The Power of the Servant
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 1:21–3:12
You have no doubt heard the phrase, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is said to have originated with the 19th-century British historian, Lord Acton who, in studying history’s most famous monarchs, discovered that there was an unfortunate relationship between morality and authority. The more power a ruler acquired, the more corrupt his reign tended to be. Perhaps that helps to explain why there seems to have been built within us the tendency to question authority. But to give unqualified affirmation to Lord Acton’s statement would be premature apart from further considerations.
“Authority” is one of the most polarizing concepts of our day. That being said, it is nevertheless a natural and essential part of life. Without it our lives would reflect the days of the Judges when “There was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (cf. Judges 21:25). Even those people who are most resistant to authority cannot escape it in terms of the relationships they share with others, and even with themselves.
There are many types of authority. Some are earned, others are claimed, and still others come about as the result of circumstances. To one extent or another, we all live our lives under authority.
When Jesus Christ had concluded His public ministry and prepared to return to Heaven, He told those who would carry on His mission after He was gone that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Earlier He had given those same disciples “authority...to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:1-2).
As we saw last Sunday, Jesus had come “proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘...the kingdom of God is at hand.’” His message was in calling others to “Repent and believe...the gospel” and to “follow” Him. And some—like Simon, Andrew, James and John –did (cf. Mark 1:14-15 and 17).
One can only imagine the private conversations that must have gone on between those four shortly after entering into this newfound relationship with Jesus. They had to have wondered just who this Man was that they had aligned themselves with, what they had gotten themselves into, and where it would all lead. Aware that questions like these would have occupied their thoughts—as well as those of future followers who would come after them—Jesus led them on a three-year journey that would confirm their faith in Him. And with each new episode His authority would be established in their eyes and the source of His power made clear.
Today you and I arrive at a lengthy passage in Mark’s Gospel which contains ten vignettes drawn from the early ministry of Jesus. And each affirms the source of His authority as coming from God. What He did and what He said would force those who saw and heard Him to make a decision regarding whether they were with Him or against Him. There would be no middle ground...just as there remains no neutrality when it comes to Jesus today.
Each of these ten episodes could yield a sermon of its own, but out of necessity we only have time to touch briefly upon them this morning. The first four are presented as isolated events that serve to demonstrate the power Jesus possessed over demons and disease. Then the next five discuss the origins of His conflict with the prevailing religious establishment of His day and reveal that His authority surpassed even theirs. And then the final brief episode provides a revealing commentary of His rising popularity and how he responded. We will consider them in that order, beginning with...
Jesus’ power over demons and disease (1:21-45)
I draw our attention to verse 21 from the 1st chapter of Mark”:
“And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.”
“Scene One” presents the first in a series of conflicts that Jesus will encounter with demonic forces throughout His public ministry. Please notice what is at stake is the matter of “authority.” Verse 22 says that those who heard Jesus speak in the synagogue on this day were “astonished” when they heard “his teaching” because it revealed an “authority” beyond that even of their “scribes” or religious teachers. And as if on cue that “authority” is put to the best when he is at once challenged by a man possessed “with an unclean spirit” which recognizes Him as “the Holy One of God.” With just a word of command, Jesus silences and exorcises the demon to the further amazement of the gathering. And as might be expected, word of what had taken place began to rapidly spread.
We continue our reading in verse 29:
“And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
“That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons, And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
“Scene Two” opens with Jesus accompanying his four disciples to Peter’s house where it appears they were planning to enjoy a Sabbath meal together. When they arrive they discover that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with fever. Without any hesitation Jesus takes her “by the hand” and restores her health, and she begins “to serve them.” In full view of the disciples, having already witnessed His first miracle earlier in the day, He now demonstrates His authority over illness.
How fast had the word spread about Jesus and the events which had taken place in the synagogue on that Sabbath? Before nightfall we are told that a large crowd described as “the whole city” had gathered in front of Peter’s house, bringing with them those who were diseased and demonically-oppressed. Jesus responded by “healing many” of them and “casting out many demons.” Interestingly, as in the first scene, Jesus commands the demons to stay silent and not to expose His identity. That may seem odd to us, but for reasons we will see later it was an essential part of His completing His mission unimpeded and according to God’s foreordained plan. What’s more, it needed to be made clear that His power and authority in no way was grounded upon the testimony of “unclean spirits.”
It had been a busy and no doubt draining day for Jesus, which makes what we read next all the more amazing. We pick up the story at verse 35:
“And rising very early in the morning. While it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.’ And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
Here in “Scene Three” we are told that Jesus awoke and slipped out of the house while everyone else was still sleeping in order to spend time alone with His Heavenly Father in prayer. Clearly this scene provides for us a less-than-subtle hint as to the source of His authority. What an object lesson this was for His disciples, who upon finding Him urged Him to get back to the task at hand. After all, many others who needed healing had begun to gather. But Jesus was wise enough to know that He needed time alone to be able to engage with the Source of His power before entering into the challenges of a new day.
It is interesting that Mark selectively portrays Jesus at prayer three times in his Gospel, each in the setting of darkness and aloneness, and each at a time when He faced the temptation of achieving His Messianic mission in a less costly way. On this occasion, when the disciples search for Him and find Him, they remind Him that there is more work to be done. Jesus agrees, but surprises them by telling them that He was compelled to leave Capernaum and go into the neighboring villages. He reminds them that His primary ministry was not to heal, but to “preach” “the Gospel of the Kingdom.” The miraculous deeds He performed were for the purpose of affirming the authority of the words He spoke.
In one of those places he is confronted by man suffering with leprosy. We read of it in verses 40 through 45:
“And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’ But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”
Now in “Scene Four” Jesus’ power over disease in clearly displayed. Leprosy is a malady that remains foreign to most of us. Today it is known as “Hansen’s disease,” named after the man who diagnosed its cause. It is not a “rotting” condition, as was once thought, but a disfigurement that inevitably results when the body’s “warning system” for pain is destroyed. The loss of feeling to the extremities—the hands and feet, and even the eyes, ears, and nose—is such that intense pain can be tolerated to the extent of doing irreparable harm to one’s body. The man in this story had apparently suffered for years. Throughout Scripture, beginning in Leviticus 13 and 14, leprosy was considered “unclean” and was frequently looked upon as being symbolic of sin. Lepers were ostracized from society, and were ordered by law to go about shouting, “unclean, unclean,” whenever within the range of others. Furthermore, it was illegal for anyone to speak to a leper. But here we find Jesus not only conversing with the man, but actually “touching” him, cleansing him, and displaying His authority over such a devastating disease.
Jesus instructs the man to “Say nothing to anyone” about what had taken place. Instead, in accordance with Levitical law, he is told to go and present himself to the priest. But we read that he “began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news.” As a result, Jesus is again besieged by the mobs, thus forcing Him out into more remote regions. But even there He was sought for by others.
As all four of these vignettes indicate, Jesus did not display His authority for the purpose of entertaining the masses. He did so to demonstrate from where that authority had come. We see this even more pointedly as we move into chapter 2 where we witness...
Jesus’ power over religious opposition (2:1-3:6)
Beginning with verse 1 of this chapter and extending through verse 6 of chapter 3, we find five additional scenes which bind together the ongoing conflict Jesus repeatedly faced with the religious elite. These adversaries are identified as “scribes” and “Pharisees,” and their growing opposition toward Jesus will follow Him all the way to the cross.
“Scene One” in this section appears to take place in Peter’s house once again. We begin reading in chapter 2, verse 1:
“And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise, take up your bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.’ And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying ‘We never saw anything like this!’”
It’s curious how the religious leaders always seem to have asked the right questions but were never able to come up with the right conclusions. Their “whys” and “whos” are valid, but to conclude on the basis of Jesus’ words and works that “He is blaspheming” is not only preposterous but exposes the hardness of their own hearts. As this episode reveals, the healing of the paralytic is only illustrative of the greater healing that Jesus had brought to the man’s soul. In His own words, the very purpose of the physical miracle was that they “may know that...(He) has authority...to forgive sin.” That statement would prove to be Jesus’ most authoritative claim to date, and the one that would eventually lead to Him losing His life. The common folk seemed to “get it”...they were “amazed and glorified God.” But the religious elite were so blinded by their own positions of self-importance that they missed the power of God even as it stared them in the face. In short, they had been upstaged by Jesus and the die was cast for their intense hatred of Him.
That leads us to the unlikely “Scene Two” found in verses 13 through 17:
“He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.
“And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
Levi, whose name would subsequently be changed by Jesus to Matthew, was what we would today refer to as a “customs agent.” It was his job to collect taxes of travelers—including his fellow Jews—as they entered and departed the many villages in Galilee. If there was anyone despised more than a leper, it was a tax collector. Socially, he was the lowest of the low...“the scum of the earth.” The Jews would not permit a tax collector to set foot into a synagogue. Therefore, for Jesus to call such a man to be His “follower” only served to further alienate Him from the religious establishment. What’s more, the text seems to reveal that Levi was not the only tax collector to “follow” Jesus. In fact, Levi appears to invited many of his colleagues to a meal at his house where they could meet Jesus and His disciples for themselves. And when “the scribes of the Pharisees” heard about it, they were greatly offended. Jesus’ response is memorable: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” What the scribes and Pharisees did not understand—and what you and I must—is that none of us is “well” and none of us is “righteous.” We are all “sick” and we are all “sinners” (cf. Romans 3:10-18 and 23). And until each of us realizes that, we are in no position to recognize—much less yield—to the authority of Jesus.
That conflict continues in “Scene Three,” which is recorded in verses 18 through 25:
“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins, But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
The Old Testament had called for only one prescribed fast, and that was on the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 23:26-27). Over the course of time, however, the Jewish religious leaders had imposed a number of additional fasts based upon their traditions and frequent-misinterpretations of the Law. In fact, Luke (18:12) tells of one self-righteous Pharisee who boasted of fasting “twice a week.” In response to the question being put to Him on this day, Jesus spoke three brief parables intended to illustrate what should have been the celebratory nature of His presence with them. Fasting was typically associated with sorrow, but Jesus had not arrived bringing sorrow and sadness but rather joy and deliverance for His people. He had come to reveal a fresh understanding of God’s law...not one that differed from what Moses had given, but one that differed significantly from the interpretations, traditions, and requirements that the religious leaders had prescribed.
I trust you are able to see that the conflict is intensifying. The next two episodes deal with controversy concerning the Sabbath, the issue that was clearly the “sacred cow” of the Pharisees. “Scene Four” opens in verse 23:
“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’ And he said them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’”
The Pharisees had improvised and imposed numerous laws and taboos regarding the Sabbath. The majority of those rules were trivial and yet staunchly and legalistically enforced. As with fasting, the people were burdened with requirements that actually stood opposed to God’s revealed truth rather than being an amplification of it. To support His teaching, Jesus reminds His critics of an incident taken from 1 Samuel 21:1-6) and the life of David. When he asks, “Have you never read...?” it is with a note of sarcasm. Of course they had read that passage...many times, but they had failed to grasp its meaning. And that was Jesus’ point. He proceeds to explain to them that “the Sabbath” was never given by God to add to man’s burden, but to help relieve it. As the “lord of the Sabbath” He possessed authority over even their most sacred day.
The opposition of the prevailing religious establishment reaches a “fever pitch” when we arrive at chapter 3. “Scene Five,” as described in verses 1 through 6 is both shocking and revealing:
“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
By both word and deed Jesus has silenced His opponents, and in doing so He signed His own death warrant by fully exposing the evil intent of their hearts. Rather than reading the demonstrations of His power as signs of who He was and rather than submitting themselves to His teaching, they instead seek to rid themselves of Him. Hatred at times makes for “strange bedfellows.” The alliance with “the Herodians” and the Pharisees brought together two groups that until that moment had very little use for one another. One group was political and the other religious, and as history has repeatedly shown that can be a lethal combination. The ancient saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” was never truer than in the common animosity both groups had toward Jesus. With both the religious and political establishments arrayed against Him, Jesus would from this day forward be branded as “public enemy number one.” His divine authority, so vividly displayed, had been clearly witnessed...and utterly rejected.
A lesser man, one operating on the strength of human nature alone, would be tempted to mount a counter-strategy to silence his enemies. After all, the common folks had flocked to Him and loved His mighty displays. Anyone else would have been sorely tempted to allow himself to be carried along in the hysteria brought on by the public reaction to His miraculous deeds. This could have been His chance for personal vindication against His opponents. Why, He could just say the word, and at once be swept into royal office.
But He had fought that battle already...in His conflict with Satan in “the wilderness” (cf. Mark 1:12-13). Therefore, we see in verses 7 through 12 of chapter 3...
Jesus’ power over popular acclaim (3:7-12)
“Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’ And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.”
Many ministers would consider “a great crowd” to be the sign of a “successful” ministry, and they would be tempted to take full advantage of it. But Jesus definition of “success” is very often different from our own. Rather than embracing the masses on this occasion, Jesus appears to recoil from them to some degree. Although He is said to have “healed many,” one senses that He knew more about these people than these verses reveal. Elsewhere in Scripture we are told that, despite what the crowds were saying about Him, “he...knew what was in man” (cf. John 2:25). He knew that fame was fickle, and that if it were not for the phenomenal demonstrations of His power many would have walked away long before now.
Opposition to Jesus can be overt or it can be covert. The scribes and Pharisees made no pretense in their rejection of Him, but that reaction of the crowds was more subtle. Oh, they loved the displays of His power and were even impressed with His words, but most of them were as just unmoved in their hearts as were the religious leaders in theirs. None of them were heard to cry out, “You are the Son of God.” But the “unclean spirits” did...they knew who He was. They recognized Him and shook with fear in His presence and in His authority. But Jesus neither solicits nor accepts the testimony of demons—or any of His enemies, for that matter—so “he strictly ordered them not to make him known.” His ministry depended—and still depends—on witnesses that are credible...those who have yielded to His Lordship.
Depending upon what translation of the Bible you are reading, the terms “power” and “authority” are frequently interchangeable. Sooner or later, each one of us must address the matter of where the seat of authority for our lives rests. When Jesus says in His Great Commission to His disciples that “All authority in heaven and earth” had been given to Him (cf. Matthew 28:18), He laid claim to His right to exercise absolute power over us all. As we have seen, the divine authority claimed by Jesus Christ was no less questioned in His day than it is in ours. Far too many of us consider “authority” to be a “dirty word,” palatable only to those who possess it. But as Romans 13(:1-7) teaches, authority has been ordained and established by God for our good and protection. It is when we reject authority that chaos and confusion result. That is true politically, socially, and—even more so—spiritually.
These ten “snapshots” from the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel serve to depict for us where ultimate spiritual authority lies. It does not reside under the control of those spiritual agents that are opposed to the plan of God. Nor does it rest in the hands of religious or political leaders whose traditions are valued over God’s revealed Word. And neither does it exist in the fickle and fluctuating opinions of man...including ourselves. In spite of what we may sometimes think, we do not have power over our own lives. Ultimate authority finds its source in God alone and in His revealed Word. When you and I yield to His authority we are placed and positioned under the umbrella of His protection. But when we choose to submit to a lesser authority—including, and perhaps especially, ourselves—we are left in an extremely and vulnerable state.
So let me be very clear, if you have not yet submitted to the authority of Jesus Christ, then you are not His. No matter how many sermons you may have listened to or how many communion cups of juice you have sipped, if you have not turned from your sins and surrendered to Him, you are as lost as the religious leaders and selfish seekers that we read of this morning. I implore you to surrender to His authority as Lord today.
Both the summary and the application of this lengthy passage we have considered is found in the words of Jesus from chapter 2, verse 10: “The Son of Man has authority... to forgive sins.” In light of that Gospel-truth, I plead with you to confess your sins without delay and to genuinely seek with God’s help to walk away from them. Trust Jesus Christ, for He alone has authority to forgive you and to meet your every need...both now and forever.