And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:23-24).
Consider the scene in the moments before the man possessed by the unclean spirit bursts into the synagogue. A crowd listens, transfixed, as Jesus teaches with a new and stirring authority. His teaching is not altogether new, yet it holds unparalleled sway.
Some listeners receive it with open hands, turning it over, astonished at its weight. Others, sensing a threat, transpose the words into a direct challenge to their place in the pecking order.
And it is here that the unclean spirit first enters, not in an animated rush or raucous disruption, but in a faint suggestion. Before the possessed man ever flings open the synagogue doors, the unclean spirit sneaks and skulks, flitting around in half-formulated thoughts
Upon entering the synagogue, the man possessed by the unclean spirit asks the question that has already entered the minds of some. "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" he asks breathlessly. In an attempt to seize control of the moment with the force that only a mob can generate, the possessed man asks a second question on behalf of the crowd, framing himself as a victim alongside them: "Have you come to destroy us?"
As the question falls on the ears of those gathered, it mutates. The unclean spirit of distrust resides in each new form the question takes:
Have you come to destroy our status quo?
Have you come to destroy our established way of thinking?
Have you come to destroy what's familiar to us?
With the benefit of hindsight, readers of Mark's gospel can see the ultimate irony at work in this question, which is that it is the gathered crowd who will eventually destroy Jesus, and not the other way around. Mark makes this irony explicit later in the narrative when, following Jesus's miraculous healing of a man with a withered hand, "The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him" (Mark 3:6).
But the unclean spirit's accusatory question has a long history. It existed before the possessed man's hasty entrance, before the scribes' sneaking suspicion, before the law's inscription.
The unclean spirit of distrust reared its ugly head as the Israelites fled Pharaoh, whose pursuit prompted the people to ask Moses, their authoritative leader, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11)
Like the drug-resistant strain of some disease, the unclean spirit appeared again when Moses, God's mouthpiece, invited the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. The episode is recounted in Deuteronomy, where God's invitation to the people is met with a murmur, "Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us" (Deuteronomy 1:27).
The unclean spirit of distrust has a knack for surfacing at the moment of deliverance from bondage and wilderness wandering, so it is no surprise to see the same spirit here in the synagogue, holding a man captive, levying familiar accusations, and recruiting murmurers to join in asking the age-old question, "Have you come to destroy us?"
With these instances in mind, the unclean spirit's entrance onto the scene takes on a significance that transcends a mere interruption in the synagogue. In Mark's account, this episode is more than just an opportunity to demonstrate Jesus's authority over the scribes, or even over unclean spirits (although it does both of those things).
Whatever else this episode might be, it is Jesus's definitive answer to the question asked in times past by God's people, and now by the unclean spirit. The question, "Have you come to destroy us" and its derivatives have always been rhetorical, asked for the purpose of making a not-so-subtle point about the suffering and victimhood of the asker.
Jesus' expulsion of the demon is his definitive, decisive answer. Has he come to destroy us? No, he has come to cast away the unclean spirit of distrust. The man previously in bondage can stay to experience freedom. The people fleeing in fear can leave aside their anxiety. Those who wander in the wilderness of complacency can wake up to the dawn of a new day.
In this act, Jesus is not only delivering the man from the unclean spirit, but also showing God's people in all times and places that he is the way out of bondage and into the Promised Land. At the beginning of this synagogue episode in Mark, the people are rightly astonished by the Jesus's authoritative teaching. After he casts out the unclean spirit, however, they are astonished at his authoritative action.
This early miracle from Mark's narrative is wider in scope than we might have imagined. It contains the grain of the good news of the kingdom that Jesus brings in teaching and in action. As it does so, Jesus's miracle both reaches backward and expands forever forward into the story of God's people to win their deliverance from the clutches of every kind of bondage.