The Greatest Disciple

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (Mark 9.33-34)

We are firmly in the second section of Mark’s gospel which goes from the second part of Mark 8 through Mark 10.  In this section, two main things are happening, first, Jesus and the disciples are heading up to Jerusalem to face what Jesus knows is coming.  The second thing we see again and again in this second section of Mark is the disciples’ inability to comprehend what Jesus message is, and what it means for them.

At the beginning of this very chapter, Peter, James, and John see Christ transfigured before their very eyes in such a way that he reflects the glory of God the Father, surely they should understand Jesus’ ministry and message now, right?  Not so much.  When Jesus explains that he will go to Jerusalem and be killed and rise again, the meaning of his words completely escapes them.

Now we discover that they are arguing about which one of them will be the greatest!  It’s kind of a funny scene on one level.  Jesus asks them what they have been talking about and they all stand around in awkward silence.  Who wants to admit that they’ve been in a deep discussion about which one exactly will be the greatest disciple? To the reader this event takes on even greater meaning because we know that Mark 10.45 is just around the corner.  This is the key verse in the whole gospel and explains what Mark really wants us to understand about Jesus and his purpose.

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It’s pretty safe to say that the disciples haven’t quite grasped what Jesus has been trying to teach them yet.

Here is something else to think about. This incident is good evidence of the trustworthiness of Mark’s gospel (and of the gospels in general).  Would you include this incident about your own [or in Mark’s case your acquaintances’] aspirations for grandeur and subsequent embarrassment if it wasn’t a true story?  The disciples write about their inability to understand Jesus and the embarrassment it causes them because it is true.

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Mark – Overview

 

This excellent overview of Mark is put out by The Bible Project.  Sure I should have posted it at the beginning of my study of the book, but hey, I had never even heard of the Bible project before then…

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Being Skeptical of Your Skepticism

And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”” (Mark 9:23–24, ESV)

The desperate father’s reaction to Jesus words, All things are possible for one who believes, is the reason that he is one of my favorite characters in the gospels.  Perhaps I identify with him because he is a lot like me.

The man understands Jesus’ words to him.  He is in a hopeless position with a boy who is under the influence of the demonic which is out to destroy the boy.  Jesus tells him that there is a way forward for him and for the boy, the way of belief.  The man understands in his heart, but his head hasn’t quite caught up with his heart yet.  He believes, he wants to believe, he wants to think that Jesus really can free his son from his bondage to the spiritual forces of darkness, but his head is having a difficult time with what his heart wants, thus his all to human and honest cry, I believe; help my unbelief!

I love this.  I can’t think of a better more honest answer than the one that comes out of the mouth of this father.  He admits his problem, his head simply can’t wrap itself around the fact that Jesus can simply make his life-long, awful, hopeless problem go away with a command.  He also admits his belief.  He does believe in his heart that Jesus can do what he says, even if his head hasn’t quite caught up yet.  At this moment he is doubting his own doubts and this is important to grasp.

It’s inevitable that when someone comes into contact with the message of the gospel that they are skeptical about it.  I heard about a man who came to faith by picking up the Bible and beginning to read it when he was in a difficult life situation.  Afterwards, he began to attend church and even talked his unbelieving wife to attend an Easter service with him.  At the service there was a clear presentation of the gospel and as the pair walked out of the meeting, the wife turned to the husband and asked, “Is that what you believe?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“You’re crazy,” was her response.

She understood in her head the gospel message, but it made no sense.  She was skeptical of it. She did not believe.  She was not convinced.  The way forward for her and for any skeptic is to be as skeptical of one’s skepticism as one is of the gospel message.  Tim Keller explains:

The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it. How do you know your belief is true? It would be inconsistent to require more justification for Christian belief than you do for your own, but that is frequently what happens. In fairness, you must doubt your doubts. My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs — you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared. [The Reason for God]

The man’s wife couldn’t bring herself to doubt her own doubts and so, at least for the present, her mind was closed off to the message of faith in Jesus.

This father who was willing to do anything to help his son, came to doubt his own doubts as to whether or not Jesus could help his son.  The end result for him:

And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, 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.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.” (Mark 9:25–27, ESV)

The unclean spirit had to obey the Son of God, and he did obey. The man received back his son in his right mind and completely free.

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The Antidote for a “Faithless Generation”

And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”” (Mark 9:17–19, ESV)

We see mainly three individuals in the story of the boy under the influence of an unclean spirit.  We see:

  • A desperate father
  • A demon-influenced son
  • An apparently impatient and frustrated Jesus.

I want to think about impatient and frustrated Jesus for a minute.  That is how he appears doesn’t he?  There is an argument going on between some of Jesus’ disciples and some scribes and a crowd has gathered and things are hectic and out of control and we eventually discover that all of this is due to the fact that a man brought his son who is influenced by a demon and Jesus’ disciples could not cast out the demon.

Jesus’ reaction seems to demonstrate his frustration with the crowd/disciples/scribes: O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? I wonder if we are reading this situation correctly if all we see is impatience from Jesus.  I think Jesus knows exactly what he is doing and he has this reaction, not first and foremost because of impatience or frustration, but because he wants to teach the crowd/disciples/scribes/this desperate father something.

Look what happens when Jesus calls the boy to himself and deals directly with the father:

 If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us, pleads the father.

Jesus says: ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”

In the Greek the word that is translated “faithless” and the word that is translated “believes,” come from the same Greek root word meaning “to believe to the extent of complete trust and reliance” [Louw-Nida].  The “faithless generation” was a generation that did not believe to the extent of complete trust and reliance.  Jesus then turns around and gives the crowd/scribes/disciples/desperate father the antidote to being a “faithless generation.”  The antidote was belief, which is to say complete trust and reliance on Jesus.

Throughout the gospels and whenever Jesus is teaching and wherever he is calling men to faith and belief, it is always in himself.  He isn’t calling them to believe in something like the greater good, or believe that mankind can be a good force, or even believe in belief.  He calls them to belief in a person and that person is himself.

I think that Jesus, as he always did, was using this incident to teach that the problem that virtually every person witnessing this incident had [scribes, disciples, crowd, desperate father, demon-influenced son] was that they had seen or heard of his works, they had heard his teaching, they should have believed, they should have understood that he was the Son of God, but they did not.  They were faithless.  They were unbelieving.

It’s in light of that fact that we get a better understanding of Jesus’ reaction.  How long would he have to bear with this generation who had the privilege of hearing him teach, seeing him heal, watching his life, and they still did not believe in him.  If all of that didn’t produce faith, what would?

 

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The Influence of the Demonic

And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”” (Mark 9:20–22, ESV)

Mark 9.14-29 is an encounter that Jesus and his disciples have with some argumentative scribes, a crowd of people, and an unnamed father who has a son that is under the influence of an unclean spirit.  The only thing that we learn about how the child came under the influence of an unclean spirit [or a demon] is that it had been a problem “from childhood.”  We are not told how the demon came to influence the boy, or why, just when.  This seems to be the pattern throughout the gospels.  We see many people that have come under the influence of the demonic, but we are never told how they came under that influence.

We experience the same thing in our day.  While we do not see a lot of overt demonic behavior in western culture [due, we suspect, to the fact that the Devil has more than one way to reach his aims] the occult and the demonic is still a huge factor in third world cultures and actually a growing factor in western culture as we cast off more and more of Judeo-Christian norms.  We do know that one way to come under the influence of the demonic is through dabbling in the occult.  We do not know much beyond that about how an individual person comes under the influence of a demon or demons.

Do not miss the aim of the demonic.  The father says that the unclean spirit has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.  This is universally the aim of the demonic world: destruction.  They are not out to help; they have no desire to build people up and make them into better human beings; when they work and whenever they work it is always for the purpose of destroying and tearing down, never for building up.  This does of course, make sense.  Since the Devil and his minions oppose God, then it would follow that their one unalterable purpose is to try to tear down where God is building up, to destroy where God creates, and to enslave where God offers freedom from slavery.

What is the follower of Christ to do in light of the demonic?  Paul explains:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:12–13, ESV)

We are called to stand firm against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. We stand firm by taking on the whole armor of God.

 

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My Son

And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. (Mark 9.17, ESV)

When we come to this incident between Jesus and the father of a demonized boy, there are one thing that leaps right out when we look at the passage. The man utters one thing and we know that this is no theoretical discussion as if he were asking Jesus what he thought of Herod’s temple.  When the man says that he brought “my son,” the story takes on deadly earnestness because this man has been affected by what is going on with his son.

Anyone who has had a child with physical disabilities will instantly connect with this father. You have experienced the worry about what will become of your child, the normal everyday activities that suddenly become painfully difficult, the disapproval from those who are not in your same situation as if the child wouldn’t have these problems if you weren’t such a lousy parent, the constant grind of life, and the ever present voice of guilt that says “you aren’t handling this correctly.” Surely this father who had no doubt pulled his son physically out of the fire and out of water must have felt the same. He is lonely, as every parent with a disabled child is, he is hopeless, and he will go to any lengths to save his son from this unclean spirit. In short, he is an excellent father. He’s one of my favorite characters in the Scriptures, but that is a topic for another day.

 

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Glory, but Suffering

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.” (Mark 9:2–4)

The purpose of Jesus’  transfiguration was to pull back the curtains for Peter, James, and John and give them a glimpse of what awaited Jesus and those who followed him by faith.  The description in Mark expresses a glory that is unimaginable as he struggles to find words to describe what took place on the mountain.  Chrysostom says that at the transfiguration, “He disclosed, it is said, a glimpse of the Godhead. He manifested to them the God who was dwelling among them.”

Despite the glimpse of the shekinah glory, there was something else coming first and the disciples just could not wrap their brain around this.  On the way down the mountain, Mark tells us:

“And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”” (Mark 9:11–13)

Something had come for the new Elijah [which Jesus had told them was John the Baptist coming in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1.17)] before glory and that was suffering.  John had been beheaded at the command of Herod Antipas.  Jesus goes to great lengths here to not only note what had happened to John, but to connect this to himself, he too will “suffer many things and be treated with contempt.”

Here’s the important part that Jesus doesn’t want the three [or us] to miss:  Suffering is not incompatible with glory. This was a stumbling-block to the disciples because they believed that suffering was weakness and weakness had nothing to do with glory, indeed weakness was the opposite of glory.  As the NIV Application Commentary points out, this event helped them begin to work through this conundrum:

The text invites the interpreter to reflect on how weakness and humiliation go with power and glory. As Paul writes, “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power” (2 Cor. 13:4).

Like the disciples, we are prone to misinterpret Jesus because of our own cultural or theological suppositions.  Indeed, we may think that coming to faith in Christ gives us a pass on all the suffering that is present in the world.  This, of course, is a serious error because eventually we will grind up against the shoals of pain and difficulty that inevitably lay in our wake as we go through life.  David Garland captures this truth very well:

We still live in that world where earthly powers can wreak vengeance against those who oppose them with God’s word. Many Christians will suffer for their faith; others may escape. All must be prepared for wars, famines, arrests, and the siren of false prophets, who lure the elect astray as they carry the gospel to all the nations. Glory awaits them, but they must not begin the celebration too soon. Christians do not live on the mountain but down in the valley, where confusion and mayhem reign and where they must continue to joust with Satan. Yet even in the midst of suffering, God’s presence shines through. [NIV Application Commentary]

Sharing in the glory of Jesus awaits those who follow him by faith. We love to be on the mountain and experience the joys of heaven, but first comes suffering and there is no escaping that fact.

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