Epiphany 4 · Mark 1:21-28 · February 1, 2009
By Gerhard Bode
The Epiphany season highlights the revelation of Jesus as Savior to the world. The Gospel reading for this Sunday continues the identification of Jesus as God’s own Son and the promised Messiah, with a focus on Jesus as one who speaks and acts with divine authority. At the same time Jesus’ authority also points to what he has come to accomplish.
A brief overview of the opening chapter of Mark’s Gospel reveals an interesting note about the recognition of Jesus’ identity. God has sent the prophet John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Clearly, John knows who Jesus is, and this identity is reinforced when Jesus is baptized in the Jordan as the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and God the Father announces to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). Afterwards, Satan tempts Jesus for forty days in the wilderness; Mark provides no details, but without question the devil knows who Jesus is. Then, the fishermen simply follow Jesus when he calls them; it is unclear how they regard him at this point. In the present text, Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue astonishes the people; he is not like the scribes they know, but is one who teaches with “authority.” They are not quite sure who this is or what he is all about. Finally, the unclean spirit enters the scene; it knows not only that this is Jesus of Nazareth, but also “the Holy One of God.” Those “in the know” (God and his prophet; Satan and his demons) recognize Jesus for who he truly is. The others are still more or less in the dark.
The first miracle of Jesus recorded in Mark’s Gospel is an exorcism, making clear that Jesus has come to destroy sin and the power of the devil. In a sense, Jesus has invaded the devil’s territory, and the demon responds to the threat that Jesus represents. Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue and his exorcism are both testimonies of his authority and both are connected with his word. Jesus speaks, he teaches, he commands and his words are authoritative in a manifest way. His authority is God-given, like a prophet’s; his word self-authenticating—it is God’s Word.
The demon recognizes Jesus and even knows his name, but he has no power over him. More than that, the demon knows both who Jesus is—the Holy One of God, God’s Son—and what he has come to do—to conquer sin and death, and in so doing to destroy Satan’s dominion over sinful humanity. Jesus rebukes the demon, silencing him and commanding him to come out of the man. Through his word, Jesus acts to defeat the demon. Thus the revelation of the person of Jesus also makes clear the power of his words.
His rebuke of the demon indicates that Jesus did not yet want others to know fully who he was. Similarly, in 1:34 Jesus does not permit the demons to speak, because “they knew him”; also in 1:44 after healing the leper Jesus told him not to say anything to anyone, but simply present himself to the priest. It seems clear that, at this point, Jesus wished to be the one to reveal himself, rather than allow demons or others to be the messengers. Key to Jesus’ authority is his word, but it is also an authority over the demon and a word against the demon’s master, Satan.
Illustration: For centuries, the ancient city of Fengdu was known throughout China as the city of the dead. According to legend, the gates of hell were located there, and thus, Fengu was also believed to be the home of the devil. The city sat on the banks of the Yangtze River and several years ago it was completely submerged as part of the Three Gorges Dam Project. After relocating the city’s people, the Chinese government opened the floodgates to make way for the world’s largest hydroelectric power station. But before the city was flooded, citizens placed large signs around the city counting the days until the town would be destroyed. Many of these signs portrayed the image of the devil as symbolic of the city. The days of Fengdu were numbered and so were the days of the devil himself. The flood would wash over the city as well as obliterate the gates of hell and its lord, the devil.
The revelation of Jesus means the beginning of the end of the devil’s hold on sinful humanity. Jesus has come to bring forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In doing so, he conquers sin’s death and breaks the devil’s grip, destroying forever his demonic dominion over God’s people. Jesus’ victory over Satan is a battle won for us. How has Jesus accomplished this? Certainly through his death and resurrection he was victorious for us, but he also gives us victory now through his powerful word—in our Baptism, in Absolution, in the Gospel itself. The Gospel is the means of destruction of the power of the devil just as at the same time it is indeed “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16).