The context of Jesus’ statement in Mark 9 is that the three disciples who were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration have come down from that glorious experience, and they find a boy who has been under some deep oppression by the Evil One. The other disciples have not been able to do anything about it.
Jesus is saying in that context: “I have commissioned you to do this. This is to be your ministry, but you don’t have the power or authority to do this simply because I’ve commissioned you to do it. You can only do this through prayerful dependence upon God.” So, Jesus is emphasizing to them the danger of thinking that because God has called you to a certain kind of ministry, you are, therefore, simply by that call, enabled to fulfill that ministry. You can fulfill that ministry only by constant dependence on the Lord and prayer to Him.
I think there is another element of it, although I’m not as certain of this as what I’ve just said. Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Many will come to Me on the last day, expecting entry into the kingdom of heaven and saying, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we do many mighty works in your name? Didn’t we cast out demons in your name?’ And I will say to them, ‘Depart from me; I never knew you’” (Matt. 7:21–23). That seems to imply something like when Moses showed works of power in Pharaoh’s presence, and Pharaoh brought magicians up who could do the same thing. Of course, the magicians were constantly defeated, but they seemed to be able to work the same miracles by their tricks. I think Jesus is saying that it would beggar belief in what human beings are capable of doing, particularly things that might seem like evidences of the presence and power of God and the gospel. However, Jesus is saying, “People have extraordinary abilities, but do not be deceived.”
We see this today. I’ve seen people doing things on television and I think, “It would be pretty neat to be able to do that.” I remember thinking that on one occasion, and then the next program was a stage hypnotist who was doing exactly the same thing as the impressive “spiritual leader” who awed people. In this text, Jesus is saying that people can do pretend things and false things, but for a boy like the one in Mark 9, there needs to be absolute dependence on God for lasting deliverance to come. So, there is a particular lesson about the casting out of demons.
There is also a general lesson in this text that’s applicable to all of us, whatever our gifts are. Sometimes people can be quite forward to those of us who are ministers and say, “My gift is this.” This text is a real reminder to us that maybe the Lord Jesus is saying: “There’s something more important than thinking you have a gift. The real question whether you are depending on Me in order to exercise that gift.” So, this particular situation has widespread application to us as Christians.
This transcript is from an Ask Ligonier Podcast session with Sinclair Ferguson and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.