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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Holy One of God vs. An Unclean Spirit
Text:Mark 1:21-28 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 71:1,12,13                                                                         

Ps 36:1,3                                                                                                        

Reading – Mark 5:1-20

Ps 60:1,2,5

Sermon – Mark 1:21-28

Hy 53:1,3

Hy 41:1,2,3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in the Lord, why did Jesus come to earth? It’s a simple question, but it’s important. What was the purpose of Jesus’ life? “He came to die on the cross for our sins,” someone will say. Someone else says: “Jesus came to seek and save the lost.” Or: “He came to gather his sheep, to open the kingdom, to reveal the Father.” Each of these answers is true.

But there’s another answer that Scripture gives, in 1 John 3:8, about why Jesus came to earth. It’s surprising, because there the apostle John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” As a mission statement, that’s entirely different from what we’re used to. It’s not the picture of a shepherd, or a Passover Lamb. It’s the picture of a warrior—a soldier who wants to annihilate his enemy. Jesus, “meek and mild,” came to destroy the works of the devil!

It’s surprising, yet we see its truth in our text. What’s happening? Jesus is doing his very first miracle in the Gospel of Mark. He has begun his ministry of preaching, He’s just called his first disciples—now, to work! It’s the Sabbath, but He’s going to work anyway. And Jesus performs a miracle that gets to the heart of what He’s doing, one that reveals his whole purpose.

You can be sure that Mark wants us to notice this, to remember it: Jesus’ first miracle is to cast out a demon! There’s a rich symbolism here: Jesus is showing his total power over the forces of evil; He is taking the fight to Satan, and beating him. This is why He came, so that we can be saved from the devil’s power! I preach God’s Word to you,

            The Holy One shows his authority over an unclean spirit in the synagogue:

1)     what the spirit said

2)     what Jesus said

3)     what the people said


1) what the spirit said: Jesus has been preaching for a while. We see that in 1:14, how after John was put in prison: “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God.” Even when it’s not mentioned by Mark, it’s probably happening. For instance, later in this chapter Jesus says, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also” (v 38). This was continual preaching. And of course, on the Sabbath too. What better day to preach, and what better place to do it than where God’s people meet together?

So verse 21 says, “Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught.” Let’s take a look at this synagogue. What was it? It was the building for a local congregation of Jews. There were many synagogues in the villages of Israel—this one was in that little town in the north, Capernaum. And synagogues were found throughout the Roman empire, wherever Jews had settled. In the book of Acts this was often where the apostles would  go at first, in order to begin preaching about Christ.

In these synagogues, services would always be held on the Sabbath, and sometimes on week days too. Unlike the worship at the temple in Jerusalem, synagogue services had little ceremony and ritual. It was a simple liturgy: praises were sung, prayers offered, benedictions given, and there would be reading from the Scriptures. And that was really the focus of the synagogue: instruction in God’s Word.

Synagogues didn’t have an ordained ministry like we do. Instead, there were elders who led the assembly. And they could invite any Jewish man to deliver a sermon if he had the ability. This is why Jesus gets the opportunity. From all his preaching in the area, the elders know that He’s got something to say, so He is allowed to teach. Just imagine that—having Jesus sitting in your congregation, then being able to listen to a sermon from Jesus’ own mouth! He probably took one of the synagogue scrolls, read a passage, and then explained its meaning.

Mark doesn’t tell us what He spoke about on this Sabbath—no theme and points jotted down. Not that the sermon was so forgettable, but what’s more remarkable is the effect that the sermon has! This sermon makes everyone sit up and listen—it even gets a demon’s attention. 

For “there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit” (v 23). Throughout Mark, we keep meeting people like this: people who are possessed by evil spirits. Their life has been taken over by this outside power, dominated by the power of Satan himself.

Satan has been introduced already in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. This was a face-to-face confrontation, a high-stakes battle, and Satan came out of it the loser. But Satan is nothing if not determined. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he’ll keep opposing the Lord and his kingdom.

From other parts of Scripture, we know that Satan is the general of his own army, a massive army of spirits, devils and demons. They do Satan’s will on earth, which is trying to destroy God’s good works. Sometimes Satan’s spirits will attack the powerful and important, so that wide-scale damage can be done. Other times, his spirits will target ordinary people like this man in the synagogue, and make life a total nightmare.

When demonic possession happens, it’s like Satan has hacked into the mind. A person can’t control himself. Some of those who are possessed can’t speak, or can’t hear. Sometimes these demons will throw people into a fire, or make them physically violent. Well, this is what has happened to this man in the synagogue. He’s in a desperate state; his whole life has been ruined by the devil’s power.

As a side comment, we might wonder if this kind of demonic possession still happens. Some people will say that it doesn’t, that it only happened in that early period of the New Testament. Now that Christ has broken the devil’s power, he’s not able to possess people anymore. I’m not sure about that—but it’s a discussion for another day. There are other people too, who just don’t believe in demons. They dismiss it as a primitive superstition; they say Mark is simply describing something that today we would call mental illness, like this man in the synagogue had a form of insanity.

But Mark is giving us a true account. He sees—and Jesus sees—the real cause of this man’s suffering: his life has been taken over by an unclean spirit. It’s interesting that Mark calls it “unclean.” Reflect on that word. It’s not a spirit that needs a bath, but a spirit that makes a person impure in God’s sight. If you were possessed by an unclean spirit, you weren’t fit to draw near to the holy God. And isn’t that what the devil wants? He wants to prevent people from drawing near to God, stop us from giving the LORD his worship.

Still today, Satan has power to do that. We have a hard time understanding demonic possession, but it’s just an extreme form of what Satan’s always doing: he’s trying to be lord of our life instead of God, he’s trying to dominate us. And he’s still got his methods of controlling us, ones we know about well. In fact, any sin has power to trap us. You know how there are temptations that are so strong in pulling us—the desire can be so powerful. There are other things we do that are so hard to stop because we’ve done them so long. In a very real sense, sin can possess us. Satan can keep us in captivity. Whatever that takes, he’s happy whenever we’re barely thinking of God and thinking mostly of ourselves. So know this, what he’s doing when he tempts you: he wants to stop our worship of Christ.

Satan even goes into the synagogue to do it—the one place you’d think was off-limits! I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a worship service that gets disrupted. Maybe someone walks in off the street and makes a disturbance, or a child starts crying at full volume—it’s pretty noticeable. This is what happens in the Capernaum synagogue. For suddenly that man cries out, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth?” (v 24). There’s desperation in that voice. In Mark, the demons are often crying out—think of Legion in chapter 5, whom Mark describes as “crying out and cutting himself with stones” (v 5). 

This unclean spirit takes over the man’s mouth, and he speaks to Jesus. His question is basically this: “What do we have in common? How can you be near me?” Remember this is an unclean spirit. And who is Jesus? The demon knows the truth: “You are the Holy One of God” (v 24). This spirit understand that Jesus is absolutely holy, without sin and consecrated to God. This spirit also knows how incompatible his uncleanness is with Jesus’ holiness—this spirit and Jesus simply can’t stand next to each other. It’s an impossibility. What do darkness and light have in common? Nothing, so he wants Jesus to leave him.

Strangely enough, beloved, this demon teaches us something important about avoiding sin. It teaches us something about the evil that we might be tolerating in our life. We can be soft on our sin, even when we know what the works of the devil are. We identify them quickly: Blasphemy of God’s name. Drunkenness. Hatred of other people. Sexual impurity. Pride. Disrespect to authority. These are all against God’s Word—period. They’re not fitting for God’s people.

Yet don’t we give oxygen to these things? We make a show of closing the front door on them, but then we let them in through the back. By our actions we show that we still accept them. “I’m just going to watch this video, even though it’s full of swearing. I can listen to these songs, though I know they’re full of sexual innuendo. I’m just going share a bit of gossip. Or give in to bitterness. Or click on things that I know will only feed dirty thoughts.”

These things aren’t fitting for the people of Christ. They’re incompatible with his holiness—even the unclean spirit knew that. And he knew that either he had to go, or Jesus had to go. But we act sometimes like we never learned that, like we’ve forgotten just how offensive sin is. “What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?” We ought to have nothing in common with what’s unclean. We ought to avoid whatever may entice us to sin. We belong to the Holy One of God!

Now, unlike with Legion in chapter 5, only one spirit is mentioned in our text. But notice how he uses the plural: “Let us alone!” (v 24). He’s speaking for his fellow spirits, and he knows that Christ the enemy of them all, that He’s hostile to the whole world of demons.

That’s what the spirit says, “Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are” (v 24). The demon knows him. In Mark’s Gospel, the demons are among the only ones who recognize Christ for who He is. For most of the Gospel, everyone is in the dark—even the disciples take a long time to figure it out. But the unclean spirits know what’s really going on with Jesus. So no wonder the unclean spirit is frightened! Jesus has come with power to destroy them.

So is the spirit making a confession of faith with these words? Or is it putting out the white flag? On the contrary, it’s probably a challenge—this is an attempt to control Jesus, to back him into a corner. Back then it was believed that if you knew a person’s true identity, and if you could say his name, you had a kind of power over him. This is what the spirit tries to do. He tries to assert his power by naming him: this is Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God! He’s right, but of course the attempt fails. This unclean spirit is up against Almighty Lord, the Holy One of God, and he’s never going to win.


2) what Jesus said: Finally Jesus speaks. He was preaching, of course, but only now does Mark tell us what He says. Christ addresses the demon, and his words are sharp, to the point: “Be quiet, and come out of him!” (v 25). It’s a rebuke. And his two commands show in different ways why the demon gets admonished.

First, “Be quiet!” Jesus won’t allow his sermon to be interrupted. Here He is, preaching the good news, and like always, Satan is trying to drown it out. But Christ won’t let him. Jesus hates being confessed by those who don’t really love him, so this spirit isn’t welcome to proclaim who Jesus is. So he has to be quiet. Literally, Jesus says to it, “Be muzzled,” like an ox or horse would have its mouth restrained.

We just said that the demons know who Jesus was, while his own disciples are slow to catch on. And in a sense, Jesus doesn’t want to be known, not yet. He wanted it to be kept secret until everyone was ready to receive him as the Saviour. Miracles couldn’t prove that He was the Christ. Even casting out demons didn’t prove it—others could do this too. Jesus wants to be trusted and worship for his greatest work, in dying on the cross. So the demon has to be quiet.    

Jesus’ second command is this: “Come out of him.” That’s authority! Think of it: Jesus is saying this spirit has no right to possess the man; it’s not his place. And this is what Jesus will often do when dealing with those who were possessed. Look again at the story of Legion in 5:8, “Come out of the man, [you] unclean spirit!” This isn’t an incantation or spell—it’s simply Jesus speaking with his superior authority and might: “It’s time for you to leave.”

Jesus performs miracles throughout the Gospel of Mark in this same way: by his command. He speaks, and the demons leave. He orders the lepers to be cleansed, and they are. He commands the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the storm to be still—and they all listen. So great is his power as the Son of God!

So also when Jesus gives the command, this unclean spirit has no choice. “When the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him” (v 26). There’s a violent reaction, for the spirit’s unwilling to leave. No one wants to be homeless. But it has to come out. Once it leaves, we don’t know where it ends up, unlike in the story of Legion, where the demons enter a herd a pigs and they drown in the sea. That points to the end of all demons, of course, who will be thrown with the devil into the lake of fire. For this unclean spirit too, the point is, he’s on the run. And Jesus is showing him that his end is near.

That’s the powerful truth in our text—the symbolic value of this first miracle. Our text is a little skirmish, a small exchange of gunfire before the big battle. Yet it shows us something very clearly, and very comforting: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan are not equally matched. For Satan is not a god, he’s only a creature. He is strong, but he’s not invincible. He is really smart, but he’s not perfectly wise. He might have many demons at his command, and many allies in this world, but not one of them can stand against Christ. Where the Holy One is, Satan has to leave. One word from Christ is enough to put the devil on the run.

Isn’t that good to know? You and I are fighting the devil every day. We said Satan is doing everything he can to make you forget God. He’s distracting you with nice things, attractive things, things that seem really important and demand a lot of attention, but only keep you from loving God. In your trouble and anxiety, he’s encouraging you to doubt. In your relationships, he’s suggesting that you do what’s right for you. He’s putting out snares, and he’s smart about it. The best hunter leaves no tracks, and a lot of the time we don’t even notice the devil.

He can do so much damage—he has done much damage. Satan is a roaring lion, but our text shows that this lion is on a leash—he’s on God’s leash. And he’s been muzzled. Think about that when you’re tempted and enticed: how the devil is not a master worth following. All his offers are a waste of time. Being in his service is a waste of a life, because Jesus has already conquered him!

This is why Jesus came: to destroy the works of the devil. He shows it by defeating the devil in the desert, and now defeating the spirit in the synagogue. Jesus will do lots of this. It’s going to take something more though—this battle is going to end with Jesus on the cross. Satan will even have a hand in the death of Christ—an evil spirit will enter Judas Iscariot, and turn him against the Lord. The day will look very dark. Yet once more, we see Jesus’ power. For by giving up his own life, Christ rescues his believers from the power of darkness, sets us free for all time. The devil is defeated, and his power broken.       

And that has a real consequence. It means that for today’s fight and this week’s challenge, you need to go to Christ for deliverance. Christ doesn’t want the devil to have you, where your life is degraded, or where your life is out of control because of constant sin. Jesus doesn’t want his people captive to Satan in any way. So ask for the help of Jesus! Use his armour, and take up his sword.

Remember this, that where Christ is, Satan has to leave. In the person’s life where Christ is being listened to, Satan’s words have little effect. In the life where Christ is being worshiped and loved, Satan can gain no foothold. Only if you are walking with Christ can you resist the devil. Only if you are strong in Christ, will the devil begin to flee.


3) what the people said: Our text begins and ends with amazement. Verse 22 describes what the people say as Jesus teaches in the synagogue, “They were astonished at his teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” What impresses them is how his words have a tone of power, unlike the words of the scribes.

The scribes were men who were very learned in Scripture, who were devoted to the study of the law. In their discussions, they would always begin with quoting Scripture. Then they would explain that Scripture by using the traditions and sayings of rabbis from centuries past. Their sermons were one footnote after another, “It is written by Rabbi Eleazar. And that agrees with what Rabbi Melchior once said. However, Rabbi Ben-Ami disagrees.”

But when Jesus speaks, He needs no footnotes. He speaks with utter independence. Sometimes He’ll even correct the long-standing traditions of Scripture interpretation, and He will declare, “But I say to you…” More often He simply tells the truth about things that really matter: about the kingdom, and about God, and about what it means to live for God. Naturally, the people wonder where He got his training; we hear them say in chapter 6, “Where did this man get these things?... Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary? (v 3). They’re amazed at his preaching.

That’s how our text begins: with the people’s amazement. And their amazement multiplies after Jesus casts out the demon. “Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? What new doctrine is this?’” (v 27). The same authority He showed in teaching, He shows in his command to the demon. Jesus has authority not just in words, but in deeds—this is someone that everyone needs to listen to!

The people are right: what Jesus is saying and doing is new. Not new in the sense that no had ever heard about the kingdom before—they had. But it’s new because suddenly it’s real: the kingdom is coming in him! At last God’s kingdom is appearing: for “with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him” (v 28).

Capernaum knows that Jesus is someone great. But there’s also a lack of understanding. Just who is He, really? They can’t find an answer just yet. They see him as a marvellous Teacher, a powerful preacher, but not as a mighty Saviour. Everyone in that synagogue has heard what the unclean spirit just announced—that Jesus is “the Holy One of God,” the one who’s come to destroy the works of the devil. They’ve heard what the demon said, but from them there’s no confession. There’s no worship. They’re impressed, but they’re not transformed. Jesus’ fame might spread throughout all the region, but that doesn’t mean faith spreads. The demons alone know who this man is—they know him, and they tremble.

Consider how the church of ______________ should be different than the synagogue of Capernaum. We’ve been allowed to see the end of the story, the Gospel, from beginning to end. We don’t just know the outcome of this first fight, but about the final battle. We know about the cross and the empty tomb, how the devil’s kingdom was destroyed, and about the true power and love of the Holy One. Which means that unlike those first sermon listeners, the listeners of this sermon have to do more than be impressed. Today we have to do more than agree that Jesus is a great teacher and a mighty warrior. We have to confess him as Saviour, we have to obey him as Master, and we should trust him always.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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