Over the years I have learned the importance of having the right tool for the job.
Twenty five years ago, I needed to fix something under the dashboard in our family vehicle. I figured I could remove part of the dashboard to get at it. It had screws securing it but some of them were right underneath the bottom of the windshield. I could not get at it to loosen those screws even with the shortest screwdriver I had. So I went to the store and bought this right angle screwdriver. It was the right tool for the job and made something that would have been impossible possible. I don’t think I was still able to fix the problem, but at least I was able to get at it.
Today in our study of Mark, we read of a time when the disciples were not able to cast an evil spirit out of a boy. Remember they had been able to cast out evil spirits before, but they couldn’t remove this one. Jesus told them that this kind of evil spirit can only be cast out through prayer. So is Jesus telling them that they need to use the extra prayer tool? Or is there a deeper lesson that was important for the disciples and for us to learn? Let’s read Mark 9:14-32.
I. Let’s look first at the Disciples’ failure in verses 14-19.
Jesus has experienced tremendous glory at the Transfiguration but now it’s time for him to return to the reality of suffering and evil. There is a dispute and the scribes, disciples and some in the crowd are arguing. The scribes likely were there as witnesses sent out by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to gather evidence against Jesus who was suspected of misleading the people. So the debate was not only on why the disciples couldn’t heal the boy but likely was more centered on the disciples’ authority to even try. The people were overwhelmed when they saw Jesus because he could settle this.
Jesus’ question in verse 16 was probably addressed to the scribes, who had taken advantage of his absence to embarrass the disciples. Jesus was answered by the one most concerned in the crowd: the father of the boy whom the father had brought to the disciples for healing. He addresses Jesus respectfully as “Teacher” along with his statement, “I brought my son to you” which means he was fully expecting Jesus to heal his son.
The father then vividly describes the boy’s very serious condition to Jesus. He had violent convulsions, foamed at the mouth, gnashed his teeth, then became completely rigid; all which sound like a form of epilepsy. He was also not able to speak or hear, but Mark makes it clear that this is not just a physical illness but possession by an evil spirit. The violence of the seizures and the attempts to throw him into fire or the water indicate the goal of demonic possession is once again to destroy the image of God.
The father appealed to the disciples to exercise the power known to belong to Jesus. In Jesus’ absence the disciples represented him and it was legitimate for the people to expect that the disciples would have the same power as Jesus did. The disciples had good reason to believe that they could do this because earlier they had been able to successfully cast out demons on their earlier mission. Yet in spite of repeated attempts, they were unable to do overcome this demon.
Jesus’ cry of exasperation shows that he is frustrated and disappointed in his disciples who had failed at this critical moment. The reason that they had failed was because they were unbelieving. They needed to have a believing relationship with Jesus to be successful. Jesus says that they are part of an “unbelieving generation” and as such they are no different from the others who demand signs but don’t really believe in God. He asks, “How long will I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” He has been with them for months and they still haven’t understood him. Yet Jesus is infinitely patient and he continues to instruct the disciples to prepare them for the day when they will be there in place of Jesus and continue his work.
But this raises the question for us: does Jesus get frustrated with us? We think we can do it ourselves in doing what is good – and we fail. We think we can change people – and we fail. We think we can rearrange people’s thinking using our cleverness – and we fail. I can imagine Jesus becoming frustrated and exasperated with us as well. He has given us instructions on how to live and the Holy Spirit to empower us. And yet we keep on trying to do it on our own without his power!
Years ago before machines were used to harvest trees, loggers would have to use two-man saws to cut lumber. I can imagine an old veteran logger teaching a new man how to use the saw together and being quite effective at sawing lumber together. But can you imagine what the old veteran might think if he saw the young guy trying to use this giant saw by himself? He might say, “What’s wrong with you!? You’re trying to do something by yourself that you need another person to do. It won’t work by yourself!” That is the point Jesus is making to them: they can’t do it on their own. What is required is complete faith that God can do something and do it through us.
II. Let’s look more specifically at Jesus’ healing in verses 20-27.
The struggle between Jesus and the realm of evil is vivid in the violence of the seizure that the boy had when he was brought to Jesus. The evil spirit tries to completely destroy the child in the very presence of Jesus and thus shows its utter contempt of Jesus. Jesus was deeply moved and he asks how long the boy had been like this. The father sees this latest seizure and is frantic in seeking help for he knows it’s only a matter of time before this evil spirit will kill his child. His cry is desperate and he says “if you can do anything,” implying that maybe Jesus won’t be able to help after all.
Jesus seizes on the father’s words: “if you can?” Jesus makes it clear that the effectiveness of healing does not depend on Jesus’ ability but on the man’s faith; will the man believe that God can heal or not? The test is on the man, not on Jesus. The father, frantic now for help, answers, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.” The father desperately wants to believe but admits that his doubt is very strong. His expression of faith is also a candid plea that his faith is ready to fail. However, this exchange between Jesus and the father establishes the personal faith-based relationship necessary for the son’s healing.
For us too our faith must be there even when there are stubborn shadows of doubt. We must have the certainty that with God nothing is impossible even as we also admit that at times it’s hard to believe. I know that God can completely remove cancer, but yet at times doubt creeps in and it doesn’t seem that it is likely. We know that God can bring an unbelieving loved one to faith, but at times it seems that it is so far removed. Sometimes it’s hard to have faith but then let’s state what this father said, “I do believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!”
Jesus now sees that a crowd was gathering and so he acts quickly for he didn’t want a spectacle but a healing. All Jesus had to do was to speak and the evil spirit was removed. The evil spirit is told to come out and never come back. The demon came out with so much violence that the boy looked like he had died. But Mark makes it clear that there is not death here but a brand new life! The dethroning of Satan is always a reversal of death and an affirmation of life.
Still there appears to be a growing resistance to Jesus on the part of the evil spirits. There is an analogy for this in some viruses, bacteria and some cancers. As the invading illness is fought, it is pushed back but the cancer or bacteria mutate and begin resisting the treatment. The illness fights back against the attack against it and in some cases becomes stronger. And only if it can be completely removed will there be a complete cure. In this case, the disciples were powerless when they attempted to help the boy. This healing thus points to the necessity of Jesus’ own death and resurrection for that alone can definitively and permanently break Satan’s power.
III. Jesus makes it clear in verses 28-29 that such healings happens only by prayer.
Jesus withdraws to a house where he privately explains that such evil spirits can be expelled only by a full reliance on the unlimited power of God expressed through prayer. Evidently the disciples had not prayed for God’s power in sincere faith. The disciples had been tempted to believe that the gift they received from Jesus was in their control and could be used as they chose. This subtle unbelief encouraged them to trust in themselves rather than in God. They had to learn that their previous success in casting out demons provided no guarantee of continued power. Rather the radical power of God must be asked for on each occasion.
Mark concludes this section by relating that Jesus now goes back to Galilee. This is the first leg of the journey to Jerusalem and to his death. It was during this time that Jesus continues his private teaching of the disciples. Jesus makes it clear that his presence in Galilee should be kept quiet. This is because he wanted to teach his disciples but also because his focus was now on Jerusalem where his messianic mission would be fulfilled.
The three prophecies in verse 31 of the passion describe a divine certainty. Jesus will be abandoned to the will of men; there will be a violent death and then finally resurrection. What is new here is that Jesus will be handed over into the hands of men. God will permit Jesus to be handed over to men, which emphasizes the idea of Jesus being abandoned, something God had planned all along.
The disciples, however, fail to understand and are afraid to ask him about this. This emphasizes Jesus’ loneliness on the way to Jerusalem. They don’t understand and the journey to Jerusalem is quiet and lonely for Jesus. While it’s easy to criticize the disciples, let’s realize the turmoil they must have been in. The thought of their dear friend and teacher being killed was too painful for them to discuss and any time they had protested about it, Jesus had rebuked them. They are overwhelmed and that makes Jesus’ loneliness all the more intense.
There are times when the whole Christian life can seem to be overwhelming to us. There are times when the things that are happening in our lives or that are happening in the world just don’t make sense to us. We understand the father in this passage saying, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” But here is the good news for us: when Jesus heard this father’s prayer, he didn’t rebuke him or ask him to believe more. He heard in this simple prayer this father reaching out desperately and almost frantically to Jesus for help and not knowing what Jesus would do. And when Jesus heard that prayer, he responded in compassion and action. We need to keep praying: “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”
But this mother also admitted moments when her only responses were grief and violent anger. She wrote: “How could God, who could’ve helped, look down on a young woman devoted to him, willing to die to give him glory, and decide to sit on his hands? In my daughter’s case, God’s choice was to let cystic fibrosis rip.”
We face those feelings in illnesses, in family tensions, in financial struggles, personal battles or in whatever we may face. Let’s echo this man’s faith for in saying that he receives the increased faith he so desperately needed. In our daily struggles, let’s continue to pray, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”