Coming to Grips with the Authority of Christ
Coming to Grips with the Authority of Christ
From the editor
Donald Sunukjian is a master at making a text come alive for a congregation, carefully and memorably pointing out all the details that matter. Watch as he skillfully explains the meaning of key words, draws from Old Testament texts, and pushes the audience to consider the context of the passage at hand. And notice, too, how Sunukjian handles application. His trademark style is at work here: He introduces a number of scenarios at the beginning of the sermon—scenarios that leave the audience wondering what the person should do, not do, say, not say—that he then revisit at the end of the sermon. These scenarios are just general enough—and just specific enough—to speak to just about everyone in the audience. It's a wonderful approach to preaching!
Babe Ruth was the great home run hitter for the New York Yankees baseball team. During one particular at-bat, the umpire, Babe Pinelli, called Ruth out on strikes. There was a stunned silence in the stands. Ruth turned to Pinelli and said, "There are 40,000 people here who know that last one was a ball." Pinelli replied, "Maybe so, but mine is the only opinion that counts."
We live in a world of thousands of opinions. Whose opinion counts? Who has the authority that matters? There are experts in every field imaginable, some of whom say conflicting things. Who do we look to as our authority?
Is global warming threatening the planet? Or is it a hyped-up scare tactic to serve special interests groups? Who's the authority that really knows?
Should we compassionately take steps to provide health care for every American? Or would that increase our national debt to the point where it might cripple our future? Which is true? Who really knows?
Should we send more troops to Afghanistan in hopes of stabilizing the country and perhaps capturing Osama bin Laden? Or should we conclude, as Britain and Russia have in years past, that the country is ungovernable and extricate ourselves as soon as possible?
These are huge issues, and there are good arguments on both sides. Absolute certainty is difficult to arrive at, and nobody will know for sure who's correct until events have played themselves out over a period of years. Because the answers are so unknowable, and because any conclusion we might come to would have minimal effect on the course of events anyway, many times we listen to all the opinions and none of them counts more heavily with us than any other. Since we don't think anyone really knows, and since the decision doesn't depend on us, it doesn't seem terribly critical that we settle on which authority we will go with.
But we know that there are other times when the issues hit closer to home. They are personal. And we know that the course of action is entirely within our control. The outcome rests entirely on the decision we make. At times like these, the question becomes more critical and penetrating. Who determines what I will decide, which direction I will go? Whose opinion do I listen to? Who becomes my authority?
When I have a difficult decision about how I will act during a stressful time in my marriage—my spouse has been unfaithful or has deceived me in the area of our finances or has made a momentous decision affecting our family without talking it over with me—and I have to decide how I will act—who do I listen to? Oprah? Dr. Phil? "Dear Abby"? My parents? My best friend? Whose opinion counts?
When I'm deciding which movies I'll see or which TV programs I'll watch or where I'll go on Saturday night—what influences me? Advertising? Hollywood? Word-of-mouth among my friends? Whose opinion counts?
When I'm making decisions about how to grow my business or advance my career or handle a sticky situation at work—where do I get direction? Mentors? Magazine articles? Motivational seminars?
Who's my authority? Who do I listen to? The question can become critical and penetrating.
There were some people living in a lakeside community in the first century who were grappling with such questions: Who should we listen to? Who should we look to for direction? Who's an authority on the important matters of life? In fact, a new teacher in the area was forcing them to grapple with such questions. He had been traveling around their province for the past few months, and they had heard good things about him. A few weeks ago he had come to their lakeside community, and some of their most prominent businessmen—leaders in the fishing industry—had started spending some time with him. The last few weekends, he had been speaking in their synagogue services. Now the townspeople were trying to come to some conclusion about him.
His teaching was like nothing they'd ever heard before. What he was saying, and how he was saying it, was so different from everything they were used to. He spoke with the ring of truth. His words seemed to have an authority behind them. They were blown away by it—and they didn't know what to make of it.
Then something happened during one of their services that was so unusual, it was a bit scary. They weren't sure they could handle what it might mean for them. The event is recorded in Mark 1:21-28, and you and I need to grapple with the implications of this event for our lives.
Jesus displays a remarkable level of authority.
Jesus is now in the lakeside city of Capernaum, the home of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, all leaders in the area's fishing industry who have begun to spending time with Jesus. Jesus soon starts attending the local synagogue services, and he is immediately asked to speak. In those days the synagogues didn't have salaried staff or resident teachers. The speaking or teaching was all done by laypeople within the congregation. A coordinator or facilitator supervised the services and scheduled the speakers. Word had spread about Jesus, because he had been doing a lot of preaching throughout area. When he came to Capernaum, they immediately invited him to be the speaker for as many times as he wished.
Verse 22 tells us that after just a few weeks, the people were blown away by his teaching. Amazed. They didn't know what to make of it. His words had authority. He was not like the teachers of the law—the religious scholars of the day. Some older translations of the Bible refer to these teachers as scribes. A scribe was an educated person—someone who could read and write. These scribes or teachers of the law knew the Jewish teachings of the elders. They knew the different biblical interpretations that had come down through the centuries. They could tell you, "Rabbi so-and-so said this. But Rabbi such-and-such thought it meant this instead." They could teach you the options, but they couldn't decide among them. All they could do was repeat the traditions of the fathers long ago. But when Jesus taught, he spoke with a certainty that came from the Father above. His words had authority. They had the ring of truth. And the people said: This is different than what we're used to. He's not like the scribes or teachers of the law. His words have an authority.
But then one Sabbath, something happened during one of their services that was so unusual, it was a bit scary. They didn't know how to explain it, and they weren't sure they could handle what it might mean for them:
Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"
"Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him." News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
The word for "amazed" in verse 27 is very different than the word used in Verse 22, which says the people were "amazed" at his teaching. In Verse 22, the word used for "amazed" speaks of the people being blown away, astonished, overwhelmed. But in Verse 27, the word used for "amazed" carries with it the idea of fear creeping in. Something unexplainable and a bit scary has just happened, and the people are not sure what to make of it.
The thing that was scary for the people was not the presence of the demon, but Jesus' power over it. Jesus simply speaks, and the demon has to leave. Jesus simply makes the decision, "This is not going to be," and the matter is settled. He just says it, and it's done. This is a bit more than they can handle.
With us, it's the other way around. The thought of a demon actually being in someone, making them do something, sounds strange, even scary, to us. We seldom explain anyone's behavior as being caused by a demon. But at the same time, we have these unusual phrases that we use: "What's gotten into you?" or "What's come over you?" We use these phrases when the behavior is something we can't explain. It's almost as though we know something else is going on.
There are times when we come across some evil that's beyond our ability to explain it—an evil that's out of the ordinary, beyond normal human sinfulness. It can be something in the newspaper so horrid that we shudder at it. How can such evil exist? I just read a story about a man and his wife who kidnapped an 11-year-old girl and hid her in a tent in their backyard. The man repeatedly raped her. At 14, she had his child. At 18, she has another child. We read about that and say, "How can such evil exist?" Also in the paper this week: a mother stabs her two toddler daughters with a knife. It's beyond our ability to comprehend. Where did such evil come from?
On a lesser scale, we sometimes encounter self-destructive behavior that just doesn't make sense. An eating disorder—anorexia or bulimia—which brings tragedy and crisis on a daily basis. Teenage anger or hatred or rebellion that goes beyond the ordinary desire for independence and freedom. A person at work who seems driven by the desire to humiliate others—compelled to dominate and abuse and inflict misery. We see such things and say, "What makes them be like that?"
There is evil that doesn't make sense. We're at a loss to explain it, because our culture doesn't understand something that many other cultures of the world do: that there are evil demon beings that can enter a person and become a controlling force in their life. We can't see them. They're in spirit form. But they are serving Satan and his evil work in the world, and they can use people to make it happen. They were created originally as part of God's throng of angels, but they joined Satan in his rebellion against God, and like him, they were cast out of heaven. Now these unseen demons are present in the air around us. They carry out all of their anger and hatred for God against his creation and against the people he wants to draw to himself. If they target us, we humans are no match for them. We're powerless against them unless, as the Bible says, we have on the armor of God.
These demons are unseen, and diabolically intelligent. They're able to surreptitiously insinuate themselves inside a person and start to control them. Over time they cause the person to internally disintegrate, while outwardly they wreak havoc against anyone who comes in their path. Once they take over, they're almost impossible to dislodge. It's seldom an issue of treatment or therapy. All that does is cause them to go under the radar for a period of time, until attention shifts elsewhere. Then their control surfaces once more, and the disintegration starts again.
The good news in the midst of this bad news is that Christ came to destroy the works of the Devil—to release those held captive by him, and to fill them instead with peace and holiness. Christ came to free someone from Satan's control, to connect them to God, and to give them joy and strength. In our passage today, Jesus shows for the first time his power to do this. He has absolute authority over the demon. He simply speaks, and the demon has to leave. There is no drawn-out ritual to cast the demon out—no incantation, mumbo-jumbo, incense, props, lengthy prayer, no prolonged struggle. Jesus simply makes the decision that demon will no longer have control, and the matter is settled. He just gives the order—"Come out of him"—and the demon obeys.
Are we willing to live according to Jesus' remarkable level of authority?
Sitting there in the room while Jesus is teaching, the demon is overcome by the force of holiness coming from Jesus. Taking control of the man's voice, the demon suddenly shouts out in fear and anguish: What do you want, Jesus? I know who you are. I know where you've come from. You're the Holy One God has sent. I know what your goal is. You've come to destroy us, haven't you?
Jesus then offers his command for the demon to "be quiet" and come out of the man. When Mark writes that Jesus spoke to the man "sternly," he uses a very special word—a word that's often translated "rebuked." Some translations of this passage read: "Jesus rebuked him, saying, 'Be quiet, and come out of him.'" This is a special word because it displays the authority of Jesus in a powerful way. The Hebrew equivalent of this word in the Old Testament is the word used to describe the moments when God simply spoke a word and his enemies were subdued. The moments when God rebuked them, and they were destroyed. The moments when God simply said it, and it was done.
We see this language in several places in the Old Testament, including:
- Psalm 9:5-6: "You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked; you have blotted out their name forever and ever. Endless ruin has overtaken the enemy, you have uprooted their cities; even the memory of them has perished."
- Psalm 76:5-7: "Valiant men lie plundered, they sleep their last sleep. Not one of the warriors can lift his hands. At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both horse and chariot lie still. You alone are to be feared. Who can stand before you when you are angry?
God's simple word of rebuke has such authority that immediately nations are destroyed, horses and chariots are rendered impotent. When he says it, it's done. His word is the deed.
Mark uses this language of "rebuke"—God's authoritative word which immediately brings his enemies under his control—to show that the people of Capernaum are being confronted with who Jesus really is. They are realizing that Jesus has the same authority as God. He just speaks, and it happens—all enemies are under his control. And the people don't know how to handle it. Verse 27: "The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, 'What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.'"
Their amazement has a bit of fear in it. They're not sure how to handle this level of authority. As we grapple with the implications of this for us, we find that we are faced with the same decision: Are we prepared for this kind of authority in our lives? Are we ready for an authority where his word makes it true and his decision makes it happen? An authority where when he says something, it's true, and when he decides something, it happens?
When our spouse has been unfaithful or deceived us or made a decision without us, and we have to decide how to act, is his Word our authority? My friend, it must be. His Word must be our authority, because he who speaks also decides how things will be. He who speaks also holds all the power to make things happen. At any moment his power can decide, "This is how it will be."
When we're deciding which movies we'll see or which TV programs we'll watch or where we'll go and what we'll do on the weekend, do his words become the truth for us? My friend, they must. Because he who speaks also decides how things will be. He who speaks also holds all the power, and he determines what will happen in our life.
When we're making decisions about how to grow our business or advance our career or handle a sticky situation at work, does our direction come from him whose word is true? It must. Because he who speaks also decides. He will determine what happens.
My friend, you and I must come to grips with the power of Christ. His word makes it true. His decision makes it happen. His authority makes it so. Let us hear him, and obey.
To see an outline of Sunukjian's sermon, click here.
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.