Text: Mark 9:9-32
It had been a mountain-top experience to top the lot. Right there, in front of three of his disciples, Jesus had experienced a brief but amazing transformation. His face shone; even his clothes became dazzling white. Two godly men from long ago, Moses and Elijah, had put in personal appearances. And God himself had spoken: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
As they come down the mountain, Jesus gave Peter, James and John a solemn instruction, v9: “Don’t tell anyone about what you have just seen until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
Then, it’s back down to earth with a thud. Picture the scene they walk into, v14ff. There are the other nine disciples, looking helpless and confused. There’s a bunch of Jewish scholars, arguing and finding fault with the disciples. There’s a jostling crowd, enjoying the morning’s entertainment of an almighty squabble between the Jewish scholars and the disciples. Then there’s a desperate father, beside himself with worry. And there, somewhere around, is the reason for all this mayhem, the father’s severely disturbed son. It’s a scene of absolute chaos.
“What’s all this fuss about?” Jesus demands to know. A voice from the crowd answers, v17ff. It is the boy’s father.
“Teacher,” he says, “I brought you my son. He is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech.” The father goes on to describe how the poor boy keeps falling to the ground, foaming at the mouth, gnashing his teeth and going rigid.
These sound like the symptoms of epilepsy, don’t they? But hang on. Look at v20 – why is it that as soon as the boy comes into the presence of Jesus he goes into a seizure? Look at v22 – do you notice how maliciously destructive these seizures are, throwing the poor boy into fire and water? Look at vv25-27 – these verses clinch the matter by telling us that Jesus healed the boy by rebuking the evil spirit that was causing all these problems. No: this is no ordinary case of epilepsy. The problem is not neurological. It is demonic.
Now, it’s unlikely that many of us here this evening have witnessed such an outright case of demonisation. So what are we to make of it?
Well, I think we need to assert that such cases of demonisation can and do occur. I think that they tend to occur in two kinds of situation in particular. The first kind of situation is where Jesus and his gospel are not yet known; where the devil can do his work relatively unrestrained by the power God’s Holy Spirit. We often find this in pioneer missionary situations.
John L. Nevius was for forty years a missionary to the Chinese. He went to China with a settled scepticism about demons and demonisation. He thought that all such ideas were primitive and outdated. What he found in China, however, was not only a widespread belief in evil spirits, but also many experiences that could only be explained by reference to demonic powers. These led him to contact a number of fellow-missionaries with a questionnaire, inviting them to record their observations. And he came to the firm conclusion that demons are still around today.
The second kind of situation in which demonisation is often found is where the Christian gospel is making great progress. In times of spiritual awakening, in times of revival, then Satan is provoked to show his true colours. We find a number of such instances recorded in the journal of John Wesley, evangelist and Christian leader during the 18th century revival called The Great Awakening.
‘I was sent for to one in Bristol…She lay on the ground, furiously gnashing her teeth, and after a while roared aloud. It was not easy for three or four people to hold her, especially when the name of Jesus was named…In the evening…she began screaming before I came into the room; then broke out into a horrid laughter, mixed with blasphemy grievous to hear. One who from many circumstances apprehended a preternatural agent, asking, ‘How didst thou dare to enter into a Christian?’ was answered, ‘She is not a Christian. She is mine.’ We left her at twelve and called again about noon on the 26th. And now it was that God showed he hearest the prayer. All her pangs ceased in a moment; she was filled with peace, and knew that the son of wickedness was departed from her.’ (Wesley, Journal, October, 1739.)
There’s two kinds of situation, then, in which demons may be likely to manifest themselves obviously and overtly. But, for the rest of the time, it seems to suit the Devil’s schemes to operate undercover, incognito, using deceit, suggestion, insinuation, accusation, temptation, discouragement, oppression. After all, ‘hell is a conspiracy,’ as Whittaker Chambers once said, ‘and the first requirement of a conspiracy is that it remain underground.’
The Devil may work secretly and quietly for much of the time, but he works maliciously and tirelessly nonetheless. In fact, Paul in Eph 2:2 states that all of us, before we received new life in Christ, ‘followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.’ And John, 1 Jn 5:19, asserts that ‘the whole world is under the control of the evil one.’
Let us not underestimate the power and malice of the devil and his angels. We are in a battle. It may be less overt than in our passage tonight, but it is no less real.
Anyway, this father was at his wit’s end. The nine disciples could do nothing to help him. The scribes just wanted to argue and criticise. The crowd just gawped.
In v19 Jesus expresses his dismay. “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”
Not for the first time, Jesus was faced with a wall of unbelief. In Mk 6:5f we read that in his home town of Nazareth ‘Jesus could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.’
I wonder: would Jesus recognise in us a climate of belief, or of unbelief? Do we give him cause for hearty commendation, or for bitter complaint?
V19 – “Bring the boy to me,” says Jesus.
The father pleads with him, v22: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“What do you mean, ‘If you can’?” replies Jesus, v23. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” See how our Lord turns the tables here. No, it’s not a question of “If I can do it,” but, “If you can believe.”
The man’s reply is remarkable. American writer Ernest Hemingway once set himself the task of writing a novel that consisted of 6 words. How much thought, how much feeling, how much imagination, he wondered, was it possible to cram into just 6 words? What Hemingway came up with was this:-
“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
Well, no doubt there is a world of meaning there. But there is a universe of meaning in the father’s reply to Jesus, v24. Literally – ‘I do believe, help my unbelief.’
Just 6 words: expressive a weak faith, a faltering and flickering faith. But a real faith, and a sincere faith. Even a weak faith can lay hold of a strong Saviour. This desperate man has put himself in precisely the position where he can receive Christ’s help. I am weak, but he is strong.
V25 – Jesus confronts the demon. No magical incantation or formula. No theatrical hype or crowd manipulation. Just amazing personal authority – “I command you”. With a final convulsion, the spirit leaves the boy, never to return to terrorise him and his family again.
V28 – Debriefing. The disciples ask, “Why couldn’t we do it?” After all, Mark 6:7 records that Jesus had given his disciples authority over evil spirits. And v13 of that chapter tells us that they had enjoyed great success: ‘they drove out many demons’. So why couldn’t they do it this time? In v29 of our passage Jesus puts his finger on the problem: prayerlessness. The disciples had, perhaps, assumed that their previous success in casting out demons could be repeated at will. “We’ve done this before; we can do it again”. They took it for granted, and failed to rely on God. They could not afford to rely on past successes, or trade on past victories. And neither can we.
God often reminds his people about the importance of their daily dependence on him. Do you remember how, when the Israelites were in the desert, God sent manna from heaven to feed them? But this heavenly food was only given one day at a time. If they tried to store it up, it became rotten and inedible. We, too, must learn to trust God each day and every day.
But it’s time to move towards a conclusion. What is this passage all about? What does it all add up to? What place does it occupy in the bigger story that Mark unfolds?
We have already noticed that Jesus foretold his death and resurrection in v9f.
And now, v31, Jesus predicts those events again: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”
So, here are these two references to Christ’s death and resurrection, one at the beginning, and the other at the end, of our passage. Between them, they form what scholars call an ‘inclusio’ – a pair of brackets, or book-ends. They draw our attention back to what lies between the book-ends.
V26 – ‘The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”’
V27 – ‘Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.’ Lit. ‘he arose’.
What we have here, in this account of deliverance from demonisation, is an anticipation and an illustration of the comprehensive victory over evil that Jesus would accomplish through his own death and resurrection.
There are many meanings to Christ’s death and resurrection. But here is one of the most important: that because Jesus died and is risen Satan has been conquered, evil has been overthrown, the powers of darkness have been vanquished. And a new age of light and life and love has been ushered in.
Col 2:15 ‘having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’
And we can have confidence that Jesus, having routed the powers of evil, will one day banish them for ever. Let us fix it in our minds that despite any appearances or feelings to the contrary, in Jesus there is victory. And let us rely implicitly on the simple yet vital weapons of childlike faith and dependent prayer. And then we too will find that no limits at all need ever be set on what God can do, that ‘everything is possible for him who believes’.