An unclean spirit in Jesus’s synagogue.
We’ve got ’em in our churches too, you know.
Mark 1.21-28 • Luke 4.31-37
The first time we see Jesus teach in Mark (and Matthew too, for that matter) it’s in synagogue. As was appropriate. Even walking-around rabbis like Jesus would teach in synagogue: They’d teach their kids on weekdays, and the general population on Sabbath—meaning Friday night after sundown. (Jewish days go from sundown to sundown, not midnight to midnight.)
Pharisee custom was for the synagogue president to let anyone have the floor, provided he recognized ’em as valid teachers. Visiting rabbis and scribes, new guys, or young teachers spoke first. This wasn’t necessarily to honor them. If any of ’em turned out to be wrong, as sometimes they did, the last teacher—usually the synagogue’s senior scribe—would correct them, and get the last word. Synagogues were schools, and Pharisees liked to debate, so sometimes they’d spend all night debating. Good thing it was Sabbath; in the morning they could sleep in.
Anyway, debates kept synagogue really interesting. But if the synagogue president (and later the Christian episkopós/“supervisor”) couldn’t keep order, or when people lack the Spirit’s fruit, it could also become chaos. Some people don’t know how to be civil, and deliberately pick fights, or make personal attacks. Some will nitpick stupid things, defend loopholes, and spread misinformation. The evening could become an unprofitable waste. Happened among the early Christians too.
Mark 1.21-22 KWL
- 21 Jesus and his students entered Kfar Nahum, and next, he joined the synagogue.
- He was teaching on Sabbath 22 and they were amazed at his teaching:
- His teaching wasn’t like that of the scribes, but like one with authority.
Luke 4.31-32 KWL
- 31 Jesus came to Kfar Nahum, a Galilean city.
- He was teaching on Sabbath, 32 and they were amazed at his teaching,
- because his lesson was given with power.
“Authority” in Mark and “power” in Luke are the same word, exusía(n)—the ability or authorization to do something. I translated ’em a little differently ’cause the verbal context is a little different. In Mark Jesus spoke like a boss, like someone who had every authority to declare what he declared. And maybe Luke meant the very same thing, but the wording suggests the lesson, the lógos/“word,” had the power. Either way, it amazed the synagogue audience, just as it’d later amaze people after the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 7.28-29 KWL
- 28 It happened when Jesus finished these lessons, the masses were amazed at his teaching:
- 29 His teaching wasn’t like their scribes, but like one having authority.
They weren’t used to this.
What it means to say Jesus has authority.
Like people misinterpret when Jesus called his students, they often assume Jesus’s message had some special supernatural charisma attached to it. Jesus wasn’t dry and boring, like their scribes; Jesus was the best preacher ever. He held ’em spellbound. And okay, he probably is an excellent public speaker. But this isn’t that.
See, Pharisee custom wasn’t to speak like you had authority—“You’ve heard it said, but I tell you,” like Jesus would say.
Other times it was to speak like Pharisee elders had all the authority. That’s right, they quoted famous Pharisees. Like Shammai and Hillel, the elders whose teachings are the basis of the Mishnah. These guys were considered God-inspired like the prophets, and their interpretations of the bible—though only about 40 years old at this point in history—were the official traditions of the Pharisees. Though Shammai was strict and Hillel taught a lot of loopholes—so they frequently contradicted one another, and Pharisees often took advantage of that to adopt whichever teaching they liked best—they established the range of all the stuff a Pharisee could believe.
Not only did Jesus go outside this tradition from time to time: You’re gonna see in the gospels how he sometimes deliberately violated it. Criticized some of its teachings as violating the bible. Called them hypocrisy. And he’s not wrong; sometimes it totally was. Part of the reason he came was to correct it. The rabbis had unwittingly made some devilish errors, but Jesus came to destroy the devil’s works.
Well, the devil didn’t like this, which is why Jesus wound up performing an exorcism.
An unclean spirit, hiding in plain sight.
Y’know, Jesus taught in synagogue, and it was probably something profound and life-changing. But despite that amazing, world-rocking message, the only words we have of his from the whole service were, Fimóthiti kai éxelthe ex aftú/“Shut up and come out of him.” Lousy demon.
Mark 1.23-25 KWL
- 23 Next: A person with an unclean spirit was in their synagogue.
- It shrieked, 24 saying, “What’re you to us, Jesus, Nazarene?
- You came to destroy us, but I know who you are, ‘God’s saint.’”
- 25 Jesus rebuked it, saying, “Shut up and come out of him.”
Luke 4.33-35 KWL
- 33 A person with an unclean demonic spirit was in synagogue.
- It shrieked in a loud voice, 34 “Aw, what’re you to us, Jesus, Nazarene?
- You came to destroy us, but I know who you are, ‘God’s saint.’”
AJesus rebuked it, saying, “Shut up and come out of him.”
The movies tend to overdramatize this scene. Your average Jesus movie shows Jesus, peacefully spouting koans to a crowd of fawning students and skeptical Pharisees, and suddenly some wild-eyed lunatic forces his way into synagogue. Clothes disheveled, hair unkempt, a little foam on his lips, looking like Charles Manson after crawling through the desert two days without water. Because movie devils are stupid, he’s ready to pounce on our Lord, the one guy with the power to throw them out of their possessee and into the Abyss.
Any chance it was like that? Nah. See, as soon as the lesson began, the synagogue president had the doors locked to keep latecomers from interrupting. If you were late, you turned around and went home. And if you were a wandering maniac, all you could do is shout a lot, beat the doors, throw things through the windows… but you weren’t getting in. So let’s deal with what did happen.
This guy was in synagogue when the lesson began. He looked like everyone else. You had to be ritually clean to enter synagogue, and had he looked out of place, he’d’ve been sent away. He passed muster. Probably acted normal, too. Nobody suspected he was possessed. Y’see, not every demoniac looks like a madman. Not every madman does, either.
Regardless, somehow he’d become heavily influenced by the devil. Enough to be possessed by one. He may have had no idea. Might’ve gone to synagogue all his like, acted just right, convinced every Pharisee he was legit, covering up his lack of spiritual growth with pious fakery. We have those in our churches too.
So when Jesus came in, likely he taught the sort of thing which’d expose such fakery. Something this demoniac absolutely did not approve of. Rather than respond in humility and repentance, he reacted with works of the flesh: Offense. Fury. Anger. Indignation. Standing there getting more and more pissed as Jesus went on, till he could take no more and snapped. Not to interrupt the rabbi with an angry question or bitter rebuke, but with screaming rage. The foul being inside him boiled over.
And up to this point, betcha nobody knew he was possessed. Even Jesus may not have known. (’Cause knowing Jesus, he might’ve singled this guy out before the service, quietly led him to a back room, threw the devil out, told him to repent, told him not to tell anyone what just happened, and that’d be that. No public display necessary.) But everyone sure knew now.
We get demoniacs in church, from time to time.
Seriously. It’s just Christians don’t always realize that’s what they are. We think it’s someone acting up. It’s not. It’s the critter in them, acting up, telling the preachers to shut up, telling everyone to shut up, to stop preaching the gospel, and they don’t make a lot of sense when they’re ranting and raving. People just think they’re off their medication. Nope; it’s a devil, fearing it’s been exposed and trying to intimidate Christians into leaving them be. How dare someone come into their church, their hiding place, bringing the actual Holy Spirit? And often the demoniac is just as furious: “How dare someone make me feel I’m not following Jesus?—that my lifestyle sucks, or my faith is small, or my works won’t save anyone, or my hypocrisy is obvious? I spent years building myself a comfort zone; how dare you knock it down and expose the devils within?”
Ti imín ki si/“what’re you to us?” is a Greek way of saying, “We have no relationship,” and possibly a euphemism for what the unclean spirit really said, namely an Aramaic equivalent of “
True, most Christians assume this spirit was speaking about itself, ’cause Jesus came to destroy the devil’s works. Yet for whatever reason this spirit couldn’t help admitting it knew who Jesus was, and what he was about. Which is weird; devils lie.
Mark 1.26-28 KWL
- 26 Convulsing him, shouting in a loud voice, the unclean spirit came out of him.
- 27 Everyone was shocked—into arguing among themselves, saying,
- “What’s this?”—“New teaching with power!”
- “He commands unclean spirits!”—“And they obey him!”
- 28 Next, hearsay about Jesus went out everywhere,
- into all the region round the Galilee.
Luke 4.35-37 KWL
BThrowing him into the middle of the room, the demon came out of him without harming him.
- 36 Everyone became shocked, and argued with one another,
- saying, “What’s this message?”
- —because in authority and strength, Jesus ordered an unclean spirit, and it came out.
- 37 Echoes about Jesus were going out,
- into all the land round the region.
Again, the movies get it wrong. Jesus wasn’t trembling from the intensity of spiritual battle. All the power was on his end. No cosmic struggle.
Not only was Jesus not teaching like a proper Pharisee, he wasn’t doing exorcisms like a proper Pharisee either. They had a whole list of things to do in order to get the critters out of a person. No special incantations, an important part of Pharisee exorcisms, like “In the name of God and the holy angels.” Jesus didn’t invoke God, angels, holy things, holy beings, or anything. He only said, “Shut up and come out of him.” He threw it out. Himself. By himself. And it left.
Hence the intense debate among the Pharisees who witnessed the whole thing. They didn’t know what to make of Jesus. Everything he did in this story was inappropriate. He assumed authority which no proper Pharisee would. Yet he could order an unclean spirit out of a person, and didn’t have to fight it for hours, calling upon God, praying special prayers, or do anything. Just “Shut up and come out of him.”
So here’s where rumors about the controversial new rabbi spread all over the Galilee.
How could he flout tradition like that?. Yet how could he do anything if he didn’t somehow have God’s favor?
Sort of a question Christians need to go back to asking whenever we discover an out-of-the-ordinary Christian who nonetheless can perform acts of power. Okay, that Christian isn’t like us. Doesn’t follow our customs, doesn’t care about our traditions, doesn’t use the same clichés, preaches some weird stuff. Yet the Holy Spirit empowers that person, mighty things get done, and good fruit gets produced. Shouldn’t that answer all our questions? Sure—but like the Pharisees, it doesn’t always. Our traditions are much too important. Far more so than God’s clear involvement.