In the remainder of chapter 1 we are going to be given a representative sampling of the Lord’s ministry. We have in short order, an exorcism, the driving out of a demon, scenes of Jesus healing the sick, and of his preaching and teaching. It is precisely these same activities that will fill up the narrative that follows. This is what Jesus did for three years. And all of this was done in the company of the disciples. You will see the verbs are plural in vv. 21 and 29. They went…They left… Jesus is the focus and the actor, but the disciples are there with him taking it all in.
And in all of this we encounter, as did the people among whom Jesus moved in those days, a unique authority. The demons recognized it; the people heard it in his teaching; even illness submitted to it. The King of Kings had come among mankind!
The first of these scenes takes place in Capernaum, a Jewish town on the northwest shore of the lake, a few miles west of where the Jordan enters the lake from the north. Capernaum became Jesus’ home after he left Nazareth. One reason why Jesus made it a center of his ministry may be that it was as far from Tiberias, the Hellenistic city where Herod Antipas made his capital, as one could be and remain in Galilee. He was in this way able to stay out of the sight of the political authorities as long as possible. After Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist this may have become an even more important consideration. [Edwards, 52]
In Capernaum on a Sabbath Jesus went with his disciples into the local synagogue and began to teach. You may be interested to know that the floor of what is very likely that very same first century synagogue has been excavated by archaeologists. As a rule, teaching in the synagogues fell to laymen and on this particular Sabbath Jesus rose to speak. Mark will give us less of the content of Jesus’ teaching than the other Gospel writers, but he too emphasizes how much Jesus was a teacher and preacher. He possessed none of the conventional qualifications of a rabbi, but his learning, his skill in handling the Scripture, and, in particular, the authority with which he taught compelled everyone to give attention. [Cranfield, 72] The teaching of the scribes in those days was given to parsing the tradition of legal interpretation. It concerned the more or less endless applications of particular commandments to the thousand and one questions posed by daily life. Christ’s teaching came as a blast of fresh air, taking the people back to the knowledge of God, to conviction of sin, to the prospect of judgment, to the joy of salvation, and to a life of love.
While in the synagogue – either while speaking or after he had spoken – a man possessed by an evil spirit cried out. It is interesting and probably suggestive that the demon had been happy enough to be in the synagogue; it was Jesus’ presence and teaching that bothered him. Jesus, remember, would teach that the then current spiritual lifelessness among the Jews was the work of the devil. The demon would have been delighted with the typical church service of that place and that time. Many Jewish synagogues, in other words, as has been the case with many Christian churches since, were houses of the devil more than houses of God! We are not told here what it meant for a man to be with or to have an unclean spirit. But in all the exorcism passages in the Gospels the evil spirit or demon is “an active personality, distinct from the ‘host’, and controlling [the person’s] behavior.” [France, 103] The real confrontation here is between the demon and the Lord Jesus.
You will notice that the demon speaks in the plural. There is a clash of kingdoms here! The demons throughout the Gospel recognize Jesus for who he is and the threat he poses to their kingdom. They know what the people do not, that Jesus is the Holy One of God. They know they have come up against a superior spiritual power. And that is then strikingly demonstrated by the fact that Jesus employs no technique, recites no incantation, and employs no props. He simply commands the demon to shut up and come out of the man. That settles the matter. The demon has no choice but to obey. He shakes the man – there is another eyewitness touch – and comes out of him.
The people can’t help but notice the authority, the power that Jesus displays both in his teaching and his rule over the demons. The effect of this exhilarating demonstration of Jesus’ authority was galvanizing. We can well imagine how rapidly the account of what had happened spread as one told it to another.
You will sometimes hear it said that the ancient world was full of exorcists and exorcism and that the people of that time would have been quite familiar with the idea of driving demons out of people, whatever anyone might have meant by that. In fact, that is not true. There was to be sure an interest in exorcism and there were people who claimed to be exorcists. But there are almost no accounts of exorcisms and in the literature of the ancient world there is nothing remotely like what we read in the Gospels. [France, 100-101]
Read Mark 1:21-28
Demon possession – the control of a human being by a demonic spirit – is known in the Old Testament – King Saul’s sad history is the chief example – but there is no evidence that it was common or, for that matter, that it occurred at all apart from that particular case. Demon possession is mentioned in Acts a few times, but the impression is that it was becoming less common as time passed. There is no reference to it in the later writings of the New Testament. But there was an explosion of this phenomenon during the years in which Jesus conducted his public ministry. Everywhere the Savior went he encountered people whose lives were being ruined by the unwelcome presence of an unclean or evil spirit. He is described in the Gospels as in continual conflict with these evil spirits.
Though the Bible never says this explicitly, it seems reasonable to suppose that there was a two-fold reason for this onslaught of outward and public demonic activity. First, the demons – even as we read here – knew far better than the people the identity of Jesus and, being his mortal enemies, sought to set up against him a counter-kingdom, a counter-authority and to bring people instead into submission to them. Second, from God’s side, the demons were permitted a more widespread and visible activity in the world precisely so as to provide the opportunity for a demonstration – just as is provided here – of the true authority and divine kingdom of Jesus Christ. Is that not exactly the conclusion these folk in Capernaum came to after seeing a demon meekly compelled to do Jesus’ bidding? This man has authority over demons! What manner of man is this? Jesus is being accredited as the Son of God by the manifestation of his authority over the demonic realm.
We had a voice from heaven at the Lord’s baptism, but we are not told in that case how many heard the voice or saw the dove. The angels who ministered to Jesus in the wilderness would have been known only to him. So this episode, then, is the first public display of what we are nowadays likely to call “the supernatural” in the ministry of Jesus.
It will not surprise you to know, of course, that today these accounts of demon possession and of the Lord’s power over demons are often dispensed with as the record of little more than primitive superstition. It is argued by many that what people in those days thought of as demon possession we would today know to be simply various psychological disorders. No matter that the Gospel writers seem clearly to distinguish demon possession from conditions we would nowadays characterize as illnesses; such distinctions mean little to those who are sure that demons don’t exist and that only gullible and credulous people think that they do.
And, of course, that is what any good advocate of a naturalistic worldview would say and must say. Naturalism is one of the primary competitors to the Christian worldview in the Western world and the primary competitor in the elite culture, the culture of the university, the media, and government. Naturalism is the conviction that nothing exists apart from the natural, the material, the biological order. There is no personal God and there certainly are no angels and demons. Only matter exists, only what they call nature, hence naturalism. It is regarded by its advocates as the only truly scientific philosophy and worldview.
Christians should not be timid in pointing out that naturalism, quite contrary to the claims of its supporters, is no more scientific than Christian theism and supernaturalism. It is a faith commitment. To be a naturalist one must believe that certain things are true than cannot possibly be demonstrated scientifically. Science doesn’t any more prove naturalism to be true than it proves Christianity to be true. How could anyone prove that demons do not exist? To know that would be to know everything. What is more, there is a great deal of evidence that can be advanced in support of the existence of a spiritual world. How is it possible to disprove that evidence?
Still more, naturalism has several punishing problems that have long been noticed but never been solved. It cannot account for human personality, consciousness, or morality. It cannot provide a foundation for the universal sense that human beings have of their own significance or the existence of right and wrong. In other words, it provides no basis for human freedom or moral judgment, the very things that makes human life genuinely human and the only things that provide fulfillment and satisfaction in living it. There are no consistent naturalists; only naturalists who think and live like supernaturalists! It is not a recommendation of any system of thought to observe that even its most ardent defenders cannot and do not live in consistency with it.
But it is important at the same time to observe how chaste the Bible is in its description of demons and the demonic realm. It is a deeply mysterious subject and the Bible does not do very much to illuminate the mystery. Think of this man. We are not told what effects his possession had on him, though we are sometimes told that in the Gospels. Did people know that he was demon-possessed before the demon spoke up in the synagogue that day? The man was, apparently, sitting there in the synagogue that Sabbath like everyone else. And if they did know, how did they know? Nor are we told what happened to the demon after he was ordered out of the man or what the man’s life was like after the exorcism. It is a very chaste, Spartan account. Mark is obviously not interested in entertaining us with fantastic stories or peaking our curiosity about the unseen world. He is telling us about Jesus, not about demons. We know little more from Holy Scripture than that evil spirits exist, that they are the agents of the Devil, their prince, that they are workers of evil in the world, and that, at least at some times, they have had the power to take physical possession of a human life and exercise physical control over it.
A great many people, even Christians alas, have not been content to stop where the Scripture stops. Anyone who has been a Christian any length of time knows of various claims being made today by people who purport to have driven out demons. Not so many years ago a prominent minister, the founder of an evangelical denomination, claimed that the demon of gluttony had been cast out of him. At least he had the honesty, some months later, to admit that he hadn’t actually lost any weight as a result. That kind of silliness brings the chaste, straightforward, eyewitness narratives of the Gospel into disrepute. The Bible never says anything about there being different demons for different besetting sins or that we might blame our overeating on a demon. When Christians do this, they give people the impression that what happened in Jesus’ day is nothing but what people are claiming is happening today. But there is a universe of difference between the exorcism stories you hear in some circles of Christianity today and the exorcisms reported in the Gospels. The former convince only the already-persuaded. The latter shocked a population of believers and unbelievers alike. The former are interpretations of events; the latter were objective, observable events that occurred in any number of places, before all sorts of communities of people, and were attested by the Lord’s friends and foes alike. The exorcisms of Jesus were self-authenticating demonstrations of divine power; they left everyone stunned; and that demons were in fact cast out was denied by no one, however much Jesus’ enemies would eventually rationalize this as the work of the Devil himself.
Still, the Gospels are not inclined to elaborate about demons. Their accounts of exorcisms are designed to demonstrate that in the ministry of Jesus we are face to face with the supernatural. As C.S. Lewis once wisely remarked:
“Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretence that you can have it with [the supernatural] left out. So far as I can see Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset. [God in the Dock, 99]
All the essentials of Hinduism would, I think, remain unimpaired if you subtracted the miraculous, and the same is almost true of [Islam]. But you cannot do that with Christianity. It is precisely the story of a great miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian.” [Miracles, 68]
J. Gresham Machen, the early 20th century champion of biblical Christianity, said it even better.
The New Testament without the [supernatural] would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man…. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked his failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin…. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior.” [Christianity and Liberalism, 103-104]
What we see in the supernaturalism of the Gospel account of Jesus’ ministry is nothing less than the true meaning of human life and the true situation of human beings in this world. There is a spiritual warfare underway in this world. Human beings have an adversary. Human life is taken up into the spiritual realm. Forces are abroad more powerful than we are. How much more seriously people must take life and living when they believe that they have a powerful adversary arrayed against them.
If you had been there that Sabbath day in Capernaum; if you had seen that man under the control of an evil spirit; if you had heard that brief conversation between the demon and Jesus; if you had heard Jesus command the spirit and seen the spirit obey – immediately and completely, however much against his will – would you not realize, could you help but realize that there is more to this life than meets the eye and that there must be fabulously important realities of human existence that are invisible to the eye?
And then would you not be likely to see the influence of the Devil and his demons everywhere, knowing as you now do of their existence and their power? John Newton, in one of his letters, wondered aloud if Voltaire, who at that time was writing so brilliantly against the Christian faith, would have written so skillfully or been so widely read and admired if he had not been the secretary of an abler hand. When we survey the record of human sin in this world, the horrifying and disgusting depths to which human beings have sunk, the almost limitless cruelty of human beings toward one another, are we not right to think, are we not almost forced to think that there is something demonic about that evil. And lifting our eyes from this scene in the synagogue at Capernaum, must we not suppose that a great many blows being struck in our time against the Word of God and against righteousness do not land with such power and effect because there is another pair of hands – invisible but much stronger – wielding the club. Why, in matters such as the sexual revolution or abortion, does an entire culture seem so incapable of grasping the obvious or facing the enormity of what is being done every day and everywhere in our land? Is it not true that “The Devil is always near when hearts are disposed to receive him?” [Cardiphonia, Baker paperback ed., 59] Did not the century just finished demonstrate that the demonic is alive and well and that the spread of the confident certainty that demons don’t exist may well be their greatest triumph? [Cranfield, 75]
Do not miss the important fact that it is an evil spirit that inhabited this poor man, literally an unclean spirit. The supernaturalism that pervades the Gospel narrative pits darkness against light, death against life, evil against good. Mark does not here explain how it was evil, though we will see plenty of that as we proceed through the Gospel. No one was better off for being possessed. When the Devil gets control of a life, he does not bless, he destroys; he makes miserable; he blasts a person’s hopes; he creates despair. Such people typically harmed themselves, lived lonely lives as outcasts, their relationships ruined. No one possessed of a demon was ever glad for it.
The demons are one of the Gospels greatest demonstrations of the nature of sin and evil when unconstrained by the grace and power of God. The Devil and his demons are persons in whom sin has reached full flower. This is what a person becomes when he thinks and acts completely under the power of sin: everything is dark, cruel, and hateful. This is why, the Bible says, demons have to disguise themselves as angels of light. If they gave people, even unbelieving people, any sense of the true darkness they represent people would flee from them in horror. This is the true horror of hell. People joke about going to hell because they don’t reckon with what life must be if everyone has become as bad as he or she could possibility become. But that is very simply what demons are: persons who have become as bad as once holy angels could ever become. Evil is not restrained in them by any counter principle. There is no softening or tempering love as exists even in the most wicked human heart in this world. There is no love of beauty that ennobles even the baser lives of human beings here in this life. And so it will be in hell. Evil will have taken complete control of the human being. That is why hell, to which the unbelieving are at last sent, is described by Jesus as the place “prepared for the Devil and his angels.” Morally and spiritually, men will have become like the demons: all evil, no good. The demon-possessed man was as much like a man already in hell as a human being in this world ever becomes.
And that is what makes the account so impossibly grand, because someone came into his world, spoke with the authority of God himself, and delivered that man from a beastly power over which he had no control. What was absolutely impossible for this man was not only possible for Christ, it was altogether simple and easy for him. He spoke a few words: “Shut up; and get out!” and with a childish petulance, the evil spirit did one last cruel thing and left the man as he had been ordered. Never once in the Gospels will we encounter the Lord struggling to bring the evil spirits to heel. In every case the demons are completely overmatched. They are too much for men, but they cannot stand before the Son of God.
This is the stupendous practical effect of Jesus’ demonstration of his power and authority over the demonic realm. We are apt to be distracted by the evidence given here for the existence of the supernatural realm. That is important to be sure, all the more in a day like ours. But that is not Mark’s purpose. This is for him a further revelation of Jesus. It is all the more remarkable, all the more unchallengeable because it comes first from the lips of the demon himself and then from the unsuspecting and unknowing people. This one, the one the demon refers to as the Holy One of God has power over the forces of darkness and uses that power to deliver human beings from those forces.
Great as the demons’ power is, impossible as it is for mere human beings to withstand it, malevolent as all their purposes are toward us, Jesus’ power is far, far greater. They may be too much for us; they are no problem for him. Tell me if you can: What greater truth could a human being know than that the spiritual forces that are arrayed against him and wish him misery and death are subject to the authority of Jesus Christ?
If there were no such things as demons your problems would be bad enough. Fact is, if history teaches us anything it is that even the wisest and best of human beings can’t surmount their problems. It is one thing to know how you ought to live and what you ought to do and what kind of person you ought to be, but it is an entirely different thing to live, to do, and to be as you ought. And then you still must face your inevitable death.
But if there are forces abroad in this world – forces we cannot see but that can see us – spiritual forces that exercise power over us, then our problems are still much worse: we are helpless to stand against them. The supernaturalism of the Bible is first a warning to us. There is so much more than meets the eye in the reality of human life. There is more going on in this world, there is so much more of a struggle in your life than simply your struggle to be happy or to succeed. And the forces arrayed against you are much more powerful than you are. You need, you absolutely have to have a champion; someone capable of delivering you from forces far greater than yourself. Jesus is not only that champion; he is the only such champion!
What a boon it would be to all people, Christian and non-Christian alike, if once again the demons were overtly advertising their existence, if the reality of their supernatural kingdom and its malevolent nature were visible to all. As Samuel Rutherford put it, “I love a rumbling, raging, rather than a subtle…Devil.” But the Devil and his demons have nothing to gain by that! Such a public demonstration of the Devil’s impotence before the authority of Christ as took place in that synagogue in Capernaum is the Devil’s worst nightmare. No more of that if he can help it!
And so his ministry is silent, secret, invisible, but no less powerful for that as the Scripture often says. Listen; you have, every human being has great problems. But you will think about those problems very differently if you know there is such a thing as a Devil and that there are demons in this world. The problems you are worrying about are not nearly as serious as this. You will know for a certainty that you cannot solve these problems; you cannot with the strength of a mere human being. They are beyond you; way beyond you.
But there is someone who can solve these problems: the problem of the Devil, the problem of your sin and guilt, the problem of your alienation from God and others; the problem of death. There is someone who has power and authority to deliver you from every one of these fundamental problems of human existence, spiritual as they are, supernatural as they are. Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God. Even the demons knew that. They hated that it was so, but there was nothing they could do about it.
There is something you can do about it: make sure you align yourself with Jesus, become and remain his follower, always with him, always in his company. The demons may gnash their teeth at you but they will be powerless to harm you if you are with Jesus and he is with you.