And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.
And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, Ha!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. But Jesus rebuked him, saying, Be silent and come out of him! And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. And they were all amazed and said to one another, What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out! And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region.
And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them. Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, You are the Son of God! But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.
And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, but he said to them, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose. And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
Capernaum is a small fishing town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In Yeshua’s time it was a place of black basalt-stone houses and a considerable synagogue. Capernaum is under-appreciated by many of Yeshua’s modern followers, unable to capture the imagination quite like Nazareth or Bethlehem. Yet it was the home of Peter and Andrew and Yeshua’s base of operations during his active period of teaching, healing, and discipling. You can stand today in the fifth century synagogue built on the foundation of the very synagogue that is the setting of this story.
There are several references in Second Temple literature that suggest casting out demons was considered a Messianic sign:
He will liberate every captive of the sons of men from Beliar, every spirit of error will be trampled down. — From the Testament of Zebulon 9:8, (2nd Cent B.C.E.).
Then his kingdom will appear throughout his whole creation. Then the devil will have his end. — From the Testament of Moses 10:1, (1st Cent C.E.).
Perhaps this expectation was well-known. Perhaps the villagers saw here the Anointed Conqueror of Isaiah 61, proclaiming liberty to the captives and freeing the prisoners.
We often hear people say that they would believe if God only showed a sign. In an imaginative sermon, Frederick Buechner tells a story of a time when God writes every night in the stars a message, “I am God and I am here.” After some initial bell-ringing and a short of time of unusual church growth, the wonder fades.
But then, people begin to say, “So what?” So what if God exists and his message is written in the stars. What does that have to do with me? What people really want to know, and what God already does for us, is to know his presence in our lives, not in the stars or in our intellect.
Capernaum is so small, you would think a healing and an exorcism would have made quite a stir. Perhaps it did for a while. Yet people did not respond. They did not choose Yeshua above mother and father. They did not take up their cross and follow him. Instead, Yeshua later had to say, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades” (Luke 10:15).
We all have our demons that we need to be freed from. The greatest is unbelief, even among Yeshua’s followers. Yet if we open ourselves to unexpected wonder, to experiencing Messiah bringing signs of the Age to Come, we will not share the fate of unbelieving Capernaum. The demons knew Yeshua was Messiah, as our story tells us, but they did not believe in the biblical sense. They did not open themselves and follow.