Did Jesus Tell His Disciples That Some Demons Could Only Be Cast Out By Prayer OR Faith? #212

Hello friends and happy Monday. I know that sounds weird to say, because most people don’t look at Mondays as a particularly happy day, but I hope that this Monday is a good and blessed day for you. May we count it all joy as this pandemic enters into its 4,784th week, or something like that. Our Bible passages for today include Judges 10-11, Acts 14, Jeremiah 24 and Mark 9. Our focus passage is in Mark 9 and concerns a very interesting incident in which a man comes and asks Jesus to heal and deliver his demonized son. The disciples try to heal the boy, but utterly fail, which causes some sort of argument and chaos to break out among the people watching, the disciples and the scribes. Jesus, of course, heals and delivers the boy, and the disciples ask Him why they failed. This is a very important question, because this incident happens AFTER Jesus has sent His twelve disciples out AND given them authority to cast out demons and unclean spirits. In other words, they had experience and success in this kind of ministry, and they had direct authorization from Jesus to do it…and yet they failed. Even more curious is that both Mark and Matthew record Jesus giving DIFFERENT answers to the questions of the disciples. What do we have here: An error? A contradiction in the Bible? Neither of those things, actually – but let’s read our Mark passage first so we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves.

This incident is recorded in three places in Scripture. Mark 9, Matthew 17 and Luke 9. All three times after the Transfiguration. All three of these recountings end slightly different. In Mark 9, the disciples ask why they failed, and receive this answer: 

29 And he told them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer.

Mark 9:29

In Matthew, however, the disciples receive something different:

20 “Because of your little faith,” he told them. “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:20

Luke doesn’t even record this post-deliverance conversation at all – his narrative just goes on to the next event. So – what gives here? What is the real key to this kind of supernatural ministry? Is it faith or prayer? Is this a misprint? An error in the text? Proof that the Bible isn’t inerrant? I see two major options here. We are either dealing with:  

  1. A misremembrance/misprint/error.
  2. Jesus said both things; Mark recorded half and Matthew recorded half. 

I think we are dealing with the exact nature of eyewitness testimony and true history here – rather than this being a sign of contradiction, this is actually a sign of authenticity. This, and many other texts like it, demonstrate that there was no massive and systematic conspiracy in the early days of the church to ‘sanitize’ and harmonize the text of the four gospels to make them agree exactly with each other. If you’ve ever studied eyewitness testimony, you will know that it is very suspicious when several different testimonies exactly corroborate in every detail. Such happenings can reek of conspiracy or collusion because genuine eyewitnesses that are telling the truth will differ with each other in what they see and how they perceive it. I’m not saying they will contradict each other, they will just give a different perspective on the same event. That’s how eyewitness testimony works, and though I am no expert, I have studied it to an extent as a former master’s level student in criminal justice (I didn’t graduate – was called into seminary while I was at UA grad school in CJ attempting to become a detective/FBI/U.S. Marshall/member of the Avengers)

My belief here is that we aren’t dealing with a contradiction (because neither Mark nor Matthew contradicts each other), but rather, this is a puzzle – I think it is a divine puzzle, actually – one that has been orchestrated to appear in Scripture exactly as it does and is meant to teach a profound truth. Jesus probably did say both things: the reason the disciples couldn’t cast out the demon was because of prayer AND faith. In a very real sense, as Jesus will show us – both of these things are inextricably bound. He said the same thing, essentially. 

One of my favorite parables is Luke 18. It’s one of my favorites partially because Jesus tells us exactly what it means in the beginning, but also because it teaches a very profound truth in prayer that is often lacking in the modern church. Some answers to prayer only come by persisting persistence. Jesus explains it this way in Luke 18:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

The point here is that we should ALWAYS pray and NEVER give up. Or, as Jesus notes in Luke 11, we should ask and keep on asking, knock and keep on knocking, seek and keep on seeking. It is this kind of importunity, to use the word that the mighty men of God from yesteryear used, that brings powerful answers to prayer. Importunity means, “persistence, especially to the point of annoyance,” and Jesus teaches us to pray in this exact manner – using an illustration of a widow annoying an unjust judge until the judge answers her. Jesus isn’t exactly saying that we should annoy God in our persistence – I don’t think we could – but He is inviting us into a lifestyle of persisting prayer that never gives up until the prayer is answered. What does this have to do with our question today? Well – it could be argued here that the disciples did not have success with this unclean spirit because they GAVE UP and didn’t keep praying. It is also possible that Jesus was commending to them a LIFESTYLE of prayer. In other words – this unclean spirit refused to yield and come out because you guys have not been living a lifestyle of prayer. Both perspectives on prayer actually have merit, but what about the faith question – why does Matthew say the lack is in the area of faith, and Mark says it is in the area of prayer? Well – look again at Luke 18:

However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Luke 18:8

What kind of faith is Jesus talking about here? And I believe the crystal clear contextual answer is the kind of faith that results in persisting and persevering prayer that never gives up! Jesus is telling us here that faith looks like a lifestyle of persistent prayer – always praying; never giving up. Persisting prayer and faith are inextricably bound in the theology of Jesus, and therefore the disciples could not cast the unclean spirit out because they were not walking in the faith that is expressed by a lifestyle of unrelenting prayer. We could phrase that the other way too, I think: The disciples couldn’t deliver this dear young boy because they were not living a life marked by persistent prayer, and thus lacked the faith produced by such a lifestyle. How do we persist today when faced with the same sorts of spiritual obstacles? By faithful persisting prayer and by persisting prayer that demonstrates and produces great faith.

One Reply to “Did Jesus Tell His Disciples That Some Demons Could Only Be Cast Out By Prayer OR Faith? #212”

  1. Jesse R Worrell

    In Matthew 17:20-21 – in the Holman Christian Standard Bible, New American Standard Bible, and others -besides littleness of faith in verse 20 – verse 21 states ]But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”] In the CSB and the ESV and others- you will notice in both of these versions – they go from Matthew 17:20 to Matthew 17:22 – skipping/discarding verse 21. Interesting….
    As well in Mark 9:29 – the HCSB also lists fasting – probably others while the NASB, ESV, and CSB do not…..This kind can come out by nothing but prayer [and fasting] (HCSB)

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