Whose Faith Failed?
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 9:37–9:41
Whose Faith Failed?
April 7, 2019
We’re in Luke 9:37-45. This is another amazing, fascinating portion of Scripture, but one that’s often and widely misunderstood. So this morning we get to rejoice in clarity, especially considering the subject of the necessity of exercising faith. Let’s start, as we like to do, reading the text. Then I’ll have a few words of introduction. Let’s look at Luke 9:37.
*On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God. But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.*
Coming out of the Transfiguration, it might seem a little incongruous for us to go right into this account—the Transfiguration, on the one hand, and then this scene. Luke’s account is concise, it’s focused, and it’s that way in order to bring about his aim to teach one major lesson. It’s the need for faith, the need for believing. All three Synoptic Gospel writers make the same point in this account—not all in the same way, but they make the same point. Matthew and Mark are both very explicit at recording the disciples’ self-reflection at their failure. “Why could we not cast out the demon?” They actually state the question. Luke doesn’t record that question coming from the disciples, but he wants us, the readers, to ask the very same thing. The way he helps us as the readers to get to the answer requires some thoughtful reading. It requires us to reflect, to think about the context, to bring forward into this account what we already know from the context of what Luke has written and the way Luke has ordered the account in the Gospel.
As we’ve said before, when you compare Luke with Mark, in particular, you’ll see that Luke has skipped over part of the history of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, which is a fairly significant section of ministry. It took Mark about two chapters to unpack the whole thing. It goes from Mark 6 to 8. You can see a bunch of material Luke has skipped over. But Luke has arranged his telling of Jesus’ ministry to draw out some lessons for us, the readers of his Gospel. So you can see in that how he has truncated this section of Jesus’ ministry, from the feeing of the 5,000 going directly from there, skipping over a big section to Peter’s confession, to the Transfiguration, and now to the healing of this man’s demoniac son. He wants us to see something, here.
Luke brings us into the account—verse 37—and as we see there, he maintains a very close connection to the Transfiguration. He gives two markers to set the scene—time and geography. It happened “[o]n the next day, when they had come down from the mountain.” Time and geography—those two markers tie this account to what happened up on the mountain. It was commentator Alfred Plummer who drew attention to the Renaissance painter Rafael, how he depicted this whole scene. Rafael painted the Transfiguration—you can look that up on the Internet and see the picture for yourself. It’s almost two paintings in one: the Lord atop the mountain in glory with his other disciples, and then the other nine disciples down below in relative darkness. He portrayed the glory of Christ above in stark contrast with the turmoil of mankind down below. It’s also a contrast for us to see, here, of the faith experience. We see Peter, the “Great Confessor,” up on the mountain. He’s with John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” then James, his bold brother. They are enjoying the fruit of faith. They are seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. To the other disciples, to those down below, with the confession and failure of weak faith—inconsistent faith, the doubt of unbelief—there is darkness and turmoil. Pretty insightful of Rafael, the painter. I really think that in that painting he did capture Luke’s point.
Luke wants us to see this whole scene—from the Transfiguration through this account—as one scene. From Luke 9:28 all the way through verse 40—beyond as well—the narrative is woven together—connected—and we should not separate it. The account, as we read, ends in verse 45 with the second prediction of Jesus’ betrayal and suffering. That closes the bracket with the first prediction that came back in verse 22: “The Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, be killed.” Luke wants us to see this, as I said, all as one piece—a continuation of the narrative—so we’re going to interpret correctly and get the point.
One more thing to notice is how the chapter ends, at least, going up to verse 55. If you’ve seen verse 55, that sort of encapsulates the tone of this section that we are entering. Luke tells us in verse 55 that Jesus “turned [to his disciples] and rebuked them.” That is really what’s happening in this section. We’re going to read, here, about Jesus’ reproof, rebuke, his correction of his disciples. Here at the end of chapter 9, there are four accounts that portray the disciples in less-than-glowing terms. We see their lack of faith, here. We’re going to see their slowness to learn. We’re going to see their heart of pride. We’re going to see their loveless intolerance of others.
It’s quite the contrast from the way that they started the chapter. In chapter 9 they started with power; they started with authority—raving success in what Christ called them to do. Verses 1-2: “Jesus called the twelve together. He gave them power and authority over all demons, to cure diseases. He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” Verse 6: “They departed. They went through the villages, they preached the Gospel, healing everywhere.” Now, in our account, the disciples come across as rather impotent, powerless, unable to cast out this demon. As Leon Morris said, “It makes a sad conclusion to the Galilean section of Jesus’ ministry.” And I have to agree. Yes, it is a sad conclusion. The disciples still have so much to learn.
But listen—doesn’t that ring so true? Isn’t this familiar to us? Isn’t this the truth about us all? We’ve all come off of—vicariously, we could say—a “mountain-top experience” in Luke’s Gospel, haven’t we? We’ve rejoiced in the revelation of Christ’s glory up on the mountain, and we’ve found hope at the visitation of Moses and Elijah—those glorified saints—because we know that’s where we’re going. We rejoice in the way the glory of God descends upon men and—get this—the way they survive the experience! Why? Because of the tabernacling glory and power and presence of Jesus Christ. So there’s a sense in which we, too, have ascended the mountain to see the glory. We know with absolute certainty the true identity of Jesus—that he is the Christ, the Son of God. After all, we heard the Father’s own testimony: “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him.” We’re not only invited to look upon that glory; we’re commanded to do so.
And yet, do you ever stop and wonder: “Why—after all of that—do I go back to sin? Why do I return—after such glory, after such profound meaning—and turn my attention to trivial, useless, fruitless things? Why am I so inconsistent? What is wrong with me, that I live inconsistently—daily, hourly, every minute sometimes. I’ve got the reality of truth, the exultation of the divine glory, the confidence of future hope—and yet why don’t I live in that as a present, daily reality?” If you’ve ever asked that question—and hopefully, just following along with me, you just did—in your quiet moments, I just want to encourage you that this account is going to do so much to help you answer that question. And I’m not going to make you wait to the end for the answer.
We fail to live consistently—we fail to live according to the truth of what we’re reading here—because all to often we are weak in faith. We, like Jesus’ disciples, need to leave behind our foolish doubts. We need to fight against sinful unbelief. We need to make every effort to grow strong in faith. The real fight of the Christian life is not for more information. We need information. We need truth. But the heart of the battle is to believe what we know. It’s to live according to what we are already convinced is true. Believing—which means living according to what we know to be true. That is what we strive for as Christians—and to do that consistently. This passage is going to help us with this. It’s going to help us grow stronger in faith. It’s going to lead us to maturity in the faith and teach us the way to perfect our faith.
So what we’re seeing, here, in this passage is a contrast. In fact, this morning’s message will be about that contrast, seeing faith on the one hand and doubt on the other hand. Faith, believing strongly—even if imperfectly, on the one hand; but doubt, unbelief, failure, on the other hand. We need to see that in this account; we need to see that in our own lives. And then that will set up what we’re going to talk about next week—about growing stronger in faith. So the contrast in the passage is between exemplary faith and deplorable faith—really! Between trust and between doubt. Between the eager spirit of a believer—trusting, hoping—then contrasted with the unbelieving spirit of criticism, dissension. And that’s the contrast that will shape our outline for this morning.
So the first point: the triumph of a persistent faith. Remember, Jesus’ three disciples had spent the night up on the mountain, and as they’re hiking back down the mountain to rejoin the other disciples, their hearts had to be alive. They don’t remember being that alive ever in their life as when they were up on that mountain. They’re coming down, they’re rejoicing, they’re strengthened in confidence, they’re deepened in their conviction. But what greets them when they meet up with the others is starkly incongruous to what they’ve just experienced. They have come upon, here, a disappointing scene—a very sad situation. And that’s an understatement. We’ll read it, but then we’re going to get some perspective from Mark’s Gospel. But verse 37 says,
*On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child.”*
We’ll stop there. On one level, that sounds rather benign. But when we see how Mark introduces this scene, we come to understand that there’s a lot filled in, here. And this scene is a lot more chaotic than it first appears. So go to Mark chapter 9, verse 14:
*And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, [That’s how Mark enters into it.] 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?” [That’s what met him—a disputation, an arguing, contentious crowd.] And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute.
So Mark portrays the crowd gathered around, and they’re there, really, to see the controversy. They’re seeing there the scribes engaged in argument and disputation with the other nine disciples. By the way, this is actually part two of this background of disputation and argument. Mark recorded earlier in his Gospel, in chapter 8, how the Pharisees were actually trying to do the same thing—dispute with Jesus. Back in chapter 8, verse 10. Jesus is there. The Pharisees are there. They’re dogging his steps; they’re trying to find reasons to accuse him. We’ve traced all this out before, but just to remind you. After he fed the 5,000 near Bethsaida—Luke 9 talks about that—Jesus and his disciples were on the move. They went from Bethsaida to Gennesaret. Then they went north to Tyre and Sidon. After returning, they traveled over to the Decapolis, which is east of the Jordan River. That’s where Jesus fed the 4,000—that’s Mark 8:1-9. It was after performing that miracle but before he headed north to Caesarea Philippi, where we’ve caught up with him here. Jesus was with his disciples in Dalmanutha, a town located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, south of Capernaum. And there in Mark chapter 8, verse 10 we pick up the narrative.
*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.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.*
So it seems clear that the scribes, who were also in close association with the Pharisees—the Pharisees being the businessmen, the scribes being the lawyers, the experts in the law—have traveled north to the district of Caesarea Philippi. They’ve finally caught up with Jesus’ band—his disciples. Jesus happens to be—when they arrive—away from the rest of the group. We’ve read about that—where he was, we know, we’ve got the insight. But with Jesus away, they pounce. They start disputing with the disciples, and it’s clear, here, that the controversy centered around the disciples’ failure to heal this man’s son. Alfred Edersheim interprets the scene for us. He says, “The scribes had tracked the Lord, came upon his weakest disciples in the hour of their greatest weakness, gathered about a man who had in vain brought his lunatic son for healing. This was the hour of triumph for these scribes. The master had refused the challenge in Dalmanutha, and now the disciples accepting it had signally failed.”
So “[W]hen they’d come down from the mountain”—back to Luke 9—before Jesus, Peter, James, John are even able to join up with the other disciples—verse 37 says the great crowd came to them: “They met him.” Or as we read in Mark’s account, they saw him coming and they “ran up to him.” They couldn’t wait to get him involved in the controversy, hear his perspective. “Which side do you take, Jesus? Why did your disciples fail? Can you succeed?” They wanted to see him engaged in the debate. They wanted to bait him, get him involved. Sounds like a bunch of college students, right? Pit one teacher against the other. “This is fun! Let’s get something going! Let’s start a fight!”
Somewhat lost at this point amid the excitement of the crowd, and what’s of incidental difference to the scribes, is this grieving father. He’s still there, and he’s seeking help for his afflicted son. So it’s his voice. I love that. Amid all the controversy and everything that seems important, we’ve got this one voice that calls out in the crowd, and that’s whom the Gospel writers focus on—the one in need. Isn’t that our God? He’s hearing the voice of the one in need. Lots of shouting, lots of arguing, lots of commotion—this is a guy in need that we hear about. His voice emerges in verse 38. He cries out loudly to Jesus, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child.”
This sermon is entitled “Whose Faith Failed?” I want to be clear in answering any question about this man. It was not his faith that failed. His is the illustration of the point I’m making. His is the triumph of a persistent faith. And I want you to see in this man what a persistent faith looks like. I want his faith—though imperfect; we’ll come to that maybe next week—but he’s persistent. This is an encouragement to us. He had to press forward in his believing. He had to overcome a number of vary significant obstacles. What obstacles? Well, the first obstacle was the sense of resignation about his situation. He had inertia to push past. He had a feeling of despair that can come from struggling with on-going, chronic, long-term suffering that does not seem to end. And he pushes past that, and he comes before Jesus—Matthew’s account tells us that he fell to his knees, and looking up from a kneeling position, he says, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son.” The verb there means “to look upon with pity, look upon with favor.” It means to “have regard for.” “Help” could be a simple translation. But for Luke as a physician, this would have been a word that he heard quite commonly when a patient came to him as a doctor, looking for help. “Would you look upon my child? Would you look upon this in my body?” “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son”—as in, “Don’t just look at him, but apply your expertise. Work your wonder-working miracle, your wonder-working power, and heal him!”
So the Great Physician takes a look. According to Mark’s Gospel, he asks a follow-up question. He says, “How long has this been happening to him?” The father replied, “From childhood.” We don’t know how old this child is, this son is, but evidently, some time had passed “from childhood.” So he’s indicating a long time to Jesus. It’s a chronic condition. It’s ongoing over time, probably going on for years now. We get a little insight into what motivated this man to come to Jesus, to come to his disciples, when we see the first part of his appeal, there, at the end of verse 38. “I beg you to look at my son.” “Why should I look at your son?” “For he is my only child.” Luke is the only writer who provides this detail, and it’s a very important insight into the basis of his appeal. Hearing about Jesus has awakened his hope. It’s helped him to break out of his inertia, to push past despair and seek help from Jesus and his disciples. Why is that? Because Jesus is known for compassion, for applying divine power to people and their problems, for using the power of God to alleviate the suffering of afflicted people.
So this man knows that he qualifies, knows that this is his one and only son—by the way, that’s the word “monogenēs,” just like the “one and only son” of the widow at Nain, just like the “one and only daughter” of Jairus and his wife, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Look—when it’s a “one and only” child, the affliction is felt so acutely. The pain goes so deep. So it’s the compassion of Jesus that breaks the hold on this man of despondency and despair, that energizes him to break through the inertia of resignation, that motivates him to come seeking Jesus’ help.
The second obstacle this man had to overcome: This father pushed past what seemed to be insurmountable challenges, the odds represented here by a severe case of demonic oppression. It’s pretty obvious how severe it is and how inescapable this condition seems considering that this powerful demon has grabbed ahold of this young boy in a young state, and has held on. Verse 39-40—look at it, there. “Behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him.” Some commentators call this a severe case of epilepsy. The text clearly says that the symptoms are caused not by a medical condition, but by a demon. It’s identified as a spirt in verse 39, which exercises a malevolent will and violent power over this boy. In verse 42, when Jesus rebukes it, it’s called an “unclean spirit,” that is, a demon. Luke, the physician, catalogues the symptoms of this possession as told by the father. The verbs that are used, here, are so gripping. The demon would seize the boy. It’s a common way to express a demonic attack. It talks about the unseen force, the invisible force that grabs ahold of a boy’s body, and when that happens, others know about it. They see it on the outside, not only because of the seizure, but because when that happened, the boy—it says there—“would suddenly cry out”—that is, without warning. Without any apparent visible cause, the boy would shriek. Without words, without coherent expression, he just screamed out loud. That had to be unnerving, to say the least. It would be hard to take him anywhere in public. That would begin an episode of what can only be described here as bone-shattering convulsions. It could be mistaken for epilepsy if it weren’t for the clear identification, here, with demon possession. But the verb “convulse,” here, is “sparassei,” which literally means “to pull to and fro, to tear apart through the pulling and the shaking.” Picture this little boy. His limbs are flying everywhere. His body is violently moving from rigid to limp, back and forth, up and down. No wonder he would then foam at the mouth, like a rabid dog. His salivary glands are opening up; his mucus glands are opening up. The excess saliva and mucus pools up in the mouth, even in the lungs—rapid shaking of demonic convulsions. The mixture of air and saliva turns into foam, a frothing at the mouth. He adds here another disturbing visual that increases for us the sense of severity. And the demon, it says here, does this repeatedly. The father tells us it hardly every leaves him alone, so the resulting condition is this poor, broken, shattered body. The world is “syntribon,” referring to taking two things and smashing them and rubbing them together violently—so vigorously, so violently that they’re both smashed and crushed. The cruelty of this demon is manifested in the condition it leaves this boy’s body in.
It’s especially so when you add Matthew’s and Mark’s descriptions to what Luke tells us. Matthew 17:15, Mark 9:22—both tell us the same thing. The demon would “cause the boy to fall often into the fire and often into the water.” Horrible! So in addition to having this beaten, shattered body, this poor boy had been horribly burned. His skin marred and disfigured on the outside. We can easily imagine how repeatedly falling into water resulted in water getting into his lungs, causing internal damage, breathing problems as well. So he’s a pathetic case—a wheezing, disfigured, convulsing, damaged boy marred on the outside, scarred on the inside.
I’m not trying to minimize the effect on the boy, but imagine his parents. There’s nothing they can do. That is the worse position to be in when you’re trying to care for somebody who’s hurting immensely, and there is nothing you can do about it. You feel helpless and hopeless. You’re always attentive—you can imagine that they are always attentive to this boy, weary with watching him to make sure the next convulsion doesn’t send him into the fire or into the water. This father, though, has looked past what seems inescapable, a condition of insurmountable odds. He sees in Jesus what no eye can see—the power of God. By faith he knows that his son’s pathetic condition, that this demon’s absolute hold, is not absolute. He knows that the cruelty of the demon cannot stand up to the compassion of Christ. So he pushes back the despair. He pushes past the apparent hopelessness, and he comes to Jesus and his disciples.
And this brings up the third obstacle: The failure of the disciples. That’s disheartening. The father reached out in faith. He came to those who were reputed to have power, those who were known to perform amazing miracles. Word had gotten around in Galilee. Even Herod had even heard about it. Verse 40 tells us, “‘I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” He doesn’t seem resentful. He almost seems understanding. But having risked in faith, the man came forward, mustered up the boldness and the courage…disappointment. He encountered failure. He made a herculean effort, here. He faces absolute disappointment, the failure of the disciples to heal his son, to cast out the demon. And that now becomes an occasion for the scribes to come and rejoice over his situation. They rejoice. They come to contradict his disciples. It’s a pathetic situation. The man’s desperate need becomes the cause of casting aspersions upon Jesus, discrediting his entire ministry. You’ve got to think. It is remarkable that this guy just retreated into the background. He’s not pulled back. Get away from the arguing scribes. Get away from the gawking crowd, who’ve come to see a diversion, to make sport of his situation for their own distraction, to gaze upon a spectacle. You might think, “Wow! Good thing Jesus arrived when he did lest this man give up and leave the scene when the miracle-working disciples failed to reform.”
It’s a very good thing—by the grace of God. God is the one who caused this man to stay. God is the one who upheld this man in his faith. He caused him to persevere and to do so against insurmountable odds. And looking unto Jesus, this weary, heart-broken father had every reason for confidence and hope. Looking at Jesus, it’s all restored. He’s renewed. He’s strengthened in believing, and so he comes. So the father comes to Jesus, as we’ll look at in more detail next week. Jesus grants his request, heals his son. That is something to behold, and we’re going to get to that.
We want to come back to the question, “Whose faith failed?” Let’s move through the text and find the answer, and on the way, we’re going to see powerful motivation for us to grow strong in our own faith as we see the failure to believe that is recorded in this account.
So the second point for this morning. First, the triumph of a persistent faith. This is the tragedy of an inconsistent faith. And again, I want you to think about yourself as we walk through this text. Just think, “Is my faith cause for triumph in God, or is it a tragedy? Am I strong in believing? Are things being done in and through my life—even in the mundane and the normal—that could only be explained in God?” Or does your life just look like everybody else’s in the block. The tragedy of an inconsistent faith is this tragedy: that we do not rejoice in our God’s power, that we don’t see his glory, that we shrink back. We don’t lean into, we don’t find, power and triumph and glory and things that only God can do—things that happen that can only be explained by God. That’s the tragedy of an inconsistent faith.
It’s noted by the father there in verse 40, “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” That is tragic. It forces us to ask the question, “Why?” As I said, in the other Gospels, the writers record the disciples coming to Jesus to ask that very question: “Why could we not cast it out?” But Luke goes right to the answer—verse 41. Jesus answers there, “O faithless and twisted generation! How long am I to be with you and bear with you?” Now that response does two things for those who are present here—two things. Number one: It indicts the unbelieving crowd. Indicts the hostile scribes, who were there to discredit him. It indicts those who rejoice in that discrediting. It indicts those who rejoice in a deconstruction of Jesus’ ministry, in tearing him down, tearing him apart, casting aspersions. It indicts them. Secondly, it doesn’t just indict unbelief; it also rebukes the believing disciples—those who have acted in a way that is not true to their nature because they truly do believe. But it rebukes them as inconsistent in the way they’ve acted with what they know and with what they understand. They’ve been inconsistent. It rebukes them, and it encourages them to get back on track and to excel in faith.
So first, let’s consider this indictment on unbelief. When Jesus says, “O faithless and twisted generation,” he actually borrows that language from Deuteronomy 32:5. But the song that comes from there—Deuteronomy 32—the Song of Moses—isn’t the kind of song that you want to sing to your friends. The Song of Moses is actually a big old indictment to unbelieving Israel. It’s kind of like, wow!—I think that song is sung in a minor key, or maybe with “speed metal” and harsh tones because it’s powerful in rebuking sinful unbelief in Israel. It is a warning to Israel—as they enter into the Promised Land—that they do not fall and fail in unbelief. But in that song, all the way, Moses exonerates God and indicts Israel for unbelief. He starts with God’s faithfulness—verse 4: “The Rock—his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice, a God of faithfulness, without iniquity. Just and upright is he.” And then this—note the contrast, verse 5: They “have dealt corruptly with him. They are no longer his children because they are blemished. They are a crooked and twisted generation.” “Have fun in the Promised Land, boys!” Man!
As we mentioned earlier, Jesus had already found fault with his own contemporary generation, with the unbelief that characterized his contemporaries, which is embodied in the leadership, in the religious nature of the leadership. There is no pride worse than religious pride. Mark 8:12—we read about his being badgered by the Pharisees to show them a sign. It says in that text—we read it earlier—he “sighed deeply in his spirit.” He said, “Why does this generation seek a sign?” “Wasn’t the divine healing power that has pervaded Galilee wherever I go enough of a sign? What more do they want?” The Pharisees and scribes want Jesus to dance to their tune. They want him to flash some supernatural signs—signs that will satisfy their questions, that will overcome their doubts. Look—God does not dance to our tune. He does not submit his power and will to the scrutiny and demands of sinful unbelief. He does not perform wonders for unbelievers on cue. Jesus, knowing that about God, responds to their request with a deep confidence—but also a profound sadness. “Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Now the scribes, having traveled north from Galilee through Bethsaida up on the way to Caesarea Philippi, have heard about Jesus and his disciples, so they came this way. So they’re there looking for him. They want to test him; they want to entrap him in issues of law-keeping, Sabbath-breaking, improper procedure, protocol regarding the traditions of the elders. They’ve got a list. Having caught up with his disciples, they get right to work. You can imagine that started. “So, boys, what you and your teacher doing up here, in Caesarea Philippi—Gentile country, you know—unclean! Finding common cause with Gentiles are we? To pay regards to their pagan god Pan?” The face of Mt. Hermon had become a shrine, the center of Pan-worship. The Greeks actually named the city Paneas after him. This grieving father, then, comes to the disciples. He’s got his demonized son in tow. He makes his appeal. The disciples try and fail—and the scoffing ensues. The scribes are there, stirring up the crowd, disputing, arguing with the disciples, bickering about issues of the law, issues of propriety, questions about blasphemy, submission to the traditions of the elders. Oh—and by the way, “Where’s the power to heal this boy?” The whole scene has turned chaotic. It’s ruled by the darkness of doubt and unbelief. Truth is set aside. The heart of God for the man and his demon-possessed God is absolutely ignored. We’ve got a clear case of demon-possession in their midst, and the scribes could not care less. That just becomes the object, the springboard for them to condemn. The concerns of compassion have given away to contention, as the self-evident failure of the disciples becomes an occasion to embarrass them, to capitalize on this opportunity. It’s time to make their move—bam! So they prove their point.
So Jesus, coming down from the mountain, has just spent time with Moses and Elijah—two men who, by the way, know this kind of Israel. They’ve seen this side of this people. Jesus has enjoyed the celestial company of not only these glorified saints, but more importantly of his heavenly Father. He’s basked in his glory. So having thoroughly enjoyed the time, then subsequently, with Peter, John, and James—he’s helping them think through the implications of everything that they’ve seen—and now Jesus comes upon this. Mark 9:14: “And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them.” His other nine disciples are in a weakened state in faith. They’re embattled—not for good reason. It’s occasioned by their failure in believing, in performing the miracle that they had the power and the authority to do.
So having heard from the Father, Jesus sighs, here, and he says, “O, faithless and twisted generation…” You can see it’s Deuteronomy 32 all over again. Frederick Godet gives a particularly helpful summary. He says, “Jesus, after enjoying fellowship with celestial beings, suddenly finds himself in a world where unbelief prevails in all its varying degrees, and it is therefore the contrast, not between one man and another, but between this entire humanity alienated from God, in the midst of which he finds himself, and the inhabitants of heaven, whom he has just left—which wrings from him this mournful exclamation.” Oh, for a heart to understand him better! Oh, for a heart to consistently see things his way! Because even in that indictment, it comes across more mournful and sad than angry. He’s not bitter. He’s not acrimonious. He’s not smashing them. He’s sad.
Well, that’s the indictment on unbelief in Israel, and Jesus knows that this very unbelief is what will fuel the crowd, led by their religious leaders, to execute him. He knows exactly where this is heading. We see that in verses 43 and 44. It’s all according to plan, though. He’s not troubled. He’s not upset. This is all according to the sovereign will of God. This is all the wise outworking of the divine decree. But still, it is an occasion for sighing, for groaning: “O, faithless, twisted generation!”
Second, though—let’s see how Jesus, here, is rebuking his disciples for an inconsistent faith. And again, this rebuke is not the rebuke of rubbing their noses in their mess. It’s for the purpose of lifting them up out of it. But they need to see it, first. We hear in the second part of his lament in verse 41—it comes out in two rhetorical questions—“How long am I to be with you?” and “How long am I to bear with you?” In the first part of in verse 41, he’s lamenting over the unbelief of the generation—singular. That’s a collective reference to the nation of Israel—his own people, who are now and will remain in faithlessness, in twistedness, distorted and perverted by their unbelieving hearts. But in this second part, he asks these two rhetorical questions, and he turns from the generation—singular—from the crowd—singular, and he speaks to his disciples. And the pronouns in these two questions are in the second person plural—he’s speaking to them. “How long am I to be with you?” “How long am I to bear with you?” His presence among them, his enduring with them and their failures—he’s not always going to be by their side, physically present. He’s not always going to be covering for their failures. He’s not always going to be available to clean up their mistakes. This Jesus is longing to see his disciples stand on their own two feet, in faith—to behave in a way that’s consistent with faith, to grow to maturity in faith.
At this point, they’re anything but consistent. In spite of everything they’d seen and learned so far, they’re lamentably inconsistent in believing and walking by faith. We know from the other two Gospels that the disciples recognized their failure. They came to him asking him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Matthew and Mark—it’s the same question. In Mark 9:28-29, we read this: “And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.’”
Listen—that is not a comment about the wrong method. “We tried to cast it out, but that wasn’t working,” and then Jesus lets them off the hook: “Oh, that’s okay, you didn’t get it. This is an especially strong demon, and one that exceeds the limits of the exorcism powers that I gave you. So I gave you power and authority—but only so much. For the rest you need prayer. This kind of demon you have to pray out.” Look—that’s how so many people take this, and they make all kinds of false assumptions about exorcism methodology—“demonic strongholds,” “strong demons,” “weak demons.” And there are strong demons and weak demons, but that is not the point here—the “right exorcism prayers.” Frankly, it amounts to a bunch of superstitious nonsense that confuses so many people. He’s not correcting the disciples’ methodology, here. He’s correcting their theology. He is correcting and directing the implications of their theology, namely, the need to believe God. “You have a great God! Pray! Exercise faith, and pray to him.”
So when he tells them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” he’s acknowledging this demon—yes, it’s powerful and violent—but he’s telling them to take their faith and direct it to God, to the one who has all power, to the one whose power created and now sustains—yes, even the demons—of all of his creatures. God has the power to shut one up and move one over here and take one out. He owns everything. He’s the creator and sustainer of all that is.
And Matthew is the one who makes that point. He shows their failure is not in methodology, but it’s in something far more basic, far more fundamental: They failed to believe. Matthew 17:19-20: “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,” and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.’” Now are we to make merchandise of that—that image, that illustration? That’s not the point—that Christians walk through the world throwing mountains around and doing great things, like some of that charismatic foolishness we heard about—about sending tornadoes away, and such. What in the world? That’s not what this is talking about. It’s not talking about the size of your faith—that’s not the issue. It’s not about you. The size of your God is the issue. He is the God of all gods; he is the living God; he is the Creator and the sustainer of all that is; he is all-powerful, the almighty. Do you think that a mountain or a demon are significant to him? No.
So what should’ve happened when this disciples encountered this father—his demon-possessed son? They should have believed in God. They should have gone back to their theology. It’s not about methodology. It’s about theology—and you work from there. What is consistent about what you know to be true about God? They should have believed in God—trusted him to give them the power and authority. He’d already given them the power and authority to cast out the demon. They just needed to exercise it. God is bigger than the demon! They didn’t exercise that kind of faith—trusting God from the beginning—which is why they couldn’t cast it out. But had they exercised proper faith in God, had they aimed their trust at the proper object, who is God, the living God, the Creator of heaven and earth—creator of this demon, creator of this father, creator of this son. And God tested their faith by withholding the deliverance—that should have sent the believing heart to prayer.
So as Jesus said, the demon would have been driven out by prayer—not by a prayer that’s abstracted from the person and the power of God, not by prayer as some kind of a detached weapon, a tool that we use to wrest God to do what we want him to do. A prayer is a conduit and expression of humble, dependent, faith-filled petition. The prayer of faith, which has power to save the sick, power to forgive sins according to the will of God—for these disciples, that prayer of faith would have driven out the demon.
So what in Luke’s narrative helps us to see the corrective that Jesus is bringing? Remember, he left out the disciples’ question, here. “Why could he not cast it out?” He just left that question out. But the question is there for us as readers. “What happened here?”
Luke has been dropping breadcrumbs all along the way that lead us to the right conclusion, to see the disciples’ failure of believing, to see they were fully resourced—they just didn’t believe. We see the first failure—going back to that word “monogenēs”—the disciples heard the desperate father say that his son was his “one and only son.” Where had they heard that before? Wouldn’t that help them recall how Jesus raised the one and only son of the widow of Nain from the dead—Luke 7:12. More recently, what about Jairus’ daughter—Luke 8:42. She was also a one and only child—a “monogenēs.” The disciples know without a doubt, as soon as they hear “monogenēs”—these are the kind of things God loves to do. He loves to heal and care for “monogenēs” children. His heart is inclined favorably to feel compassion, to show mercy, to act for the down-trodden. God is by nature good. As an expression of that goodness, he is compassionate and merciful. It means he’s inclined to the weak and to the afflicted. This is the first failure, then—to fail to trust in divine compassion, to see God for who he truly is, and to exercise faith accordingly.
The second failure is in doubting the power of God. We do this all the time, don’t we? We see things with our eyes. We hear things with our ears. We start doubting. Like Peter, we look at the waves and not at the Lord. We start sinking. There are no situations on earth, no situations in the heavenly realms, no situations in a “galaxy far, far away” that are beyond the power of God—even dealing with the realm of evil—of unclean, malevolent spirits. They failed to trust in the power of God. They looked at this situation; they doubted—they were shaken. What in their recent experience should have helped them to overcome that? The ease with which Jesus handled the Gerasene demoniac in Luke 8:26 and following. That man was inhabited by a horde of demons who defiantly identified themselves as “We are legion, for we are many.” What did Jesus do? “Get out!” That’s it! Jesus knew the power of God. He’s unconcerned about this demon. He’s undeterred in delivering this boy, and the disciples should have just believed—not only in the nature of God’s power, which Jesus had conferred upon them in Luke 9:1-2, but in the willing intention of God for this power to be used for deliverance from demon possession during Jesus’ first ministry on earth.
So they failed to consider the compassion of God. They failed to trust in the power of God. Finally—third failure—the disciples didn’t consider carefully their personal responsibility for casting out this demon. We already mentioned this—Luke 9:1-2. Jesus gave them power and authority to do exactly this—this job. There’s been no repeal of that commission. In fact, the apostolic commission continues all the way into the book of Acts. These Apostles performed the signs of a true Apostle—not every true Christian, mind you—but a true Apostle—“signs, wonders, mighty works”—2 Corinthians 12:12. Clearly, they were able to exercise that power and authority—Luke 9:6. They themselves reported to Jesus about all their successes—Luke 9:10. Unless there’s any question about their personal responsibility for meeting these needs, remember that’s exactly what Jesus took them away to Bethsaida to do—to make that very point. Look at Luke 9:13: “You give them something to eat. This is on you, disciples. Go get ‘er done!” When they found themselves personally without resource, without money, without strength, they were able to see their own lack, but see all provision in God. They could follow the example that Jesus set for them. What did Jesus do in verse 16: “He looked up to heaven.”
Listen—whether the need was little or great, whether their own resources seemed plentiful or relatively limited, God was the source of all they need to care for the people—and for their needs. They’re merely conduits of his power and compassion. That’s what they needed to say. That is the point of their failure on this occasion. That’s what Mark says. They failed to see that. So when Jesus says—verse 41—“O, faithless, twisted generation!”, that’s an indictment on unbelieving Israel. That’s what they own.
But the strong sentiment of doubt and unbelief that pervaded the land had a degrading effect on believers, too. We sense that, don’t we? We feel that weakness in our own day. The tendency to trust in what our eyes see and in what we can “google” and what we can buy at the store and fix at the mechanic shop, in the bank account, in the power of our minds and hands, in all of our technology and resources—we do the same thing in our day, don’t we? All of that has a withering effect on just simple trust.
Jesus laments. He longs to see his men learn the lessons that they need to deal with all that’s going to come their way. “How long am I going to be with you? How long am I going to bear with you?” Literally, “How long am I going to be here—physically present? How long will I endure?” That’s going to inform what he says: “Let these words sink into your ears. I’m going to be betrayed. I’m going to be dead. If a demonic temper tantrum troubles you now, what do you think my death is going to do to you? Grow up! Get strong!” It’s not impatience on Jesus’ part. It’s not frustration or irritation. It’s lament. It’s longing for the eradication, finally, of all unbelief, so that God is known for who he really is, and his people trust him whole-heartedly, boldly, courageously, strongly. We have the opportunity to do that here, beloved—in this church, at this time, in this place. I’m thrilled for that.
Frederick Godet, though, captures again the sentiment of Jesus, the feeling. He says, “Jesus feels himself a stranger in the midst of this unbelief, and he cannot suppress a sigh for the time when his familial and fraternal heart will no longer be chilled at every moment by exhibitions of feeling which are opposed to his most cherished aspirations. The holy enjoyment of the night before has, as it were [and I love this line], made him homesick.”
Don’t you feel, beloved, a bit homesick as well—for heaven, for a place we’ve never been? Don’t you long for the Christ whom you’ve not visibly seen, and though you haven’t seen him, you love him? You rejoice in hope that’s full of glory. But you do long, don’t you?—Romans 8—don’t you “groan inwardly as [you] wait longingly for the redemption of our bodies”? Don’t you long to be with Mike right now?—the day when our faith will be consummated? Don’t you ache for an end to the inconsistency in your own life of believing? Don’t you long for a life of unbroken faith, power, constant trust, living life in the glorious trust of the glory of God? That’s what this account—that’s what the rest of the story, even the rest of the chapter—is supposed to engender in us. It’s supposed to stir within us a longing to live by faith.
When we return next week, we’re going to learn some key lessons about how to do that—how to grow strong in faith. For now, let’s leave it there and pray.
Our Father and our God, you are the only one who is worth our hope and our trust because you are who you are. You are the true and living God. We thank you that by your grace you’ve given us the Lord Jesus Christ to reconcile us to yourself through his death on the Cross for all who would believe, who would trust him, who would look upon him. As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, that everybody who sees him, who trusts in him and puts their faith in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Why?—because you poured out your wrath on him instead of us—all the wrath that our sins deserved, justly, because we’ve broken your law, we’ve offended your holiness. God, you’ve meted out that punishment fully and finally in Christ, so that any of us who look upon him in faith, any of us who look upon him in trust—we look to the resurrection of the dead. And that is our hope. We know that we have been brought from death to life because we believe in him. That is by your grace; that is by your working. What power, what grace, what compassion you have for lost sinners! We love you and thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen