Sermon, August 21, 2005
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade
Jesus’ Astonishing Authority
Mark 1:21 - 2:14
Last week we began a study of the Gospel of Mark and heard Jesus’ call in the first 20 verses of the first chapter to follow him. Today we continue on from the calling of Peter and Andrew and James and John in vv. 16-20 up to the calling of Levi in 2:14.
In between, we find Jesus teaching twice (vv.21, 39) and heals three times after each of those two teachings.
After he teaches in v.21, he heals a man with an unclean spirit in vv.22-28, then Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in vv.29-31, and then a group of people at sundown who were sick or oppressed by demons.
After that Jesus prays and Mark tells us again in v.39 that Jesus is preaching in the synagogues. Then he heals a leper in vv. 40-45, and performs two healings on a paralytic in 2:1-14, first he heals his spiritual malady of sin (vv.1-7) and then heals his physical paralytic condition in vv.8-14.
Two similar sections of teaching and preaching, each followed by 3 healings. How many times did that word “immediately” appear in last week’s thought unit up to the first calling of the disciples? We’re going to discover again and again how often Mark organizes things in this Gospel into sets of three. (He must have been a preacher, himself! In fact, we’re going to discover that the whole Gospel is really more of a sermon than a biography.)
But there’s the structure we’re looking at: in between two callings of disciples, two sets of three healings.
What do these subsections say? What are they about? The answer to that question is the key word, authority, in this text. Three times that word appears here. And those are the three points of the text I want to focus on in this sermon:
V. 22 -- Jesus “taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”
V.27 -- The sense in which his teaching comes with authority is that he “commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
But that’s not by any means the limit of his authority. What really scandalizes the scribes who resent Jesus’ authority in these texts is that he doesn’t just have authority to command spirits and bodies to be healed. In 2:10 he makes the astonishing claim that he, “the Son of Man, has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
Everyday preachers might preach with authority. Prophets and doctors might command unclean spirits and heal diseases. But who on earth has the authority to forgive sins? Sin is only sin because it is an offense against God, and only God therefore has the authority to forgive those sins.
The scribes hear this audacious claim and Mark says they grumbled; they were scandalized. They were ready to call out the people and put this man to death for blasphemy. By the end of the Gospel they’re going to succeed in that, and we’re seeing right away at the beginning what is the reason why they are that offended. Jesus’ claim to authority is so astonishing that it finally brings the world to the point of killing him.
There is a progression in these three exercises of Jesus’ authority. In his teaching, Jesus exercises authority over the people and their thoughts and actions. It’s an authority that reminds his onlookers of the authority of the scribes, but it exceeds the authority of the scribes noticeably, unmistakably.
The scribes were the teachers and interpreters of the Torah among the Jews. Their teaching gave them the authority of law professors, and their exercise of that authority in issuing moral decisions on the basis of the law gave them the authority in Jewish culture of judges. These were the highest human authorities, then, among the Jews. Only scribes could be members of the ruling body of the Sanhedrin. Scribes got the first seats in the synagogue and people stood in deference to them when they entered the room. We’re going to find Jesus in conflict with the scribes and other religious authorities often in the gospel of Mark, but Mark’s main point here is not to deny that the scribes have so much authority, but to say that the authority people could sense in Jesus’ teaching among the people carried even more weight than this highest authority their culture already acknowledged.
When Jesus spoke, people instinctively listened and felt the weight of the necessity to take him seriously.
When he commanded the unclean spirits, Jesus went a further step beyond anything the scribes ever presumed to do. They didn’t claim to cast out demons, any more than modern professors and judges would claim to. But Jesus applied his authority not just to people and their obedience. He applied it to the spiritual world of demons, and (in the understanding of his time) that meant diseases, too. Notice how diseases and demons are treated all in one breath in 1:34. And then look at 1:31 -- when he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (the first pope was married!), Mark’s conclusion is that “the fever left her.” Literally, it “came out” of her, just like a demon might.
That’s not just a primitive worldview at work that needs to be displaced by a more modern, germ-theory of diseases. These biblical writers want us to understand that what we see and experience physically serves for us as a pictures of what we can’t see but what is just as real spiritually in our experience. The visible is a picture of the invisible, and the visible teaches us many things that are true about the spiritual.
So if diseases are a picture of the world of unclean spirits, then we learn that giving in to unclean spiritual impulses is a kind of sickness from which we need to be cured. We learn that we can’t usually heal ourselves, but we need the help of doctors whose command over the world of diseases is greater than ours. And so our sin-sick souls learn to turn to the Great Physician for our salvation (a word that comes from the Latin world for health).
Jesus spoke, and people heard his words to carry an unmistakable authority. Jesus commanded diseases and they responded to his authority with an obedience that made them come forth and out of a body. Jesus commanded the demons and they complied with his authority and came out of those they had possessed.
But Jesus’ authority extends even further than that. His greatest authority is over sin itself. There is that claim in 2:10 -- “the Son of Man, has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This is an authority that the greatest teachers of the Law in Jesus’ time, the scribes (the judges and professors of the day) understood to be reserved to God alone. That’s how high this last level of authority rises.
Now watch what this level of authority does to the progression of responses that it elicits from the ones upon whom it is exercised.
When Jesus teaches, the people respond with astonishment. Literally, the word in Greek means it was as if a plague or a wound inside of the listeners came out of them. I don’t think we have an equivalent English figure of speech for this Greek expression. The closest I can come is to say that they were so mightily struck by what Jesus said that that “being struck” is what came out of them in response to the authority of his teaching.
Then when he commands the diseases and the demons, Mark says in every case that they, too, “came out” of the people they were afflicting.
In 1:25-26, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to “be silent and come out of him,” and the spirit cried out with a loud voice and “came out.” In 1:31, the fever “came out” of Peter’s mother-in-law. In 1:34, Jesus “cast out” many more demons. In 1:42, the leprosy “left” the leper and he was made clean.
But now watch what happens when Jesus exercises his authority over sin in the third appearance of his authority in this passage. In 2:5, Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins are now forgiven. In 2:10 he senses the scribes, his rival authorities questioning, opposing, his authority to forgive sins, and answers that he’ll demonstrate for them that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. And he does that by healing the paralytic physically. The physical serves as a picture again of unseen, spiritual realities.
It’s true that when he forgives this man’s sin his sin in a sense “comes out” of him, or at least its ultimate power over the man is sent packing. But Mark doesn’t speak about the sin coming out of the man. Instead (look at 2:12) what comes out? The man “comes out” and away from his diseased condition.
When Jesus commands our sin, we come out and leave our unclean, diseased circumstances that have used our sin to paralyze us. Grab on to this. The power and authority of Jesus is available in your circumstances, no matter how paralyzing they may be, to set you free from their unclean hold on you.
When Jesus responds to our confession of our sin and our trust in his blood and righteousness to cover us and to forgive us from our sins -- what we pray for in every repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, he exercises his authority to forgive those sins that weigh us down, and he calls to us the way he called to Lazarus in the tomb: “Come out!”
And like the demons, and like Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever, and like the man paralyzed on his pallet, and like Simon and Andrew in their boats in last week’s text, when Jesus calls us and says “come out” the evidence of his authority will be unmistakable. And so we’ll obey. And so we’ll come out and away from those influences and those circumstances that sicken our spirit and paralyze our prayers.
Everyone here has circumstances and influences like that that infect our lives with spiritual disease. Maybe it’s impatience, or anxiety, or depression. Maybe it’s a habit of speaking too quickly and too sharply and listening too slowly and dully. Some here may have peers at work or at school whose habits have become infectious and led you to do things or say things that don’t reflect well on Christ. New students may be feeling the paralysis of homesickness or the fear of classwork and deadlines starting to loom over them. Others are troubled by the stresses of relationships or the lack of relationships.
The sort of things that demonize us and debilitate us and paralyze us could make an endless list. But there is nothing on that list over which Jesus does not wield ultimate and absolute authority. He stands in your life today, teaching, commanding your unclean spirits, and calling you to rise and pick up your pallet, and “come out”!
There may even be some who are so paralyzed by your circumstances, that like the man on the pallet in 2:3, you’re only here this morning because your friends brought you here and laid you at the feet of Jesus.
Do you see what the people in Mark’s day could see? That Jesus teaches, not like the scribes, but as one who has authority! Authority over truth when he teaches. Authority over body and spirit when he commands. Authority over sin when he forgives. And that authority addresses us this morning, saying “come out.”
I said a few moments ago that there is a progression in these episodes, from picture to reality. From the people whose being struck with Jesus comes out, to the diseases and demons who come out, and then to the man who comes out and away from his sin. All those things are themselves reflections of the highest reality of coming out that stands at the center and source of them all in Mark’s understanding. That highest reality is the ultimate truth that supplies the evidence and pattern for Jesus’ authority to command us and our demons and diseases to come out.
Mark expresses it right at the center of the structure here in this series of episodes: in between two callings of disciples, two sets of Jesus’ teaching followed by three healings. Look at the top of that second set. Jesus rises early in the morning (1:35) to go out to a quiet place to pray. When the disciples found him there he said, let’s go now into the next towns to preach. Why? because that is the reason “I came out.” Jesus is the one who ultimately came out.
Came out of where? Every disciple who knows Mark’s whole story knows the answer to that at the culmination of Mark’s Gospel. Every person in history finishes his earthly life on earth going into a tomb. Only one man in history has ever, on his own, “come out.” All the way through this morning’s passage, Mark describes Jesus as “the one who came out.”
Yes, Lazarus came out. Yes, in fact, every believer is going to do exactly what Lazarus did, and come out. But Lazarus, and you and I, will come out of our earthly tombs and into eternal life with God, because Jesus has first led the way by “coming out” before us. The promise of eternal life is ours because Jesus defeated the greatest demon and disease of them all, namely death, and “he rose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign!” That’s why the good news of the gospel is that the kingdom, the reign, of God is at hand.
The Good News is: Jesus was about to “come out.” The Good News for us is that Jesus has the authority to call us to follow him out.
Look again at this picture of the paralyzed man. What do we see? Here is a man who is laid out horizontal; paralyzed, no movement; four friends have to carry him; they dig a hole in the thatch; and they lower the man down through that hole. What does that look like? It’s exactly like a burial.
At the bottom of the hole into which he’s been let down, he finds himself face to face with Jesus. And Jesus says to him with authority, first: your sins are forgiven; and then: rise! And the man stands up. The Greek word translated resurrection means literally to stand up again. Mark is drawing us a picture here in this story in ch. 2 of our death and resurrection, by the authority of Jesus Christ, the man who, himself, is going to “come out.”
There is an interesting footnote to this at the end of the account of the cleansing of the leper in Mk 1:40-45. Here, I believe, is one of the most widely mistranslated verses in all of the Bible. Fortunately the significance of the mistranslation turns out to be fairly minor and only affects the reputation this poor leper has come to have down the ages since Mark recorded his story.
In most translations you have, v.45 seems to say that after Jesus commanded the leper to keep silent and tell no one about the healing except the priest, he went and disobediently began to blab the word everywhere, making it difficult for Jesus to keep on preaching.
But listen to a literal translation of the same v.45: It actually reads, “But the one who came out began to preach many things and to sow the word, so that he could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.” Who is “the one who came out”? Who is the one who preaches many things in this Gospel? Who is the sower who in ch.4 will begin to sow the word? Jesus’ own preaching was met with such astonishment everywhere he went that the crowds he drew made it difficult to enter the next towns.
The text seems to me to say nothing further at all about the poor leper, and only because of the misreading of Mark’s stress on the “coming out” of these passages, translators have made the leper the one who came out and given him an undeserved reputation as a disobedient blabbermouth.
Jesus is “the one who came out.” In v.29, Mark says he “came out” of the synagogue, an environment that proved to be full of hostile opposition to Jesus in his time. In 1:35, Mark says Jesus “came out” to a deserted place to pray. The environment of life in the crowded world is not very conducive to concentrated devotion to God. And so Jesus calls us out from the world to worship regularly and to pray daily. Come out with Jesus to a quiet place and pray.
We need to take a lesson from the crowds of 2:13, who came out to Jesus and let him teach them, and heal them of their diseases and unclean spirits, and forgive their sins.