The Ruins of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee
Babe Ruth was, of course, the great home run hitter for the New York Yankees baseball team. During one particular at-bat, the umpire, Babe Pinelli, called Ruth out on strikes. There was a stunned silence in the stands. Ruth turned to Pinelli and said, “There are 40,000 people here who know that last one was a ball.” Pinelli replied, “Maybe so, but mine is the only opinion that counts.”
We live in a world of thousands of opinions. Whose opinion counts? Who has the authority that matters? There are experts in every field imaginable, some of whom say conflicting things. Who do we look to as our authority?
This is the question that Mark addresses in the portion of his Gospel that we are going to read today. Listen for God’s Word to you from Mark 1:21-34….
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then 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 with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
The first thing we see in this passage is that Jesus teaches with authority. We read that Jesus and his first disciples (Simon, Andrew, James and John who we read about last week), when they left their fishing boats by the shore of Galilee, went to Capernaum, right beside the water. On the Sabbath, they went into the synagogue and Jesus taught there.
I have stood in the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum. It is not a very large structure, only about 24 by 18 yards. Jesus took the opportunity, afforded to laymen in the synagogue, to read from the Scriptures and comment on it. This was the place to go if someone thought God had given to them a message to deliver to his people. Thus, Jesus began his ministry there.
We read that: “The people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”
How did Jesus’ teaching differ from that of the scribes? No scribe ever taught on his own authority. He would always begin by quoting someone else. “There is a teaching that…”
Now, in a sense, there is nothing wrong with what the scribes were doing. I quote other authorities all the time when I am teaching.
However, Jesus did not do that. He quoted no other authorities. He spoke on his own authority and this was what set Jesus apart. The very manner in which he taught the people indicated that he thought he did not need to quote any other authority. This showed that he thought he was the authority.
Matt Woodley tells the following story….
A few summers ago I watched our 18-year-old son participate in a real X-ball paintball tournament. With sophisticated paintball guns that shoot 13 paintballs per second, the matches are quick and exciting. They’re also chaotic. The X-ball concept depends on five players from each team shooting at their opponents and working their way up a large outdoor field. The goal is to “kill” (that is, hit with a paintball) the other team’s players so you can capture their flag.
But it’s not an easy task. The main problem is that in the midst of thousands of flying paintballs it’s tough to spot your opponents. The other team can crouch and dive behind bunkers and barriers. To make matters even worse, as your team’s coach shouts the right information about your opponents’ locations, the other team’s fans start yelling false information.
When I heard the other fans intentionally confusing my son’s teammates, I was shocked. It sounded like cheating to me—or at least incivility. But after the match my son calmly informed me, “O, yeah, that’s called ‘counter-coaching.’ They’re trying to distract our players with false information. It’s part of the game, Dad. We have to deal with it all the time. It just means that we have to focus on our coach and block out all the other distractions.”
The Bible clearly warns us that it’s not easy to listen for God’s voice. There will be plenty of “counter coaching” from the culture, the devil, and from our own distracted hearts. As my son said, “That’s part of the game. We have to deal with it all the time.” And there’s only one way to combat spiritual counter-coaching: know the voice of Jesus, hanging on every word as we trust and obey him—even when the crowd tells us to do something else.
The second thing we see in this passage is not only that Jesus teaches with authority but Jesus also has authority over demons.
We are told that while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum a man 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!”
Literally, verse 23 talks about an unclean spirit. The word is akathartos. We are familiar with the word “cathartic”. A cathartic experience is a cleansing experience. This man in the synagogue was having un-cathartic or unclean experiences in his life.
Now I know we have a hard time believing the parts of the Gospels that talk about demons. We have a tendency to want to explain this stuff away. However, I think we need to think twice before we do that.
Last year, The Washington Post ran a controversial op-ed piece titled, “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.” The subtitle read, “How a scientist learned to work with exorcists.” The author, Richard Gallagher, is a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. Dr. Gallagher wrote:
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness—which represent the overwhelming majority of cases—from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist—open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people—led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.
Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
So far the article has generated over 2800 comments, expressing a wide spectrum of viewpoints.
The good news in all of this is that Jesus has authority over the demonic. Furthermore, if we are truly living as “Christ-in” people, we have power over Satan and his demons in Jesus’ name.
A third thing we see in this passage is that Jesus has authority over disease.
After their eventful visit to the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples go to the house of Simon and Andrew. Excavations have been done in Capernaum revealing a first century house, which eventually became a house church, and finally a basilica. According to tradition, this is the house of Simon Peter. The tradition makes sense.
On this occasion at Simon’s house, Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. Fevers like this were common in the Galilee region then and now. Jesus takes the woman by her hand, helps her out of bed, and the fever leaves her immediately.
How simply and authoritatively Jesus healed people and removed demons! There was no mumbo-jumbo, no elaborate ceremony. Jesus speaks six words and a demon is muzzled and vanquished. Jesus lifts someone up by the hand and they are healed.
By evening, word got around regarding the exorcism Jesus performed in the synagogue. Suddenly, people are bringing all sorts of sick and demon-possessed friends and family members to Jesus for healing. Mark tells us the whole town was at Simon’s front door. Jesus healed many and cast out many demons.
I believe in Jesus’ power to heal today as much as I believe in his power to remove demons today. C. S. Lewis once wrote,
I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thigh-bone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of the disease in many other bones as well. It took three people to move her in bed. The doctors predicted a few months of life; the nurses (who often know better), a few weeks. A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying, “These bones are as solid as rock. It’s miraculous.”
That woman was C. S. Lewis’ wife. Her cancer went into remission for four years, seemingly in answer to prayer, as well as in response to medical treatment. Joy Lewis eventually died from cancer. I think her story shows that there can be miraculous healing but all healing in this life is temporary.
Jesus did not heal everyone in his day. He does not heal everyone now. I believe Jesus’ ultimate purpose is not to perform a healing here or an exorcism there. His ultimate purpose is to heal all creation, to get rid of all evil. And for that he had to go to the cross. He was not interested in having demons make him famous. He was interested in returning all creation to God’s original purpose, and that plan is still in process.
 Matt Woodley, Chicago, Illinois
 Richard Gallagher, “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” The Washington Post (7-1-16)