21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
The content of Jesus’s teaching was remarkable to his first hearers, but its manner was no less so. In both Matthew and Mark, the first recorded response to Jesus’s teaching is one of astonishment at its authoritative character (Matthew 7:28-29; Mark 1:22). Matthew’s record of this response occurs immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, Mark’s as Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum.
The authoritative character of Jesus’s teaching is contrasted with the character of the scribe’s teaching. Such a contrast is perhaps already hinted at in the repeated formula in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You have heard that it was said… But I say to you.’ Jesus’s teaching, juxtaposed with the scriptural traditions to which the scribes would make careful reference, comes with a freshness and a force that unsurprisingly amazed his hearers.
Jesus does not just humbly assume a position in relation to a pre-existing tradition, carefully marshalling its authorities to support his positions. His is not an authority that is merely a derivative authority, trickling down from earlier teachers, nor one which rests solely upon the interpretation of scriptures. There was something about Jesus’s manner of teaching itself which conveyed an authority all of his own, an authority that, although validated by various witnesses, did not ultimately depend upon them.
For the congregation of the synagogue in Capernaum, their astonishment at the authority of Jesus’s teaching was soon accompanied with astonishment at the power of his word as he rebuked and cast out the unclean spirit. The casting out of the unclean spirit in the synagogue is the first recorded exorcism in Mark’s gospel, although Jesus had already encountered Satan in the wilderness.
The fact that Jesus encounters unclean spirits throughout Israel during his ministry, and especially in synagogues, was a sign that the land itself and its religious life was under the oppressive rule of Satan. Jesus’s exorcism ministry demonstrated divine power over the forces of evil, but also cleansed the house of Israel so that, freed from demonic oppression, it might return to God. However, in Matthew Jesus warned that, if the window of opportunity for repentance was not taken, his generation would later suffer a far more terrible form of possession (Matthew 12:43-45).
In the Old Testament, demonic possession and unclean spirits are rarely mentioned, yet in the gospels they appear frequently. The troubling of King Saul with an evil spirit immediately after Samuel’s secret anointing of David as Saul’s successor is perhaps a connection to bear in mind here. The Spirit has just come upon Jesus in his baptism and, much as David ministered to King Saul to bring him relief from his distressing spirit after the Spirit left Saul and came upon David, so the anointed Jesus ministers to Israel, which is plagued by unclean spirits.
Zechariah 13:2, one of the very rare references to an unclean spirit in the Old Testament, associates it with false prophets, which is perhaps a connection that we should consider here. The presence of the possessed man in the synagogue who disrupts proceedings with his shouting is shocking, but we should bear in mind the possibility that the man was also a false prophet of some kind, not only a spiritually oppressed individual.
The unclean spirit’s statement—‘Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God’—is striking. As Simon Gathercole observes, the ‘have you come…’ expression should probably be related to the ‘I have come…’ formula, which is often used by heavenly beings. The implication is some sort of heavenly pre-existence of Jesus, which is recognized by the unclean spirit.
This sense is strengthened by the us of the statement: the demon does not seem to be referring to the persons in the synagogue, but to the demons of the world more generally. If this is the case, then ‘have you come…?’ does not relate narrowly to Jesus’s coming to the locality of the Capernaum synagogue, but to his coming into the world more generally. The reference to Jesus as ‘the Holy One of God’ would seem to give even more support to such a reading (cf. Daniel 4:13, 23).
In keeping with Mark’s emphasis upon the Messianic Secret in his gospel, the people at the synagogue do not grasp the import of the unclean spirit’s statement. Only the informed reader and Jesus himself recognize the fleeting glimpse of his deeper identity that the unclean spirit gives us before Jesus silences him.
Jesus speaks with an authority astonishing even for a prophet, speaking not just as a bearer of another’s message, but as one bearing a message of his own, with the full authorization of the Father. While the prophets of the Old Testament contended with false prophets and their unclean and lying spirits, Jesus also demonstrates his power to cast out such spirits.
The concepts of power and authority, which lie at the heart of our gospel account, are no less central in the realm of political reflection. Jesus here demonstrates both his authority and his power. Jesus demonstrates his authority in his capacity to establish an obligation to act and his power in his capacity to compel action.
The result of the advent of Jesus’s authority is liberation and awe. The authoritative word of Jesus is a word that offers a course to the directionless, release to the bound, possibility to the cornered, and hope to the despairing. It also creates an appropriate fear as, along with giving people a new and liberating direction, the authoritative word of Jesus imposes the weight of responsibility and the dread of the accountability that accompanies it.
Authority, as Oliver O’Donovan argues, offers us mediated grounds for action that direct us towards our good. Whether the authority of the parent towards the child or the teacher towards the student, mediated grounds for action liberate us to become more than we otherwise could. Political authority does not tarry for our understanding before placing its obligations upon us, but requires us to act in the faith that understanding will be discovered in our obedience itself [Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 133].
The advent of a truly authoritative word, then, provokes a complex response. It imposes weighty and sometimes fearful responsibility upon us, while releasing us into well-directed action. It both releases and binds its hearers.
There are, of course, many forms of authority at work in the world. Not all authorities come with the power to compel our compliance. Some authorities are primarily moral in character, while others disclose rational grounds for action that we would not otherwise have perceived.
The authoritative word still retains considerable power in our day and age, even though we often find ourselves recoiling from its immodesty. It is far better, we may believe, always to hedge our statements with affirmations of individual choice, the right of each person to determine their own good, and deflationary qualifications reducing our words to the level of private opinion. Even though obligation is not the same as compulsion, we would not want to trespass upon the right of people to determine their own course of action. However, on those shocking occasions when someone dares to speak authoritatively—firmly, yet without hectoring, acquainting others with their obligation to act in a specific manner—many may still experience it as a form of weighty liberation.
One of the dangerous yet important characteristics of the Church’s ministry is its authoritative speech: authorized by Christ himself, the Church is to communicate Christ’s own authority, obliging and releasing people to act in line with it. The Church does not just dispense advice, but declares the word of Christ which obliges us to follow and by which one day we will be judged. The authoritative word of Christ furnishes lost and disoriented people with truthful ways of life.
Our willingness or unwillingness to speak in an authoritative manner will be one of the most critical determining factors for the shape of Christian social and political praxis. If we retreat from the authority of Christ’s word, its liberating power will not truly be conveyed or experienced, nor will we display the appropriate fear which it should inspire in us. However, if we declare Christ’s authority to the world, daring to communicate the freeing obligations that he places upon us, the transformative power of his word can begin to be known.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.