Episode 37: Why Couldn’t The Disciples Cast out a Demon (But Jesus Could!) #Exorcism

A shout out to my old friend Cortney Johnson of Alabama who has asked an excellent question about healing based on yesterday’s Mark 8 passage. Lord willing, I plan on grappling with that question during tomorrow’s episode #38. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty hard question, so I might have to phone a friend. I hope Dr. Wayne Grudem is not still sore at me for rolling his yard a few years ago. 😉

Today’s passages are, with one exception, thick and meaty in the sense that they are absolutely loaded with important doctrines, edifying biblical truths, and fantastic passages. Unfortunately, Eliphaz’ advice in Job 5 is an absolute clunker, and we have to read it again tomorrow. The value of Job 3-5 is not in the fact that it is proclaiming truth to us (according to God at the end of Job, Eliphaz was wrong, wrong, wrong!) but the value is that it is a clear demonstration of how NOT to ‘help’ somebody when they are suffering. Pro tip #1 – Don’t tell people they are suffering because of their sinfulness – that is not your business, and it was most especially not Eliphaz’ business in these three chapters.

Genesis 39 sees Joseph put into an incredibly awkward place through no fault of his own, and demonstrates how God’s sovereign hand invisibly guides our lives into the precise place that He wants us to be. Romans 9 is beautiful and difficult at the same time. This section of Romans is dealing with a very biblical and very controversial doctrine called ‘predestination,’ or the “P” word, as I and other ministry colleagues have sometimes referred to it as. A church that I was pastoring at many years ago lost three families after one Wednesday night Bible study in which I, who was the pastor and leading the Bible study that night, read the ‘P word’ as I read through Ephesians 1. Two lovely gentlemen that were present at the Bible study spoke up eloquently and appropriately during the discussion time and made a pretty convincing case theologically for predestination. I stayed quite neutral, as it was my first year pastoring this particular church. Maybe that was cowardly, and yet three families, who were offended that the word was even mentioned in a positive light, left the church after that. This is a true story, but I am happy to say that I have seen this sort of behavior very rarely in churches over 25 years of ministry. But – it raises an interesting question that I have not fully decided yet. Should this podcast tackle deep and thorny theological issues? I don’t mind the controversy, because we are going to hit controversy in almost every Bible passage out there. The real question is how deep are we going to go into biblical theology? I don’t have an answer yet, but I’m sure one will come soon. Stay tuned!

As powerful, deep, and amazing as Romans 9 is, our focus passage for today is in Mark chapter 9, and our specific question concerns exorcism. How is it that Jesus was able to cast the demon out of the young man in Mark 9 and His disciples couldn’t? This is no mere academic question! Jesus is quite clearly disappointed and dismayed at His disciples’ inability to cast this demon out and bring relief to this boy. We don’t see Jesus display this level of frustration with His followers very much, so I think it is significant, and that we need to learn from it, so let’s read the passage and dig in.

So – why could the disciples not drive this demon out? The answer that Jesus gives is that this demon can only come out by prayer. (I note here that some textual variants read, “prayer and fasting.”) This answer gives us two problems. Problem #1 is that Jesus does not obviously pray during this episode, so if the demon can only come out by prayer, and Jesus doesn’t obviously pray, then how was the demon cast out? Problem #2 is that Matthew also tells us this exact story, and in that passage, Jesus says something different. Or, does He?!

When they reached the crowd, a man approached and knelt down before him. 15 “Lord,” he said, “have mercy on my son, because he has seizures and suffers terribly. He often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”17 Jesus replied, “You unbelieving and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 Then Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and from that moment the boy was healed.19 Then the disciples approached Jesus privately and said, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”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 17:14-20

On the surface, we seem to have a contradiction here. Matthew and Mark are both telling us about the same exact situation, and yet Jesus gives one key in the Matthew passage and a different key in the Mark passage. What gives? And the answer is that Jesus is essentially saying the same thing in both episodes! (And it is likely that Jesus said both things in this episode, and Mark recorded one facet of what Jesus was saying, and Matthew another, and that is precisely how eyewitness testimony works.)

So, how could Jesus be saying the same thing in both passages? In Mark, He tells us that the key to casting these kinds of demons out is prayer, and in Matthew He says it is faith. I believe the answer to this little riddle is found in Luke 18:

Now he told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not give up. “There was a judge in a certain town who didn’t fear God or respect people. And a widow in that town kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ “For a while he was unwilling, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or respect people,yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will give her justice, so that she doesn’t wear me out by her persistent coming.’” Then the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Will not God grant justice to his elect who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay helping them? I tell you that he will swiftly grant them justice. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

This parable is about the importance of persistence in prayer, a message that Jesus repeats multiple times in several different ways. Look how Jesus ends this parable, however: It is a parable about praying persistently, but His final question is about FAITH! Specifically His question is like this: When I return, will I find faith on the earth? He is basically saying that the key to praying effectively is to pray with persistence and not give up – will He see this kind of FAITH (that is faith that is manifested in a life of persistent and prevailing prayer) when He returns to earth? Now, apply that lesson back to our two problems with Mark 9, and we will see that it answers both of them quite well. There is no contradiction between Jesus’ answer to the disciples in Mark 9 or Matthew 17 – the ONLY thing that casts the demon out is the kind of faith that manifests itself in a lifestyle of persistent prayer. Jesus is not telling His disciples that they should have stopped and prayed for the boy in the moment. This is not the source of His disappointment. His disappointment lies in the fact that they themselves had not been cultivating a lifestyle of persistent and prevailing prayer that would build up the kind of faith and authority that would have been able to cast the demon out. They were followers of Jesus with impotent prayer lives, and therefore they were “little-faiths,” a state that Jesus was constantly frustrated with them about.

He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.

Matthew 8:26

Aware of this, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves that you do not have bread?

Matthew 16:8

If that’s how God clothes the grass, which is in the field today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, how much more will he do for you—you of little faith?

Luke 12:28

What about us? When Jesus returns, will He find us living a life of prevailing faith because of our persistent prayer lives, or will He also be sighing at us for our lack of power and lack of faith, which is directly traced to our lack of a persevering prayer life?

In the 1800s, pastor Charles Spurgeon uttered this lament over his city of London, knowing that they would see revival if they would only take hold of Jesus’ promise in Luke 18. May it awaken us, quicken us and spur us on to a lifestyle of prevailing and powerful prayer. May we not be of those of little faith, but of those who overcame.

“A CITY of three million, not wholly given to idolatry, but still very much given to sin, and we ourselves are so weak in the midst of it! if we could but realize this invitation, and then take hold upon the omnipotent arm of God, and by an overcoming faith, such as only God could give to any one of us, believe it possible for the Lord Jesus to save this city, and then go forward boldly expecting him to do it, we might see more than we have ever seen. And now, what if I prophesy that we shall see it! what if I say, that if God will but stir up his people everywhere for prayer, he will do a work in our day that shall make the ears of him that hears it to tingle, not with horror, but with joy! He will yet let the world know that there is a God in Israel. Truly that which hinders us is our lack of faith, for if the Son of man should return to us, would he find faith on the earth? O unbelieving church, O thankless generation, you are not restricted in God, ye are restricted in your own self; and if you could but believe him, and so prove him by your faith, he would again open the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing, such that you would not have room enough to receive it!”

C. H. Spurgeon, Flashes of Thought (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1874), 365–366. Slightly modernized


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