October 24, 2020

Reconsider Jesus – The Exorcist (Mark 1:21-28)


Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents

The Exorcist

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “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!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 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 impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Mark 1:21-28 – NIV

While many are comfortable with the image of Jesus as a teacher, picturing Jesus as an exorcist however, raises problems for many modern western minds. Exorcism is associated with a primitive and pre-scientific world-view, particularly in the area of mental and physical illnesses. In the first century, demons were considered a common explanation for many physical, mental and emotional problems. In order to help us understand this passage, I think it would be helpful for us to deal with one principle of Bible interpretation by discussing the implications of a pre-scientific world. I think it is important for us to understand, and for me it has been very helpful.

The Bible is written in a pre-scientific world. What this means is that, given the opportunity to describe something that is going on in the real world, the authors of the text do not give a modern scientific description. They don’t describe things as scientists would describe them, or as a medical doctor today would describe them. What they do describe is whatever they are looking at in a way people would understand at that time. If you try to hold the Biblical descriptions to the standards of modern science, you are going to be in trouble for many reasons. Let me give you two examples of this that I often use when trying to make this point.

In Mark 13:24, when speaking about the signs that will accompany the end of time, Jesus quotes from two Old Testament passages78 and says: “But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”

Let me focus on one thing here: “The stars will fall from the sky.”

This is a pre-scientific description. In Jesus’ day, people believed stars were little points up in the sky. When they saw the streak of light in the sky it made sense to them that these were falling stars. We understand stars differently today, and we know that “falling stars” are bits of meteoric dust burning up in our atmosphere. What Jesus is doing here is using poetic language to describe a future cataclysmic time. He is using language that people of his day understood. We shouldn’t expect this to be written in modern scientific language, as that would be foolish.

Let me give you another example from the Gospel of John: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’”79

You see the worldview that is at work? It is a worldview that does not understand what doctors understand today about eyes and blindness. Thinking that blindness is a consequence of sin is a thought from a pre-scientific world.

Jesus didn’t walk into his world as a 21st century doctor or scientist. So 21st century doctors and scientists shouldn’t make fun of scripture because scripture uses the language of its own culture. Jesus lived and spoke and ministered in his world as a person of his time and culture. He responded as a person of his time. We should not ask that the Gospels present us Jesus with a scientific and psychologically sophisticated point of view on questions of mental and physical illness. The particular demonology of Jesus day was derived more from Persian sources than from purely Jewish ones, but the important point is that in a pre-scientific worldview, it is not “ignorant” or “primitive” to see spiritual forces at work in these sorts of situations.

When I was growing up I would frequently see an epileptic seizure in my school. It was kind of frightening. A child would fall out of his chair, or writhe on the floor. It occurred to me as I have been studying the Gospel of Mark these past years, that you don’t see that any more. It is now controlled by medication. Yet how would the people of Jesus’ day interpret these episodes of epilepsy?

There are a lot of encounters between Jesus and demons in the Gospel of Mark. As we go through Mark we will observe some events that are attributed to demons, that when seen from our western mindset, can be understood to be as a result of something else.

That being said, I absolutely believe in demons. They are fallen angelic spirits. I believe they are real, and yes, I believe Jesus encountered them. I also believe that most of what is labeled as demon possession in the Gospel of Mark is exactly that. You will notice in this passage, along with the encounter in Mark 5, that the demon possessed typically speaks and identifies Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, demons know exactly who Jesus is: “The Holy One of God” with the power to destroy them. They recognize his authority as well. This is indicative of a true demon possession. However, I do believe that demon possession is very, very rare in the world and is not the usual explanation for bad behavior or other problems seen in the Bible.80 My own ministry with troubled teenagers leads me to believe that the demonic is real, but not the primary issue in most human problems.

At the same time, we would be wise to remember the following points:

  1.  The Bible presents a spiritually charged universe, with divine, angelic and human levels.
  2.  The fall of angelic spirits into the world is an unarguable fact of the Bible’s view of the world.
  3.  Nowhere does the Bible tell us that all demons are responsible for all evil, but undeniably demons are responsible for some aspects of evil.
  4.  Even modern science recognizes that complex human problems are more complex than science can fully explain.
  5.  It is not surprising that demons would confront Jesus during his time on earth.

I believe those who reject this aspect of the Gospel portrait of Jesus are seriously damaging the truth of who Jesus is. We need to recognize his authority over demonic powers. In his name, Christians may oppose any and all forms of evil, both personal and corporate.

At the same time, I have learned that many Christians who do take this seriously have gone overboard. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that demons are the primary problem. Our problem is sin: Our own sin, the sin of others, and the combined effects of the two. We live in a world affected by sin and this is the center of God’s redemptive work. The Bible tells us that humanity’s fascination with the occult is even a manifestation of sin more than of demons.81

The breaking of the power of demons indicates that the Kingdom of God is breaking into human history. This is important. But Christianity is not demonology; once we are in Christ, we are free from the power of the evil one. The Bible does not teach a dualistic worldview of the “good” God on one side and the “bad” God on the other. All of the demonic operates in a universe where God is sovereign and even demons believe and tremble. Those who approach every problem as a demonic attack rather than a manifestation of sin have forgotten this. At that point an unhealthy focus on the demonic is demeaning to the salvation and victory of the Savior.

Here is an illustration that helps me. Where there is garbage, there are rats! The garbage of human sin is the problem in our world. Rats, with all their diseases, etc. are only a manifestation of the garbage. If you get rid of the rats (demons), you still have the garbage. However, when Christ gets rid of the garbage (sin’s power, influence, and guilt) the rats go as well.

Jesus was not the first exorcist in his culture. They were common in his time. But their methods were hardly similar to his! Those who were possessed were often subject to days of beatings and verbal abuse in the attempt to drive out the spirit. Jesus simply commanded and they left! This was the cause of tremendous amazement because Jesus did with his word what others would nearly kill someone trying to accomplish. This manifestation of the authority of Jesus underlines his teaching authority, but most of all his identity as the Holy Son of God.

A final thought about this passage. Mark often will show Jesus commanding spirits not to say who he is and commanding those experiencing his power to not tell anyone. We see this both here, and in the following passage. This puzzling behavior is only found in Mark and scholars have called it “Mark’s Secret” for many years. It is clear that Mark and the other Gospel writers want us to know that those who were with Jesus knew without a doubt he was the Son of God, as did demons and even unlikely Gentiles! The “secret” actually shows us that Jesus did not want to become so famous as to lose control of his mission. He was surrounded by people inclined to see him as a political, even military ruler. Yet Jesus knew his identity and mission would only become clear after the cross, something that could not be taught or explained. So he tells people and demons to be quiet. You get the feeling it didn’t often work.

—————————————-

Footnotes:

[78] Isaiah 13:10; 34:4

[79] John 9:1

[80] For example in the letter of 1 Corinthians, the church has problems of adultery, incest, drunkenness, and division. Paul does not attribute this to demons, instead he says that the Corinthians are immature, they don’t have any good leaders, and they need to grow up and love each other.

[81] 1 Samuel 15:23

 

Notes from Mike Bell:
1. What questions or thoughts come from your mind from what you have just read? What stood out to you?
2. Would you be interested in a paper or Kindle version of the book when it is available? Please email us at michaelspencersnewbook@gmail.com so that we can let you know when it is ready.
3. Find any grammar or spelling errors, phrases that are awkward or difficult to understand? Also send these type of comments to the email address above.

Comments

  1. So, here is my first take on this chapter by Michael Spencer. I think he jumps to easily to sin being a root cause when he writes:

    “The garbage of human sin is the problem in our world.”

    This after just quoting the passage where the disciples ask Jesus:

    “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

    Jesus’ response was: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

    I think we can have a tendency to still jump too quickly to the idea that a problem is a “sin problem”.

    That being said, I do know that physical and sexual abuse is a horrendous thing, with consequences that can last many generations.

    Thoughts?

    By the way, I will be celebrating Thanksgiving with my parents today (outside), so be nice to each other in your comments please, as I won’t be able to check in much.

    • It helps to remember that IMonk was preaching and teaching over many decades, and his thinking (pardon the pun) evolved over that time.

      Although, as a quasi-Calvinist, *I* would still say our sinfulness/fallen nature/original sin is a huge root problem.

    • A root cause for what? I don’t think too many people attribute physical disabilities to personal sin anymore. But if you are talking about the major issues of the world, then yeah I think the root cause is sin. Greed, malice, lack of love, vengeance, lust, and so on are all sin and cause the majority of problems in the world today.

  2. thatotherjean says

    Thank you, Mike Bell, for suggesting that Michael Spencer’s view of demons (at least in the Bible) was more nuanced than last week’s segment suggested. It’s always useful to remember L.P. Hartley, a British novelist often quoted by historians and archaeologists: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” As for the reality of demons, Michael Spencer, we hope, now knows; I don’t, and will continue to disagree with what he has written here.

    Also: Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you’re enjoying your day.

  3. “This is a pre-scientific description. In Jesus’ day, people believed stars were little points up in the sky. When they saw the streak of light in the sky it made sense to them that these were falling stars. We understand stars differently today, and we know that “falling stars” are bits of meteoric dust burning up in our atmosphere. What Jesus is doing here is using poetic language to describe a future cataclysmic time. He is using language that people of his day understood. We shouldn’t expect this to be written in modern scientific language, as that would be foolish.”

    This is a great illustration. I don’t know that you want to change Michael’s wording, but if you could slightly edit this sentence I think it would be more consistent with his point:

    ‘What Jesus is doing here is using poetic language to describe a future cataclysmic time.’

    To: ‘What Jesus is doing here is using familiar [or apocalyptic, or pre-scientific] language to describe a future cataclysmic time.’

    My point is that it isn’t ‘poetic’ language (or it wasn’t to his ancient hearers); it is pre-scientific language. It is, as Michael says, Jesus using language that people of his day understood. If we were to ask Michael about this I think he’d probably agree.

  4. thatotherjean says

    I agree, Greg. Today, it’s using poetic language to say “The stars fell from the sky.” because we know those are not stars. The people of Jesus’s day were simply saying what they saw. “Pre-scientific” would be a clearer description, if Mike Bell thinks that Michael’s language could/should be changed.

  5. Michael Bell says

    Greg and theotherjean,

    Thanks for the suggestions. I think these are worthy edits.