“Just then a man with an unclean spirit was in their synagogue. He cried out, ‘What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!’ Jesus rebuked him saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit threw him into convulsions, shouted with a loud voice, and came out of him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Exorcisms make for a popular subject within the horror genre. Beyond the obvious horror elements, I think there’s a reason for this. Good horror movies (and by that, I mean ones that go beyond simple gore and cheap scares) explore the human psyche in ways that few other films really do. They allow filmmakers and moviegoers to examine what it is that scares us and why. And one of the things that frightens many people is the unknown, especially when it comes to the spiritual world. People have always had a sense that there is a world beyond what we can see and that it isn’t necessarily all sunshine and roses. Stories like this one in Mark confirm that notion, but in ways that should give us confidence, not fear. Let’s talk about it.
This is a short episode out of Mark’s Gospel and one that is part of a larger storyline which stretches through chapter 2, but there is a lot of stuff worthy of our attention right here. We’ll get to the bigger context of which this is a part when we get to the end of this storyline, but for now, let’s look at the details here.
This would have been an intense scene. Try and put yourself in the room. The normal crowd was gathered on the Sabbath there in the synagogue, listening to Jesus teach. It was a morning just like any other Sabbath morning. Except this one guy started looking nervous when Jesus stood up to teach. Something was bothering him, though nobody could tell exactly what it was. He was just agitated. And then, out of nowhere, he shouts this thing at Jesus. Nobody understood what he meant. But Jesus seemed to and He responded immediately by commanding silence and for whatever it was to come out of the man.
Mark gives us just enough details on what came next to make us wish for more. The man who shouted at Jesus goes into convulsions and shouts out loud. Mark tells us that the unclean spirit (that is, the demon) came out of the man in a scene that could have come straight out of a horror movie. But how did they know? Did they just assume that happened? Could they actually see something emerge from him? Did Jesus later describe it to the disciples since He could presumably see what they could not? Give us more details, Mark!
I don’t really have any answers to many of the questions these verses raise, but let’s reflect for a minute on what we do see. First, demon possession is a real thing. Mark and the other Gospel writers make that clear. They knew when a person was simply sick and when a demon was the cause of a person’s issue. Demons, unclean spirits, can inhabit people. And when they do, they can cause a whole range of trouble. The problems a demon causes don’t seem like they can be known until they manifest. Sometimes a possession is obvious, but other times, it seems to exist without anyone being aware of it. This was evidently an example of the latter.
Thinking about that more specifically, this man was apparently possessed by a demon without anyone in the synagogue being aware of it. Does that still happen today? Can it happen? What kind of covert damage was this causing to the synagogue community? Are there churches today with members who are secretly unregenerate, demon-possessed, and sowing seeds of chaos? I’ve certainly not ever seen evidence of this, but I can’t rule it out entirely. This will have to be a place where I wave the mystery flag, but with the recognition that we don’t have reason to think our communities are somehow safer from this than theirs were. As churches, we need to work to make sure that all of our members really are growing followers of Jesus. Anything less than this leaves us open to trouble.
Something else we see here is that demons knew who Jesus was on sight. We see this throughout the Gospels. There are multiple different stories of Jesus encountering a demon-possessed person and the demon begins shouting about who He really was in a way no one else there understood. The demons knew who He was and they were terrified of Him. They were terrified of Him because they knew He had authority over them. They may have had power over the person they were inhabiting, but they had no power over Him. They were powerless before Him. When He spoke, they had to listen. They had to obey.
What we see in this is that while there is a spiritual realm beyond what we can see, Jesus has absolute authority over this realm. It is fully submitted to Him. This should be a point of great comfort and confidence for us. Do you see why? This thing that is a source of fear for so many people–again, there’s a reason it is such a common theme in movies designed to induce fear in us–doesn’t have to be scary at all. We don’t have to fear it. It may represent a threat to us, but not to Jesus. And if we are in Christ, the power He holds extends to us. We are covered by it. The spiritual realm has no power over us anymore because the power that is in us is greater than the power that is in the world.
What this means more directly is that while demon-possession is a real thing, it represents no threat to followers of Jesus. None. With Christ in us, no power of this world can overcome us. He is greater.
Now, this makes for some interesting theorizing, but what do we actually do with this? For starters, we refuse to give into fear. It also, though, means we take seriously the power of the spiritual world and the demonic forces that inhabit it. They are real and we cannot overcome them on our own. Instead, we rely all the more on Jesus who has already overcome them. Now, this doesn’t mean we look under every rock and around every corner for demons. We don’t look for them at all. Instead, we focus our efforts and attention on advancing Jesus’ kingdom. And when we experience resistance that seems to go beyond what is natural, we don’t flinch or get surprised. We lean all the more on the power of our Savior in us and keep moving forward. Jesus is stronger. Trust in Him and that strength is yours.