November 15, 2015
I once heard a speaker on the radio use an illustration that went like this: it’s as if all through the Old Testament, God and the devil were playing a chess match. God would choose a man, make His move, and the devil would counter. He, too, would choose a man, make his move, countering everything God did. By the end of the Old Testament, it had been pretty much a draw – in fact, there were 400 silent years as someone pondered the next move. It was apparently God’s turn, because the New Testament opened with the birth of Jesus Christ. But the devil chose a man and countered, he tried to have Herod kill Jesus. Then, there was the great battle in the wilderness – when the devil himself faced God Himself – tempting Jesus three times. Back and forth the chess match went until the crucifixion, when finally at the cross, the devil said, check. And the demons were throwing a party – Jesus was dead. It appeared the devil had won the match. But then, on Easter Sunday morning, Jesus arose from the dead in glorious resurrection – and God said, checkmate.
Sounds great, but there are so many problems with that analogy I hardly know where to begin – but let me try. First, God and the devil are not equals. Second, it is not as if they are playing a game. Third, the end of the match was never in question. Fourth, the crucifixion was not the devil’s move – it was God’s. Isaiah 53 tells us it was God who would crush and bruise His Son, and He would see the travail of His soul, and be satisfied. God was pouring out His wrath on the sin of mankind when Jesus bore our sin in His body on the cross. Make no mistake about it – the cross was not an attempt by the devil to destroy the Son of God. In fact, when Peter said he would prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem to die, Jesus said what to him? “Get behind me, Satan.” Meaning, any attempt to prevent Jesus from dying was inspired by Satan. You see, the cross was the culmination of the eternal plan of God to provide redemption for humankind.
The analogy – from a nationally known preacher – which received lots of hoots and hollers from the audience as he told the story – illustrates our confusion about the forces of evil. And our confusion about this topic robs God of His singular and due glory. Let me say it again – God and the devil, Satan, the adversary, the accuser, Beelzebub, the prince of demons, the serpent – whatever name you want to use for him – God and the devil are not equals. There is one God, there is no other. He has no peers, no rivals, no equals. There is none like Him. No one who compares to His glory and majesty, knowledge and wisdom, power and strength. Isaiah says it like this:
25 “To whom then will you liken Me That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, Not one of them is missing. (Isa 40:25-26)
Again in Isaiah 46:
5 “To whom would you liken Me And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?
6 “Those who lavish gold from the purse And weigh silver on the scale Hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; They bow down, indeed they worship it.
7 “They lift it upon the shoulder and carry it; They set it in its place and it stands there. It does not move from its place. Though one may cry to it, it cannot answer; It cannot deliver him from his distress.
8 “Remember this, and be assured; Recall it to mind, you transgressors.
9 “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me,
10 Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’…”
There is none like God, there is no other. And that includes the forces of evil. It is not as if God sits in the heavens, wringing His hands, worried about Satan’s next move. He knows it altogether, and Satan could do nothing outside of God’s sovereign care and control. I have said it this way before – Satan is God’s Satan, created to do His bidding.
In our continuing study of the Gospel According to Mark, one of Mark’s main purposes is to proclaim Jesus as the Christ and the very Son of God. And as the Son of God, He is unparalleled and unequaled. Jesus will demonstrate His supreme, unmatched, glorious authority over sickness and sin and death and nature – and today, in His first recorded miracle in this gospel – His authority over the forces of evil. He is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Read the text with me – Mark 1:21-28. Read.
We are supposed to be amazed – wowed – overwhelmed – awestruck by Jesus. Who can say the things He says? Who can do the things He does? This is the first of four specific exorcisms in the book. There are nine specific healing miracles, and five nature miracles. Throughout this book, the question keeps resounding in our minds, verse 27, what is this? Better, who is this Jesus? Over and over, Mark will say things like, they were amazed, frightened, completely astounded, utterly astonished, there is no one like Him. And because there is no one like Him – you need not fear. Fear what? Anything. Sickness, death, sin, the forces of nature, the forces of evil. The outline of the text goes like this:
- There is No One Like Him in His Teaching (21-22)
- There is No One Like Him in His Power (23-28)
Verse 21 tells us they – that is, Jesus and His new disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John –went into Capernaum. Capernaum, which literally means village of Nahum, was a large city on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Estimates place the population as high as 10,000 – it had its own Roman garrison and synagogue. In fact, there are ruins there today of a 4th Century synagogue, and below that, what most think are the remains of the synagogue of Jesus’ day. It appears to be the home of Peter and Andrew, and it becomes the base of operations for Jesus’ Galilean ministry.
On the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue. Now, the Jews counted a day from evening to evening, so the Sabbath actually extended from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday. The day of worship was Saturday, and they would go to the local synagogue. In order to have a synagogue, you had have at least ten adult Jewish males. Obviously that was no problem in Capernaum.
So Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach. This was not unusual. The leaders of the synagogue would often invite visiting rabbis to read the Scripture and comment on the text. By this time, while early in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry had been around for awhile. He had already been invited to teach in His own hometown by this time – where He read from Isaiah 61. Undoubtedly, He was invited to read and teach. We don’t know what He read in this synagogue, or what He taught. It’s interesting to note that Mark has less of Jesus’ teaching than the other gospel narratives, but he mentions Jesus’ teaching ministry over and over. You see, in Mark, the person of the teacher is more important than the content of the teaching. And here Mark tells us they were amazed at His teaching.
I love that part – they were amazed at His teaching. Christianity has been around for so long – and we’ve been around it for so long, we are often no longer amazed. But we should be. Even people who don’t accept Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, have to admit His life and teaching changed the world. He said things like no other.
Again, we don’t know what He said – likely something to do with the kingdom of God being present – repent and believe the gospel. Don’t miss that. Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God – the kingdom that will be in direct conflict with the dominion of Satan. Jesus has already scored a victory over himself in the temptations – now He will do so by defeating one of Satan’s demons. So, while we don’t know exactly what He taught, we do see they were amazed because His teaching was with authority, and not like the scribes.
The scribes were originally considered experts in law – and since Israel was originally built on God’s law, they came to be seen as experts in the interpretation and application of religious law. They guarded the oral interpretations handed down, which became the tradition of the elders. It was oral – it didn’t become written until about 200 AD in what is called the Mishnah.
Now, while parties like the Pharisees and Sadducees were religious groups, scribes were a professional vocation, and could actually be members of any religious party – usually the Pharisees. They were highly respected – they had special seats in a synagogue, and people rose if they entered a room. They are consistently grouped with the chief priests and the elders as those who opposed Jesus. In fact, in every instance but one where they mentioned in Mark, they are opposing Jesus. In chapter 2, they will oppose Him for forgiving sin and dining with sinners, in chapter 3 they will accuse Him of casting out demons by the Beelzebul, the prince of demons, in chapter 7 for not following the traditions of the elders. They will join the opposition to have Jesus arrested, tried and condemned. And in Matthew 23, Jesus condemns them for their religious pride and hypocrisy.
The scribes teaching and authority was derivative. What do I mean? Their job was to guard the traditions of the elders handed down to them. They didn’t have new teaching, or even authority within their teaching – their teaching and authority came from those before whose traditions they then upheld and guarded. But Jesus shows up here, and He doesn’t quote traditions and teachings of earlier rabbis – His teaching is fresh and new – consistent with the OT, but not necessarily consistent with elder tradition handed down. In fact, He often opposed popularly held beliefs – about the Sabbath, about the Law, about marriage. He would often say something like, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” In other words, you know the traditions, but let me tell you the truth – and He appealed to His own authority.
And His was not only new, it was right. His teaching resonated with their hearts – for a time. And they were amazed – and some repented and believed. I would say the same thing to you today. The teaching of Jesus and about Jesus in the Scripture is true – and if you give it a fair hearing, it will amaze you. Like the two on the road to Emmaus, when Jesus showed up walked with them, explaining the Scripture to them – how that all the Scripture points to Jesus. And when He disappeared from them, they exclaimed – did not our hearts burn within us as He spoke to us, explaining the Scripture to us? If you give Him a fair hearing, He will amaze you too.
So, they were amazed with His teaching – who is this, whose teaching is not like the scribes? There’s no one like Him in His teaching. But Jesus wasn’t done amazing them, which brings us to our second point – there’s no one like Him in His power.
Because you see, just then, there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit. Now, Mark uses that phrase about as often as he uses the term demon – and in fact he uses the term interchangeably. This unclean spirit is to be differentiated with the Holy Spirit we met a few verses earlier. A contrast is being drawn – Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit; this man with an unclean spirit. The two kingdoms are coming into conflict.
Now, you may be sitting there thinking, wait a minute, do we really believe in demons and demonic activity? I mean, we’re in the 21st Century now – Salem witch trials and all that are a thing of the superstitious past. We’re much smarter now, and understand that what they saw as demonic activity – like possession – was really mental illness, right?
That is one extreme we need to avoid. You see, because we believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant word, we do believe in Satan, and we do believe in demons, and we do believe in demonic activity, such as possession and oppression. Yes, there is also such a thing as mental illness – and through the years, no doubt, well-meaning Christians have misdiagnosed mental illness as demonic activity. But we do need to avoid the extreme of denying the existence of demons. The Scripture is clear that demons are fallen angels – those who followed Satan in his rebellion against God and were cast out of heaven. And they became, to this day, opponents of God and good. We believe that a real personage named Satan or the devil succeeded in tempting Eve and plunged humanity into sin. We believe that same prince of demons, tempted Jesus, seeking to distract and destroy Him from His mission of redeeming lost humanity.
And those fallen angels now serve Satan and his purposes in seeking to destroy God and His purposes and His people. And so we remember that Paul said our battle is not against flesh and blood – i.e., people who are demonically possessed or oppressed – people who have been taken captive by the real enemy to do his will. Our battle is against the demonic forces of evil.
So this demon-possessed man in the synagogue cries out. Don’t miss that – this is always the response of demons to the presence of Christ – the Son of God. We are going to see a number of encounters between Jesus and demons. You see, Jesus was bringing the Kingdom of God near – which would be in direct conflict with the satanic kingdom of this world. So we’ll see a number of skirmishes, but Jesus always wins. In fact, they often fall down in His presence. Because, while there is a cosmic battle going on – it’s not a chess match. God is God – Jesus is the Son of God, God in the flesh – and there is no other. And they know that.
So this demon cries out, “what business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? [that was actually a colloquial way of saying – leave us alone, mind your own business] Have You come to destroy us?” You see, they knew He could.] Now, who does it mean when this unclean spirit says, us? Two possibilities – he doesn’t care about the man he’s possessing – that’s not who the us is. Rather, the demon either means there is more than one possessing the man – in fact, in chapter 5 we’ll learn about a man possessed by a legion of demons. Or, he could just be speaking generally – have you come to destroy us – the forces of evil? And of course, the answer is yes – Jesus did come to destroy the works of the devil, which would include all the forces of evil. The kingdom of God had come, and would destroy the evil, satanic kingdom of this world. And destroy them He did, at the cross. But…they will meet their final and full defeat at the end of time – when they are cast into the lake of fire.
Now notice the next sentence – “I know who You are—the Holy One of God.” This is the question Mark is seeking to answer for us – who is this Jesus? The demons, whenever they came into His presence – they knew. James says even the devils believe, that is, they know who Jesus is and what He came to do, and they tremble. And they should, because there is no one like our God. And so from the most unlikely of sources, we get an answer – a declaration – Jesus is the Holy One of God. Make no mistake about it – this is a clear declaration of the person and deity of Jesus – the Christ, the Son of God. He is the Holy One of God.
And Jesus rebuked him, saying, be quiet. Literally, be muzzled – put a muzzle on it. It’s the same thing He’ll say to a storm later – be quiet, be muzzled, and the storm will lay at His feet. Now why does He command the demon to be quiet? Think about it, at this point, the demon had just declared the person of Christ – so why, be quiet? It’s called the messianic secret in the book of Mark. Over and over, Jesus will tell people and demons to be quiet about His person and works – His miracles. Why? Because it wasn’t time for Him to be revealed. It wasn’t time for a premature movement to make Him King. He had come not to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many. And it wasn’t time. He would go, when He said He would go.
He says further to the demon – come out of him. And the demon had to – God has spoken. Now, there are bizarre accounts of exorcisms outside the NT – but Jesus doesn’t use spells, incantations, or rituals. He simply commands, and they obey. Yes…as often happened in exorcisms in the NT, the demon threw the possessed into a convulsion – into one last destructive act – and the demon cried out – but come out, he did. He had to, because God told him to. And there is no God like our God. There is none equal to Him. When He speaks, even demons obey.
Earlier, I suggested that denying the existence of demons is one extreme to avoid. The other extreme to avoid is what we often do – we see a demon behind every bush and under every rock – or we give Satan and his demons too much power. And yet here we see, when they come into the presence of the Holy One of God, they cry for mercy. Because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world. We need not fear the forces of evil – our God is greater. He has no equal – none to compare.
Now, let me address a few other thoughts as we prepare to close. Yes, there is such a thing as demon possession. But I’m unaware of any Spirit-indwelt Christian in the Scripture who was demon-possessed. I believe we can be harassed and oppressed by demons. They can unleash the fiery darts of the evil one. Peter tells us our enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, prowls around seeking someone to destroy. The devil is real – but when he comes into the presence of God, he must submit. And I remind you, we are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus.
In fact, James tells us to resist the devil and he will flee from you. And so we come up with all kinds of ways to resist the devil – to speak against him – to battle him – to take him on – to go toe to toe with him. I have interest in doing that. I’m not powerful enough. But the God in me in the person of the Holy Spirit can. And so the very next verse in James tells us how to resist the devil – draw near to God and He will draw near to you. And where God is, the devil and his demonic forces have not interest to be. They fall at His feet.
So while one extreme to avoid is to deny their existence, another to avoid is to seek to engage them in battle ourselves. We draw near to God – and we put on the whole armor of God, and do battle that way – by drawing near. And we take up the shield of faith in God – and the Sword of the Spirit which is the word of God – and do battle that way. Two extremes to avoid. We don’t deny, nor need we fear. Our God is great. There is none like Him!
Verse 27 says, They were all amazed, so that they debated among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! [And how was this authority seen? Not just in the things He said, but in what He did – power, like no other.] He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” Because they must.
As a result, immediately the news about Him spread everywhere, into all the surrounding district of Galilee. What is this? Or better, who is this? Mark wants us to understand He is the Christ, the Son of God – and there is no one like Him.
Our job as believers is to spread the news about Him. There is no longer a messianic secret. We are to spread to truth of who He is, and what He came to do. I want to remember today: there is no God like our God. There is no savior like our savior. Who is this? This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. So, there is no need to fear. In the midst of all that is going on in the world – or maybe even in your own little world – there is no need to fear. You can trust Him.