Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Jesus' Authority

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28

In Deuteronomy, Moses foretold of a great prophet to come. When the people were at Sinai, they were terrified when they heard the voice of God speaking to them and saw the fire on the mountain. So God said that he would raise up prophets out of their own people, culminating in a great prophet like Moses, the leader of the Exodus. In Acts 7:37, Stephen tells us that this great prophet is Jesus, who is the leader of the New Exodus out of slavery to sin and death.

What is the role of a prophet? A prophet is called to challenge the order of society and to remind people and their leaders of their covenant with God and to warn them about the consequences of disobedience.

A prophet is compelled to speak. Sometimes they are reluctant to deliver their message, knowing the message will land them in hot water with the powers-that-be. But they are compelled by God’s Spirit to speak. The message is greater than the person. And because a prophet must challenge the institutions of society, they cannot become part of them. Often times the prophets worked in the institutions of society, such as the royal court, the priesthood, and later the synagogue, but they could not become attached to them. God’s message might bring reproach and challenge to those institutions.

When Jesus began his ministry, he began in the synagogues. This was the natural place to start since it’s where God’s people came to hear from God. At first, Jesus was welcome there. It’s also where Paul and the other apostles first went to proclaim the gospel as they traveled throughout the Roman world.

What is a synagogue? Literally, it is a place of “hearing together,” a place to hear the Word. The synagogue, as a Jewish institution, came out of the Exile and the Diaspora. In most of the Old Testament, Jewish religious life centered on the Temple. But after they were taken to Babylon and the Temple was destroyed, many of the Jewish people never returned to the land of Israel. This was called the Diaspora, the dispersion. There needed to be something new to take the place of the Temple for those who lived in other lands, even after the Jerusalem Temple was later rebuilt. So wherever there were at least ten Jewish families, a synagogue was built.

Synagogues were community centers and places of prayer and study. During the week, children went there to be taught the Law, and on the Sabbath the whole

community gathered to hear the Scriptures read and taught. Each one had a “synagogue ruler,” basically a lay leader. Most small synagogues had no permanent rabbi. Any priest, Scribe, or rabbi in the area might be asked to teach on the Sabbath, as Jesus was before the opposition to him grew.

Teaching centered around the proper way to interpret and apply the Law in the light of tradition. Their belief was that the Law contained everything necessary for life, if not explicitly, then by extrapolation. Through the centuries, the Scribes had added more and more tradition to the Law to address every conceivable situation. For example, the Law forbade work on the Sabbath. Well, what is work and what isn’t? The Scribes added a list of 37 different kinds of work that were forbidden, even down to how much weight you could carry and how far you could walk on the Sabbath.

When the Scribes taught, they didn’t speak with their own authority. Instead, they appealed constantly to the authority of others. Now there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. If anything, it’s good to look to the wisdom of others. The problem was that there was no consensus among the rabbis. A Scribe might end up saying something like, “In this situation, rabbi so-and-so says A, but rabbi so-and-so says B, and rabbi so-and-so says C, and so on.” That could get confusing!

Along comes Jesus and he speaks with a simple authority, as if he knows the One who gave the Law. It must have been a refreshing change to most people. But it certainly didn’t endear him to the Scribes and Pharisees who had devoted their whole lives to all that tradition!

This first chapter of Marks’ Gospel is all about the authority of Jesus. Jesus is authorized when God proclaims him to be his beloved Son. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. He demonstrates authority in the lives of his followers. He shows himself to be an authoritative teacher. And then he demonstrates his authority over the demonic spirits and over illness.

In the synagogue is a man possessed by an evil spirit. That might surprise Mark’s first readers, since they wouldn’t expect that in a synagogue. But I don’t think it should surprise us. Being in a religious institution is no guarantee that a person’s heart fully belongs to God.

In the first century world, pretty much everyone believed in evil spirits. In Jewish belief, these evil spirits were the fallen angels, those who had joined Satan in his

rebellion against God and had been cast down to the earth. They believed these demonic spirits filled the earth’s atmosphere. They believed demons especially haunted wild places, like the desert, and unclean places, like graveyards. Travelers, pregnant women, and children were especially vulnerable to demonic attack.

They believed many people had been victims of demonic attack. I read one time that in an archaeological dig of a cemetery, they found that about 5% of people had holes drilled in their skulls while they were still alive to let the evil spirits out. Remember, this is long before any kind of anesthetic or painkiller other than alcohol! You had to be desperate to endure that!

And there were many exorcists at work in the first century. Exorcism was typically done in one of two ways. One was to try to force the demon out. This was often done by means of something that tasted or smelled terrible. The other way was to call on a higher spiritual power to drive out the lower spiritual power. But Jesus simply commanded the spirit to leave. He exercised authority over the spiritual realm.

What should we think about demonic activity? On one hand, some say that it’s just ancient superstition. Now we explain all the claims of the demonic as cases of physical or mental illness. Others say that it’s real. And if it was real in Jesus’ day, as they certainly believed it was, then is it still real today?

We should not attribute all physical or mental illness to demonic spirits. We know that there are other things that cause illness.

But I tend to come down on the side that there are evil spirits at work in the world. I’ve had a few experiences in my life when I really felt like there was some spiritual power at work in a situation. I don’t fault people who disagree with me on that. I don’t consider this to be an essential matter of Christian faith. But that is my conviction.

A couple years ago I went to a workshop for Christian leaders about spiritual warfare, and I’ll share a little of what I learned there.

First, demons don’t “possess” people. They don’t take control of a person, as if we had no will of our own. That’s in the movies. But evil spirits do “oppress” people. They beat us down and attack us. They gain access into our lives through unrepented sin, through anger, pain, or lack of forgiveness. And once they gain access to our lives,

they put evil thoughts into our minds. Have you ever had the experience that suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you just have the worst thought imaginable? The leader of this workshop explained that as a demonic attack. I can’t say he was wrong. I think there is something to that.

If evil spirits can do this in our lives, what is our counter-attack? First, we need to remember that Christ is victorious over the spiritual realm. He is seated on the highest throne, far above all rulers, powers, and authorities. Second, the Word of God is our weapon. God’s Word is superior to the lies of demons. If you hear that lie being whispered into your mind, then counter it with God’s Word. By the way, that means we also have to know God’s Word. And third, evil spirits can be driven out of our lives through prayer, fasting, the repentance of sin, and offering forgiveness. In these ways, we can be free from demonic oppression.

Now, you might not believe all that. But I think all of us would agree that there is a spiritual component to dis-ease. If there is dis-ease in our lives, whether that be a physical disease or a mental disease, there is a spiritual component to it. Anger, guilt, loneliness, fear, and malice toward others all have a role in dis-ease. And those are all spiritual issues.

The good news of the gospel is that Christ is victorious over all spiritual powers. We do not need to live in fear of spiritual powers. There is freedom from them in Jesus Christ.

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