A Devil in the Pews

Do please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn back in them to the gospel according to Mark, Mark chapter 1. We’re thinking about verses 21 through 28 as we continue our way through Mark’s gospel. You’ll find it on page 836 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Mark chapter 1 at verse 21.

 

Mark, in this opening chapter, you will remember, is introducing us to the ministry of the Lord Jesus that was beginning in the region of Galilee. In verses 14 and 15, we saw a marvelous little summary of the content of His preaching. He told all who heard Him that “the kingdom is at hand.” The King has come. The kingdom was breaking into the world, invading the world with the arrival of Jesus. And in verses 16 to 20 of chapter 1, that we considered together last time, we saw how the King and the kingdom calls people to a life of discipleship, to life under a new Master sent on a new mission. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

 

And now, we come to this little incident in verses 21 through 28 which shows us still another dimension of the kingdom of God as Jesus comes into direct, public conflict with the supernatural powers of evil during the synagogue service on the Sabbath Day in the Galilean city of Capernaum. And as we wrestle with this remarkable account, we are going to consider three aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Three things to be on the lookout for as we read through the text together. First, we’re going to see that Jesus’ ministry is profoundly disturbing. Jesus’ ministry is profoundly disturbing. Secondly, we’re going to see that Jesus’ ministry is supremely authoritative. And thirdly, Jesus’ ministry is ultimately victorious. Profoundly disturbing, supremely authoritative, and ultimately victorious – the ministry of the Lord Jesus.

 

So do have your Bibles open please at Mark chapter 1 at the twenty-first verse and keep them open there. Before we read the text together, let’s bow our heads as we pray.

 

Lord Jesus, we pray now that You would come and, by the work of the Holy Spirit, exercise Your authority among us as Your Word is read and proclaimed. We know as we ask You to exercise that authority we’re asking to be disturbed, to be disrupted and unsettled. Yet, we do so in the confidence that the disruption You bring results in liberation and not bondage, in redemption and in forgiveness because the victory is Yours. And so we pray it with confidence in Your name, amen.

 

Mark chapter 1 at the twenty-first verse. This is God’s holy Word:

 

“And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 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.’ And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

 

Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken to us in His Word.

 

Profoundly Disturbing

I said that the first thing to consider here is that Jesus’ ministry is profoundly disturbing. I want to be sure we understand what I mean. I’m not really referring to the disturbance that took place when Jesus rose to preach in the synagogue at Capernaum that morning. I’m not talking about that moment of sort of electrifying disruption. Can you imagine – you may even have been in a service where someone stands up and interrupts the proceedings. I was once in an evening worship service on a Sunday in Glasgow and as the preacher got underway, a well-known preacher got underway, a man in the balcony at the back stood up and with a loud voice, right in the middle of his sermon, shouted, “Point of order, Mr. Speaker!” And there was a sort of sudden moment of anxiety that spread through the congregation. And as though everyone were watching a tennis match – you know, people’s heads went like this, back and forth, to see, “Is this going to descend into a shouting match?” And I will confess to you – this is how wicked my heart is – I  will confess to you there was a little perverse part of me that wanted it to descend into a shouting match! Just to see what would happen, you know! When stuff like that happens, it’s disturbing and it’s disruptive.

 

But what I’m talking about, the profoundly disturbing character of Jesus’ ministry, I’m really not talking about the antics of this poor, demon-possessed man. Look at verses 21 and 22 with me for a moment. Twenty-one and 22, “Immediately on the sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and was teaching and they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes.” Now apparently Jesus’ growing reputation as a preacher has opened the opportunity for Him to expound the Scriptures during the services on that particular Sabbath day. And as He began to preach, the congregation, they’re all astonished at His teaching.

 

Fear and Alarm

In verse 27, the same note sounds again. Do you see it? We learn that “they were all amazed so that they questioned among themselves saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority!’”

Now the scholars tell us that the amazement and the astonishment of the crowds in the synagogue that day is not a positive thing. It’s not a sort of excited wonder. There’s no thrill of happy surprise that they’re all feeling as Jesus’ sermon gets underway. William Lane, one of the commentators, for example, puts it like this. “The response to Jesus’ words and deeds has overtones of fear and alarm. It reflects an awareness of the disturbing character of His presence.” The disturbing character of His presence. They are discomfited as Jesus starts to preach. They are uneasy as He opens to them the Word of God. Their astonishment borders on affront. The disturbing character of His presence means they do not like this.

 

Authority

And Mark assigns their astonishment, their perplexity, to one particular source. Do you see it in the text? Verse 22 and verse 27 again. They’re astonished because Jesus teaches with authority. That is the characteristic mark of Jesus’ ministry. And it’s set in striking contrast, the kind of contrast that every observer who was present could not help but draw, with the scribes. Their ministry and Jesus’ ministry were completely different animals. Jesus’ ministry came with authority. The local rabbis, the scribes that usually filled the pulpit, they did not have this characteristic mark. You see, the congregation there, they liked the scribes. They were never uncomfortable with the ministry of the scribes. Apparently, according to our passage, even a demon-possessed man could attend worship in their synagogue and not cause a commotion, never seem out of place, so long as the scribes held the pulpit.

 

That’s the sense you get if you look at verse 23, isn’t it? It’s not that the demon-possessed man came into the synagogue as Jesus started to preach, but rather that as Jesus started preaching, immediately this poor demonized soul that had been quite at home among them week in and week out until now, it’s at this point, suddenly he finds the ministry he’s hearing utterly unbearable and he makes himself known in this dramatic fashion. And the demon makes the man cry out during Jesus’ sermon in the first-person plural. Do you see that in the text? “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” It’s possible that he means the demons of the world, but it’s also possible that he’s referring to himself and the others who are attending worship in the synagogue that day. “What have you to do with us here in the congregation, Jesus of Nazareth?” There is a devil in the pew in the synagogue at Capernaum and he is right at home.

 

You see, however tempted we may be to the contrary, Mark really doesn’t want us to single out the demon-possessed man. We tend to be fascinated by phenomena like this. But he doesn’t want us to focus too much on the demon-possessed man so much as he wants to show us that although he is an extreme case to be sure, the difference between him and the rest of the congregation is only one of degree, not of kind. The congregation was happy with the scribes’ message, but the demonized man was equally content under their teaching. When Jesus came to preach, the demon-possessed man, his reaction is to shout and to bawl in opposition. But the reaction of the congregation, while less dramatic, more appropriate to the occasion, was also to sit in alarm and in stunned horror at Jesus’ message.

 

Mere Religion

Here's the point. I hope you’re beginning to see it. The devil is right at home with mere religion. The devil is right at home with mere religion. He loves legalism and he delights in formalism and superficiality. He’s perfectly happy to have us pray and sing and talk about the Lord so long as he can keep us believing that salvation is the product of our religious performance. The kind of Christianity the devil likes views worship as an exercise in paying taxes to God. “I went to church. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve done my duty so now God owes me. Now that I’ve paid my dues and done my duty, He has to leave me alone. The rest of my life is mine.” You see the problem with that kind of legalistic thinking is that however strict and precise it may appear at first, the real problem with legalism like that is that it is not nearly radical enough, not nearly exacting enough. It thinks that all that God is interested in is your behavior, externally, when what He is most interested in is your heart and your behavior that flows from your heart. He’s not interested merely in the external shifting of your patterns of behavior. He’s interested in a renovation of your life that penetrates all the way to the heart.

 

Repentance and Faith

But in the synagogue, up till now, that’s what they’ve been hearing – this kind of externalism and formalism and works-righteousness, from the rabbis, Sabbath after Sabbath, at Capernaum. Teaching like that never asked too much of them. They’ve been lulled, you see, into a comfortable, spiritual slumber, until, that is, Jesus came to fill the pulpit that Sabbath day and then He began to speak to the heart. We know in general the kind of things He would have said from verses 14 and 15 as He proclaimed to them the coming of the kingdom with His own arrival and summoned people to repent and to believe. You see, He was going after the heart and not just behavior. What we need is rescue. What we need is someone to deliver us from the helpless and hopeless condition we are in by nature. We need someone to come and act for us, pay our penalty, secure our pardon. Jesus began to shatter the nice, comfortable allusion that all God is really interested in is a morsel or two of your time here and there around the margins, you know, if you’ve got nothing better to do of a weekend. And He called them instead to total, immediate, and unconditional surrender. The kingdom of God has come. The King is here to save and to rescue you and you need to come and trust Him in repentance and faith. “It’s a gift that I will give you if you will but trust in Me.” That was His message.

 

But do you see how offensive that can be? If the way to know God in your life is a matter of your performance – you know, getting the formula right, behaving in the correct ways, applying the right dose of religious ritual – well then, if that’s all it is, once you’ve done it God can ask no more of you. You have upheld your side of the bargain; now He must do the same. But if being right with God is actually impossible for us on our own, if there’s no way we can fix our mess so that we may be right with Him, and yet despite our sin and our dreadful predicament He comes to rescue us by means of His Son, the Lord Jesus, if that’s the truth – and it is – that means there’s no limit to what He can ask of us. If it’s all gift, if it’s all free, you’ve done nothing to deserve it. It’s not wages; you’ve not earned it. You haven’t paid Him off. There’s no limit to what He can require of you. And that is frankly terrifying. It means that we’re no longer in charge. No wonder they were upset in the synagogue at Capernaum. No wonder the demon-possessed man reacted the way that he did. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, do you see, is deeply, radically disturbing. It shatters our pride. We need to recognize our helplessness and accept grace. It’s deeply disturbing.

 

Supremely Authoritative

But there’s more. Not only is Jesus’ ministry profoundly disturbing, as we’ve already begun to see it is supremely authoritative. Look again at verse 22. “He taught as one who had authority.” Verse 27, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” Let me just highlight here the connection Mark is at pains to make for us between Jesus’ teaching ministry and Jesus’ authority. Jesus’ authority is revealed in our passage through His teaching ministry. What is interesting, even as Mark insists upon that connection, is that there is no record, not a word, of the content of Jesus’ sermon that day. We’re not told anything about what He actually said to them directly. Instead, did you notice that after Jesus’ exorcised the demon from this poor man in the congregation, those who were in attendance interpreted His act as a “new teaching with authority. Even the unclean spirits obey him!” Nowhere else is an exorcism or even a healing called “a teaching.” Luke records the same incident in his gospel in almost the same language as Mark but he doesn’t call it “a teaching” as Mark records for us here. So why does Mark insist on interpreting this act of exorcism as “a teaching with authority”? Here’s why. Mark wants us to understand that Jesus’ authority by which the kingdom of sin and Satan is overthrown is bound up with Jesus’ words, with His teaching.

 

Human Authority

Now even the greatest human authority has its limitations. Doesn’t it? Last week, in preparation for this morning, I came across the story of the DEA agent who came to inspect the property of a local farmer for illegally grown drugs on his property. And after he explained to the farmer why he was there, the farmer sort of scratched his chin and said, “Well, I suppose it’s okay for you to check the farm, I guess. Just be sure you don’t go into that field over there.” And the DEA agent immediately bristled at what he perceived to be a challenge to his authority. Pulling out his badge and sort of sticking out his chin, he said to the man, “Do you see this badge? This badge means I have authority to inspect any land, anywhere, anytime. No questions asked. Do you understand me?” “Yes sir,” the old farmer said, and left the agent to it. Shortly after that, however, the farmer’s chores were suddenly interrupted by a high-pitched shriek coming from the DEA agent who could now be seen running for his life through the forbidden field chased by a huge angry bull that was being kept there. And with every step, you know, the bull is gaining ground and so throwing down his tools the farmer races to the fence, and with due urgency he climbs the fence and at the top of his lungs he shouted, “The badge! Show him the badge!”

 

Divine Authority

A DEA badge means nothing to an angry bull. Right? There are limits to human authority. We may have real authority, but we can’t actually compel obedience. But when Jesus speaks, His words have a different kind of authority altogether. Look at His encounter with the demon, verses 23 through 26. The man was thrown into hysterics, of distress, as Jesus’ presence and His preaching. And how does He drive the unclean spirit out? There’s no ritual. There’s no holy water. No sign of the cross. You know, forget Hollywood. This is not a scene from The Exorcist. There’s almost no drama about it at all, actually. There’s no nightlong series of intense prayer with the laying on of hands; none of that. How does He drive the demon out? He simply speaks to it. He doesn’t raise His voice. There’s no drama. He issues a command, “Shut up, and come out,” and the demon immediately obeys. He doesn’t expend any energy. There’s no effort. He has an authority. It’s not derived from anyone else – not from a church or a court or a magistrate. It's His own authority, intrinsic authority, and it is brought to bear in His words.

 

Mark calls the exorcism “a new teaching with authority” to help us understand that Jesus’ word isn’t like any other merely human authority. It has divine power. The word that Mark uses for “authority,” “exousia,” has that sense of power. And of course that is how we know and sense and encounter the authority and power of Jesus even today, isn't it, through His Word. That's why we labor to explain the Bible in the way that we do, Lord's Day by Lord's Day, here. Authority, power to change, to see the stranglehold of sin in our lives is found only in the Word of Christ, in hearing His voice. We cannot safely neglect His holy Word. Jesus' ministry is profoundly disturbing. No small part of that disturbing character comes as He exercises His own authority by His Word in our hearts.

 

Ultimately Victorious

But what does that authoritative, though disturbing ministry, aim at? What does it produce? What does it accomplish? Why do we need it? Well, lastly, Jesus’ ministry is ultimately victorious. Look at the words of the demonized man again in verse 24, would you. Here’s what he says to Jesus. Right in the middle of His sermon – don’t get any ideas – right in the middle of His sermon he stands up and shouts, “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.” It’s a fascinating little speech. Isn’t it? The opening question is used often in the Old Testament as a formula in the context of conflict, of war, of confrontation. You see, the demon knows that between him and this man, Jesus of Nazareth, there could be no truce, there could be no peace.

 

Unclean Spirit

You’ll have noticed three times over in our text, in verse 23, again in 26 and again in 27, three times over the demon is called an “unclean spirit.” It’s not just evil; it’s polluting, corrupting, perverting. It is unclean. And notice how the demon addresses Jesus in verse 24. “I know who you are; you are the Holy One of God.” There’s the conflict right there. Isn’t it? The demon is an unclean spirit and Jesus is the Holy One of God. He is adorned with the holiness of God. And between the holiness of Christ and the uncleanness of Satan and of sin, there can be no truce. It really gets at the heart of the confrontation. The reality of sin festering in our hearts, no less than the oppressive domination of this man’s life by a demonic spirit. It is all unclean. But Jesus is utterly pure. He is the Holy One. And so He’s on this collision course with the power of sin and Satan and the demonic spirit here knows it. And so when he asks, “Have you come to destroy us?” the answer is, “Yes! Yes, I have come to destroy the devil and his works." First John chapter 3 verse 8, "For this reason, the Son of God appeared – to destroy the works of the devil." Jesus came, Genesis 3:15, "to crush the serpent's head." He came to destroy the works of the devil.

 

Great Victory

So what we have right here is just a little glimpse ahead of time, as it were, of the great victory of Jesus Christ over sin and Satan. The man is set free. He is delivered. And the power of the unclean spirit is utterly overthrown because that’s what Jesus does. That’s why He came – to set the captives free. Wesley was right, wasn’t he? “He came to break the power of reigning sin. He sets the prisoners free.” That’s what He’s doing.

 

Do just notice before we close the language that Mark uses here to describe how the evil spirit came out of the man in verse 26. He came out, “crying out in a loud voice.” It’s only used two more times in all of Mark’s gospel, that expression. It’s used one more time in Mark chapter 5 in a situation very similar to this to describe a demonic spirit coming out as Jesus exorcises the evil spirit. And it’s used once again at the very end of the gospel – so right here at the beginning and right here, once again, at the very end – Mark 15 verse 34. It’s not used this time of an evil spirit coming out during an exorcism. This time it is used of Jesus Christ Himself. As He poured out His life, He cried out in a loud voice and gave Himself that we might live.

 

How does Jesus set us free? When you come to trust in Him, how does He really bring deliverance from the bondage and power of sin and Satan into your life? “He breaks the power of reigning sin. He sets the prisoner free.” How? “His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me.” He does it by dying. He does it by giving Himself. He was condemned that you might be pardoned. He was subjected to bondage that you might be set free. He died that you might live. You see, the liberation that Jesus brings, the victory that He accomplishes in the hearts and lives of all who trust in Him, came at a profound cost – a cost He gladly bore because He loves you. And that, I think, in the end is the final explanation not just for the victory Jesus accomplishes but for the authority He exercises and even the disturbing character of His ministry in our lives. It is love, it is the love of Christ that unsettles us and disrupts us and shatters our pride in this disturbing way. It is the love of Christ that exercises power to set us free. And it is the love of Christ that accomplishes victory in our hearts, a victory of His own; not ours but His, by giving Himself for us in love at the cross.

 

Following Jesus is not comfortable, is it? It’s not safe. He’s going to change you inside out. He’s not interested merely in behavior modification. He wants your heart. That’s disturbing; offensive to our pride. There is an antipathy, a conflict between our pet sins and the claims of King Jesus. But the authority and the power of Christ to set us free from the unclean power of sin is wielded in love. You see, it cost Him everything to set you free because He loves you and you can trust Him. Let’s pray together.

 

Our Father, the truth is, that there are still strongholds of sin and rebellion lurking in the hearts of the most mature Christians in this room. There may be some here who know nothing of the saving rule of Jesus in their lives, who are trying to do what the people in the synagogue in Capernaum had been trying to do Sabbath by Sabbath and pay you off with a little bit of religion. You know all our hearts and we pray that the disruptive, disturbing power and authority of Jesus would erupt into our lives and not leave us unchanged, that we would give up our attempts at behavior modification as a way to appease You, that You would take hold of our hearts and as You shatter the stranglehold of sin and the dominion of Satan and set us free, would You have all the victory. For the glory and honor and power belongs to You and we want the name of Jesus to be magnified. For we ask it in His name, amen.



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