Jesus Heals a Man with an Unclean Spirit

Mark 1.21-28


NT Wright tells the story of a great disaster that happened at sea. A tourist boat loaded with travelers and cars failed to shut its doors properly and water began flooding in. The boat began to sink and panic began to spread. At once a man, not a member of the crew, but an unassuming man suddenly took charge. While there was still panic, it was mixed with relief, as the people took comfort in his authority. In the midst of this chaos, one man’s assumed authority directed the people to rafts and many lives were saved.

Now go back in time even further to another seashore, the Sea of Galilee. Two weeks ago we saw that Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry. Last week he called his disciples. This week we come to the first public miracle that Mark reveals. Remember that the book of Mark can be divided into two halves: King’s Cross. Chapters 1-8 reveal to us that Jesus is the king. Last week, Jesus called his disciples into a kingdom. It was with the authority of the king that he could demand that they leave their lives for him. This week we will see the authority of the king in the teaching and demonic exorcism. We hear the authoritative teaching of the king to his people and his authoritative removal of his enemy.


Notice again the urgency in Mark. And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. He’s giving us the setting and repeats that word immediately. He also enlists it in verse 23, and immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. It’s easy to miss in the ESV, but verse 28 is the same. And at once his fame spread everywhere; the phrase at once is the Greek word εὐθὺς, which is the same word that’s been translated immediately thus far in Mark’s Gospel. Three times in this pericope we feel the immediacy.

From a literary standpoint we must feel the urgency of the text. Mark is like an Ocean’s 11 movie, or an Aaron Sorkin script. It moves quickly; it’s fast paced. The scenes are action-centered and the dialogue is terse. From a theological standpoint we feel the urgency of Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ face is set toward Calvary. He will not be deterred. This was motivation for the early church and it is motivation for CCC. What we’re doing is real. It matters. Let’s press on for Jesus and his kingdom!

You’ll notice verse 21 continues 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. On the Sabbath, qualified men would stand and teach in the synagogue much like we do every week. The logical conclusion is that this isn’t the first time Jesus had done this because they wouldn’t have had just anyone stand up, but that’s not Mark’s emphasis. Mark notes that the people are astonished by Jesus’ teaching. In verse 27 he remarks that they were all amazed. This is the first time in Mark’s book that he enlists a theme that he will continue throughout the story – the idea of people being amazed, astonished, or even afraid of Jesus. This is an important word for Christians like us. We have a tendency to try to domesticate Jesus. The things Jesus taught and the things Jesus did are amazing. We ought to have a healthy fear. Jesus is good, but he’s not tame.

The people were astonished because of the authority with which Jesus taught. Normally a homily by a scribe in the synagogue would be filled with quotations, “as Moses said, as David wrote, as rabbi so-and-so taught,” but Jesus’ homily was different. The people called it a new teaching with authority. Jesus taught with his own unique authority. Mark is emphasizing Jesus’ authority; he uses the word twice. Keller notes that the word authority literally means, “out of the original stuff.” It comes from the same root as the word “author.” Jesus is teaching them not as a student of truth, but as the author.

Have you ever heard of John Forbes Nash, Jr.? The movie A Beautiful Mind is based on his life. Nash did his PhD in economics at Princeton. His dissertation was 26 pages and had only two citations, and one of the citations was an article he wrote himself. Just to give you a little perspective, my dissertation is 213 pages with 443 citations. No one will ever read mine. His won a Nobel Prize. Nash spoke with a unique authority because he basically invented an economic theory. There was no one else to quote; he was the author.

How much more true is this of Jesus? Jesus doesn’t quote Moses because he’s the one who inspired Moses to write. Jesus is the God of creation. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Mark has already clued us in to this when he opened the book with the words the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When you see a book open with the word beginning like Mark and John do, you want to train your mind to remember in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1.1). Jesus has unique authority to teach because he is the literal author of the Word and the world.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t merely have authority in word, but also in deed. Verse 23, 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.” While Jesus is preaching a sermon, a demon-possessed man invades. And the scene is set, it is a man with an unclean spirit vs. the man who has God’s Spirit. At this point it’s healthy to stop and evaluate our own presuppositions. Some of you have been so influenced by naturalism and modernism that you don’t even believe that demons exist. This sounds like a cheap horror movie to you. The Bible makes it clear that angels and demons do exist and they’re just as real as this world. It has been a brilliant ploy by Satan to convince the enlightened Western world that if you can’t see it, it’s not real.

The other danger is that we’re too familiar with the idea of Jesus casting out demons. What Jesus did here was not commonplace, even in the 1st century. While there is some historical witness of demon exorcisms, they are scant, and they usually included a ceremony with chants or spells. You’ll notice Jesus doesn’t seek the spirit out; it seeks him out. The spirit is scared. It’s afraid that Jesus has come to destroy it. It screams, what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? In Greek it literally reads, “what me and you!” The unclean spirit’s panicked like a kid who got caught stealing. It says, I know who you are—the Holy One of God. Funny that the unclean spirit knows whom Jesus is and yet these people don’t.

And Jesus don’t do a chant, he doesn’t use special garb, or potions, he simply says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” The only words he speaks in this pericope. And the spirit is helpless. He can’t do anything but obey his sovereign Lord. Don’t be too comfortable with this narrative. This isn’t just something that used to happen all the time back then. This is a unique authority. Like the congregation in the synagogue that day, we must be amazed at the authority of Jesus.

What was Jesus’ sermon about that day in the synagogue? What was so controversial that he had people astonished? What kind of homily would send a demon into a spaz attack? Mark will reveal later that Jesus taught that he was the true king. He is the one that they have been waiting for since the garden. He is the true seed of the women who has come to crush the head of the serpent. The kingdom of God has arrived. But it doesn’t look how they might think. The king hasn’t come to sit on a throne in Jerusalem, but he has come to hang on a cross outside Jerusalem. The king has come to die in the place of his people for the forgiveness of sin. The coming messiah and the suffering servant are the same person. The king is headed toward the cross. These two realities must never be divorced. All of the ministry and all of the miracles are moving toward Good Friday. This is the message that would astonish the people. This is the message that will send a demon into convulsions. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And this is the gospel we preach. After his resurrection Jesus will tell the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt 28.18-20).” The authority of Jesus has been given to the church in our teaching. Paul says in Romans 16, the God of peace will soon crush satan underneath your feet. The teaching of the church, under the authority of Jesus is the means that God is using to crush the head of the serpent.


Remember the man who had assumed authority on that sinking ship? The story also goes that after he had directed the crowd on the deck that he made his way down to the hold. That part of the ship was already flooded. There was no way for the people to escape. The man formed a human bridge so that the captives could climb their way over him to safety. When the nightmare at sea was over the man was found drowned. He had literally given his life using the authority he had to save others.

Brothers and sisters, hear the beauty of the gospel this morning. Jesus has the authority, but he has not come to abuse his authority. He has come, in that authority, to lay his life down for his people. Jesus used his authority to sacrifice himself to save sinners like us. A new teaching with authority! How can that not leave us amazed?