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Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 1: Tests of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 6, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Mark 9:14-29
During the spring quarter, faith will be the theme of the lessons. The lesson series itself is called “The Gift of Faith” as it is seen in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Our studies will center on three units: “Tests of Faith” (Mark); “Restorative Faith” (Luke); and “Fullness of Faith” (Luke). Is it going to be a meaningful study, and, in preparation, I encourage class members to read the Gospels of Mark and Luke.
Immediately preceding today’s scripture lesson, Mark 9:14-29, is the disciples’ reaction to the Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John have seen Jesus gloriously transfigured before their very eyes but still do not understand who He is. Our reading begins as they and Jesus rejoin the other disciples. According to scholars, this exorcism story seems to be one more piece of evidence that the disciples do not yet have the faith they need.
Our lesson summary is comprised of four scenes. Scene one (9:14-19) begins with crowds gathered around the inept disciples, engaged in a debate, and concludes in Jesus’ lament over this faithless generation. Scene two (9:20-24) brings Jesus face to face with a desperate father and climaxes with the man’s moving confession of uncertain faith. Scene three (9:25-27) shows faith at work as Jesus drives out a spirit that has tormented the boy and struck him down as dead. And scene four (9:28, 29) returns to the disciples’ failure to achieve the exorcism themselves and connects their failure to insufficient prayer.
The disciples fail – again
It is no surprise that in Mark’s narrative the disciples cannot exercise God’s power. They have misunderstood practically everything Jesus has done and said since chapter 4. Consequently, it is only a short step from their misunderstandings to their lack of accomplishing wonders in his name. While Mark does not explicitly tell us why they misunderstood and cannot exercise the powers of God as they once did, scholars do suggest that some reasons for the disciples’ failure are rather obvious from reading the entirety of Mark.
Initially, the disciples are not able to understand Jesus and exercise God’s power because they have not yet seen the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Mark, no one can understand who Jesus is and what he means for the world without seeing his death and resurrection. It’s only through the lens of those acts of God that the life and teachings of Jesus make sense.
An example is that in the previous chapter (8:29), Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, but fails to grasp the meaning of that identification of Jesus. For as soon as Jesus accepts that title, he informs the disciples that he must suffer and die. Immediately, Peter rejects this concept of a suffering and dying Messiah. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!” (8:33). The point here is that those who would know Christ and the power of God that comes through him, must keep his death and resurrection in view. It is only through those events that believers have access to the power of God in their lives. And this is also true for us in the church today. We experience the presence of God through the crucified and risen Christ.
Another reason for the disciples’ failure is that they misunderstand the nature of Christian leadership. Almost immediately after this episode, the disciples argue about who will be the greatest in the kingdom (9:33-37). Jesus calls them out and asserts that Christian leadership involves being the servant of others. Real Christian leadership has nothing to do with privilege and everything to do with ministry.
Still, another failure of the disciples has to do with an unknown exorcist. They encounter an exorcist they have never seen before who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and “they try to stop him because he is not following them!” As it turns out, these disciples are making the same prideful, competitive mistake they have previously made. If someone is not part of their particular group, then how dare that someone claim to do anything in the name of Jesus.
But Jesus’ response confirms how badly the disciples have failed to comprehend. He simply says that if people are doing good in Jesus’ name, leave them alone.
Now, Jesus seems at first to attribute the disciples’ failure to cast out the boy’s demon to the faithlessness of the generation (9:19). This viewpoint, however, doesn’t fit in with the end of the story when the disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast it out. There, Jesus indicates that this was a powerful demon and prayer must be involved.
Jesus responds even through wavering faith
Dwight L. Moody said that there are three kinds of faith. There is struggling faith, like a person in deep water desperately swimming; clinging faith, like a person hanging to the side of a boat; and resting faith, like a person safely within the boat and able to reach out and help others get in. Truthfully, many of us experience all three kinds of faith and move back and forth between them. Ultimately, however, Mark’s Gospel intends to lead us to a resting faith, but makes it clear that it can only happen by divine aid.
The heart of the story before us comes in verses 22-24, which is the exchange between Jesus and the boy’s father. The father asks Jesus to help them, “If you are able.” This lack of certainty seems entirely normal given that the disciples have just failed. But Jesus gives a “thumbs down” on this doubt and states, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”
As scholars give reminder, the father’s response reflects the outlook of the disciples at this point in Mark’s narration. It also reflects the faith of the people in Mark’s church. They have some faith and some doubt. And isn’t that also true of a number of us in our churches today?
At first, it sounds like Jesus is saying that strong faith is needed to receive healing – “All things can be done for the one who believes.” But when Jesus heals the son after the father’s admission, “I believe; help my unbelief,” it becomes clear that such is not the case. The father confesses his lack of faith and asks for the gift of more faith. And immediately Jesus heals his son.
Do we understand? Even if faith is wavering, it is still sufficient for the power of Jesus to heal.
An additional note of importance is that the father does not ask for his own healing, but for that of another. He has faith on behalf of his son, and Jesus responds to his faith and heals his son. As we are reminded, in this story the faith of one person mediates the healing presence of Christ for another person.
Another example of this truth is found earlier in Mark 2:1-12 where the faith of friends is responsible for Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed man.
For me, and most likely you, it is of great comfort to know that today’s lesson assures us that Christ can work through us even if our faith wavers and is incomplete. Faith comes as a gift and is sustained by the power of Jesus, the same power that can cast out the evil that enslaved the boy.
“Only Through Prayer”
The father in this story gets it and throws himself on Jesus’ mercy. However, the disciples still fail to understand. They have not been able to cure the boy, but to their credit want to know why. When they ask Jesus why they had failed, he explains, “This kind can come out only through prayer” (9:29).
Now, considering verse 19, we might expect Jesus to criticize these disciples for their failure. But, instead, Jesus says that this was a powerful demon that comes out only with prayer.
Thus, the cause of the disciples’ power failure becomes clear in this final scene: the disciples had deficient faith and insufficient prayer.
Now, the prayer that Jesus has in mind is not merely something of a pious exercise. Rather, it is a sense of total dependence on God from which all sincere prayer derives. A life of prayer goes hand in hand with all effective ministry. And this kind of prayer is not a special momentary prayer, but a prayerful life itself. Everything is permeated with prayerfulness.
Most scholars think that Jesus’ response concerning prayer reflects the way that Mark’s community performs exorcisms: they pray over them. Mark, then, has Jesus affirm this way of bringing the healing power of God to desperate situations – either evil or otherwise. Here, Jesus affirms the power of faithful intercessory prayer.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- Why couldn’t the disciples cast out the boy’s demon?
- What role did prayer play in this healing?
- What do the actions and teachings of Jesus here teach us about our own faith?