Mark 9:14-29, The Importance of Faith and Prayer

[August 1, 2010] Since we are jumping ahead in Mark, it seems that a review would be helpful. During the season of Epiphany (leading up to Lent) we had skipped ahead to the confession of Peter, the revelation of the cross and the vision of the transfiguration (8:27—9:13). Then after Easter, we backtracked and covered what we had missed. We left off at 8:26.

The Disciples’ Lack of Understanding (the Previous Section)

In the previous section (6:6b—8:26), Jesus had manifested Himself by feeding of the multitudes in the midst of opposition, but not even the Twelve understood who He was manifesting Himself to be. The closest disciples were like the blind man whose eyes Jesus had opened but who still could only see partially. He saw men “as trees walking.” It was only after Jesus laid His hands on the man again and the man looked intently that his sight was fully restored and he saw “all things clearly” (8:22-26).

Peter’s Confession (a Transitional Story)

This prepared us for the transitional story in which Jesus asked His disciples how their seeing was (8:27-30). The difference between this and the previous story is that Peter (representing the disciples) thinks that he sees clearly—when he declared that Jesus was the Christ (the Messiah)—while the man who was blind realized that his vision was still imperfect. We would like to believe that this episode was the conclusion of the previous section. After the disciples had struggled and so often failed to understand who Jesus was, they finally “got” it, here.

But Peter Still Sees as Men See

But Jesus immediately announces to them that He is going to take the way of the cross and in Jerusalem He would killed, and with the arrogance of someone who “knows,” Peter at once rebukes Him, proving thereby that he was still blind. So wrong was Peter that Jesus addresses him as Satan, the Tempter (1:13) and the Ruler of the demons (3:22-24), who has an alternative kingdom to the kingdom of God, and who takes away the Word that has been sown into people so that they hear it but they do not receive it (4:15). That is how serious the rejection of the cross is! Peter got there, to that awful place of being the spokesperson of Satan, simply by setting his mind on the things of men, nothing more sinister. Yet “the things of men” are prey to and have become allied to the things of Satan and they work for the purposes of Satan. Satan tests the hearts of people to see if they would turn against God, and when they do, he enslaves them to this his will.

The Necessity of the Cross (and the Way of the Cross)

Then, in 8:34-37, Jesus reveals that not only He must take the way of the cross but that this is also the way which everyone who would be His disciple must also take. It would lead Him to His death in Jerusalem, but whether it concerns Himself or His disciples, it always means the denial of the self and the loss of the soul. The salvation of the soul requires that it be lost for His sake and the Gospel’s by taking up the cross. The “cross” does not mean, as it does popularly, the suffering that comes to us when we do not get our way, nor the suffering that comes to us simply as human beings as a result of the judgment of God under which we live—the troubles and illnesses that are the common human lot. The cross is the experience of soul-death that comes to us as a result of choosing the will of God.

By soul-death we do not mean the abolition of the soul. For why then would it result in “saving” the soul? By “soul” Jesus and the apostolic teaching refer to that to which the soul attaches and with which it identifies. The soul constructs its own “self” that is actually an illusion, or rather a delusion. This construction is part of the world and it “exists” (though this is an illusion) independently of reality, the reality of God, spirit, body and creation. Insofar as the person identifies with this, which amounts to a false self, they are flesh. When a person is spiritual, the soul becomes an expression of the life of the body, which is the spirit. The soul, in other words, becomes transparent to spirit, rather than this opaque thing that is enslaved to the delusion that is the age of this “world.”

Jesus does not recognize any disciple who is ashamed of the cross and the way of the cross and Jesus’ own identification with the cross and the way of the cross (8:38).

The Issue Being the Glory of God

Not all the disciples will understand but only the few to whom it is given will (9:1-2), that the way of the cross leads to a participation in the glory of God (9:3-8). Jesus is seen on the mountain in His identification with God. He is the “I AM” of God and the glory of God radiates from Him as His own. Yet He does so as none other than Jesus. His humanity is divinized. When the glory (the visibility of this identification) departs, His divinity continues but its “glory” is hidden in His humanity. Jesus does not change on the mountain. Who He will be in resurrection is momentarily revealed; but it is revealed—not as something that He will acquire, but—as who He already is. Indeed, as the Son of God He participates in humanity (where His glory is hidden), rather than the other way around. However, what this incident reveals is that for the disciples the way of the cross leads to our participation in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and glory. What for Him is natural, for us is acquired by grace. He is God (the Son) who participates in human nature, in which His divine nature is undiminished but hidden. We are human and the end of our faith, the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:8-9), is that we participate in the divine nature, in which our human nature is likewise undiminished but becomes transparent to the glory of God.

Here, in the account of the transfiguration, the hidden reality of the cross of Jesus and the outcome of our own salvation is disclosed. This is shown to a select group of disciples—for the majority of disciples are incapable of it—at the beginning of the “way of the cross.” From this point on, as Jesus descends from the mountain, He is on the way to Jerusalem for the last time, on “the way.” But the glory is revealed at the beginning so that Jesus can “for the joy set before Him” endure the cross, despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and we too can “run with endurance the race which is set before us, looking away unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1). The way, for both Jesus and the church, will require endurance. This endurance will come from the vision of God’s glory set before us.

The Descent from the Mountain

The way of the cross requires, however, that we descend from the mountain into our daily life. As Jesus descends from the mountain, He discloses that John was not to be the Elijah who was to come and restore all things. He Himself would do this by suffering many things and being counted as nothing (Mark 9:9-13). The implication is that resurrection (the true restoration of things) comes by this pathway, even for the disciples (the church).

The Situation
The Crowd and the Scribes

In the following story (today’s reading), the boy “became as though he were dead so that many said that he died” and Jesus “raised him” (9:26-27), obviously a picture of the restoration of things (from Satan’s dominion!) by the power of the resurrection.

But the story takes place where there is a great crowd, where scribes dispute with the crowd about the disciples, where people are overcome by the assaults of the evil one, and where faith struggles to believe. Let us examine this story as depicting the life of the church, not on the mountain of the church’s heavenly existence in the spirit where the revelation is perspicuous, but in the plains of its daily life as it struggles with the powers of Satan.

First there is the great crowd who seem to be playing the role of spectators. Are the scribes disputing with them or with the disciples? Perhaps the scribes are disputing with the crowd about the disciples and the fact that they are unable to help the boy without Jesus. This dispute is not in Matthew or Luke’s account of the story. It reflects the Jewish dispute with the church over the fact that Jesus did not bring in the kingdom. Sure, when He was here He healed people and cast out demons; the kingdom seemed to be operating where He was. But now that He is gone, the kingdom is not in evidence. So what difference did it all make? What kind of “Messiah” can He be?

This is pertinent because the alternative that the zealous offered was to take matters into their own hands and make the kingdom come by the use of force. History needs to come under our control, they always say. The kingdom will only come when we establish it by our own zeal. (This is not an outdated issue. Every ideology that attempts to establish a utopian vision is doing the same thing: Nazism, corporate capitalism, Marxism, fundamentalist Islamic Jihad, and so on.)

We do not know who these scribes are: above I assume that they hold to the zealot ideal, but they could represent other schools too.

The Inability of the Disciples

The disciples, the ones who did not see the vision on the mountain, who had demonstrated—along with Peter and the sons of Zebedee (by the way)—that they had an inadequate grasp of who Jesus really is, were unable to cast the spirit out of the boy. Later they will ask Jesus why this was (verse 28). That they enter a house before they ask Him would seem to imply that Jesus’ answer is instruction for the church. “This kind cannot come out by any means except prayer.” The disciples were inadequate in their prayer, or prayer was missing entirely, even though we are not told that Jesus prayed. Perhaps He did not need to. The church, by implication, is inadequate in its communion with God.

Does it not pray enough? Or it does not pray with faith? “All things are possible to him who believes” (9:23). In the account in Matthew, Jesus says their inability was because of their little faith (Matthew 17:20; duplicated in 21:21b-22; see Mark 11:22-24), though this is not said here.

What is expanded on is the father’s prayer for faith. This is in neither the accounts of Matthew or Luke. “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24). This has a parallel with the disciples. Their understanding, as we said, is like the blind man who could see but not clearly. So also the father believes, and yet he still has unbelief. The disciples too believed, yet their faith in Jesus lacked understanding. They needed to pray as this father did, “Help my unbelief!” This is no less true today.

Who is meant by the “them” in verse 19? It could be the scribes, the crowds or the disciples. “O unbelieving generation! How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Literally Jesus says, “Until when?” They could not believe when Jesus was away on the mountain. What will happen when He ascends into heaven? On the one hand this can refer to the unbelief of the disciples who were unable to cast out the spirit. The kingdom of God was indeed present where Jesus was (the kingdom of God had drawn need in His own Person), and the kingdom is present in the church. But the kingdom of God is not identical to the church, as the Gospel according to Matthew makes clear. It is present in the church insofar as individuals in the church overcome the powers of the world. The unbelief of the church limits the exercise of the kingship of God within the church whereby the church overcomes the powers of the world. Because of its unbelief, the church comes instead under the discipline of the kingdom of God. That is, it comes under the governmental judgment of God’s kingship.

On the other hand Jesus could have been referring to the disputation of the scribes. There was a limit to how long God would bear with their attitude. The prophets of the Old Testament called for patience because Israel and the nations were under the judgment of God. The zealous were impatient. Eventually their impatience would result in the rebellion of 66 AD that ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70. “How long—until when—shall I bear with you?” This refers to Israel and of course to the later history of the Gentile nations (and to modern day Zionism). In our own days, the Gentile nations have been captivated by the Christian notion of the kingdom of God and have secularized it in their utopian visions.

The Father and the Afflicted Boy

The father speaks out of the crowd. He is not one of the disciples and yet he looks to Jesus to save his boy who is afflicted with an evil spirit (causing the boy to have epileptic seizures). The boy was afflicted since childhood with the spirit who reacts, as other spirits have, at the presence of Jesus, revealing that this is not simply a bodily disease but an affliction of the soul caused by one of the spirits of the age. The boy represents humanity under the dominion of Satan. It too has been under the dominion of Satan since its origins, its “childhood.” Often the dominion under which humanity suffers causes it to suffer much, and the wasting away of humanity increases continually.

 The father represents that created aspect of humanity that is helpless in the face of this evil. Nevertheless, it recognizes the genuineness of the authority of Jesus to save it. But apart from God’s grace it does not have an adequate faith. The father calls upon Jesus but the faith he needs must come as a gift from God. Its source cannot be in himself but in Jesus. This is true. It is not our faith that saves us but the faithfulness of Jesus. Because of His faithfulness, God grants us the faith to believe into Him. In the story, we do not read of how Jesus grants the father the faith he needs, nor do we see Jesus waiting for that faith to appear. Instead, we see Jesus Himself deliver the boy at once. It is His own relationship to the Father that saves us.

The Presence of Jesus

It is the presence of Jesus that brings out the diagnosis of the boy from the father. Jesus does indeed have compassion on us, as He had on the boy, and His compassionate and interested presence brings to light our own slavery to sin and the world and Satan, and the harm that it does to us. His presence also brings to light our own inadequacy in the face of our subjugation to these powers. As it happened in the story, so it happens to us. His Presence makes our condition clear and it also makes it clear that we cannot save ourselves.

Jesus questions the father to bring these things to light, but His authority was never in question, at least as far as the Gospel according to Mark is concerned. The powers of the world have no ground of entitlement in Jesus for He has renounced the false life of His soul. Since He has inwardly died to His soul already, He speaks with the authority of God, which He has (being who He is; we do not have such authority). Jesus rebukes the spirit with merely a word and the spirit at once obeys. It obeys, I say, but not without throwing the boy into a state that resembles death. We too must be dying to our self before we can be freed from the powers of the world, and that freedom spells the death of the self and the loss of the soul. The boy’s deliverance pictures our own.

But the death of the self is not the end. Jesus takes him by the hand and “raises” him, Mark uses the same word of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:31), the paralytic (2:12), and especially the dead girl whom Jesus raised to life (6:42). The connection here to rising from the dead seems clear. The one who is delivered dies—in figure—and rises from the dead on account of the Word of Jesus. This describes what happens to Christians who experiences liberation from the powers of the world. They lose their soul as they die to self and they rise in the power of a new life, the life which Jesus gives. Jesus “took hold of his hand and raised him, and he stood up.”

This story is followed by another prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It therefore concludes this subsection that began at 8:31. The way of the cross begins with a vision of our participation in the glory of God, for we need this to endure to the end, but it continues with our dependence in daily life on prayer to give us the faith we need. With such faith we can overcome our subjugation to the powers of the world. We can overcome our enslavement not by any resources of our own but by the Word of Jesus and by dying to self and losing our soul. This is the “way of the cross” that will raise us up and lead us to a participation in God’s glory.

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