I BELIEVE; HELP MY UNBELIEF!
I want to begin by reminding you that over the past two weeks we have climbed to new heights in the Gospel of Mark. On June 9, Brian preached to us about Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ in chapter 8. This was the answer to the major question of the first half of the Gospel: “Who is this Jesus?” And last week Joe preached to us about Jesus’ transfiguration from the first part of chapter 9, where Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of Jesus in his glory from a mountaintop. They saw that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament expectations, surpassing even Moses and Elijah. God the Father gave his divine seal of approval, audibly commanding attention to his beloved Son. From these two climactic passages in the Gospel you might say that everything now is heading downhill toward Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, rejection, denial, forsaking, and execution. This Messiah is on his way to be crucified. As he goes up toward Jerusalem he is actually heading down toward the grave. And yet this is the path that will take him to his highest glory. He will defeat death, making atonement for sins and bringing salvation to his people. He will rise from the dead and the disciples will see that his majesty on the mountain was only a preview of the glory of God’s crucified, resurrected, and exalted Son.
So we have reached a turning point in Mark. We are shifting from mainly asking who this Jesus is to asking what this Messiah of God came to accomplish: How does he actually usher in the kingdom of God? And if you forget, Jesus is going to keep reminding us that he came to suffer, die, and rise again. He said it in chapter 8, and he is going to tell us again in 9 and again in 10. If nothing else is clear to you from this book, it should be apparent that Jesus came in order to go to the cross.
In our passage today we have one of the last miracles recorded in Mark. After this, Jesus heals a blind man named Bartimaeus. And that’s it. He curses a fig tree near Jerusalem, but that probably should be placed in a slightly different category. We have seen that the miracles Jesus does are signs that bear witness to his identity as the Christ and confirm his message that the kingdom of God is at hand. Remember that the miracles themselves are not the main thing of Jesus’ ministry; his message is. And as we are increasingly seeing, his message is about himself: that he came to give his life as a ransom for many. If you are to be a disciple, you have to embrace that message, and you have to embrace the Christ who proclaimed and lived it. If you try to follow Jesus apart from that message, you are following a figment of your imagination that will only lead to your own destruction.
Today’s miracle has some important words for us about being a disciple of Jesus. And there are three things I want you to see in this text.
1. The Embarrassingly Public Failure of the Disciples
What Jesus encounters when he comes down from the mountain with Peter, James, and John is slightly reminiscent of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai after meeting with God, only to find rebellion in the camp and a golden calf—an idol. This incident in Mark reminds us of that because the divine glory on the mountain is in such great contrast with what is going on down on the ground. Jesus comes back to find a huge crowd, and at the center are the scribes, arguing with the rest of the disciples. So in verse 16 he asks the scribes, “What are you arguing about with them?” Then the man steps forward from the crowd and says (v. 17), “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.”
There we have the situation. This man’s son has been regularly terrorized by this demon. He has probably heard the reports about Jesus casting out demons, so he brings him to him. But when he gets there, Jesus is nowhere to be found. There are only some of his disciples there. But they are Jesus’ disciples, after all. They should be able also to cast out the demon like their Teacher, shouldn’t they?
There is nothing new or unusual about this man’s request. Just think back through the Gospel. Jesus cast out an unclean spirit from a man in a synagogue in chapter 1. In chapter 5, he cast out an entire legion of them from the man who lived among the tombs. And in chapter 7, he cast out a demon from the Syrophonecian woman’s little girl. Casting out demons has been a regular part of Jesus’ ministry. At times, such as in 1:39, Jesus’ ministry has been summed up by two things: preaching and casting out demons. It is the very object of controversy that the scribes in chapter 3 had accused Jesus of being in league with Satan over.
And not only is this something that Jesus has done, but he gave his disciples authority to cast out demons also. In 3:14-15 it says that Jesus would send out these disciples “to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.” Then in 6:7 it says that Jesus “began to send [the twelve disciples] out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” And verses 12 and 13 tell what they did: “So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” So there is nothing new about this for the disciples either. They had cast out demons before, and they had even done it away from the presence of Jesus.
What is new about this miracle is the stunning, public, failure of the disciples. There is no way around it. They had utterly failed in the very thing Jesus had commissioned them to do. This, by the way, I am sure gave the scribes that much more reason to set themselves against Jesus. The disciples tried to cast out the demon, but nothing happened. They were not able to. They had no power. It was a failure. Peter is probably relieved that he wasn’t part of this one, after he had just recently rebuked Jesus for saying he would go to the cross, prompting Jesus to say, “Get behind me, Satan!”
And we have to remember that we too are a lot like the disciples. Just look at the church throughout her history. You have the church Martin Luther knew, caught up with making money as a way of paying for sins and saying that faith alone in Christ cannot justify a sinner before God. Or you have the failure that is the most well-known and well-cited by the world. That is the failure of the church in the crusades, where they sought to reclaim the Jewish Holy Land by military conquest. Jesus didn’t command that.
But this is true on a personal level too. Think of the failures you have had in ministering to brother or sister in Christ. Or in evangelism. Or in your marriage and family. Or in simply living as a Christian in this world. I can think of failures in several of those areas in my own life just this past week.
And let’s look at the response Jesus gives to all those who are in his hearing. Verse 19: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” You see, the failure of the disciples is just a symptom of the faithlessness of the whole world, which is here exemplified by the scribes. God said to Moses in Numbers 14:11, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” And in Deuteronomy 32:20, he says, “I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.” Jesus is frustrated over unbelief, which is a description of the condition of every human being until and unless God supernaturally changes it by giving his saving grace. If you find yourself today to be faithless—to be doubting rather than trusting in Jesus—cry out to God, for you are lost until he gives you the divine gift of faith.
But what about you, fellow believer? There is a word for you here: Don’t despair over your failures. You have failed, perhaps even greatly. Reading a passage like this might cause you to rehearse one of your own failures in your mind. And the hard reality is that you will fail again. These disciples were publicly humiliated before a great crowd and religious leaders. But this wasn’t the end of the story for them. They already have and they will again one day do many mighty works in the name of Jesus, as we read about in the book of Acts. But even more immediately, notice that Jesus comes and cleans up after them. This is why at the end of verse 19 he commands: “Bring him to me.” And after doing what they had failed to do by casting out the demon, later when they are away from the crowds, Jesus instructs his disciples. Remember who our Savior is. He is extremely gracious. He is not unaware of your weaknesses and temptations. He has been here. He has walked among sinful men. And if you are his, he will bear graciously with you too when you fail.
So we have the embarrassingly public failure of the disciples.
2. The Compassionate Authority of God’s Messiah
It becomes apparent from the moment Jesus arrives on the scene that someone unique is there. Verse 15 describes this: “And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him.” Remember that Peter and James and John were with Jesus. But there is not a word about them. The crowd knows whose presence really matters. Everything changes when Jesus is there. He carries with him a very noticeable authority, and people are aware of it. They may not be believing in him, but what they are witnessing is that this is no mere man. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, without beginning and without end. He came and did what is beyond our comprehension not by giving up his deity, but by taking on humanity. He became a man. And when Jesus goes somewhere, he carries in his person the authority of God.
This is why you can’t ignore Jesus. You can hate him and reject him and seek to destroy him like the scribes. Or you can, like the disciples, count everything else as loss in order to follow him. The choice is yours. But the one thing you can’t do with any honesty and integrity is ignore him. Not someone with such obvious authority.
This authority is what distinguished Jesus from the scribes. 1:22 records that the people “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes recognized Jesus’ authority, even though they constantly sought to challenge it.
Furthermore, every demon in the Gospel of Mark recognized Jesus’ authority. These beings are evil, but they aren’t so stupid as to disregard him. Remember what Mark writes in 3:11, “And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”” No demon can try to stand before Jesus.
And it really is the demon here that interacts with Jesus more than the boy. This boy has no mere medical problem, though there are clear medical effects from the demon. Look at verse 20: “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.” In verse 22 the father describes how this demon has been seeking to destroy the boy: “And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.” This is always the case with demons. They are always seeking to do evil and destroy people and the work of God. Some people play around with demons thinking they can use these spirits for their own power and success. But really they play themselves into the hands of evil and unclean spirits who are working deceitfully to destroy them. This demon is seeking to bring upon this boy injury or even death.
But Jesus is just the opposite. Even though the demon is powerful—too powerful for the disciples—it is no match for Jesus. Jesus uses his unsurpassed authority with compassion, as he so often does, and in verse 25 it says, “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.”” Jesus permanently frees this boy from his bondage.
And the process is quite traumatic. Look at verse 26: “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.”” And with this boy who appears as though dead, Jesus will once again display (as he did with the little girl in 5:41-42) his authority over death. He will provide a picture of own death and resurrection that are quickly approaching. Verse 27 reads: “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”” This is what Jesus himself will go through, but on an infinitely greater scale. He will suffer terribly, but for the sins of his people. He will die. And death will not be able to hold him, so will rise to life.
Even as he has already been telling us, this is the call for his disciples. If they want to rise with Christ, they too must die. So it is for us. If we want the authoritative hand of Jesus to take our dead hand and raise us up to eternal life, we too must die. We must die to our pride and our efforts to save ourselves. We must die to our sinful desires and pursuits. We must die to the right to have authority over our lives. In Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
That is the compassionate authority of God’s Messiah, most fully displayed in his dying in the place of sinners and rising from the dead. So far we have seen the embarrassingly public failure of the disciples and the compassionate authority of God’s Messiah.
3. Praying in Faith Is the Key that Unlocks the Power of God
When they were finally away from the crowds and alone with Jesus in the house, verse 28 says that the disciples asked Jesus privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And his answer was in verse 29: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Prayer. Jesus hasn’t directly admonished his disciples in regard to prayer up to this point in the Gospel. We have seen Jesus praying (at night, and on a mountain) but Mark has recorded no instruction for them on prayer. Until now. When the disciples come to him, with the question, “What did we do wrong?”, Jesus says to them that this kind—these unclean spirits—cannot be driven out by anything but prayer. That is, you cannot drive out demons in human strength. Just try it. And prayer must be coupled with faith. If not, there will be no power. Just consider when the seven Jewish sons of Sceva tried to cast our evil spirits in the name of Jesus apart from praying by faith in him, it says in Acts 19:16 that “the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.” There no automatic power in Jesus’ name. There has to be prayer and faith.
Why do I say prayer and faith? I do because these are the two things Jesus mentions in regard to this failure to cast out the demon. In verse 19 he says, “O faithless generation.” In verse 23, he says, “All things are possible for one who believes.” In verse 29 he says you need prayer. This fits with his later teaching on prayer. Listen to Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” This is how faith is expressed toward God: in prayer.
Now this is not some sort of generic faith, nor is it generic prayer. I am not talking about the kind of prayer where you say, “O God, I am in a bind and have run out of options. Please help me!” And then you forget about him until the next crisis. That is the kind of prayer offered up by people who don’t know God, and it is an insult and an abomination to him. No, I am talking about real prayer in the attitude of, “I have no hope apart from Christ. Thank you Father for sending him to die in my place. He is my very life.” This is the kind of prayer offered by the person who has the Spirit of God dwelling in him, who trusts God and seeks him hour by hour. Let us have that kind of faith, where we read God’s Word and meditate on it throughout the day, and it is constantly moving us to prayer.
The faith we are talking about is faith in Jesus Christ, and it is prayer to God through Christ. Trusting in Jesus, who died for your sins, is the only way that you, a sinner, can have a relationship with and fellowship with God. Otherwise you can have no prayer. But when you are relying upon Jesus and your requests are submitted to his authority and you pray, your prayers unleash the power of God. This is why Jesus can say that “all things” are possible for one who believes. It is because when you pray in faith, you are praying to a God whose power has no limits. There is no evil force, no person, no obstacle, that is too powerful for God. When you are praying in faith you access his power. And this is what real faith will do. It will turn you to God in prayer.
And lest we think of this in abstract terms, we have a live example right here in our passage: the father of the boy. He clearly is struggling in faith when he says to Jesus in verse 22, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” But when Jesus strongly corrects him and presses him further, we find that there is faith there. He says these famous words that capture so much of the paradox of the Christian life: “I believe; help my unbelief!” This is the plea of a man with imperfect faith. He has faith, but he also wrestles with doubts. Yet he is aware of his unbelief and owns it. He does not wallow in the weakness of his faith, but in an act of faith he cries out to Jesus for help.
Brothers and sisters, there is much encouragement for us here. Notice that while this man’s faith was imperfect it was real faith. And in spite of his doubts, Jesus still granted his request and cast the demon out of his son. At times, faith is going to be a struggle for you too. You are going to have hard days and even seasons where your faith is weak. Some of you might be there today.
But take hear. We have one we can go to—the only one—with perfect faith, and that is Jesus. If you recognize your doubt and confess it before God and ask and plead with him for help, this is a prayer that he has every good reason to answer. When you see your own inadequacy and the weakness of your faith, instead of despairing and becoming depressed, let it drive you to prayer. If you see someone else struggling in faith, say, “Can I pray with you,” and then do it right then and there.
And as you seek to do ministry like the disciples did, remember that there is no place for pride or self-driven efforts. You have no authority of your own. Jesus is the one with authority, and prayer is the way that you will acknowledge that before him. Praying in faith is the key that will unlock the power of God. We desperately need the power of God. We need it to increase our faith, to overcome sin and temptation, to speak and act boldly according to the truth of God, to see sinners come to Christ, and we need it to live faithfully in the midst of this faithless generation. Would you let your prayer be the same as this man who saw his need so greatly: “I believe; help my unbelief!”