Bob's Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2017

 

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 “Who or what were those evil spirits?”

 

Mark 1:21-28

 

     (Mark 1: 21 NIV)“They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. (22) The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

      (23) Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, (24) ‘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!’

        (25) “’Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”

(26) The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. (27) 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 impure spirits and they obey him.’ (28) News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.”

 

     This text describes a bizarre incident. For a Freddie Krueger type Friday night movie, it might sound tame and run-of-the-mill. But if this happened in our service today, it would be creepy and eerie.

 

     A similar episode took place one Sunday morning at the church in Hollywood. It began as a beautiful day. A well-known singer and his wife attended my young couple’s Bible study; we placed extra chairs to accommodate them and other visitors. The worship service was crowded. Near communion time, a middle-aged mother who had recently been attending, and seated in the middle left front, started shrieking and screaming. Her teen-aged son was nearby helping to wait on the table. Some M.D.s present that day attended her and arranged to transport her to a hospital for an examination. 

 

     I could not see all that happened, was not privy to her medical diagnosis, and can draw few conclusions from the incident. It definitely affected the service. It embarrassed and dismayed me that the incident occurred in the presence of so many first-time guests. You recognize those of the concerns of an ambitious, young minister—and also an aged one.

 

     Do you find it odd that in Jesus’ time, they allowed people exhibiting behavior such to remain in a worship service? What we can learn from the incident our reading describes? The first verses of our text read: “They (Jesus & the 12) went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”

 

     Last week we noted that Mark probably wrote his gospel to people in Rome. Efficiency and power impressed the Romans, you recall. The five letter Greek word rendered “immediately” or “straightway;” appears three times in our text.[1] It is in verse 21 but you would not know it from reading the NIV. The KJV does show it: “Mat. 4:13;Luke 4:31 And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught.” In this country, we follow the Roman tradition of beginning the day at midnight. But then and now, Jews begin their days at sundown; that is when the Sabbath starts.

 

     Jesus wasted no time (straightway) getting to the service; praising God was his priority. One other brief detail; Jesus’ teaching style differed from rabbis of the day. Most Jewish teachers of the time relied on what earlier rabbis had taught.[2] They endlessly cited interpretations of past and present rabbis. By the time you heard everyone’s opinion, you did not know what to conclude.

 

     Today, Jesus would say: “Read God’s word and follow it. Forget what Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, or Ellen G. White thought or any contemporary thinks. Jesus taught, spoke, and is God’s word. Those Capernaum worshipers recognized that Jesus was unlike all other rabbis or teachers. He did not echo or recite what some other dust-bound person said. He spoke authoritatively. Someone else there precisely identified Jesus. He knew Jesus’ connections on this planet and that he was no ordinary person: “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, (24) ‘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!’”

   

     “Just then” translates the word “immediately.” The demon in the man screamed. He knew Jesus is God; he also knew Jesus could destroy him and his kind. “‘Be quiet’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” The word “sternly” means “strong command.”

 

     What can we learn? What should we learn?

 

     First, let’s define some terms. The expressions “unclean” or “impure” are translations of the word “akatharsis.” At times, doctors advise us to take cathartics. Cathartics purge or cleanse us of something inside that causes us harm. Anything impure in us needs to come out. The cathartic removes it. Many think of cathartics as the worst of a colonoscopy. In English as in Greek, when an “a”[3] is attached to the front of a word, the “a” usually negates the word. Thus when you place that “a” at the beginning of “theist” (a believer in God) it changes the term to “atheist,” a non-believer. Put the Greek letter alpha (a) at the front of “katharsis,” which means to clean and it becomes “akatharsis,” something in a person that should not be there, i.e. an impure spirit or demon (an agent of the devil). 

   

     Jesus ordered the unclean spirit out of the man. “Shake violently,” means the man convulsed fiercely before the unclean spirit left him. Mark used three different Greek terms, which the NIV translates as only “shriek.” One of the three terms Mark used was “mega,” signifying a loud, terrifying sound. And afterward . . .: (27) The people were all so amazed that they asked one another,[4] ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’ (28) News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.”

 

     This incident and similar ones leave us with numerous questions.

 

     Many popular misconceptions cloud the subject of demons and evil spirits. By “unclean” spirits, the Bible never hints that these are spirits of deceased people. These are servants of evil—Satan.[5] In the mid-1960s, a successful Los Angeles realtor and I were driving east on Third Street in L.A., and he told me about a house in the vicinity that he had recently sold. Over the years, he and his agents had sold hundreds of homes in the area, but this house was unique. Neighborhood rumors circulated that the house was haunted by evil spirits. Before he could close the deal he had to have the house exorcized. He paid a priest a great sum of money to cast the evil spirits from the residence. As I recall, it was about $500.  “Next time call me,” I said in jest, “and I will do it for $50.” As usual I was being much too flippant.     

 

     In regard to the man in the synagogue, would doctors today describe what he suffered a form of mental illness? The human psyche is so complex I am not sure you could ever get 100 mental health professionals to agree on who is sane and who is not—or who is mentally ill. At one point, Jesus’ family thought that he was “out of his mind.”[6] When experts encounter something they do not fully understand, they often refer to it as some form of syndrome. As the 19th century poet Shelley observed: “But human pride is skillful to invent most serious names to hide its ignorance.”   [7] If you cannot fully define something, give it a sophisticated label.

 

        ·         Was what the Bible called demon possession epilepsy? I do not think so.

As Matthew details, Jesus and his disciples recognized the differences between various illnesses and demon possession: (24) “News about him (Jesus) spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.”[8] This passage and others show that Jesus knew the differences between illness and possession-it was an entirely different category of disorder.

  

     Demon possession could cause deafness and muteness. Demon possession exhibited unique characteristics:[9]

·         As this text describes, demons spoke in different voices.

·         Demonic persons could have superhuman strength as Mark 5 informs.

In the case of the violent man at the cemetery, Mark also tells us that legions of angels inhabited this particular man.

·         Mark 9 records that a boy so inhabited was not only deaf and dumb, the evil spirit tried to kill him by throwing him into fire and water.

 

·         Does this sort of thing happen today?

·         Are some people demon-possessed now?      

     Many Christian missionaries working in China, India, Africa, the Caribbean, and even certain areas of the U.S. affirm strong belief in demon possession. They base their thinking on phenomena related to practices of shamans and African witch doctors and associated with voodoo and belief in jinn (a term first used by pagan Arabs to describe “desert demons”).[10] Some of them report witnessing symptoms similar to those in New Testament demon possession. I have counseled and met with folks claiming to be hexed with voodoo spells and whom others thought demon possessed. 

 

     In some cases I wondered, but I am not convinced that demon possession exists now. From the internet sites I checked, it appears that the American Psychiatric Association has no official policy concerning the subject. The Bible reports its existence mostly during the time of Jesus and his apostles. [11] Jesus gave his apostles authority to cast them out (see Matthew 10:1).[12] But reports of possession faded as the first century waned.

 

     In Acts Doctor Luke told of an incident that occurred about 57 AD in Ephesus. Luke even found some humor in it: “Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed.” “They would say, ‘In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out. (14) “Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. (15) One day the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?

 

     The Greek nouns and verbs in this question are plural, i.e. “Who are you guys?”  (16) Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.” 

 

     We love it, don’t we, when the tables are turned on the bad guys?

 

     (17) “When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor.”[13] What does the Bible say to us 21st century folks? Should we worry about demon possession?

 

1.      People who love God and trust Christ should not fear anything. As 1 John 4:18 tells us: “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out all fear.” On the other hand, the Bible cautions us about dabbling with such things as astrology, fortunetelling, divination, or anything that interferes with trusting God.[14]

                        

     I do not even read fortune cookies. Deuteronomy 13 warns: “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, (2) and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ (3) you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.(4) It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.”

 

     You and I have both seen people so filled with jealousy, anger, and fear that they lose control of their lives. Jealousy destroyed King Saul.[15]

 

     Something else destroys many good people. “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do (as the world does), in the futility of their thinking. (18) They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.(19) Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity (akatharsis), and they are full of greed.”[16] You will recognize “akatharsis”- “impurity” as the same term that describes evil spirits.

 

     Allowing the world to rule us instead of God borders on demon possession, doesn’t it? We overcome this “uncleanness” by positive relationships with God, dedication to imitating Jesus’ goodness, and thinking purely and uprightly. A couple of church members in Philippi carried out jealousy hissy fits toward each other and it was affecting the entire church. Paul wrote to them counseling them to agree with each other, and then addressed this corrective to the church:

 

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (5) Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

 

(6) Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

 

(7) And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

(8) Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”[17]

                                

     God bless us all as we turn away from the world’s attitudes and behavior, and as we put God first in all things! 

 

 


[1] εὺθύς

[2] My copy of The Mishna (The Mishna: translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes by Herbert Danby, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA 2011, pp 100-136) contains nearly 36 pages of instruction (interpretations of rabbis) concerning what is permitted on the Sabbath day. These 36 pages are in 10 point (small) type. In contrast, Sabbath instructions in the Law of Moses, as given in the original Hebrew text (Exodus 20:8-11), took only about fifty words.

[3] Or Greek “alpha” - “α”

[4] As far as I can tell, all editions of the NIV translate this as each other. I prefer the more conservative “one another” when more than two persons are involved.

[5] The devil—Satan and his origin are a subject for another day.

[6] See Mark 3:20 NIV

[7] Queen Mab 5,  Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792-1822)

[8] 4: 24 NIV

[9] See J.S. Wright article New Bible Dictionary, “Possession,” pp. 1009, 1010.

Although this article is generally well-written, the author unduly presses a point for which there is little evidence. He asserted that healing was usually done by laying on of hands or anointing.  New Testament substantiation for this is scant. Jesus did it in some instances, but it was hardly standard procedure (see Mark 5:21-43; 7:24-37). 

[10] According to the Koran, jinn are hidden, supernatural beings created from smokeless fire. They are neither human nor angels. The term “genie” is probably derived from jinni, singular of jinn.    

[11] I think it likely that God allowed demon possession during the period that Jesus spent on earth and extended through the Apostles’ ministry. 

[12] Matthew carefully separated the authority to “drive out evil spirits” from the ability “to heal every disease and sickness.” NIV

[13] Acts 19:13-20 NIV

[14] See Leviticus 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27

[15] 1 Samuel 13-31

[16] Ephesians 4:17-19 NIV

[17] Philippians 4:4-8 NIV

 

 

Bob Blair

PO Box176

Cleghorn, IA 51014

 

 


 

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