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The Life of Jesus - Series 7: Episode 4

Jesus sets a young boy free

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 9:14-29
Matthew 17:14-21
Luke 9:37-43

The nine remaining disciples fail to heal a boy in the face of opposition. Jesus heals the boy, rewarding the father's faith. Faith has to grow and regular prayer brings power.

The nine remaining disciples fail to heal a boy in the face of opposition. Jesus heals the boy, rewarding the father's faith. Faith has to grow and regular prayer brings power.


Hello, and welcome to Series 7 Episode 4, in which Jesus sets a young boy free and heals him. We're going to be studying from Mark 9: 14 - 29. There are parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke which we'll refer to as well.

Introduction and Recap

Series 7 describes the situation as Jesus begins to move away from his ministry in Galilee, which we spent several series describing. In fact, Series 3 described Jesus' first tour round Galilee, Series 5 describes his second tour and Series 6 described his third and final tour. By this time, he's appointed his twelve Apostles. They've done some independent ministry, travelling around in pairs and the whole of Galilee has been saturated with the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Many people have responded well, and many thousands of people have experienced remarkable healing and deliverance. However, in Series 6, we noted that the storm clouds were beginning to gather. Opposition is beginning to gain momentum, particularly from the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Also King Herod Antipas has taken the move of executing John the Baptist, which could be a precursor for challenging Jesus. Some people in the crowds have become impatient because Jesus hasn't taken a political stance and hasn't overthrown the political rulers. The situation became quite complex in the third tour of Galilee. We noticed that Jesus, at the end of that series, in that particular period of time went outside Galilee for breaks, for time out with his disciples. First of all, to a Gentile adjoining nation to the north, called Phoenicia, and then to an area known as the Decapolis, to the east of Galilee. Miracles were performed there.

As Series 7 has started, Jesus is taking a journey in another direction to the north and east, to the territory of Herod Philip, away from Galilee. He's been heading for Caesarea Philippi, a major town in the north of that district and he's had some remarkable discussions with his disciples about his identity, about the Church, about the advancing of the Kingdom and the authority they're going to receive. He's had amazing discussions about his future suffering, death and resurrection and the cost of discipleship, and the way of following Jesus that they're going to need to adopt, where they're not going to be popular all the time but again to have to count the cost of following Jesus.

In the last episode, we have this incredible circumstance where Jesus takes three out of his twelve disciples on a private journey. He travels with them to a nearby high mountain near Caesarea Philippi, which we can identify almost certainly as Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in that region, and the highest mountain for a long distance around. On Mount Hermon, they spent a number of days but on one of those days somewhere on that mountain, or a nearby mountain, they had an extraordinary experience where Jesus was transfigured. His whole being became full of incredibly bright lights like the light that emanates from the presence of God. There appeared alongside him, miraculously, Moses and Elijah, in similar glory. The presence of God was around and then the voice of God the Father was heard on the mountain. It appears that the discussion that was being held between Moses, Elijah and Jesus at that time (that is described in Luke 9: 31), was about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem. This is a remarkable turnaround, because after all these many months of focus on Galilee, now it appears that Jesus is going to enter into a completely new phase of ministries. He's going to head to Jerusalem and he's going to suffer, die and be raised again from the dead. These are the events in the early part of Series 7.

We take up the story, as Jesus is coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John, the three who he had chosen to be with him for the Transfiguration. He had, no doubt, asked the other nine disciples to wait at the bottom of the mountain. Probably at a particular position, and that they were to meet again. As we catch up with this story, we have two groups. We have Jesus with Peter, James and John coming down the mountain after a remarkable experience, and then we have the nine other disciples involved in a turbulent and complex scene towards the bottom of the mountain which has created tension and difficulty for them, and in which Jesus intervenes decisively to help them, and to bring about an important change. We'll catch the story then in Mark 9: 14 - 29.

‘When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”“ You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So, they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy's father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He's dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn't we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.’

Mark 9:14-29, NIV
The Failed Healing

What a dramatic scene unfolds before us in this episode. This distraught father had been desperately wanting to help his son for years. His son's condition was very severe because he could have lost his life. He could have been thrown into the fire. He is oppressed by an evil spirit. The father, although looking for Jesus no doubt, in the first instance encountered the nine disciples who were left at the foot of the mountain. Naturally enough, he approaches them. They're the followers of Jesus the Messiah. They should know what to do. He's heard of many miracles; he's heard of people oppressed by evil spirits being set free, so he asked them to set his son free. They tried. We don't exactly know what happened, except that it failed. We don't know how long they've been trying to evict the spirit, but have been unsuccessful.


Then comes the really surprising detail. There were some Teachers of the Law present, who had confronted and challenged the disciples over their failure to heal the boy. This adds a huge complication to the story. One wonders why are they there? They must have heard that Jesus was in the district and they must have identified these nine men as the followers of Jesus. Wherever Jesus went, it was impossible for him to be completely anonymous but he was largely anonymous in this area. He was a long way from home but, obviously, these Teachers of the Law knew that he was around. They represented that hostility that I've described many times in earlier episodes. It comes again and again and again. The Teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, the Sadducees: they are really opposed to Jesus, and trying to trip him up and to discredit him. They've taken a formal position in that they have denounced him as a false messiah, operating from the power of evil forces and not from the Holy Spirit. They are discouraging people from following him. These Teachers of the Law are creating confrontation, challenge and extreme difficulty for the nine disciples.

However, Jesus arrives while all this is going on. He comes down the mountain with James, John and Peter. The crowd is ecstatic and the father approaches Jesus; at last Jesus has come. Presumably he was waiting for Jesus and Jesus heals the boy. One of the interesting points is that, the key statement in this passage, seems to me to come in verse 19. When Jesus is asked to deal with this issue he speaks quite firmly,

“You unbelieving generation. How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

Mark 9:19, NIV

What did Jesus mean when he described ‘an unbelieving generation’? Who is he actually talking about and why was that relevant to the situation at hand? Surely it was just the suffering boy and his father who should be considered at this particular point. Jesus is speaking more widely and he's speaking about the spiritual environment in the atmosphere he's facing. There are probably three different dimensions to the expression, ‘this unbelieving generation’. It refers, I think, primarily to the position taken by the religious leaders, of whom the Teachers of the Law are representatives, and are present. They have taken a position of hostility and opposition to Jesus. They have denounced him already, in an episode that we've described on quite a number of occasions, and gone back to Matthew 12: 24, when the Pharisees said, “It's only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons.” The national leadership of the religious institutions, under the authority of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, are creating a sense of unbelief in Jesus wherever they possibly can - confusion and unbelief.

The ‘unbelieving generation’ also refers to the people generally, not just the leaders. The people themselves have been influenced by the unbelief of their leaders and have become, over time, more sceptical about Jesus. Jesus may thirdly be referring to the relative lack of faith of the nine disciples, in this instance. You see, they had cast out demons and they had healed the sick, when they were commissioned to go and preach the Gospel and proclaim the Good News, in Matthew 10. They were specifically given authority over evil spirits and authority over sickness. Jesus describes an unbelieving generation.

Evil Spirits

With the healing of the boy we need to think more about what was going on in that dynamic, and in particular to think about the father's actions and his response. What is the root problem for the boy? This is not a physiological, biological illness. This is an illness brought about by the intrusion of evil spirits into the boy's life. Not all modern people accept this reality but this is the reality described in the Gospels, where many illnesses are purely biological and can be interpreted and understood as such. Some illnesses are influenced by the activity of evil spirits. This was the world in which Jesus grew up and this is the situation in which he performed these kinds of miracles. The New Testament, as a whole, encourages us to believe that this spiritual battle is a real one. These forces of darkness are real ones, not to be afraid of - they've been vanquished by Jesus Christ - but their influence is still discernible and needs to be overcome. The root problem was a demonic presence within the boy. The father brings urgent pleas for help, “From childhood,” “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us,” cries out the father.

Faith and Doubt

Jesus then responds, in verse 23, with a very encouraging and important statement. ‘Everything is possible for the one who believes.’ A great statement about faith and we'll come back to that in a moment. The father then, in a moment of great honesty, says, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.” Here's someone who is reaching out to Jesus, as the Messiah. He's got an element of faith but he's also got an element of doubt and uncertainty, no doubt influenced by the Teachers of the Law and the general religious environment in which there are people speaking against Jesus and causing doubt in the minds of people like this man. He's got an element of faith but it's not a strong and a mature faith and he's asking Jesus to help him overcome his doubt, or his unbelief. I wonder if that statement rings any bells with you as your experience of life. That's always been how I felt, to one degree or another. There's an element of faith in me but there's an element of doubt, that I'm always dealing with, as my faith gets stronger through the years and I can overcome that unbelief. It's a process. Faith grows by use. The father has a stumbling faith but Jesus' voice of command and rebuke to the deaf and mute spirit, brings about the instant recovery of the boy. What a magnificent story. What a magnificent healing. What a surprising event to happen in what, presumably, is quite a remote location, just coming down from the mountain to the north of Caesarea Philippi.

Faith Can Move Mountains

This episode concludes with a very significant discussion between Jesus and his disciples. This is taken up in the last two verses of Mark's account and we're going to add in one verse from Matthew, where Matthew adds a little more detail to what Mark says. Mark 9: 28 - 29, followed by Matthew 17: 20.

‘After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn't we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

Mark 9:28-29, NIV

Then in Matthew 17: 20, he also answers that question by saying,

“Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:20, NIV

In these two passages together, describing the same incident, Jesus describes two reasons for failure to heal the boy. One is as described in Matthew, a lack of faith, you need ‘faith as small as a mustard seed, and you can say to this mountain, be moved.’ He's probably standing at the foot of one of the highest mountains in the whole country and in the whole region. That's the irony of this statement if he's near Mount Hermon, the likely location of the Transfiguration, based on the available evidence in the Gospels. ‘you can say to this mountain move and it will.’ This is metaphorical language and it's just showing the power of faith. Faith can move mountains.

We've heard this expression if we've grown up in Christian circles and we've been encouraged in a journey of faith. Let me add one detail here, which clarifies what Jesus is talking about. The mountains here, in a metaphorical sense, are the obstacles to the advancement of the Kingdom. They're not the obstacles to your personal security, happiness, prosperity and peace, as is sometimes interpreted. The context is the advance of God's Kingdom, and the operation of this spirit in this boy was resisting the advance of the Kingdom, was speaking of another kingdom. This was a mountain that needed to be overcome. We need to apply this, not just in a personal sense - in order to gain security, wealth and so on; Jesus never promised us a comfortable life. That should be extremely obvious from our studies already. Even our studies in Series 7 have shown us some amazing details of Jesus talking about the cost of discipleship and taking up our cross. We mustn't be deluded into divorcing this verse from its context, and just applying it to ourselves for our own comfort. This is about the advance of the Kingdom - things that stand in the way of God's word prevailing, in influencing people and people coming to salvation. That was applicable to this particular healing situation. God would be glorified if the boy was healed. He would not be glorified if the boy remained under the oppression of the spirit and was suffering.


The first reason for failure to heal the boy was lack of faith. The second reason was lack of prayer, as in Mark's account. What Jesus is referring to here is prayer in advance - prayer beforehand. It's not that they didn't pray when they were seeking to set this boy free. No doubt they did but praying as a lifestyle, and receiving the power of God through that prayer, equips us with the strength and the anointing and the power to deal with these situations when they come. They had cast out demons and healed the sick before, as stated earlier on. Matthew 10: 1 describes Jesus' commission to the Twelve. These very same people earlier on, when they went preaching in pairs,

‘Jesus called the 12 disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and heal every disease and sickness’.

Matthew 10:1, NIV

They had overcome these problems before but, on this occasion, they lost their confidence and they weren't able to deal with the situation. This was a difficult context for these nine disciples. They were uncertain about when Jesus would return; they were under pressure from this needy situation; and they were being directly opposed by the Teachers of the Law who were standing around criticising them, even while they were trying to deal with this problem. It wasn't an easy situation. Jesus said, with more faith and with a more prayerful life, filled with the power of God through prayer, then they would have been able to deal with it before he returned.


Some reflections on this intriguing story: this unlikely end to the glorious experience of Jesus, Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. They came back to reality very quickly - a complex healing, lots of controversy and opposition. Here are my reflections to encourage us to make some good application of this story into our own lives. I think the father of this troubled boy is an important character in the Gospel accounts and someone who I find I can identify with, who inspires me. He is a very ordinary man facing extreme difficulties. He's a man who really cares about his son. He's had to protect him from self-destruction and from the difficulty of his condition. Time and again he knows his son could actually die at any point. He's lived with a lot of stress, for many years and he says with brutal honesty, ‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’ He's reaching out to Jesus, even though he's got this huge problem and he's not 100% sure what it means to follow Jesus. He's seeking to grow in faith. It's very important for us to see that faith is, in one sense, the trust in God that brings us to salvation - which is a once and for all act of trust, that brings a decisive result, brings us forgiveness and regeneration. Faith is described in the New Testament sometimes in that sense but faith to live the Christian life is described more like a muscle that is growing, or a way of life that needs to develop. Faith, to face all the complexities of life, needs to grow through experience and through learning to trust God in difficult situations. We all need to seek to grow in faith like this man did.

The life of faith is hard in an unbelieving generation, to use the expression Jesus used here. There's always an interplay between individual faith that you or I may have and the spiritual environment in which we live in our country, or in our town, village, or city. That spiritual environment can be oppressive, can be dark, can be quite resistant to the Christian faith. That can influence us at a kind of subconscious level, as well as at a mental and conscious level. That kind of dynamic was going on exactly in this situation. The disciples knew what should happen. They had seen similar miracles. They'd even performed some of those miracles themselves, under the authority and guidance of Jesus. Yet, at this moment, they couldn't quite believe that it was possible to do so again. This passage encourages us that faith can grow and everything is possible for the one who believes.

Some ways in which faith grows are: specific times of prayer and a discipline of regular prayer and seeking God. I found this to be invariably true in my own life - that as I draw close to God habitually and spend time with him, so my faith actually grows. When I'm faced with difficult situations in life, there is a resource of faith within me. If I cease to pray for periods of time, that faith drains away. We should be actively resisting an environment of unbelief. There's unbelief around. We should identify it and separate ourselves from that attitude. We should recognise that faith can indeed move the mountains; it can overcome the obstacles to the advance of the Kingdom of God. Finally, when God speaks to us through his Holy Spirit, and causes us to take action based on faith, let's be prompt in our obedience and, in that way, our faith will continue to grow. This is a fascinating story. There's much to learn from it and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for following.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Can you think of times when you might feel like the father in the story, ‘I believe, help my unbelief’?
    2. What does ‘Faith can move mountains’ really mean?
  • Discipleship
    1. How can you develop a ‘lifestyle’ of prayer?
    2. What forces of evil are you aware of in your culture? Remember they have been overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross. They can affect your spiritual life, though.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. If you underestimate the role of evil today, are you in danger of missing opportunities to see Jesus’ victory in people’s lives?
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