Mark begins his snapshot of a day in the life of Jesus at the synagogue in Capernaum, a village located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus goes to synagogue–he participates in the community of Israel as a practicing Jew, a descendant of Abraham. But there is something new, something different, about Jesus.
What is different is Jesus’ authoritative teaching. The synagogue hearers are twice said to be “amazed” at this teaching (1:22, 27). But why are they amazed? What is so striking about Jesus’ teaching? It does not appear, at this point, to be content. Rather, it is Jesus’ authority (exousia).
His authority is perceived in two ways. One is found in the contrast between how Jesus teaches and the way the teachers of the law teach. Perhaps we might understand this along the lines of the difference between one who teaches wholly dependent upon the authority of the Torah (the scribes) and another who teaches as a commissioned prophet, one anointed to herald the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus is no mere teacher who expounds the Torah (though he does this at times). More than that, he is an eschatological prophet…and more than that, as Mark will make clear, the anointed Messianic Son of God. He is, as the demon announces, the “Holy One of God.” Jesus’ authority is immediate whereas the authority of the scribes is mediate. Jesus comes with his own authority while the scribes derive theirs from the Torah.
A second perception of Jesus’ authority surfaces when Jesus exercises dominion over the demons. Here authority is neither the content of his teaching, the manner of his teaching, nor the source of his authority, but the actual, concrete demonstration of that authority. This demonstration is not simply a healing, but an assertion of dominion over hostile powers. “Shut up!” and “Come out of him,” Jesus orders. It is an enactment of the kingdom of God. The reign of God is actualized in this moment; the heralding of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus becomes real in the life of the one healed.
Jesus’ authority, then, is directly related to his proclamation of the kingdom of God–which is the message of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15). He is the eschatological prophet who heralds the kingdom and the one through whom the reign of God comes into the lives of people. This is the authority of Jesus and it is totally unlike any authority that the teachers of the Torah might claim for themselves.
The encounter with the demon underscores the eschatological nature of Jesus’ ministry. Apparently, there was, to all appearances, a good “church-going believer” in the synagogue that morning who was possessed by an unclean spirit. He seems to have shown no outward signs of that possession until he interrupts Jesus’ teaching. The demon objects to Jesus’ presence and to his purpose.
Jesus came to end the reign of the demonic (“unclean spirits”) in the world. The demon recognizes this but he appears startled that the time has already come (Mark 1:14–“the time is fulfilled”). It is not yet time, so the demon thinks. But Jesus’ presence tells a different story. The time is now. The new age has begun in the ministry of Jesus as he exercises authority over demons.
It is no wonder that the people are amazed. They are amazed by the authority of Jesus’ presence, both in terms of his personal identity as an immediate representative of God and in terms of his redemptive, eschatological act. Jesus belongs to the new age, the age of the kingdom of God. The reign of God is breaking into the world against the hostile powers that enslave it.
And the news spreads throughout Galilee. It is good news, it is good news about Jesus (Mark 1:1). God is doing something wondrous, something new. And the people are amazed.
Perhaps we should pause to reflect on where the good news is in our lives, in our communities, in our churches. Where is the amazement? Unfortunately, it seems that people are rarely positively amazed by Christian ministry. They are suspicious. They are sometimes hostile. Perhaps the problem is that Christian ministry is often more self-serving than it is kingdom-seeking. Perhaps it is more about consumption and consumers than it is kingdom-focused. We read the Gospel of Mark to remember, renew and reorient ourselves as God calls and empowers us in kingdom ministry.
Whatever the case may be, the disciples in Mark follow Jesus because Jesus is the anointed eschatological prophet through whom the reign of God comes into the world. That is also why we follow Jesus.