We as humans have various default behaviors that we engage in. I know that we as Christians don’t like to think that we are that way, but unless energy is expended in seeking healing from these default human behaviors, we will continue to do them naturally. Paul said in Philippians 2:12 “work out your own salvation.” That doesn’t mean you earn salvation. Another way to say it would be “put your back into your own transformation.” We need to be self-aware and an active participant in the Holy Spirit’s activity in our lives. One of those default behaviors is the seeking and maintaining of power. In every setting we naturally and unconsciously place ourselves in a pecking order: “I am more important or less important than you based on the amount of power or ability or position I have.”
Chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel is really an object lesson in upsetting the default human predilection towards power and the real way God’s universe runs. In verses 1 through 13 we have the mount of transfiguration, where we see Jesus transformed into His glory. It is a seminal moment. This proves that Jesus is no ordinary man, He is also God. It also showed that He is not just equal to the Law and the Prophets but actually superior. And it provided an opportunity for the Father to say “listen to Jesus.” This had a profound effect on Peter, James, and John—but the near term effect may not have been that positive. As we’ll see, the disciples left off the mountain, experience the weakness of trying to do God’s work in our strength—and then they all engage in a bit of a pecking order struggle until Jesus sets them right.
After leaving the incredible mountaintop event of the transfiguration, Jesus, Peter, James, and John return to the valley of doubt and dispute. The nine other disciples are in the midst of a heated discussion with the scribes. Though Mark doesn’t say what the argument was about, it is quite likely that it involved the disciple’s lack of ability to throw out a demon and perhaps the issue of whether they had any authority or position. The scribes took great delight in the failure, perhaps once again claiming that Jesus had no authority.
I love this account because we, as Jesus’ disciples, face ministry “failures” all of the time. We think we hear from God, we step out in faith, and then fall flat on our faces. The enemy and even pre-Christians around us taunt and laugh and claim Jesus can’t be real. But it is important for two aspects: 1-we are the disciples and Jesus is the Master. We must always be learning from Him and reliant on Him to move. We can’t just “make things happen” when Jesus “fails” to show. We must trust in Him so much that if He “fails” then we “fail.” 2-The situation for the doubters becomes an opportunity to let Jesus shine instead of us. God will work in His way in His time so that the spotlight is not on us but Him.
15 – 18
The nature of the arguing becomes clear—a man had brought his son to be healed of deafness and muteness. But this wasn’t simply a physiological problem but a spiritual one. This father recognized that something very evil had taken over his son. Simple epilepsy does not explain the situation here (as we’ll see in verse 22). The disciples were unable to do what they had previously in Chapter 6. Now look at Jesus’ response:
Here Jesus shows His exasperation. But notice what frustrates Him: unbelief. It was unbelief in the words of God in the Garden of Eden that got humanity into so much trouble in the first place and led to a position where Satan’s forces of evil can actually possess and control a human body. Jesus fought unbelief the entire time He was here on earth—and it is a battle that continues to this day. Humanity refuses to believe the words of God even today—words spoken on the mountaintop: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him.”
20 – 22
As we’ve seen before, when the demons set eyes on Jesus they become fearful. This one appears to panic in the presence of the Messiah. We see in verse 22 that this is no mere epilepsy. This demon, as all of Satan’s forces, is bent only on destruction. No epileptic seizure would throw a person into water or fire. So the man says “if you can do anything.”
It’s like Jesus is saying “I can do anything. The question is: do you believe I can?” This actually gets back to the central question of the account: do you sustain unbelief or trust in Jesus? So the father answers in a very human way—something we can learn a lot from.
Sometimes we want to show God how good we are by showing Him how faithful we are. This man admits that he does believe Jesus can do the miracle but there are parts in him, seeing the power of the enemy, that wonder if it could really be true. In us there are doubts as well—can God really see me through this disaster that surrounds me? We work up our own faith, but in reality we need to be more like this man—here is my little faith, please help me to trust You more! That’s the kind of faith Jesus can work with!
25 – 29
So why had the disciples not been able to cast out this demon? The central question here appears to be lack of faith. So perhaps the disciples had begun to attempt to drive out demons in their own strength when their initial attempts failed. I think that God often does this type of thing with us. Remember, we are apprentices of the Master. Initially, perhaps, things in serving Christ come easily. We have successes and think “Wow, this is a piece of cake.” But then Jesus brings us into deeper water where things don’t happen as easily for us. It’s because Jesus is trying to teach us to trust Him more and ourselves less.
As Jesus told them, prayer is the key to unlocking that trust. When we ask God to work, He gets the credit, not us. It is humbling but necessary. Some manuscripts add “fasting”. This may have been added by scribes to support this practice in the early church. But the effect is the same: reliance on Jesus, focus on Jesus—and not on our own abilities.
30 – 32
As the time for Jesus’ crucifixion draws nearer, He wants to make sure His men at least hear the words about the coming trial. Sadly, they not only did not understand, but they did not ask for clarification. How often is that the case with us? We don’t understand something God is saying or doing in our lives. We don’t recognize that He is trying to stretch us to trust Him more. But instead of really pressing in to find out from God what’s going on, we just grimace and bear it, or we hide away, or throw a pity party, or solve it in our own strength.
33 – 36
It’s interesting to me that we have two disputes recorded in this chapter. One was between the disciples and the scribes and involved the authority of Jesus. This one, among the disciples, involved the place of humanity in the pecking order. They are related. The disciples could not throw out the demon because they weren’t relying on Jesus but instead relied upon themselves. Here they are back focusing on themselves again and who is the greatest.
Jesus uses two examples: first He tells them that it isn’t about them. Real love, godly love, is other focused, not self-focused. Secondly, real faith, godly faith, is a dependency on Jesus like that of a child. Our children depend on us for food, shelter, safety, nurturing, guidance, and discipline. For us humans, our faith on God sometimes is only so we can get what we want. We turn over to God only those things we can’t do for ourselves. True greatness is measured by how much you serve, not by how much you rule. This is one of those things in direct opposition to human nature, but it is in God’s nature.
It doesn’t mean you are a door-mat. But it is a life that can freely give to others without needing or asking anything in return.
Back to the idea of a child: a child needs everything but has nothing to give in return. In the same way we must come to God, not on the basis of what we can earn or deserve but on what He is willing to give.
I also love the picture here of the child in the arms of Jesus. What a beautiful illustration of His love and acceptance of us, if we come to Him in faith and humility.
Jesus’ statement about children here was counter to the traditions of that society, where children were considered a lower life form and barely tolerated. But Jesus is also here demonstrating how He and the Father welcome those who come in humility and dependence like a child. We too should have the attitude of serving those who might be seen as “less than worthy.”
There are three scenes in this portion of Chapter 9. In effect, it is about belief and unbelief. When the disciples couldn’t drive out the demon, Jesus spoke of the problem of unbelief, which is really lack of submission and trust in Jesus. He then demonstrated what the person submitted to Jesus acts like: a servant in verses 30-32. And then He further taught them what a servant looks like: a child who simply trusts and depends on the Master.
What does that look like?
When you come into a room, don’t look for opportunities to gain power but look for opportunities to give life to others
When confronted with a task, don’t think about how you can accomplish it but how God wants to accomplish it—maybe with unconventional means that are counterintuitive
Being humble doesn’t mean weakness, it means submission and simple trust and the acknowledgement that even though our trust is incomplete, yet we know who we trust.
The problem with the disciples was they were using the wrong model for success. They focused on the scribes instead of the child and the servant.
Human heroes will always disappoint—Jesus never will.
Emulating the strength of the flesh (the scribes “I accomplish”) leads to weakness (unable to cast out the demon)
Trusting human heroes will lead to betrayal (as the scribes betrayed Jesus)
The way of God may mean suffering but it leads to life
The way of God seems small but leads to a welcoming into relationship and glory
“Help my unbelief” should be the immediate cry of everyone—to break down the hardness of heart that keeps us from fully trusting Jesus.