And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Mark 9:14-29 ESV
Long before their conversation with Jesus upon the mountain, both Moses and Elijah had their own miraculous experiences upon mountains. Moses, of course, was summoned up to the top of Sinai, where God spoke to him and delivered the law for the kingdom of Israel. Elijah had a showdown with a multitude of false prophets upon Mount Carmel that ended with the LORD answering the lone prophet’s prayer with fire from heaven.
Both, however, were met with unbelief and even despair whenever they descended the mountain. Moses descended to find Israel worshiping a golden calf, of which the people declared, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4)! Elijah descended the mountain (and outran a chariot) only to learn that Queen Jezebel was more intent than ever on putting the prophet to death, as she had with so many others; thus, Elijah wandered into the wilderness and prayed for death.
Jesus, likewise, descended from the mountain where His glory was radiantly displayed only to be ransacked once again by brokenness and unbelief. Morgan summarizes the scene well, saying that Jesus “found disputing scribes, a distracted father, a demon-possessed boy, and defeated disciples.” Yet just as He did some thirty years before, Jesus did not grasp the glory that was due Him; rather, He stepped into the sin-ravaged landscape and acted. “He silenced the scribes, He comforted the father, He healed the boy, He instructed the disciples.” As we study this text, may the Spirit give us eyes to see the gracious humility of our King.
DOWN THE MOUNTAIN; INTO THE VALLEY // VERSES 14-19
Our text begins with Jesus, Peter, James, and John reuniting with the none other disciples, and they found a great crowd around them, and the scribes arguing with them. This did not appear to be a very pleasant situation. The crowd was no doubt gathered about the disciples with the expectation that they could do some of the same wonders that Jesus could do. Wonders that the disciples had indeed done (see 6:7-13). Yet in their travels two-by-two, they had almost certainly not held the attention of a great crowd such as the one that had them surrounded here. Furthermore, the scribes evidently saw that Jesus was away and saw an opportunity to strike at the sheep while the shepherd was not looking.
Yet when Jesus appeared, the crowd turned their attention to Him and ran toward him greatly amazed. It is quite possible that their immediate and mighty amazement with Jesus came from an ineffable sense of glory that still lingered upon Him from His transfiguration. Regardless, the crowd happily greeted Him, yet Jesus was intent on resolving the argument between the scribes and His disciples. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” With this simple question, Jesus beat the wolves away from His disciples. However, bold they may have been with the nine disciples, they were silent in the presence of Christ.
May we take this picture to heart! We live, as Luther said, in a “world with devils filled,” not to mention that it is full of selfish sinners like us. Indeed, our very flesh is corrupted by sin and longs for the things that will destroy it. With all these dangers both surrounding us and within us, if we are left to our own devices, we will surely be lost. Yet in the presence of our Lord, there is security. We have two millennia of stories of those who faced fire and sword with peace and joy all because they knew that they were safely in the arms of Christ. Let us, therefore, also take comfort in our status in Christ that is testified to us by the indwelling Spirit.
While the scribes remained silent (and the disciples were no doubt ashamed), a particular man from the crowd stepped forward to answer Jesus, for it was his need that began the whole affair:
Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.
Here is another indictment against the scribes that they used this man and his son’s miserable condition as an opportunity to attack Jesus’ disciples. It is just like the Pharisees waited for Jesus to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath in order to accuse Him (see 3:1-6). In this utter lack of compassion, the hardness of their hearts was revealed.
I must admit that I have a particular sympathy for this man because of an experience that I had with my eldest daughter. One night, when she was around age two, we discovered that she is sensitive to red dye the hard way. After having red dye for the first time, she became a frightening sight. Although normally sweet and tender, she screamed a deep, guttural cry of anger from her crib, and I came into her room in time to keep her from slamming her head against the side of her crib. She continued to thrash and scream so fiercely that I had to take her to my bed and wrap my arms and legs around her until she eventually slept out of exhaustion. Of course, that one experience pales in comparison to this man and his son’s perpetual demonic torment (especially since the father says in verse 22 that the demon actively tried to kill the boy), nevertheless the experience of having to restrain my out-of-her-mind child from harming herself has ever since given me a particular pity for this father and his child.
Jesus’ answer may seem a bit surprising at first: O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me. I believe that Morgan is correct in saying that here Jesus “spoke of the whole age in which His ministry was being exercised. The word was not a rebuke to His disciples alone; though they were included. The word was not a rebuke only for the man who brought his boy; he also was numbered with those of the generation. The word was not one of rebuke for the scribes alone; though of them it was true. The whole atmosphere in the midst of which the Lord exercised His ministry, the very spirit of the age, was that of faithlessness, unbelief.” (193)
We can certainly say the same of our generation. A few weeks ago, I heard a song by Kelly Clarkson (as I later discovered) playing in a coffee shop. In the chorus, Clarkson boldly sang over and over again: “I’m broken, and it’s beautiful.” The song made me pause because I think it very much expresses the spirit of our age, a celebration over brokenness, that reflects our fundamental unbelief.
The world is indeed broken because we are each individually broken. And sin did the breaking, whether directly or indirectly. Single parents, barren wombs, widows and orphans, same sex attractedness, gender dysphoria, addictions of all sorts (and the list goes on and on), all vividly testify that the world is not as it should be. The biblical answer to such circumstances is to lament, repent (if needed), and look toward our blessed hope. The world’s answer, however, is to celebrate and take pride in our brokenness. We are all cracked and fractured pottery, and the world’s answer as water leaks from our vessel is, “You are perfect just the way you are.” If all of this, including me, is perfection, then we should all despair, and according to depression and anxiety rates, that is precisely what most are doing.
But O in the Potter’s hand, He shall restore and repair His vessels of mercy so that even the deepest cracks and breaks will be marks of beauty in the age to come, yet while the cracks will still be seen, they will be mended. The Potter will have no leaking pottery in the new earth. He will indeed make the most radiant beauty out of brokenness, yet let us never content ourselves with the belief, with the fool’s hope, that brokenness is beautiful.
Yet just as Jesus silenced the scribes, His command to bring the boy indicates that He will not abandon this generation to their unbelief.
HELP MY UNBELIEF // VERSES 20-27
The information within these verses clearly does not leave room for us to direct our chronological snobbery at these people (including, let us remember, Jesus Himself) by saying that this boy really had a severe case of epilepsy. The demon convulsed the boy whenever it beheld Jesus. The father testified that the demon aimed to destroy his son by throwing him into water and fire. And whenever Jesus rebuked the demon directly, it shrieked and gave one last convulsion before leaving the boy forever. Scripture clearly presents this as demonic rather than medical.
At the end of verse 22, we read the father’s plea on behalf of his son for Jesus to have compassion and to help. Yet notice that he prefaces his plea by saying, “But if you can do anything…” This is quite different from the faith of the leper in 1:40-44, who said to Jesus, “If you will, you can make me clean” (v. 40). That man very clearly believed that Jesus could cleanse him of his leprosy; the only question was whether Jesus would. This is also unlike the fearful faith of the woman who knew that a simple touch of Jesus’ clothing would restore her body. This man did not have resolute faith that Jesus could help his son. He evidently doubted whether all the stories were true or, at least, doubted that Jesus was powerful enough to help him.
Many today think the same in regards to their sin. Tiff and I had a friend in college who knew that our God is the true God, once even asked Tiff why she was so worried when God always provided for Tiff’s needs, and yet still could not believe that God could actually love and forgive her. Perhaps the man was in a similar place about Jesus’ ability to help his son. Yet by God’s grace, the man was before Jesus even if only by sheer desperation. We often call this the grace of hitting rock bottom, of having nowhere to look but up. And thank God that He even hears cries from the pit of despair!
Seeing the man’s unbelief, Jesus says, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” This is by no means Jesus affirming the New Age practice of visualization, where what you visualize becomes reality. Nor is Jesus promoting the Christianized version of that practice, where we are taught to name and claim our blessings. Sidenote: yes, the Word of Faith Movement is essentially New Age Spiritualism wearing a Christian mask. Instead, Jesus is simply expressing the same reality that He will say to the disciples in the following chapter after they ask Him how anyone can be saved: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” If all things are possible with God, then all things are possible to the one who believes God. Of course, we ought to very much remember that possible does not mean certain. As the leper understood, God can do all things; the only question is whether it is His will to do it or not.
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark alone records these words between Jesus and the boy’s father, and we ought to praise the Spirit for granting to us such a treasure. The ESV footnotes that some manuscripts say that the father cried out with tears. Whether Mark actually wrote those two words or not, it is difficult to imagine the father making such a cry to Christ with dry eyes. He received Jesus’ rebuke, understood that it rightly applied to him, and continued forward. If believing in Jesus could restore his son, then the man would believe, yet he was at the same time acutely aware of his skeptical heart. Calvin notes that: “These two statements may appear to contradict each other, but there is none of us that does not experience both of them in himself.” (325) Both in coming to Christ for the first time and in our continual reliance upon Him, our hearts offer the same prayer to our Lord. The very purest of our belief in this life will continue to be stained with a measure of unbelief.
Let us give thanks, then, that the amount of our faith is not nearly as important as the object of our faith! Again, Word of Faith teachers and those influenced by them treat faith as if it were some primordial force that even God must obey. But this kind of thinking inevitably leaves whatever little real faith a person may have shipwrecked. Right now, there are a multitude of people dying of cancer, paralyzed, or in any number of circumstances upon whom wolves in sheep’s skin have placed the heavy burden of believing that their faith is too weak to be healed. Peter rightly said, “They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children” (2 Peter 2:14)!
The father here may have had only a mustard seed of belief, yet Christ hurled the demonic mountain that sat upon his son into the sea. The same is also true of saving faith. So many wrestle with assurance of salvation because they wonder how sincere their confession of faith was. Yet saving faith is not judged by the degree of our sincerity but by the sufficiency of the Savior. Proof of life is not a birth certificate but a heartbeat. The question, therefore, is not did you really believe in Jesus then but do you believe Jesus now?
ONLY PRAYER // VERSES 28-29
After healing the boy and departing from the crowd into a house, we come back to the question that should have been lingering over us throughout this account: why were the disciples unable to cast out the demon?
Some have answered that Jesus’ giving to “them authority over unclean spirits” from 6:7 was only for their short-term journey. The problem with that answer is that both the disciples and Jesus appear to have expected them to still be able to cast out demons. Instead, I think Ryle is right to call this simply “a case too hard for them.” He goes on to say:
They were learning by humbling experience the great lesson, ‘without me ye can do nothing’ (John 15:5). It was a useful lesson, no doubt, and overruled to their spiritual good… We may be sure it was a bitter lesson at the time. We do not love to learn that we can do nothing without Christ.
In other words, we have come from the Mount of Transfiguration and descended into the Valley of Humiliation, and it is all in preparation for the Valley of the Shadow of Death that Christ was soon to walk.
Indeed, Jesus told them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” By this statement, Jesus is not giving us a methodological lesson in exorcisms, as if we should read this and say, “Good to know! When rebuking demons, if they won’t be driven out immediately, then I need to pray.” Instead, Jesus is giving a lesson in humble dependence.
Question: if such spirits could only be driven out by prayer, how did Jesus simply command it as He did? Two answers. First, as “very God of very God,” Jesus had the authority in Himself to command even the mightiest of devils; thus, the disciples should have understood that this implied a categorical distinction between Jesus and them. Second, Jesus is our supreme model of praying without ceasing, for He lived in constant communion and dependence upon the Father. As He told His disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
Pride cannot pray, for it sees no need. It is like a broken cistern that cannot hold water and yet cries out, “Look how beautiful my fractures are!” Humility is the very backbone of prayer, for it says to the Potter, “I am broken, and only You have the ability to restore me. Therefore, I forget myself and place my hope in you.”
To quote Ryle again:
The holiest and best of Christians has nothing to glory of. His strength is not his own. He has nothing but what he has received. He has only to provoke the Lord to leave him for a season, and he will soon discover that his power is gone. Like Samson, when his hair was shorn, he is as weak as any other man… With him we may do all things. Without him we can do nothing at all. With him we may overcome the greatest temptations. Without him the least may overcome us. Let our cry be every morning, ‘leave us not to ourselves; we know not what a day may bring forth; –if thy presence go not with us we cannot go up.’ (143)
Brothers and sisters, as we come to the Table again this morning, looking upon the feast of remembrance that our Lord inaugurated by His death, let us consider the initial command that Jesus gave to the man: Bring him to me. However large his doubts were, the man obeyed; he brought his son to Christ, and all was made well. Through the Table before us, Jesus gives us a similar command to bring our sin, our shame, our sorrows, our burdens, our pride and self-esteem, and even our doubting hearts. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28); this is Jesus’ command. Let us hear and obey. Let us lay down ourselves and take up Christ.