By Jeremy Reynalds
Special correspondent for ASSIST Communications
The re-released and slightly extended version of the movie "The Exorcist" should serve to remind Christians that the world has a hunger for things supernatural -- although they're looking in all the wrong places. However, while demon possession is a subject that attracts many non- Christians to the big screen, it is also an issue that seems to repel many believers, who prefer a more sanitized and psychologized version of their faith.
It is, however, important to note that even if we disdain demons, Jesus confronted them and dealt with their evil activities. In a story that some of us would like to relegate to first century ignorance, (found in Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9: 14-29 and Luke 9: 37-42), we not only see ample evidence of how Jesus acted when confronted with demons; we also learn some other important lessons.
The passage deals with a father seeking healing for his demon-possessed son. He had been unable to find Jesus but he had found nine of the disciples from whom he had requested help. The disciples' attempt at exorcism was unsuccessful. Their failure resulted in an argument between the scribes and the disciples.
When Jesus appeared on the scene, everyone was amazed. The International Bible Commentary says the amazement may have been a result of Jesus' unexpected arrival or it could have been because Jesus was still reflecting the glory of the Transfiguration (Bruce [Ed] 1986:1168).
One of the crowd tells Jesus and His embarrassed disciples that he has a demon-possessed son. The boy's father explains the problem and by looking at the three gospels together we get a heartrending picture of what had been occurring in the boy's life. In Mark 9:18 we see that the demon seizes the boy, he screams (Luke 9:39) and the spirit throws him to the ground and he foams at the mouth. He grinds his teeth and becomes as stiff as a board (Mark 9:18). On a number of occasions the evil spirit has thrown him into fire or water (Matthew 17:15) resulting in him being covered with burn scars. On top of that, the spirit had made him deaf and dumb. One commentator wrote that the boy lived in an aquarium-like existence. While he could see what was going on around him, he was unable to hear or speak (Hughes 1989: 22). (Mark's account provides the most detailed depiction of the incident: verses 14b-16, 21-24 and 26-27 have no parallel in Matthew or Luke).
After harshly rebuking the disciples, Jesus addressed the evil spirit and it was forced to leave. In a "debriefing" session after the incident the disciples asked Jesus why they had been unable to cast out the demon. Jesus tells them that it takes prayer (and in some translations the word fasting is added) to cast out such demons.
Although we can only guess, it is nonetheless interesting to consider what was going on in the minds of the disciples while all this was occurring. Possibly the nine disciples who did not get the opportunity to observe the Transfiguration, which occurred just before the attempted exorcism, were a little jealous and upset when they attempted to perform the exorcism. Perhaps they even thought, "We'll show Jesus what we can do while He's up there with His favorites." (Can you relate? I can!) Consequently there may have been an attitude of pride, a little anger and a dependence on their abilities instead of the Lord's. If this was indeed the case, their "progress in learning" left a lot to be desired.
Jesus was understandably frustrated. In Mark 3: 14-15, Jesus had commissioned his disciples "that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons," but now they had failed. They had enjoyed earlier successes but a week after his absence they were powerless. Jesus had hoped that the disciples would be able to perform the task for which they were commissioned.
Referring to Matthew 17:17-18, commentator Stu Weber makes this very clear saying that it was not surprising to hear Jesus call the disciples unbelieving (as he had done so on a number of other occasions) but for him to call them members of an unbelieving and perverted generation was to lump them together with obstinate Israel and its hypocritical leaders (Weber 2000:272). That's scary! I never want to be called that by Jesus, do you?
Weber points out that the word perverted is the perfect passive participle of a Greek word meaning to make crooked, or misshapen. It implies corruption or distortion so serious that the object is no longer of any use. While the disciples were empowered to draw upon the authority of Jesus they failed due to their lack of dependence on His power (Weber 2000:272). Another commentator says the problem was not that the disciples didn't try. They did the best they could. The problem was unbelief; the disciples not resting in their faith in Jesus (Hughes 1989:23). In other words, Jesus was encouraging the disciples to let go of their own efforts and to rely on God's power.
Attempting to successfully accomplish this, Jesus used an object lesson followed by a short question-and-answer time. This might be called another phase of Jesus' seemingly endless (and no doubt frustrating) attempts to teach the disciples to have faith in Him. An additional point to consider is that there is possibly a continuing frustration level of Jesus with His disciples; the last time being before the Transfiguration in Mark 8: 13-21 when Jesus described His disciples as individuals unable to see or comprehend (Killinger 1977: 78).
What the disciples learned was that they should not take their faith in Jesus for granted and without a moment-by-moment trust in the Lord that past spiritual victories were no guarantees of a continued successful performance.
We learn quite a lot about Jesus from this passage. For example, He went right to the heart of the issue (He was definitely not politically correct), and presumably because He had dealt before with the disciples' unbelief so many times before, He thought it necessary to correct them (and some commentators say that He was also addressing that entire generation) in public. One commentator says Jesus "flared up... "but then his sympathies for the boy overtook His wrath. (Killinger 1977:78). Maybe this was because of Jesus feeling constrained that He had yet to accomplish so much in so short a time period and the disciples were very slow to learn.
With that in mind, it is also probably reasonable to infer that Jesus' ultimate commitment to redemption overrode a commitment to his disciples' feelings. And in the same way, our eyes should always be set upon our heavenly home; all of our words and actions should always bear in mind eternity-a destination that despite talking about it a lot as believers I think that sometimes we fail to appreciate its real reality. Could it be that familiarity breeds contempt?
We also see Jesus' compassion for the demon possessed. His question about the length of time the boy had suffered such attacks shows a deep compassion and concern for both the boy and his father (Lane 1974:332).
But what can we learn for us today? Firstly, it is initially curious that while Jesus says, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer," there is nothing said about Jesus praying when He actually performed the exorcism. Consequently, it is reasonable to infer that something else must be meant. Presumably the inference is of absolute reliance on God. As John Killinger points out, "There is an absolute rhythm in Jesus' own life and ministry; He withdraws to be with God alone, and then enters the crowds again to minister to the needy. Without the withdrawal, there can be no ministering (Killinger 1977: 79).
Additionally, it is still true (and many in the Body of Christ still fail to realize this) that it is Jesus' choice whom He blesses and as such, when we see evidence of God's Hand of Blessing in the life of another brother or sister, we should not get jealous or develop a bad attitude. If we do, it will hinder or even negate our ability to be used for the Lord.
You know, all of us have encountered a brother or sister at church or maybe in a restaurant and they breathlessly tell us about the new car that the Lord has blessed them with. They are soooo excited and want to share that exuberance with us. "Yes, brother " (or sister) we say between clenched teeth, "how wonderful. I'm glad that the Lord has blessed you," all the while thinking, "I know how they act. Why did you give them that car, God?"
Jesus was also addressing praying in faith and belief. However, as Stu Weber points out, the issue is not quantity of faith but quality of faith. Weber points out that some believers today mistakenly believe that "faith" in and of itself is the source of power, when in actuality TRUE faith is an admission of powerlessness and a dependence on God's power (Weber 2000:273).
But when we have read this passage and considered all of the various implications, the most important thing that we should come away with is an awareness of the importance that Jesus was trying to teach His disciples of continued faith and prayer --- a moment-by-moment faith.
There is a saying in television journalism that you are only as good as your last story. News directors are remarkably unwilling to let their staff glory in their past successes. Many times those who do so wallow in the glory days of yesteryear but fail to turn out anything productive today. It is interesting to note that some of those journalists who have recently won the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize have encountered serious setbacks in their journalistic career.
There is a remarkably similar parallel for us here. It appears that the disciples were taking for granted an ability to cope with the situation in light of their previous "Pulitzer prize-winning experience" of casting out demons. But just as successful journalists have to keep on writing, so in the same way, Jesus says to us, "If you want to be keep on experiencing spiritual 'success,' then you have to keep on praying and abiding in Me."
What a powerful lesson for us as 21st century believers to consider today. Despite all of our learning and technological goodies, gadgets and gizmos, we still need to continually depend on Jesus. May we all take that to heart!