Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 5/27/94

Luke 4:31-37

Power and Authority

4:31 And he came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath. 31 And they were amazed at his teaching, for his message was with authority. 33 And there was a man in the synagogue possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice. 34 "Ha! What do we have to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!" 35 And Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be quiet and come out of him!" And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him without doing him any harm. 36 And amazement came upon them all, and the began discussing with one another, saying, "What is this message? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!" 37 And the report about him was getting out into every locality in the surrounding district.


In the last three weeks we have been studying Jesus' dedication to his mission as the Sin-Bearer for his people. It was declared at his Baptism; it was demonstrated, tested, and proved at his Temptation in the Wilderness; and it was tested again at his rejection by his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Luke now continues by presenting us with a series of events which portray Christ's ministry as a continued confrontation with Satan through which the identity and the worthiness of the Savior are revealed. Today we examine an event which demonstrates his power and his authority.

I think many of us who have been believers for some time miss some of the impact of these accounts because we already assume the deity of Christ as a starting point. Given that he is the Son of God, we rather expect him to do amazing things. But perhaps that assumption comes a bit too easily; perhaps we take it a little bit too much for granted. Therefore I would ask you today to exercise your imagination and pretend that you are one of these people in the synagogue at Capernaum. Pretend that you are completely ignorant of who Christ is. You hope he may be the Messiah, but you think of the Messiah as a charismatic military leader who will overthrow the Roman Empire and replace it with a Jewish one centered in Jerusalem. Contemporary Judaism has not taught you to identify the Messiah with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah or with the glorious Danielic Son of Man. So you have come out of curiosity, probably expecting nothing more than a sermon with some rather rousing political overtones. How do you react to what you are about to see and hear? What does it tell you about this man?

What it tells you is that you have no categories big enough to hold what you have just seen. He speaks with authority, not as the scribes: that is, he really seems to know what he is talking about, as if he were speaking from first-hand knowledge. And then he speaks with a different kind of authority, casting out a demon with a simple Word. What kind of message is this? That is a question that requires a thoughtful answer.


What does it mean to say that Christ spoke with authority, that he had authority? It can mean at least two different things, and we see both of them in this passage. For there are two kinds of authority. We might call them the authority of possession vs. the authority of position, or the authority of counsel vs. the authority of command. Let me illustrate the difference in a man I knew who had both in my own life.

Dr. Dale Heath, my Greek professor at Taylor University, was an expert in Greek, an authority on biblical languages. He did not cause the genitive singular of logos to be logou, he did not dictate that it be so; but when he reported this fact to you, you had better listen and would be well advised to believe it. He delivered such facts with an authority that was based on much training and on dependable first-hand knowledge that had been demonstrated consistently over time. He did not need to speak tentatively or apologetically or with a lot of hems and haws; he knew whereof he spoke. He spoke with authority because he was an authority. That is the sense of the word in its first use in this passage, when the people were "amazed" at his teaching in vs. 31.

But Dr. Heath was not only my Greek professor. He was also my supervisor, because I worked as his teaching assistant. In this role, he had authority over me in a different sense. He could say, "Don, scramble a sample of ten of these vocabulary words into a matching quiz for the first year class," or "Don, go to the library and look this word up in Liddell and Scott and bring me back a list of the citations they have for it," or "Don, grade the objective portion of this test by such-and-such criteria," and I had to do it, in precisely the manner and within the time frame prescribed. In the first case, Dr. Heath's possession of knowledge gave him the authority of counsel; in the second, his position as supervisor gave him the authority of command. And that is the second use of the word, in vs. 36: with authority and power Jesus commands the unclean spirits.


We do not have the words Jesus spoke here that caused the people of Capernaum to attribute to him the authority of counsel, but we have plenty of other samples of his teaching we can look to. And what we find is that Jesus was the greatest authority on theology who has ever lived. To avoid anticipating passages we will look at in detail in their proper place in this series, I will take my examples from the other Gospels. Again, pretend you are hearing these words for the first time. Every time this man opens his mouth, something gets settled for all time; something gets said so simply yet profoundly that there can be no going behind it or around it for those who truly love and seek the truth. Other thinkers like Paul may bring out further implications of it, but it will have been Jesus who laid it down and gave them the impetus for that further development. Once he has spoken, we must go on from there; there can be no going back.

Do you doubt this? Just listen to him. Here he is on theology proper. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (Jn. 3:16). "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4:24). "Pray then in this way: 'Our Father, who art in heaven . . ." (Mat. 6:9ff). "If you knew me, you would know the Father also" (Jn. 8:19). He is also the greatest authority on ethics who has ever lived. We are still trying to plumb the depths of the Sermon on the Mount. And what of anthropology, the doctrine of man? "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed" (Jn. 3:19-20). And as for soteriology, the doctrine of salvation: "From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day" (Mat. 16:21). "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45). "I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture. . . . I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (Jn. 10:9, 11).

I say it again: Jesus was the greatest authority on theology who has ever lived. Every time this man opens his mouth, something gets settled for all time; something gets said so simply yet profoundly that there can be no going behind it or around it. Other thinkers like Paul will bring out further implications of it, but it will have been Jesus who laid it down and gave them the impetus for that further development. Once he has spoken, we must go on from there; there can be no going back. He was the greatest authority on theology who ever lived because he spoke from an intimate, first-hand acquaintance with those truths that no one else has ever had or will ever have.


But what really got the people's attention was the other kind of authority that Jesus showed, the authority of command. The encounter with the demon seemed like a chance meeting, but it was not by chance. Demonic activity had risen to a fever pitch in the First Century in response to the threat that Satan's kingdom felt from this man. Either this fellow's demon had been dormant recently--otherwise he would never have been allowed into the synagogue--or he just wandered in off the street. In either case, it was the demon, as much as the congregation, who was in for a shock.

The New American Standard is much too timid with its translation here. "Ha!" they write. Way too dignified. What this man let out with was an ear-piercing "AAUUUGGGGHHHHH!" The demon was apparently not expecting to see Jesus there. He let out a scream of absolute terror. "Have you come to destroy us? Get away from me! I know who you are: the Holy One of God!" People are probably scurrying back out of the way as fast as they can. They are terrified of demons. Demons, on the other hand, are afraid of no one. But this demon is terrified--of Jesus! And he has told us all why: because Jesus is the Messiah. Now what is Jesus going to do?

What the people expected Jesus to do was to begin an elaborate exorcism ritual full of gobbledy gook, rigmarole, and mumbo jumbo. That's what the Jewish exorcists they were familiar with would have done. There would be intricate charms designed to protect the exorcist and intricate prayers and incantations designed to force the demon to do his bidding. It was all very impressive--when it worked. But Jesus was impressive in a different way. One simple sentence, one command, and it was all over. They had never seen or heard of a demon tucking tail and running like that! Once again our translation is entirely too tame, intimidated I suppose by people's expectations that the Bible's language be elevated and dignified. This was not a dignified moment; it was intense spiritual warfare. ""Be quiet and come out of him!" Not hardly. A much more accurate translation would be "Shut up and get out!" In good King James English, the word for "be quiet" might be rendered, "Be thou muzzled." Jesus turned on this demon with a fierceness that matched its fear, that showed its fear to be well justified. Wham! And it was over. Just like that.


Christ's way of exercising his authority over this demon points out also his power. Authority did not seem an adequate word the second time, and so the people added "power" to it as they were trying to figure out what in the world they were dealing with here. We might define power as the ability to make one's commands stick. "I can call spirits from the vasty deep!" boasts Owen Glendower. "Why, so can I, and so can any man," replies Henry Hotspur. "But will they come when you do summon them?" A very good question; and one that is like unto it is, will they go when you dismiss them? In Shakespeare's Henry IV part I, Glendower wisely forebears to put his claim to the test. Jesus had no such hesitation.

Authority and power need to go together if either is to be effective. Once when I was a senior in high school our band director had to be away and left me in charge of the rehearsal. He had given me the authority; I was authorized to lead the session. But I was frustrated because the other students weren't taking the rehearsal very seriously. Then the choir director poked her head in the door to check on us, and suddenly the group got very serious and started applying themselves earnestly. Why? Because she had clout! Authority is the right to say certain things; power is the ability to back those words up. Jesus in this passage demonstrated the fact that he had both in a measure the people had never seen before. They had no categories big enough to hold what they were seeing. Who had the authority and the power to command demons and get that kind of response? Not an exorcist! They have to have elaborate charms to protect themselves. Who had the authority and the power to command demons and get that kind of response? There are only two possibilities: God or Satan. But how can this man be either? The logic of the answer awaits further encounters to come out. It can't be Satan, or his kingdom would be divided. So the only answer is that we are looking at God in human flesh. It would take time for such an answer to be worked out, and Jesus himself would have to help with statements like "I and the Father are one." At this point, Luke is simply beginning to give us a series of encounters that insistently ask the question. "What is this message?" these people ask. And the question will keep ringing: "What manner of man is this?" It is a question we would do well to keep posing today. Maybe, like Luke, we should work harder at posing it before leaping too quickly to the answer.


We, who have already read the rest of the Book, can see the answers already in the question. This passage teaches us at least two things. First, Jesus is the highest authority there is on the things that matter. He wrote the Book! Or, more accurately, he had his personal agent and representative, the Holy Spirit, inspire its writers. The Old Testament is the preparation for his coming. The New Testament is the record and explanation of that coming by the Apostles, his appointed spokesmen. Surely Martin Luther was right when he said, "The whole Bible is about Christ only everywhere." Jesus is the highest authority there is on the things that matter. Only a fool would not consult him. Suppose you had to write a term paper in American History on the First Gulf War, and Norman Schwarzkopf offered to help you with it. You'd be an idiot to turn him down. Suppose you wanted to know the meaning of life and how to live it to the full as it was meant to be lived? Well . . .

Second, Jesus has the right to rule, he is destined to rule, and he has the power to rule. When "advice" comes from an authority as high as this, to hear is to obey. Only a fool would fail to listen; only a bigger fool would hear and then refuse to obey. The day is coming when every knee will bow before him, some in joy, others in the kind of terror shown by the demon in this story. You can bow in joy or in terror, but everyone is going to bow. Today he is giving us the opportunity to serve him by choice and be in that first group who bow in joy. Will you take it? For those who own him as their Lord and highest Authority now, his words become true now, and do not even have to wait for that Day: "I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly."

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 10/11/2004 4:53 PM