Jesus Heals the Boy
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Jesus Heals the Boy

Mark 9:14–29  (ID: 2748)

When three of Jesus’ disciples ascended a mountaintop, they saw their Lord’s glory revealed in dazzling light. In this message, Alistair Begg follows them back down to the plains, where they found a spiritual confrontation. A desperate father asked Jesus to heal his son. Jesus replied, “Bring the boy to me,” allowing us to witness an event that reflects our daily reality—a dramatic clash of demonic darkness with the Savior’s light.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Mark, Volume 4

The Christ and His Disciples Mark 8:22–9:50 Series ID: 14104

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our reading this morning from the Gospel of Mark is in chapter 9 and begins at verse 14. Mark chapter 9, beginning at verse 14:

“When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

“‘What are you arguing with them about?’ he asked.

“A man in the crowd answered, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.’

“‘O unbelieving generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.’

“So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

“Jesus asked the boy’s father, ‘How long has he been like this?’

“‘From childhood,’ he answered. ‘It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’

“‘“If you can”?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.’

“Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’

“When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. ‘You deaf and mute spirit,’ he said, ‘I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’

“The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, ‘He’s dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

“After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’

“He replied, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer.’”


So, we need to pray as well. As we turn to the Bible, let us pray:

With our Bibles open before us, gracious God, we turn to the Word of God in order that we might hear the voice of God, beyond the voice of a mere man, believing that when your Word is really taught that your voice is truly heard. And this is what gives significance to what we now do and creates a sense of expectation, and we pray that you will meet with us in this way, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Whenever demonic possession is manifested, it is always for the same purpose: to distort and to destroy the image of God in a man.

We said in our last study that this little period of time is something of a roller coaster ride for these disciples. One minute they’re up, the next minute they were down. Last time, we left them on their way down from the summit experience that Mark describes for us in the opening section of chapter 9. They had been on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now they have descended to the plain, and although it is not quite from the sublime to the ridiculous, it’s actually pretty close. And as you review the opening section of the chapter and then consider that to which they have returned, you realize it’s a dramatic distinction between the rarified atmosphere up on the mountainside and the hullabaloo that is represented down on the plain.

The Scene Described

If it is helpful to you, I will try and point out the way in which I have marked my own notes, if you wish to take notes, and the first thing that I had written down was simply, “the scene described” in verses 14 and 15. Because Mark gives to us a very straightforward description of what is going on. The disciples are under attack from the scribes, the teachers of the law, the representatives of established religion. We’ve discovered in reading Mark that these characters have been popping up all the time. They seem to appear behind walls and jump out from behind hedges at the most inopportune moments, and always to call in question what Jesus is saying and what his disciples are doing. And some of them are present on this occasion. And all around them, this crowd of people, who are engaging presumably in the debate, taking sides, and at the center of it all, the predicament that gives rise to this confused melee is the sorry picture of a man and his son who is sorely in need of help.

We see these scenes routinely in our newspaper, sometimes on the front of the paper, often on the news in various parts of our country and, indeed, our world. And often there is a religious element to them. And people find themselves saying, “Who actually can deal with people in their need? Is the religious establishment able and ready to take it on? Where does Jesus fit into these things?” And even if we’re not in the actual crowd, we may be in the crowd that’s observing it, and we find that we too are engaging in the debate. And it is into that context that Mark tells us, in verse 15, that Jesus comes.

There’s a buzz, if you like, that runs through the crowd, and the people “were overwhelmed with wonder.” In other words, their sense of anticipation grew markedly. The disciples hadn’t amounted to very much, as we’re going to see, but now the main character’s arrived—Jesus himself has shown up—and a great surge in the crowd as some run forward to meet him.

And in verse 16, Jesus asks a simple question: “What are you arguing about? What are you arguing with them about?” And the answer that he receives is actually only an indirect answer. It gives to us the root of the problem, but the answer comes from the lips of a man who’s in the crowd, and Mark describes him there: “A man in the crowd answered”—somebody shouts out from the group—“‘Teacher, I brought you my son.’” And this is the nub of the situation, as we’re going to see.

The Boy’s Condition

The second thing I wrote down was “the boy’s condition,” because that’s what’s described for us in the heart of this section. His predicament has been his lot since childhood, we learn in verse 21. The nature of what he’s dealing with is actually demonic possession, as we discover in verse 17. The implications of the demonic possession are such that he cannot speak and, indeed, he cannot hear. When the spirit takes him, “it throws him to the ground,” he “foams at the mouth,” he “gnashes his teeth,” and he “becomes rigid.” It’s a dreadful circumstance. It’s akin to what we know in contemporary terms as a form of epilepsy. But you will notice from the text that this is not described as a medical condition; it is described in terms of demonic possession. We should not infer from that that any incidences of epilepsy of which we know we can tie to demonic possession. That would be a very strange and bizarre use of the Bible. In fact, when you read the Gospel accounts, you discover that the juxtaposition between the need for physical healing and the need for liberation from demonic possession sometimes interfaces, but often the two things are entirely distinct from one another.

This young man is essentially trapped inside his body—unable to hear any words of comfort that may come to him from his father or from his family and friends, and unable to give voice to his fears. It’s the worst of all predicaments, if you imagine it. It was recorded in a book with a funny title that I can barely recall, but I read the title, and then I watched the movie—The Diving Bell and the something[1]—is this dreadful description of the predicament of somebody being trapped inside their own body and knowing that they are alive, knowing that they are in need, but completely incapable of communicating beyond themselves, in a much worse circumstance than this. This young man’s life is completely paralyzed, completely destroyed. And it is as a result of demonic possession.

There are two views of demonic possession, largely, that you find in circles such as our own. One is that it is absolutely everywhere, so look out, it may be just beside you in the seat; or, that it is absolutely nowhere, therefore don’t worry about it at all, because there is no such thing. Both extremes are wrong. And it takes great skill to navigate from first-century description to twenty-first-century reality. But we can know this of a certainty: that the reality of demonic possession in any form is always purposefully to do this—to distort and to destroy the image of God in a man or in a woman. Whenever demonic possession is manifested, it is always for the same purpose: to distort and to destroy the image of God in a man. And while we must be careful with our language, if you, for example, have been in the company of the skeletal lives of drug-addicted individuals, what you’re looking at is the distortion and the destruction of the image of God. It is never in order to enhance, it is never in order to fulfill, it is never in order to maximize; it is always to distort and to destroy. And that is the circumstance, that is the condition, of this son and only child, Luke tells us, of this father.[2] He’s his only boy—his only boy. And every day he deals with this circumstance, and has dealt with it ever since his childhood.

The anti-God spirit is not out somewhere in the stratosphere floating, but the anti-God spirit possesses the lives of those who live by the ways of this world.

The Father’s Expectation

Thirdly, I noted “the father’s expectation.” The father’s expectation. It simply was that Jesus would do for his son what Jesus had done for other people, because the word had gone out concerning Jesus, that this Jesus of Nazareth is a miracle worker, his sermons are unbelievable, his illustrations are perfectly apropos, and furthermore, he is able to cast out demons.

Presumably, it was that news that sent this father, along with his boy, in search of Jesus, and when he had reached this particular place in the geography of the country, he had anticipated meeting him. But unfortunately, Jesus had been gone, and we know why, having read the first part of the chapter: he was gone on the mountainside with the three disciples. And so, at the absence of Jesus, the man had asked his disciples—he reports this in verse 18—“I asked your disciples,” he said, “to drive out the spirit, but they could not. They were a complete failure. They were absolutely useless, no help to me at all. But,” he says, “I’m now addressing you, Jesus, and if you can do anything, then please take pity on us and help us.” That’s verse 22. I think the inference is, in part, straightforward: “I asked them, and they can’t do anything, so now I’m asking you, and if you can do anything, I’d be very grateful if you would do it. If you can, because they can’t.” That’s his expectation.

Christ’s Reaction

Fourthly, I wrote down, “Christ’s reaction.” Christ’s reaction. And Mark records for us what is a mixture of frustration and compassion on the part of Jesus—frustration and compassion. The frustration comes out in verse 19: “‘O unbelieving generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?’”

Now, if you think about this—those of us who’ve been studying the gospel—it’s entirely legitimate for Jesus to respond in this way, isn’t it? He doesn’t give the disciples a pass. He doesn’t say, “Oh, well, it’s perfectly understandable.” No, he includes them in this expression of frustration. He’s just been up on the mountainside with three of them, and despite the drama and the peculiarity of the occasion, the best they could come up with there was to build three shelters. So, they went up on the mountainside in this dramatic moment and came up with a building project. Now he comes back down to see how the nine are doing, and the nine, they have nothing—absolutely nothing. They are humiliated before the circumstances. They are completely paralyzed by that which they’re asked to address. And so Jesus says, “O unbelieving generation, how long, how long?” It’s the cry of the psalmist in Psalm 13: “How long will you forget me, O Lord?” you know, “How long am I going to have to put up with this?”[3] It’s akin to the sighs that we’ve noted in chapter 7 and in chapter 8.[4] It’s essentially the response of a father, as we saw on those occasions, or a mom, for that matter: “How long do I have to go over this with you? How many times do I have to keep telling you this? How long do I have to keep this up? How long?”

It hints, actually, of 8:21. He’s been through this, hasn’t he? You think of all that’s happened since Jesus began his earthly ministry. Mark has recorded it for us. He stands up and he says that “the good news is now here, the kingdom of God is at hand.”[5] And then we have these manifestations of God’s kingdom breaking in upon time. He’s calming the waters, he’s healing blind people, he’s setting demon-possessed people free, and so on. He has fed the five thousand, and his disciples have been mystified by that and don’t get it. And then he has fed the four thousand, and they don’t get it any better after that. And he asks them at the end of it all, “When I fed the five thousand, how many baskets were left over?” And they said, “Twelve.” And then, you remember, he says, “And how many baskets were left over when I fed the four thousand?” And they said, “Seven.” And he said, “So you’ve got nineteen baskets of leftovers. Do you still not understand?”—8:21. “You don’t get it, after all this time?”

“Yeah, I asked your disciples. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We thought that, given that you were gone somewhere, the disciples could handle it, but no, they couldn’t do a thing.” And so he says, “Bring the boy to me.” “Bring the boy to me.” It’s a wonderful word, isn’t it? I love that sentence. I think I could preach a sermon on simply “Bring the boy to me.” Maybe I will sometime. Verse 20: “So they brought him.” “So they brought him.”

And immediately you have a collision of darkness and light. What takes place in the immediate response of evil within the boy is the reaction of the malevolent forces of evil in the presence of the absolute purity and power of Jesus. And as soon as the spirit in the boy saw Jesus—look at verse 20—“it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.” He was set down in absolute helplessness, completely unable to affect change in himself. And what Mark is doing for us is setting the scene there in this description for the dramatic intervention that is going to emerge, for Christ’s frustration will give way to compassion, which will give way to his intervention.

And I want you to notice something in passing: that what we deal with in our world is actually the drama that is described in microcosm in this little section here. Yesterday in our Through the New Testament in a Year, some of us were reading from Ephesians 2. And in Ephesians 2, I wonder, were you as struck as I was… and I hadn’t really thought about this until yesterday morning, and I know Ephesians 2:1–10 very well. Ephesians 2:1: “As for you,” he says to the believers in Ephesus, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…” Okay? So, once you were dead, now you are alive. “…in which you used to live…” That’s your old life. That’s before you were united to Christ. And what Paul is pointing out is that nobody lives in a neutral zone. Nobody lives in between darkness and light, in semidarkness or semilight. No, by nature we live in the dark. By nature, we live in rebellion. By nature, we are spiritually dead.

He says, “…[and this is the realm] in which you used to live…,” and here’s the phrase that struck me yesterday: “when you followed the ways of this world.” In other words, when you just did what everybody else does. When you thought in the way that everyone else thinks. When you assume that life is the way it is for everybody. “…when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air…” So, I didn’t just do what everybody did or does, but I actually, wittingly or unwittingly, was fulfilling an agenda—an agenda that actually comes from the dark side, from the ruler of the kingdom of the air, who is, he says, “…the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient,” so that this malevolent spirit—and don’t misunderstand this for demonic possession—but the malevolent spirit, the anti-God spirit, is not out somewhere in the stratosphere floating, but the anti-God spirit possesses the lives of those who live by the ways of this world and follow the ruler of the kingdom of the air.

That is why, by the time he gets to Ephesians chapter 6 and he gives instructions to the believers for taking to themselves the armor of God—the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the sword of the spirit, the belt of truth, the feet shod with the shoes of the gospel—he says, “The reason you must be armed in this way is because”—remember?—“our struggle is not against flesh and blood.”[6] We don’t have a political struggle. Our struggle is actually fought in a realm that we cannot see. The struggle in which we are engaged is cosmic.

Now, don’t misunderstand. The devil is a created being. The ruler of the kingdom of this air is on a chain, and that chain is tied to the cross of Christ. He can’t go any further than he’s allowed. So we don’t have the yin and the yang. We don’t have a malevolent spirit who is equally powerful against fighting against a good spirit. No. God is the only self-existent being. The devil is created. He is a fallen angel. He has his hosts. Those hosts invade the universe. They possess the minds of people. They engage in things. So, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”[7] That’s the battle.

Until we go down in belief, we will never rise transformed.

Now, just in passing, do you see how delighted the Evil One is when we decide to fight the wrong battle—when we decide that actually, the battle is against flesh and blood, so we’ll fight that battle? The devil says, “Go ahead and fight it, because you’re fighting at the wrong place. You’re rallying to the wrong point.” No, the battle that is to be fought is a battle that is revealed in microcosm here in this circumstance. And it is, if you like, a war for the very soul, for the very life, of this boy. And the devil seeks to do everything that he can to distort and to destroy the image of God in this child.

And Jesus steps forward, and he expresses his frustration, and then he reveals his compassion. We’ve been singing about compassion—such a wonderful song. It helps us with this, doesn’t it? It’s a question of compassion when he says to the father of the boy, “How long has he been like this?”

You see, it would be really wrong for us to think that Jesus is simply dealing with this as a sort of mathematical formula, as a sort of strategic engagement of the forces of light against the forces of darkness. No, this is a flesh-and-blood reality. This is a real dad with a real son, and it’s his only son. And he asks the question that any legitimate person would ask: “How long has your boy been like this?” And the father says, “He’s been like this since he was a child.”

Now, we understand that, don’t we? If you drive any time in the early hours of the morning, you will eventually drive behind one of the busses that picks up the children, some of whom are in our building today, whose lives are fractured physically, and some emotionally and mentally, and they bring them out—I see the mums and dads in the morning—they bring their children to the end of the driveway. And those dear souls that take them and care for them, and the parents that love ’em and agonize over them, there’s just so much empathy in that. If I had any power at all—if there really was the power that they talk about on the TV—then we should just go to the end of the driveway and take care of those things. Just go and liberate all those mums and dads, just go and set these children free, you smart alecks with your lies! Don’t be giving me your nonsense about your healings. If God was engaged in healing, he surely would start there, wouldn’t he? Never mind your ingrown toenails, and your lumbar punctures, and everything else that goes along with it. Such a bunch of sham! No, we look at that, and we realize what is there. And Jesus looks at it, and he does the same: “How long has he been like this?” He says, “Well, it’s been going on forever, and sometimes the demon tries to burn him, and sometimes the demon tries to drown him. But if you could do anything, take pity on us. Help us.”

And Jesus—verse 23—says, “‘If you can’?” Now, here’s an incidence where we need the video. There’s no video. I can’t tell what Jesus looked like. I wish I could. I’m going to find out eventually, but for now, I’m going to make my best stab at it. I do not believe that Jesus says “If you can” like, “‘If you can’?” or like, “I can’t believe you said ‘If you can’!” You know, the way that we might be tempted to do, ’cause the Pharisee rises in us, you know: “Oh, I can’t believe the guy said ‘If you can.’ Oh, if I’d been there, I would have said, ‘We know you can. Therefore…” No, shhhh, stop it. Stop it. No, I think there’s a twinkle in Jesus’ eye. I think he says, “‘If you can’? I think you got the if in the wrong place. The real if is not if I can. The real if is not my ability. The real if is about your humility.” We got the if in the wrong person.

You think about that, it’s quite amazing, isn’t it? It’s actually not dissimilar—it’s the reverse—of the leper that we saw way back in chapter 1. Because the leper there says, “I know you can if you are willing”[8]—so, “I’m convinced of your ability, I just don’t know if you’re willing”—and this fellow says, “I think you’re probably willing, but I don’t know if you can.” But there’s no doubt about Christ’s ability. The only question is whether the man’s humility is enough to bow beneath Christ.

Let me take just a brief sidetrack here on the notion of belief—on the notion of belief. You remember the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5? If you don’t, you should read it for homework—2 Kings 5. Naaman has leprosy. He’s a big, authoritative chap. He has lots of money and lots of influence. He’s got enough money to put together ten talents of silver, and six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of clothing, and a big fancy letter to take to the king. But he can’t fix his leprosy, and his servant says to his wife one day when they’re cleaning up, she says, “You know, Mrs. Naaman, if Mr. Naaman would go see Elisha, I think there’s a fair chance he could get fixed.” So, since he’s got nothing else to do, no other place to go, he puts together his entourage and shows up. You remember? It’s a great story.

And someone goes in and tells Elisha, “There’s a fellow out at the front door. He’s got leprosy, he’s got a whole bunch of stretch limos with him, and all manner of stuff.” And Elisha says, “Well, just tell him to go dip himself in the Jordan.” So the word goes back, he doesn’t like the word, and he decides, “You know, if I’m gonna dip myself somewhere, I’m not dipping myself in that filthy place, and I thought he would have come out and done a miracle for me,” says Naaman. “I thought he would have come out and waved his hand over the spot, and I’d be done.” That’s what people always say. “You want me to believe in God? Then have somebody come out and do something. Do some hocus pocus. If you do hocus pocus, then I’ll believe in you.” No, you won’t. No you will not! There’s enough hocus pocus in the world to saturate you. You still don’t believe. You need to believe.

Naaman says, “We’re outa here,” gets his boys, they start to move off. Now the servants come back. They come up to the front of the procession, said, “Naaman, father, stop the procession for just a minute, let me ask you a question: If the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? If he’d asked you to do something really great, like give away half your kingdom—you know, provide an institution for other people who have leprosy—you would have done that in an instant, wouldn’t you?” The answer is yes. “Well then, he hasn’t asked you to do any great thing. He’s only asked you to dip yourself in the Jordan. Why couldn’t you just do what he asked you? Why couldn’t you just believe him? Why couldn’t you just take him at his word?” And Naaman says, “You know what, you’re right.” And then it says, “So he went down.”[9] Until you go down, you will never come up. Until we go down in belief, we will never rise transformed.

The same is true of the Philippian jailer, isn’t it? “What must I do to be saved?” he says on the occasion when Paul and Silas are liberated from the stocks, and all the prisoners with them. “What must I do to be saved?” And remember, what does Paul say? He says, “Believe.”[10] You can imagine the man going, “No, it has to be much more complicated than that.” “No, just believe.” “No, no, no, I mean, what do you do? You gotta do something else.” “No, believe.”

And actually, you have it classically… and someone pointed this out to me after the first service. I missed it, and I’m so glad I have people doing research for me in the first service now for the second service; it’s really quite helpful. You should be glad of it too. And “then they asked [Jesus], ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ [And] Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’”[11] “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

And so, look at the man, back on our story again: “Immediately”—verse 24—“the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Serves as a reminder to us that there isn’t one of us that doesn’t experience both belief and unbelief. It’s not a contradiction; it’s an explanation of the spiritual journey of each of our lives: “I believe; help my unbelief.”

And then he intervenes, quickly, and before the crowd can arrive—verse 25—as the crowd is “running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit.” The word that is used there is a word that is used in the Old Testament; it is a divine word of rebuke. You can find it in 2 Samuel 22:16, if you’re interested. And in response to the rebuke—“‘You deaf and mute spirit,’ he said, ‘I command you, come out of him and never enter him again’”—Christ draws out the impotent rage of the Enemy and the evil spirit leaves him: “The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out.” In other words, having done its worst, it left him as though dead.

To imagine that God’s power is at our disposal and under our control is tantamount to unbelief.

And some of the people said, “What a shame that he’s dead.” But he wasn’t dead. Verse 27: “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.” He stood up. This is what Jesus does. This is what Jesus does. He takes people whose lives are decimated, in whose lives the image of God is distorted and en route to destruction, and he does what only he can do and what no one else can do, and that is, he enters into that life, and he takes the person by the hand, and he lifts them, and they stand up.

This has been true all the way through the Gospel of Mark so far. There was another girl that he had stand up. Do you remember? Her dad’s name was Jairus. Everyone was crying at her house, and he went in, and he said, “Talitha koum!” “Little girl,” he said, “stand up!” And he took her by the hand, and she stood up. So now we’ve got Jairus’s daughter standing up.[12] But not only that, we’ve got the widow of Nain’s son standing up. He was on the funeral procession, and Jesus reaches into the funeral procession, he arrests the sorry journey to the grave, and he raises the man to life.[13] He’s the only person who can do that. There is no one else can do that!

Christianity is superior to every religion in the world, or it is irrelevant. It’s not the same. Jesus is the only one who says, “I am the resurrection and the life, and he who believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”[14] He’s the only one who says that. He’s either right or he’s wrong. It’s either true or it’s false. He’s either the God-man he claims to be, or he’s a madman, or he’s a liar. And he stands the widow of Nain’s son up. In the gospel, it says, “And he gave the boy back to his mum.”[15] And here he does it again, and he gave the boy back to his dad. Jesus is in the business of giving our kids back to us, in a whole new and improved version. When they can’t stand up, when their choices are such that their circumstances have led them in all kinds of directions, he is the Jesus who does this. He’ll do it for you, if you believe.

An Epilogue

But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, he healed the boy, and he gave him back to his father. And then there’s an epilogue, and with this we stop. Verse 28: “After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’” “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” And Jesus says, “Well, this kind can only come out by prayer.” And in some versions, it says “by prayer and by fasting.” And this gives rise to some of the worst sermons you’ve ever heard in your life. Because I’ve heard most of them, and this is how it goes: “This is a very special thing. It’s very, very special. And you fellows are not special enough for it. If you could get into the special realm in this special prayer ministry, in this fasting ministry, then you’ll be able to cast out these demons as well.” So I have these crazy people that come and try and find me in the office, and they’re trying to cast them out of everywherebecause of Mark 9:29.

Is that what Jesus is saying? I don’t believe so, not for a flying minute. No, what Jesus is saying is, “You didn’t pray. You didn’t pray.” When do you not pray? When you don’t think you have to. Simple. Or when you don’t want to. Or when you’re presumptuous. Or when you think you can do it by yourself. So, if you think you can preach by yourself, there’s no need to pray before you preach, during you preach, after you preach. Just preach! If you think you can do everything, just go ahead and do it, and see how it goes. That’s what he’s saying: “And you tried it. You tried it without prayer; next time, say your prayers.” Simple!

Oh, I don’t think it’s too hard to get to this, because remember, Jesus had sent them out two by two back in chapter 6: “Whenever you enter a house,”[16] he told them do this and that, and he “gave them authority over evil spirits.”[17] And Mark chapter 6, “They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.”[18] And so, there they are. They’ve got a great track record: “We do preaching, we do repentance, we do demon possession, we got the whole thing. We got a full portfolio, you know. If you come with us, the disciples of Jesus, we got it all here for you.” So the guy shows up, says, “Okay, smarty pants, I got a boy here. From childhood, he foams at the mouth, he’s an absolute wreck, he’s possessed by a spirit. Would you deal with him?” Nothing. Nothing.

Why? Because until we admit we can’t, we never can. You see, prayer is simply, ultimately aligning our wills with the will of God. It is simply acknowledging that God must do these things, that we don’t possess these things in and of ourselves. And I think these disciples were getting a little blasé, and therefore they needed a little humiliation. They needed a little public humiliation as a necessary part of their training.

God doesn’t share his glory with anyone. So the day you think you’re a preacher, you better look out, because you may not even have another sermon in you. The next day you stand up, it may go like this… And people go, “What the world is that about? What’s he think he’s doing now?” You said, “I don’t know. He can’t preach.” “Well, he could preach last week. How come he can’t preach this week?”

The only reason we can do anything any week, including get enough synovial fluid in our knee joints, is because of God’s immense mercy. The only reason our eyelids don’t freeze shut in the night is because of his providence. The only reason that we’re able to intervene in anyone’s circumstances is on account of his unbelievable grace. And the disciples were losing track of this. He was still with them. They were in the company of Christ. They didn’t get it on the mountain, they didn’t get it in the plain. He had to give ’em a little lesson. They got their little lesson.

You see, to trust in God’s power—in the sense that we imagine we have it in our control—or to imagine that we have it at our disposal, is actually tantamount to unbelief. To imagine that God’s power is at our disposal and under our control is tantamount to unbelief, because it’s actually to trust in ourself rather than trust in God.

I had an early lesson of this. I have lots of lessons in this. I’ll just tell you this, our time is gone. But years ago, when I was probably nineteen or twenty, one of my friends said, “You know, we have an event this afternoon”—it was in Leicester, England, and there were a group of young boys, teenage boys—“and we have a class, a Bible class,” and my friend says, “and maybe you could speak to the class.” So I said, “Yeah, I could speak to the class. It’s not a problem. Sure. Y’know, I can speak. I’ve done a lot of speaking.” I must have been twenty. And as the day wore on, he said, “Do you know what you’re gonna speak about?” I said, “Yeah, I know.” So he said, “Okay, fine,” you know. He didn’t see any evidence that I was prepared or anything at all, but I knew I was prepared, ’cause I had my text.

And I remember, it was in a schoolroom, and I sat on the desk the wrong way ’round, and I had these boys just looking at me, and my text was, “Choose you this day whom [you] will serve.”[19] So I said, “Um, what we’re gonna look at today is, ‘Choose you this day whom you will serve.’” Then I couldn’t think of a single thing—not a notion. So I said it again; I said, you know, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” Then I said things like, “Well, it’s you who has to choose; it’s ‘choose you.’ And, uh, ‘whom you will serve.’” And by now the kids are like… I can feel the perspiration even this morning, you know, thirty-eight years later. But it was absolute presumption on my part.

If we can’t physically bring our children and grandchildren face-to-face with Christ, we can go face-to-face with Christ in prayer and bring them into his presence.

And I try never to forget that. And every day I’m tempted to try it again, I remind myself that the faith that is fundamental to this story is not a faith that reaches out into some vague void—a belief in belief, or a belief in something—but it is a faith that resolutely, humbly trusts in the Lord Jesus. And in a world that scoffs at our beliefs and laughs at our fears and our failures, we’re able to turn to one who says, “Why don’t you just bring this to me? Bring the boy to me. Bring the girl to me. Bring ’em to me. You can’t educate them out of this. You won’t be able to therapy them out of this. Frankly, it’s good that you know you can’t do this. Bring ’em to me.” And some of us, as parents and grandparents, might want to take that in a very personal way. And if we can’t physically bring our children and grandchildren face-to-face with Christ, we can go face-to-face with Christ in prayer and bring them into his presence.

Well, let’s just stop here.

Lord our God, eventually we are just bereft, as it were, before the immensity of your transcendent power in Jesus. We’re like children standing on our tiptoes, trying to see. And so I pray that you will take all that is of yourself and help us to take our minds and think sensibly, and that you will take our lives and conform them to your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that you will help us to believe, even today—to take the words of the father and make them our own: “Lord Jesus, I do believe; help me with my unbelief.”

And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore.[20] Amen.

[1] See Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, trans. Jeremy Leggatt (New York: Vintage, 1997).

[2] See Luke 9:38.

[3] Psalm 13:1–2 (paraphrased).

[4] See Mark 7:34 and 8:12.

[5] Mark 1:15 (paraphrased).

[6] Ephesians 6:12 (paraphrased).

[7] Ephesians 6:12 (NIV 1984).

[8] Mark 1:40 (paraphrased).

[9] 2 Kings 5:14 (NIV 1984).

[10] Acts 16:30–31 (NIV 1984).

[11] John 6:28–29 (NIV 1984).

[12] See Mark 5:21–42.

[13] See Luke 7:11–17.

[14] John 11:25–26 (paraphrased).

[15] Luke 7:15 (paraphrased).

[16] Mark 6:10 (NIV 1984).

[17] Mark 6:7 (NIV 1984).

[18] Mark 6:12–13 (NIV 1984).

[19] Joshua 24:15 (KJV).

[20] 2 Corinthians 13:14 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.