“The Amazing, Astonishing Authority of Jesus” (Mark 1:21-28)
Authority. What is your reaction when you hear that word, “authority”? I’m guessing that many of us would have a negative reaction to it. We Americans, in our culture, tend not to like authority. Especially since the 1960s, all forms of authority at every level of our society have been torn down. We don’t like anyone having authority or exercising it over us. And to a degree, that’s understandable. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do. “You’re not the boss of me!” we would say.
But now today I would like us to rethink this a little bit, this matter of “authority.” For today we will meet someone who has a lot authority–and knows how to use it! It’s Jesus, of course. And when he exercises authority, he’s doing it for us, for our good. In today’s Gospel reading, from Mark 1, we see Jesus exercising authority, not over us, but for us. So now let’s take a look at “The Amazing, Astonishing Authority of Jesus.”
I suppose we should first explain what is meant by the word “authority.” We associate it with the word “power,” but there’s a distinction between the two terms. Someone could exercise power without the legitimate authority to do so. For example, a robber could exercise power by holding you up with a gun, but he wouldn’t have the authority to do that. On the other hand, a police officer has the authority to use a gun, but only under certain circumstances, and, hopefully, he may not have to use that power too often. So authority is something that is vested in someone, it is conferred upon him, to act with power for a legitimate cause.
And Jesus has it. He has divine authority, to exercise power for the purpose for which he was sent. And we see Jesus exercising this power, this authority, especially in the early chapters of the gospels, which describe his early Galilean ministry. We see his authority in his words and in his works. Authority in his preaching and teaching, in his calling of disciples. Authority in his works of healing, of casting out demons, his authority over nature, his authority to forgive sins. Today our attention is drawn to two aspects of his authoritative ministry, namely, his teaching and the casting out of demons. In both of these areas, Jesus’ authority is amazing and astonishing, and it’s that which makes a big impression on people.
We begin with his teaching: “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus taught them as one having authority. How was that different from the scribes? In this: The scribes would teach by quoting Rabbi So-and-so, and how he got that from Rabbi Such-and-such, and if you compare that to Rabbi Thatfella. . . . You get the idea. The scribes and the rabbis would quote each other, and things got kind of detached from the original Word of God. Furthermore, their teaching itself got away from the Word of God in its content and meaning and purpose. For example, the Sabbath commandment gradually drifted away from God’s purpose for it and got morphed into a manageable outward observance that people could do and look good thereby–manmade rules about how many steps you could take on a Sabbath day’s journey, etc.
Jesus’ teaching was so much different. He spoke with authority. He didn’t have to quote this rabbi or that rabbi. He went straight to the source, the Word of God. And he cut through all the barnacles that had glommed on and obscured the original intent of the Scripture. In his teaching, Jesus would say things like, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say unto you.” That’s speaking with authority. Jesus got right to the heart of the matter. He expounded the Law of God according to God’s purpose and intent. Jesus spoke and taught with authority, and it was astonishing.
Now why is Jesus’ authority in teaching important for you? Two reasons come to mind right away. One, you can trust what he says. And two, Jesus’ teaching will lead you to salvation.
First, then, you can trust what Jesus says. He is, after all, the very Son of God come in the flesh. So if there is ever anyone who knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the original intent and purpose and meaning of Scripture is, it is Jesus. You can rely on his words.
Secondly, Jesus’ teaching will lead you to salvation. In his teaching on the Law, Jesus stripped away the false righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. They thought they had kept God’s Law pretty well, well enough to be counted righteous before God. “Whoa! Stop right there,” Jesus would say. “If you are angry with your brother, you have committed murder. If you look at another man’s wife with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery. So stop thinking you have kept God’s Law well enough to be counted righteous. You haven’t.”
And that applies to you and me, too, you know. We have not kept the commandments well enough. We need to have our self-righteousness stripped away from us, too. Not so we are left in despair. But so that we will realize our need and be ready to receive the only true righteousness that works and that comes to us in the person of Christ, our Savior.
So that is the other part of Jesus’ teaching we need to hear: the Gospel. The words of comfort and forgiveness Christ speaks: “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That’s why Jesus’ disciples would tell him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
So Jesus’ teaching carries this great and life-giving authority. He comes straight from the Father’s side, full of grace and truth. Jesus makes God known to us. He makes God’s will and word known to us, in its truth and purity. This is God’s beloved Son. Listen to him.
We see Jesus’ astonishing authority displayed in his teaching. And now a second area in which Jesus’ authority is seen in our text is his authority over unclean spirits, that is, over the demonic realm: “And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And 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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”
Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, and here we see him getting a head start on it. Jesus came to restore creation, to fix what was broken, to bring healing to the afflicted, and to bestow the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. And here we see him doing it. There is a poor man there under the sway and in the thrall of an unclean spirit–a demon, we would say. The unclean spirit has taken over the man, and now in the presence of Jesus, the spirit blurts out in fear of the one who has the superior authority, and that is Jesus. Note that the unclean spirit recognizes who Jesus is, that he is “the Holy One of God.” And indeed, Jesus is just that. But Jesus doesn’t want demons to be doing witnessing for him. So he tells the demon to shut up and to come out of the man. Which is what happens, of course. Jesus’ authority extends over the devil and the unclean spirits and over all the powers of hell.
This is good news for you! How so? Well, don’t think of the power of the devil only in terms of “The Exorcist” or things like that. It is not only girls who float off of beds and whose heads spin around and who spit up shamrock shakes–they’re not the only ones who are under the power of the devil. That’s just the spectacular stuff, which is rarely seen. But there are a lot of normal-looking people walking around who are equally under the power of the devil. Because the devil’s goal ultimately is to pull us away from faith in Christ. So just ordinary people can be under the control of Satan–in their unbelief, in their pride and their unrepentance–and Satan doesn’t have to go to much effort to keep them there.
But dear friends, Jesus came to undo all that, to undo and defeat and destroy the power of the devil. The exorcisms we see Jesus doing in the gospels are signs that that’s what Jesus is about. And finally, Jesus beats the devil by laying a giant trap for him. It’s like the cross is a mousetrap, and the devil takes the bait. By being lifted up on the cross and suffering and dying, Jesus will actually beat the devil at his own game. The serpent will strike Jesus in the heel, but in so doing, Jesus will stomp on the serpent’s head.
You see, the devil would like to use your sins against you, to accuse you before God, saying, “See? Look at that one there. She claims she’s a Christian. But look at what she is doing! Sinning, gossiping, thinking hateful thoughts. How can you let that one into heaven?” That’s what the devil would say about you. And he would be right, as far as your righteousness under the Law would go. You would be guilty and thus shut out of the kingdom of heaven and be sent straight to hell. But Jesus, your Savior, has defeated the devil for you. The blood that he shed on the cross for you–that covers all your sins. You are clean now. The devil has nothing on you, nothing to accuse you with. Your sins are forgiven, for Christ’s sake.
And so you see the authority of Jesus working for you today. This is the reason I was able to say to you today, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” The authority of Jesus stands behind my words. He’s authorized me to do this for you. Or again, in a few minutes you will hear Jesus saying to you, “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Dear friends, you can take those words to the bank! Yes, beloved, today you can rejoice in this fact: The astonishing, amazing, life-giving authority of Jesus is working for you!