Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Power of Faith (in Christ Alone)

Mountain top experiences are simply wonderful. Whether you have gained a victory, earned an achievement, or accomplished a task, it is pure pleasure to enjoy mountain top experiences. If that is so with everyday worldly pursuits, the experience of Peter, James, and John was exponentially more magnificent. To have witnessed on Mt. Hermon their Lord glorified, speaking with Moses and Elijah, then to have been surrounded by the Shekinah glory of God in the cloud, and hear God speak. The only experience that could ever top this preview of the Second Coming is the actual return of the Lord! No doubt the climb up Mt. Hermon was wearisome, but I’m certain the descent was not only joyous but packed with excited conversation about what they had witnessed and the meaning of it all.

The glorious vision that a fourth of the apostles beheld is the focus of the first thirteen verses in Mark 9. The next sixteen verses - Mark 9:14-29 - in that chapter talk about what transpired at the foot of the mountain. For every mountain top experience there is also a valley of Baca – of weeping – to follow. Coming down from the holy mount Jesus and the three witnesses were confronted with an unholy terror. The glories of Christ shone brilliantly on the mountain, but the gloom of sin’s curse mucked up the view in the valley. From a foretaste of heaven to the reality of this present darkness is what Peter, James, and John now experienced. This is often the case. Revival and renewal are closely followed by the destructive and ugly realities of sin in this world. Nowhere is that more evident that in this boy’s condition.

The Boy’s Condition – Mark 9:14-22

Coming down from the mountain Jesus and the three apostles come upon a massive crowd, and at the center of this multitude are the remaining nine apostles. They are not alone. The scribes are there, and they are arguing with, perhaps even taunting, the nine disciples. Someone in that throng of people noticed the approach of Jesus and as the crowd’s focus shifted to the Lord the argument was silenced. With all eyes fixed on Jesus He asked the scribes, “What are you arguing about with them?” But a distressed voice from the crowd speaks up before they or even one of the disciples could answer.

The troubled voice belonged to a father who had brought his son, his only child (Luke 9:38), to the apostles in hopes that they would cast out the demon that had possessed him. Do not allow yourself to think that this narrative is “just a story.” Here was real father whose only child was possessed by an actual demon. This is an historical narrative, not fiction or fantasy, and the Lord used this real life situation to illustrate and communicate spiritual truths. Remember, the miracles that Jesus performed were never intended as stand-alone events. They were parables of spiritual truth. Jesus was the master of taking life situations and from them teaching spiritual truths that would be indelibly buried into the people’s minds.

What a sorry, gut-wrenching situation this was. In a word, this boy’s condition was pathetic. The foul spirit had made the boy deaf and mute, and when it seized him the boy would be thrown to the ground, become rigid, foam at the mouth, and grind his teeth. That was not the worst of it; however, as you would expect from one of Satan’s minions, this demon was not content to only torment the boy; as the father said, “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.”

This is a pathetic picture and a perfect example of Satan’s lust to destroy. The enemy hates God, and hates man – not just believers but all mankind – because man is made in the image of God. This is why the devil seeks to pervert all aspects of humanity. In this text we vividly witness physical disfigurement, but this most often takes place in the mental and moral aspect of humanity. Satan loves to reduce people to the lowest common denominator, and this most often is accomplished through subtle even respectable seductions. It is easy to ignore examples like this boy or the demoniac because they are so brutal and so obviously supernatural; whereas the more refined methods of perversion are not given equal attention. The image of this boy falling to the ground and rolling around in the dirt while foaming at the mouth and grinding his teeth, or flinging himself into a fire or pool of water is disturbing. It shocks us and rightfully so. It is a perversion of the dignity of one who is fashioned in the image of Almighty God. It is no different, however, from the more respectable, in some cases legal, perversions with which men and women routinely delight. As one pastor has said, “We daily rub shoulders with people who privately indulge in gross, even macabre, spiritual and sensual practices.” Satan delights in distorting God’s design for men and women in all areas of life.

The reality is that all of us are just as messed up as this kid was, and we don’t have to do anything to be in that condition. Just as this had been the boy’s condition since he was a young child, we are all sinners from birth; born under the thumb of Satan. We have only one hope.

The Father’s Petition – Mark 9:22

Yet again in Mark we find a desperate person who is driven to Jesus by a great need and the inability of anyone else to satisfy that need. While Jesus was on Mt. Hermon this father had approached the disciples in hopes that they could help. They should have been able, but they failed (more on that later.) The disciples’ lack of success must have caused the man to despair, and it certainly presented the critics of Jesus with an opportunity to crow.

The image of this father is nearly as pathetic as that of his son, but for altogether different reasons. Imagine the task of trying to keep this boy from harming himself as the unclean spirit is ever trying to harm him. The boy is helpless to save himself. His father is helpless to save him, and as a father I cannot imagine anything more painful than watching one of my children suffer terribly yet be not only helpless but useless in improving his condition.
Do not think that this father had not, in the past, tried a whole host of remedies. Like the diseased woman from chapter 6 who had spent all that she had on treatments to cure her disorder but with no success, this father would have done all that he could to fix his boy; his only child.

Nothing had worked. He was desperate, and his desperation drove him to Jesus. This is as it should be! Only those who recognize their utter need will be drawn to Jesus. Just as healthy people don’t seek a cure, proud people; those who believe they are in need of nothing, do not seek out Jesus. The problem with that line of thought is that, spiritually speaking, we are all, apart from Christ, in the same condition as that boy. The only hope for this child, the only hope for any of us, is found in this desperate father’s appeal to Jesus: “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

The Savior’s Solution – Mark 9:23-27

In commenting on this passage Spurgeon says:
From some persons we could not ask compassion or fellow-feeling, because they do not appear to have any; they wear a harsh look, and a chill air surrounds them; but the Savior was not so; the man felt that Jesus was full of compassion his suit was that this compassion would show itself to him and his son.
The divine compassion of Jesus drew out this impassioned and desperate plea from this father. There has never been compassion like that of Jesus. He could see the compassion in Jesus’ face, and we can hear the compassion in Jesus’ words. Here is yet another reminder to believers that we must represent Christ with clarity and charity. If what we proclaim is clear but uncharitable, then we’ve dropped the ball and harmed the gospel. If what we proclaim is charitable but not clear or just flat wrong, then we’ve dropped the ball and harmed the gospel.

Jesus had just caused this man to review the helpless situation of his son, and that the boy’s condition had been thus since he was a young child. Why? Jesus knows all things. What was the purpose of having this father rehearse the painful realities that caused his desperation?

This man needed to believe in Christ's power in reference to his own case. It is very easy to say, “I believe” when you have no sense of your sin, and no consciousness of your danger. It is the easiest thing in the world to say, “Yes, Christ can save me,” when you do not really believe that you need saving. Faith, where there is no present sense of need, is but the image of faith, and not the grace, which saves the soul.

This man clearly understood his great need, but his faith had been shaken a little by the apostle’s failure. So he said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

It is crucial that we understand Jesus’ answer, because that will enable us to understand the Savior. “If thou canst believe, all things [are] possible to him that believeth.” The father’s petition was, “If you can do anything, help us.” The Savior’s solution is this: “I can but do you believe? Do you trust that I can?” The question is never “Can Jesus do it?’ The question is always “Do you believe, and do you place your trust in Christ to do it?” The issue was not Jesus’ lack of power but this man’s lack of faith!

I must say that this is often an abused passage. People will say that “If you just believe hard enough you’ll get what you want.” Or they’ll say, “If you really believe down deep in your heart or hearts.” That’s so subjective and not at all helpful. We cannot manipulate God with faith or anything else for that matter, and this passage is not teaching us to believe more. We are being taught to just pain believe! We are being taught that instead of the amount of faith it is the object of faith which is the issue.

Faith is man in his weakness trusting God’s promise in His Word. The father is called to believe because Christ told him that faith was the condition to his son’s being healed. “I can,” Jesus said, “Do you believe? All things are possible for one who believes.”

That prompted from this broken man one of the great and glorious responses of scripture. “The father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” This is an honest confession of a trembling and weak faith. Weak faith is still faith. The trembling hand does still touch. Here is beginning faith in action; weak and imperfect in and of itself but because its object is Jesus Christ it is sufficient to save. As Kent Hughes writes, “A faith which declares itself publicly, and at the same time recognizes its weaknesses and pleads for help, is a real faith.”

Jesus called for the boy to be brought before Him, and once again the multitude witnessed Christ’s power over darkness. No one and no thing is able to resist Jesus Christ. This foul spirit may have given the disciples a fit, but at the authoritative word of the Son he was compelled to flee. As with all the servants of darkness, he did not obey willfully or joyfully, and as he departed the boy he “rent him sore.” It means he made the boy violently convulse, to the point that the crowd thought he had died. The boy had not died. Satan had been defeated. An we are given yet another glimpse of the Resurrection when we read that Jesus took him by the hand, lifted him up, and he arose. The word translated “he arose” is the same one used to describe Christ resurrection in Mark 8:31 and Mark 9:31 just to name a couple.

What an amazing sight this would have been. Are you able to see the elated father joyfully and enthusiastically cradling his son, who for the first time in a long time is sane and responsive?! Do you hear the shouts and “hurrahs” of the crowd (and probably the scowls and the “bahs” of the scribes)? I love how Luke concluded this real life story. He wrote in Luke 9:43, “And they were all amazed at the mighty power of God.” “Mighty power” could also be translated “majesty.” All people were amazed by the majestic and mighty power of God as seen in the Son. Only Christ can deliver us from our sins; only God can save!

This is not where Mark’s story ends. He has a brief epilogue, because there is yet more to learn. For those who have already come to faith in Christ this is an especially important lesson.

The Disciples’ Question – Mark 9:28-29

When the disciples were alone with Jesus they had a question for Him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Notice that they didn’t ask “How can we do that”, but “Why couldn’t we do it?” Under the authority given to them by Jesus they had already done many miracles. In Mark 6:7, 13 we read that Jesus “called [unto him] the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits… And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed [them].”

They had done this before, and that may have been part of the problem. Their past victories may have caused them to trust in themselves instead of the One from whom the power flowed. They could not cast out demons, but Jesus could. They were only able to do this mighty work through the power granted them by Jesus. So the Lord instructs them and reminds them that “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” They forgot to pray! Or it may be that they purposefully neglected to pray. No reason to bother God, after all, it’s just another exorcism. They’d done this before.

The disciples didn’t fail because they didn’t believe! They believed, or they wouldn’t have tried. Their problem was in believing they could cast out the unclean spirit. Only Jesus can save, and His servants may only be effective in His service as we completely and only lean on Him. The disciples failed because they were depending on themselves and not on the power of the Lord. When we fail it is for the same reason. If we are to do anything worthwhile for our Savior it will only happen as we walk in total dependence upon Him, and the faith that brings power is the faith that is exercised by prayer and fasting.

Instead of relying on our own strength, skill, talents, or past successes we must humbly and regularly call upon the power of God; that is what faith in action is. Remember, faith is man in his weakness trusting God’s promise in His Word. Only through such weakness is the strength of God displayed. God uses the weak things of this world to destroy that which is mighty, and in this way the glory is always His.

One other thing must be said about this comment from our Lord. At the start of His ministry Jesus had defended His disciples’ lack of fasting by saying, “The bridegroom is with them…as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” (Mark 2:19) But one week after beginning to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again, He was showing them that the time was coming when persistent prayer and fasting would be needed.

That is where we are now. The Bridegroom is coming, but He is not yet come. We’ve seen the preview of His glorious appearing, but until that time when faith becomes sight we must develop our faith through the power of His Spirit, the truth of His Word, persistent prayer and fasting.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the One who was transfigured on Mt. Hermon? Do you believe in the One whom Moses and Elijah affirmed is the fulfillment of all that the Law and the Prophets proclaim? Do you believe the shekinah glory from which the Father’s voice spoke, “This is my beloved son, hear him.”

If so, then you believe in Jesus the Christ, the one who can fulfill His word to and will do so, if you believe. Believe Christ. Take up your cross, and follow Him.

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