The text (Mark 1:21-28, ESV):
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. 23 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.” 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.
This is really a pretty amazing text! And when I posed a few questions about it to the BibleDude group on Facebook, people generally agreed on several points. However, I think that there were also some misconceptions about what this text says.
The biggest misconception about what this text says is that we, as Christians, also have this same authority. I don’t think that is part of what the message is here. One of the biggest rules of interpretation is to never interpret one Biblical text with another text. While it is true that Jesus taught us that we would do “even greater things” than some of the miracles that He did, that idea cannot fairly be applied to understanding what this text means. So it may be a true statement, but I want to get down to figuring out what exactly this text means on its own merits.
First, I think that we must remember that the audience of the Gospel of Mark is primarily the power-hungry Roman culture (see Commentary on Mark :: An Introduction). Therefore, one thing to remember when thinking about the context and intent of this passage is that it was probably intended to help this audience understand and believe.
It may also be important to understand a little bit about the location of Capernaum where this happened. The event happened early in Jesus’ ministry, just shortly after calling His first disciples. It is believed that Capernaum was a fairly (economically) poor town because archaeologists have noticed a lack of infrastructure with things like hygienic facilities and drainage. Jesus may have chosen this site as the center of his public ministry in Galilee most likely because it was the home of some of the first disciples. Apparently, Jesus shared regularly in the synagogue there on the Sabbath. Full understanding about this location may not have been apparent to much of the intended audience, but it is important to note that this place was home to some of the disciples, and became the center of His public ministry.
One of the most common responses from readers about this passage is around the authority that the people said that Jesus preached with. The Greek word used here for authority is exousian. It literally translates as power or authority, but has idea of a power “without hindrance.” It could be used to say that one has the power of choice or to do as one pleases. I think that it is interesting to note that Jesus’ power over the unclean spirit was a power of choice. The demon had to leave simply because Jesus desired it to do so, and that desire was not limited by anything. It is also interesting to note that the same word for authority (exousian) is also used elsewhere to describe the power or rule of government. This is certainly something that would have stuck the original Roman audience!
One thing that the original audience would have taken away from this is that there was a man in a simple fishing village who was displaying a power that was not limited. Even people with what probably would have been considered to be ‘social problems’ were not beyond the authority of this Man. If this guy spoke against the Caesar of the time, he might have been thrown in jail (or worse). But when this man speaks against Jesus, the ‘unclean’ nature of the man is cast out. Rather than being punished, the man is made clean. The Romans certainly would have been amazed at this display of power, and so should we!
Related posts: Commentary on Mark
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