Moving from a glorious mountain-top ecstasy to the despairing valley of his disciples’ faithlessness, Jesus experiences a range of emotions. To experience bodily transfiguration, conversation with Elijah and Moses, and hear the voice of his delighted Father was a great delight (Mark 9:2-8), but to come down the mountain to hear his disciples arguing with religious leaders, learn of their failure of faith, and be confronted with a victorious demon was depressing. Jesus moves from confident hope to lament. Yes, though he will die, he is assured of resurrection, but will faith survive among his disciples?
We all have those moments (though perhaps not with these extremes)—moments when we have experienced God in such real ways only to encounter something the next day that totally discourages us. There are times when the reality of God is so vivid in our minds that our hearts soar but there are also those times when our hearts groan over the brokenness in the world. Jesus empathizes with us; he knows how we feel because his emotions have ranged between those two poles as well.
When Jesus, Peter, James and John finally came across the other disciples, they found teachers of the law questioning them in the middle of a large crowd. It must have been quite a commotion, and the occasion provided the scribes with an opportunity to question the kingdom mission of the disciples.
Jesus gave the disciples authority over demons as they announced that the “kingdom of God is near” and healed the broken (Mark 3:15; 6:6b-13). They had previously driven out many demons, but now—at the foot of Mt. Hermon, in the region of Caesarea Philippi, where pagan religious sites abounded—they had failed. They were incapable of casting out this demon. Their kingdom ministry was now in doubt. The crowds wondered, the scribes questioned, the broken wept, the demon reigned, and the disciples were befuddled.
The appearance of Jesus, however, changes the scene. The crowd excitedly runs to greet him. They are amazed by his presence, but nothing in the text tells us why. Perhaps they anticipate what Jesus might do to “fix” the situation. They welcome him as if he will settle the doubts now enveloping his kingdom ministry.
The problem, voiced by the father of the child, is that a demon afflicts a young man. From his childhood, this demon has muted him and thrown him into epileptic-like seizures. Mark provides significant details about this demon possession. The father describes his seizures (foaming at the mouth, gnashing his teeth and becoming rigid, Mark 9:18). When the demon sees Jesus, he throws him into a convulsion (rolling on the ground and foaming at the mouth, Mark 9:20). When Jesus asks how long has the demon possessed him, the father elaborates that his son is often endangered by being thrown into fire or water (Mark 9:22). Mark stresses the extreme nature of this case: length of time (“from childhood”), seizures, risks, and inability to speak. The demon reigns over this young man. Satan is winning.
The kingdom of God is at risk through the failure of the disciples. Jesus locates the failure in the disciples, specifically their faith. His lament is dramatic: “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” This language is revealing. Jesus weeps over this failure and what that failure represents about the reality of the world in which he ministers. Jesus is grieved, just as God grieved over Israel (Isaiah 63:8-10). Jesus laments with God.
Faith is an important theme in Mark. The message Jesus heralds is “repent and believe the gospel,” that is, believe the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived (Mark 1:15). The presence of faith or unbelief has been critical in some of Jesus’ healings (Mark 2:5; 5:34, 35; 6:6). Jesus has, on occasion, questioned the faith of his disciples (Mark 4:40) and been amazed at the faith of others (Mark 7:29).
Jesus sees himself as the kingdom prophet who lives among a faithless people. He endures their faithlessness. Perhaps this is directed toward the crowd and the scribes as well as the disciples, but the disciples are the focus of the text. It is their failure that occasioned this crisis and this lament.
But Jesus will not let this stand. The kingdom cannot remain at risk and demons must not rule in the presence of the King. He commands that the young man be brought to him: “bring him to me!” Jesus will act; he will redeem and heal. The reign of God will defeat the reign of Satan. Jesus rebuked the demon: “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again!” The authority, sureness and finality of his words are stunning. The kingdom of God reigns.
In fact, Mark’s description of the healing is practically a dramatic anticipation of the resurrection of Jesus himself. In the passion and death of Jesus, it appears that the demons win, but in the resurrection of Jesus the demons shriek and convulse but release Jesus from the grave. Just as the young appeared dead but was raised to his feet by Jesus, so Jesus, though dead, is raised to life. The kingdom of God reigns.
Between the lament and healing, however, is a revealing exchange between Jesus and the child’s father. The father appeals for help but it is tinged with uncertainty. “If you can…,” he hesitantly asks. “If you can?” Jesus responds. I don’t think Jesus is insulted by this father’s halting request. It has been conditioned by the faithlessness of the disciples and the apparent victory of the demon. It is difficult to fault the father in this situation. Rather, Jesus faults the situation.
The brokenness of the world fogs faith in; we can’t see clearly. Darkness blinds us to the light and faith cracks under the burden of hurt and pain. The father, weeping for his son and living in despair, reaches out for any possibility or any remedy. Jesus recognizes that faith has been crowded out by suffering.
But faith is the key. Faith releases kingdom power. “Everything is possible for him who believes,” Jesus says. Faith opens doors that are otherwise closed. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world, defeats the demons and heals the broken.
The father confesses faith but humbly acknowledges his doubts. Faith is never perfect; it is always a mixture of doubt. But imperfect faith is sufficient. The kingdom of God does not come through perfection but through faith—even a weak, doubting one. The power does not reside in faith but in the God who responds to our faith. The father’s son is healed even though he confesses, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Once in private, as they had done on occasions previously (Mark 4:10; 7:17), the disciples asked for an explanation, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” We might imagine that the disciples experienced a number of emotions in this scenario. They were probably frustrated, confused, embarrassed, and discouraged. What happened? What had gone wrong? They had done it before but now they could not.
Jesus’ answer is simple but profound: “This kind can come out only by prayer.” I wonder how the disciples heard that answer. Did they think, “We prayed!”? Or, perhaps they did not pray. Whatever their actions, prayer is the reason.
The point is probably not whether they actually articulated words to God or not. Rather, it is about the faith of prayer itself. It is about reliance on the power of God to reign in the world rather than self-reliance. Perhaps the disciples thought that they had been given authority and they could act on their own power or that that power was under their control. They simply had to wield it.
The answer “prayer” reminds us that God is the one who must act and kingdom ministry relies upon God’s power and not our own. Prayer expresses dependence upon God and apparently the disciples had forgotten that. Ministry can do that to us sometimes—we begin to think we are the center, focus and heart of kingdom life. We begin to think too highly of ourselves and we forget about “prayer.”
May God have mercy on us in our failures and remind us to depend on the power of the Spirit in our kingdom ministries.