Summary: Jesus’ words and works demonstrate that he has God’s authority to speak and to act, the same as -- and greater than -- the Old Testament Prophets and Kings.
Speaking with Authority
Today’s Gospel lesson shows us a remarkable fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the lesson appointed for today from the Old Testament. Mark does not directly link the two passages, but it is virtually certain that the people who heard Jesus that day when he taught in the synagogue – those people made the connection. Messianic expectation was running very high at this time in Israel’s history, and that expectation looked forward to several ideals of the Messiah. We can see this, for example, in the questions which the religious leadership in Jerusalem put to John the Baptist, such as we find in John chapter 1:
“ … the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ 21 And they asked him, ’What then? Are you Elijah? ’
He said, ‘I am not. ’ ‘Are you the Prophet? ’ And he answered, ‘No. ’ ”
You see, there were a lot of people running around in Palestine during that time, making veiled claims to be the Messiah, or sometimes open claims to be the Messiah. Jesus warned his own disciples about these people. And, so the religious authorities in Jerusalem had something like a Messiah Confirmation Commission which would go out and investigate people who were gaining something like a Messianic reputation. We see them sparring with Jesus in all four gospels.
But, they were, evidently, not present on the day which Mark records early in Jesus’ ministry, when he and his disciples went into the synagogue in Capernaum one Sabbath, and Jesus was given one or more of the passages in their lectionary on which he was expected to make comments.
What Jesus said and did on that occasion sparked a furor among those who were present, because they had never seen or heard anything like this in all their synagogue-attending days. Two things happened which cemented in the people’s minds a conviction about Jesus: he had real authority to speak for God. Let us turn out attention to what prompted those in the synagogue that day to recognize this.
Mark tells us straight away that the people in the synagogue “… were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
The scribes, of course, were the primary teaching authorities in Israel at this time, and it is ironic to refer to them as teaching authorities, because they never taught with authority – as the people in the synagogue understand. When they were doing the Jewish equivalent of spiritual education in the synagogues, the scribes laid out for the people a long litany of opinions of various rabbis who had established themselves as experts on the Law of Moses and the Prophets. What you would hear from the Scribes would be a reading from the OT scriptures, and then something like this:
“Rabbi Jose says this ….” and then he’d give Rabbi Jose’s comments on the passage. And, then he’d say, “But, Rabbi Hillel says that …” And then you’d hear what Rabbi Hillel said about the verses in the lectionary. And, then he’d continue “But Rabbi Shammai says that …” And, so it would go. I’m not sure what the people in the synagogue were supposed to do with presentations like that. I think some of them must have responded as I saw some of my seminary friends respond when they first hit serious academic research in some of their Bible courses.
I want to say at the outset that consulting teachers of God’s word over the past centuries is never a bad thing to do. But when you do this, there are two dangers you face.
First of all, you may find a bewildering number of different opinions, all of them argued very persuasively, by scores of different teachers. And this will lead the green student of theology to throw up his hands in despair and think, “It’s hopeless! How can I judge all this scholarship and figure out what the text is really saying?” I saw some of my fellow students’ faith come near to ship-wreck as they were preparing a term paper for a course in theology or in a course on some book of the Bible.
The second danger you face when consulting all the teachers of the past is to miss the forest for the trees. In this case, the forest is the Scripture itself, and while the Scriptures may contain ideas or statements which are difficult to understand, it would be a huge mistake to overlook what is plain and obvious in the Bible because you are fixated on a riddle which you cannot puzzle out.