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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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,” (Mark 9:2, ESV)

Transfigure – “to change the appearance of a person or thing very much, usually in a very positive and often spiritual way.” (Cambridge English Dictionary)

What does it mean when Mark writes that Jesus “was transfigured before them.”   The Greek word that we translate “transfigured” is metamorphoo [ μεταμορφόω for Greek studs]. It’s from this Greek word that we get the word metamorphosis.  In the Greek the word means “to change the external form,” which is true so far as it goes in this case.  Jesus’ external form was certainly changed, Mark says that “his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.”  Matthew writes that “his face shone like the sun.”

It wasn’t merely that Jesus’ form was changed, however, because suddenly Moses and Elijah show up and begin talking to Jesus.  Luke says that they were talking about his “departure” [the Greek word is exodos ἔξοδος].  So we can say that the discussion was about Jesus’ exodus.  This is important because the events around what we have come to call “the transfiguration,” align very closely with an event in Moses’ life, his journey up to Mount Sinai, which happens during the exodus of Israel from Egypt. In both cases, Moses and Jesus, wait six days; in both cases the cloud of God’s presence is present (Ex.24.15); in both cases the events happen on a mountain, and in both cases the text points out that the physical appearance of Moses and Jesus changed (Ex 34.29).

The events surrounding Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai are supposed to point forward to Jesus’ transfiguration.  In other words, Jesus is leading the New Exodus, he is a greater prophet than Moses. Moses led the Israelites out of captivity into the Promised Land; Jesus came to lead mankind out of slavery to sin and into a restored relationship with God.  The events of the exodus explain the events of Jesus life and the transfiguration, but Jesus goes beyond just simply a new exodus because he is not just another prophet.  He is the God the Son.  The voice from the cloud says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (ESV)

W. L. Liefeld comments:

The transfiguration is to be understood, therefore, as an affirmation by God of the messiahship and unique sonship of Jesus, who would indeed fulfill his mission as the suffering servant in accordance with the declarations in the preceding narrative in Mk. 8:27-9:1 and parallels. [New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology]

Stop and think about this event for just a minute.  Do you think Peter, James, or John would have made up this incident?

Peter/James/John: “Hey guys, guess what happened.  We went up this high mountain and all of the sudden Jesus became dazzling white and then Moses and Elijah showed up.”

Other Disciples: “Wait, what? Did you say that Moses and Elijah showed up?”

P/J/J:  “Yeah.  They just suddenly appeared.”

Other Disciples: “Um…they’ve been dead like 700 and 1400 years respectively, and they just showed up and started talking, eh?”

You see the difficulty.  This is an outlandish story and wholly unnecessary, unless it really happened.  Peter himself will say later when testifying of the events of Jesus’ life: “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3.15).  John will write:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—” (1 John 1:1–2, ESV)

In other words it’s as if the disciples are saying, “Go ahead and look at the evidence and talk to the eyewitnesses and test what we say because we witnessed all of this stuff with our eyes and experienced it with our lives, feel free to try and disprove it, because we know it is true, and that is exactly what we are claiming to you, that this is all true.”

Whether we choose to believe the disciples or not, dear reader, is our own decision.  What they believed and witnessed, well they make it pretty clear don’t they.



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Tell No One

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:9, ESV)

Strange instruction, these.  I mean, if I were Jesus I would want to get the word out about myself.  Peter, James, and John had just been witnesses to something incredible.  Not only had Jesus been transfigured [more on this later], but Moses and Elijah had suddenly appeared and they had both been dead and/or gone for at least 700 years!  No wonder the three disciples didn’t know what to do, although interestingly enough they all understood with whom Jesus was talking.

Why didn’t Jesus want his disciples telling anyone what they had seen?  We have a little hint from Peter’s reaction to the transfiguration.

Peter exclaimed, “Rabbi, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified.” (Mark 9:5–6, NLT)

I love the way that NLT translates here: “he didn’t really know what to say.”  There is a hint of humor in the text, and Peter must have embraced his own actions in humility after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension because church tradition holds that Mark wrote this gospel under Peter’s supervision. Bob Utley comments succinctly: “Whenever Peter did not know what to do, he talked!”

The point is that neither Peter, nor James, nor John was prepared at all to begin telling people about this great event which they had witnessed.  They didn’t understand it well enough and wouldn’t fully understand it for awhile.  We do know, however, that the time would come when they would understand and would tell anyone and everyone what they knew.  Indeed, when we look at what the disciples proclaimed when they did tell people, we discover how thoroughly they had grasped what had happened and what the purpose of Jesus life was.

Let’s watch Peter as he describes what the life of Jesus implies in Acts.  The events around the transfiguration were remarkably similar to the events surrounding Moses on Mount Sinai [more on this later].

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:13–15, ESV)

Peter preaches to the “Men of Israel” and tells them that God “glorified his servant Jesus.”  This was a glory which Peter, James, and John had personally witnessed at the transfiguration.  Notice Peter’s emphasis: “To this we are witnesses.”

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.” (Acts 3:19–22, ESV)

Moses pointed forward towards a greater prophet than himself who would come and accomplish what Moses alone could not accomplish: the blotting out of sins.

Peter and the rest of the disciples eventually understood the meaning of the transfiguration and the purpose of Jesus life.  When they did understand, then they would go out and tell others.  These twelve would change the world through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Amazing.

John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” was at one time in his life a slave trader, indeed at one time he was a slave to slaves!  He was, by the grace of God, saved out of the misery of sin to faith in Jesus.  He eventually became a preacher of the gospel.  At the age of 82 he wrote: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” You can visit his tombstone today.  The epitaph reads: “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”

What was the purpose of Jesus life?  Why the transfiguration?  So that men like John Newton (and I…and you, dear reader) could have hope that in Jesus all that we have done is wiped clean with this simple message written across our sorry record of sin, selfishness, and self-love:  Paid in full.

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The Last Great Miracle Worker

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”” (Mark 8:27–29, ESV)

Bob Utley in his Study Guide on Mark points out that this section of Mark is a crucial turning point.  He writes:

This event is a watershed event in the Gospel of Mark. The miracle stories that affirm the power, authority, and deity of Jesus cease. From this point on the emphasis is the crucifixion. Mark’s Gospel changes from a focus on who He is to His great redemptive act (i.e. what He did).

Jesus asks the disciples who people are saying that he is.  They answer:

  • Some say John that Baptist – This was because they knew John the Baptist and had witnessed his ministry.  He spoke with boldness; Jesus spoke with boldness. John offended the elites; Jesus offended the elites.
  • Some say Elijah – Elijah [along with Elisha] was the last great miracle worker.  There had been no miracles in Israel since that day that were comparable to what Elijah had done.  Jesus had ushered in a new era of miracles and works of power, and wasn’t Elijah supposed to return before the Messiah showed up?
  • Some say one of the prophets – The prophets proclaimed God’s message to the people, surely this was what Jesus was doing.

Then Jesus asked his disciples “who do you! [“You” is emphasized in the Greek] say that I am?” This is what Jesus has been after all along.  It’s not that he didn’t know what people were saying about him, but that he wanted to draw the truth out of the disciples as to who they believed that he was.

Peter, ever the impetuous one and obviously one of the leaders, immediately weighs in:  “You are the Christ.” [Some translations have Messiah.  Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word: Messiah]  Ironically enough, Peter gets the answer absolutely correct and also fundamentally wrong at the same time [a feat which perhaps only Peter could accomplish].

Notice first that no other disciple disagrees with Peter, as if to say, “He is not the Messiah, Peter!  He is a great prophet.”  By their silence, they are all agreeing with Peter and no wonder.  They had seen demons compelled by his authority to obey him; they had seen him heal a blind man, and a deaf man; they had seen the wind and waves obey him as if they were little children reacting to the orders of a parent.  Who else could do all this except the Messiah.

When Peter said that Jesus was the Messiah, he had a specific idea in mind.  The Jews believed that the Messiah would set up an earthly kingdom in Palestine.  In order to do this, he would first have to send the Romans packing and then he would establish a kingdom which would be filled with peace and in which the Jews could flourish while they worshiped God without fear of intervention by invading nations.  The IVP Bible Background Commentary comments here:

There were many different views of the Messiah (or messiahs) in Jesus’ time, but they all revolved around an earthly deliverance and earthly kingdom. Peter is right to call Jesus “ Messiah,” but what Peter means by the term and what Jesus means by it are entirely different at this point (see Mk 8:31-32).

Peter was looking for an earthly Messiah, he will discover in short order that this is not what Jesus meant at all.


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Let Justice [as we see it] Roll Down

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”” (Mark 8:11–12, ESV)

Jesus seems a little peeved here doesn’t he?  As if the Pharisees caught him on a morning where he might have eaten some bad fish and his gut was bothering him.  Why does he react so strongly against the request of the Pharisees for “a sign from heaven?”

The NIV Application Commentary points out that it might be that a sign from heaven had a specific sort of request in mind:

Gibson argues that “a sign from heaven” refers to “apocalyptic phenomena which embody or signal the onset of aid and comfort for God’s elect and/or the wrath that God was expected to let loose against his enemies and those who threaten his people.”

We must understand the Jewish perspective here.  Their chief concern was the pesky Romans who had invaded their land and forced them to become subjects of Rome [if not citizens].  They wanted a Messiah who was going to kick the Romans and everything they represented right back to Rome.  This would usher in the era that they were looking for, an era of peace and prosperity for the Jews as they ruled themselves and worshiped God in the temple without harassment from foreign invaders.

Wouldn’t it be quite cool then, if this so-called Messiah who certainly did seem to have extraordinary power might wave his hand and cause all of the Romans in Palestine to drop dead?  That would certainly prove he had power, and even better it would get rid of the hated Roman occupiers.  What the Pharisees wanted was wrath to fall upon God’s enemies, aka “The Gentiles.”  “Let justice roll down,” they seem to be asking of Jesus, “on those whom we hate.”

The NIV Application Commentary goes on:

Ironically, this request comes after the miraculous feeding, a miracle that pointed to the blessing, not the destruction, of Gentiles. Jesus refuses to give the Pharisees a sign from heaven because God has sent him to give his life on the cross for all humanity, not to smash the enemies of Israel or to give the nation political mastery of the world.

Rather than kill all of the Gentiles and make Palestine safe for the Jews, Jesus fed them for Pete’s sake.  It was almost as if he actually cared about these unclean pagans!

As we might imagine by now, this incident doesn’t end well.  Jesus certainly is peeved, not because of health problems, but because of the spiritual blindness of the people who in theory should best be able to see.  This is frustrating and indeed, this will get him killed.

It’s interesting that the parallel passage in Matthew says that the Jews will indeed receive a sign, just not the one that they were expecting:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”  (Matthew 16:4, ESV)

What was the sign of Jonah?

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40, ESV)

As the NIV Application Commentary puts it: “Jesus will offer this generation no noisy sign from heaven, only the wind whistling through an empty tomb after his crucifixion.”

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