October 24, 2020

Reconsider Jesus – The Teacher (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 Teacher

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

In this passage we see Jesus in two roles that are essential to understanding him: teacher and exorcist. Certainly most people are comfortable with the image of Jesus as a teacher and this image influences a great deal of our conception of Christianity. We will discuss the idea of Jesus as exorcist in the next chapter.

Capernaum was a large and important city in Galilee, a headquarters of government and commerce and an international crossroads. Jesus’ choice of this city as his home base for his ministry in Galilee75 shows that he was not a “country” preacher or a recluse. There was a large synagogue in Capernaum and the remains of a later synagogue are still prominent for any visitor to view. Jesus lived in the time when synagogues were evolving from a secular and religious function as a “community center” to a more purely religious purpose.

Being invited to teach in a large synagogue in a prominent city was not something done without thought or significance. This is a clue that Jesus had already achieved considerable notoriety as a teacher and perhaps as a miracle worker. Jesus’ status as a teacher or rabbi is accepted even by his opponents, indicating that Jesus was well known in this regard. I am always intrigued by those aspects of the Gospels that we do not know about, for instance, how did a man from a tiny village with no formal education receive the respect and fame that Jesus did so quickly? It is an indication of what an extraordinary person Jesus really was from the outset.

This story introduces the teachers of the law or scribes who will be Jesus’ opponents throughout his ministry. These men were not copyists but scholars, experts in the traditions by which the Jews interpreted and lived out the Torah.76 As custodians of the interpretation of scripture, the scribes were fulfilling a good and serious function and we should never cast them in the role of “the bad guys.” Their passion was to construct an entire life built around the foundation of the law. In this they left no stone unturned and tried to leave no question unaddressed. Jesus does not oppose them for their function, but, as Matthew 23 stresses, for their misinterpretations and hypocrisies.

As scribes, these teachers based their interpretations on other interpretations of scripture. It was considered essential to place any practice on the clear statement of scripture and the proper tradition of interpretation.77 A modern day parallel to this would be the use of footnotes.

Before the age of computers I used a typewriter for assignments. My heart would always sink when a cruel and malicious teacher would say, “I want the footnotes at the bottom of the page.” In my experience you had to be Albert Einstein to be able to calculate how much space to leave at the bottom of the page for footnotes. I am not sure I was ever able to do that effectively.

But the point was that in the assignment the teacher wanted to know how you used other people’s material. So, every good research paper had footnotes that referenced the original source of the information in your report.

It was a very similar situation in the time of Jesus. It was considered inappropriate to stand up and proclaim, “This is what I say.” If you were a teacher you were expected to read the scripture and interpret it with other scripture. “As it says in Deuteronomy… as it says in the Law… as Moses said.” Alternatively you might quote Rabbi Hillel or Rabbi Gamaliel, or one of the other great Rabbis of the first century. If you taught in this fashion your listeners would nod in agreement.

To teach using an expression like “This is what I say” would have been shocking and rude. When you look at Mark and the other gospels you discover that Jesus did not use footnotes. Jesus taught as one having intrinsic authority. Matthew captures this in the Sermon on the Mount with his repeated use of “You have heard it said… but I say unto you.” :

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Matthew 5: 21-22, 27-28 (NIV)

That is the way Jesus taught. That is why Mark is able to say “The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”

There are some places where our English language struggles to portray the reactions of people. Mark uses a word that is translated as “amazed” or “astonished”. I think an old descriptive term works best here: The people were flabbergasted! Here is an uneducated preacher, who has never studied with anybody, who has been working as a carpenter or stoneworker, and who has now taken upon himself the mantle of rabbi and teacher. Not only that but he has come into your synagogue proclaiming “This is what I say.”

This is why Jesus immediately was a controversial figure. The only way we can imagine the impact of this sort of teaching is if we picture what the reaction of Christians would be to someone who said: “Well, I know the Bible says such and such, but I say…” Yet, Jesus was able to make statements like this and “the people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority”.

However, Jesus did more than teach authoritatively, his actions demonstrated his authority as well. A demon possessed man suddenly arrives in the synagogue in Capernaum. I take scripture at face value that he was demon possessed, and we will discuss that aspect more in the next chapter.

While a lot of people didn’t know who Jesus was, the demons did, and they assumed that if Jesus Christ was in the world their time was up. Notice how demons react to Jesus: “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!” What did Jesus do? “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” Mark records that the “impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” Every time Jesus expels a demon he does it with a single command. Out.

The authority of Jesus. People heard Jesus speak with authority and they saw this authority as Jesus confronted the demonic realm. When you and I come face to face with Jesus Christ in our lives we need to understand something that the people of his time understood: This is no mere man. This is someone utterly and completely unique. This is someone who teaches with authority, like God himself. This is someone who confronts evil and it obeys him like God himself. As we will discuss in future chapters, this is someone who heals immediately, totally, and visibly because as Creator he exerts authority over his creation.

If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we are under his authority. That means we rejoice in the fact that evil has been banished, our sins are forgiven, and our life is totally under his protection. But it also means that in my life I can’t do as I choose and do as I please. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to be a follower of the one who has absolute authority. I speak the way Jesus directs me to speak. He takes authority over my money and I say “Lord, how do I use my resources?” He takes authority over my time, and my relationships, and my decisions, so that I ask “Lord Jesus, what do you want?” The little formula, “What would Jesus do?” is pretty helpful. If we know the Jesus of scripture it allows us to ask, “What does the authority of Jesus Christ mean in this situation?”, and then act accordingly.

—————————————-

Footnotes:

[75] Matthew 4:13 describes Jesus leaving Nazareth and dwelling in Capernaum.

[76] The Torah primarily refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but can be understood more broadly to mean the religious teaching or instruction that is built around these five books.

[77] Among modern Christians, the role of tradition is well understood by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but is generally denigrated by many Protestants. However Protestants should also recognize the role that tradition plays in our interpretation as we generally not only cite scripture, but our church statement of faith, favorite historical theologian, preacher or teacher as further authority for our beliefs.

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. Could you help spread the news about the series and the book to come by posting a link to the table of contents to your social media?
4. 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. “The only way we can imagine the impact of this sort of teaching is if we picture what the reaction of Christians would be to someone who said: “Well, I know the Bible says such and such, but I say…” ”

    I’m not even sure this conveys the true impact of this. Because let’s face it, Christians *do* do this, all the time. Oh, we dress it up in flowery rhetoric and twists of hermeneutic logic, but we do do it – especially when it comes to Jesus’ calls to radical discipleship.

    I’m not sure what would be a good parallel for our time, actually…

    • This is perhaps the first place I’ve had a real disagreement with Michael’s commentary. I don’t think that is what Jesus was doing, even in the Sermon on the Mount. The illustration Michael uses sounds like a direct contradiction of Scripture, whereas my own belief is that even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was giving a better understanding of Scripture. You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”, don’t think you are obeying just because you haven’t slept with someone other than your wife. He even starts out by saying “don’t think I’ve come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I’ve come to fulfill them.” Jesus constantly appealed to Scripture, using it to refute the devil in the wilderness, and to shut down the questions of those testing him (have you not read?). What he didn’t use, and often contradicted, was the authority of their scribes. He didn’t appeal to their tradition. Although even there, though I am not an expert in these things, I think you can find Rabbis who said things very similar to what Jesus taught.

      • OTOH, Jesus did specifically call out a portion of Scripture as being the product of Moses overagainst God…

        Matthew 19:4-8

        ““Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

        7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”(G)

        8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

        • Jesus went beyond Scripture and reinterpreted it as he saw fit. He was not subject to it, it was subject to him.

          • “You diligently search the Scriptures, thinking that by them you will gain eternal life. It is they which testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me for the eternal life you seek…”

          • My point is there is no contradiction there between Jesus and the Scriptures. His interpretation is the interpretation, if it is different from the traditional interpretation, the tradition was wrong.

            • The problem is, there is at least one place where He does contradict it. He directly quotes the “eye for an eye” portion of the Law – not a pharisaical or extrapolation, but the passage directly – and negates the entire principle of *lex talionis* behind that passage. That’s a pretty broad “interpretation” no matter how you slice it.

              • Agree. And also the example you cited above re: Mosaic allowance for divorce. There are others, as well, with regard to ritual purity, for instance. Jesus makes no effort to avoid the touch of the woman who had an “issue of blood”, despite it making him ritually impure according to texts in Leviticus. He does not seem to be in the least concerned about purifying himself according to the Law; he simply sets it aside as a concern, just as his followers in Acts, under the guidance of a a vision, set aside the idea of clean vs. unclean foods, in effect setting aside the demands of Scripture.

                • Bringing the early church, after the establishment of the New Covenant is established, raises a whole host of different issues. Many of those laws were part of the Old Covenant, which we are not a part of.

                  • Michael Bell says

                    “Many of those laws were part of the Old Covenant, which we are not a part of.”

                    And in that statement, you have just answered your own questions. Saying that we are no longer part of the Old Covenant, is, at the macro level, the most radical reinterpretation of them all.

                  • Jesus in the Gospels himself says that it is not what goes into the mouth that makes one impure, but what comes out of the heart. He is clearly setting aside many Old Testament texts regarding pure vs. impure foods, and as a Jew that was not kosher for him to do.

              • Did he actually contradict it, or just show people that there was another and better option. The law in context deals with what judgment to be made if one person injures another. It appears to me that it was a judgment to be made by a third party and not just applied by the injured person himself, though many probably used it as a justification for revenge rather than justice. But even with that in mind that it is more like God to turn the other cheek than to seek retribution.

                • “even with that in mind that it is more like God to turn the other cheek than to seek retribution.”

                  The OT is full of attributions of retribution to God. There are certainly threads of mercy (see Ruth and Jonah in particular) but there are plenty of counter examples.

            • sadly, it is more the ‘modernist’ translations of the ‘ancient words’ that go astray from Christ’s meaning

              or how could we get trumpism and ‘the annointed one’ getting so much ‘christian’ support?

        • Iain Lovejoy says

          “But it was not this way from the beginning” is apparently a poor rendition of what was actually said: the Greek is in the “perfect” tense which indicates something that was the case in the past and still is. It is more accurately “It has never been this way from the beginning.” What Jesus appears to be contradicting is the scribes asserting divorce as a command from Moses, rather than a necessary concession to human weakness: just because Moses provided for it didn’t make it right.

  2. thatotherjean says

    This is one of those places where the agnostic in me is screaming. Are there actual, life-affecting demons? Really? It’s not a disagreement with Mike Bell’s work, but with Michael Spencer’s belief system. I suspect that agnostic streak is going to get a workout next posting. Mental illness certainly exists–but it’s not caused by demons, no matter how people in the 1st Century interpreted it. This is a point where I’ll be putting down the book and taking a deep breath before picking it up again.

    • If we can accept the reality of a God, why not demons? Granted, I am disinclined to attribute to them anywhere like the power and agency that Pentecostals and Evangelicals typically do, but their existence (in one form or another) is accepted by just about every religion on earth.

    • I think you will find the next posting quite refreshing in Michael Spencer’s balanced approach. Stay tuned!

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    My heart would always sink when a cruel and malicious teacher would say, “I want the footnotes at the bottom of the page.” In my experience you had to be Albert Einstein to be able to calculate how much space to leave at the bottom of the page for footnotes. I am not sure I was ever able to do that effectively.

    And he/she wouldn’t accept “Endnotes”, i.e. all the footnotes clustered in an appendix at the end?

    Before word processors that calculated spacing for footnotes automatically, that was the common way of doing it. Page-level footnotes at the time pretty much required professional typesetting.