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When People of Faith Doubt Their Faith -- a study of Mark 9:14-29

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Do you have a true faith in the true God?


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 9:14-29

While Jesus was revealing His glory to Peter and James and John on the mountain, the other disciples were failing to come to grips with what Jesus had told them about His fate. And like Moses coming down the mountain, Jesus finds "chaos in the camp", disciples who had failed to teach the people a true faith in the true God. Jesus would correct that.

You unbelieving generation, how long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you? (9:19)

The Last Time We Studied This Passage

We studied this week's passage in 2021:

Once again, I'll try very hard not to repeat anything from that post. Here are the things you will find if you skim through it:

  • Discussion: "Mountaintop experiences"

  • Discussion: "The most pressing needs of a young parent"

  • Big Idea: "Jesus got exasperated"

  • Aside: "Seizures and demon possession" (I'll copy this below)

  • Aside: "Who believes in medical miracles?"

Here's one thing I didn't like about my 2021 post: I played up the "mountaintop experience" too much. The focus in this passage isn't on Peter, James, and John (who were on the mountaintop) but with the other disciples (who weren't on the mountaintop). I believe this little distinction actually makes better sense of the events in the passage. With that...


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Current Events Acknowledgement (Israel War)

For anyone who reads this post in the future, Hamas just launched a surprise terror attack on Israel. We are still learning about the extent of the atrocities committed, and the casualty count has risen into the thousands. I can't help but reevaluate my ideas through that lens.

What Draws a Crowd?

Jesus cannot escape the crowds, and He's going to let His exasperation with them show in this week's passage. If we can start thinking about the "psychology of a crowd", that could be useful in understanding what's going on. What draws a crowd? When are those crowds "good"? What can those crowds become a problem? With those thoughts in mind, why might Jesus have become exasperated with the crowd that was following Him around?


Israel Tie-in. There are so many pictures coming out of large crowds in Israel and Gaza, putting a very somber spin on "what draws a crowd".


When Someone *Else* Has Had a "Mountaintop Experience"

I realized that to better understand this week's passage, we need to approach it from the perspective of the disciples who didn't go up the mountain to see the Transfiguration.


We obviously don't have a personal equivalent for the Transfiguration, so here are some weak substitutes:

  • other people go on a big mission trip,

  • other people go to camp / conference,

  • other people go on a well-needed vacation,

etc. The point is -- someone else has gone and done something really cool, and you've stayed behind. It's happened to all of us, probably many times. The best parallel I can think of would be the added twist that you covered their duties while they were gone.


Ideally, we are always happy for someone when they can get away, recharge, or do something cool. "Do unto others", right? But have we ever gotten jealous? How have you handled that? And then here's the biggest question -- what happens when someone else has had an experience that you haven't? I'm not talking about the jealousy. What are the ways that kind of distinction can affect a relationship?


With that in mind, put yourself in the shoes of the disciples who didn't experience the Transfiguration. That's a pretty big deal to miss out on! And it's not like they were sitting around, waiting for the group to come back down the mountain. They were out there "working in Jesus' name". Do you wonder if this caused jealousy? It certainly caused some confusion -- and we'll talk about that below.


Israel Tie-in. The Baptist Press has been keeping us up-to-date on preparations for disaster relief, as well as the status of the multiple tour groups from Baptist churches in Israel when the fighting began. Here are two very different ways to spin that: (1) The experience of the tour group themselves. Here they are on the trip of a lifetime, and all of a sudden their lives are in danger. They will never hear a "trip to Israel" report the same. Or (2) the experience of the locals connected with the tour group. The tour group will get to fly to safety. The locals don't even yet know if their family members are all safe. What a contrast of experiences.


What Causes/Forces You to Pray?

This topic is not a "what are your prayer habits". We've talked about that a number of times, and I'll be sure to link some of those lessons below. This is "what are those things that make you drop what you're doing and pray?"


In this week's passage, we learn that the disciples had not prayed as part of trying to cast a demon out. Perhaps they thought they could do it in their own power. Perhaps they weren't taking it seriously, or they were distracted. The point is that they hadn't prayed.


We've all been there. The discussion would be to find out what kinds of events "force" you to stop and pray. We'll certainly think of medical emergencies -- what is it about those? But are there other things? (And if not, what might you need to do to become more sensitive about the need to pray?)


Israel Tie-in. This is the most obvious connection. Once war had been declared, the IMB almost immediately released a prayer guide and called on all Christians to pray --

You can find the resources linked on that post. The demon in this week's passage could only be exorcised through prayer; likewise, this conflict can only be resolved through prayer. I encourage all of our groups to pray for peace and safety in the Middle East and Israel.

 

Where We Are in Mark

I said last week that chapters 8 and 9 form a narrative high point for Mark -- Jesus' miracles expand to encompass the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and then Jesus declares He is indeed the Messiah. And then we realize why Mark has been so emphatic about the "Messianic Secret" -- nobody, not even Jesus' disciples, understood or appreciated what the Messiah came to do. Peter even rebukes Jesus for suggesting that He would suffer and die! In the middle of all of this sits the Transfiguration, in which Jesus demonstrates that His willingness to suffer does not indicate weakness of any kind.


This week, we learn what was going on while Jesus was on the mountain with Peter, James and John -- His disciples had been unable to cast out a demon. And then after that event, Mark reports the second time Jesus predicts His death (and resurrection).


This would suggest that the disciples' failure in this week's passage has something to do with their failure to understand Jesus' mission ...

 

This Week's Big Idea: When Your Faith Is Shaken

Barna released this study back in March, and I think we finally have an appropriate lesson to talk about it:

Has your faith ever been shaken? This is a tricky one to answer cleanly. It's been a long time since my faith in God or the Bible has been shaken (I'm in that 23% in the chart below). And I have not doubted my salvation (because I don't doubt in Jesus).

But -- I have doubted whether or not I have understood the Bible rightly. And I have had doubts in the people I consider leaders in Christianity. So, while I would say that my faith has not been shaken, I have still had doubts.


So, how about you? Would you go so far as to say that your faith has been shaken? If so, what caused that? On a similar track, have you had doubts in your Christian faith? If so, in what?


There are two things I really liked about the Barna survey -- they asked the people about specific things that caused them to doubt their beliefs, and they asked pastors what they think their church members would answer. This table summarizes all of that (the first, dark green column is what pastors think their church members would answer).


So, "Difficulty interpreting the Bible" (which is more or less where my doubts lie), 41% of pastors agree with me, but only 8% of practicing Christians actually have that doubt! In fact, 51% of practicing Christians said they have not had any trouble with any of those things listed! (That's tremendous and encouraging to read.)

In this week's passage, we have two different kinds of "faith crises":

  • The disciples had a doubt that prevented them from casting out a demon (we'll talk about this a lot more below);

  • The father had a doubt that God really was willing/able to help his child.

The father's faith was reinforced through "force". When God "came through" for him, he had no reason to doubt anymore. The disciples' faith took different path -- they had to realize that their faith was misplaced, and I think it would take Jesus' resurrection for this to be fully solved.


If you have ever had a time of doubt in your Christianity, what did it take to resolve it?

 

Part 1: Cracks in the Faith (Mark 9:17-20)

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes disputing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were amazed and ran to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing with them about?”
17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you. He has a spirit that makes him unable to speak. 18 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.”
19 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.” 20 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.

I recommend starting with verse 14. Mark is playing with the imagery of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments and finding chaos in the camp -- finding people arguing about everything (even if God was real!). Aaron, whom Moses had left "in charge", had created a golden idol for the people to worship! Now, the disciples hadn't gone that far, but they had certainly damaged the people's faith in Jesus. Jesus comes down the mountain and finds chaos -- and His disciples are in the middle of it.


The focal point is a boy who had been possessed, and the demon was endangering the boy's life. His father had brought the child to the disciples, and the disciples were unable to do anything about it. Remember -- they had previously cast out demons on their own (see 6:13). But here, they failed, and the scribes seized upon the confusion that wrought to cast doubt on Jesus.


The leader materials suggests that Jesus directed His "you unbelieving generation" at the disciples only, but that would be incorrect. Remember the image. When Moses came down the mountain, what did he do? (Read Exodus 32 for a reminder.) Yes, he blamed Aaron for letting things get out of control, but he was angry at everybody for not having faith in God.


Here we are, some 1500 years later, and nothing has really changed. The people have no self-discipline. The religious leaders do everything they can to argue with God. And the people who should know better (in this case, the disciples) have not acted in a way that would encourage proper faith in God.


Jesus is speaking to everybody.


Let's go through the list:

  • the crowd was more interested in the spectacle than Jesus;

  • the scribes cared more about arguing with the disciples than helping the boy;

  • the disciples were doubting their very ministry (see below);

  • the father hadn't thought much about anything except his child.

Yes, Jesus was exasperated with everybody.


Aside: Seizures and Demon Possession

[Note: I'm copying this from my previous post on Mark 9]

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! [Author's note: that number has slightly increased since the original post.] (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: Desiring Greater Faith (Mark 9:21-24)

21 “How long has this been happening to him?” Jesus asked his father. “From childhood,” he said. 22 “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.” 23 Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

All of a sudden, the father becomes a stand-in for the entire Jewish people. I certainly don't think he understood this bigger drama -- he just wanted his child to be safe. But think about his situation:

  • The man had apparently not thought about his faith much at all until he had a crisis, and only then did he realize he didn't have much faith at all.


But I'm going to take this a step further -- this man not only represented the Jewish people, but he also stands in for Christians still today!

  • Have you ever neglected your faith until you were in a crisis?

  • Have you ever asked something of God in prayer not really believing God would (or could) do it?

The answer is probably "yes" to both questions. That puts us into the shoes of this man. And I hope our hearts go out to him.


His "if" is probably based on the fact that the disciples could not do this. This reinforces the parallel with Moses on the mountain and Aaron in the camp -- the damage Aaron did through his failure of leadership.


Aside on "Word of Faith" Christianity

Jesus' words to the man ("Everything is possible for the one who believes") have been used to cause untold trauma to Christians in crisis --

  • "Your child died / you lost your job / such-and-such tragedy happened because your faith was too weak. If you had stronger faith, you could have ..."

What a horrible, hateful thing to say. The linchpin of the proper interpretation of Jesus' words is the fact that Jesus was there physically speaking to this man. This man had completely neglected his faith in God, and now he wanted God to perform a miracle for him. Jesus is telling him -- and the entire "unbelieving generation" -- that they must have faith in God alone or else something "far worse" was waiting for them.


This is *not* a Matthew 13:58 (// Mark 6:5) situation ("And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.") Jesus had no trouble "doing this miracle" -- His disciples did.


So, what does this mean for us, and where does the "Word of Faith" theology go wrong?


The long and short is this: "word of faith" theology calls us to put our faith in our faith; Jesus calls us to put our faith in Him. God is not a genie to command; "faith" is not a weapon that we wield to force God to do our bidding. As I have said before about prayer, we pray not to tell God what to do but to align ourselves with God's will.


This father did not truly believe that God could heal his child. Until he did, the miracle would only have a short-term effect. (In other words, Jesus would have healed the boy anyway, but the man would have eventually died and gone to hell, and probably the boy too.) But when the man had the proper orientation of faith, a new future would be opened up. This is what Jesus wanted for all the people of Israel.


The beautiful thing here is that the father recognized his situation, and he was wise enough to call out to God (Jesus) for help. And that is exactly how we should respond to any doubts/faith crises today. Don't try to "make your faith stronger your own way" -- as if you can do that! -- but go to God to build up your faith through the Spirit.

 

Part 3: Acknowledging Your Need (Mark 9:25-29)

25 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.” 26 Then it came out, shrieking and throwing him into terrible convulsions. The boy became like a corpse, so that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus, taking him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up.
28 After he had gone into the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” 29 And he told them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer.”

Let's get to the ultimate meaning of this episode. It should be no surprise that Jesus had no trouble casting this demon out. I believe it very likely that the demon, as a final act of spite, did indeed kill the boy, which was no trouble for Jesus to undo -- proving His command of all things.


Unlike the previous passages, where Jesus spoke to the disciples in full hearing of the crowd, this time He gave them privacy for their failure.


What did they do wrong? They hadn't prayed.


What does that even mean?


There are some obvious things that you will want to talk about -- prayer is one of the most important topics for the Christian life, something we need to take seriously and "get right".


But let's look at the context from the perspective of the disciples. Why did Jesus take Peter up the mountain with Him to the Transfiguration? To help Peter reconcile his misunderstanding of what the Messiah came to do. Who wasn't with Jesus on the mountain? These other disciples. They've had a week to think about what Jesus said --

The Son of Man must suffer many things.

This week's passage reveals to us that they hadn't come to grips with it. They hadn't reconciled what Jesus said with what they wanted to believe.


Does that make sense? They were still trying to follow a God of their own making. And it didn't work.


This all goes back to prayer. What is the purpose of prayer?


Again -- it's not to tell God "what we want". It's to align our spirits with the Holy Spirit. The disciples didn't have the Holy Spirit yet, but Jesus is basically saying that they had not really tried to align themselves with God during the time He was on the mountain. These disciples were disconnected from God because they had not accepted the truth about Jesus. I think the disciples' faith in Jesus was shaken by what He had said about His fate. But it wasn't their faith in the "real Jesus" -- it was their faith in the caricature of a Messiah they had created for themselves.


Mark has only mentioned prayer twice in his Gospel to this point:

  • Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he got up, went out, and made his way to a deserted place; and there he was praying. (1:35)

  • After he said good-bye to them, he went away to the mountain to pray. (6:46)

What do those two references suggest about the kind of praying Jesus was doing?


The event that follows in Mark's Gospel indicate that there was a continuing disconnect between the disciples and Jesus:

31 For he was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after he is killed, he will rise three days later.” 32 But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask him.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.

How clueless could these guys possibly get?


And this is what sets the father up over and against the disciples -- the father broke down and cried out to God to "help his unbelief". The disciples hadn't done that yet.


I think this would be a great passage to end with a focus on prayer. But make it something along these lines:

  • What does this passage tell us we should focus our prayer life on?

The answers will be things like "knowing who God truly is" and "understanding what God wants me to do with my life" and "seeing the needs of the world as Jesus does". Write that list on your whiteboard, and then challenge your group to pray those things every day this week.


Here are some of our earlier lesson that focused on prayer:

God bless you. If you are struggling with any doubts, call out to God to help your unbelief. He will answer you. Though maybe not in the way you expect :)

 

Closing Thoughts: "And Fasting" ... and Confusion

Some later Bible manuscripts include the phrase "and fasting" -- "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting." Fasting was an important discipline in the early church, so it makes sense that a Christian scribe would add this here. But it's not in the original text.


Here's how that has created confusion. It's an accumulation, enabling people to read the passage like this:

  • All things are possible if you believe.

  • And pray.

  • And fast.

All of a sudden, this turns into a magic formula for working miracles. It becomes about "what I do" rather than the power of God. "If I just have stronger faith and pray more and fast more ..." But Jesus did not say "and fasting", so that is all moot.


I realize that I'm probably stepping on some toes here, but this is important enough to do that. If a Christian truly believes that he just needs to pray more in order to get what he wants, he's probably not praying the way Jesus wants us to pray. He's probably just yelling at God, not listening to God.


These spiritual matters aren't about us -- they're about God. Are we willing to submit ourselves to God's will and work? The disciples weren't (at that time), and thus the were helpless to cast out this demon. They needed to cry out to God to help their unbelief.

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