Mark 9:14-29

Small Faith, Big God

Jesus and his small group of disciples return from their mountaintop excursion to find the remaining disciples engaged in an argument with the Jewish religious leadership over the disciples’ inability to cast out a demon.  But as we will see this passage is not about the disciples’ failures or the pervasive presence of demonic forces; this is a passage about faith.  Jesus rebukes those listening to him, crying out “O faithless generation.”  He tells the boy’s father that all things are possible for those with faith.  The father says he has some faith but asks for help for his lack of faith.  And finally, Jesus tells his disciples that prayer (an act of faith) is necessary to perform this kind of spiritual work.  In the end, we see that this father has small faith in a big God and the result is that his son is healed.

#1 The inadequacy of the disciples is exposed while Jesus is away.

14And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18And 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.”  Mark 9:14-18

While Jesus was away with Peter, James, and John, we see that the rest of the disciples were continuing the work Jesus’ had given them to do (c.f. Mark 3:14-15).  A desperate father seeks Jesus but when it is discovered that he is away, he takes his ailing son to his disciples instead.  The father reports that his son has a “spirit” which has tormented him from his childhood.  Based on the list of symptoms this demonic oppression might be diagnosed as some form of epilepsy today.  Indeed, in Matthew’s account (c.f Matthew 17:15) the boy is described as being “epileptic.” Jesus’ response is the same in both accounts: a demon is cast out of the boy.  So we see here that the demonic can manifest itself in various ways including a medical condition.

This father’s request exposed the inadequacy of the disciples.  They attempt to cast out the demon but are unable.  This must have been surprising given their previous “success” in this area (c.f. Mark 6:13).  To make matters worse the Jewish scribes witness this public ministry failure and take issue with the disciples.  While Mark does not record the substance of this argument, it is certainly possible that the scribes were using the situation to discredit not only the disciples but the ministry of Jesus himself.

#2 The real problem is not the presence of evil but the absence of faith.

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.”  Mark 9:19

Jesus’ response to hearing about the demonic oppression is not to rebuke the evil spirit but to rebuke the “faithless generation.”  In other words, the real problem here is not the presence of evil but the absence of faith.  We might wonder to whom exactly Jesus is directing these words.  Is he addressing the disciples who were unable to cast out the demon?  Is he addressing the boy’s father?  Or was it the crowd or the scribes?  Mark does not make this clear though it would seem these words could be addressed to all of these groups of people.  This is not only a rebuke but also comes across as a lament.  “How long” Jesus asks “am I to be with you?”  Where is your faith?

#3 Things got worse before they got better.

20And 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. 21And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. Mark 9:20-22a

The boy is brought to Jesus and immediately the evil spirit seizes him causing him to fall to the ground.  What was it that brought about this spiritual attack?  Well, it was the presence of Jesus.  Yes, Jesus comes to bring peace but often before that peace comes conflict (c.f. Matthew 10:34-39).  As Good Friday comes before Resurrection Sunday, so the path to spiritual healing often initially makes this worse before it makes things better.  Notice as well that when Jesus does cast out the demon (v.26) the boy actually appears to be dead.  There must have been some in the crowd who were initially questioning what good it did to bring the boy to Jesus in the first place.  If we are serious about submitting all things to Jesus, we must recognize that sometimes that means our situation will become more dark before the light of the Lord brings about restoration.

#4 The boy is healed through small faith in a big God.

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25And 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.” 26And 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.” 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.   Mark 9:22b-27

The father does not question whether or not Jesus is compassionate but rather his ability to bring about healing.  He addresses Jesus, saying “if you can, have compassion.”  Or to put it another way, he does not question the willingness of Jesus but the ability of Jesus.  Remember the leper we encountered back in chapter one made the opposite assumption of Jesus not questioning his ability but rather his willingness (c.f. Mark 1:40).

From a purely human perspective we can understand where the father is coming from.  It seems likely that he has exhausted himself trying to find a cure for his son.  Where else has this father gone to seek relief?  What else has he done?  When he finally makes his way to Jesus, he is met instead by his disciples who prove ineffective.  The longer we live with a particular condition, the more apt we are to be accept it as a “fact of life.”  Over time we give up seeking help.  We come to believe that there will never be an end to our trouble and that nothing will ever help.

Jesus repeats the man’s words back to him — “if you can” and then offers an astounding promise “all things are possible for one who believes.”  The man recognizes the inadequacy of his faith and cries out “I believe; help my unbelief.”  One commentator describes it this way: “he risks everything on what little faith he has…[and] yields his insufficiency to the true sufficiency of Jesus.”

This exchange provides us with a picture of what biblical faith is about.  First, we must understand that as the Bible presents it, there is no inherent value in faith itself.  That someone has faith means nothing.  What matters is the object of our faith.   We all have faith in something.  The faith that matters is faith in God.

Further, faith is not a vague hope in the midst of our difficulties that things will be okay.  Nor is faith a matter of ignoring what is going on around us and moving ahead as if everything is just fine.  Faith is looking to Jesus in the midst of our circumstances.  It is taking what I know to be true about God and seeing my situation in light of that truth.  Faith means a willingness to live based on what I know to be true of God and his Word and trusting that He will not forsake me.

What should strike us about this man’s faith, is that he does not seem to have a lot of it.  But again the issue is not the strength of our faith but the object of our faith.  Jesus’ sufficiency is more than enough to cover our insufficiency.  Jesus commands the evil spirit to come out and stay out of the boy.  He takes him by the hand and the boy arises.

#5 Prayer is the means by which we lay hold of the power of heaven.

28And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”  Mark 9:28-29

The disciples are puzzled.  We don’t know exactly what the disciples were thinking but if I were in their shoes I would be thinking to myself: Jesus, you did give us authority over the unclean spirits right?  And you did send us out to do this very thing, didn’t you?  And in the past we’ve been successful in exercising this authority, weren’t we?  So what happened?  What did we fail to do?

We see here that Jesus gives this disciples more than they can handle on their own.  They are given things to do that exceed their ability.  The disciples are confronted, therefore, with their own inadequacy.  Certainly they must concluded along with Paul that “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Corinthians 4:7).”

And so how are the disciples to access that power to cast out demons?  Jesus says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”  Prayer, which is an act of faith, is the means by which they (and we) lay hold of the power of heaven.

Discussion Questions

  1. What happened while Jesus and three of his disciples were away on the mountaintop?  (Recount the basic flow of events in this passage.)
  2. What do you suppose the disciples and the scribes were arguing about?
  3. What do you think this experience was like for the disciples?  What might they have been feeling and thinking?
  4. What do we know about this father and his son?  What do you think their life was like up until this time?
  5. In what ways is this dad a model for other dads in bringing their children to Jesus?
  6. Why do you think Jesus says “O faithless generation?”  Who is he talking to?  Of all the things that are wrong with the generation why highlight the lack of faith?
  7. Upon seeing Jesus the spirit threw the boy to the ground.  Things got worse before they got better.  Why is it important for us to remember this principle that in spiritual healing sometimes things get worse before they get better?
  8. In what ways does the father demonstrate a lack of faith?  In what ways does he demonstrate faith?  Can you relate to this father in any way?
  9. Explain the promise Jesus makes in verse 23.  How should this promise shape our prayer lives?
  10. What do you think Jesus meant when he said in (v.29) “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”  How are prayer and faith related?
  11. How would your life be different if you were more consistent in living your life based on what you know to be true about God?  What issues might go away if you were really convinced that He will never abandon you?
  12. What is one thing you want to be sure to remember from this passage?


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