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. (Mark 1:21–28)
This passage marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s gospel, and it provides the foundation for all that follows as it answers that most basic of questions: “says who?” When I go to visit my doctor, and I am glad to see framed certificates displayed around the room. When someone is poking around in surgery, I am keen that the hand yielding the scalpel is connected to a brain which has been trained in anatomy. How much more important when someone is speaking about God? Theology is not the place for speculation - that stakes are too high.
Now, we as readers of Mark’s Gospel have already been told that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1:1), a fact we’ve seen demonstrated in Jesus’ baptism where the voice from heaven says: “you are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11). For us, Jesus’ credentials are clearly displayed and we know that we can trust what he says. The good people of Capernaum, though, didn’t have this information. As Jesus stood up to speak in the synagogue, they would be listening and assessing what he said. Weighing him in the scales. “Can we trust him” would be the question in their mind. The verdict? “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes”.
Note this: all they had to go on at this stage were the words which Jesus spoke, and the manner in which he spoke them.
We don’t know the words uttered in that synagogue, but we do know the one who taught. Jesus described himself as “the way, the truth and life” (John 14:6). He is the “only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He came “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Given all this, it is fair to assume that the words that Jesus spoke were both truthful, and came from him in a natural manner. Truth cannot but drop from his lips, and truth has a habit of ringing in the conscience of the hearer. Jesus, as the one who is “the truth”, would speak with entire clarity and conviction. No need to hedge bets, or speak haltingly, but rather Jesus could speak from his own heart to the hearts of others. Here too is one who believed what he taught, whose life measured up to his words!
All of this the synagogue congregation contrasted with the scribes, the teachers of ancient Israel. The scribes were scholars, and they drew on their traditions when teaching: rabbi so-and-so said this; but rabbi what’s-his-name disagreed and said that. We also see from the rest of the gospels that they liked to focus on the minute matters of detail. Should you tithe your herbs, and so on. In fact Jesus later criticised them for this very thing: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
The problem was that they received their authority from other people, older scribes. They made names for themselves by their use of these traditions, and their clever arguments. Their’s was a second hand authority, whereas Jesus spoke with a first hand authority. He did not need to draw on earlier traditions, because he himself spoke as God. This was preaching indeed! In fact, it is telling indeed that the people were impressed by his preaching rather than his cleverness, or fine use of words. Here was truth speaking.
It was at this point that the man with the unclean spirit called 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”! Here the source of Jesus’ authority is stated - he is the Holy One of God - and here also this authority is demonstrated. At simply a word, the unclean spirit is dismissed. No wonder all were amazed, saying: “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). They had heard the authority in Jesus teaching, and then had it demonstrated to them in the casting out of the spirit. Here was something new.
With this authority established, the rest of the gospel sees Jesus making remarkable claims. A little later he said to a paralysed man “son, your sins are forgiven” and the scribes were scandalised: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”. (Mark 2:5-7). He called himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28) and declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), something only God has the right to do. He prophesied his own resurrection (Mark 9:31, 10:34), and return in power (Mark 14:62).
What teaching, what extraordinary claims! I wonder what you make of them? Is Jesus correct in making these claims, or was he someone who simply wanted to mislead people? Did he have divine authority, or was he deluded?
Perhaps I should leave the last words with C S Lewis
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God’. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. (Mere Christianity).
Picture of the Synagogue at Capernaum By Eddie Gerald
This file has been provided by UNESCO (unesco.org) as part of a GLAM-Wiki partnership., CC BY-SA 3.0 igo, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37387366