And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught. And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes. And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God. And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. And when the unclean spirit had torn him, and cried with a loud voice, he came out of him. And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.
The gospel accounts are not written as biography, or to tell a story, but their purpose is to convince the reader that Jesus of Nazareth, the main subject in the gospel, is the Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world to save sinners. And the Gospels accomplish that by presenting to us the divine authority of Jesus.
Mark, having introduced us to Jesus, begins in these verses to treat the public ministry of Jesus. There were four disciples who were then being trained to be fishers of men. Jesus enters into the synagogue of Capernaum on the Sabbath.
On this Sabbath, when the people of Capernaum came to the synagogue, they came expecting things to go as normal. A synagogue was a place of assembly where the Scriptures were taught. On a typical Sabbath, after prayers were made and a portion of the Old Testament Scriptures were read, then various teachers, or visiting rabbis, would be invited to comment on the passage that had been read. Now, as a visiting teacher, Jesus is given the podium. The passage says nothing about the content of Jesus’ preaching on this Sabbath, but rather describes the effect of and the response to His sermon.
Mark describes that for us here in verses 22 and 27. The two words that he uses here are the words “astonished” and “amazed.” These are very descriptive, vivid words. They tell us that, in His preaching, Jesus did not simply pique the interest of the audience. The idea is that when Jesus spoke, He left His audience in a state of shock and terror—the kind of fear you would have in a near-death experience. That is the word in verse 22. It really has the idea of panic—they panicked when they heard His teaching. They were disturbed by what they heard. There was no one who was sitting there in the audience of Jesus that morning who felt safe. It was disconcerting, it was a troubling experience to them to hear Jesus teach.
We need to ask the question: What was it in Jesus’ preaching that did this? And, really, also this: Do we have this kind of preaching? I ask the second question, because we should. And I say that here because Jesus is training the disciples to become fishers of men, to do what He is doing. So, what was it about Jesus’ preaching that was so fresh, so new, so unique, and so frightening? We will look at what Mark says here about it, and then take some examples of Jesus’ teaching. As we do that, we can identify four unique characteristics of Jesus’ preaching.
First, He spoke with authority. They were astonished at His doctrine (or teaching), for He taught them as one that had authority and not as the scribes. The word for authority here speaks of dominion and rule, having the full right of power and privilege over others. It tells us that Jesus spoke with absolute conviction, and that what He taught them came right from His heart. He was sincere. It came, we can say, right from the heart and from the Word of God. That is in contrast here to the scribes, who were mostly Pharisees, and who brought a scholarly and a second-hand theology. They loved to quote from the rabbinical authorities, to tickle the intellect with theological distinctions in moral questions, and they were always making a show of their learning. But they never came with decisiveness or power. They gave the people something to live up to, but they never addressed their hearts. They were protectors of a tradition, but they were not communicators of God’s Word.
But when Jesus, after the Word had been read, sat down to preach this Sabbath, it was very different. He never quoted a rabbi or appealed to any authority outside of God’s Word. Instead He spoke like the prophets: “Thus saith the Lord,” and “It is written.” And He said “the Scriptures cannot be broken.” He used phrases like this to introduce what He said: “I tell you the truth. I say unto you.” He had not come to share insights with them, but He tells them: “I am the Lord of the Sabbath. I have authority on earth to forgive sins.” He addresses them on all issues from the Word of God. “It has been said by this or that rabbi, but I say unto you.” And He spoke of the biblical teaching on morals, on marriage, on hatred, on prayer, and on eternal life—with authority.
Second, He spoke with substance. There was substance, there was content, there was relevance to what Jesus said. He never preached academically. He was not interested in abstractions or knowledge for knowledge’s sake. He did not just share His ideas and opinions but, in a very profound way, He brought the Scriptures that spoke to the realities of sin and salvation, of life and death, of heaven and hell, of God and man, of sin and judgment, and of eternity.
You see, there is a difference between a theological treatise on a subject and a simple, modest statement from Scripture. The theological treatise will soon drive you to boredom, the modest statement from Scripture will bring you before God and His Christ, before heaven and hell. And that is what Jesus did. He said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? How hardly shall a rich man enter into the kingdom of heaven?” There was substance to what He said. And His hearers trembled. They were terrified.
Third, what distinguishes Jesus’ teaching was the application. He took the Word and He applied it to the audience, to the congregation. Under the ministry of the scribes, the Jewish audience did not look at themselves. Instead, they considered the “thought for the day.” Or they listened to the interesting observations and opinions of certain rabbis. It was something like looking at a painting. It did not call you to do anything. It was easy. You just observed as a bystander. And if you looked at anything in the light of God’s Word, you would look at others and you would say, “they are sinners. I thank Thee that I am not like this man or that man.”
But now Jesus comes and He turns the camera around, as it were, and points it at the hearts of His hearers and confronts them. He addresses their hypocrisy and their legalism and their notions of racial superiority and their security in their institutions and their works’ righteousness. He comes and He speaks directly to them using second person pronouns. “You,” He says, over and over again. “I say unto you. You have Abraham as your father….” Even when He speaks to His disciples, He brings the Word to bear on them. He speaks to them of their fear: “Why are ye so troubled?” He speaks to them of their silence: “Why don’t you answer?” He speaks to them of their blessing: “Blessed are ye.” He speaks to them of their heavenly Father: “Your Father which is in heaven.” You see, what there is in Jesus’ teaching is a rich, personal application. It is not abstract. It did not matter if you were young or you were old, rich or poor, male or female. What Jesus spoke was relevant. Sometimes it would be like a sword that pierced to your soul and your heart and uncovered your sin. At other times it would bring a rich warmth over you and a comfort to your soul as you believed His promises.
You see, that is how God’s Word must come to us. It is not an abstraction. It is not a philosophy. What we must feel under the preaching of the gospel is the conviction of sin. And we must know that the blood of Jesus Christ is shed to cover our sin. And we must know that in humility and repentance we stand exposed to the wrath of God.
So Jesus preached. He preached with authority. He preached with substance. He preached with application.
Then, fourth, He preached with clarity, with a gripping clarity. He taught in such a way that what He said was understood by all, so that, as Luke says, the common people gladly received His words. His teaching was clear. It was persuasive. It was fascinating. It was compelling. It was controversial. It was provocative. It moved the audience. This was not so much because of the style or His rhetoric (though I am sure that Jesus was a master with words). But this was because He was God in the flesh. He was the Word incarnate. And that meant that every subject matter that He spoke on He raised in relation to the reality of God in a very profound way. On the simplest of subjects, when He talked about birds or flowers or farmers or money or food or clothing, He spoke with a gripping clarity. And His words always came with such an impact that the hearers were confronted with the reality of God Himself. And that was the case whether the one who heard what Jesus was saying was a believing disciple or an unbelieving Jew.
Let me give you one example of that. In John 7 Jesus is teaching in the temple. The Jewish leaders have had enough of Him, so they send the temple police to arrest Him. They return empty-handed. And the Pharisees say, in John 7:45, “Why have ye not brought him?” They had been sent to the temple with an assignment. But they could not lay hands on Him. And it was not because Jesus had evaded their arrest or because the multitudes who stood around had protected Him. No, the only thing that the guards can say to explain their failure to do what they were sent to do was this: “Never a man spoke like this man.” The words of Jesus were like thunderbolts. And they dared not to touch Him.
That was what happened this first Sabbath in Capernaum. Imagine, the people came like typical churchgoers. They wandered in. It was what they always did. Now they sit riveted to their seats. They are shocked. Fear is written all over their faces.
And then this happens, in verses 23, 24: “There was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.” Now the tension, as it were, escalates. The confrontation increases. This confrontation emphasizes the power of Jesus’ words. The people are stunned. But the demons cannot be silent before Him, confronted by the Word of God and hating it.
There is so much in this miracle. I want just to highlight several points regarding it.
First is the whole idea of demon possession. Demon possession was a real condition in Jesus’ day. This is not a way of describing an illness or a mental condition. But, rather, it describes a condition in which a distinct evil spirit, foreign to the person, possesses and controls that person. In verse 23 there was a man with an unclean spirit. Literally in an unclean spirit. And the idea is that it surrounded him, it dominated him, it possessed him. One of the commentators is right when he says this: “When Jesus came onto the earth there was so much demon possession because all hell broke loose against Him.” That is, Satan and his demons came with the full onslaught, assault, against Jesus. Part of the way they did that was by demon possession.
Second, I want you to see here that this demon’s threatening confrontation, the words that he speaks in verse 24, are fighting words, all of them, fighting words. “What have we to do with thee?” That is Old Testament language that is really a declaration of war. Jeroboam said to Israel: “To your tents! What have we to do with the house of David?” Now the demon says here: “Thou Jesus of Nazareth.” He speaks in disdain concerning who Jesus is—of Nazareth, or “You Nazareen. You are lowly, nothing.” And then at the end of the verse he says, “I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.” A kind of dominance in the declaration. Remember when Jacob wrestled with the angel. He held onto the angel and said, “Tell me your name.” This demon says, “I know your name.” It is an expression of dominion.
Why was this demon so confronted, why so threatened? There are two things in the text that indicate that. First is this. He has a personal fear: “Art thou come to destroy us?” He knows that Jesus’ coming spells his end and his doom. And, second, he speaks as representative of the whole world of demons, the whole demonic kingdom: “Art thou come to destroy us?” So he is confronted.
Third, we should see in this miracle at the outset of Jesus’ ministry what Jesus’ ultimate aim and victory will be. Just think of some of the words of Jesus concerning demons and the devil throughout His ministry. He has come to destroy the power of the evil one. He speaks of casting out the strong man of the house. He says as He goes to the cross, “Now is the prince of this world cast out.” He says, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He speaks of a lake of fire prepared for the devil and his angels. So here, in this confrontation, He swiftly banishes the demon: “Hold thy peace, come out of him,” or more literally, “Be muzzled and get out!” Jesus is a destroyer of the works of darkness. He destroys them with the power of His Word.
Fourth, here in this miracle we see a parallel and a picture of the power of the gospel that defeats sin in our lives. Just as this demon-possessed man is under the dominion of this demon, so our besetting sins have a power that dominates: envy, lust, anger, greed, deceit, doubt, many more sins that have tyranny over human hearts and souls and a man can sometimes be so possessed by his sin that he seems to have, as it were, a double personality. One even wonders, where does that come from? How did I do that? And in that condition, which is the condition of all mankind, there is no hope for the sinner. There is no power. The power must come from Jesus Christ to overcome sin. You see that here in a startling way. The same man who comes to Jesus crying against Him in hatred and in fear with a soul that shrinks back from the presence of Jesus Christ is delivered by the word of Jesus from the power of darkness. He alone is the One who could deliver you and me from the dominion of sin.
In this miracle, there is one more thing. And it is really a warning because what we have here is a concrete illustration of what the Scriptures say in James 2:19: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.” You can put that best this way: The mere belief of the facts and reality of God and the gospel and Christian doctrine is not true faith. The soul of the demon, unredeemable, here confesses that Jesus is the Holy One of God. The demon knows that Jesus will destroy the works of darkness and cast him into a lake of everlasting fire. An empty consent of truth without the faith that is demonstrated by works (James 2) is no better than the faith of a demon. So let us be warned. Let us take care that our faith is more than knowledge, that our knowledge has a sanctified influence in our desires and our living so that we not only know Christ but that we love Him and rejoice in Him and cling to Him day by day, not merely saying “Jesus is Lord,” but “Jesus is my Lord!”
That, finally, brings us to verses 27 and 28: the response. And I title it a telling response, because this response tells us something. It indicates some things that will follow in the ministry of Jesus.
First, it tells or shows us something of the connection between the miracle and the teaching of Jesus. Despite the miracle, the teaching that preceded it remains on the foreground in the minds of the audience. They say, “What new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.” You see, they were shocked at His authority and His doctrine, and then they saw that display as He commanded the demon to go out of the man. The connection between Jesus’ preaching and the miracle here is very obvious. What He did by His miracle confirmed what He said and confirmed who He said He was. Jesus is not merely a prophet, as other prophets were. Nor is He simply a miracle worker. But He is the divine, wonder-working Son of God, the Messiah.
Second. The response here leaves the audience in Capernaum without excuse. Look at verse 27: “They were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this?” They turn this into a disputation. This will be a typical response throughout the ministry of Jesus, so that they dispute, who is this. He says He is bread from heaven.
Well, He can do such wonders, and yet they did not believe. Verse 28 indicates that He became immediately famous: “And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.” There is a fascination in Him. There is an amazement at His miracles. Perhaps they are amused when He challenges the leaders. But, ultimately, they reject Him. In Matthew 11:23, Jesus says, “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” Left without excuse.
Then, third. In this response we see again, and that is the main drift here, the sovereignty and the authority of Jesus. And now especially in the work of salvation. As these Jews reject the Savior, God’s purpose with regard to Israel becomes complete. The gospel goes out into all the world. You read in Matthew chapter 13, and in John chapter 12 as well, that God’s purpose in Jesus doing miracles and teaching was that the heart of the audience would be hardened. Jesus tells us in Matthew 23 that God’s purpose in this is that the gospel be taken from this kingdom (Israel), and given to another kingdom, that is, the Gentile nations of the earth. We must recognize that Jesus knows exactly this as He begins His earthly ministry. He is no respecter of persons. His goal as Savior is to gather His church from all the nations of the earth. So verse 28, in speaking of His fame being spread abroad through all this region, is just the beginning of where Mark will end in this gospel. It is this: that the gospel goes out from the disciples to the ends of the earth. That is God’s purpose in the ministry of Jesus.
I want to finish with just one question (which is really the key to understanding the reading of these gospel accounts): What do we learn about Christ in this passage? We learn this: His divine authority, the power of His Word, the nature of His kingdom to overcome sin in the heart, His victory and dominion over Satan so that the demons obey Him. And it is that emphasis on the authority and power of Jesus that will continue in the upcoming section of the gospel of Mark.