Mark 1:21-28: A Crisis of Authority
We organize much of what we do around authorities. If you don’t believe this, just think about the number of ways in which you assign authority perhaps without even thinking about it. You drop your kids off at school in the morning, because you have given authority to others for their education. On the way, you’ve stopped at the red lights, proceeded at the green lights, and obeyed tin signs along the road. You do so automatically, all on account of authority. You stop by the pharmacy, trusting expert authority as you want to know how much of this drug or that drug to take for your symptoms. You go back home, turn on the television. A talk-show is on. A guest fashion guru shares what is hot and what is not. You mentally take notes. Why? Because these people are authorities. The morning has just begun and you have already implicitly acceded to countless different authorities on countless fronts. Without authorities in place, our lives would devolve into a chaotic nightmare of never-ending decisional crises. We depend on authorities for all kinds of wisdom and leadership; authorities are the tent-pegs of our life.
In this passage we find Jesus kicking hard at some well-established tent-pegs. More precisely he is removing the demonic soil in which the people have rooted themselves. Interestingly, it is the forces of darkness and not any human agency who are the first to figure out Jesus’ significance. This suggests that the real conflict à l’outrance was not to be between Jesus and his human adversaries, but between Jesus (and his kingdom) and Satan (and his). This is the very reason why the gospel-writer prefaces his account of human opposition to Jesus (2:1-3:6) with this story of demonic encounter. In fact, when we consider the Parable of the Divided House (3:30-27) together with our present passage (1:21-28), we see that the two pericopae make up a kind of thematic bookends, encasing and thereby interpreting all the conflict in between. The evangelist’s message is clear: human hostility to Jesus is merely a skirmish within a much larger cosmic battle with demonic origins.
Jesus has just entered the synagogue in Capernaum, the home base of his operations (cf. Mark 2:1). Perhaps he initiates his ministry here rather than in the more obvious choice of Jerusalem in deference to Isaiah’s oracle that the region of Zebulon and Napthali would be the first to witness the great light of God’s redemption (Isa 9:2; cf. Matt 4:12-16). Capernaum was not only a geo-political border town, separating the jurisdictions of Herod and Philip, but also an ethnic border town: to the north lived predominantly Gentiles, while to the south lived the Jews. Jesus commences his ministry on the very edge of Israel. This was the first clue that his ministry was not about to be centripetal (spiraling in) and Jerusalem-centered, but centrifugal (spiraling out) and world centered.
The passage begins and ends with a reminder that all its action takes place in a synagogue (v. 21, 29). As it turns out, the synagogue does not prove kind to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Next time Jesus enters one (3:1), it is when his enemies are conspiring to eliminate him. The synagogue is filled with corrupt leaders who make a show of personal piety (12:39); it is also predicted to be the scene of violent persecution against Jesus’ disciples (13:9). Although one might have expected the synagogue to be a haven of God’s activity, the evangelist makes the disturbing suggestion that the case is entirely otherwise. This is not an indication of any anti-Semitism on Mark’s part. Rather, his point is that the Jewish authorities who have taken control of Judaism major religious system have succumbed to dark side. This much will become clear soon enough in the narrative.
We notice too that Mark closely associates teaching with authority over the demonic. The crowd is amazed at Jesus’ activity. They ask, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him!” (v. 27). Some commentators understand “teaching with authority” to refer to Jesus’ style, that is, to say that he had some unique gravitas or directness that his peers had lacked. While we cannot rule this out, Mark’s emphasis more likely has to do with Jesus’ vindication of his teaching by demonstrations of power of the demonic. This sense is actually intrinsic in the Greek word exousia (authority). In the Septuagint, the term normally connotes power over the supernatural; likewise is the case for the Hebrew equivalents (mashal and shalat). Moreover, whenever Jesus delegates his authority to his disciples, it is authority to teach and cast out demons (3:14f.; 6:12f.). Authoritative teaching and power over the demonic belong together.
For some preachers of this text, depending on their tradition and part of the world, this point may well be both self-evident and immediately inspiring. Demonic possession is a global phenomenon that has been widely documented by social scientists and is accepted as matter-of-fact by the vast majority of non-Westerner lay people. For any preacher in this context, it would be easy enough to encourage the faithful by appealing to the necessity of both faithful teaching of scripture and the invoking of Jesus’ power to deliver those who are possessed or afflicted.
For others preachers, particularly in the secular west, there may well be a sense of puzzlement at this very point. “If it is true that teaching and exorcism go hand in hand,” we find ourselves saying, “then how can all this apply to my congregation? After all, around here direct experiences with the demonic are the not the stuff of everyday life.” At this turn, many of us may find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, even estranged from the Bible’s message. What are we to do?
I think the wisest move in this case is to step back and give broader consideration to the nature of the demonic. A key verse in this respect is 1:23: “And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” Some translators simply equate “unclean spirit” with “demon” without residue. This, however, would be a mistake. In fact, the term “unclean spirit” is exceedingly rare in ancient Judaism, as the preferred term for “demon” was quite simply daimōn. Why does Mark use the term “unclean spirit” here?
In my view, the answer has to do with the reasoning of the prophets. The singular occurrence of the phrase occurs in Zech 13:2:
“And on that day, says the LORD of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more; and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit.”
If anything is certain it is that the historical Jesus himself took the closing of chapters of Zechariah quite seriously as a kind of script for his own ministry. Just think how in his final week Jesus came into Jerusalem just as Zechariah envisaged the great shepherd-king (Zech 9:9). Therefore, we need to take Zech 13:2 seriously as well, and note that the “unclean spirit” is not the only problem, for there are attendant problems as well, namely, false prophets and idols. By “false prophet” the prophet presumably means anyone who speaks authoritatively yet remains at odds with the Lord’s revealed wisdom. By “idol” the author must mean anything or anyone that detracts from the worship of the one true God.
Now Zechariah’s eschatological promise is that Yahweh would suddenly act to remove from the land of Israel (1) the unclean spirit, (2) the false prophet, and (3) the idols. If you think about it, these are not discrete entities but rather interdependent. There are many false prophets out and about these days. Of course, they don’t wear horsehair clothes or run around naked; on the contrary, they appear to be quite normal, taking on the role of preachers, political figures, pundits, talk-show hosts, academics – you name it. If they have the ear of the people and speak in a way that is contrary to the affirmations of scripture, they may fit the biblical description of “false prophet.” Likewise, scripture suggests that what carries false prophets along is an unclean spirit. Now of course here we should point out that we are all partial heretics and will one day find out that our convictions and teachings to be mistaken at numerous points. But there is a distinction to be made between a system of truth that is flatly opposed to God’s Word and a system of truth that, for all its minor weaknesses, is generally compatible with it. The false prophet is the one who ultimately undermines God’s way by speaking against it, either directly or indirectly by offering an account of reality that is at fundamental odds with the account offered by the scriptures.
Finally, there are the idols. The demons are deeply invested in idol worship, so too are the false prophets. In fact, false prophets generally make it their business to lend plausibility to their favored idols, whatever they might be (money, sex, sports, careerism, nationalism, militarism, individualism, etc.). We are all tempted by idols in this life, so are the people we would like to enfold in the church. But what exacerbates all these temptations are certain voices in the culture which create a narrative, a story, which makes worship of these various idols not only plausible but downright logical. In this sense, the demonic is the spirit behind the ideology.
In releasing this demon-possessed man from the unclean spirit, Jesus is announcing that the day of the Lord has come. It is a day when the false prophet, his idols, and the inspiring unclean spirits will fall together. Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom, therefore, coincides with our throwing aside our idols, rejecting the so-called wisdom of the false prophets, and refusing to give quarter to demonic influences. In short, the announcement of the kingdom means forsaking our present authority structure and roadmap and replacing it with another. This is a tall order but nothing less will do. In reality, we will be unwilling to undertake this exchange until we are faced with our own crisis of authority, that is, until we realize that our own well-entrenched authority-structure pales when compared to the messianic king and his kingdom. When Jesus comes kicking at our tent-pegs, he begins with those that are driven the deepest, those penetrating to the inscrutable spiritual realm. When God makes us ask, “What is this?” it means that Jesus is attempting to unsettle us – a good thing indeed.
Dr. Nicholas Perrin is Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.