An unclean spirit in Jesus’s synagogue.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 June

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. Tt 3.9-11 And that’s just discouraging.

Into the belly of this beast, Jesus went to teach about the kingdom. Mark says this happened after he gathered his students from their boats; Luke puts this story before he collected ’em. Either way.

Mark 1.21-22 KWL
21 Jesus and his students entered Kfar Nahum, and next, Jesus 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 authority.

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 who has authority.

They weren’t used to this. The scribes’ practice was to defer to the scriptures and other great Pharisees. It was never to act like they had any authority to interpret the lesson. Which, to be blunt, was hypocrisy: They could easily pick and choose which rabbis to quote. But I discuss this in more detail in my article on how Jesus didn’t teach like scribes.

Various commentators figure this authority is what freaked out a demoniac in the service. True, they sometimes don’t understand what “one with authority” means, and figure it was Jesus’s personal holiness and godliness which provoked him. Me, I figure the lesson convicted him like crazy. Doesn’t really matter. The demon 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.’”
35A Jesus 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 soi/“what to us and to you?” 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 “F--- you.” The spirit wanted Jesus to stop talking. “You came to destroy us, but I know who you are, ‘God’s saint,’” was meant to start a fight between the Lord and the other people in synagogue—meant to imply Jesus wasn’t authentic, wasn’t here to save, wasn’t really God’s saint.

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. Jn 8.44 The only reasonable conclusion is this spirit was trying to sound sarcastic, and undermine Jesus that way—and Jesus wasn’t having it. Truth is his weapon, not the devil’s. So he put a stop to it.

The exorcism.

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
35B Throwing 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? Jn 3.2

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.