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Chapter 2. The mission is launched (Mark 1:14-45)

Chapter 2. The mission is launched

Please read Mark 1:14-45

Authority is an unfashionable concept today. The whole idea that someone should have power over someone else is deeply unpopular. But bluntly, that’s what authority is – the right to be in control, to tell other people what they can or cannot do. So in sport, a football referee can control the game by blowing the whistle, awarding free kicks, or sending players off. A cricket umpire can turn the whole game by raising one finger at particular moments. If you play sport, you have to acknowledge that authority. In the army, a commanding officer has every right to order his subordinates into action, whether they feel like it or not. In fact, someone once used that very illustration to Jesus.

If some law, or contract, or the rules of the game, give you authority, then you have it; and it is up to you to wield it properly. Jesus came into the world with authority from his Father God – an authority that did not extend over a mere sporting arena, or an army, or even over a country, but over the entire world. Jesus came into this world with authority to rule, to establish what he called the Kingdom of God – the space where God’s sovereign authority is recognised and accepted. At this point in Mark’s account we see the first beginnings of that Kingdom, as Jesus launches his mission.

John the Baptiser has raised the spiritual temperature of the nation, ready for Jesus to step forward. In vv.14-15 we see that John has been imprisoned because his message about repenting of your sins has not gone down well with Herod, the local despot (though Mark does not give us this explanation until 6:17-18)According to the structure proposed in the Introduction, this section of Mark’s gospel (‘Authority and Opposition’) runs from 1:14 to 6:30 and is bracketed by the two references to John’s imprisonment.. Now Jesus appears publicly, back in his home region of Galilee; and he comes proclaiming the good news, the gospel, which as we have seen means a big announcement of a world-changing event. ‘The time has come’ – or, ‘has been completed’. It’s now that this is happening: ‘the Kingdom of God is near’. The Jews knew what that meant. Their prophets had spoken about it centuries before: the Kingdom of God arriving means that God comes to assert his authority, publicly and openly, here on earth. At last God would break into history and establish his everlasting Kingdom. The Jews had many wrong ideas about the Kingdom and the kind of freedom it would bring, but they were right about that much. Jesus says, I am here to bring it in. He says, in effect: it’s me! I am the good news! So repent: turn away from your past life and get ready for God to act.

The call you can’t resist

In vv.16-28 we meet three groups who come face to face with the authority of Jesus. First we meet the fishermen. Jesus is walking beside the Sea of Galilee. ‘Sea’ is rather a grand name for a fresh water lake that is only about six miles from side to side and less than twelve from end to end. But it has a very successful fishing industry; and as Jesus walks along, it is these fishermen that he encounters (v.16). Now if we know this story well, we need to draw back to see these characters properly. As with the Christmas shepherds, we tend to romanticise the Galilean fishermen; but these are the ordinary industrial workers of their day. Fishing is hard, physical work, extremely smelly work, on a notoriously stormy lake.

Jesus calls them (v.17). It is not just a play on words, but an Old Testament expression about God gathering people for judgementSee Jeremiah 16:16.. Jesus is saying, Now that I am here, it’s decision time. People must repent of their sins and turn to God, or else they will face God’s judgement. I am bringing in God’s Kingdom, and I am calling people into it, and everyone will end up on the inside or the outside. You unpromising looking fishermen are going to join me in my mission. Five minutes later he says the same thing to James and John, busy on the fiddly task of net repair (vv.19-20). He calls them: Simon and Andrew, James and John, impetuous, stormy, given to fits of rage, lacking confidence – they offer a wide range of flawed personalities and a complete absence of academic qualifications; but Jesus says, Follow me. The cost will be very high: they must abandon their only livelihood and the only way of life they have ever known. Unless this wandering beachcomber is someone extremely special, what they are being asked to do is crazy. Yet when he speaks, they recognise the voice of authority; and they cannot resist the call (v.18).

Jesus takes them on to his next destination (v.21). Capernaum is on the north shore of the lake: it may have been the home of the four fishermen. It’s a sizeable village; and Jesus makes it his base for operations around Galilee. The synagogue will be the most prominent building in the village, probably the only building of any size: on the Sabbath, Jesus, along with the rest of the community, will be there and it is not unusual for a visitor to be asked to speak at the appropriate point of the service, following the prayers and the readings from the Law and the Prophets. Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus says, but there can be little doubt that he will be speaking about the Kingdom of God. Luke describes a very similar occasion in Nazareth when Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and calmly tells the people: This is happening now – because I am here (Luke 4:16ff).

Jesus certainly gets a reaction (v.22, and again with a different word in v.27). These ‘teachers of the law’ or scribes, are the ordained religious professionals: they will feature prominently in Mark’s account, especially when we reach ch 12 where Jesus faces them in the Temple. Originally, these men were simply copyists – their job, long before the age of printing, was to write out the words of Scripture, creating new manuscripts to replace the ones which wore out: hence the name ‘scribe’. The only qualifications they needed were an eye for detail and clear handwriting. But as time went by, this profession became specialists in the law itself. They didn’t just write it out, they studied and learned it; and by the time of Jesus they are the acknowledged experts. That is why the NIV translates the word for ‘scribe’ as ‘teacher of the law’. Teaching is their job – and how they teach! Their technique with any question is to go back and quote the experts, and how the experts have quoted other experts: Rabbi Yohanan said that Rabbi Eliezer said so-and-so, but Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion, according to Rabbi Ben-Ammi, was this – until in the end, a couple of centuries later, all this opinion-quoting was gathered into a shelf-full of huge books called the Talmud; and if you ever have the chance to see it, have a look and you will see what I mean. What they do not have is authority. Then one day Jesus gets up and says, The Kingdom of God is here: and it’s all about me!

It doesn’t take long for the people to notice the difference. This reaction is very interesting. They don’t say, This man is crazy, or insufferably arrogant. They are amazed (v.22): the word carries the sense of being overwhelmed with wonder; they are disturbed by what he says. This is the second group who encounter Jesus’ authority. Many of them never fully understand who Jesus is; but they clearly see that he is different. He demands their attention.

Sitting among the people is someone who certainly does recognise who Jesus is, a third ‘group’ if we can call it that – vv.23-24. This man is under the controlling authority of an evil spirit – literally an ‘unclean’ spirit, a demon. Some people try to explain away stories like this: they are the product of primitive cultures, they say; we have moved beyond such naïve beliefs. The truth is that in most parts of the world people understand only too well that the spirit world is real. If you go to Africa, or most of Asia or South America, you will find people have no doubt about the reality of evil spirits. Muslims rightly understand the existence of demons, or jinns as they call them: they are a feature of everyday life. It is only in the sophisticated West that we are stupid enough to stop believing in evil powers that can control people’s lives. Such fools we are, even some of us Christians, that we think we know better than the Bible. The spiritual world is as real as anything you can touch, see or hear; and demons are the most pure and naked evil that we will ever meet.

We have seen that Jesus began his ministry by going out to confront Satan, the controlling power behind all demons. Now the confrontation continues. His presence flushes them out of hiding; here in the synagogue, he has not gone looking for a demon, but his presence has forced the demon to show itself. As far as we can tell, this man has been peacefully attending the synagogue all his life; which probably says something about the level of spiritual life in the synagogue. While the people sitting around may not be too clear who this new teacher is, the demon has no doubt at all. ‘Jesus of Nazareth’: there is nothing remarkable about knowing Jesus’ home town, but probably the use of his name represents a futile attempt to control him. ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ – that may well in fact be a statement: ‘You have come to destroy us’. The demon correctly identifies Jesus as God’s unique representative, holy – set apart – the antithesis of all evil – and that his coming spells the end, not just for one demon that Saturday morning but ultimately for all the powers of evil; because Jesus has come bearing all the authority of God.

How is it that a demon can recognise the Son of God for who he is, while the people, by and large, do not? The answer is that Satan blinds people to Jesus’ true identity (2 Corinthians 4:4). The demons are perfectly clear who Jesus is, though the knowledge does them no good. Now in vv.25-26 comes the moment of truth. Literally Jesus says, ‘Be silenced’, ‘Be muzzled’, says Jesus, as if he was dealing with a little, yapping dog. ‘Come out’. And with a convulsion and a yell, the spirit is gone. There will be no more anonymity after this (vv.27-28)!

In Capernaum the people are astounded to see evil spirits banished with a word. This shows more clearly and dramatically than anything that Jesus is creating a space on earth where only God’s authority is recognised, only his writ runs. That is the Kingdom. The driving out of demons is a foretaste of the cross, where Jesus will achieve his decisive victory over Satan as his death sets people free from the power of sin and hell, breaks Satan’s power and establishes the Kingdom. Still today, the Kingdom is spreading and growing. The life and activity of each local church is a small sign of God’s Kingdom on earth – a place where we acknowledge God’s right to rule, where we say: Jesus is King.

The ‘call you can’t resist’ forms the strange link between the disciples and the demons. For the first disciples, it is a call to follow. For the demons, a call to be gone. In both cases, they recognise the authority of Jesus and they cannot resist the call.

This is why he has come

That Saturday evening, Jesus finds himself surrounded by intense excitement. The next stage of the story (vv.29-39) contains two major surprises. The synagogue service is over and the people spill out, full of excitement with their news. But Jesus and his group of four go home with Simon and Andrew – very likely we are still in Capernaum – and in what follows we can hear Simon Peter’s voice as he sits down years later and recalls it all for Mark. This is clearly his own, eye-witness account. ‘We went back to my place, the five of us. My mother-in-law was sick, she’d had this fever for weeks. Normally she was so active, but she was just flat out. Well, of course we told Jesus and you know what he did? He simply walked into the room, took hold of her hand and hoisted her to her feet! And that was that! The fever was gone! No trace of weakness – she insisted on sorting out the meal for us all then and there.’

So mother-in-law is healed (vv.30-31). But Jesus does not have peace for long after his lunch. As soon as the sun goes down and the Sabbath is over, the crowd starts to gather. There has been just long enough for everyone in Capernaum and the surrounding area to hear what happened in the synagogue this morning; it’s not hard to guess that in a densely packed village like Capernaum, news of the healing in the house has got around too. I doubt there is an orderly queue outside Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum that night. There are at least dozens – scores – of sick, injured and demonised outside the door. Some have brought themselves, others have been cajoled, carried or dragged here by their families. No matter: Jesus heals them all (vv.32-34). There is no illness, no condition that he cannot tackle. There is no demon that can resist his command. Such as his divine power; such is his authority.

Finally the crowd clears, the last straggler has gone and Jesus can rest. It’s been dark for hours by this time. Surely he will need a good rest; but apparently that is not his priority (v.35). Again we hear Simon Peter’s voice behind Mark’s narrative. ‘It was just getting light when we got up. We looked round for Jesus, but he was gone!’ So they go looking; and somehow they find him. Jesus is out praying in a ‘solitary place’. Literally, Mark tells us, a ‘desert place’. That is odd, because the whole area is actually thickly populated, with well-cultivated farmland among the towns and villages. But as we saw in vv.3-4, the desert is the place people go to in order to meet with God, to see spiritual realities more clearly.

Jesus has come out here to some quiet hillside to find solitude with God, that union with his Father that matters even more than catching up on his sleep. This is where he finds renewal, re-focuses his vision after the clamour of the crowds. The divine Son of God is also the fragile man who needs to do that. Simon and company find him; and they are not impressed. It’s morning now: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ (vv.36-37). But Jesus does not go back to Capernaum that day. Instead he moves on. There are other places, lots of them, that need to hear (v.38). The word for ‘villages’ here suggests not the tiny hamlets like Nazareth but bigger places, small market towns. The episode concludes with the picture of Jesus pursuing this strategy, travelling between these centres, preaching in the synagogues and driving out demons (v.39).

But now for the surprises. The first comes in v.34: ‘he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.’ Now, we could understand it if Mark had written: he would not let the demons speak because they were telling lies about him. After all, Satan is called the father of lies: falsehood is his speciality. But in the presence of Jesus’ authority, the demons do not lie: like the one in the synagogue, they will blurt out his true identity as they depart the scene. Of all those who hear him, they know Jesus’ identity more accurately than any. So does he not want to be known for who he truly is? Yes, of course – but not like this, not with the terrified squeaks of an enemy. Jesus’ mission is not simply to get people to realise who he is, as if this were some kind of cosmic identity parade. His mission is to confront people with the decision they have to make: to recognise him, yes; but then to decide for him, follow him, love him. Without that, the most complete knowledge about Jesus is useless. So he silences the demons, proving again, just by the way, that he has total power over the forces of evil.

The demons’ theology is excellent. They know who their enemy is; they know he is going to win. When they see Jesus appear on the earth, the Son of God, they recognise him as the one who will finally defeat them. They have only the haziest notion about how that will happen and they don’t understand about the cross, but they do know that Jesus’ arrival spells their final defeat. They have a superb grasp of biblical theology. But do they have faith in Christ? Of course not. The demons, in fact, are a perfect illustration of the fact that simply believing in God is no good to anybody (James 2:19). We should never think that just because someone can say ‘I believe in God’ they are thereby close to faith in Christ. The brutal truth is that unless you know Jesus Christ, unless you embrace him and follow him, you are no better off than these demons. They know all about God, but in the face of Jesus all they can do is scream and disappear for ever. Plenty of people say they believe in ‘God’; but only real, living Christians start with Jesus and uniting with him.

Surprise number two comes in v.38. Simon Peter and friends go out in the gloom of early morning to hunt Jesus down – that is what the word means. ‘Everyone is looking for you!’, they say. In other words, ‘What on earth are you doing here? Look, you’ve drawn a crowd, why are you hiding yourself away out here?’ Jesus says: ‘Let’s go somewhere else’! Something has started to happen in Capernaum, but instead of returning to build on his success, Jesus says ‘Let us go somewhere else so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come’. Yes, the crowds in Capernaum are very excited; but they haven’t grasped who Jesus is. Jesus is not here to put on a show or simply give people what they want, a bit of free health care, a few problems straightened out, a flurry of excitement. He is here to preach the Kingdom of God.

Remember the message from v.15. All the exorcisms and healings, dramatic as they are, are simply signs that the Kingdom is breaking in: that evil will be driven out, Satan will be defeated, broken humanity will be restored. Those are just the signs – signposts. The idea of signposts is not that you stand and admire them, but that you go where they point. Don’t look at the signs, Jesus says. Look at me. People get terribly confused about this even today. There are churches where you can hear Jesus portrayed as a sort of free health service, only with no waiting lists or prescription charges, combined with a jackpot-winning lottery ticket. People like that idea: Jesus as my heavenly therapist. It fits so well with the spirit of the age. Yes, there are still healings today in Jesus’ name (as well as many imitations); demons are still driven out in Jesus’ name; and for the people involved it is extremely significant – but even for them it is still not the main point. Even when Jesus healed an entire crowd, without exception and flawlessly, it was not the main point. Jesus is not our passport to health, wealth and an easy life.

The real Jesus came to proclaim a Kingdom – a Kingdom that would begin with a cross, where the King poured out his own life for the sake of his subjects, the cross that rightfully became the symbol of this Kingdom and is the pattern for the whole Christian life. When we accept Jesus Christ, we don’t take him on as our therapist, we bow to his mastery and then set out to follow him as Lord and King. The first step is not to queue up to have our aches and pains fixed, but to repent.

Bringing in the outcast

Only once in my life have I met a man with leprosy. I had an uncle, Paul Brand, who was a leprosy surgeon; and he devoted his best years to working in a remote corner of India devising ways to reverse the worst ravages of the disease and helping his patients to return to a normal life. I knew about leprosy: how it works by destroying nerves, killing feeling and sensation. I knew the stories about how leprosy patients are outcast and rejected by their families and in their villages. I knew too what my uncle wrote in one of his books. ‘Of all the gifts we can give a leprosy patient, the one he values most is the gift of being handled and touched. We don’t shrink from him. We love him with our skin, by touch.’ I knew all this, but I had never met anyone with leprosy until I visited Tibet a few years ago. That’s when the stories came to life.

There was a beggar on the street; and as I looked at him it was painfully obvious why he was there. This man had leprosy; and begging was how he survived. I think he was elderly; but it was very hard to be sure. His face was so stricken and wasted I couldn’t really guess his age. There wasn’t a great deal I could do for him. I knew not a soul in the city and I couldn’t speak his language. I did speak to him; I did pray for him; and I did put money in his bowl. But I knew there was something very simple I needed to do. I grasped what little remained of his two hands in mine and looked him full in the face as I talked to him and tried to imagine the depth of his suffering. That was it: not much, really. But at least I had given him what I can almost guarantee no-one else ever did – a caring touch for the outcast.

Jesus came to this earth to bring in the outcast. That’s what the story in vv.40-45 is about. We find him doing what he has just said he must do: touring the area of Galilee; preaching in the synagogues; driving out demons. In one of these places a man with leprosy begs him: ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean’ (v.40). ‘Leprosy’ in the Bible does not mean exactly what it does today. It’s probable that our ‘leprosy’, Hansen’s disease as it’s also known, spread into the land of Israel from the east a few centuries before the time of Christ. But in those times they did not have the benefit of precise medical terminology; and the expression ‘leprosy’ covered a number of different conditions, including other conditions with visible effects on the skin. Unlike the leprosy we know, some of these conditions would be highly contagious. The whole range of infectious skin diseases were covered in the Jewish law by very detailed regulations (Leviticus 13 and 14). Leprosy created two problems: the first is the obvious one – it was a disease that disfigured you, damaged your body and made people afraid of you, the kind of fear that today accompanies AIDS. The second problem is that leprosy also made you ritually unclean, excluded from God’s people. You could not go to worship; you could not share in the sacrifices; you were effectively cut out. If you did recover, only the priests could declare that you were ‘clean’ once more. There were detailed rules for that as well, including sacrifices that had to be offered.

All this meant that life for the leprosy sufferer was very grim. Although in theory they were allowed to live anywhere except inside a walled city, in practice they lived away from everyday society, quite literally out of touch. To make matters even worse, the religious authorities in typical style had added to the original rules a whole tranche of legislation about exactly how clean people might be made unclean. See if you can make sense of this, for example: ‘If an unclean man stands under a tree and a clean man passes by, the latter becomes unclean. If a clean man stands under a tree and an unclean man passes by, the former remains clean. If the latter stands still, the former becomes unclean.’ All this would make normal people more wary than ever about contact with the disease. This was one set of regulations the people of Israel observed very strictly. Even Uzziah, one of their greatest kings, when struck with leprosy was shut away in a house by himself for the rest of his life – a king, but an outcast (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). The Rabbis believed that it was as difficult to cleanse a leprosy sufferer as it was to raise the dead, which was not exactly encouraging. The Old Testament records only two cases of leprosy being healed, both by divine intervention – one was Miriam, the sister of Moses, and the other was Naaman the Syrian general.

So here comes this man, carrying all that weight of exclusion on his shoulders. Think how he feels! Knowing the hopelessness of his situation, the scale of the barriers which divide him from his fellow man, we can understand why he goes down on his knees! He has clearly heard about Jesus: perhaps from a distance he has watched him in action. In any case, he seems to have no doubts: ‘You can make me clean’. The only question in his mind: is Jesus willing to? Jesus at once speaks and acts (v.41). Moved with deep compassion, he stretches out his hand and breaking all those barriers, he touches him. By that action, the rules say, Jesus himself becomes ritually unclean – by the touch that the man has not felt perhaps for many years. ‘“Be clean!” In v.42 the original word is not literally cured, but made clean. A diseased man has been healed: healing that is immediate and 100% successful, but more than that – the barriers have been broken down; the outcast is brought back in and restored. Now Jesus sends him off to the priest (v.44). That is what the law says: the priest is the only one qualified to check you over and declare that you are clean. The custom is that you visit the local priest and then go on to the authorities in Jerusalem. Then there are special ceremonies to perform, partly to act out your freedom and partly to give thanks to God, and you will be certified free of disease and fit to rejoin society again. At last, this man can now look forward to normal life – back to the family, back to work, back to self-respect.

It sounds like such a happy ending, a wonderful story: the ravages of disease are undone, the pain of separation is reversed. Yet there is a tragic twist to this story; and it is vital that we understand it. This man with leprosy, like so many others, has missed the point. He comes to the healer; he gets healed; he is thrilled with it, he is overjoyed. But even so, he has missed the point. How do we know? vv.43-44 tells us. The word for ‘strong warning’ is very strong: You are absolutely not to go spreading this around! Why? – because the man has seen only the healer, not the King. He is to tell only the priests: they as the religious professionals should at least be able to recognise the evidence of their eyes. If, as they believe, it’s as hard to heal from leprosy as to raise someone from the dead, surely they will see that God must be in this. If they don’t, what Jesus probably means is that it will be evidence against them that they have refused to recognise the true messenger of God. But the man does the exact opposite of what Jesus has insisted on – he goes and tells everybody he can find. It’s hardly likely that he tells them God’s promised Kingdom has arrived and that he’s met the King?. If nothing else, the fact that he directly disobeys Jesus’ clear instructions proves that he has not recognised him as the King. The outcome is that he succeeds in derailing Jesus’ whole strategy (v.45). He no longer enters the towns: instead, the people come out to him.

Jesus did not come to give people normal life: he came to give people eternal life! This is what the healings point to. For a start, Jesus’ actions show that the ceremonial rules about ‘clean and unclean’ and ‘touching and not touching’ are finished with. He is not concerned to obey those rules any more. But more than that: as Jesus touches the man, he takes on his uncleanness so that the man can be made clean and the barrier which excludes the outcast is broken down. In a sense Jesus becomes the outcast, so that the outcast can be brought home. Jesus has come into the world to do just that on a grand scale. Leprosy was a terrible curse: it ruined normal life and brought pain and ugliness into human life. Jesus healed people from it – such was his compassion – but wonderful as that was, it points ahead to the healing of the far greater curse of sin, which even more than leprosy ruins normal life, destroys relationships and brings pain and ugliness into human life. Jesus came to provide cleanness from sin, the disease, the curse that affects us all because we have all broken God’s law. Under the curse, we are all outcasts, cut off from God by the barrier of sin. But as Galatians 3:13 puts it, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’. When Jesus the King went to the cross, he became the curse for us, dying under the weight of it and bringing in the outcasts. Life can begin anew; not just a normal life regained, like this man knew when he was healed, but far more: eternal life. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about. The one thing that can keep you an outcast from God is exactly the same disease that we all start with: our sin. If you have been to the cross and seen Jesus made a curse for you, there is nothing at all that can ever separate you from his love. ‘I am willing’, he said. ‘Be clean!’