Speed bumps in the Bible

Jesus Drives out an Evil Spirit

The gospels are filled with little stories, which is handy for Bible study and preaching, because we can deal with small amounts of text at a time. These little stories are called pericopes. (Imagine an Irish guy named Rick O’Pea. The word pericope rhymes with his name.)

The people who write computer spell-checkers don’t know about this word, which really brightens up the New Testament final exam when you are in seminary. Picture this: as the professor solemnly passes out the exams to the roomful of nervous students, a ripple of giggles passes through the class as they discover that they are being tested on the periscopes in the gospels!

So there is an upside when auto-correct gets it wrong.

Let’s get this straight: no matter what your word processor thinks, there are no submarines and no periscopes in the New Testament! Just little stories called pericopes.

     They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
     “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
     The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
—Mark 1:21-28, NIV

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue!

The first speed bump in this passage is that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. It tells us something about Jesus and about synagogues.

We sometimes think of Jesus as some sort of carpenter with lovely brown tresses who mouths hippie-style platitudes amongst the wildflowers, while being surrounded by little children, probably with a beam of sunlight on his head and a meek little lamb at his feet. Not here! Here He is in the synagogue in a rabbinical role, authoritatively teaching the Scriptures. Jesus is called rabbi throughout the New Testament; here we see Him clearly functioning as a rabbi.

Rabbi is not a Greek word, but because it is a religious title, the Greek New Testament often uses it without translating it, and applies it to Jesus about 15 times. Most often it is the disciples who address Jesus as rabbi. In John 1:38, the writer explains that rabbi means teacher. So we should figure that whenever people address Jesus as teacher, they mean rabbi, because the New Testament writers inform us that they occasionally use the Greek word teacher as the translation of rabbi.

There is only one verse in the whole New Testament that applies the term carpenter to Jesus, and that is Mark 6:3. In this verse, some people are wondering if Jesus is a carpenter. In a few ancient manuscripts, they wonder if Jesus isn’t the Son of a carpenter. Either way, they don’t know whether He is a carpenter or not. So there is no scriptural basis for making Jesus into a carpenter. No one ever asked Jesus to fix a wobbly table or to install a door, which would only be natural if He were a carpenter. Instead, they asked Him to settle disputes, to heal the sick, to exorcise the demons, and to give His opinion on religious topics—the sorts of things that rabbis do and carpenters don’t.

I had a parishioner who was constantly amused by the bumper sticker that says, “My Boss is Jewish Carpenter,” because the carpenter in the New Testament isn’t Jesus, it is Joseph.

Jesus taught with authority!

Most rabbis, as they teach, would back themselves up by citing earlier rabbis, and by quoting from the Mishnah and the Talmud. I’m sure you have heard name-dropping preachers like that: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said…” or “as Jürgen Moltmann noted…” or “as my friend and mentor the Rev. Dr. Flibbertygibbet used to say…” or “God wondered what this meant, so I explained it this way…” (I’m just joking about that last one, but sometimes I half expect to hear it.)

In extreme cases, you come away from the sermon knowing that the preacher has great library skills and chums around with a lot of important people, but you wonder if he has any personal expertise at all.

Jesus didn’t preach like that. He is The Authority. He is the Word of God incarnate. He is the one who gave the Law. He is the one who knows what He meant when he inspired Scripture in the first place. He is a greater authority than anyone He could possibly quote.

Mark wants us to conclude that Jesus is The Authority.

The synagogue is an educational institution!

We think of a synagogue as a place of worship, but Jesus isn’t leading worship here, he’s teaching. That is because the institution of the synagogue was established during the Babylonian Captivity as an educational institution to preserve Jewish identity, culture, and religion in the midst of Babylon. The synagogue was such a good idea that it continued down to the present time. Education is still one of its most important functions. Some modern Jews even call the synagogue a shul, which is the Yiddish word for school.

In Jewish communities of that era, all the boys between the ages of 6 and 13 would go to the synagogue every day for their lessons. They would graduate at 13 with a bar mitzvah. So it is more reasonable to assume that the disciples were literate than to assume that they were not—the literacy rate among Jews has always been high. Boys who were particularly promising students could go on to more advanced studies, which means that any boy with the right abilities and talents could go on to become a rabbi, no matter what his father’s trade or social status was.

The word Sabbath is related to the Hebrew word for stop. You might say that the Sabbath is Stop-day, because the primary duty of a Jew on the Sabbath is to stop working. Since everyone is off on that day, it is a good day for the community to gather at the synagogue to learn from the rabbi (the teacher). Other things happened at the synagogue as well. For example, since the rabbis are learned in the Law, people also went to the synagogue so the rabbi could use his expertise to resolve their disputes or to recommend remedies for diseases.

Today, we think of the synagogue as a place of worship. If you could travel back in time and conduct some word-association tests, first-century Jews would associate worship with the Temple, and education with the synagogue.

Mark tells us nothing about evil spirits!

Today, we might be bursting with curiosity about evil spirits, but Mark tells us nothing about them at all. He just assumes we know. Unfortunately, we don’t. We have a lot of questions. Are demons a metaphor for mental illness? Are they spiritual creatures? Do they have any power over people? How dangerous are they? How does one acquire a demon? Can believers be demonized? If we are curious about demons, we have to get our answers from some other place. Mark isn’t interested in teaching us about demons in this pericope.

If Jesus really does have all this authority, maybe  we should just focus our attention on Jesus and let Him take care of the demons—whatever they are and whatever they can do.

We learn nothing about demons from this pericope.

The demon confessed that Jesus is Lord!

Okay, so with tears streaming down your cheeks one Sunday long ago, you lifted up your hands and proclaimed “Jesus is Lord!” Congratulations, but so did the demon!

Just having the opinion that Jesus is Lord is obviously not enough to save you, because demons have that opinion too, and they aren’t saved. Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, so you are a Christian demon! Well, then, in that case you can stay.” Saying that Jesus is Lord is the first step, but if you say that Jesus is your boss and you never get around to doing what He commands, then you aren’t quite telling the truth, are you? You are not saved by your opinions, you are saved by your faith, and if you have faith in a person, you will actually take their advice, not just talk about how good it is. Jesus said that if you truly love Him, you will obey His commandments, and by your fruits He will know you.

In other words, ask Jesus into your heart; then ask Him into your hands and feet, too. Otherwise, what’s the difference between you and a demon?

Jesus left out a step, but the exorcism worked anyway!

A long time ago, I read a book on ancient Babylonian exorcisms. (I must have been very bored that day.) It was a library book, so I can’t give you bibliographical information. That is one reason why I stopped using the library. I figure if it is important enough for me to read a book, it is important enough for me to buy it. Nowadays, I buy books instead of borrowing them. I have a big library of my own, and I can trace back what I remember reading.

But not in this case.

When I read that book, whatever it was, I discovered that there was a distinct procedure for exorcisms that was the same for thousands of years throughout the ancient world. The book didn't touch on the New Testament at all, but when I compared the exorcism procedures with the exorcisms in the New Testament, I noticed that Jesus always left one step out. He never invoked God. Instead, He conducted the exorcism as if He were God Himself. He also taught His disciples to invoke Him as God when they exorcised demons.

And I suppose that is the point that Mark doesn’t want us to miss, because of the next speed bump:

The people were not amazed at Jesus’ success.
They were amazed at Jesus’ authority!

If you or I watched an exorcism, we would be impressed if it worked. We would say, “Hey, can you believe that? It actually worked! The demon came out!” But that is not what the crowd said. Instead, they said, “He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him!” They were impressed with His authority, not with His success.

So what do we learn from this pericope?