Please read Mark 9:2-29
Imagine that you have a distant friend whom you met years ago at a party. You found yourselves talking; he seemed to know a lot of people and you’ve kept in touch. Every now and again, when he’s in town, you meet up and bit by bit you get to know him better. He comes from some European country and apparently he is quite into sport – which, unfortunately, you don’t follow very much. Then a couple of weeks ago, he was in town again and gave you a call. I’ve put something in the post for you, he said. I’ll see you in a fortnight – and the phone went dead. Through your letter box the next day dropped an envelope – and inside there was a ticket to the men’s final of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. You know nothing about tennis and you have certainly never been to Wimbledon, but you go along anyway: you go in and find your seat and wait for your friend to appear. But this is very strange. There’s no sign of him anywhere. It’s disappointing that he’s let you down, but you’re here now so you may as well soak up the atmosphere. At this point the players walk out onto the court. One of them gives you a wave. And at last, suddenly, you realise that the reason your friend isn’t in the seats is that he is out there on court. Shortly after that you realise that your distant friend is in fact the world’s greatest tennis player – and this is his day of glory. One thing is for sure – you will never see him in the same light again!
I must admit, this scenario is rather hard to imagine! But you get the idea. You might have had the experience of seeing someone you know, family or friend, performing on stage for the first time, or playing football in a serious team for the first time, or even wearing a suit when you’ve never seen them in a suit! At that moment you know you will never see them in the same light again. But my far-fetched story is something like what Jesus’ friends experience in 9:2-13. Here is someone they have got to know, bit by bit over a period of years. Here is a man – a special man, yes, a unique man, they have now realised – but they are about to see him in an entirely new light.
In 9:1 Jesus has told his friends that some of them will see the kingdom of God come with power before they taste death. That promise is fulfilled now, six days later (v.2). Caesarea Philippi (8:27) is in the foothills of the Hermon range; it is reasonable to assume it is Mount Hermon that Jesus now climbs, along with the three who are his inner circle, Peter, James and John. The highest summit of Mount Hermon is over 9000 feet high and often has snow on it; so even if they don’t reach the top this is quite a hike. As they climb, they are no doubt wondering what Jesus wants to share with them. They don’t know what it is, but they do know that mountains are places where special things happen. They know that it’s on mountains, elevated as it were above and beyond the ordinary life of this world, that God has often met with and spoken to his people.
Hours later, they arrive, worn out from the climb. Jesus has climbed alongside them. Like them, he has been out of breath, sweating, gulping water from their bottles now and again, the drab-coloured clothes they all wear showing the effects of months of travel. But now as he stands there, an astonishing transformation takes place. His clothes become white, dazzlingly bright (v.3); his whole appearance is radically altered into an other-worldly brilliance and purity as if he were clothed in white light. They are witnessing something never seen on earth; it is a glimpse of the Lord Jesus in the glory and majesty he possesses in another realm, a world beyond this one. For these few minutes the splendour of heaven is breaking in on the mountain top as Jesus stands transfigured before them.
As they blink in amazement at the sight, and as they draw back in fear, they see that Jesus has been joined by two other figures whom they recognise somehow as Elijah and Moses (v.4). Their wonder only increases as they grasp what they are seeing. There is Elijah, the desert prophet of long ago, Elijah who God promised would return to prepare for the Lord’s own coming (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). And there is Moses, the great lawgiver from the far-distant past, Moses who led his people out of captivity on their exodus to freedom. Elijah and Moses; and they are here consulting with Jesus. Their friend, Jesus, the man they thought they knew. Terror grips the three disciples and inevitably it is the impetuous Peter who fills the silence (vv.5-6). If he is thinking anything, it is something like this. Moses, Elijah and Jesus – they are all here. The one who gave us the Law, the one who was prophesied to return, and the Messiah himself – if they are all here, this must be it! This is the kingdom. We need to build a base camp. We need somewhere for them to stay! It’s nonsense, but he means well. He is simply as terrified as any of us would be. In the next moment, his words are forgotten anyway, for suddenly there appears a cloud covering them all and the scene disappears (v.7). They hear a voice; and their awe and terror only deepen as they realise they are hearing the voice of God. Memories fill their minds: all they were taught as boys about the way God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai in a cloud; the voice that came out of the cloud; how the people shook with fear at the sound. In this moment, Peter, James and John know exactly how they felt. The voice speaks: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’
With that, as suddenly as it began, the vision is over (v.8). The voice is silent, the cloud disappears; and there is Jesus, alone and as they know him, the human face they know so well, the old clothes stained with dust. What they have seen they will surely never forget. One day, Peter will talk to his friend Mark about this day, so that he knows what to put in his book. ‘Mark, I remember how scared we were. I remember that daft line I came out with!’ One day, Peter himself will write about this day (2 Peter 1:16-18). And one day, sixty years or more on from today, John will see again the same Lord Jesus Christ in his heavenly glory, and write down what he sees (Revelation 1:13-17). But for now, they have to come down again from the mountain. Peter was wrong, this is not yet the arrival of God’s final kingdom. It is just a glimpse.
As they descend, as soon as the disciples can summon up the courage to start talking, the discussion begins (vv.9-10). One day, Jesus says, all this can be told, but not yet. It’s hard enough for these three, the inner circle, to make sense of what has happened. No-one else will have a chance of understanding – not yet, not until certain key events have taken place. Again Jesus is talking about ‘rising from the dead’, and again they can’t cope with it. Of course, they can understand what the words ‘rising from the dead’ mean. The problem is not what the saying means, but what it implies. To rise from the dead means Jesus has to be dead, has to die. How in the world can it be possible for God’s Messiah to die, especially as they have now seen his glory revealed? What place could dying possibly have in God’s plans for the king? As they struggle with understanding the big plan, they ask Jesus a very good question – where does Elijah fit in? (v.11). Our religious teachers tell us that Elijah is going to appear and prepare the way for the Lord’s coming – we saw him up on the mountain, but he disappeared – so what was that about? The question proves that the disciples do believe Jesus is the Messiah, otherwise there would be no point asking it. But if he is the Messiah, Elijah should already have arrived.
Jesus replies: yes, they are right, Elijah has to come first and prepares the way; in fact his appearance is the first sign that God’s plans are moving forward (vv.12-13). Jesus says, Yes, Elijah has already come. And just as the Son of Man, I, myself, am going to suffer and be rejected and die, this Elijah too has suffered. Jesus is making it absolutely clear that the ‘Elijah’ he is talking about is John the Baptist. Just like the first Elijah of long ago, John the Baptist was a bold and outspoken prophet of God. Just like the first Elijah, he was persecuted by a combination of a weak king and an evil queen; and in the end, they killed him. As they walk on down the mountain, the disciples have plenty to think about: all that they have seen and heard today; all that Jesus has told them afterwards. What will they make of it all?
Here are the conclusions the disciples should be drawing from Jesus’ transfiguration. First, that Jesus fulfils the ancient promises. Who appeared with Jesus on the mountain? First, there was Moses, who led his people in the exodus from Egypt – out of slavery and into freedom. At the end of his life, Moses foretold that God would raise up another prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15). Who is that ‘prophet like Moses’? The voice on the mountain today echoed those very words – ‘listen to him’. Jesus is here to lead people on a new exodus, out of sin’s slavery into a still greater freedom. What Moses did in a small way, Jesus has come to do in a much greater way. Then there was Elijah, promised to return as the forerunner. Both appearing together, they show beyond doubt that God is moving; he is bringing his plans to fruition, and the ancient promises are being fulfilled in Jesus.
The disciples should also be concluding that Jesus is the eternal Son of God. The voice said, This is my Son. While the transfiguration was only a brief glimpse, and it passed quickly, Jesus has always been and always remains the Son of God. From eternity past to eternity future, he has always enjoyed the presence and the approval of God the Father; and it’s because of that that the disciples must listen to him. His words must be heard, they demand to be heard – and especially the words he has so recently been speaking, words about his own mission that explain his identity as Messiah. So thirdly, the disciples should grasp that Jesus has to suffer before his glory. What Peter, James and John have seen today is a glimpse ahead. Yes, this vision of glory is the proof that Jesus will come in power one day. The transfiguration guarantees that the power and glory are there, as it were, waiting to break through, so that as John would later write, ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15). But the disciples must understand that it hasn’t happened yet. Messiah is here, but the battle is still on. Before Jesus’ glory, he has to ‘suffer much’. That is the true meaning of the Messiah; and that is how his great battle will be won.
Did the disciples understand all this? They were beginning to. They wouldn’t see it all until after the cross, after they at last understood what ‘rising from the dead’ really meant. But we need to realise what this experience means for us. This glory that the disciples saw that day is what we will be living with in eternity! We will see what they saw, and what is more we will be transformed ourselves! As Paul writes in Philippians 3:20-21, we will ourselves participate in the glory that the disciples saw that day on Mount Hermon – a glory that won’t just break in for a few minutes, but will endure for ever and ever. After the resurrection we will be living in the new heavens and the new earth that is in every part beautiful, glorious and perfect.
But in the meantime, and certainly until we die, that is not yet. When the Lord gives us mountain top experiences, those times when we see a fresh vision of him, it is always so that we can live more faithfully for him back at the bottom of the mountain. The Christian life is modelled on the life of Jesus. He has warned us to expect suffering, rejection and difficulty, as long as we live here. So we should not be surprised when that happens. The joy that we have comes from knowing and loving the Lord Jesus Christ – whether we are on the mountain top or in the valley below – and knowing that we have a destiny and a destination with him.
For the disciples, that ‘valley experience’ follows all too quickly as we move on to vv.14-29. Immediately after the wonder of the transfiguration, as they come to the foot of Mount Hermon, they quickly make out a scene of turmoil (v.14). A crowd has gathered; in the middle of the crowd they spot the figures of their fellow-disciples, the other nine, in heated argument with a group they soon recognise as a delegation of religious leaders from Jerusalem. We can almost hear Peter and company groan as they see them: ‘Oh no, not those guys again!’ We have met these hostile delegations before, although here they are a bit further afield than usual. Almost certainly they are here today to gather more evidence against Jesus; they have tracked him to Mount Hermon and they will be intensely annoyed that he seems to have given them the slip. Engrossed in the argument, they haven’t spotted his approach, but now as Jesus makes his way down the final slopes they all see him and come running. They are all excited to see him; and immediately, Jesus becomes the focal point of the story. Right, he says, What’s the argument about? (v.16).
But instead of either the disciples or the religious leaders, it is a member of the crowd who comes forward; and it soon turns out that this is the cause of the dispute (vv.17-18). This boy is in a terrible condition. According to his father, he is possessed by an evil spirit. At once, perhaps, our twenty-first century eyebrows are raised: ‘Evil spirit? Hmm, I don’t think so. These symptoms actually sound just like epilepsy.’ So at this point, let’s stand back and ask some questions about the reality of evil powers.
Not long ago our church office took a call from a woman who wanted to know if we had any holy water. We explained that we didn’t! But we did offer to meet her and pray; and we went on to ask, What did you want it for? It turned out that this lady had moved house; and since then her life had taken a turn for the worse. One trouble had followed another; and a helpful neighbour suggested to her that she ought to get hold of some holy water and sprinkle it round her house, and that would deal with the evil presence that was ruining her life. At least she had recognised that she had problems in her life and needed to find some way of dealing with them. But the story illustrates one of the ways that people respond to the problem of personal evil. She clearly believed that there was some presence in her new house that was upsetting the balance of her life; she simply needed to find the right remedy – even if in reality all she was experiencing was a series of unfortunate events. And so in the spirit of the film Ghost Busters she thought, Who do you call? – and the answer she was given was to call a church and get hold of some holy water.
That is how some people think. There are others who think that the whole idea of personal evil is just a myth, part of the great lie of religion that talks about unseen powers of good and evil, gods and angels and devils, when in fact the reality is only what we can see and feel. This belief is characteristic of the ‘new atheism’ championed by Richard Dawkins and Robert Hitchens. Of course, they say, there are no such things as demons and devils. The problem is in our heads; the problem is that we believe these fairy stories in the first place; and science has all the answers we need. Then there are others, and they too are on the rise, who find the whole idea of a personal power of evil fascinating, darkly attractive: people who get drawn by the occult, by witchcraft, by the idea of sharing some of that power for themselves. Then there are some Christians who certainly believe in a personal devil, and in demons, to the point where they attribute every struggle, every seeming setback, to their ubiquitous influence.
So who is right? Is there really no such thing as a personal power of evil? Or if it does exist, what is it trying to do, how is it trying to attack us, and what do we do about it? Is there anything we can do against a power that we cannot see, hear or feel? This passage takes the problem of personal evil very seriously, because here we see Jesus Christ confronting the power of evil head-on. The nine disciples have been incapable of dealing with the family’s problem (v.18). They have tried but failed, which is no doubt highly embarrassing. So how will Jesus deal with it? His first response is frustration (v.19) – words addressed to the disciples who have proved powerless to help. It’s frankly depressing, heart-breaking, that his own followers have performed so badly. Jesus takes over the case himself. The boy at once goes into convulsions, rolling around on the ground (v.20). As Jesus talks to the father, it becomes clear that this is not a new problem; there is a long history of near-fatal episodes. He appeals to Jesus to do whatever he might be able to do (v.22b). But Jesus immediately picks up on his plea (v.23). There is no ‘if’ about Jesus’ ability to help him; the question is whether the father believes he can. His confidence shaken by the disciples’ failure, the man doesn’t feel too sure; but he appeals to Jesus to step in and rescue his son (v.24).
Now the moment has arrived. The crowd have kept their distance for a while, presumably because Jesus has deliberately withdrawn from their noise; but their patience has quickly expired and now they are rapidly approaching once more (v.25). In the seconds that remain before they are surrounded, Jesus speaks. His words make it quite clear that he knows what he is dealing with; and he has the answer. The evil spirit’s response is violent (v.26); but in obedience to Jesus’ command, it comes out of the boy and leaves for good; and he lies still. The gathering crowd take a look and immediately conclude that he is dead. But Jesus knows otherwise and raises the boy to his feet alive (v.27); and there he stands, delivered, healthy, released. Then as he often does, Mark gives us a postscript; and as often happens, it takes place when Jesus and his disciples are alone together indoors (v.28). Not surprisingly, the nine want to know the reason for their failure. Jesus simply responds: ‘This kind comes out only by prayer’ (v.29).
It’s a dramatic story; and it’s a story that Mark clearly wants to highlight. Both Matthew and Luke include this story in their narrative, but Mark’s version, in a much shorter gospel, is more than twice as long. To find out why, let’s review the characters in the story – some of whom don’t even appear in the other gospels’ versions. First, there is the demon itself. We are left with no doubt that this is the boy’s problem. The symptoms may be those of epilepsy, but in this particular case they are being produced, not by an ordinary disease, but by a demon – which unlike epilepsy is making him deaf and dumb as well. When the demon takes control of the boy, its intention is to destroy him; and if it cannot do that, then utterly to ruin his remaining life. It is real; and it is tormenting this human life in full view of a thousand eyes. It is a power that hates and fears Jesus, as its reaction to his presence here clearly shows.
Then there is the boy, the demon’s helpless victim. He is living at most a half-life, parasitised by this evil power. In this story, we notice, he is completely passive: he does nothing, except to be taken from A to B, to be thrown around by the demon and then to be delivered and raised to his feet by the Lord Jesus. Although he isn’t really dead, Mark deliberately uses the language of death and life to show us that he might as well be dead – he is completely helpless in the stern grip of evil – and only Jesus can give him life.
As for the various figures who surround the demonised boy, there is first the group of nine disciples, embarrassed and dejected by their failure to heal him. To make matters worse, they have failed in full view of their sworn enemies, the teachers of the law. They need to understand why they have failed. Remember, they are not new to this: they have dealt with demons quite successfully in the past. In ch 6 Jesus sent them out on a mission to do exactly that. In v.29 Jesus explains, This kind can come out only by prayer. Some have taken these words to mean that this is a specially intractable breed of spirit, a sort of Premier League demon. That would explain why the disciples aren’t up to dealing with it: they’ve only done basic demonology, Exorcism 1A, not the advanced level they need here. That notion is encouraged by the words which some Bibles include here: ‘This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting’ – which just heightens the impression that exceptional preparation is needed to tackle it. But the original gospel almost certainly did not have those extra words
As for the teachers of the law, they are only here to cause trouble, really. They have probably started by accusing the disciples of not having the proper authority to attempt an exorcism – which raises the question, why can’t they sort the poor boy out themselves? But no, they are happier standing on the sidelines inspecting the paperwork! Then there is the boy’s father. He is desperate. He has spent the last few years watching his son suffering, afraid to leave him alone for a moment in case the demon strikes again; he has come in search of hope, yet already today he has been disappointed. But at last, when he meets Jesus, he finds all that he needs. Only Mark gives us this conversation. When the father cries out, ‘I believe, help my unbelief’, he is not asking for a bigger faith, a faith that will impress God enough to give him what he wants. He is saying to Jesus, Yes, I believe you can do something; but I have nothing else to offer. I’m pleading with you to help, because I have nowhere else to turn and no other resources. We have a word for that. We call it: praying. The man is doing what the disciples did not do. He is praying; and Jesus answers his prayer.
Finally, look at Jesus, who dominates the story from beginning to end. He ignores the carping scribes; he is exasperated with the nine disciples; and his heart goes out to the desperate father and the helpless boy. He takes on the evil spirit and drives it out, never to return. He gives the boy new life in place of the living death he has experienced until now. So here is the reason why Mark takes such an interest in the story and tells it at such length. This is exactly what he is showing us at this point in his gospel. The mission of the Christ is to overthrow the power of evil and bring people from death to life. Into the middle of this turbulent crowd of characters comes Jesus the Messiah; he takes control, applies his authority and banishes the evil. This is the message: you need to have faith in him. Don’t be like the hostile religious leaders, grumbling and accusing from the sidelines. Don’t be like these disciples, who forget that they are nothing without the Lord Jesus. In fact, be like this dad, who doesn’t understand much, but knows that Jesus is the answer he needs – the only answer. If you don’t belong to Jesus Christ, then nothing stands between you and the untamed power of evil: you have no defence against it either in this life or the next. Until we encounter Christ, that half-dead child is every one of us. Until we have Jesus Christ in our lives, then we are in just as bad shape as the boy in the story. Only Jesus could bring him from death to life; only Jesus can do the same for us. There is no ‘if you can’ with him.
This passage confronts us with the reality of personal evil. The story makes no sense without that. It’s no figment of our imagination. It’s real, it’s vicious, in fact it is deadly. So what can we do about it? First, we need to be aware of personal powers of evil in the world. It’s not fantasy to talk about Satan’s power or to say that demons are still around. We are not to be obsessed with them, nor to go hunting them down; but they exist. We sophisticated westerners are about the only people in the world who have trouble believing in evil spirits. From time to time church leaders – and perhaps other Christians too – will have to deal with demonic activity. In answer to prayer, exactly as the Bible tells us here, we will see evil banished in the name of Jesus and by his power. Is that a surprise? Not at all. Why should it be? The key is simply prayer. Prayer is when we say to the Lord: ‘I do believe; help my unbelief! Take control, in Jesus’ name.’
You have probably seen at least excerpts of some of those famous horror films – The Exorcist, Omen, Carrie, and a host of others. Frankly, this is where most people get their idea of the power of the demonic, whether they actually believe in it or not. But if we are Christians, we should have a far better idea of the way Satan works than the people who made those films. When I come across those films (and I am not recommending them!), I remind myself that these things cannot hurt me. I’m stronger than any of them. Not because I’m clever, or strong in myself – I’m not – but because Jesus has won the victory; and part of that victory is me. Satan’s powers will yield to us – if we belong to the Lord Jesus.