Jesus and his companions went to the town of Capernaum. When the Sabbath day came, he went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike the teachers of religious law.
Suddenly, a man in the synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit began shouting, “Why are you interfering with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One sent from God!”
Jesus cut him short. “Be quiet! Come out of the man,” he ordered. At that, the evil spirit screamed, threw the man into a convulsion, and then came out of him.
Amazement gripped the audience, and they began to discuss what had happened. “What sort of new teaching is this?” they asked excitedly. “It has such authority! Even evil spirits obey his orders!” The news about Jesus spread quickly throughout the entire region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28 – NLT)
Luke draws on Mark for this same story – see Luke 4:31–37.
See earlier notes on Mark’s Gospel.
Mark has Jesus actively engaged with the institutional life of Judaism – “When the Sabbath day came, he went into the synagogue and began to teach”. Jesus was a practising Jew and his mission is to bring Judaism to its fulfilment, not destroy it. The fact of institutions is necessarily integral to that vision – and that’s where it gets very messy!
This story does not deal with the content of Jesus teaching but the manner of his teaching – “he taught with real authority”. This is repeated in v 27 – “such authority”. “Mark raises the matter of Jesus’ authority again in 2:10 (authority to forgive sins), in 3:15 and 6:7 (authority given to his apostles to exorcise demons), and in connection with Jesus’ attack upon the money changers in the temple (11:28–33). In these passages cumulatively, Jesus is shown (a) exhibiting authority in his teaching, (b) exercising authority over the demons, (c) demonstrating his authority to forgive sins, (d) taking authority over the temple and its administration, and (e) conferring authority upon his apostles to expand his attack upon demonic power.” (L W Hurtado, Mark, Baker Books, 2011, 26.)
The question arises: From where does Jesus get his authority? Clearly, his authority is not granted him by the institutions of Judaism. It comes – as the demons recognize – from his being “the Holy One sent from God”. It is fair to assume also that there is authority in his very presence. The “amazement” of the people is not yet faith because, unlike the demons, they do not yet recognize the true source of Jesus’ authority.
The confrontation with the power of evil in the world is a strong theme in Mark. It contains a huge challenge for the disciples of Jesus then as now – see for example Mark 9:14-29. Matthew 17:14–21 and Luke 9:37–43a both draw on Mark for this same story. “It is significant that the first scene of Jesus’ ministry (after the calling of the four disciples) is one in which Jesus teaches and performs an exorcism. Both actions are emphasized in Mark’s Gospel as characteristic aspects of Jesus’ ministry, and by placing this account in the opening of Jesus’ ministry, Mark shows the reader immediately a representative scene. …. The theme of Jesus’ expulsion of evil spirits, or demons, from people is certainly a major part of Mark’s story. We shall encounter numerous examples of this theme in subsequent episodes, and so the reader is here prepared to view Jesus’ ministry as an attack upon these evil powers. We see in this that the “kingdom of God” that Jesus announces in verse 15 involves the deliverance from demonic forces of people like the man in this episode. This gives to the phrase “kingdom of God” a dynamic and material reality, making it far more than simply an ethical concept. As this scene shows, the kingdom (or reign) of God is God’s power (authority) in action.” (L W Hurtado, op cit, 26-27.)
Ironically, the representatives of evil are willing and able to name Jesus and say who is – a direct contrast with both the disciples and the religious authorities.
The theme of evil in the world, raised so strongly in Mark’s Gospel, is one that we would do well to hear. And it is not merely a philosophical reflection that is called for. Such abstract and rational analysis can take us away from the truth we must face. Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminds us of the concreteness and nearness of evil:
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago (Parts III & IV), Harper & Row, 1976, 615.)
The truth is that there is nothing automatic about the triumph of good over evil, that it is possible that evil can triumph if we are not willing and able to contend with it.
No human being and no human system can contend successfully in any ultimate sense with evil. The ultimate triumph over evil is assured only by the action of God in Jesus Christ.
“Film director Stanley Kubrick observed in a an interview in 1972, one year after “Clockwork Orange”: ‘One of the most dangerous fallacies which has influenced a great deal of political and philosophical thinking is that man is essentially good, and that it is society which makes him bad …. Rousseau transformed original sin from man to society and this view has importantly contributed to what I believe has become a crucially incorrect premise on which to base moral and political philosophy'” (Cited by Bernard Weinraub in a January 4, 1972, New York Times article entitled, “Kubrick Tells What Makes Clockwork Orange Tick”.)