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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Christ rebukes and teaches the unbelieving generation
Text:Mark 9:14-32 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 122
Hymn 62:3
Psalm 78:1-4
Hymn 53
Psalm 81:1-4, 14

Reading:  Exodus 32
Text:  Mark 9:14-32
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Moses had been on the mountain for a long time.  He was supposed to be meeting God there.  However, after a while, the people began to think that Moses was gone for good.  They became impatient.  So they went to the second-in-command, to Aaron, the brother of Moses.  They asked him to make gods for them to worship.  And surprisingly there was no argument from Aaron.  He took their gold jewellery and made a calf and then told the people that this was Yahweh and they should now worship it.  They did.  They held a debauched feast where they worshipped the golden idol they called Yahweh.  Moses came down the mountain and was outraged that the people would so quickly turn to an idol in his absence. 

Similarly Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration to find that things were not going the way they should either.  No, his disciples and the other people hadn’t made a golden calf to represent Yahweh.  There was no gross debauchery, no wild party going on.  But yet there was evidence of unbelief and it leads to an expression of frustration from the Lord Jesus.  In our text, he confronts this unbelief of his generation.  We’ll see that as he does this, he also speaks to the unbelief in our own hearts.  The text can be summarized with this theme:

Christ rebukes and teaches the unbelieving generation

 We’ll see that here he reveals more of his:

1.      Power to heal

2.      Path to hell and back

So Jesus came down from the mountain and found things going sideways.  There was a debate going on.  A debate between the nine disciples left on the ground (remember: Peter, James, and John had been on the mountain with Jesus) and the teachers of the law or the scribes.  The debate had to do with the disciples’ inability to heal a young man possessed with a demon.  Earlier on the Lord Jesus had sent out the disciples with authority over demons.  They had been given his power to perform exorcisms.  Mark 6:13 tells us that they used this power and authority successfully on many occasions.  But on the day of our text they ran up against a wall.  And the teachers of the law made hay out of it.  They seized on the apparent impotency and inability of Jesus’ disciples.  They claimed that this clearly showed that there was nothing to these disciples.  When they came up against a real demon, they were powerless.  Likely they insinuated that the previous cases were just apparent demons.  Here’s a real demon and they’re hopeless.  By this, of course, they were also making a statement about the power and authority of Jesus.  The disciples didn’t have any innate ability to perform exorcisms.  Their power and authority had come from above, from Christ.    Their inability reflected on him. 

When Jesus enters the situation, the people see him and throng him with amazement.  Some say that they were “overwhelmed with wonder” because his clothes still had some residual glory clinging to them.  Verse 3 of chapter 9 says that his clothes were dazzling white while he was on the mountain and his glory was revealed.  However, to say that the amazement here has to do with any residual glory is saying too much, it’s just not in the text.  It’s possible mind you, but it’s also possible that the people are just excited to see Jesus.  They run for him.

He arrives and wants to get to the bottom of what the argument is all about.  The answer doesn’t come from the Scribes or the disciples, but from the desperate father whose son is possessed by a demon.  He addresses Jesus in the most respectful way, calling him Teacher or Rabbi.  He says that his son has a demon that has caused him to be mute – he can’t speak.  Later on we find that deafness is also there.  He can’t speak and he can’t hear because of this demon.  Moreover, this demon does violent things to the young man.  The demon throws him to the ground, causes what looks like a seizure.  He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth and becomes stiff.  As if things couldn’t get any worse, a bit further on we read that this demon even throws the boy into fire and water and tries to kill him. 

This is an awful predicament.  This boy is in the grip of a vicious, deadly evil.  It’s probably just a matter of time before he dies because of it.

Faced with this evil, the disciples were hopeless, unable to help.  The man had wanted Jesus to help, but he was up on the mountain, unavailable.  So the disciples made an effort, but it was fruitless. 

It’s at this point that Jesus utters his words of frustration:  “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?”  Who is the “unbelieving generation” that he’s speaking about?  It’s all these people gathered around him, the scribes, the disciples, the crowd, even the father.  But it’s especially the disciples and the teachers of the law.  The inability and powerlessness of the disciples reflects their sagging faith.  The argumentativeness of the teachers of the law reflects their unbelief with regards to Jesus’ power that had been imparted to the disciples.  The Lord Jesus is tired of all this and he is frustrated with human sin and lack of faith.  But despite his frustration, in his mercy he commands the boy to be brought to him.  He has compassion on him. 

Standing in front of Jesus, the demon struck another blow at the boy.  It threw him into another seizure, making him fall to the ground and causing him to roll around and foam at the mouth.  Some have said that the boy suffered from epilepsy.  But because medical knowledge wasn’t very advanced in Jesus’ day, people attributed this illness to demons.  However, the inspired Word of God tells us that this boy had a demon.  The Word doesn’t lie.  God tells us that his problem was with an evil spirit.  But yet there are similarities to epilepsy, to be sure.  There’s no doubt that this demon caused terrible seizures.  And if you’ve ever seen someone have a grand mal seizure, you know how disturbing it can look.  Violent epileptic seizures are ugly and they can send shivers up your spine.

Jesus asked the father about how long the boy had been suffering with this.  “From childhood” comes the reply.  In other words, for several years already.  Imagine being this father and seeing your son daily being attacked by a demon in a vicious and ugly way.  By the way, Luke adds that this was his only son. 

Loved ones, there’s a picture here of sin and evil and what it’s done to God’s good creation, and what it’s done to us.  Today in our context, Satan doesn’t like to use violent and ugly in-your-face methods of corrupting our lives.  Today he prefers to go the more subtle route.  Sin and evil are often domesticated.  We don’t see demons causing violent seizures and deafness and muteness.  But yet don’t be fooled: Satan is working.  He prefers to work quietly behind the scenes to destroy our lives, he prowls around like a lion on the hunt.  Working with what some have called “respectable sins,” or working with our private and secret sins.  But make no mistake, the result is ultimately the same:  violent death and destruction.  Satan is seeking to devour us.  This explicit picture of this young man is a portrait of me and you without the help and power of Christ in our lives.  Without Christ, this demon will take us with him into the fire.  The father in this text sought the help of Christ.  He came to the right address, to the address to which we all need to go, not just once in a while, but every single day.  Brothers and sisters, the words of the father need to be our words to Christ, “take pity on us and help us!”

Those words need to be spoken out of faith.  The father in this case had some faith, but it was mixed with unbelief.  It’s evident right away, when he says, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  He’s not sure if Jesus can do anything.  But if he can, he’s hoping that he will. 

The Lord Jesus seizes on those words, “if you can,” and hooks into them because that’s really the central point here.  Is Jesus able to drive out this demon and heal this boy?  Does he have the ability?  Then he says, “With regard to that “if you can,” everything is possible for him who believes.”  “Everything is possible for him who believes.”

A bunch of years ago, someone gave me a book called The Power of Positive Thinking.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  The author was Norman Vincent Peale.  Peale tried to make the case that you can change the world around you just by thinking differently, thinking more positively.  He tried to make his case also from what the Bible teaches, after all, Peale was a minister in the Reformed Church in America (RCA).  If I remember correctly, this was one of those texts to which he appealed.  “Everything is possible for him who believes.”  By Peale’s reasoning, if only I believe and visualize it to be coming to reality, I can get 100% on that tough exam.  If only I believe, I can find someone who will be my husband or wife.  If only I believe, say, in the powers of the market or my entrepreneurial abilities, I can be successful in my business.  However, loved ones, that wasn’t what Jesus was saying.  This is not about the power of positive thinking.  This is about faith, about trusting God who has the power to do anything and everything that is in accordance with his will. 

The person who believes has to believe in someone or something.  Faith always has an object.  Of course, Jesus is not saying that you have to believe in yourself.  His whole ministry was and is about turning people outside of themselves, turning them to look to him and to God in heaven.  So, if we expand his statement somewhat, “Everything is possible for him who believes in God.”  Of course, that includes believing in the Lord Jesus, since he is God, one person of the holy Trinity.

Then we also need to understand that this statement doesn’t include things that are contrary to the will of God.  So, you couldn’t say, “Everything is possible for him who believes,” so I believe in God and therefore it is possible for me to rip off my boss and get away with it.  It is contrary to the revealed will of God.  And of course, there is also the secret will of God – which we can never know until after the fact.  The “everything that is possible” also has to fit with that, otherwise God is not sovereign.  So, Christ was referring to everything that falls in line with the will of God.  So again, if we were to unfold the statement a bit more, “Everything that falls in line with the will of God is possible for the person who believes in God.”                      

Faced with Christ’s response, the father cried out, “I believe, help my unbelief!” or as our translation puts it, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  The man acknowledges two things.  On the one hand, he has some trust that Christ can do this.  But on the other hand, there’s still lingering unbelief.  He’s a mixed man.  Though we’d all like to be 100% faith 100% of the time, we know that this is our story too.  After all, why do we sin?  Does that have to do with faith or unbelief?  Did we sin because we were looking to Christ at that exact moment?  Don’t we all have moments, many of them in fact, where our thoughts and affections are not anywhere near Christ?  We all know that it’s true.  So, the cry of this father here needs to be ours too, “Lord Jesus, we believe, but we’re so often still struggling with believing in you all the time.”  That cry is the way of humility, humbling recognizing that in this age we still are sinners and we do struggle.

The Lord Jesus responded favourably, he had compassion on both the boy and his father.  He saw that a crowd was gathering and because this period of his ministry was not to be about the crowds and drawing them in with miracles, he acted quickly.  He rebuked the demon.  He spoke to the deaf spirit and his words were words of power that this deaf spirit could not but hear.  He commanded the demon to come out of the boy and never to return.  The mute spirit cried out with a shriek, one last vain protest, and shook the boy one last time and then came out.  Afterwards, the boy appeared to be dead.  But Jesus gently took him by the hand and raised him up to life.  In fact, the words that are used there by Mark to describe this are the same words used elsewhere to describe the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of believers.  The message is clear:  Christ is the one who has not only the willingness, but also the power to heal and to raise up.  That’s a message for us too, brothers and sisters.  The gospel proclaims to us that we have a Saviour with power, one who can overcome and subdue all forms of evil in our lives and raise us up to live with him in newness of life.  We’re called again to rest and trust in this Saviour, the only one who can do this. 

Contrasted with him, we find the disciples.  They go to a private place in a house somewhere and then they have the opportunity to talk over what just happened with Jesus.  They asked him, “Why couldn’t we drive out that evil spirit?”  The disciples thought that they had been given power by Jesus to perform exorcisms.  But this time they came up short.  Why? 

Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.”  Now if you have your Bible open you’ll see that the NIV says, “only by prayer.”  And then there is a footnote to the bottom of the page.  That footnote says, “Some manuscripts prayer and fasting.”  That footnote doesn’t tell the whole story.  The reality is that most Greek manuscripts of the New Testament say “prayer and fasting.”  In fact, almost all.  There are only a few that don’t.  I’m convinced that Jesus said, “prayer and fasting.”  Jesus spoke about fasting in chapter 2 of Mark.  He didn’t say that there was anything wrong with fasting, just that there are appropriate and inappropriate times for fasting.  From this passage here in chapter 9, we learn that for these disciples, faced with a powerful demon without Jesus present, this would have been an appropriate time to devote themselves to prayer and fasting.  The disciples can’t begin to think that they have some kind of innate power to perform exorcisms.  They can only do so in dependence upon God. A time of prayer and fasting leads one to be more acutely aware of one’s dependence on God and his power.  It can be a time of growing in faith and trust, so that this kind of exorcism is possible.

In our struggles with the devil, the world and our own flesh, we also need to be growing in our dependence on God.  Like the disciples, we don’t have any innate strength or power to put up resistance against these enemies.  We need help from above.  We need help from the Holy Spirit, from Christ and from his Word.  We need our Father to give us strength.  Brothers and sisters, like the disciples our great need is for prayerful dependence on God. 

And what about fasting?  Does it have a place in our lives too?  Fasting is never prohibited in Scripture.  It’s also never commanded for New Testament believers.  However, it is commended.  Not commanded, but commended.  In Matthew 6, the Lord commends fasting, he assumes that his followers will fast, “When you fast, etc.”  And then he gives direction as to how Christians will fast.  They’re to do it secretly.  They’re to use it as a time to grow in recognizing their dependence on God.  It seems to me that we don’t talk much about fasting and that could be a good thing.  Fasting should never draw attention to itself; those who practice fasting in a spiritual way shouldn’t be speaking about it and promoting it.  But it could also be (and I think this is more likely) that fasting is seen as something extreme and radical and even inappropriate for Christians.  Which would be kind of odd since we have a prayer in the back of our Book of Praise for “Days of Fasting and Prayer.”  If we think that fasting is strange or radical, perhaps we need to rethink it.  Obviously there is a place for it, not only in the Bible, but also in our Reformed heritage drawn from the Bible. 

Before moving on, I would just say that for some people fasting is not a good idea.  For some people fasting could be very foolish or even sinful.  I’m thinking here especially of people who’ve struggled with eating disorders.  The Bible mentions fasting, but it’s not a weight-loss technique or an image-management technique – to keep you looking good so that people don’t comment about how you look except in a positive way.  Biblical fasting is about your relationship with God and deepening your dependence on him.  If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, please don’t fall back into it by hearing about fasting here and thinking this is what you are called to do, as if it is a command from God.  That would be a rationalization that could lead you back into slavery and idolatry, away from dependence on God and a growing, healthy relationship with him through Christ.            

Back to our text.  Jesus and his disciples left wherever it was that they were staying and moved on, passing through Galilee.  But as they travelled, Jesus wanted anonymity and privacy.  He was moving towards Jerusalem and his date with the cross.  He had to prepare his disciples for what was to come.  He told them again about was going to happen.  He was going to suffer and die and then rise from the dead on the third day. 

According to Mark, this was the third time that Jesus had spoken explicitly about his suffering, death, and resurrection.  There is a new element at this occasion.  It comes in the first thing that Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.”  Judas Iscariot was introduced earlier in Mark as the one who would betray Jesus, but his disciples didn’t know that.  This was the first time that they heard that Jesus was somehow going to be betrayed.  You can imagine that this would raise all kinds of questions for them.  Betrayed?  By who?  Who would do that?  Who would pretend to be Jesus’ friend and then turn out to be his enemy, the one who sold him out?  By this time they knew that Jesus had lots of enemies, after all they had just been debating with some of them, with the teachers of the law.  Jesus will be betrayed and he will be killed.  He’s speaking here about his descent into hellish suffering.  But there is light after this darkness:  he will rise again after three days.  He gives the promise of his resurrection.

But look at what happens with this unbelieving generation.  They don’t believe it, they don’t even understand it.  For whatever reason, they’re afraid to ask Jesus to explain it further to them.  Perhaps they remember the way that Jesus rebuked Peter when Peter objected to Jesus’ teaching about his suffering back in Mark 8.  Who would want to be on the receiving end of a similar rebuke?  So, that could be the reason why they don’t ask.  Whatever the case may be, the matter is left hanging.

What’s clear to us is that Jesus is on the road to the cross.  From here on in, things don’t get easier for him or for the disciples.  Challenges lay ahead.  For us, united to Christ, we face the same road in this life.  In this age, we don’t go on from glory to glory in the worldly sense, but through suffering and struggle to glory.  The apostles came to realize this too.  Paul and Barnabas told the early Christians, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”  Those are hard words to understand and accept.  But they are true words and they define the identity and experience of believers in this age.  And we need to remember that Jesus also spoke of his glorious resurrection – like him, we too have a promise of future glory.  Today already we are alive through him, and the day will come when our bodies will be raised imperishable and perfect like his body. 

Brothers and sisters, as we hear these things, let’s try not to be the unbelieving generation.  Let’s aim instead at accepting what our Lord Jesus teaches us in faith, asking him to help us with our remaining unbelief.  As we trust him, even with the smallest of faiths, he promises to come to our aid and help us.  AMEN.


O Lord Jesus, our Teacher,

We are in desperate need of your help today and everyday.  We ask you to take pity on us and help us in our struggles with sin and evil in our lives.  Please show us your compassion.  O Saviour, we do believe.  Help us to overcome our unbelief.  Help us to understand and believe the teachings of your Word.  Please deliver us from the evil one and from the world and from our own sinful flesh.  We pray that you would help us with your Spirit so that we depend on you and can stand strong against temptations and sin in our lives.  And we earnestly pray that you would quickly bring the age to come and the fullness of your redemption.  We look forward to seeing you with our own eyes in glorified bodies.

O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we also bring to you our thanksgivings and our intercessions with regard to the life of our congregation...   

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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