“What Are You Arguing About?”
The challenge, in presenting a text like this, is to commit a classic seminary over-step. The temptation for many seminary students, myself included, is to attempt to pour forth absolutely everything they know, or the commentaries have told them, on a given topic. To explore every nook and cranny of the text, itself a noble aim, is to presume upon the good nature and valuable time of those gracious enough to extend their time to you. The impulse is a good one, so while this evening we are only able to zero in on Jesus’ question, found in verse 16, I encourage you to marinate in this text this weekend.
With that bit of preamble out of the way, I want to ask, why is talking about exorcisms and demons unpopular today? Or perhaps better put, why is it supremely popular, but only from a sensationalist standpoint (Hollywood)? Allow me to offer three conjectures:
- It’s weird. We’re content positing there is a God, but let’s not get all bizarre with the whole demons thing. We have a hard-enough time getting people to acknowledge the spiritual realm.
- It’s uncomfortable. We know that biblical writers just didn’t have an understanding of mental illness, so they thought people were possessed. We know better now, and these stories are embarrassing.
- We don’t know what to think. Does this stuff still happen? If so, why? Could it happen to me? Maybe we should just ignore it and it will go away.
Whether I am successful in answering any of these questions, I will leave it
for you to judge. My intent however, is to unpack some insights from Jesus’ exorcism of a demon possessed child, and particularly, his question that he poses to the disciples immediately beforehand. The event is recorded in scripture and as a result, asks that we reckon with it. Lastly, after we have journeyed through this text together, I would like to glean some of the insights and apply them to how we might consider Jesus’ words and his question for us as well. With that in mind, let’s pray.
“What on Earth Is Going on Here?” Text and Context
As a bit of an exegetical tip—when diving into a text, be it on your own, with a study group, or in church, always take a moment to read the surrounding texts—both before and after. Often, perhaps especially in the gospels, crucial details about why a story or teaching is located where it is are contained in the passages just before or after. While time restricts a full investigation of these surrounding texts, it is vital to note that just prior to this story is the account of the transfiguration of Christ. What is that?
The transfiguration is the event wherein Jesus and his inner circle of disciples, Peter James and John, retreat from the larger group to the mount of transfiguration, wherein Christ is miraculously made glorious before them, brilliant in glory and appearing with Moses and Elijah. This is considered one of the five most significant acts of Jesus’ ministry and demonstrates his superiority to both the law and prophets, his unique relationship with God the Father, and also, his real presence as link between heaven and earth. So it’s this monumental, divine, glorious picture of the fullness of the deity of Christ. And it’s on a mountain. Can you see how this event is just jaw-droppingly majestic? Keep that image in your mind as we turn our attention to the text.
Just a few verses earlier, we note the Jesus is descending the mountain with the inner circle, Peter James and John: "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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?'” (Mark 9:9-11). Where our passage picks up, we see that Christ has reunited with the rest of the disciples and they are caught up in a dispute with the Pharisees. Verse 14: “And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” (Mark 9:14-16).
One or two notes to highlight here, when the crowd meets Jesus, they are already greatly amazed by him. Why would that be? Jesus hasn’t done anything at this point necessarily to warrant amazement. Several commentators point out the Greek here for amaze could be closer to overwhelmed or overawed with Christ – and this is likely on account of his residual radiance from the transfiguration. It is clear, that Christ’s majesty has been imbued upon his very character and the crowds can tell this simply by beholding him. Do you begin to see the contrast that Mark has been pulling together here? We have Christ made glorious on the mountain-top just a passage before, and here he has now traversed into the valley where the demons lie waiting. It is not just a device in the story; it is a picture of Christ’s cosmic condescension, from glory into our plight, into our story. And it’s this transition, from mountain to valley that prompts Jesus’ question to the disciples—namely, what are you arguing about? And it is the action that follows that gives us a hint as to what argument the disciples are embroiled in. So indeed, in the immediate context, what is the story the Christ has entered into?
The Man and His Son
Mark presents the story of the demon possessed child in a literary fashion that we could accurately call, In Media Res – that is to say, “in the middle of things”. Were the reader to simply begin at Mark 9:13 they are immediately drawn into, not only the conflict between the Pharisees and the Disciples, but also, the life of a father and his drastically ill, neigh, even demonically influenced son. Let us slow down for a minute and consider the plight of the Father, and not only his plight, but that of the boy, as well. And our entry point for this analysis will be the Father’s own description, which you will notice, occurs in verse 17:
“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.' 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 9:17-22).
The Father is clear – his Son has been afflicted by a demon that is thorough in it’s malicious intent – The demon is intent on destroying the boy. And this isn’t a recent development, this has been occurring from the boy’s childhood. One needn’t think hard to understand how drastically affected this family’s life has been. The Father almost certainly would have to be present with his son at all times, and if not him, a close member of the family to ensure that the Son was free from environmental danger. But which family member can you ask? Culturally, the family almost certainly would have been ostracized, in part because the father would almost never attend the synagogue for fear that his son would burn himself on the alter for offerings, but furthermore, because this kind of illness, and illness generally was perceived as a marker for the judgment of God. “Yes, that’s the man whose son is unclean” “yes, that’s the man whose family is unclean” “yes, that Family is under the judgment of God” and at the risk of sounding maudlin, how deeply painful must it be that your son, your flesh and blood is unable to relate to you in the most basic of terms, years of absent “I love yous” countless joys and memories robbed by illness and possession. The years waiting for words to form turn into a decade of deafening silence. It is overreaching, but it is perhaps noticeable that the mother is conspicuously absent in this story – not at all to cast aspersions on woman, but rather to acknowledge the undeniable strain such circumstances would place on a marriage.
And now, I want you to take our thought experiment and catch up with the story. You are the Father. You have sought Christ out. You heard that there is this Galilean, hanging out with a rag-tag group of disciples and there have been rumors of healings in his wake. The blind see, the lame are healed and sinners are pronounced forgiven. But they’re just rumors. You haven’t seen the healed. And besides, natural laws are natural laws – there is no room for the miraculous. But you’re at your wits end! You have nothing left and every day poses new threats for your son. So you seek him out and you see a crowd of his disciples at the foot of the mountain – Jesus must be there too! The disciples are certain they can help – and they get to work, praying over your son, anointing him, but nothing is working. Some nearby Pharisees come over to observe the commotion, along with some crowds. The Pharisees start calling out the disciples, reinforcing not only the perceived sinfulness of your family, but also the ineptness of the disciples. And your hope is draining away at an alarming rate. You have been foolish. You have risked the rare public outing and have received scorn, no help, and have purchased for yourself the myriad opportunities for your son to be persecuted by his demon.
And this is this situation that Christ enters.
Christ and the Healing
One commentator I came across in my studies referred to the Father’s words as the sweetest in all the New Testament – “I believe Lord, forgive my unbelief.” I am inclined to agree that they are indeed near to such a title. At the least they warrant further investigation. Pick it up at verse 23:
“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!' 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 9:23-27).
The Father’s words—If Thou canst do anything— are an “Expression of doubt or infirm faith, which, having been at the beginning too weak, had become more and more weak in consequence of the failure of the disciples’ attempt.”1(Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., & Shedd, W. G. T. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Mark, pg. 84) Now I want to slow down slightly and parse precisely what occurs between the Father and Christ. Christ exhorts the Father to believe, noting that all things are possible for those who believe. The Father, moved to tears, cries out that he believes, and but also acknowledges a category of unbelief coexisting with his profession of belief. And if we look carefully, it was likely this that the disciples were arguing about with the Pharisees. Instead of a stalwart belief that that Godman could heal the boy, the disciples are likely caught up in arguing theology with the religious leaders of the day. And this argument is doing nothing but instilling doubt in the minds of the audience. That’s why Jesus, when he descends down the mountain in glory asks them—what are you arguing about? I am present. I am the end of the argument. I am the answer to the argument. Doubt no longer that I can heal this child.
But this should prompt us to ask, according to verse 24 – what is it that the Father believes? I mean it’s clear that he hasn’t lost all faith in light of the disciples argument, has he? Put simply, he believes that Christ can and will heal his son (note the prior verse: All things are possible for one who believes.) – so what does he need pardon for in terms of his unbelief? Isn’t the point that the Father needs his son healed? The Father is repenting of his unbelief in Christ as Lord, which is the foundational issue in this exchange. J.P. Lange noted in this exchange “the faith which now sprang up in the man was the more spiritual, in that it was a belief that Jesus could strengthen the deficient faith into the ability perfectly to believe, and so by this means remove also his external distress.”2(Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., & Shedd, W. G. T. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Mark, pg. 84) The Father knew that it was only Christ who could impart this mode of belief to him.
Now, why is this important? There are many Christians – Jesus Loving, Bible believing, god-and-other-serving folk who believe that we have a special capacity of free-will that lets us choose God over sin. That in the blank slate of things, we have a natural ability to just go one way or the other. And I don’t want to argue with any of them. What I do want to do is highlight how this passage underlines the authority of Christ to grant belief and salvation to all who ask of him. It is Jesus who saves us from not only our sin, but also our unbelief. Jesus wants to save us from endless arguments about who he is and what he came to do, and whether or not he can achieve it. Hear me clearly, unbelief co-exists with belief! That happens! But what Mark and subsequently the Holy Spirit are urging us is to repent of it and seek our refuge and our healing in Christ. Because Friends hear me clearly, Jesus isn’t a fan of our doubt, or our arguments that serve little than to cast doubt on him. But I don’t want to zoom out just yet, I want us to really dig down and recognize who we are in this story
In this story, let me tell you who we are. We are in the crowd, looking on with skepticism and with guarded hope – Is Jesus who he says he is? Is He who is here the who was to come? We are the disciples, imperfect in our modeling of Christ, unable to perfectly follow and model our master. We’re arguing with the Pharisees because we don’t fully believe ourselves. We are the Father of the boy – penitent, expectant, crushed under the weight of what life has brought to us. Man, we’re tired. We’re weary and we are heart-sick. We are weary from the lack of explanations from doctors who are perplexed by our son, we are downcast, and we are forlorn, and we have unbelief mixed with your very real desire that all that is bad may become untrue. But perhaps most specifically, we are the child, sick with sin, broken in all our ways, bearing the scars of years in enslavement, desperate for life anew.
We read this story and think – how quaint, an exorcism. And then our minds with their modern sensibilities carry us off on the rabbit trail, claiming to us that such a case would be treated as it actually is, epilepsy or the like. Let me mention, that not only is this thinking egregiously fallacious, but also spiritually naïve. I would like to suggest we are too apathetic to even try and exorcise the demons we do have! Greed, spite, envy, racism, addiction to pornography, malice and godlessness. It is not that Satan’s influence is no longer felt; the demons have simply changed their names.
What has not changed is our need for deliverance and our utter inability to do so ourselves. We are stuck! Now some may say “woah, this demon language is a little harsh and inappropriate” But have you considered Col 1:13? “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” and 1 Pet. 2:9 “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” And even Eph 6:12 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” To suggest that the NT is clear that there is a spiritual dimension to our struggle and it is silly to suggest otherwise.
But to camp here is to miss Mark’s ultimate point – we know all too well who we are in this story, who is Jesus? In this story Jesus the Christ is a General, rushing into battle to save his failing troops the disciples. In this story, Jesus is spiritual and physical physician, true and good doctor healing the boy of his demonic malady, restoring to him the damage done through years of persecution; through years of having his mind and body ravaged by the evils of possession-- rescuing him even from death. In this story Jesus is defender of the downtrodden and of the weak, of those ridiculed and rendered helpless by the authorities. In this story Christ is Father, protector of his children, giver of good gifts and in this story, Christ is savior, author of faith, protecting our bruised reed of hope, our smoldering wick of belief, rescuing us from inane arguments that only foster unbelief. And friends, I need to ask Is he your Savior? Is he your hope? Is he your great physician? Do you believe it? Or are we still arguing about it with ourselves and with others? Mark is clear – Jesus is Christ on the mount of transfiguration in resplendent glory, and Jesus is the Christ in the dark valley, banishing the demons and picking up the battered and bruised body of a child out of the mud and breathing into him life anew. Look, a literary metaphor for our redemption, for our new life. Just as the Father of the boy had to bring the child for help, so too Christ brings us to the Father, knowing that on our own, we’re incapable. Jesus loves you. He loves you and wants you to live.
So where does this leave us? I have already presumed upon you for far too long this evening, so let me wrap up and leave you with some parting considerations. When you think about who Jesus is, do you find doubt there about who he claimed to be? And if you do find doubt, what do you do with it? Do we, like the disciples, engage in argumentation either in our own minds or with others, or do we look to the foot of the mountain, to the amazing face of Christ, understanding and believing that within him is healing, redemption and life itself. Our passage this morning has instructed us that the two, doubt and faith exist, but Jesus would cleanse us of even our doubt. And that Jesus is sufficient even to give us the belief we lack, and not just sufficient, he wants to! This weekend we would do well to examine the demons that plague our own lives, and cast ourselves on Christ for the healing we so desperately need, and as a result realize that he settles the argument, for he is the answer.