Sermon, September 1: The Power of Jesus’s Teaching

Last week we took a look at Mark’s gospel as a whole; we didn’t look at any of the text except the word ‘gospel’, good news of importance that will get the whole community clapping and cheering like a victory over the enemy. Today I want to look a bit closer at the text of the opening section; it’s on p 836 of the Bibles provided.

If you turn to it you’ll see that after Mark announces that he has gospel, evangel, great news, to proclaim, he goes on immediately, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, but does not quote a passage of Isaiah that gives the actual good news—and there are passages he could have used—but quotes a passage that prophesies something that will happen at the beginning of the great victory that the good news proclaims. He quotes Isaiah’s prophecy that before God sends salvation to His lost people, someone will come to the prepare the way for the Saviour, and then says ‘that’s what happened when John the Baptist did his thing’. As it is written in Isaiah… I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way… John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s important to Mark to begin with something from the Old Testament because he wants us to know that Jesus is not bringing a new religion, but is the fulfilment of the one that the earliest Christians were raised in. John the Baptist is the one described by Isaiah, and his job is to introduce Jesus: After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan… The heavens opened and the Spirit descend[ed] upon him like a dove. Jesus is the One for Whom John prepared the way. And Jesus is the Son of God: a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased’. All this is simply justifying and expanding Mark’s first verse, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The good news is about Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, the One promised in the Old Testament.

That’s why everywhere the first Christians took the gospel, they took the Old Testament too. The gospel was first preached to the Jews, of course, who already believed what was taught in the Old Testament; but when people who had never heard of the Old Testament began to hear about Jesus, people in Antioch and Ephesus and Alexandria and Rome, those who told them about Jesus first told them about the Old Testament and all that it said that God had done, and then introduced Jesus as the completion of it. It would be a hundred years before any Christian thought for a minute that Christians could understand Jesus without the Old Testament, and when he (Marcion) made that point, the whole Christian world rose up and said ‘Wrong! Try again!’ So don’t neglect the Old Testament. If it isn’t part of your Bible reading, adjust your Bible reading. You need the Old Testament for your spiritual growth, to grow in love for and knowledge of Jesus Christ. And Mark will give us lots of it as we read on.

It’s not immediately clear how vv 12 and 13 about Jesus being tempted fit into Mark’s picture. Many scholars make a link between these verses and Mark’s word in v 1, ‘the beginning’. In the Old Testament the beginning is the creation story of Genesis, which begins In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. These scholars argue that Jesus being with the wild animals instead of afraid of them, and ministered to by angels, as some Jewish legends said Adam and Eve were, is a way of saying Jesus is restoring the Garden of Eden as it was before Adam and Eve disobeyed God. I have to say I find that a bit of a stretch. Jesus is restoring creation, but I don’t think that’s Mark’s point. In Genesis the Spirit is creating what is good, not driving people into the wilderness—that was what God did to Adam and Eve after they had disobeyed. I think the key to this passage is not in the word ‘beginning’, but in the word ‘wilderness’; this is the third time in just 12 verses that Mark has used the word. Mark quotes it in Isaiah’s prophecy of John, and John is described as doing his thing in the wilderness in accordance with the prophesy, so he’s got us thinking about the wilderness—then he uses it as an image for something deeper. Jesus had been with John and been baptised by John in John’s wilderness, but then v 12 says that after that the spirit drove Him into the wilderness, so it’s a different wilderness. Satan is in this wilderness, it is the kingdom of Satan. So Jesus’s response to John’s baptism of Him actually shows him sharing human life in the world we all live in, the world ruled by Satan, full of temptation. Jesus shares the temptations all people face, shares the dangers that are part of a fallen world, but finds help from on high, just as we can. It’s a very compact statement of Jesus’s humanity, but I think we’ll see the truth of it worked out as we read on.

Mark had said that Jesus came from Galilee to John’s baptism, and He returns to Galilee in v 14, at which point He proclaims the evangel, the gospel, Himself: the gospel of God… The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel. As Jesus makes His first business the proclamation of that good news in the world in which ordinary people live, so He recruits ordinary people who have believed the gospel to help bring the news to others. He calls the fishermen Simon and Andrew to join Him, saying Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. You’re going to fish for human beings, to catch them in the net of the Kingdom of God. Then the same with two more fishermen, James and John: time to stop mending the nets and start using them.

The rest of Chapter 1 is the introduction of two themes that will be a big part of the first half of Mark’s gospel: healing and teaching. But before we go into detail about either what Jesus taught, or how and whom He healed, Mark wants us to get the relationship between teaching and healing right. People have been impressed with and attracted by Jesus’s power to heal, and puzzled and even repelled by His teaching, in His time and right up today. It’s not uncommon to seek healing from Jesus, but to have no interest in the things He tells us about our relationship to God. But Mark tells his story in such a way as to make it crystal clear that the two go together. Before he tells us anything that Jesus taught, or describes in detail any of Jesus’s healings, he shows how Jesus made the relationship between them clear.

In vv 21f he tells us that on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and was teaching. And people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. Notice how Mark doesn’t even tell us what Jesus taught. We can find out by reading Matthew, actually, but Mark doesn’t tell us, because he wants first to tell us exactly what authority it is that Jesus’s teaching has. There was in the synagogue a man with an unclean or evil spirit. And that evil spirit doesn’t like Jesus’s teaching, and the spirit calls 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. Evil recognises Christ’s  authority at once: it is the authority of God Himself, authority over evil, power to destroy evil spirits and to restore human beings to the life for which God created them!

And Jesus exercises His authority for the benefit of the person troubled by that evil spirit. Verse 25, Jesus rebuked that spirit, saying Be silent, and come out of him. And the spirit did, immediately. And if people were astounded because of what Jesus taught about Himself, they are even more astounded when they see that His teaching is not just talk. It is power. It is authority that cannot be resisted. In v 27 the people in the synagogue sum it up this way: A new teaching— with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. Notice that they don’t say ‘a new teacher’, but ‘a new teaching’. It’s what Jesus says that is so authoritative. It is the teaching that has the authority, the power to destroy evil. Their words are backed up by the Bible’s teaching that the word of God is the power of God. The word itself has power to destroy the strongholds of evil. The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament has told us that God says My word… shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose. God’s word achieves God’s purpose, God’s word does God’s work. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God, is an Old Testament passage that Jesus quoted. Paul calls the Bible the ‘Sword of the Spirit’ in the Epistle to the Ephesians. God’s word is His power, His irresistible authority. When Jesus gave His disciples His authority, He did so by giving them God’s word. Even when you or I speak God’s word, it has power over evil. That’s why all we ever need to do, when we are faced with any evil, is to repeat His word; when you and I take up the sword of His word, then we have that authority too: you and I can destroy the strongholds of evil with God’s word.

That’s why Jesus put preaching the gospel at the top of His list of priorities and spent three years doing it before He finally went to Jerusalem to deliver evil its death-blow. That’s why, for Jesus, preaching and teaching are a higher priority than healing. When He and His disciples got back to Peter’s house after the incident in the synagogue, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and a whole lot of other people who had heard about what happened in the synagogue—at once His fame spread everywhere. Eventually the crowds went home to bed, but more showed up the next morning. But Jesus wasn’t there. He had got up before anyone else and gone somewhere quiet to pray. Eventually the disciples found Him, and they told Him, v 37, Everyone is looking for you! Of course they were—they wanted Jesus to wave His magic wand or whatever it took so that their problems would disappear. But Jesus wouldn’t do any more of that. Here’s what He said when the disciples told Him everyone was looking for Him: Let us go somewhere else. Not, ‘tell them to wait a minute, I’m coming’, but ‘you can tell them I’m not coming, I’m going somewhere else’. He went on to explain why: Let us go somewhere else, to other villages, He said—so I can preach there also, for that is why I came, v 38.

Why didn’t he heal all those sick people He hadn’t healed? What is it about His preaching that could be more important than that? Here’s what I think: His preaching, His teaching was to show us how to deal with all those things in our lives that are only there because we have ignored God. Remember what Mark told us He preached: The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel. God is in charge, and if you want to see God’s power at work in your life, repent, change your heart, and believe what God says. Jesus freed some people from evil, healed them of their infirmities, in order to prove that it really was true that the way to be freed from all that is not God’s plan for people is to repent, to change our hearts, and to believe what God says in His word.

That’s why it’s so important that we know our Bibles, that we read them regularly and know where to find the verses that apply to different situations. That’s why memorizing Bible verses is such a powerful spiritual exercise. And it’s as we bring Jesus’s teaching to bear on our lives that we are healed of the things that hold us back spiritually. The truth of Jesus’s teaching is what made His miraculous healings possible, and it can work miracles in your life and mine, even today.

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