Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 9:14-27
In this week's passage, we learn that on the mountaintop or in the valley, if we don't utterly rely on Jesus, we will fail. We also learn that human limitations like doubt and strong emotion hinder Jesus' ability to always do the right thing.
Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Wow—Google “mountaintop experience” and you will find a healthy range of opinions about them. Some Christian writers say that we should always be seeking a next mountaintop experience with God; many others say that that’s being selfish and unrealistic. (They say that life—real life among real, hurting people—is not lived on a mountaintop. That’s true.) Be that as it may, ask your class if they’ve ever had what they would consider a “mountaintop experience” with God (and by that I mean a time when they felt particularly close to God, or had an unmistakable brush with God’s powerful presence). If anyone says yes, follow up with these questions: where was it, what happened before, and what happened after? The mistake that some Christians make is that they desire the feeling of the mountaintop experience. But in the New Testament, Jesus intentionally gave His disciples such experiences for the purpose of making them better followers (see the aside below). Right before our passage is the most famous mountaintop experience in the New Testament: the Transfiguration. And right after that event, Jesus led His disciples directly into a personal need that they failed to meet. Directly from a mountaintop experience into an embarrassing failure.
I believe that Jesus grants such "mountaintop experiences" for one of two reasons: to give comfort and hope following a crisis, or to prepare a Christian for a crisis to come. That crisis might be a need (like in our passage this week), or it might be a decision (for example, I had a “mountaintop experience” not long before Shelly and sensed our call to ministry; it gave us the courage to follow through). I wonder how many of your class members would concur?
Most Overwhelming Need as a Young Parent
This is a tough icebreaker to consider because some of your class members have probably been through some challenges that they would just as soon not remember, let alone talk about. So be cautious how you word this! In our passage, there is a father whose desperation to help his son is so obvious that it drips off the page. Have you ever had a need as a parent that drove you to desperation? We don’t have to know what the circumstances were, but could you talk about what that feeling was like? I can think of a few times as a parent that left me with “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but I’ll do anything to fix this problem.” In each case, we were blessed to have someone who could either help us talk through the situation or could take care of a child or a house while we went to the hospital. The purpose of this icebreaker would not be to relive potentially bad memories but to make us sympathetic to the father in our passage. We will see that Jesus came to the man’s aid and healed the child. Likewise, we can share how Jesus helped us through our greatest needs as parents, either by bringing us to a solution or helping us cope with an outcome that we didn’t want. The Bible isn’t just words on a page but a description of real lives affected by Jesus.
This Week's Big Idea: Jesus Got Exasperated!
In our passage this week, Jesus cries out with a “How long must I put up with you?” One of many things I love about the Gospels is they don’t turn Jesus into a righteous robot; they let us see His real emotions. He was a true human who went through the full human experience just like we do. It’s not a sin to have (most) emotions. It’s not a sin to be annoyed or exasperated. What’s a sin is how you let those emotions affect your words and actions. The flare of anger is a human reaction; letting that anger dwell in your mind is a sin tantamount to murder. So, What are the emotions Jesus expressed?
First, let’s remember that Jesus got tired (John 4:6), thirsty (John 19:28), hungry (Matt 4:2), and weak (Matt 4:11). We know that those conditions affect our state of mind.
While Jesus never lacked faith, He was sometimes troubled/distressed at something that happened (John 11:33, 12:27, 13:21). Sometimes, He even prayed in tears (Heb 5:7). Jesus got angry (like against the moneychanger in the temple)—but His anger was directed against a clear sin that disrespected God and interfered with people’s ability to have a relationship with Him; He was also angry about injustice (Matt 11:20, 21:12, 23:13; Mark 3:5; in Mark 3, which we skipped, Jesus was angry with the Pharisees for letting their hearts get so hard that they didn’t want to see a man get healed). Jesus got exasperated, like in our passage this week; He got frustrated with the disciples for preventing children from coming to Him (Mark 10:14); He dealt with exasperation by teaching all over again (Luke 7:31; Mark 8:11). Jesus became afraid once (not of just anything—of the most horrifying death any human would ever experience) and overcame it by prayer (Matt 26:36). Finally, note that Jesus felt sorrow—for Lazarus’ family (John 11:35) and for the coming terrors on Jerusalem (Luke 19:41).
My point in all of this is simply that emotions are human, and Jesus was human. Being exasperated, as Jesus was in our passage today, is not a sin. The sin would be in handling that exasperation poorly. (If you’re in on this topic, there a book—Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels by Stephen Voorwinde—on just this subject.)
Our Context in Mark
As I mentioned in the first page, the key context to our passage is that it immediately follows the Transfiguration. If Peter or James or John had any thoughts of “Wow, I just had a mountaintop experience with Jesus—my life is great and I must be a great Christian”, this next experience fixed that: “no, you’re not great—only Jesus is great, and you must be
completely and permanently reliant on Him”.
But this passage also kicks off a new section in Mark, a section in which the story of Jesus takes a dark turn. You remember from last week that we just completed a section in which the disciples went from thinking like the multitudes that “Jesus is amazing” to saying “Jesus is Messiah”. And we even have the Transfiguration in here to hammer that truth home. But now the disciples have to learn that being the Messiah doesn’t mean what they think it means. Being the Messiah isn’t about being great, about being first, or rich, or powerful, or popular. It’s about giving your life for the sake of the world. And the journey that the Twelve have to take in this section is the realization that Jesus’ mission is also their mission. They still want to be “great”, but they have to learn that truly following Jesus means something very different. They will also have to take up their cross to follow Him . . .
Part 1: Powerless (Mark 9:14-18)
When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes disputing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were amazed and ran to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing with them about?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you. He has a spirit that makes him unable to speak. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they couldn’t.”
Jesus had taken Peter and James and John to a mountaintop experience only to come back down to a mess that the other disciples had made. (Nothing brings you back down to earth like people!) [Side note: where were they? The traditional site is Mount Tabor, but it’s not very high. Mount Hermon, near Caesarea Philippi where the disciples probably were, is the more likely option.] How quickly have you been deflated from “mountaintop experience” to “real life can be no fun”? This episode reminds me of what Moses must have felt when came down the mountain with the first set of the Ten Commandments.
Anyway, there was a large crowd around the other disciples; that crowd included Jewish experts. We don’t know exactly what they were arguing about (except it had to do with the boy) or how dangerous things were getting, but we know that they all rushed to Jesus when they saw Him (”finally, someone who can take charge!”). As an exercise, have your class put themselves in the shoes of the other disciples. How many wrong decisions have they made in the time Jesus was away? Well, they failed to heal a child, they got into an argument with scribes, and they managed to gather a crowd for all the wrong reasons. And then they look up, and who’s coming? Jesus! Maybe that wash of relief was followed by that “uh oh, He knows”. Either way, Jesus immediately asks what’s going on because there’s no sense in beating around the bush or trying to protect anyone. Before the disciples can answer, a frustrated father chimes in. (This is why I think they were probably arguing about something like the proper way to do an exorcism or if Jesus did so by the power of Satan—nothing that would actually help the father.)
The nature of the father’s description indicates that he probably just knows of Jesus as a healer; he doesn’t give Jesus any more respect than the common “Teacher”. He just wanted his son healed, nothing more, having probably heard of Jesus’ success in driving out demons (like in our passage last week). Not finding Jesus, he asked the disciples to do it, and they could not. We even get a twinge of accusation, that maybe Jesus didn’t have the authority or control people thought He did.
Aside: Mountaintop Experiences in the New Testament
Some of the most important events in the Bible took place on mountains. Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain (Gen 22). Moses received the law on a mountain (Ex 19). The same is true of Jesus’ ministry. He taught the people on a mountain (Matt 5-7). He chose the disciples on a mountain (Mark 3). He was transfigured on a mountain (Mark 9). He spent His last few days on earth on a mountain that overlooked Jerusalem (Mark 13, 14).
What is it about mountains? It’s actually rather simple. The Bible describes God as “up”. The higher we climb, then, the closer we seem to God. That’s why it always says that people went “up” to Jerusalem (well, that and the fact that Jerusalem was on a mountain). Even today, mountains are “above” the rigmarole of daily life. Except in a few unfortunate places, mountain air is cleaner, crisper, and refreshing. Because God put so many important events on mountains, He clearly has a special place for them, too.
But we aren’t supposed to live on a mountain (metaphorically speaking). People who try to live there (retire there) are trying to leave the world behind with its problems. And the world is where Jesus sends us. He brought Peter, James and John down the mountain directly into our passage this week. Take a look at the other passages I mentioned above and what followed being on the mountain.
Aside on Seizures and Demon Possession
It should not surprise you to know that common people have historically associated major seizures with demonic possession. If you have ever been around what used to be called a “grand mal” (now “tonic-clonic”) seizure, you can understand why. The person cannot control his or her body’s actions; muscle strength seems to increase; there is a feeling of powerlessness on the part of everyone around. When you read old books, the response would be “a demon has him!”
Did you know that nearly 10% of all Americans will suffer at least one seizure? About 1% of Americans have been diagnosed with epilepsy! (Obviously, there are non-epileptic seizures caused by stress, blood sugar, drugs, etc. All seizures start in the brain; if it is a disorder of the brain, it is called epilepsy.) Sometimes they’re limited (like twitching or a temporary confusion). But the point would be that we understand that not all seizures are the result of demon possession!
Well, the Bible understood that too. “So they brought to him all those who were afflicted, those suffering from various diseases and intense pains, the demon-possessed, the epileptics, and the paralytics. And he healed them.” (Matt 4:24) The Greco-Roman world understood the difference between epilepsy and demon possession. (Note: the word for “epilepsy” literally means “moonstruck” because they thought it was associated with the phases of the moon. And that’s where we get the word “lunatic” from.) My point? There was something that made it clear to these people that the boy was possessed by a demon.
Part 2: Hopeless (Mark 9:19-21)
He replied to them, “You unbelieving generation, how long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” So they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, it immediately threw the boy into convulsions. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. “How long has this been happening to him?” Jesus asked his father. “From childhood,” he said.
Last week, my class was surprised to hear Jesus use the “dog” phrase. To me, at least, this will make two weeks in a row with a surprising statement from Jesus (but see my Big Idea). Jesus is clearly not talking to the father here but the entire group (perhaps focusing on His own disciples). Jesus is not saying that the people’s faith somehow affected the disciples’ ability to perform an exorcism. Rather, Jesus knew that His time on earth was getting
short and the people were still fussing about getting a miracle. They were focused on the miracles themselves, and not what the miracles meant. The power of God was at work, pointing the people to a way of salvation—simply recognizing and believing that Jesus was the Messiah. And the people still cared more about the “show”, the excitement, the mountaintop experience, or what was in it for them. [Side note: the primary purpose of this lesson is to demonstrate both that Jesus is capable of handling every challenge we face and also that we must rely on Him to face them. But there’s a great secondary lesson you could bring out here: how many people are in churches today for the show, the excitement, the experience, or the benefit? Like the disciples, we must move beyond that to realizing that Christianity isn’t about us at all; it’s entirely about Jesus.]
The reason Jesus’ exasperation wasn’t a sin was that He didn’t dwell on it or have it affect His actions (when I get exasperated, I sometimes want people to know I’m exasperated, right?) He immediately turned His attention to the boy in need and the request of the father. On cue, the boy has a seizure (the symptoms certainly line up with that of a serious grand mal). Note that Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t just assume that every seizure was a result of demon possession. Something must have made it evident that this boy didn’t only have epilepsy. My guess is that the timing of the seizures was too suspicious (and this is a very extreme seizure—foaming at the mouth is rare). Because seizures are a function of the brain, it makes sense to me that a demon would be able to exploit a condition like epilepsy to control a person or a family.
Jesus’ question “How long?” could have meant many things. First, it could have been to quiet the scribes who might have accused Him of working with Satan to possess the boy so He could look like a hero. We don’t know how old the boy was at the time, but the father’s answer indicates that this had been years. Second, it might have been a rebuke of the father. The father came in all hot and bothered by the disciples’ failure, talking tough to Jesus. But "it’s been how many years and you’re just now looking for help?" (The father doesn’t say anything about previous treatment attempts, so this may have shut him up.) Or third, perhaps the father had been desperately seeking treatment all over Judea, and Jesus was reminding him of his great commitment to his son so as to encourage him in the answer to His next question. One way or another, the man needed fresh faith. We all know people who are at wit’s end facing medical crises. Even the strongest Christian can get discouraged after so much bad news. Well, Jesus is here even to help us with our faith in Him!
Part 3: Faithless (Mark 9:22-24)
“And many times it has thrown him into fire or water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”
That’s apparently the breakthrough, because the fear and compassion of the father comes pouring out to Jesus. Because the disciples had failed, he still had doubts about Jesus. And because Jesus wasn’t just there to heal the boy but also the father, Jesus probed the father further. Unfortunately, many in the “prosperity gospel” have taken Jesus’ response as proof that we can be healthy and wealthy if be just believe enough in Jesus. That’s not at all what Jesus was saying! This particular father asked for Jesus’ miraculous intervention without truly believing that Jesus could come through. James 1 makes it clear that asking God anything without believing is a failed enterprise; God does not affirm the prayer of the doubter.
In this situation, Jesus’ clear intention was to heal the boy. We do not always get that outcome. But the purpose of the question was not to get the man to believe more, it was to get the man to believe at all. And then follows perhaps my favorite verse in the Bible because it applies so often to me. The man finally realizes his spiritual state, realizes his own great need, and cries out for help in the only way he can. Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith: we can call on Him to start our faith and to build it. No matter where we are in life, we can cry out to Jesus for help—in our circumstances and in our faith.
Part 4: Faithful (Mark 9:25-27)
When Jesus saw that a crowd was quickly gathering, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you: Come out of him and never enter him again.” Then it came out, shrieking and throwing him into terrible convulsions. The boy became like a corpse, so that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus, taking him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up.
You know how this ends. Jesus cast out the demon and restored the boy physically and mentally (just like the deaf/mute man last week!). The demon fought but had no power against Jesus. It’s quite possible that the demon actually killed the boy as a final act of spite, but when has that stopped Jesus?
I would encourage you to continue to the next two verses: “This kind can only come out by prayer.” I understand why Lifeway chose not to mess with that—it often leads to unhealthy fascination with exorcisms—but the meaning is quite simple. The disciples had for whatever reason thought they were capable of casting out the demon on their own. That somehow they could handle it themselves. How foolish to mess with powers beyond their comprehension! (see Acts 19:15 for a humorous failure along these lines) Prayer is asking God to handle a situation beyond you; God will hear and affirm the prayer offered in faith. The disciples needed to learn (and soon) that even when Jesus wasn’t present, they still needed to pray for help.
There are a few truths to make sure your class understands with respect to this passage. (1) God does not give mountaintop experiences for our sake, but so that we will be better equipped to serve others. (2) Jesus did get exasperated with the people, but it did not cause Him to sin. (3) Jews/Greeks did not believe that all seizures were caused by demon possession. (4) Jesus’ ability to help the boy was not limited by the father’s faith. (5) It is a mistake for us to face life’s challenges without asking for Jesus’ help.
Aside: Who Believes in Miracles?
I know that I’ve been putting a harmony of the Gospels on this page, but the man’s cry, “I do believe—help my unbelief,” begs the question: how many people around us believe that God can perform medical miracles? Here’s a Barna survey from 2016. It confirms what I would have predicted...with this conclusion: people today still believe in medical miracles, but they need help in that belief.
Just a Closing Thought: Faith as Yeast
The Quicksource gave an interesting object lesson comparing faith to salt. I don’t particularly like how they developed the illustration, but it got me thinking. We just jumped over a passage where Jesus warned the disciples against the “yeast” of the Pharisees. Why was that such an important warning? “Because it only takes a little to leaven the whole dough.” (For you bakers, they recommend about 1tsp per 2c of flour. If it’s about 50tsp per cup, that works out to about 1% yeast—so yes, it only takes a little yeast!)
The Quicksource tried to do the positive equivalent for faith by comparing it to salt (it only takes a little salt to make the whole meal taste better, which sounds way too much like “a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down”). Because Jesus correctly compared the “bad faith” of the Pharisees to yeast, I have to think that there’s a “good faith” equivalent like salt that you could use to illustrate how faith works.
And I’m going to go with yeast.
Yeast is alive; it needs the ingredients of bread to grow and work. And yes, bad yeast can ruin a whole batch of bread. But good yeast is the difference between a failed recipe and one of my very favorite things (freshly baked bread).
Think about it. People don’t just eat yeast. It only “does” anything in combination with a recipe. In fact, people will seal yeast up and store it in a freezer where it remains inert
until they pull it out and use it. Does that sound a little bit like “faith”? Faith doesn’t do anything on its own. It only “works” in combination with our actions and decisions. It can help us be bolder in our actions, or make the hard choice. It does nothing if we don’t use it. And too many people act as if they can “store faith” until they really need it. But can you store yeast indefinitely? No. After two years in the freezer, the yeast literally dies. Have you ever known someone who drifted away from God for a long time and then was put in a crisis
that required faith? How did that go? My experience has been that not exercising faith really weakens it. Going months or years apart from relying on God makes it very hard to trust Him when you need to.
So, what do you think? Does yeast work as a positive illustration for faith?