Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

31. The Demoniac in the Synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37)*

In normal circumstances the “ruler” of a Jewish synagogue had a free hand to invite whom he chose to discourse to the people. The one exception was that he could take that duty himself only by special request of the congregation. It is easy to understand Jesus being invited, on his first sabbath (Mk), to act as teacher in the only synagogue in Capernaum (Mk. 1:21: the synagogue; cp. Lk. 7:5 RV). Both his open-air teaching and his miracles in recent days had made the people eager to hear more. So synagogue preaching throughout Galilee became the Lord’s settled policy for a while to come (Lk. 4:44 Gk.).


Now that they listened to him in the more formal style of the synagogue it was forced upon their minds how drastically different was his mode of teaching from that of the scribes. These teachers, like certain of their counterparts in the twentieth century, were tied in their interpretations to the opinions and pronouncements of celebrated teachers of former days: “Rabbi Simeon-ben-Judah saith... Rabbi Judah the Holy saith...” But this Jesus of Nazareth, who, being a mere carpenter, should have been showing more than normal deference to higher authority, spoke with a self-assurance which filled them with amazement. ‘He hasn’t quoted the rabbis once!’ Either this was cocksureness and bombast far beyond normal experience, or he was in truth speaking by divine right. Could it be that here was an inspiration surpassing that of the prophets? He proceeded to produce further credentials about which there could be no argument. Astonishment at his teaching gave way to astonishment at his miracles.

Service Interrupted

There in the assembly was a man who had been afflicted with recurrent mental sickness. As a man is “in Adam” or “in Christ”, so this poor fellow was “in an unclean spirit” (Gk.) -- a remarkable contrast with the usual phrase: “in whom was an unclean spirit”. Just now he was normal enough. Otherwise, of course, care would have been taken to exclude him from the synagogue. As Jesus concluded his discourse, and people marvelled at what they heard and how it was said, the man’s lunacy suddenly asserted itself once again, and he shouted out loudly: “Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God” (Mk. 1:24; Lk. 4:34).

These words, difficult enough, have been made more difficult by the inclination of many to read them as though spoken by some personal evil spirit(s) dwelling in the man. Nor is the modern fantasy very convincing which suggests that wild incoherent cries were interpreted by Jesus as having this meaning.

A Contradiction

There is no need for wild assumptions of this sort. On carefully re-reading the words, one notices the change of pronouns from plural to singular. And at the same point there is also a complete change of tone and meaning. “The Holy One of God” and “come to destroy us” are hopelessly contradictory ideas.

It would seem, then, that in his more sane moments this poor fellow had heard thrown backwards and forwards widely differing opinions about Jesus. It is easy to understand that some, remembering the evils brought on the nation by various false Messiahs, had already decided that Jesus of Nazareth was in the same category and that his movement was bound to end in the same kind of tragedy: ‘He will get us into trouble with the Romans! And we shall receive no help or support from Jerusalem because our leaders there have already; decided against him.’ But there was also the other opinion: ‘I tell you, he is the Messiah, the, Holy One of God.’

This demonic description of Jesus as the Holy One is very difficult to reconcile with the “ common understanding that here was a man, possessed by an evil spirit. Would not a wicked spirit seek to derogate the holiness of Christ?

On the other hand, with the explanation (already suggested in Study 30) of unclean spirits as being God’s angels of evil, an incident like this assumes considerable significance.

In the cure, and in the words used to describe the cure, Jesus was asserting his authority over such an angel. Contemporary pseudo-exorcists made a great show with the repetition of impressive religious names (eg. Acts. 19:13), and especially the (invented) names of angels (HDB 1:812), as though invoking their aid in the cure. But here was Jesus, exercising control over angels, and by his own right!

It may be taken as fairly certain that the man’s lunatic cries are carefully reported in the gospels because of the important double meaning behind them. It is one of the great works of Messiah to reconcile “things in heaven” as well as things in earth. The dire work of angels of evil is to be made unnecessary. All these ministering spirits of God are to be brought into harmony with the healing, cleansing, redeeming work of God’s Holy One.

The Cure

It could help the new campaign of Jesus little to have such wild contradictions shouted out before this large assembly, so he addressed himself to the man, or rather, to his disability, or to the angel of evil responsible for his calamitous condition: “Be muzzled (s.w. 1 Cor. 9:9; 1 Pet. 2:15), and come out of him.” Jesus only sought to silence the man’s testimony because it would be no help to his cause to have such witness borne by such a person in such a condition.

The effect of the Lord’s command was immediate. There, in the open space before the rostrum (cp. Lk. 4:35), a sudden convulsion shook the man violently, so that, uttering a wild yell, he was thrown to the floor before the fascinated horrified gaze of everybody. But, then, within seconds, he was on his feet again looking and behaving perfectly normally, and (may it be guessed?) apologizing to those about him for any disturbance he had caused. Luke’s phrase: “Having done him no hurt”, corrects any false inference that the man’s loud shout was a cry of pain. Indeed, it seems likely that Luke wrote with his eye on the only other place in Scripture which uses this word ‘hurt’ -- in an extra verse preserved in the LXX version at Proverbs 25:20: “As a moth in a garment, and as a worm in wood, so the distress of a man hurts his heart (his mind)”. Hardship leaves its mark in a man’s thinking. But not so with this man. Here now was complete normality, with neither physical nor mental weakness as reminder of his former condition.

Now, for certain, there was only one conviction in his healthy mind: “Jesus is the Holy One of God.” The title was no recent invention, but had its origin in Daniel’s great “Seventy Weeks” prophecy: “Seventy weeks... to anoint the Most Holy One... Messiah the Prince” (9:24, 25; and in its turn Dan. 9 looks back to Ps. 89:18-20). Had not Jesus come to their district declaring that “the time is fulfilled” (Mk. 1:15)? And did not the signs he wrought make the conclusion certain?

Effect on the Crowd

This first public miracle of healing was followed by an awed silence very different from the astonished reaction to what the Lord taught (Mk. 1:27, 21). Then the buzz of conversation rarely absent from a Jewish synagogue reasserted itself. “What a word is this! What new doctrine is this! For with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out” (Mk. 1:27; Lk. 4:36). These comments can hardly have reference to the discourse Jesus had been delivering. The immediate context makes this difficult. And, after all, the amazement of the crowd and the argument that now went on clearly centred round the miracle of healing much more than the preaching. So the “new doctrine” is probably the implicit claim by Jesus to personal authority over God’s angels of evil responsible for maladies such as that afflicting the man in the synagogue. This mastery of the unseen powers of evil (Phil. 2:10) was even more fundamental and far-reaching than the royal majesty they normally associated with the Messiah.

The chatter (Lk) and argument (Mk) that went on in the synagogue showed no sign of abating. It effectively put an end to any useful instruction of the people for that day. The compassion of Jesus had defeated his other purposes and was to do so many a time again. So he rose up from the seat which he had occupied as synagogue teacher (Lk. 4:38 RV), and withdrew to take refuge from public attention in the home of Simon Peter.

The service ended in disorder, and the sensational story of what had happened in the synagogue erupted through the town and into all the surrounding countryside. Now everybody was talking about Jesus of Nazareth. The “year of popularity” had begun.

Notes: Mark 1:21-28

On the sabbath day. The Greek plural here has been persuasively explained as an idiom appropriate to a special sabbath; but “taught them” (Lk. 4:31 Gk.) is decisive that this phrase covers a number of sabbaths.
This verse comes in Mt. 7:28 verbatim, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount-describing a fresh astonishment? or supporting the not very popular view that Peter abbreviated “Matthew” and then told the rest to Mark sometimes in his own words and sometimes in Matthew’s?
In their synagogue. Does this personal pronoun hint at a contrast with their synagogue at Nazareth?
Let us alone... No doubt the man’s words are given verbatim by both Mk. and Lk. because of their further reference (already mentioned) to God’s angels of evil. Similarly, “Jesus of Nazareth” was first used contemptuously (Jn. 1:45), but later seems to have a higher meaning concerning The Branch (netzer) filled with “the Spirit of counsel and might” who would “reprove with equity for the meek of the earth” (Is. 11:1-3). The Holy One. In the NT. consider Jn. 6:69, 70 RV; 1 Jn. 2:20; Rev. 3:7. One commentator adds: “And he who thus cries out today is reckoned lunatic.”
Rebuked him. The Greek is ambiguous, and may refer to the man or the “spirit”.

Hold thy peace. In the O.T. Dt.25:4 only. Here was an “ox” damaging the “corn”, and therefore to be muzzled.
Torn him. Lk: thrown him. An epileptic fit has been suggested, but the man’s utterance seems to rule this out.
Amazed; v.22: astonished. And so also in 5:20; 6:51; 7:37; 10:26; but most emphatic here.

What thing is this? Contrast 4:41: Who then is this?”

With authority he commandeth. The noun for “command” seems always to describe a divine command.

Luke 4:31-37

Come down to Capernaum. Written by one who knew the geography. Nazareth to Capernaum is a drop of nearly 2000 feet.
A spirit of an unclean devil. Genitive of apposition: a spirit, that is, an unclean demon.
What a word is this! It is noteworthy that apparently no objection was raised about healing on the sabbath. As a campaign against Jesus this criticism was cooked up later.
Fame, a very strong word; Heb. 12:19. 1 Cor. 13:1 and Lk.21:25 have the corresponding verb.

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