The center and citadel of the Christian life is faith in the person and Word of God. This cannot be stated enough, and it is likely that it cannot be overstated! We are saved by faith (Eph. 2:8), and we live by the same faith with which we first trusted Jesus as Lord (Col. 2:6-7). While we are not sanctified by faith alone, faith in the person and promises of God is a fundamental enablement of practical growth in holiness. The daily, practical, lived-out righteousness without which no one gets into heaven (Heb. 12:14; cf. Col. 1:22-23; Rom. 8:13) is at its root a work of faith (1 Thess. 1:3; cf. 2 Thess. 1:11), because it is an expression of personal, daily trust in the Lord and is performed by faith as the animating power.
Since our Lord’s first disciples could ask Him to increase their faith (Luke 17:5) and because Paul tells us the Lord gives each of us a measure of faith (Rom. 12:3—the idea here is the Lord apportions, at least initially, different “degrees” or measures of personal faith to Christians at conversion), Scripture seems clear that we are not to be content with the degree, purity, or strength of faith we currently have, but are to be persistent in growing in faith—not merely in its strength or refinement, but in its “amount” or extent. Our Lord’s answer to the 12 in Luke—that faith as a mustard seed is enough to accomplish great, even supernatural, things for His glory and the advancement of His kingdom—ought not be taken as Him chiding the disciples for wrongly focusing on the amount of faith vs. its object or intensity. Rather, recall that a mustard seed starts small, but becomes large! Our Lord is saying that the kind of faith that moves mountains and mulberry trees is not merely small faith in the right object, but the kind of faith that is able to grow over time. Both the object and the inherent nature of the faith are underscored by our Lord.
This becomes important for the lessons He is teaching us in Mark 9. The root problem in every Christians; life is unbelief. The root issue is we do not fully or consistently believe Him, His words, His promises, or His threats. This leads to all our other acts of sin and many emotional and spiritual problems, including how we respond to trial, loss, and adversity. We are Christians by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but we must also live moment-by-moment trusting in the Lord and His words to us. Often, we seek to create circumstances where we are not forced to completely depend on the Lord. But then we will miss out on what only He can do as we look to Him alone!
Mark 9 demonstrates once again the Lord’s great power to redeem, rule, and heal as God and Messiah. It enjoins us to have fresh faith in Him and in both His willingness and ability to redeem and bless now and forever. Moreover, it gives us two lessons we are to learn to fortify our faith in trial—to respond rightly to the trial as one where perseverance is worked in us, rather than bailing and not experiencing the “perfect work” that comes from endurance (James 1:4a).
A. Faith Must Look Beyond Circumstances (vv. 14-19a)
The Lord and His inner circle are returning from the glory of the Transfiguration to find commotion among the remaining nine. Scribes are here, and they are arguing with the Lord’s men over…something. A crowd is forming, there is much commotion and yelling—such a divergence from the awesome glory on the mountaintop! But the Lord has taken them into a valley to teach them things they can learn no other way.
The crowd—disciples, scribes, onlookers, saved, lost—rush up to the Lord when they see Him. They are overwhelmed by the circumstances and didn’t see Him at first (an interesting metaphor for us in our trials). Jesus was there as Lord and Protector and Redeemer, and ready to act, and they didn’t get it. So He asks them what the arguing is about. And all the relevant parties stay quiet. Eventually, an onlooker speaks—Matthew 17 tells us he called Jesus “Lord”; Mark adds he called Him “Teacher.” He evidently reverences Jesus. He is a father, and he has brought his little son to Jesus for help. The boy is demonized, and the demon not only has made him a deaf-mute, but has afflicted the boy horribly with physical and mental torture. He has what we would call grand-mal seizures and atop that is frequently thrown by the demon into bodies of water or fires, evidently to kill him. He brought his child to the nine to cast out the demon, but they were unable to do it, and he begs Jesus to help them.
Recall that our Lord gave the twelve and the seventy authority over all kinds of fallen spirits and demons, and that they had great success in casting them out when announcing the inbreaking of God’s kingdom (Mark 6:7, 13). But now, it doesn’t work. Why?
Our Lord identifies the problem: Unbelief. The “unbelieving generation” of v. 19 is likely broader than the disciples, but He intends to emphasize His men. All the people there are unbelieving in some way—the scribes are scoffers, the father vacillates between faith and doubt, the believers in the crowd have imperfect faith—but the nine, of all of them, should know better. How long will Jesus endure their inconsistency? And moreover, how long will He be with them? Not long—soon He will die, rise, and ascend to heaven. They should know this by now! They will need to depend completely on Him once He is gone. They need to learn these lessons now.
Faith needs to look beyond circumstances. The nine needed to look to Christ and His power afresh, and not rely on past experience mechanistically or by rote. The father needed to look beyond the humanly impossible situation and see divine possibility because of the rule and reign of the sovereign Messiah. Faith conditioned by circumstances is not faith, but unbelief, because it is walking by sight. Faith requires us to trust the Lord and His words regardless of whether we see them working immediately or feel as if they are true.
B. Faith Must Look Beyond Yourself (vv. 20-29)
As soon as Jesus approaches the boy, the demon reacts very violently. I am sure the father is emotionally ripped apart watching his son suffer yet again. Perhaps this is intended as a taunt from the Enemy—not only could the 9 not do anything, apparently dashing his last hopes of deliverance, but here the demon is acting up right in the presence of the only One who can seem to save him.
Jesus is in complete control, however. He just asks how long the son has been experiencing this. He is compassionate and cares about the details of the boy’s suffering, as well as the father’s. He is this way with us, too. Do not be afraid to tell him how long you have been hurting and what the pain has done to you!
The father says, “from childhood” (v. 21b). We do not know how old the boy was—evidently he was young enough to still be called a child, so he could not have been much older than eleven or twelve—so that means most of his life has been shrouded by profound, ugly, evil-induced suffering and pain. The father begs Jesus: If You can do anything, help us (v. 22)!
He is doubting the Lord. Likely, He is probably not questioning the Lord’s willingness—He knows Jesus’ compassion—but His ability (“can”). He believes the Lord is willing, but may not be able. Or perhaps He believes the Lord may be able to, but is less than willing. Likely some of both are in view.
Jesus does not take kindly to this expression of unbelief. “‘If You can’? Don’t you know who I am? I am God and King. I can do all that I will. My mission is to redeem at every level. Of course I can. And of course I am willing.”
The “all things are possible” has been frequently abused—both by prosperity theology and people who reject it. Jesus is not saying that faith can accomplish absolutely anything we want—materializing millions of dollars falling from our ceiling or being instantly transported to box seats at the Super Bowl, for example. The “to” here is correctly translated by the NASB to underscore that from the perspective of one with robust faith, anything is possible. It is speaking about the person’s personal conviction of trust in the Lord’s ability, that this would be his or her cry of affirmation. It isn’t so much speaking about their personal ability, or even the power of faith itself to accomplish things.
However, to err to much on this side is also wrong. The emphasis of our Lord’s words is on the ability of God. But often, the Lord works through necessary means, even something as simple as prayer. While the character and ability of God are emphasized, these should not be abstracted from the means God often uses to express or manifest His divine omnipotence.
The father, justly humbled by this glorious exposition of the ability of God and His covenantal kindness and willingness, cries out, “I believe—help my unbelief!” This verse has rightly been preached as the prayer of the Christian. O that we would bring this humble petition to the Lord hourly! The man is rightly expressing faith here. First, he is not looking to his own ability or capabilities. He has none (is any of us strong enough to combat a powerful demon?). He is looking to the only One who can dispel his unbelief. Moreover, he really is trusting the Lord with what little, imperfect faith he has, while also confessing his remaining unbelief.
That, beloved, is the kind of faith the Lord responds to. That faith is usable by Him to accomplish great things!
Seeing the crowd, Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, and with violent fanfare the demon obeys—throwing the boy to the ground and into such stillness that many people (the father included?) thought he was dead. But Jesus, ever compassionate, takes the little one by the hand and gives him to his father.
Once alone with Him, the embarrassed, confused nine as the Lord why on earth they couldn’t do anything. Comparing the gospel accounts is most instructive. Matthew says it is due to littleness of faith; that faith as a mustard seed (faith that grows!) could move mountains and nothing would be impossible because God enables and responds to that kind of trust (17:20). Mark says the demon would not go out by anything but prayer (9:29). Persevering prayer that humbly depends on and trusts the Lord’s power, willingness, ability, and promises. Moment-by-moment dependence on God, not self-sufficiency, is the hallmark of faith.
O Christian! As you face your own trials, do not look at them. Look at the God who is in control of them. Look at His covenantal willingness to redeem all things. And do not look to yourself. Who are you? Throw yourself completely upon Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith. Amen.