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Faith and Dealing with Demons

Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John had just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration. They were about to rejoin the other disciples when they encountered a crowd of angry and argumentative people. Evidently the dispute was somehow related to the attempt by the other nine disciples to cast out a demon from a boy who was severely afflicted (Mark 9:14-29). Continue reading . . .

Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John had just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration. They were about to rejoin the other disciples when they encountered a crowd of angry and argumentative people. Evidently the dispute was somehow related to the attempt by the other nine disciples to cast out a demon from a boy who was severely afflicted (Mark 9:14-29).

When Jesus asks about the cause of the argument, the boy’s father immediately explains that “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” (Mark 9:17b-18a).

Many have insisted that this was a typical case of epilepsy. But I’m not so sure. Although some of his symptoms are similar to what those who suffer from epilepsy experience, in fact that may not be the nature of his affliction.

First of all, this young boy didn’t merely experience seizures and foam at the mouth, but he was also both deaf and mute. He couldn’t hear or speak. In v. 25 Jesus clearly identifies his problem as a “mute and deaf spirit” that was responsible for his condition. So this is clearly a case of demonic oppression that had numerous effects: not only the inability to hear or speak but also numerous physical seizures that were similar to those of an epileptic.

Second, this young boy doesn’t simply experience seizures but ones that are an attempt to maim, injure, and even kill him. According to his father, “it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him” (v. 22). In other words, this boy didn’t simply “fall” to the ground when he experienced a seizure: he was “thrown” (v. 18) to the ground, and often when there was an open fire or body of water.

Finally, we read in v. 20 that the boy experienced a convulsion “when the spirit saw” Jesus! I find it hard to believe that the sight of Jesus could induce an epileptic seizure! The cause of the boy’s condition, therefore, was far more than a physical affliction. There was a spiritual force behind it. Again, according to v. 26 the convulsions or seizures were induced by a demonic spirit.

So, contrary to what some have thought, this is not a case of epilepsy. Epilepsy is a physical affliction, not a mental disorder, and certainly not the result of demonic activity. Rather, this is an instance of severe demonization in which one of the physical effects bears great similarity to what an epileptic might experience.

One more thing to keep in mind. If this is in fact epilepsy as we know it today, Mark is not saying that all such cases are caused by a demon. He has referred to many illness in the gospel record, some of which are demonically induced and others not. It is possible that in some cases epilepsy can be the result of a demonic presence but that in no way requires us to believe that all cases of epilepsy are demonic in origin.

This story raises several questions.

First, how did such a young boy come to be demonized in the first place? This calls for careful consideration.

One of the most difficult lessons for a Christian to learn is that protection against demonic attack is not automatic. Simply being a child of God does not guarantee that we can waltz through life insulated from demonic influence and invulnerable to the schemes and strategies of the enemy. The implements and weaponry of a soldier are not for decoration. They are to be utilized in fighting a war.

There are any number of things a person can fail to do that might result in demonic attack:

Failure or refusal to resist the devil (Js. 4; 1 Pt. 5). Is Satan required to flee from us if we don't resist him? No.

Failure or refusal to wear the armor of God (Eph. 6). What happens if we engage the enemy unadorned?

Failure or refusal to put on Jesus (Rom. 13:14).

Failure or refusal to pray for protection from the power of temptation (Mt. 6:13).

Participation in occultic activity (Deut. 18:9-14)

Idolatry (Deut. 7:25; Acts 19:18-19; Lev. 17:7; Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:34-39; see especially 1 Cor. 10:19-21).

Willful, unrepentant, unresolved sin (1 Tim. 3:7; 1 Pt. 5:8; 2 Cor. 2:11; Eph. 4:26-27).

Embracing demonic lies or heresy (1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 2:24).

Inner vows or oaths.

Some insist that there is no such thing as involuntary demonization. They insist that no demon can gain access or a foothold apart from the willful, voluntary complicity of the individual. But the case described in Mark 9:14-29 proves otherwise. Here we see that a child is demonized. See also Mark 7:24-30 and the young daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. What willful sin could he/she have committed to warrant this condition?

How, then, do we explain this young boy’s condition? I can’t be sure, but let us suppose that this boy's grandfather was demonized as the result of his involvement in idolatry or sexual perversion. When this man dies, what happens to his demon? Where does it go? Is it possible that the demon might assert a legal claim or "moral rights", so to speak, to this man's posterity?

I don’t have solidly biblical answers to this question, but what’s most important is that we realize how important it is to pray for our children from an early age and to teach them how to adorn themselves with the armor of God as described by Paul in Ephesians 6. Don’t pretend that it could never happen to your family or your child.

Second, what accounts for the failure of the disciples to minister successfully to this young boy? Their earlier success in deliverance ministry is described in Mark 6:7,13. So what went wrong?

Evidently, due to their previous success in deliverance ministry, they had come to believe that divine power was at their disposal to use as they saw fit, apart from constant reliance on God. Had they become arrogant and proud? Perhaps they failed to realize that it was only “in Jesus’ name” that the demons are subject to us (cf. Luke 10). Or perhaps they treated deliverance in a somewhat mechanical fashion or even as magic: say the right words, repeat the right spiritual formula and out pops a miracle!

They looked at what happened and said: “Hey, look at what we’ve done! We are more powerful than demons! It must be because we are righteous and uniquely anointed and spiritual!”

Third, Jesus said in v. 29 that “this kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Evidently the “kind” or “sort” of demon that was afflicting this young boy was extraordinarily powerful and insidious and thus called for extraordinary measures to cast out.

Fourth, we also learn from this story something important about the way Jesus ministered to the demonized. He “rebuked” the spirit (v. 25), probably in compelling it to be quiet. He identified the spirit as one that is responsible for the boy being deaf and mute. He commanded the demon to leave (there is never a prayer for deliverance in the gospels; only commands!). And he commanded it never to return again.

It is important to note that Jesus did not always consign demons to the abyss or in some place of permanent detention. Here in Mark 9, Jesus simply said, "I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again" (v. 25). This implies that the recurrence of demonization after deliverance was a possibility and steps had to be taken to prevent such from happening. Evidently, often after being cast out from a person, a demon was free to return to the person or to enter someone else.

Fifth, and surely the most important lesson of all, is the role of faith and how essential it is in the ministry of deliverance.

The boy’s father prefaced his request of Jesus by saying, “if you can do anything” (v. 22b). This betrays a veiled accusation against the powerlessness of the disciples. Their failure had caused the man to doubt whether even Jesus was capable of helping. The boy’s father was unsure even of Christ’s power. The others said, “I know you can, but will you?” This man said, “I don’t even know whether you can.”

Jesus immediately sets him straight: “’If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23). In other words, “My ability is not the issue,” says Jesus. “The issue is your faith, or the lack of it.” On other occasions Jesus delivers people when there is no faith evident. But in this case he makes it clear that the problem is lack of faith.

But here’s the question that all of us want answered: “Faith in what?” I think it comes down quite simply to this: Faith in God’s goodness and greatness: (1) confident trust that God is a good God who enjoys blessing his people, a God whose heart is for healing and deliverance, faith in the truth of what Jesus said in Luke 11:11-13; (2) confident trust and belief that God is able to heal and deliver, that God is not limited or restrained by anything outside himself.

Jesus is not saying that this sort of faith guarantees that God will do what we believe or what we have faith that he is able to do. God is no man’s slave. He is sovereign and free to act in whatever way he wills.

Jesus declares that “for one who believes” “all things are possible” (v. 23b). His point is simply that there is no limit to what God might do when we turn from trust in ourselves to complete dependence upon him (see Matt. 17:20-21). Faith is not the spiritual equivalent of a positive mental attitude! The issue is not negative thoughts versus positive ones, but true vs. false, biblical vs. non-biblical. Thus, when God suspends his power on our faith it isn’t because faith has forced his hand but because he longs to be glorified in our dependence upon him alone!

Note the man’s response in v. 24. He is certain of two things. First, he does have the kind of faith that Jesus calls for. “I do believe that with God all things are possible. He is able to do whatever he wills.” But second, he is also certain that this faith in his heart was far from perfect; it was beset with fears and he still struggled with doubts. It was present and growing, but far from complete. “Purge my faith from self-reliance! Purify my faith of hypocrisy and insincerity! Focus my faith on you and you alone!”

Finally, Jesus says to his disciples: “This kind (of demon) cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Does he mean that we pray to God and ask him to drive out the demon? Or does it mean we pray to God for wisdom and strength and renewed confidence in Christ and an increased awareness of our authority in him and the sufficiency of his atoning death and the power of his resurrection as we then engage the demonized and command the spirit to go? Perhaps both, but probably the latter!

There is not a single instance of deliverance by prayer in the NT. Deliverance elsewhere always occurs by the word of command. One can only conclude that in particular cases where an especially powerful demon is involved, prayer may be needed. "Mark focuses on the need for prayer because it clearly demonstrates that divine power is not under human control; it must always be asked for. Manifestations of the power of God, such as are needed when dealing with the forces of evil, come only in response to the attitude of trust and reliance upon God that is expressed in humble prayer" (Page, 164).

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