When a father asked Jesus’ disciples to heal his son, they failed in their ministry. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Mark by examining the dependence of the disciples—and ourselves—upon the power of Christ.
We’re going to read Mark 9:14 and following, and I’d ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?”
Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”
He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.
So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief?”
When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.
And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”
So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let them hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Again, O Lord, our hearts are filled with joy when we hear this account of the compassionate touch of Jesus. We pray that though this event that is recorded for our edification took place so many centuries ago, that in the hearing of it, we may have our faith increased and our trust in Him strengthened. For we ask these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.
The Fulfillment of Elijah’s Mission
Before I turn my attention to the verses that I’ve just read to you, I need to tidy up a few loose ends from our last visit to Mark’s gospel, where we had the account of the glorious transfiguration of Jesus that took place in the presence of His inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John. With the time constraints when we looked at that, I didn’t go over the last few verses of the narrative, which I want to cover quickly before we press ahead.
We read in verse 9 of chapter 9:
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.
And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
Then He answered and told them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9:9–13)
After Elijah had appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses, which was an astonishing thing for the disciples to behold, and they began to come down from the mountain, this question of the role of Elijah in the coming kingdom of God was in the forefront of the disciples’ thoughts. They asked, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah has to come before all of these things take place?”
We remember that in the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, in the very last prophecy that is uttered there, Malachi says that before the day of the Lord, the Messiah would be preceded by Elijah. For centuries, the Jewish community waited for Elijah, knowing that his appearance or re-appearance would be the harbinger of the kingdom of God breaking through and the appearance of their Messiah. The scribes also believed that Elijah would lead the people into a spirit of repentance, and finally, that Elijah himself would anoint the Messiah for His Messianic vocation.
So, three things were expected: one, that Elijah would come; two, that he would lead the people to repentance; and three, that he would personally anoint the Messiah. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear that John the Baptist fulfilled the role of that prophecy, that John came in the spirit and in the power of Elijah. Our Lord said, “If you can handle it,” referring to John the Baptist, “this is Elijah who was to come.” John came before Jesus, as Elijah was to come before the Messiah. John’s mission was to direct the people to repentance from their sin, again fulfilling the mission of Elijah. Finally, it was John the Baptist who anointed Jesus in the Jordan River that began Jesus’ public ministry as the Messiah, so that all three expectations attributed to Elijah were in fact fulfilled in the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist who came in the power and in the spirit of Elijah.
Jesus reminded His disciples in this last statement, “I say to you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they wished.” This indicated that the affliction suffered by John the Baptist was a sign that the fulfillment of the suffering Messiah was coming. That’s the context in which our narrative picks up.
The Exacerbation of a Natural Affliction
Mark says, “And when He came to the disciples…” Remember, He had been apart from the rest of the disciples, just with the three. As they come down from the mountain, He rejoins the rest of His disciples. When He joins them, He finds them involved in an argument or dispute with the scribes. He says to the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?”—that is, with the disciples.
One of the crowd answers: “Teacher, I brought you my son, who has a mute spirit. Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples if they could cast it out, but they could not.” The point of the discussion was the impotence of the disciples of Jesus to manifest the power that Jesus Himself was able to manifest, particularly with respect to ministering to this boy, who suffered from the demon possession that is described.
Just as a little parenthesis, one of the reasons modern critics reject the testimony of the Bible is because they say the biblical authors ascribed to Satan things that we know can be simply explained by natural science and natural problems. The description of this boy’s malady fits perfectly with grand mal seizures associated with severe forms of epilepsy. So, the critics say: “This young boy was not possessed by a demon. He was suffering simply from a natural disease that we know now to be epilepsy.” Let me just say that this intersection and interaction between the demonic world and the natural fallen world with its afflictions is one that we need to understand with some care.
I remember the day when the President of the United States was assassinated, allegedly by Lee Harvey Oswald. Immediately following the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, I noticed that the news commentators constantly reached for language that would adequately express how egregious this vile act was. Repeatedly, I heard the press describe the assassination of Kennedy in terms like this: it was a Satanic act, it was a diabolical act, it was a devilish act, it was a demonic act, it was even a hellish act. I remember listening to these verbal descriptions of the crime against the President of the United States, and I thought within myself: “Self,” I said, “it could well be that this act was inspired by Satan, but we don’t have to look to Satan to account for evil of this kind. There lurks quite sufficient wickedness in the heart of human beings to perform such vile acts without any assistance from Satan.” People just wouldn’t recognize that human beings could be that corrupt or that fallen, in and of themselves, without appealing to Satan.
The same kind of thing comes to play when we look at this episode of this young boy who suffers from epilepsy. What you need to see throughout Scripture is that when Satan does possess or come into a person’s life, he uses whatever frailty is already there to exploit his power over his victim. I don’t see any ultimate conflict in the account of a young man suffering from a well-known malady whose suffering is exacerbated by the intervention of the evil one to torment the person all the more.
In any case, the man comes, and he’s upset because he had asked the disciples of Jesus to minister to his son, and they failed in their ministry. Let me just comment in passing how common this is for the followers of Jesus to be powerless when Christ is absent.
Jesus Laments a Lack of Faith
One of the reasons the Day of Pentecost is so important in redemptive history is because Jesus’ followers are powerless in His absence. Jesus said to His disciples: “I’m going away. I’m going to leave you, not just for a few days to go up onto the Mountain of Transfiguration, but I’m leaving the planet. I’m going to My Father’s house. However, I will not leave you alone. I want you to gather in Jerusalem and wait. You tarry there until I send the Spirit. After that, the Holy Ghost will come upon you, and you shall receive power, and that power will be My presence with you and in you.” Even though Jesus is no longer present with us touching His human nature, He’s never absent from us touching the presence of His Holy Ghost. That means the church today really has more power at her disposal than even the disciples had before Pentecost.
The issue focuses on the disciples’ inability to do the things that Jesus had been able to do. Jesus responded to this and said: “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” It’s a lament coming from the lips of our Lord. Jesus is lamenting not the lack of power in His disciples, but the lack of faith: “Faithless generation, how long do I have to put up with this? You’ve been with Me. Your eyes have seen what angels wanted to look at, and still you are faithless.” Humanly speaking it weighed on Jesus that He had to exhibit such forbearance with His own students, not to mention the multitudes who had also observed His ministry in this world, and still people walked around without faith.
They brought the boy to Him, and when Jesus saw him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell to the ground. He wallowed on the ground like a pig in the mud, foaming at the mouth. Jesus watched this, and He said to the father: “How long has this been going on? How long has your son had to endure this kind of affliction?” The father said: “Since he was a young boy. If you can do anything, Jesus, please have compassion and help us.”
Faith Out of Context
Listen to what Jesus says in verse 23: “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” That verse, ripped out of its context, has been used over and over again not to describe a powerful Christian faith, but really to be used as a talisman for magic in an age that has been so influenced by a neo-Gnostic spirit.
The new age movement seeks to manipulate the external world by mind control. If you can think about world peace, you can bring world peace. In the Christian world, we have simplistic ministries that reference faith healing and say to people, “All you have to do is believe, and if you believe strongly enough, you can move mountains and you can make anything happen you want to make happen.”
I’ve told the story once before of a young man, a student of mine, who suffered from cerebral palsy. He was a dynamic, victorious, devout Christian, and some of his students at the college came to him and said, “Harvey, we’re going to heal you from your cerebral palsy.” So, they laid hands upon Harvey, and they pronounced him whole, but Harvey still had cerebral palsy. The students said: “Well the problem with you, Harvey, is that you don’t have enough faith, and if you don’t have enough faith, you’re never going to get healed. But if you really want to be healed, you have to claim your healing in Jesus’ name. You have to believe that you’re healed before you can be healed.” It’s like trying to give a blind man his sight, and telling him, “Name it and claim it; believe that you can see, and then you’ll be able to see.”
This goes on every day in America. People are told to believe that they can see, and they say, “I believe, I believe,” and then open their eyes and can’t see a thing. Suddenly, the weakness is in them. They have no faith. Nobody asked the obvious question: If all it takes is enough faith, why doesn’t the healer have enough faith for the person to bring them to this conclusion? Well, that wasn’t enough for poor Harvey. It was Harvey’s fault that he wasn’t healed because he didn’t have enough faith. So, then they said, “We’re going to meet with you again, and this time we’re going to have an exorcism, because your problem is that you’re demon-possessed.” Then they tried to drive the demon out of poor Harvey, and Harvey still had cerebral palsy.
He came to me in all earnestness and tears, and he said, “Dr. Sproul, do you think that I’m demon-possessed?” I said, “No, Harvey, I don’t think that you’re demon-possessed, but I wonder about your friends.” I prayed for him, and I prayed that he would have peace, that he would trust the Lord with his body and his life, because sometimes God says, “No.” This text is not a blanket, universal promise that says, “Anything that you believe will happen, will happen.”
Faith Comes by Hearing, Not Willpower
Something else about verse 23 that is important for Christians to understand is that you cannot make a decision to believe something that, in fact, you do not believe. I remember years ago when the Orlando Magic had a competing basketball team. The Magic had an opportunity to go to the NBA finals, and the motto in Orlando was, “You have to believe.” All we have to do is close our eyes like Alice in Wonderland and say, “I believe; I believe; I hope; I hope; I don’t know whether we’re going to make it or not.”
You can’t make a decision with your mouth to believe something that in fact you don’t believe. You can decide to repent of your sins. You can decide to learn of Jesus, to study the Word. You can decide to do all kinds of things that will affect your future behavior, but what you can’t do is create faith by a decision. This is where I fault modern evangelistic techniques that suggest all you have to do is make a decision, and voila, faith will well up in your soul. It doesn’t work like that. Faith comes by hearing. Faith comes by the Word of God. It is God who creates faith in the doubting heart.
Now, this man is in the presence of Jesus, the author of faith. Jesus calls him to trust Him. He had every reason to believe without making an arbitrary decision that Jesus did have power to do something. He wasn’t sure, however, that Jesus would, in fact, be compassionate enough to use that power to heal his son. So, he responds in honesty, and he says, “I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” That’s why this narrative is so important.
Help My Unbelief
Everybody in this room who is a Christian has some level of authentic, saving faith in their hearts, but the level of our faith is not constant. It waxes and wanes. It increases. It diminishes. We move from faith to faith, from life to life, from grace to grace. I don’t care how strong your faith is, there are moments in this world where your faith is assaulted by the enemy. Sometimes your faith is like hanging on by your fingernails, and you make the prayer that this man made to Jesus, “I believe,” but mixed in with that belief is unbelief. My belief isn’t perfect. My belief isn’t pure. My belief may be weak. I need help. Help me with my unbelief.
When you are assaulted with doubts, and your faith seems rocky and frail, tie yourself to the mast. Go to the source of faith—go to the Word of God. There is no time in my life that my faith is stronger than when I’m immersed in the Word of God. Staying close to the Word, listening to the promises of your Redeemer, looking to Jesus—these are the things that build a powerful faith that won’t let you down in the midst of afflictions.
This man knew where to look for an increase in faith: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” So, Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him, enter him no more.” The spirit cried out, gave one last attack on the lad, convulsed him greatly, and then came out. The boy became as one who was dead, and many thought that he was dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, lifted him up, and he arose.
What do you think happened to the father’s faith? “Help Thou mine unbelief.” “Okay. Come out. Stand up. How’s your unbelief now, father?” Now the father looked at his son in his wholeness, and he looked at Jesus, and he was filled with faith, because Jesus did what He said He would do. That’s what creates faith.
God Is Perfectly Trustworthy
I’ve always said about human relationships that it takes a long time to develop trust in people and five minutes to destroy it. Who do you trust in this world? How much faith do you have in your friends, in your spouse, in your children?
When you come to the place where you can trust people and trust them with those things that are valuable to you, you have found something priceless. But people let us down. People break our trust. Unfortunately, we project that lack of trust we experience among our friends onto God, but it is reasonable and rational to trust God. Indeed, nothing is more irrational than not to trust God, because God is perfectly trustworthy. He’s never broken a promise, and He never will. He doesn’t know how to betray His people.
Finally, when they came into the house, the disciples went up to Him privately, and they said: “That was something, what You did out there, but we tried it. It didn’t work. Why were You able to rebuke the spirit, and we failed?” Jesus said: “Because this was a tough one. This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.” Do you see that the strength of our faith and the strength of our prayers can never be put on automatic pilot? When we face a formidable foe, it’s not enough simply to depend on the reservoir of faith that we have in our souls. We have to get on our knees. We have to plead with God. We have to make use of all the means of grace that He has given His people, and then you see God acting on behalf of His people.
Power through Focused Prayer
One of Ligonier’s first conferences in California was in a Korean Presbyterian Church, and they had around ten thousand members at this church. We went over for our conference on Saturday morning, and when we went into the parking lot at 7:30 in the morning, we could hardly get in because there was a massive traffic jam. There were all these cars leaving the parking lot at 7:30 in the morning.
I said: “What’s this? Are the people leaving us already? We haven’t even started the conference.” Then we found out that on Saturday morning at 6:30, one thousand people were gathered for an hour of prayer. They have a thousand people gathering at that church almost every morning to pray for the things of God.
I interviewed the pastor, and he said, “This is emanating from the Korean church in Seoul, Korea.” He said, “That’s the secret that the Koreans learned during the war: nothing builds faith among people like prayer.” He asked me how our church was. I said, “Well, we have a prayer meeting going in our church, and a handful of people are involved.” We need to discover what Jeff Cooper and Archie Parish have been teaching us—the power of kingdom-focused prayer. That’s what the disciples were learning here in this miracle of Jesus. Let us pray.
Father, thank you for your Word and the way You minister to us in the weakness of our faith. Lord, we believe, help Thou our unbelief, not for our sakes but for Your sake, not for our glory but for Your glory alone. Amen.
The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.