Biblical Commentary
(Bible Study)

Mark 1:21-28



Mark begins this Gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist (vv. 1-8), the baptism of Jesus (vv. 9-11), the temptation of Jesus (vv. 12-13), a brief summary of Jesus’ preaching (vv. 14-15), the call of the first disciples (vv. 16-20), and this story of Jesus teaching with authority and exorcising a demon (vv. 21-28).

Next, he will heal Simon’s mother-in-law and many others, the first of nine accounts of healing in this Gospel (1:29-34, 40-45; 2:1-12; 3:1-5; 5:21-43; 6:53-56; 7:31-37; 8:22-26; and 10:46-52).

Mark also includes three additional exorcism stories (5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29). This is an action and healing oriented Gospel.


21They went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath day he entered into the synagogue and taught. 22They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as having authority (Greek: exousia), and not as the scribes.

“They went into Capernaum” (v. 21a). Jesus made Capernaum his home after leaving Nazareth (Matthew 4:13; see also Mark 2:1). Capernaum is a prosperous town at the north end of the Sea of Galilee and is also the home of Jesus’ first disciples.

“and immediately on the Sabbath Day he entered into the synagogue and taught” (v. 21b). Luke tells us that it is Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the sabbath (Luke 4:16). There is only one temple, but synagogues are widely scattered and devoted to the study of scripture. Sabbath worship includes prayer as well as the public reading and exposition of the scriptures. The role of the president of the synagogue is more administrative than pastoral, so he invites qualified laymen to speak. Synagogue rulers would welcome a fresh, promising voice, which explains how Jesus could teach in the synagogue. Mark includes several accounts of Jesus’ visits to synagogues (1:21, 23, 39; 3:1; 6:2), but none after Nazareth, where he will accomplish nothing because of their lack of faith (6:1-6). Mark includes a number of accounts of Jesus teaching (2:13; 4:1-2; 6:2, 6, 34; 8:31; 9:31; 10:1; 11:17; 12:14, 35; 14:49).

“They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (v. 22). Scribes are scholars who interpret and teach Torah and render binding judgments regarding its application. They tend to be conservative, rendering judgments based on precedent—deriving authority from their knowledge of earlier experts on the law. By Jesus’ day, they are powerful and enjoy considerable deference. The best seats in the synagogue are reserved for them (12:39), and people rise to their feet when they enter a room. People call them “rabbi,” which means “great one” (Edwards, 54). They constitute a substantial portion of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body. They quickly become Jesus’ opponents (2:6, 16; 11:27-28), and will play a major role in his crucifixion (8:31; 10:33; 11:18; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1, 31)—in part because they consider Jesus to be sacrilegious, but also because Jesus poses a threat to their comfortable lives.

Unlike the scribes, Jesus teaches with personal authority. His authority is based neither on his credentials nor his ability to cite precedents, but on the Spirit that descended on him at his baptism (1:10). Jesus is the Son of God (1:1) and his authority comes from God.

As my literature-major wife notes, a literature class can spend days or weeks discussing an author’s intent. They can develop theories and supporting arguments. They can debate endlessly. Or they can invite the author to visit and tell them his/her intent. Once the author explains the intent, that settles it. Nobody can interpret a poem as authoritatively as the one who wrote it. Jesus is God’s way of sending the author so we can see God clearly (John 1:1, 14). As Jesus will say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”(John 14:9).

Hare suggests that Jesus differs from the scribes in his eschatological power. The word eschatology is the study of last things—the Day of the Lord—the end of the world as we know it. “Whereas the scribes occupied themselves with decisions about what was permitted and what was not permitted in a business-as-usual world, Jesus was powerfully announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God” (Hare, 28).

In other words, this Gospel celebrates the arrival of the kingdom—Jesus’ triumph over evil—the salvation that Jesus brings. It emphasizes the authority of Jesus’ teaching rather than what he says. Mark tells us nothing of the content of Jesus’ sermon at this synagogue—only that he packs a wallop that astounds his listeners.

This Gospel frequently refers to Jesus as teacher or rabbi, usually in an action-oriented context that confirms his authority:

• The disciples, in the midst of a storm, address him as teacher, and he stills the storm (4:38-39).

• Neighbors tell Jairus to face the reality of his daughter’s death and not to bother the teacher anymore, but Jesus tells the little girl to get up, and she does as he commands (5:35-43).

• Peter addresses Jesus as rabbi (a title similar to teacher) at the Transfiguration, and a voice speaks from the cloud saying, “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him” (9:5-7).

• A father asks the teacher to heal his son, whom Jesus’ disciples could not heal, and Jesus does so (9:17-29).

• The blind man addresses Jesus as teacher, and Jesus heals his blindness (10:51-52).

• Peter addresses Jesus as rabbi and notes, in wonder, that the fig tree that Jesus cursed has withered and died (11:12).

• Pharisees and Herodians, addressing Jesus as teacher, try to trap him with two difficult questions, but he easily gets the best of them (12:14-27).

• In one of the few instances where a scribe is portrayed favorably in this Gospel, the scribe addresses Jesus as teacher, asks a question, and acknowledges that Jesus has answered well (12:32-34).

The people are “astonished at his teaching”!!! Imagine the hush as the crowd struggles to grasp Jesus’ teaching—and the hubbub as they begin to talk among themselves about what they have heard.

Their response suggests that we should listen more carefully to Jesus. His teachings have become so familiar that we are tempted to hear them only at a superficial level. We need to study his teachings more deeply so we can understand their impact on the original disciples—and see how Jesus might be challenging us—jolting us out of our comfort zone.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said that caused such amazement. However, we can imagine the kinds of things that he might have said based on the controversies in which he will soon be involved—calling a tax collector to be his disciple (2:13-17)—defending his disciples when they fail to fast (2:18-22)—defending the disciples when they pluck and eat grain on the sabbath (2:23-28)—healing on the sabbath (3:1-6)—teaching about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (3:20-30)—warning against the tradition of the elders (7:1-23)—and teaching about marriage and divorce (10:2-12).

This story inspires us stand in Jesus’ shoes and teach, as he did, with authority. We are tempted to dismiss the scribes as men of small vision and no courage, imagining that we have a larger vision and greater courage. However, if that is true, it is only because we have the advantage of New Testament revelation. We too are subject to human frailty (Romans 3:23). We need to study scripture carefully and to pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We need to approach our ministerial task with humility.


23Immediately there was in their synagogue a man with (Greek: en—in—suggesting the complete integration of the spirit and the man)an unclean spirit, and he cried out, 24saying, “Ha! What do we have to do with you, Jesus, you Nazarene? (Greek: ti hemin kai soi —literally, “What to us and to you?”) Have you come to destroy us? I know you who you are: the Holy One of God!” 25Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, (Greek: phimotheti—literally, “Be muzzled”) and come out of him!” 26The unclean spirit, convulsing (Greek: sparaxan—mangling, tearing, convulsing) him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

“Immediately there was in their synagogue a man with (en—in) an unclean spirit” (v. 23). Note the reference to “their synagogue” (v. 23), which hints at Jesus’ estrangement from traditional religionists. Jesus will continue his work in synagogues (3:1; 6:2), but his neighbors will take offense when he teaches in his hometown synagogue (6:1-6) and Jesus will warn his disciples that they will be beaten in synagogues (13:9).

It is odd to find this man in the synagogue, because his unclean spirit renders him ineligible for synagogue worship. However, the synagogue would not have a guard posted at the door, and this man could trespass.

Jesus and the unclean spirit are the central figures in the story. The man is mentioned as briefly as possible in verse 23, and Mark tells us only that the unclean spirit convulses him and comes out of him (v. 26).

Traditionally, verse 23 is translated “a man with an unclean spirit,” but a literal translation is “a man in an unclean spirit,” suggesting that the man is completely immersed in and overwhelmed by the unclean spirit. This alternate translation gains credibility from the confusing identities in verses 24-25. The man cries out, (singular, v. 23), “What have you to do with us” (plural, v. 24, suggesting that the man and the unclean spirit have merged). Then Jesus “rebuked him” (singular—v. 25)—the context showing that he is rebuking the unclean spirit.

Mark uses “unclean spirit” and “demon” almost interchangeably. The former suggests ritual impurity or unworthiness, and the latter suggests evil.

Talk of spirits and demons seems primitive and makes us uncomfortable today. We prefer to speak of poverty and mental illness as the causes of bizarre behavior. We also hesitate to use the word evil, which sounds judgmental, and look to medical science to deliver us from our demons. Medical science has accomplished a great deal in that regard, and promises to achieve even more. However, medical science is unlikely ever to solve the problem of evil, which is a spiritual problem and a present reality. We have only to read a newspaper to confirm the pervasive presence of evil in our world.

The idea of exorcism (driving out demons or evil spirits) makes us even more uncomfortable. However, there is one report of exorcism in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 16:14-23) and many in the New Testament (Matthew 9:32-34; 12:22-32; Mark 1:21-27; 3:14-30; 5:1-20; 6:7; 7:24-30; 9:17-29; 16:17; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 19:12). The Roman Catholic Church practices exorcism, as do some others. We should never hesitate to call on the Holy Spirit to deliver people from the demons that haunt them.

The unclean spirit cries out, “What do we have to do with you, Jesus, you Nazarene?” (ti hemin kai soi—literally, “What to us and to you?”) (v. 24a). It probably means, “Why are you interfering with us?” (Hooker, 64). In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a similar phrase (ti emoi kai soi—”What to me and you?”) when his mother tells him that they have run out of wine at the wedding feast (John 2:4). In both instances, it is a way of pushing back—denying any connection with the other person (Donahue & Harrington, 80).

The spirit calls Jesus by name, “Jesus, you Nazarene” (v. 24b), perhaps hoping to gain power over him by the magical formula of calling his name.

The spirit asks a second question, “Have you come to destroy us?” (v. 24c). The unclean spirit in verse 23 was singular, but now the spirit asks if Jesus has come “to destroy us” (plural). Is the man possessed of multiple spirits, or is the unclean spirit asking whether Jesus has come to destroy all demonic forces?

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (v. 24d). This title, “Holy One of God,” is particularly apt, because the holy Jesus comes to deliver the world from all that is unholy. It isn’t Jesus’ earthly origin, Nazareth, that troubles the spirit, but Jesus’ holiness (France, 104).

Jesus is holy and the spirit is unclean. Perhaps the unclean spirit is saying, “We operate in different spheres, Jesus! Go back where you belong and leave us alone.”

The spirit does a better job of understanding Jesus than does his family (3:31-35) or the disciples (4:41; 6:37, 49-50; 7:17-18; 8:4, 21). Peter almost breaks that mold by correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah (8:29), but almost immediately receives a stinging rebuke for failing to understand (8:33). The only other person in this Gospel who understands Jesus is the centurion at the cross, who will say, “Truly this man was God’s son” (15:39).

Jesus responds, not with words of explanation but words of power. He commands, “Be quiet (phimotheti—literally, “Be muzzled”) and come out of him!” (v. 25). He uses no incantations or formal liturgy, but simply orders the spirit to come out of the man.

“And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (v. 26). The spirit comes out—”convulsing (sparaxan—mangling, tearing, convulsing) the man and crying with a loud voice.” Jesus will also cry with a loud voice at his death (15:37), so perhaps the spirit’s cry is a death wail—but Mark does not tell us the fate of this exorcized spirit—or of the man.

This exorcism confirms Jesus’ authority, first revealed in his teaching (v. 22). Jesus could have chosen any kind of miracle to authenticate his authority, but chooses an exorcism for its symbolic value. In this Gospel, Jesus comes to defeat evil and to effect salvation. He begins that process by his teaching/healing ministry in this synagogue. His teaching and healing are seamless parts of the same salvation work.


27They were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching? For with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” 28The report of him went out immediately everywhere into all the region of Galilee and its surrounding area.

“They were all amazed” (v. 27a). Again Mark notes the amazement of the people. They ask, “What is this? A new teaching? For with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (v. 27b). It is only after they mention the authority of Jesus’ teaching that they note his authority over unclean spirits. His teaching authority and healing authority are intertwined. His teaching authority prepares people to receive his healing authority, while his healing authority confirms and reinforces his teaching ministry.

Did their amazement cause the people to believe in Jesus? In most cases, it did. After Jesus drove out the unclean spirit, “the report of (Jesus) went out immediately everywhere into all the region of Galilee and its surrounding area” (v. 28). When Jesus went to the house of Simon and Andrew, “they brought to him all who were sick, and those who were possessed by demons. All the city was gathered at the door” (vv. 32-33). Clearly, then, the common people believe. Soon we will hear that Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, also believes (5:23).

But most of those charged with supervising the religious life of Israel—scribes and Pharisees—remain unconvinced. They accuse Jesus of blasphemy (2:6-7) and ask “Why is it that (Jesus) eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16).

Why would they refuse to see and believe? Looking at it positively, these men have a responsibility to monitor self-proclaimed prophets to insure that they don’t lead people astray. They feel a need to examine things closely—to assess whether Jesus is acting in accord with their scripture and traditions.

But there is another side to their lack of belief:

• Their devotion to tradition is a problem. That tradition is their interpretation of scripture, but they have elevated it to a place equal to scripture. Jesus will refuse to be bound by their human-generated rules.

• Their concern for their personal status is also involved. They “like to walk in long robes, and to get greetings in the marketplaces, and the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts” (12:38-39), and they perceive Jesus’ popularity as a threat.

• Their personal integrity is questionable. Jesus says that they “devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers”—and can therefore expect to “receive greater condemnation”(12:40).

• They shut their eyes to that which they don’t want to see. Leonardo da Vinci said that there are three classes of people: “Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” The scribes and Pharisees belong to this third class—by their personal choice.

When Jesus commissions the twelve, he will grant them “authority to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons” (3:15) and unclean spirits (6:7). They will do so (6:13).

“The report of him went out immediately everywhere into all the region of Galilee and its surrounding area” (v. 28). We will see further evidence of Jesus’ fame as his story unfolds (1:33, 37, 45; 2:1-2; 3:7-9).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan