alternative explanation for what demon possession actually is that will be more palatable for someone living in a western context in 2021.
As someone who has traveled to other parts of the world where people are much more accepting of the spiritual realm of life, the idea of demon activity is not even controversial. Many of you sitting here today will have absolutely no objection to the idea that the work of demons is real and present in everyday life. You have seen it firsthand. That was the same view of the people in Jesus’ day.
Admittedly, demons speaking out loud is not something that most people will encounter at all, and certainly not every day. In fact, even in the Bible, the only time we see demons speaking is when they are confronted with the presence of Jesus Christ in the Gospels and in Acts.
This actually makes perfect sense. The evil work of demons is most effective when it remains hidden and under the surface. The old joke that Austin likes to use is that back in the 70s and 80s or even 90s people in the church used to say if you wanted to hear demons you would play a record of Black Sabbath or AC/DC or Marilyn Manson backward. Austin tried it one time and all he heard was “womp, womp, womp.” (My son has recently become a fan of AC/DC and Black Sabbath, so don’t ruin it for him.)
The work of demons is actually much more common today, just as in Jesus’ day, in highly religious environments. It makes sense that the very first demon possession in Mark is right there in the middle of the synagogue on the Sabbath. Having spent a lot of time in church I can tell you that a tremendous amount of the active work of demons today is right in the middle of highly religious people who are right up in the middle of churches.
It’s very interesting to notice that the people are curious and then astonished at the things that Jesus says, but none of them act like they have much of a clue who he actually is. The unclean spirit has absolutely no question about Jesus’ identity. He recognizes Jesus and knows exactly who he is and what he is about. “Have you come to destroy us. We know who you are, you are the Holy One of God.”
This confession of a demon about who Jesus is ought to scare the mess out of every single one of us for a couple of reasons.
1) Think about how lightly and casually we treat Jesus in our own lives, while the demon sees him and almost involuntarily exclaims “You are the holy one of God.” Do demons have more fear of Jesus than we do?
2) We live in a church culture that places a high degree of emphasis on confessing the correct statements and doctrines about Jesus. Hear me out, correctly knowing the identity of Jesus is absolutely vitally essential for salvation and the church. We cannot be the church and we cannot even be saved if we do not know and confess that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus is Lord. But you need to hear me loud and clear. Saying those things is not what makes you a child of God. This demon said those things as part of its impending destruction.
Recently there was a world-famous apologist named Ravi Zacharias who made the news because he died. An apologist is someone who goes around writing books and giving speeches making arguments for why the Bible and God and faith are real and true and actually exist. I really like apologetics and so do many of you, which is why this story is really really important for us to consider.
If you ever heard Ravi speak, he was one of the most smooth-tongued airtight arguers of the Christian faith you could ever imagine. Almost every point that Ravi ever made was perfectly logical, based on facts, and consistent with what the Bible said. He did a lot to bolster the faith of a lot of Christians in the Gospel.
Ravi made the news again sometime after his death because there were allegations that had been largely ignored while he was alive that he had engaged in some very devious sexual behavior, pursued women who were not his wife, and had even used his position of fame and power to engage in predatory behavior. Absolutely no one in the Christian wanted to believe the allegations against Ravi because it totally did not match the character that he portrayed to other people in his public life and within the Christian circles in which he ran. How in the world could someone who knows the Bible and knows the doctrines of the Christian faith as well as Ravi possibly do things like that? Ravi would even tell stories that could bring tears to your eyes about how God had given him amazing spiritual experiences.
Some Christians even went so far as to demonize and call any woman who would make allegations about Ravi out to be a liar. Nonetheless, after he died, some people in his organization finally decided they should do an actual investigation and find out if the things being said about him were true.
Turns out, Ravi was doing things that were far worse to prey on and sexually abuse women than had even been accused. The things that Ravi was doing in secret and away from the public could only be described as works of evil that have their origins with demons. If you have ever been to places where it’s common or talked to people who know about the world of human trafficking, there is very little doubt in those places about the existence and the active work of demons. It’s only for God to judge Ravi, but the testimony of his life is entirely consistent with the testimony of a demon. Here’s why:
This spirit has probably been in the synagogue hidden away doing his thing for years. This unclean spirit would be perfectly happy to keep working under the surface, behind the scenes harming people and keeping God’s word from being viewed for what it truly is. Dull dead religion, even religion that says all of the correct things about Jesus, is the perfect playground for demonic forces.
Of every character other than God himself so far in Mark, the demon is the one who is the clearest and most direct and has the best theology and apologetic about who Jesus is. The unclean spirit confesses the right thing about Jesus and it is terrified! Jesus walked right up into this demon’s synagogue and started preaching God’s Word with its full power and authority. Just like a strong cold front meeting a warm mass of air creates a storm, Jesus and his authority could not walk up into such a dark place with creating an intense conflict with the demons who had previously run things. When Jesus shows up, strongholds that had destroyed people’s lives for years were instantly and powerfully broken.
Christ’s authority is seen by others in his command of spiritual forces
25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 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.” 28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.
To call what Jesus does warfare is a little bit of a misnomer in accordance with the way we typically think of battle. When Jesus has a confrontation with a demon, all that he does is to speak and tell the spirit what is going to happen. There’s no argument. It just happens. We would say that this is the ultimate boss move in the scope of spiritual warfare. It reminds me of the ultimate destruction of Satan and his power in Revelation 19.
9 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
The battle that is supposed to end all battles, the conflict between Jesus (good) and Satan (evil) is not even much of a battle. We expect there to be some sort of drawn-out dramatic contest. And it’s not. And notice the key. “they were slain with the sword that came from the mouth of him riding on the horse.” Jesus doesn’t even have to engage in physical fighting to win. He just speaks. That’s exactly what happens here.
This type of authority over demons doesn’t just happen for everybody. Because demon possession was a commonly acknowledged problem, there were lots of spiritual gurus who had attempted to perfect the art of casting out demons. Some of them saw the name of Jesus as some sort of a magical incantation that would give them power over the spiritual realm. Check out this story from the ministry of Paul in Acts 19:11-16
11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
The authority of Jesus does not lie in reciting words and invoking facts. Jesus’ authority over demons comes because of who he actually is. Lots of people tend to look at Jesus as a quick fix to some spiritual problem in their life. But that’s not how Jesus works. He is the one who has the authority to speak victory over the spiritual world. You only tap into his authority by being under his authority, as were Paul and the other apostles.
I’m convinced that most of the defeats we see in our lives, those things that we just can’t ever seem to move past, stem from the fact that we either don’t recognize that the battle is a spiritual battle or we don’t recognize that Jesus has total and absolute authority over spiritual forces.
So, for example, you or someone close to you are making a total mess of your life and the lives of others. Maybe it’s an issue with alcohol, anger, sex, pride, hypocrisy, work ethic, overeating, or whatever. We tend to only look for the spiritual solution after we have tried everything else. This is one way that Satan gains influence that doesn’t belong to him. From the very first human failure until today there are basically two actors working against us. Those actors are ourselves (or what the Bible calls our flesh) and Satan and his unclean spirits. So if the solution to my problem does not address both myself and the unclean spirits of the world, then it’s not a lasting solution that is going to work.
Don’t miss that the unclean spirit was hiding right in the middle of the synagogue under everybody’s noses. If you say “I’ve never seen Satan at work,” then he has done his work most masterfully. As long as you neither see him nor recognize the extent of his influence, then you won’t turn to Jesus, who can obliterate his work with merely a word.
To try to conquer spiritual elements without the proper authority of Jesus over you, likewise, is to guarantee defeat.
So that leaves us for our challenge today.
Challenge: Does your inward submission to Jesus’ authority match your outward acknowledgment of his identity?
Are the spiritual forces of evil in your life being conquered because your life is under the authority of Jesus? Or would you currently describe yourself as defeated, naked, and bleeding because you are trying to conquer those forces out of your own authority invoking Jesus’ name as a magic word?
Confessing who Jesus is and acknowledging his rightful authority over your life are not one and the same. You cannot acknowledge his authority without confessing who he is. However, saying who he is does not equal submitting to his authority. Our only hope lies in resting in, relying on, and obeying the authority of Jesus.