PassageIn the last passage Jesus and a few of the disciples went up onto a mountain where Jesus was transfigured before them, so that they saw a glimpse of him as God. They now come back to find the rest of the disciples arguing with some teachers of the law.
Jesus asks them what they are arguing about, and someone from the crowd tells Jesus that he’d brought his son to be healed. He has a spirit which makes him mute, and also occasionally seizes him and causes some kind of convulsions. However, the disciples weren’t able to cast this spirit out. The passage doesn’t actually tell us, though, what the argument was between the disciples and the scribes. Maybe the scribes took the disciples’ lack of success as a sign that they don’t actually have any power?
Whatever the reason for the argument, Jesus seems exasperated by the whole thing.
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” (verse 19 (ESV))The boy is brought to Jesus and when the spirit in the boy sees Jesus he immediately throws the boy into convulsions. The boy’s father explains to Jesus that the boy has been like this since childhood, and that sometimes it’s even worse, with the spirit throwing the boy into water or fire to try to kill him. He then asks Jesus, if he can do anything, to take pity and help them.
As a crowd comes running to join the scene Jesus rebukes the spirit and commands it to come out of the boy (and never enter him again). When the spirit does so it convulses the boy and leaves him looking pretty corpse-like, but Jesus helps the boy to his feet so that people can see he’s not dead.
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When the disciples are alone with Jesus again they ask him why they hadn’t been able to drive out the demon, and Jesus’ reply is more deep than we might realize at first glance:
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (verse 29 (ESV))
ThoughtsAs mentioned above, I don’t know what the disciples and the teachers of the law were arguing about. I looked for a clue in the ESV Study Bible but the notes there didn’t posit a reason for the argument either. What Jesus makes clear, however, is that there is a lack of faith going on in this situation. I already quoted verse 19 above:
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”Jesus has been dealing with unbelief from the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for his entire ministry, but in this case he’s not just talking about them, he’s talking to his own disciples as well. (More on this in a minute.) Why is the boy still possessed by this spirit? Because of a lack of belief.
But it’s not a complete lack of faith; this passage contains one of my all-time favourite quotations from all of the Bible, in verse 24 (ESV):
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”If I were to pick a verse to sum up my continual state as a Christian, this would be it. It shows a dependence on God, but also a recognition that our own sinful natures—and perhaps also our lack of knowledge?—can get in the way of properly following God as we should. I might have phrased it, “I do believe; help me to believe even better!” But I think the way it’s phrased in the text is more elegant, and I like it better than how I would have phrased it myself. (My speech is usually more forthright, less elegant.) This man recognizes that he doesn’t believe the way that he should, but he believes enough to trust that Jesus can do this thing for him, and, perhaps more importantly, he believes enough to trust that Jesus can help even his lack of belief.
So all in all, getting back to the lack of belief, why couldn’t the disciples drive out the spirit? Jesus tells them that this type of spirit can only be driven out by prayer, but we should be careful not to think that Jesus is giving a simple instruction here. “You see, disciples, there are thirteen distinct sub-categories of spirit, and there are different protocols to follow for driving out each type…” That’s not at all what is going on here; Jesus hasn’t left the point that he started this passage with: lack of belief. Why couldn’t the disciples drive out the spirit? Because they were trying to do it on their own instead of asking God to do it for them. What is prayer, after all, but going to God to ask Him to do things that you’re not able to do on your own? What is the Christian life but recognizing more and more each day that there is nothing you can do on your own, and asking for His help for everything? Even if the disciples had gotten into a pattern of casting out spirits in which they were doing it by rote, and then came across this one which was more difficult to cast out, their immediate response should have been to remember the God who’d been enabling them to do it all along, and go to Him in prayer. The disciples didn’t seem to do that; they seemed to just give up, and decide that driving out the spirit wasn’t possible.