He Who Must Be Obeyed
He Who Must Be Obeyed
It was probably 20 years ago; I was sound asleep one night when the phone rang. I grabbed blindly for the receiver, clattering on the phone cradle, but I was so far under that I couldn't really wake up. I got the phone to my ear but didn't say anything. Then I heard a voice, flat and menacing. He just said, "You thought we'd forgotten you." I was desperately trying to wake up, but I couldn't clear my head. On the phone there was just silence, but I was sure he was still there. My mind was racing to think who might be threatening me. The man who got angry a few weeks ago when we wouldn't give him money? I was getting scared, very scared. The silence continued as I fought to come to. I sensed this was something dark, something diabolical.
I couldn't even speak, but somehow I simply blurted out, "Jesus!" Suddenly, it all went away. I came wide awake and realized I did not have the phone in my hand, that it was still across the room. Yet I knew that what had happened was more than a dream. I wasn't frightened. I was exhilarated at the power of Jesus' name. It was a kind of adrenaline rush. I got up, turned on the bathroom light, washed my face, and cleared my head. Then I went back to bed. I felt a great peace. As I was falling back asleep I heard a melody in my mind. It was beautiful, like a lullaby. I recognized it but couldn't place it. The next morning it came to me: It was a tune from Les Miserables, and the words, which I didn't even fully know then, are "You will keep me safe, and you will keep me close; I'll sleep in your embrace at last." I've always felt that my heavenly Father hummed me to sleep that night. That night I saw the power of Jesus' name over evil.
Today, in our study of Mark, we come down from the mountain top where Jesus was transfigured to a tragic defeat. Turn to Mark 9:14-29. This is a vivid, heartbreaking story of Satan's demonic powers. These stories, which are common in the Gospels, are mysterious to us because we don't see these kinds of evil manifestations very often, although I can assure you from my own experience that they still happen. Some people, of course, think these stories of demons are just describing psychological issues mislabeled by a superstitious ancient culture. But the Bible teaches that Satan is living and active, reigning over this earth, not from hell as most people think—which is the last place he wants to be—but as "the prince of the power of the air." And under his control is a vast army of personal and powerful demons—fallen angels. Most of the time, Satan works in this world through subtle lies and disguised destruction, but whether he works subtly or visibly as in this story, it is the lot of Jesus' followers to confront and defeat this dark, powerful, and ruthless enemy in Jesus' name.
The reality of evil spirits
In the story of Mark 9:14-18, there is a diabolical conspiracy. Jesus, Peter, James, and John have still not returned from their trip up the mountain. The nine disciples who waited below have been ambushed on one side by diabolically inspired teachers of the law attacking Jesus' authority as well as that of his disciples. Jesus even said on one occasion that these men were "children of their father the devil." And then this demonized boy is brought to them, traumatized by an unclean spirit more powerful than any the disciples had faced before. But they did not know that. This story makes vivid that evil is not an impersonal force. This demon, a "deaf and mute spirit," silenced this boy's world. He heard nothing. He said nothing. Plus, it could turn the boy's body against him, seizing him with paroxysms of sizzling nerves and freezing muscles. And then in those seizures, it would try to throw the boy "into fire or water to kill him." Not all diseases or seizures are demonic, of course, but this was. The goal of the demon was to ruin and to kill that boy. No wonder Satan is called the destroyer.
Whether he works through demons like this or in other ways, Satan is always brutal, merciless, and cruel. He will torment the helpless. He will take children. He will victimize victims. Like a vandal in an art gallery, Satan will take a hammer and blade to the bodies and souls of people made in God's image. He defies God and he claws desperately for God's place of glory. He hates, above all else, Jesus Christ and the salvation he so freely offers the lost. So Christians must confront him.
But the problem here in this story is not actually the terrible torment that the unclean spirit inflicted on the boy. The problem is that the disciples of Jesus couldn't stop it. When Jesus shows up, look at his reaction in verse 19: "O unbelieving generation! How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?" Everyone there could be indicted as "unbelieving" by Jesus' standards, but it was Jesus' disciples who had no excuse, which is why this should have our attention, because we're his disciples too.
It is not Satan's terrible power that stymies Jesus' followers, but rather our unbelief (9:19). Perhaps you remember that Jesus' disciples had been charged by Jesus himself with casting out demons like this. Look at Mark 3:14-15: "And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons." Later, 6:7 says: "And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits." And verses 12-13 say, "So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them." So when this demonized boy is brought to them—well, no problem, right? But it didn't work. I'm sure they said what they'd always said, and I'm sure they fully expected to see the boy delivered as they'd seen other times, but this time nothing. The teachers of the law smirked, and the demon lurked. And Jesus' disciples were helpless and clueless.
This story messes with our understanding of unbelief, which is good, because we tend to be too simplistic about what faith is and what it isn't. Think about what the disciples did believe. They did believe that Jesus was God's Messiah. They did believe he was more powerful than Satan; they had seen that with their own eyes. They did believe that he was willing to come to the aid of those who suffered, like this boy. They did believe that they were authorized to defeat Satan's power in Jesus' name; they had done so on other occasions. I'm convinced that when they commanded the demon to come out of the boy that they had no doubt whatsoever that it would obey. Frankly, it is hard to see how Jesus could accuse them of unbelief.
Unbelief can be polluted faith
Unbelief is not always about what we do not believe. Sometimes it is about what negates our faith, what undoes it, what neutralizes the potency of the things we believe. Unbelief can be real faith polluted. We all know things which lose their potency, their power, by what is added rather than what is taken away: wet gun-powder, fertile ground saturated by toxic waste, prescriptions past their due date. There are three pollutants in this story that turn our faith to unbelief.
Look again at the disciples. While no one thought of it this way at the time, their failure to cast out the demon was a failure to follow Jesus. They could not do what Jesus had told them to do. So what happened? What went wrong? Perhaps the central verse in this whole book that defines what it is to follow Jesus is Mark 8:34. When we fail in following Jesus, it is always because we failed to "deny ourselves and take up our cross." That has to be what went wrong here. My hunch is that rather than being moved with compassion for that tormented boy, they were out to prove their authority to those teachers of the law who were haranguing them. Instead of saying, "We're nothing without Jesus," they set out to prove their spiritual potency to those diabolical critics. But whatever it was, they were powerless because their faith was fouled with the toxic sludge of self-confidence and polluted by their need to prove something, to be important and vindicated. They still believed in Jesus, but it wasn't just about Jesus anymore. And that is polluted faith. That is unbelief.
Now there is this precious father in verses 20-27. The other Gospels add two tender details: (1) that this was his only child, and (2) that he fell on his knees before Jesus. He brought his tormented son to Jesus because he believed Jesus could help. He came because he had faith. But his faith, too, was polluted by his long desperation and defeat, and probably by Jesus' own disciples' powerlessness to help. That has probably happened with your faith as well. A long and painful ordeal has that effect. It throws toxic doubt into our faith, till the only thing we can pray to God is, "If you can do anything …." But Jesus put the ball back in the father's court: "Everything is possible for him who believes," and the clear implication is "who believes in me." And oh how we identify with the father's exclamation, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief." That outburst was a prayer, a wonderful prayer. And it was an antitoxin. It was pollution control for the heart.
Did Jesus answer his prayer? He certainly did! Jesus delivered the man's son, and then when the boy laid there lifeless, Jesus raised him up to his feet. We're staring in amazement at that boy, but in that moment the father's prayer for himself was also answered. Jesus helped him overcome his unbelief. When our faith is diluted by our desperation and defeat, take up this father's humble prayer. This is the prayer the disciples should have prayed. If you cannot believe God will give you all that he has promised, believe at least that Jesus will help your unbelief if you ask him, because nothing is more important for Jesus' disciples than unpolluted faith.
There is one more interesting detail in this story, verses 28-29. There was some sense in which this was a particularly powerful demon. "Kind" in Greek has the sense of "this class" or "this type." Apparently this spirit was in a different league than others they'd faced. It didn't excuse their unbelief, but it did explain why this spirit had been more resistant than others they had faced. Even in their failure, it had not occurred to the disciples to pray. I assume that in the past they had simply said something like, "In the name of Jesus, come out of him." That would still work, but only if they prayed first. When Matthew retells this part of the story, Jesus tells the puzzled disciples that they had failed "because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed you can tell a mountain to move. Nothing will be impossible for you." That was Jesus' diagnosis. Here in Mark he gives us the medicine: pray.
Prayerlessness leaves weak faith helpless. So what were they supposed to pray? I think the point of praying was to bring Jesus near, to see Jesus large and powerful, to ask God for his power; not so much to overcome the evil, but to overcome their own unbelief. Acts 4 tells how the early church came under fierce attack, not from demons, but from "the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem." So the believers prayed. In their prayer they quoted Scripture. They recounted God's sovereign power at work, even in the death of Jesus. Then they prayed, "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant, Jesus." And then it says in verse 31, "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." That is why, in the face of fierce opposition from the enemy, we pray. We don't pray against the enemy, we pray for our own refreshed authority in Christ.
Like I said earlier, unbelief is not always about what we do not believe. For Christians, unbelief is often polluted faith, faith that has lost its potency. That happens when we disciples fail to "deny ourselves and take up our cross." That happens when desperation and defeat leaves us doubting the Lord's ability or desire to conquer the power of Satan that torments us. That happens when in the face of fierce, dark power, we fail to pray.
Maybe you remember Bonita Che, a young woman who attended our church a couple of years ago. She came to Christ through Christian professors at a secular university in China and then came to study at Trinity. Now she works among Chinese students at Northwestern University. Recently she wrote, "Yang, a first-year graduate student at Northwestern University, shared that she believes Jesus is her Savior after our Tuesday Bible storytelling meeting. For sixteen weeks, Yang faithfully came to our Bible storytelling group, even when it was freezing cold. She had to walk fifteen minutes to get to our meeting since she didn't have a car. When I asked her why she was so eager to study the Bible, she answered, "I like physics. The more I studied physics, the more I realized there is a God."
The part of the story that came to mind this week was this: "Five months ago at our very first Bible storytelling meeting, Yang learned her first Bible story: 'Jesus heals the demon-possessed man.' When our group leader asked, 'who wants to act out the story?' Yang responded with great eagerness: 'I want to be Jesus!'" In facing the terrible power of the enemy in this world, we want to be Jesus. But we have to be careful, because when we do not deny ourselves and take up our crosses, we become only weak imitations of the Master we follow. But when we're small, when we pray for Jesus to cure our unbelief, when we pray God's truth into life in our hearts, like a man blowing on glowing embers till they flame, well, then people will see Jesus Christ in us, and he will lay low the terrible power of Satan when we confront it.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.