Mark’s gospel tells us that early in Jesus’ ministry, our wandering Messiah and his band of followers went to a synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, and began to teach.
We don’t know what part of the Jewish Scriptures Jesus might have referenced, or if he had a particular topic in mind while in Capernaum, a little fishing village along the Sea of Galilee. Mark is typically spare in the details provided. The story instead focuses on the reaction the worshipers had to Jesus.
“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” Mark 1:22 tells us. In other words, the truth and power of what Jesus taught seemed rooted in the man himself, more so than the words on the parchment most likely in front of him, words they could have a scribe read to them any time.
Their reaction to Jesus happened even before the next, more tangible event, the entry of a possessed man into the synagogue. The “unclean spirit” within the man seemed to fear Jesus would destroy it and its kind, and it also declared through the man, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
With a very direct command—”Be quiet, and come out of him!”—Jesus exorcised the evil spirit, freeing the man from the possession he had experienced. And of course, the witnesses were astounded.
For nonbelievers, the story sounds anachronistic, rooted in a worldview of mysticism and evil spirits that a rational person should no longer accept. And even for Christians oriented to the idea of a spiritual realm, the story can seem distant, another tale of what Jesus did by way of his divinity a couple of thousand years ago.
It is my prayer, however, that I can convince you this is a story for today. Understood as part of the larger Bible story, it is evidence of the power available to Christians now.
My argument is fairly simple: Jesus was a convincing source of truth and power while on earth because he is God; the church as a whole has the same authority because the people who make it up are empowered by God. It is a very scriptural argument.
John’s gospel captures Jesus promising as much in John 14:12: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Jesus also promised power for his followers in Acts, after his resurrection and just before his ascension into heaven. And we see that power come, the Holy Spirit falling on Jesus’ followers and allowing them to spread the word.
The stories in Acts show those followers matching Jesus’ signs and miracles, up to and including the raising of the dead. We see healings so powerful that the sick need only fall under Peter’s shadow, and like the story of Jesus in Capernaum, we see even the evil spirits having to acknowledge the power now present in the world in Christ’s followers.
This doesn’t mean that all who come to the church for healing of one kind or another will be healed today; if you read carefully, you’ll see that wasn’t the case even in the early days of the church. And it doesn’t mean physical healing is permanent—we sometimes forget that everyone Jesus physically healed eventually died, as far as we know. Universal, permanent physical healing is a promise for the future, a mark of Christ’s final return and our entrance into eternity with our Savior.
We should have confidence as a church in our ability to show the world signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us, however. We should seek healing for people who are physically, emotionally or spiritually ill, praying that such healing will be a sign for those who need to know Christ.
We especially should look at the story of Jesus in Capernaum for clues about what our role in the world is today. He does a couple of very special things.
First, he takes Scripture and somehow shows people that it is alive and full of God’s power. Do we know the Bible well enough, and are we filled enough with God’s Holy Spirit, to show people how it applies in every moment of every day?
Second, he engages with evil so powerfully that what is evil already knows it is doomed. Are we confronting evil everywhere we find it—not just shaking our heads at it, but confronting it, rebuking it, calling it out?
When I was ordained, the bishop said something interesting as part of the ordination ritual. He told me to take authority, instructing me that I am supposed to draw on the power God has given me to do the particular work pastors are called to perform. The traditional words in the service of ordination are “Take thou authority,” spoken with booming conviction by a bishop.
Every Christian needs to hear those words. Every Christian needs to live those words. All of you, Take thou authority, using the spiritual power God grants you until such time as Christ returns.