Commentary on Mark 1:21-28
Mark’s Gospel is not for the disengaged spectator; it is for those caught up in an apocalyptic struggle. In this early text of Jesus performing an exorcism in a synagogue in Capernaum, Mark provides a first whiff of demonic sulfur after all the apocalyptic fireworks that preceded it in Mark 1:1–20.
Mark 1:1–11 shapes the coming eschatological battlefield by making John’s baptism a mini apocalyptic theophany in which Jesus’ beloved identity is revealed through a ripping open (schizomenous) of the heavens in 1:10. The Spirit drives (ekballei is a verb often meaning “casts out”) Jesus into a desert temptation scene with Satan, servant angels, and a few wild beasts for good measure in Mark 1:12–13. Jesus then preaches the apocalyptic notion of God’s Kingdom, the very gospel of God in Mark 1:14.
To wrap it up, he suddenly calls four disciples out of the everyday of their fishing boats in Mark 1:16–20 into apocalyptic urgency. The four men just drop their nets and leave with Jesus—immediately, as Mark is wont to say in verses 10, 12, 18, and 20.
For these reasons, the Capernaum synagogue exorcism scene in Mark 1:21–28 is not one that can easily be turned into something manageable—say, a general bromide about being helpful to strangers in church. It also cannot be easily demythologized into some existential principle for individual living without losing its horizon in the coming reign of God. Its cosmic, apocalyptic urgency in 1:1–20 already frames the exorcism that is to come in 1:21–28.
Mark as narrator carries over this urgency indirectly by describing the synagogue exorcism scene with the same koine Greek word meaning “immediately” (verses 21, 23, and 28) that appeared so often in the preceding material. Like the four disciples, we readers had best be ready to respond with some degree of shared urgency.
Mark the narrator also does apocalyptic urgency in a more direct way—by describing the exorcism scene as one of graphic and sonic demonic encounter on the Sabbath after Jesus teaches. In the synagogue dialogue, readers overhear their conversation and see the results of this apocalyptic moment.
In this startling scene, an unnamed man with an unclean spirit speaks first. The fact that the possessed man speaks of himself in the first-person plural—“us”—only amplifies his cry: “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Then the man with the unclean spirit seems to recognize Jesus’ eschatological purpose of destroying evil, as well as his identity as “the Holy One of God.” For this, Jesus rebukes and silences him, which is typical of exorcisms, but especially pointed here, given Mark’s desire to suppress what some call Mark’s messianic secret. The “we” of this demonic host obeys, but not without convulsions and cries commensurate with such a corporate, embodied struggle.
Jesus’ success then further underlines the authority attributed to his teaching: not just authority as competency or entitlement, but eschatological power. The point of such an early exorcism scene in Mark’s Gospel is not to provide information. It signals the urgency of the coming apocalyptic struggle and invites readers into it.
So, what to do with apocalyptic Mark today?
But what do we do with Mark’s apocalyptic praxis of struggle when the things that threaten our world are not so much demons and ripped-open heavens but regular old broken or demonic systems of human construction? New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza offers some help in her work on the apocalyptic rhetoric of Revelation.1 She argues that the theo-ethical rhetoric of the Apocalypse sponsors a praxis of hypomone, or “steadfast resistance.”
Now Mark was likely written at an earlier time, and in a different place, than Revelation. So we need to use her insight about Revelation with some discernment. That said, her notion of steadfast resistance as the purpose or motivation of Revelation’s rhetoric can help to take us out of the realm of symbolic speculation or disinterested scientific reduction to a focus on praxis and the struggles we face from our varied positions of power in light of the horizon of the reign of God. That means we preachers need to ask ourselves the question: Where in our own struggles are we confronted with the demonic, yet laying hold of a divine promise that Jesus preaches as “the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14)?
As you pose the question for yourselves, dear working preachers, please pay attention to your bodies. What does the embodied reality of your shared life of faith tell you about the intractability of the demonic and the riven fabric of human life in 2024? Whatever it is, it invites you to preach through this text to a gospel of God capable of sustaining steadfast, embodied resistance.
Two hermeneutic insights for the apocalyptic road ahead
Yet Mark also helps preachers today with Mark’s own hermeneutic insights. I can think of at least two worth mentioning here.
First, Mark never lets his readers forget that all of Jesus’ eschatological vision and apocalyptic miracles need to be understood in light of the cross. Mark’s cross, of course, is not just another cipher for substitutionary atonement. It is, as Luther points out, a way of calling things what they really are. Preachers who preach from weakness (and not dominance) and suffering (not having it all together) will have Mark’s gospel of God as a friend. Apocalyptic rhetoric is not about escape, but naming the world, its pain, and its promise aright.
Second, this very apocalyptic gospel of God (1:14) is also the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). And who Jesus is matters for the way in which we would practice steadfast, embodied resistance to the demonic, right? This Jesus is not self-aggrandizing but silences demons when they speak of his identity. He is, from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, self-effacing even as his reputation grows. We do not need to establish Jesus’ dominance through exorcism but rather note his self-awareness throughout the Gospel of Mark that he is on his own steadfast way to the cross. If that seems difficult, please remember it is the dying, crucified Jesus in Mark for whom the sun grows dark, for whom the curtain of the temple is ripped open, and whom even a centurion proclaims “the Son of God” (Mark 15:33–39).
This little exorcistic scene from Mark 1:21–28, set in a synagogue on the Sabbath, is a sign of God’s reign for the real bodies in the room. It is, moreover, spoken by a Jesus who wants nothing to do with dominance schemes and good publicity. He aims with urgency to enlist his disciples, and anyone else with ears to hear, in their own local praxis of apocalyptic struggle.
- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 129ff.