Mark 9:14-29. Invisible golden calves.

“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.”

 By this point, halfway through Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have seen enough to make them certain that Jesus is the Christ. In the first half of the Gospel, Jesus taught that he is the one who comes to bring in the kingdom of God, to change things around. He is the light to be brought into the room, hidden for a while, but soon to be revealed (4:21-23). He showed his power, and brought the kingdom of God to earth in many ways- healing the sick, casting out demons, calming the storm. By all these things, he has shown that he is the Messiah, the Christ, the servant of God, God’s chosen agent to bring about his kingdom on earth.

The disciples have understood these things in some measure, and after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ (8:29), Jesus knew that his disciples were sure that he is the Christ. And so he began to teach them other things. We can see that, in the second half of the Gospel, Jesus’ teaching changes in character. He began to talk explicitly about his suffering and death, which he had not done before (8:31).

The disciples’ reaction was one of horror. Peter told Jesus off for talking like this. They just didn’t seem able to take it in. They couldn’t reconcile the idea of the glorious Son of Man with the idea of the suffering servant. And they didn’t really want to take it in. Jesus made it very clear that the followers of a suffering Messiah can expect to suffer in his footsteps. The disciples don’t want that.

Jesus warns them that they have to trust him even though he is going to die; they have to follow him, they can’t abandon him, because he is the Messiah. Jesus promises that he will come in glory one day, and when he does come like that, he will own those who follow him now, and he will put to shame those who are now ashamed of him (8:34-38).

And he says that some of them will see his glory. Jesus then gives to three of the disciples- Peter, James, and John- a glimpse of the shining majesty in which he will appear at the consummation of all things. But after seeing, they still don’t understand. Peter wants Jesus to rule from the mountain with Moses and Elijah, and offers to build three tents for them to stay in. God the Father speaks from the cloud that has descended over the three of them, identifying Jesus as his Son, who should be listened to- and then the disciples look around and see Jesus only (9:1-8).

On the way down the mountain, Jesus says that he will die, and rise again, but it is as if they haven’t heard him. They still think that Jesus will take the throne while he is still on earth, and so they ask about the coming of Elijah, who was supposed to restore the kingdom ready for the Messiah (9:9-13). And at this point in the Gospel, we have the event above recorded for us.

 Questions about the passage…

 1.      What is actually going on here?

 2.      Was there anything different about this demon? Jesus says, “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Does he mean that this is an especially powerful demon- that maybe lesser evil spirits could be chased off by lesser methods, but not this one?

 3.      Why can’t the disciples cast it out? They’ve cast out demons before (see 6:7).

 4.      If the problem is the disciples’ lack of faith, then what does lack of faith mean? What is faith? If we say, “They should have had more faith”, what do we mean? Can you quantify faith? And why would it help anyway?

 5.      Jesus links their lack of faith with lack of prayer. Why?

 Questions about the passage in the whole book…

 6.      How does it follow on from the mountaintop experience in 9:1-13?

 7.      What does it add to Mark’s book? How is it making a different point from other, similar, passages? How is it different from the other synoptic Gospels?

 8.      How does it fit into the book as a whole?

 9.      Apply…


1. What is actually going on here?

Jesus and the three disciples come down from the mountain, and arrive in the valley where they find the other disciples in a spot of trouble. A man has come to the disciples, desperately looking for Jesus. He has a child, a son, who has a spirit that makes him mute. This spirit has given the boy symptoms like those of epilepsy. We’ve thought previously about demon possession- see the study on 5:1-20- and the idea of the ghost in the machine. When this spirit grabs the controls, the boy goes into spasms, becomes rigid, foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth. He falls on the ground, or sometimes into the fire, or into the lake. The demon which is driving the child’s body wants to destroy him. The boy had this demon from childhood, and the father is at his wits end. The father has heard of this Jesus, who has gone all over Galilee healing the sick and casting out demons. The father is determined to get Jesus’ help. So he takes his son, and the two of them go looking for Jesus.

In the end, they find some of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus has gone up a mountain with three of the twelve, and the others are waiting in the valley for Jesus to return to them. Now the disciples have probably also become well known. A while back, Jesus sent them out to go into the villages proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and doing signs of the kingdom. Mark says specifically that Jesus gave them authority over unclean spirits (Mark 6:7). They have cast out demons and healed the sick as well. They are Jesus’ apostles, chosen to act with Jesus’ authority. The father, in the absence of the master, looks to the master’s apostles to help his son. And the disciples try to help. I guess that at first, they thought it wouldn’t be a problem; after all, they’d all done this plenty of times before. Jesus himself had given them authority over unclean spirits. They’d gone around in pairs going into villages and people would have gathered to hear them, bringing them the sick and those afflicted by demons. Why should this be any different? But it was different. They just couldn’t do it. They tried to cast the demon out, and the demon held on to his control of the boy. They looked stupid, and powerless.

The whole situation is made worse by the fact that there are some of the scribes hanging around. The scribes and Pharisees have been following Jesus for a while now, trying to catch him making mistakes- because they don’t want a Messiah like Jesus, and so they hate him. When these scribes see the disciples unable to deal with the demon, they start to enjoy themselves. We’re not actually told what the argument they were having was about, but if we were going to infer, we’d guess that it is something similar to 2:6-7, 16; 3:22; 7:1-2. These men are denying Jesus’ power or his authority, and the disciples are defending their master. Maybe the scribes say, “See! Doesn’t this prove that Jesus has no real power? He’s a big fraud. His disciples can’t do miracles after all. If this Jesus really were from God, then God would help his disciples, wouldn’t he?” And the disciples start to argue with them.

And that is where Jesus finds them. Mark captures Jesus’ frustration with his disciples. “Faithless generation. How long do I have to remain with you?” Then they bring him the boy, and the boy goes into a fit immediately. The spirit recognises Jesus, and convulses the lad. And his father says, “Please, if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

“If you can”, says Jesus, quoting back part of the father’s request to him, then, “all things are possible for him who believes”. The father replies “I believe, help my unbelief”. The crowd by this point is quickly growing, with more and more people running to join them, and so Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, and sends him out of the boy. The boy cries out, collapses as though dead, and then Jesus lifts the boy up, and he is well.

Afterwards, when Jesus and the disciples have gone to a house somewhere, the disciples ask Jesus what went wrong- why they couldn’t heal the boy. Jesus replies that this kind can only come out by prayer.

2. Was there anything different about this demon?

Though there may well be many different demons, with different amounts of power, it is unlikely that Jesus is differentiating between demons here. Whether or not there are ranks within Satan’s kingdom, Jesus isn’t drawing distinctions between little demons and big demons. If so, Jesus would be saying that while some demons can only be driven out by prayer, other, weaker, demons can be driven out without calling on God at all. When Jesus says, “this kind”, it probably refers to all demons as a “kind”, a class. All demons can only be driven out by one stronger than they. Jesus can do it, and his disciples can do it- but only by his power. Without his power, no demons would be driven out. This sort of illness, this type of affliction, is demonic, and this kind only comes out by prayer, because only God can do it. Men might be able to shut the body down by medication, but only God can permanently drive the ghost from the body.

3 & 4. Why can’t the disciples cast it out? If the problem is their lack of faith, then what does lack of faith mean?

We can take it as read that the problem is a lack of faith. Jesus’ comment about a faithless generation includes the disciples, and has bearing on the reason why the disciples failed to get rid of the demon. So what does lack of faith mean? What is faith? If we say, “They should have had more faith”, what do we mean? Is faith something you can measure? And why would it help anyway?

Taking those questions together, think of it like this…

Once upon a time there was a man who owned a house. The man was planning to take a long trip overseas, and so he gave one of his friends the keys to the house, and asked the friend to take care of his house for him while he was away. He gave the friend authority over his house. The owner went away, and the caretaker had authority to use the house. If any burglars tried to get in, or anyone tried to vandalise the place, then the caretaker had been given the authority and responsibility to drive them out. He had the right and duty to drive intruders from this house, because the owner of the house had put him in charge.

Then let’s say that a group of local teenaged troublemakers come round and start to lob a few stones at the windows. The caretaker tries to scare them off, shouting “This is my friend’s house, and if you don’t clear off, I’ll break your arms”. He is a big strong man, and quite capable of breaking a few bones. But the teenagers are too many, and they have knives and baseball bats. The caretaker keeps shouting, “Go away. You can’t come in here.” But they break down the door, beat the caretaker to a pulp, and trash the house.

That is pretty much what has happened to the disciples here. They have been given authority over the evil spirits, but they don’t have the power to back that authority up. They need to rely on Jesus’ power. They are supposed to do things “in his name”, with his authority. In this episode, it appears that they have forgotten that. They try to command this spirit, and the spirit makes them look silly. They can’t throw him out of the child.

Now with the caretaker of the house. When the owner comes back, he will find his house ruined, and the caretaker lying on the floor, and he will say, “What has been going on here?” And the caretaker will say, “I couldn’t drive out the intruders, and they beat me up.”

How will the owner reply? “I’m really sorry about what has happened to you, but listen, when I told you to care for the house, I didn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for help. You should have called the police. Or you should have called me. I’d have come, and I’d have helped you.”

The disciples tried to go it alone. They got into trouble, and they didn’t call on the Lord. They didn’t have faith. This passage is all about faith and lack of faith. Faith is essentially the same thing as trust. The disciples should have trusted. They should have trusted not that the demon would come out, or that they would have the strength to do this- they should have trusted Jesus. During Jesus’ absence, self confidence has set in. They have begun to think that they have power in themselves to do things, without reference to God. This is a subtle form of unbelief.

5. Jesus links their lack of faith with lack of prayer. Why?

Had the disciples’ faith been in God- had they been looking to God to cast the demon out- they would have prayed that God would do the thing. This is why Jesus links their failure with lack of prayer. The reason that they could not cast the demon out was that “this kind comes out only by prayer”- they hadn’t prayed. Prayer is the spoken expression of faith. It is not something mechanical, not a set thing, where you kneel down, clasp your hands and make a little speech. Prayer is asking God to act. Those who have faith in God, who trust God, will pray to him. They wouldn’t be able not to pray to him. It just springs naturally from their trust in him.

The whole dialogue between Jesus and the father of the boy underlines the importance of faith, and Jesus’ final word in v 29 confirms it. Mark’s account is longer than his synoptic colleagues here because he records the dialogue between Jesus and the father of the child. And that conversation is all about faith. The father does have faith. He says he does, and his faith is demonstrated by the way he has acted. He has come looking for Jesus- he must have hope that Jesus can and will help him. Hope could not exist without some faith. He is willing to undertake the journey, trusting that Jesus will cast the demon out of his son. But the father recognises that he is part of the faithless generation, and he prays that Jesus would give him stronger trust, that he would come to trust Jesus more.

6. How does the passage follow on from the mountaintop experience of 9:1-13?

When looking at the earlier part of this chapter, we saw some striking similarities between the transfiguration, and the mountaintop experiences of Moses and Elijah.  Moses went up after 6 days, and the cloud descended on the top of the mountain. Elijah saw the proof that God was God on Carmel. Mark was comparing and contrasting those passages with the transfiguration. Jesus is more than just a prophet, more than just the founder of the nation of God. He is almighty God himself. Here, we have a further comparison.

What did Moses find when he came down from the mountain again? And when Elijah came down from Mount Carmel, what did he find?

Both of those men came down from their mountains to find a people who did not want to listen to them. Elijah came down to find Jezebel on the warpath, seeking to take his life. Moses came down to find Israel involved in idolatry- and even Aaron was up to his neck in it. Aaron should have been standing solidly with Moses, backing him up to the hilt. Aaron had gone through so many things with Moses- the two men had confronted Pharaoh together. But instead Israel had asked Aaron to make them gods, saying they didn’t know what had become of Moses (maybe this also has some bearing on the reason for the people’s amazement at Jesus’ presence in this passage), and Aaron had made for them the golden calf. They were worshipping it, and Aaron was their ringleader, saying “these are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32).

Jesus too comes down the mountain to find disobedient and faithless Israel. The scribes are grumbling against him as they always have. Opposition of the teachers (unique to Mark) is representative of the opposition of the religious establishment of Jesus’ day and the rebellion of Israel in Moses’ and Elijah’s days. When Jesus says, “O unbelieving generation”, it is reminiscent of earlier language in 8:12 and 8:38 with reference to those who deny Jesus, and it also harks back to Deuteronomy 32, when Moses sings to Israel about the dangers of faithlessness and prosperity.

But here, the disciples themselves are not immune from spiritual blindness. Even Jesus’ own disciples, like Aaron, have gone astray. They have set up for themselves golden calves. Not tangible ones, gleaming in the sunlight, but invisible ones in their hearts. They have stopped relying on God to do all things for them.

 7 & 8. What does this passage add to Mark’s book? How is it making a different point from other, similar, passages? How does the passage fit into the book as a whole?

Why is this passage here at all? Why doesn’t Mark just move straight on to the next geographical indicator in 9:30 and get going on the road to Jerusalem? We should know by now that Mark never wastes a word. He certainly wouldn’t waste half a chapter. Mark’s Gospel is a skilful composition, and none of the material is surplus. This is not just a repeat of earlier stuff- another miracle, another example of Jesus’ power over demons- another day, another dollar, another dip in the stock exchange. It has got to be different. So what is different about it? How exactly does it differ from other accounts of exorcism in Mark? What is Mark telling us here that he isn’t telling us elsewhere?

This miracle fits perfectly into this part of the book. We are at the end of the hinge section, the section on which the book turns. The second half of the book is getting underway. In the first half, Jesus has been shown to be the Messiah. In the second half, we’ll see how the Messiah must die and after three days, be raised to life.

We have several developing themes in the section from 8:27 to 10:52. First is the suffering of Jesus. Second, and linked to the first, is the nature of Christian discipleship- if Jesus is going to suffer and die, then his disciples can’t expect an easy ride. Third is the inability (unwillingness?) of the disciples to grasp either of the above. Jesus has said that he is going to die. The disciples haven’t understood, can’t understand, or won’t understand. They believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, but they don’t trust him enough to believe his words about his own death and to alter their mindsets accordingly. If the Lord is going to suffer and die, then following him is about suffering and death. It is about laying down your life and serving others. Jesus has explicitly told these men that they have to be ready to take up their crosses and lose their lives. The disciples don’t want to do that. They want to sit at his right hand and enjoy positions of power and influence.

This episode further develops all of those themes. The disciples are like the boy’s father- they believe and yet they don’t believe. They believe that Jesus is the Christ, but they don’t believe that Jesus must die before he can reign. Jesus is like the boy- look again at vs 26-27. This is a death and resurrection. To all intents and purposes, the child is dead. He is described as being like he was dead, and most of the crowd think that he is dead.

Jesus aims to defeat Satan at work in this lad, but when he issues a command to the spirit, the boy (apparently) dies. Only then does Jesus take him by the hand and raise him up. The language is exactly that which Jesus has used of himself. Only after the boy has “died” is he raised up to health and wholeness. This is an example of the way evil is defeated- through death and resurrection.

 9. How can we apply these things?

Even those already trusting Jesus, and already in God’s kingdom- and if the disciples weren’t, then who was?- need to trust constantly. This would be a vital lesson for the churches to whom Mark was writing, and it’s no less vital for us. Mark’s readers were facing life in a fallen world. They were surrounded by enemies. They felt Satan’s power as a daily reality. And they needed to be reminded not to deal with things in their own strength, but to rely on God. And that meant prayer.

 “How long will I be with you?” isn’t just an expression of annoyance or disgust. Jesus is anticipating a time when he will be with his disciples no longer- not bodily at any rate. His body will be in heaven. In this passage, it is as though Jesus has been in heaven for a while, leaving the disciples in the valley. We’re now back in the earthly sphere. After a glimpse of heaven, we’re back on the cursed earth. But Jesus knows he won’t be on earth forever.

Jesus asks “How long will I be with you” to underline this. The disciples still need him to be with them. They need Jesus to stay with them for a while, and keep teaching them. But there will come a time when Jesus leaves them, and sends them his Holy Spirit as another comforter. When that time comes, Jesus’ disciples won’t need his help any less than they did before, but they’ll receive that help in a different way. After the ascension, Jesus followers are called to a life of unremitting battle against evil, and they need to trust him. Jesus’ disciples are expected to keep trusting him even when he isn’t with them bodily- this was true for the 12, and true for the early church to whom Mark wrote, and true for us also. The 12 are to keep obeying him, keep using the gifts they’ve been given, and keep trusting him and looking to him.

Mark’s readers had grown up. They knew that Jesus had ascended to heaven, and was ruling from there. He had promised to be with them, but they wouldn’t see him walking around bodily any more. They needed this reminder to trust Jesus.

So it is for us. We still live in a fallen world. We face situations which seem difficult or impossible- closing churches, believers who won’t be reconciled to one another, times when God seems distant and we feel dry and exhausted.

We must serve Jesus Christ and obey him and fight against the world the flesh, and the devil. We have enemies within and without. The world is a dark and nasty place, and our hearts are dark and nasty places too. But Jesus’ power and glory are properly seen in the lives of his disciples now, and in the life of his church. We need to trust, and if we are trusting, then we will pray.

It is easy for us to stop trusting. We serve in our churches, we go to meetings and do things- and it is easy for our activites to become empty. We can busily attend services, go to the prayer meeting, run children’s clubs, teach Sunday School, and do it without a conscious dependence on God. Do we forget to pray before our services? We know in our heads that no matter what the preacher says, it will be useless unless God is among us, at work by his Spirit. Do we act upon that knowledge? Do we pray that God will change us, rebuke us, correct us, remake us, by his word?

Most of us have teens’ clubs of one sort or another at our churches. Is this just another routine? We know that it is all a waste of energy unless God works- so do we pray for the conversion of unbelievers who come as hard as we plan the schedule for the evening?

And is our prayerlessness a symptom of our disobedience? Unwillingness to accept pain and hardship for Jesus’ sake leads us to turn our backs on God. We can’t do it as blatantly as the Israelites did it at Sinai. We know better than that. So instead we crowd God out with other things. We get onto the treadmill of constant events and keep running.

Do we indulge secret sins? Are there things we know we ought to do, but don’t want to? Sacrifices we know we ought to make?

Those things lead to prayerlessness. How can you ask your father for good things, when you know you’re not acting like an obedient son?

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