Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm (Mark 5:1–20)

In any good summer blockbuster movie, our intrepid hero stares down overwhelming opposition in a final showdown. Vastly outnumbered, he relies on his wits and skill to emerge victorious from the battle. We cheer him on because we love to see the good guy win, especially if he’s the underdog.

It’s a little different in Jesus’ case. He’s about to be vastly outnumbered by the enemy, but it doesn’t even faze him. Jesus is not the underdog; he is never the underdog. But he likes to help people who are underdogs.

Immediately following the terrific windstorm from the night before, Jesus and his followers reach land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This region is inhabited by the Gerasenes, who were Gentiles. It’s the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. As soon as he steps onto the land, he is confronted by a powerful foe.

A man rushes down the beach to meet him, and he isn’t coming with friendly intent. He is a wild beast of a man, an unclean Gentile, controlled by an unclean spirit, living among unclean tombs. No one can tame him and chain him down; the unclean spirit gives him phenomenal strength to break his bonds. But now we see this monster falling down on the beach before Jesus, shrieking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” In other words, he is pleading with Jesus, “Leave me alone!” Why? Because Jesus had begun to confront the spirit controlling the man, saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” It’s a showdown between spiritual forces, and there’s no question who is going to win.

Then the big reveal takes place. Jesus ignores the man and confronts the unclean spirit inside him, demanding, “What is your name?” And the spirit replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a roman army unit comprised of 6,000 men; it represented a force of astounding size. There were innumerable demons oppressing this man—but they are reduced to begging Jesus for mercy. They beg him to let them stay in the country and enter a herd of (unclean) pigs; Jesus gives them permission. This is an act of defiance on the part of these spirits; they have been embarrassed and want to save face by demonstrating their power. They represent such an overwhelming force that, in their fury, they are able to drown the entire herd of 2,000 pigs into the lake like so many lemmings.

When the pig herdsmen witness this incredible show of force, they run to tell the news to whomever will listen. Those who hear it run to see it for themselves, and there they find Jesus—and the demon-possessed man, sitting there calmly, “clothed and in his right mind.” And then, Mark tells us, “They were afraid.” They know that these spirits have tremendous power; the spirits had turned this man into an untamable beast, and they had just driven a massive herd of pigs to their death. Yet Jesus had dismissed them all with a simple command. These spirits were frightening enough—how much more so the man who mastered them!

But here’s the thing about fear: it doesn’t guarantee faith. As the legion of spirits begged Jesus, so now the people beg him for a favor as well—“to depart from their region.” Why? Because Jesus is a threat to them. When someone with this power shows up, he changes the status quo. That’s great news to people who are outcast or oppressed, like the demon-possessed man. But it’s bad news for people like the herdsmen, who have nothing to gain when the King comes to exercise his authority. If Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm, there is no stopping him. So they plead with him to leave, and Jesus obliges them.

As for the demon-possessed man, he too begs Jesus for a favor. He asks “that he might be with him.” This is what Jesus had asked his disciples to do (3:14). So will he grant the man’s request, just as he had granted the request of the unclean spirits and the request of the man’s Gerasene countrymen? Strangely, he does not. He has a better plan for his new recruit: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

If you’ve been following along for the first four chapters of Mark, this order should surprise you. Jesus has repeatedly tried to hide himself and his message, ordering unclean spirits and a cleansed leper to keep quiet about him, and speaking in parables to conceal the good news of God’s kingdom. As we keep reading in Mark, we will find that he continues to value secrecy. But here, he orders the man to tell everyone about what had happened. Why?

Take a look at what Jesus asks the man to say. “Tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That’s all. The message the man is to deliver is simply this: the Most High God of the Jews has come to deal kindly with the Gentiles. This demoniac was an unclean man among unclean men. If Jesus feels compassion for him and rescues him, how much more will he do so for his countrymen! The man travels throughout the region, telling how much Jesus has done for him, and everyone marvels over the news.

We saw last week that Jesus had authority over the natural world, and now we see that he has command over the spiritual realm. And once again, he uses that authority with a meekness, a gentleness, a pity for the outcast and the oppressed. A madman in agony, loneliness, and despair—now clothed and in his right mind and jubilant with news of a great Savior.

Teaching with authority (Mark 1:16–31)

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” “You can’t push your morality on me.” “You have no right to order me around.”

We just don’t like authority here in the West. In an increasingly cynical and postmodern culture, people in authority are eyed with suspicion. Authority threatens our sense of autonomy. Even in the church, the role of authority has been questioned—to the point where the bestselling Christian novel, The Shack, has denounced authority as inherently evil. We just don’t like the idea that someone can waltz into our lives and demand that we drop everything and do what he commands.

Maybe that’s part of the reason we have such a big problem following Jesus. He is not afraid to insist on his own authority.

Take a look at today’s passage in Mark. The first scene opens with Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a deep lake known for its excellent fishing. He sees two sets of fishermen working the family business, calls to them and commands them to follow him, and they obey. Mark doesn’t really get into the backstory of these men (though John’s gospel explains that they already knew who Jesus was). Mark simply offers us a scene so abrupt, so startling, that we are left wondering, “What man possesses authority so great that he simply asks a handful of fisherman to leave their lifelong family business in order to follow him around?” Jewish Rabbis didn’t seek out followers; their followers sought them. Yet here is Jesus, walking up to these men and staking his claim on their lives. As far as he was concerned, they belonged to him. He owned them.

Do you find that last sentence a little threatening? I’m an American citizen, and odds are that you are as well. We like to think we’re free; we like to think that nobody has the right to order us around. The problem is, Jesus has that right. “Follow me,” he insists, “and I will make you become fishers of men.” There is a threatening beauty to Jesus’ statement: it is a command followed by a promise. To men who have no greater ambition than to make money and pass on the family occupation, Jesus offers something far greater. “You won’t be fishing for fish anymore. No, I will turn you into someone who fishes for people. The gospel of the kingdom that you’ve heard me proclaim is the gospel that you will proclaim.” Jesus gives them a new destiny, providing a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives that they have never had before.

So what do Simon, Andrew, James, and John do? Jesus says, “Follow,” so they follow. They leave their jobs and their families and obey him at once. That’s the sort of authority Jesus has.

With his disciples in tow, Jesus shows up in the town of Capernaum along the seashore. He arrives in the local synagogue on the Sabbath day and is invited to teach. When he does, he astonishes everyone there because he teaches them with authority, “and not as the scribes.” The scribes were the local teachers of the law, who would simply parrot what other teachers had said about the Old Testament. Not Jesus! He steps up and teaches his own ideas, and he teaches them with the air of someone who is perfectly within his rights to order you around.

However, there is someone in attendance who doesn’t want to be ordered around. A man with an “unclean spirit”—a demon—tries to shout Jesus down. He wants to shut down Jesus’ teaching, so he instigates a confrontation, shrieking, “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.” The unclean spirit is attempting to wrest control of the situation from Jesus. He goes on the offensive with three statements. First, he demands that Jesus leave him and his demonic comrades alone. Second, he announces that he knows Jesus’ plan—to destroy him and his fellow spirits, who have been harassing the people of Galilee. Third, he knows Jesus’ secret identity. He is “the Holy One of God”—someone with a special relationship with God, if not the Messiah himself! The unclean spirit pulls out all the stops to gain control over Jesus.

Jesus will have none of it. “Be silent, and come out of him!” he demands. Jesus had been teaching, the spirit had tried to shout him down, and now Jesus shuts up the spirit. This demon leaves the man with one final act of defiance, “crying out with a loud voice.” And then—silence. Jesus has the stage to himself. The crowd is astounded—this is a man of impossible authority! And notice the emphasis in the text: “a new teaching with authority”! Jesus’ victory over the unclean spirit demonstrates that his teaching really does have authority. Jesus really does have the right to tell you and me what to do. He’s not afraid to use that right. He owns us.

But the next scene shows the beauty of this authority. After that day’s incredible encounter in the synagogue, Jesus spends the afternoon at Simon’s house. While he is there, his disciples tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Here, we find the first act of faith in Mark’s gospel. The disciples see that Jesus had the authority to drive out an unclean spirit. Maybe he has enough authority to heal her from this dangerous fever! They ask Jesus if he will do something about it.

Think about this. Here is a man with an authority they have never witnessed before. They have no right to demand him to perform a miracle of healing. He is perfectly within his rights to refuse them. Yet Jesus approaches the bed, takes the woman by the hand, and lifts her up. The fever leaves her, and she is finally able to show hospitality to her guests. Jesus wasn’t forced to heal her—he chose to heal her. He uses his authority for our good. He wants to heal us; he wants to free us; he wants to give us a new destiny.

Yes, his authority threatens us. And it’s a lovely sort of threat.