When Jesus opened His mouth to speak, everyone stopped to listen—even the demons. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in Mark to display the holy authority exercised by the Son of God.
This morning we will continue with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. We are still in the first chapter of that gospel. I will be reading Mark 1:21–31. I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.
Now as soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them.
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Now, O Lord, as we direct our attention to Your sacred Word, we pray this morning that the things revealed therein may come crashing into our hearts, compelling us to respond with faith and adoration to the One whose marvelous works are recorded herein. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.
The Synagogue at Capernaum
After Jesus called His first four disciples, He began His Galilean ministry in Capernaum. As we read in verse 21, “Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught.” Let me take a moment to mention some background about this town of Capernaum, one of many towns along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was on the northwest side of the lake, and it was probably the most upscale town in that region at the time.
There is evidence that after Jesus moved away from His childhood home of Nazareth, He made Capernaum His home. There is even further evidence that, later at least, He might have lived in the home of Peter mentioned in the text that we read today.
Capernaum had a seawall of eight feet that extended for half a mile in front of the village, and there were several piers that extended one hundred feet out into the water. There was a tremendous fishing industry located in Capernaum, as well as a gathering of merchants, artisans, scribes, and so on.
There was also a Roman colony that was friendly to the Jews in Capernaum. The name of the town, Capernaum, comes from the Hebrew kafar Nahum, meaning the “village of Nahum,” which may date back to the days of the Old Testament prophet by that name. That there was a synagogue in Capernaum is without any doubt. In antiquity, the required quorum for a synagogue to be established in a village was at least ten Jewish men older than thirteen.
The synagogue was not the temple, where people came in Jerusalem for worship, but the word synagogue means “a place of assembly, a gathering place.” We have a church right up the street from our church called “The Gathering Place.” I do not think that they think of themselves as a synagogue, but that is what a synagogue was in ancient days.
The synagogue was a place of assembly where the Scriptures were taught not by the leader of the synagogue, who was basically an administrator, but the Torah and the rest of the Scriptures of the Old Testament were read and commented on by various teachers and visiting rabbis, like Jesus in this text.
In the fourth century AD, the town of Capernaum was still in existence and very prosperous, and something unusual happened: the synagogue was remodeled. Almost all synagogues in the ancient Palestinian world were constructed of black basalt and basic in their architecture, but as you architects visiting us this morning will be interested to know, the new synagogue that replaced the old one Jesus spoke in was built from imported white limestone. It was a place of grandeur at that time, and it testifies to the lengthy prominence Capernaum enjoyed in Galilee.
Jesus Spoke with Authority
Jesus came into Capernaum to begin His ministry in Galilee, and we are told that on the Sabbath, He entered the synagogue, and He taught. The significance of this is that Mark wants us to understand the character of Jesus’ teaching ministry early in his gospel. Jesus’ ministry was marked by teaching, healing, and the casting out of demons. Those were the three elements that distinguished Him in His first-century ministry.
So, Mark begins by calling attention to Jesus’ teaching and, most importantly, the people’s response to His teaching. Mark says, “They”—that is, the people of Capernaum who were in the synagogue—“were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
There are a couple of things to note here. First, the reaction of the people to Jesus’ teaching was one of sheer amazement, but the words amazement or astonishment do not do full justice to the import of the term that appears here in the text. The idea is that not only were they surprised, but they were terrified. There was an element of fear in this amazement or astonishment because they had never heard anybody talk like this. Jesus exhibited a new plane of authority. This was on a different level than any kind of authoritative utterance they had previously been exposed to.
Mark says that He spoke as one having authority, not like the scribes. Beloved, the scribes were not without their own human authority. The scribes were the most learned expositors of the Old Testament law. The scribes were the PhDs in theology whose opinions were accorded great weight by those who heard them.
But when Jesus spoke, there was a whole new dimension, way beyond anything the people had ever experienced with the scribes. When the scribes with their PhDs would give their opinions, they would cite other scholars. They would cite rabbinic tradition. They would try to marshal arguments to support the weight of what they were teaching, just as we try to do today in the academic world.
Jesus did not do that; He used no footnotes, no citations, and no marshaling of otherworldly authorities. He would inspire bumper stickers on chariots saying, “Jesus said it, that settles it,” with no “I believe” in between—we know that is bad theology. When God says something, the argument is over.
Authority from God Himself
I want to play for a second on the word used here and described by the English term authority. The word translated “authority” comes from the Greek exousia. It is made up of a root and a prefix. Ex- means “out of” or “away from.” The “exit” sign points to the way out. We are more concerned about the root of that word, ousia. If you know anything about Greek, you know that ousia is the present participle form of the verb “to be,” so its literal translation would be “being.”
The ancient Greek philosophers were very much concerned with the word ousia because ousia represented the ultimate reality the philosophers were seeking—the ultimate transcendent, supreme being of all reality. In the great fourth-century church controversy at Nicaea about how we ought to understand the person of Christ, the church formulated that Christ was homoousios, of the same being, essence, or substance as the Father.
The word ousia is not just a participial form of the verb “to be” but a term loaded with content in the history of Greek and Christian thought. We could translate “being” as “substance.” When Jesus spoke, He spoke ex-ousia, out of substance. His teaching was supremely substantive; nothing superficial, nothing light.
This was the utterance of the One who was of the same essence as the Father, so that Jesus’ authority was authority rooted and grounded in God Himself. That is what terrified the people. They said, “Never have we heard anybody speak like this.”
Jesus’ speech was reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, who would preface their statements and oracles not by saying, “In my studied opinion,” but by saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” Here was the Lord Himself, the Word of God incarnate, rising to speak in the synagogue on theological matters. When He opened His holy mouth, everyone present was stopped in their tracks, filled with amazement, and pierced by a sense of dread to hear the truth proclaimed with transcendent finality.
Beloved, that is how we should respond every time we hear the Word of God. We are not listening to scribes, we are not listening to preachers, we are not listening to theologians—our hearts should be filled with a holy dread and awe before the Word of God.
A Confrontation with Demons
Immediately, the text transitions to the event that followed Jesus’ teaching. Still in the context of the synagogue, Mark tells us that there was a man with an unclean spirit, “And he cried out, saying: ‘Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!’”
This episode in the life of Jesus first shows His transcendent authority in teaching, then further evidence of that power, because exousia is sometimes translated “power” as well as “authority.” We can combine the words and see that exousia means “authoritative power” or “powerful authority.” Now, we see the manifestation of that exousia not simply in His verbal address but in His confrontation with the forces of hell itself.
In the Old Testament, the idea of demonic possession is extremely rare. There are very few references to the demonic world throughout the Old Testament. In later church history, there is also limited reference to it. But while Jesus was on the earth, all hell broke loose, and the demonic representatives and ambassadors of Satan himself were everywhere oppressing people.
Later we will see that Jesus announces the significance of His work of demon exorcism by saying to His hearers, “If you see Me casting out demons by the finger of God”—which is a metaphor for the Holy Ghost—“then you know the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
Jesus began His ministry by announcing the coming of the kingdom of God. Then, He manifested the power of that kingdom in His teaching and by His confrontation with the world of evil forces.
One Last Tactic
It is interesting to note that if you look in Mark’s gospel and the other Gospels, it seems like the first ones to fully recognize the identity of Christ in the hiddenness of His incarnation are the demons. Before the people recognized Him in His fullness, the ambassadors of hell instantly recognized Him.
The possessed man was in the synagogue, and when Jesus turned His attention to him, this man with the unclean spirit began to scream, saying: “Let us alone! Get away from us.” Why the plural? Is it because the man was filled with many demons, or was this singular demon speaking on behalf of himself and man he has possessed?
I suspect he was talking about representing the whole kingdom under the dominance of the prince of the power of the air, the prince of this world, Satan himself. On behalf of Satan and his legions of demons, this demon screamed at Jesus, saying: “Get out of here. Go away. Let us alone. Have You come here to destroy us? What do You have to do with us? What do we have to do with You?”
The answer to that question is, in one sense, absolutely nothing. The demons had nothing in common with Christ. There are two different realms: the godly realm and the ungodly realm; the realm that is satanic and demonic and the realm of God. The only relationship these demons have with Christ is one of conflict.
“What do we have to do with You?” Nothing, except now they were recognizing their judgment, and they feared it. The demons knew they were under the sentence of God. They knew that when the Son of God would appear on the earth, their doom would be certain. Christ was coming to bind the strong man, to bind Satan with all his hellish powers.
These satanic junior-grade demons were telling Jesus to leave, and then they made a strange statement: “I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” What was going on here? In the Old Testament, there were power struggles between men and angels. The idea was that if one could get his adversary to reveal his name, it was like an act of submission. It was like saying “uncle” in a battle. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, he said, “Tell me your name.” He was asking him to submit. So, the demons tried one last tactic to get rid of Christ. They revealed His identity, thinking that if they named Him properly, they could defeat Him: “We know who You are. You’re the Holy One of God.”
The Holy One Has Come
There is irony in this text. Only once in the Old Testament is anybody called the holy one of God, and it was a man, not an angel. He was a man endowed charismatically by the Holy Ghost with incredible strength and power—the judge Samson, who was called the holy one of God, the strong man. The irony here is that this One who is the Holy One of God has come to bind the strong man, the prince of the demons, Satan himself.
The demons realized in the presence of Jesus that they were in the presence of the holy. Nothing strikes more terror into the heart of creatures than to be the presence of the holy. We will see the motif throughout the gospel of Mark that when the holiness of Christ is made manifest, the immediate response is fear and dread.
In the ultimate xenophobia, we fear the holy because we are not holy. When we are brought into the presence of the unveiled holiness of God, like Peter, we say, “Depart from us, for we are sinful people.” Likewise, the demons screamed when the Holy One of God came into their presence.
In response to this yelling and protesting, Jesus finally rebuked the demons, saying, “Be quiet.” Now, we are not supposed to say this in polite company, in school, to our children, or to each other, but a more accurate rendition would be that Jesus said to these demons: “Shut up. Shut your mouths. I don’t want to hear any more from you. Come out of him.” Then Mark says, “And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him”—his last shudder of strength—“and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him.”
Everyone was amazed, so they questioned among themselves, saying: “What is this? What have we just seen? What new doctrine is this? What kind of power has just been made manifest? What kind of authority does He use to command even the unclean spirits and they obey Him?”
Jesus did not act like a magician or shaman. He did not shake and rattle a bunch of beads and play games of healing, saying: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” He did not use any of those tricks we see with the charlatans. Jesus simply spoke, and the demons obeyed because they knew He had authority over them. Mark concludes this section, saying, “And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.”
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.