When the Lord, together with Peter, James, and John, descended from the mountain, they came upon the rest of the Twelve in the midst of an encounter between the nine disciples and some teachers of the law. An argument had broken out as a result of the failure of the disciples to drive a demon from a boy who had been brought to them. No doubt the father had brought his son in hopes of seeing Jesus himself but the disciples had attempted to do the good work themselves in the Lord’s absence and they had failed.
The Lord’s absence had been felt. His presence by this time was exciting and thrilling to people. They knew he would not fail as his disciples had.
The man had brought his son to Jesus, but had to content himself with the disciples as Jesus was absent. Here is another eyewitness touch. The father speaks of his son as “robbed of speech” but the narrative doesn’t focus on his dumbness but on his convulsions. Nothing hereafter is said about his not being able to speak or his being able to speak once healed by the Lord. This is almost certainly an eyewitness touch Peter remembering exactly what the Father had said. A seemingly irrelevant detail is often an eyewitness touch.
Throughout the modern era the symptoms of this boy’s condition have been compared, obviously, to epilepsy but it is clear in the narrative that we are talking about demon possession not an illness.
This description of the boy’s misery provides a dramatic contrast between what demons do to people and what Jesus does to them. It also illustrates the fact the presence of Jesus very often brings conflict before it brings peace. [Edwards, 279]
The length of the boy’s affliction and the fact that no one had been able to do anything about it set the stage for the demonstration of the Lord’s power and authority.
Clearly the man has his doubts about the Lord’s ability to deliver his son. The failure of the disciples had made this father more cautious. [France, 367] It is the expression of his doubt in the Lord’s ability to heal that draws from the Lord now a sharp reply.He had said, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “If you can,” said Jesus, “everything is possible for him who believes.”
It seems that the father is genuinely believing in Jesus for the first time; there is a realization dawning in his heart that has been prompted by the sight of the Lord and by hearing his words. Jesus can heal his boy. But the man also realizes in a moment of self-discovery that his faith is feeble, mixed with doubt and fear and it may not be strong enough to gain the victory for his son. But he knows enough by now to turn to Jesus for that too!
The exorcism takes place simply as a result of the spoken word of the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, the Lord is wary of stoking the enthusiasm of the crowd, a crowd that is interested in an altogether different Messiah with an altogether different mission than his own. So he hurries to complete the exorcism before a larger crowd had formed. Either the crowd was still forming, or the Lord had taken the father aside for this conversation, as he had done with others previously and the impatient crowd was following.
This is the first place in the Gospel of Mark in which the followers of the Lord are instructed to pray. As you may remember, in the KJV and perhaps in some of the versions that some of you are reading in church this morning the text reads “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.” This is a classic illustration of the nature of textual criticism, the scholarly effort to determine the original text of a passage of Holy Scripture. There is overwhelming support for the addition of the words “and fasting” in the manuscript tradition. That is, almost all manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that we have from the 4th century on to the 12th or 13th century include the words “and fasting.” Those who assume that the correct reading is likely to be retained in the largest number of manuscripts naturally argue that Mark’s original would have included those two words “prayer and fasting.” However, “and fasting” do not appear in some of the finest early manuscripts of the NT and those who argue that it is important to weigh the quality and the date of manuscripts before judging the likelihood of the readings they contain typically argue that Mark’s original did not include the words “and fasting.” They also argue that it is easier to explain its later addition than to explain its earlier omission in a manuscript. As fasting became a more and more important spiritual discipline in the life of Christians, and as more and more it came to be linked with prayer, it was natural for a scribe to add it here to a statement about what true faith and true devotion require. It might have first been put in the margin by some scribe “and fasting” a little note, not necessarily a change in the text, just a reminder that other things go with prayer and then later on that marginal notation was added to the text wittingly or unwittingly. In any case, we are reading it without those two words. But, contrarily, why would the reference to fasting be omitted in manuscripts that everyone regards as generally very reliable?
As we noted last time in regard to Peter’s confession and the transfiguration this marks a turning point in the history of the Lord’s ministry, he is going to be concentrating to a far greater degree with his disciples on the coming passion, the suffering, death and resurrection to which his ministry is taking him. The specter of the Lord’s passion will now begin to dominate the Lord’s conversations with his disciples.
There is an important question of interpretation hidden in v. 19. To whom does the Lord address himself when he says, “O unbelieving generation?” Some commentators on the Gospel of Mark say that he is speaking to the crowds and not the disciples and would not have included his disciples in an apostrophe regarding the unbelievers of his day. Others say that he is speaking to the crowds and to his disciples and that the burden of the apostrophe is precisely to link his disciples to the unbelieving mind, the unbelieving attitude of the people of that day. It seems to me a certainty that the disciples are part of the group the Lord is addressing. In Matthew’s account of the same incident, the Lord says to his disciples that they couldn’t drive the demon out of the boy “because you have so little faith.” It is precisely their want of faith that is the interest. And, here in Mark, though not so directly, the Lord makes the same point by saying to them, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Prayer, of course, is an exercise of faith. A failure to pray, on their part, had doomed their effort. And their failure to pray was a failure of faith. So the disciples at least are in a certain way a part of, representing this “unbelieving generation.”
Remember, the Twelve had been given authority to drive out demons as far back as chapter 3 verse 15. There we read that Jesus had appointed the Twelve to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. Again in chapter 6 verse 7 he had sent them out on a ministry tour having given them authority to drive out demons. And they did just that. We read in chapter 6 verse13 that they had driven out many demons and healed the sick. In the light of their earlier success, this failure must have come as surprise and a disappointment. Something had gone wrong; there had been a failure somewhere. And the Lord says very clearly that what went wrong was precisely that they had failed to believe. Their failure had been a failure of faith. Now the nine disciples did not constitute a “generation” and so the unbelieving generation of which the Lord spoke in v. 19 is certainly a larger company than just these nine men. It was, we learn in the Gospels, the fatal characteristic of the church of that day that it did not have faith. It would have said that it did, it would have bitterly protested the accusation that it did not have faith, but in fact its confidence rested in the self, not in God; a very easy mistake to make and one that has been repeated through the generations since many times and one that you and I repeat everyday that we live. But in this respect, at least on this occasion, the Lord’s own disciples were guilty of the same mistake. They were more like the unbelieving Jews around them than like the true followers of the Messiah in their want, their lack of faith.
Now there is no doubt that the Lord intended this incident to provide that lesson in faith – the nature of faith and the importance of faith – and that Mark has written it as he has to serve precisely that purpose. The Lord’s response to the situation he comes upon as he descends from the mountain of transfiguration introduces the theme: “O unbelieving generation…” Later he makes this the point of his conversation with the boy’s father: “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Mark alone of the three Gospel writers who include this incident, records the man’s reply, certainly one of the most memorable and important remarks made by anyone beside Jesus in all of the Gospels: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” The man himself sees the issue as one of faith and Mark is careful to make sure you hear him say that. And then, when the disciples ask the Lord about why they failed, the Lord turns to faith again and says that what was missing on their effort was prayer, and, of course, prayer is simply the exercise of faith. Prayer is faith turned toward God, faith addressing itself to God; the placing of one’s trust or confidence in God. If we had any doubt that that is what prayer is or that that is what Jesus understood prayer to be, we have only to look at Mark 11:22-24, where the Lord brings faith and prayer together again and considers them in effect the same thing. Prayer is simply faith at work. Faith exercises itself through prayer.
By prayer, in other words, Jesus doesn’t mean – he never means – prayer as simply a pious exercise; an act or a performance; the utterance of some form of words. He means rather an act of genuine, personal dependence upon the Lord: an act that one performs precisely because he knows the Lord himself alone can give him what he desires or he cannot and will not obtain it. The disciples had apparently come to think that the authority to drive out demons that Jesus had given to them was now their authority and that they could exercise it however and whenever they pleased. They wouldn’t have denied that he had given it to them, but it was now theirs. It was in their failure to remember and to reckon with the fact that the authority was and remained the Lord’s alone in their failure to appreciate that any power over the demonic realm was Christ’s power alone, that they stumbled here. They were not looking directly to the Lord; they were not depending upon his name; they were not acting specifically, explicitly and self-consciously on his behalf. And as soon as that was the case, they found they couldn’t drive the demon out of this boy.
These men were believers in the sense that they were genuine followers of Jesus and were, as we would put it, already converted men. They had already confessed him the Messiah. They had already declared him to be their Lord. But they had to learn that an active, working, depending faith in Christ is the daily calling of Christ’s followers and of the children of God. This is what they had to learn and this is what every Christian has to learn, and that is why Mark wrote this incident as he did, he wants us to learn that lesson and learn it well. Jesus set out to teach them here. And here is a key lesson to which Mark devotes a considerable space, Christians must live by faith.
Faith is the key! Everywhere in the Bible faith is the key. It is the beginning, the middle, and the end of a Christian’s life. It is the way one becomes a Christian – as apparently in the case of this dear man in v. 24 – and the way one continues to be a Christian, it is the way in which one serves the Lord and grows in his grace, hence the Lord’s lesson for his disciples.
But what is faith? What does it mean to believe? Faith and belief are forms of the same word in the New Testament’s Greek, not in English, but they are in Greek. What does it mean to believe? Nowadays, especially in our political discourse, we hear a great deal about “people of faith”, “faith based initiatives” and so on; or, more popularly, we hear people speaking of the importance of having faith, as if faith itself, the act of believing – whatever it is that one believes in or on – is the really important thing. Used this way, faith amounts to a form of optimism, an outlook on life that is thought to be shared by many people whose convictions about truth and reality are poles apart. They have faith; it is good that they have faith whatever that means. Christians have it, Muslims have it, Buddhists have it, and secularists apparently don’t have it. But that is certainly not what the Lord or the Bible mean by faith. The Jews of Jesus’ day would certainly not have agreed that they were an unbelieving generation. They believed. They had faith. They simply did not trust the Lord; they did not put their confidence in Jesus and in his saving power. Butthat and that alone is what faith is in the Bible. In the same way, secularists have faith – they believe in many things – but it is not faith in Jesus Christ and so it is not the faith in which the Bible speaks.
Faith in its most basic sense is simply the reliance placed by one person in or on another, the reliance of one person in the power and the faithfulness and the truthfulness of another. You make a statement of fact to me about something I could not otherwise know and faith is that state of mind in me that accepts your statement as true, so true that I am willing be base my behavior on it. But that is also why there is also such a thing as false faith. Put your reliance on the word of someone or the power of someone whose word is true and that is good faith. If you put your reliance on the word of someone whose word turns out to be false, that is harmful faith, bad faith, and if that word turns out to be untrue, you have believed in error. Your faith will harm you, not help you. There is no virtue in faith unless the one you believe in, the power you rely on, and the faithfulness you are placing your confidence in, is worth that reliance and deserves that confidence.
The Friday Tacoma News Tribune ran a story about the police searching for a woman who had scammed $36,000 from at least five elderly people in Pierce County. She had secured their trust, their confidence – their faith in other words – and had bilked them out of a great deal of money. These were people who had faith and exercised it, but it was foolish faith, faith in falsehood, confidence in a person who did not deserve their confidence.
In the Bible faith is always confidence in God and in his Son Jesus Christ. They alone are worth our supreme confidence for this world and the world to come. That is why the Bible does not dignify reliance on falsehood and confidence in what is unreal with the term faith. And why the Bible is always at work to expose false faith and false confidence whether in man or in gods that are not gods. Faith is confidence properly placed; rightly exercised, which is to say faith in God and confidence in Christ. Even faith in Christians is not the true faith of which the Bible speaks. We learn here that true faith does not judge Jesus by the weakness of his followers. The disciples should have done better than they did; but in the end it is Jesus who must and who does heal the boy. Christians can sympathize with a grieving parent and they can help in certain lesser ways. But what is really needed only God, only Jesus Christ can provide.
Isaac Watts, one of the church’s greatest hymn writers, said on his deathbed concerning the promises of God, “I believe them enough to venture an eternity on them.” That is faith: knowing the truth about God and his Word, about Christ and his saving grace, and then acting on that knowledge, relying on that truth, venturing one’s life and destiny on it. It is faith’s active nature – not a passive acceptance but an active reliance – that accounts for the way in which it is so often described and accounts for the metaphors used to describe and define it in the Bible to help us understand what faith is and how it works.
- In one place faith is described as “looking to Jesus”; we cannot see Jesus – how much easier life would be if we could – but by faith we know that he is near, that he is present, and in our souls we look to him or turn to him, practicing his presence and act on our conviction that he is here, right here with me.
- In another place faith is described as “taking hold of Jesus” (Heb. 6:18), as if we actually grab his hand and in our lives and live our lives each day holding on to him like a child holding on to his parent’s hand. I remember that when elder Hannula and I once visited Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, the tour we took began in the entrance hall of the great house. There were others with us on the tour and a little boy was standing in front of me. During the opening remarks by our guide, the little boy stepped back until he was leaning against my legs, and then he reached back and held on to them. He thought he was holding on to his dad and was taking comfort from the knowledge that in that crowd of people he didn’t know he was in touch with, he was holding onto his father. It was a shock when he turned around to discover that I wasn’t his father and that he was leaning against and holding on to a complete stranger. The world is full of people holding on to what they think is true and real but which is not; but those who take hold of Jesus have the hand of their soul on the Son of God himself.
And that active trust and confidence, turned into daily exercise, is what the Bible says is the very nature of the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t in this moment in the case of the disciples which is why that moment was turned into a lesson about what it means to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ and how one lives as one. Believers in Jesus don’t simply live on the first exercise of their faith, such a believing in Jesus as this father apparently exercised for the first time that day, but on the continual exercise of their faith. That was the disciples’ failure. They imagined that faith, once exercised, granted them a power, an authority that they could then exercise as if it were their own. No! It is always Christ’s presence, Christ’s power; always Christ’s authority, and so it must always be our confidence in him that characterizes our daily life as Christians. That is what the Bible means by faith and that is what Jesus meant by it here. You see, it is not faith we live on, but Christ we live on. Faith is simply what connects us to him. We can no more live by yesterday’s faith than we can see by yesterday’s light or be nourished by yesterday’s food. Faith is so important, so critical, faith makes all the difference because Jesus Christ makes all the difference and he grants his presence in our lives, he displays his power on our behalf, he exercises his authority in and for us only as we believe in and rely on him. That is how a present Savior, unseen, becomes a real force and power in our daily lives. That is the lesson of this text. This is what Jesus and Mark are teaching us. Believers like you and me, like these disciples here, these nine men, we often don’t live by faith. We often betray our faith, but when we exercise and practice it wonderful things occur.
And that is why though this father was conscious of the weakness of his faith – mixed as it was with doubt and fear — nevertheless obtained what he so desperately wanted for his son. It wasn’t the quality of the man’s faith, it was the power and authority of Jesus that effected the deliverance of this boy from the cruel demon who had so benighted his life. Christians must always remember this. It isn’t your faith that was crucified for you. It isn’t your faith that made so many exceedingly great and precious promises to you. It isn’t your faith that rose from the dead. It isn’t your faith that is coming again. It is Jesus Christ who did, who said, and who will do these things for you. Faith by itself, separated from its object, is mere sentiment; wishful thinking. But faith that is an active reliance upon the Son of God expressed in prayer to God is a power that raises the dead and meets the needs of those in trouble.
Every believer knows all too well how weak his or her faith is. Like these disciples, we forget the presence of the Lord because we cannot see him and we fall to acting as if he were not there. What is that but a failure of faith? He is there; we know it because he said he would be. But, distracted by the world of sight and sense, we do not actively rely on his presence and live as if it were not a reality. Or, we know of his mercy and his forgiveness; we know what he suffered to secure that forgiveness for us, but we live in a spirit of condemnation because we are not relying on the Lord to do what he promised to do: forgive our sins, wipe our slate clean and cleanse our hearts.
Or, we know of his power to overcome evil in our hearts and lives – did not Paul say that he could do all things through Christ who strengthens him? – but we live in spiritual defeat because we do not actively rely on Christ’s power to effect those changes in our hearts and our lives. We may at first resent the accusation that we do not believe, we know ourselves to be believers, but the index of our failure is the same as it was for these nine disciples. We do not pray as we should, not really, not really pray with confidence and expectation in the name of Jesus Christ, pray all the time for the things that matter most to us. No matter what we would say if asked, our failure to pray, our weakness and half-heartedness in prayer, and the shortness of our prayers indicate that we are counting much more on ourselves than on Christ, or we have given up counting on anyone. “O unbelieving generation!” We are not relying on Jesus in the same way we would if we could see him standing right beside us; if we could put our hand in his; if we could walk over to him and ask him for his favor in one way or another. Jesus was away and the disciples, like generations of Christians who would follow them and like you and me far too much of the time – without ever denying the Lord, without changing one whit what it was they believed about him – began to live without relying on him. They acted without direct reference to him. They sought to achieve things without him, which is to say, they sought to achieve, to accomplish things without prayer.
It takes just a moment to think of how different our daily life must be if we would but more and more rely, actively rely on a present Jesus Christ. If we relied on the Lord’s promise to be with us and never to leave us or forsake us, our fears would disappear and many of our sins; if we relied on the Lord’s atonement, his death and resurrection as the conquest of our sin and guilt and so lived in the freedom and the joy of that deliverance; if we relied hour by hour and day by day on the Lord’s emphatic promise to bless those who trust in him, to provide for their needs, to use them in his great work in the world, and to comfort and console them in trouble and sorrow. My, what a difference that would make!
We have two kinds of believers depicted in this narrative. There is the father, who knows very well the weakness of his faith, but really relies on the Lord Jesus; counts on him to do for him what he needs to have done. And there are the disciples, who, in fact, believe about Jesus more than this man knows to do. They have more facts in their heads and they accept those facts. They really do. But unlike the boy’s father, the disciples’ faith lies inactive; it consists in convictions in the back of their minds. The father puts his faith to work; the disciples do not. And the difference is that Christ is everything in the father’s mind. He is counting on him to heal his boy. He is looking to him to do it. The disciples are looking to themselves, however much they would have been entirely ready to admit that the power they wielded in driving out demons was a power that Jesus had given to them. Christ himself, the Lord’s person, had receded into the background. They were thinking that they would drive out this demon as they had driven others out before. They weren’t thinking, as the father was, about Christ driving out the demon.
It may seem a small distinction, all the more between equally believing men, but it proved to be the difference between the success and failure. There is a very important lesson to be learned here. The Lord took pains to teach his disciples the lesson of this incident. We are, every day and in every way, to do what this believing father did – however weak he thought his faith to be – to do what the disciples did not. Say to the Lord, “Lord I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” I’m going now to practice my faith in you. I’m going to take you at your word and rely on you and act and behave accordingly. I am going to do what you tell me to do and trust in your presence and blessing to enable me. I will today think and behave as one who believes, as I do, in the presence, the power, the love, and the promises of the Son of God. I am going to put hands and feet to my faith in a way I didn’t yesterday or the day before.
The centrality of faith, as the exercise of active dependence upon the Lord Jesus, is the supreme demonstration in the life of his followers that Jesus Christ is the be all and end all of our lives. The alpha and the omega. That is why they call us Christians! Christ is not a minor feature; he does not stand only in the background. He stands at the center, the object of our love, our hope, and our life’s purpose. Every great Christian, every truly faithful Christian, every fruitful Christian has been marked by this monomania about Jesus Christ. Hudson Taylor, the celebrated missionary to China, used to recite this prayer every day, the one prayer he said every day.
Lord Jesus, make thyself to me
A living, bright reality;
More present to faith’s vision keen
Than any outward object seen;
More dear, more intimately nigh
Than e’en the sweetest earthly tie.
If not those words, then others like them; every day!