Tuesday, June 25, 2019

According to Mark: The Powerful Teaching of Jesus

The previous article in our study on the Gospel of Mark (which you can find here) looked at Mark 1:1–15 and focused on the groundwork that was laid for the ministry of Jesus. In those verses, the evangelist established that Jesus is everything that matters. As Messiah and Son of God, He is the good news of salvation to the world.

This week, we are going to move forward with the ministry of Jesus that builds on His identity, and we will do so by looking at Mark 1:21–34, 39–45. Unfortunately, this means I am skipping a few sections. They will probably be the first of many, I simply cannot cover everything in this format. The first few interactions of Jesus with His disciples are valuable to look at, but they do not fit into the larger point made in the rest of the chapter. If you have questions about them, though, let me know. I may swing back to them if there is enough interest.

Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to read through Mark 1:21–34, 39–45. If you have, then what most likely stands out clearest is the power of Jesus. In what Mark presents as the first day of His public ministry, the Lord was quite busy performing miracles. Demons are cast out, diseases are cured, and lepers are cleansed. Each one of these things says something different but unmistakable about the nature of Jesus’ power.

Power Over Demons

First, consider the exorcisms. The one described in some detail is found in vv. 23–26. Really stop to think about what we see here. A demon, a servant of Satan, possesses a man and waltzes into a “holy place” to confront the Holy One. I put “holy place” in quotes just because I do not think places are made holy simply by their usage. It is not as if the demoniac should have burst into flames for stepping over the threshold. But it is certainly bold. It is essentially a declaration of war, and something that we will see again in this book. The demons more often confront Jesus than the other way around. They know their territory is under assault, and they are doing everything they can to put a stop to it.

A hopeless endeavor, of course. As we know thanks to the bird’s eye view of Mark, Jesus has already defeated Satan in the wilderness at this point. Lesser beings are not going to fare any better. But they try it on the basis of incantations. The suggestion being made is that there is supernatural power in names. There has been a longstanding belief that knowing the name of a demon or a god could give you power over it. That means little to us now and I certainly do not recommend involving yourself in the occult implications of that, but the point is that the demons themselves also clearly believed something along this line. By calling out that Jesus is the “Holy One of God,” they are naming Him to say they know who He is and hoping that it will slow Him down from moving against them.

How that was supposed to work, I cannot tell you. That it did not work is self-evident. Jesus tells demons to pipe down and get out, and they have to listen. And don’t miss the contrast. Only once in the gospels does the name of a demon (aside from Satan) come up, and even in that one case it is not really a name at all (Mark 5:9). Unlike others, and even the demons themselves, Jesus does not resort to incantations to attempt to gain the upper hand in a spiritual struggle. He simply speaks and is obeyed.

That, by the way, is why Jesus tells the demons to be silent. Going by the context, it does not seem as though the people in the synagogue even heard what the demon said. Maybe he spoke in some other language, and we have the translation. Or maybe (and more likely) they just failed to put two and two together. Jesus’ command for silence was not about keeping the cat in the bag. It was once again about authority. The demon wanted to challenge Him. The Lord said “No” and kicked him out. You could basically paraphrase it as, “Shut up, go away, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And that was that.

Power Over Disease

The healings of disease go the same way. Throughout history, disease has been seen as a punishment. There’s truth in that since disease is the result of the fallen nature of the world that came about after sin entered it. But humans have generally believed that specific diseases were suffered by specific people as judgment for specific sins.

Jesus does not validate that view. In fact, in Luke 13:1–5, He undermines it a bit. But there is still an interesting point being made here in Mark. If Jesus has the power to remove disease, then He also has the authority to forgive sins. The removal of condemnation is an implicit aspect of these healings. And since only God can forgive, this all becomes a reference to the deity of Jesus. He heals on His own authority, which shows that He is God. This is not an obvious fact. Actually, everyone around Him missed it at the time. But in hindsight, it becomes clear.

Power Over Impurity

Leprosy, as a skin disease, fits into the same category. There is a twist on it, though, so I want to focus in on vv. 40–45. Skin diseases were a very serious matter under the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament because they were a visible representation of impurity. Those with skin diseases were barred from the community, and a complex ritual was involved in returning them to it if the uncleanness cleared up (Lev. 13–14).

It is pretty stunning, then, that the leper would approach Jesus. He was not supposed to do that while he was afflicted, because if anyone happened to touch him it would make them unclean, as well (not to mention the potential for contagion for certain forms of the affliction). It is a bold action, somewhat comparable to that of the demon. But rather than trying to challenge Jesus, this man has the courage to ask for help.

Once again, we are shown the power of the Lord, but not just in healing. It is also the power of compassion and purification. He reaches out and touches this person who the rest of the world avoids. That’s a purposeful detail. Jesus could have (and often did) healed with just a word or a thought. But He makes contact instead. It is the proof of His love. It is also the proof of the coming of the kingdom.

Jesus does not fear to be made unclean by touching something that the Law said to avoid if possible. He is not concerned with protecting Himself. Instead, He turns it around and drives defilement away. So that is not Jesus breaking the Law. It is Him fulfilling the Law and replacing it. Once again, this is the work of God.

The Authority Behind the Power

All these miracles are the most noticeable aspect of this passage. They show the absolute power of Jesus over demons, disease, and defilement. In time, His power over sin, nature, and death will also be made evident. But while the miracles are the most noticeable aspect, they are not the most important. The key point is made in vv. 21–22, 27.

For the first of many occasions, Jesus stuns the crowd. He makes them wonder, but they cannot come up with answers. Who is He? We know, but they cannot figure it out. And the thing that makes them the most curious is not His miraculous power. It is His teaching.

Jesus did something that no other rabbi of His day did. It was something that not even the prophets of the OT did. Rabbis spoke on the authority of tradition, and prophets spoke on the authority of God, but Jesus spoke on His own authority. We are not even told the content of His message here, apart from the summary in v. 15. That will come later in Mark, but the point here is how Jesus spoke. He did so as though He was God. He was the source and the reference of His own message, and He called on others to repeat it. Once again, from our vantage point, we see that the identity of Jesus as the Almighty is on display. It can be missed by those who do not care to see it, but it is there. Even so, it was the most remarkable thing to the people who saw Him do it. Even exorcising a demon came in second place when they discussed it later.

Learning from Jesus

There are a few aspects to our response to all of this. Faith is the most obvious and most important. Mark wants all of us to know who Jesus is, and when we know, we need to believe in Him. His power and His authority are two separate but interrelated things. The power is shown in the miracles, but the authority is why He performs the miracles. Jesus did not come to cast out demons and heal disease. He did those things to prove that He was who He said He was. Everyone has to react to that, and hopefully they will react with gratitude and awe rather than with confusion and resistance.

That is what we sometimes call “saving faith.” Belief in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins is the most important decision anyone can make. Secondary to that is what we might call “daily faith,” and that is more complicated. We know that Jesus has power over suffering. So why does He not take it all away when we ask? Is it because we do not have enough faith? Or is it because He does not care?

The answer to both questions is no, and we need to be clear about that as we walk in this life. To take the latter first, it is denial of the obvious to suggest the Lord is uncaring. His compassion is on full display in the passage we’ve looked at here. He touched a leper because of it. There is really no way to express in our culture what something like that would have meant in His, and He did it anyway. We can know that He cares for us, and we should take comfort from it.

Our prayers do not always go unanswered because of a lack of faith either, though. Admittedly, that is a possible factor. But the Apostle Paul prayed for healing and didn’t get it (2 Cor. 12:7–9). Is anyone really going to accuse him of faithlessness? We need to seek the same insight he was given. We have every right to pray for relief from disease and suffering. But sometimes we do not get it because it serves a greater purpose. A faith that relies on God in spite of what we go through is ultimately stronger than a faith that is affectionate toward Him because of the good that He has done. We need both, and pain helps us move beyond the elementary form of faith.

Like the disciples, the people of Capernaum, and the leper, do not be afraid to ask Jesus for help. Know that He loves you. If He gives you what you ask, praise Him and know that He loves you. And if He tells you to hold onto Him instead, trust Him and know that He loves you. Remember, the miracles were not the point. The message was. Jesus saves. That is the good news we need to keep in view whether good or bad things come our way.

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