The Ultimate Authority
Mark 1:21-28. Fourth Week After Epiphany.
When you mention the word “authority,” it’s likely you’ll have to qualify what you mean. Depending on the audience’s background—and the current context—“authority” may have a very negative connotation. It may bring to mind oppression by a dictatorial boss or an abusive parent. In that setting, an “authority” is a ruler—a ruler who uses you for his or her own advantage.
But there are good authorities as well—ones who use their authority for the benefit of others instead of themselves. This use of authority is seen as beneficial and orderly for society. Good parents, good teachers, good bosses—ones who develop trust in the people of their charge.
Jesus exercised good authority. Like other good authority figures, Jesus didn’t seek authority; it was given to him (Mt 28:18). In his state of humiliation, Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father, using his Father’s authority for the good—for the salvation—of all mankind.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus shows his active work toward that salvation. We see that Jesus’ Authority Is Shown by His Teaching and His Power over Demons.
What was so special about Jesus’ teaching (Mk 1:21–22)? He taught as one who had authority—not like the teaching they’d been hearing from the scribes. The scribes were quick to cite high-sounding rabbinic names. They used these remote authorities to give their words more credence. But in fact, they weren’t interested in creeds at all, but deeds. They were only interested in the endless duties of the Law. From the Torah, they extracted rules and regulations for almost any situation. Generation after generation of scribes passed down this oral law, which was committed to memory. Since they were the experts of this unwritten code, they were also the ones passing judgment on individual cases.
But while the scribes were extracting and deducing, being “quick to quote,” Jesus was “cutting to the quick”—boldly preaching contrition and faith, the full counsel of God. He simply told them how it is—on no less authority than God himself.
And so, what a startling contrast this teaching of Jesus was! The difference was so great that our text says the people were “amazed”—literally, in the Greek, “dumbfounded.”
This refers, first, to the content of his teaching—to what Jesus taught. He wasn’t preaching about endless circumstances for choosing the right behavior, but sin and grace. His message wasn’t “What should I do?” but rather “What has God done for me—because of what I’ve done and left undone?” This wasn’t some new teaching that was “all the rage” of Capernaum, but it was a “dusting off” of timeless teaching. It was a teaching that man is not capable of keeping God’s Law. It was a teaching that through the coming and the work of the Messiah, forgiveness would be won for helpless man. Christianity would need to be about Christ, not the Christian.
There was also the manner in which Jesus taught. There was no gap—no seam—between message and messenger. When Jesus taught, he was presenting simultaneously the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Son taught—directly—the message and intent of the Father.
But this refreshing message of good news isn’t always received with joy and “amazement,” is it? Often we see, even in very different settings, the rejection of the “good.”
Long ago, there was one who had everything. But “everything” just didn’t seem to be enough, and he rebelled against the one who’d given him everything. He put together an army, an evil army, so that a proper war could be fought. His aggression toward God made it seem like he owned heaven—what arrogance!
We know that the devil was defeated in his rebellion, but he still keeps trying to get his demons to cause us to fall and deceive us into forsaking God’s authority and love. And for many generations, it seemed that Satan and his servants had more power to torture and oppress sinners that God had power to give us His peace.
But when Jesus comes onto the scene, the devil’s arrogance disappears. Our Gospel lesson says, Mk 1:23–24: “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!’ ”
Notice his words: “What do you want with us?” It’s like saying, “What are you doing here?” Obviously, the demon had quite enjoyed having the place to himself. “Everyone here was perfectly content—until you came along. You’ve come to destroy, not save. I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Jesus didn’t tolerate the devil’s arrogance. Even though what the demon said about Jesus’ authority was true, it certainly was no endorsement.
So Jesus shuts him up. Literally in the Greek, he “muzzles him.” Jesus says three little Greek words—that’s all it took to vanquish the wicked one. No magic show—no long incantation—just three words:—be silent and come out! Be gone!
We are told, Mk 1:26–27: “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.’ ” This is what Satan and his angels most despise: to be put in their place, to be reminded that they never had, and never will have, ultimate authority. They can never be God. Christ Jesus is God.
As Luther once said, God’s powerful and efficacious Word acts as a “fumigant.” For where God’s Word is applied, Satan cannot be. So, three little words—words from the mouth of God—did fell him. And that’s all it takes for us too—three little words from the mouth of God. God’s Word has his own final authority. But in our case, they are words with the authority to restore. Three words, “I forgive you,” from the mouth of God, dispel all gloom and sadness and bring on joy and gladness.
So let’s embrace and even exercise in our own lives God’s ultimate authority in Jesus to forgive sins, to set people free from judgement, and to welcome true peace.