Help My Unbelief

In Mark 9, we encounter another healing at the hands of Jesus. In this case the father of a boy possessed by a demon came looking for help. He took the boy to Jesus’ disciples who attempted to cast the demon out but failed. Jesus had the boy brought to him and then asked the father: “How long has this been happening?” The father replied, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Hearing this man’s words, Jesus answered: “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” The man then cried out: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:14-24, ESV)

Elsewhere Jesus said that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could say to a mountain: “Get up and move,” and it would. In a world of so many distractions that pull us away from worship, prayer, and God’s word, our faith is often too small. Even if we don’t say the words, often our attitude in prayer is: “God, if you can…”

Jesus reminds us that we must see God as bigger. If a mountain moves, it’s not because we possess power but because the One who created it does. Jesus’ statement to the boy’s father tells us that God has no external limits. If he does big things like speak a universe into existence, then he can take care of our daily needs, spiritual and physical.

So, what do we do with our little faith? What do we do when we doubt? We entrust it to God.

Our prayer to the Father should be like the plea of this boy’s father: “I believe; help my unbelief.” Of our spiritual understanding, Paul wrote: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We don’t always see God as clearly as we should. In fact, we will not see God with perfect clarity until we see him face-to-face in eternal life to come.

Seeds of doubt will be sown into our hearts and minds. Sometimes these will grow large. In the face of them, we run to the One who can answer our doubts and give us greater faith. So, we cry out to our loving Father: “I believe; help my unbelief.”

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A Glimpse of Glory

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. – Mark 9:2-3 (ESV)

Among the Twelve, Jesus had a smaller group that, on occasion, was able to experience something with Jesus that the others did not. Mark 9 records one of these instances—a time where Peter and the two sons of Zebedee got to see a glimpse of Jesus’ glory.

Glory is a word that speaks to the greatness, goodness, and majesty of God, often represented with brightness and light. The Old Testament prophet, Daniel, once had a vision of Jesus as “a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches…” (Daniel 10:5-6), and John likewise had a similar vision in Revelation 1:13-15.

But while he lived as a man on earth, God the Son muted his glory. Humbly, he took on the life and appearance of a poor carpenter, with nothing particularly striking about his appearance. That is, except for a brief few moments in what we call the “transfiguration.”

There, on a mountain with three of his disciples, Jesus’ glory was on display. Before their eyes he spoke with Moses and Elijah, two of the central figures in the Old Testament. Peter, terrified, stumbled over his words before the Father’s voice echoed from heaven just as it had at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

And then the moment passed, Jesus resumed his normal human form, Moses and Elijah no longer stood there, and the four men walked down the mountain to rejoin the rest.

This is a reminder and foretaste for us as well. It reminds us that the humble carpenter that we call Savior is also our King. He might have humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross for our rebellion against God, but he is also the all-glorious, eternal God who shares every attribute of perfect and eternal deity with the Father and Holy Spirit.

It also focuses our minds forward. It reminds us as Jesus said elsewhere: “God is not the God of the dead but the living.” As followers of Jesus, when we pass this life, we will join with Moses and Elijah in enjoying God’s glorious presence forever. And when Jesus comes back and raises our bodies, they will be glorified like his, perfect and without the corruption of sin.

No, we cannot see the full glory of God at this moment with these eyes. But the glimpse we get through God’s word and creation remind us of who we worship and what is to come. And it transforms us to be more like our Savior-King in character and desire (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Call to Follow

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” – Mark 8:34-36 (ESV)

Jesus confronts each of our lives with a call to follow him. We can gain everything the world has to offer, but if we do not have him then we are eternally lost, left with nothing but pain and regret. Jesus offers us something better—joy unending, but the cost is great: Jesus demands our everything.

This is what faith is: Not simply a belief in true things about Jesus, but also a trust that says to him, “Take my life, my all.”

This is why in addition to “follow me,” Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. To deny self is to say, “I lay aside the passing pleasures that my heart chases after to take up the eternal joys that only you give.” To take up our cross is to say, “I no longer count my life my own. I am dead to the ways of sin and to my selfish desires. You, Lord, tell me where to go.”

Lest we think this demand is too great, we must remember that our lives already belong to God. He is our creator and the sovereign King of everything. We all one day will bow, but will we do it joyfully because we choose to do so now or will we do it sorrowfully when we stand before him as Judge in the end?

Lest we think giving our “all” to Jesus is giving too much, we must remember the gain we find. Everything in eternity belongs to Jesus, given to him by God the Father in an act of love. And if we give ourselves over to Jesus in this life, then we are his brothers and sisters, fellow heirs alongside him. We have a share with Jesus in the everything of eternity.

The road we walk today might have its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows. But it will never be more painful than what Jesus suffered on our behalf, taking the wrath of God while on his cross that we might have forgiveness and life. And in eternity, every tear of our eyes will be wiped away and our darkness turned to an eternal morning.

Listen to Jesus’ call. Follow him.

Beware False Teachers

Then Jesus gave them strict orders: “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” – Mark 8:15 (CSB)

After Jesus again miraculously fed a large crowd, the Pharisees came to him and demanded a sign from him to prove his authenticity. Jesus refused and then went away with his disciples. While they sailed, Jesus warned them to “watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod.”

Matthew, in his gospel account, explains further what was meant: the “leaven” to which Jesus referred was the false teaching and beliefs the leaders of the region and religion promoted (Matthew 16:11-12). The Pharisees, especially, fit Paul’s description in Titus 1:16, “They claim to know God but they deny him by their works.” Often their demands upon people when far beyond God’s actual commands while they also neglected mercy and justice.

In every age of history, there have been people who have promoted lies and half-truths as being truths of God. The most dangerous of these are the teachings that bear much resemblance to what God has said. If we aren’t careful, such error can creep into our hearts and minds and then proceed to grow—just like dough that has been leavened with yeast.

Today, some false teachers say that we must do certain good works to be saved, instead of teaching that good works flow from a salvation that is by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-10). Some teach that if you have enough faith then you’ll be prosperous and wealthy in this life, as they neglect the Bible’s descriptions of those who suffered much loss because of their faith (Hebrews 11:35-38). Some teach that the Bible’s sexual ethics are archaic and culture-determined, instead of teaching that Scripture gives us the truth of the unchanging God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

How do we know the difference between what is true and what is false? We become intimately familiar with the Bible.

John told us to “test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Such tests include what one says about Jesus (1 John 4:1-3). Luke also praised the Bereans and presented them as an example for us because “they examined the Scriptures daily” to see if even the things Paul taught were true (Acts 17:11).

The more familiar we become with God’s word, the more equipped we will be to sort out the good from the bad. Examine Scripture, test what you hear or read, even what you read here, and make sure what is taught corresponds with the truth that God has revealed.

What Defiles?

“Nothing that goes into a person from the outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him… For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” – Jesus, Mark 7:15, 21-23 (CSB)

The Pharisees and Scribes were religious leaders who over the course of years sought to interpret and apply the Mosaic Law and developed various traditions. Some of these may have been sensible applications, though should not have been binding as infallible, while others were inconsistent in comparison to God’s actual word.

When they criticized Jesus’ disciples for not properly washing their hands before a meal (a ceremonial ritual, not a health issue in the leaders’ minds), Jesus replied by quoting from Isaiah about giving God false honor and then attacked another one of their traditions. God had commanded that the people were to honor their father and mother. The Pharisees and Scribes, however, said devoting things to God (i.e. to the temple and the religious leaders themselves, in this case) took a higher priority, even if it left father and mother in the cold.

Jesus, rightly, described the leaders as hypocrites. Then he spoke of what truly defiled a person: Not what we put into our mouths, but what comes out in words and deeds. True defilement is an internal thing, a matter of the heart.

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” This is why, when spiritually blind in our sin, we refuse to see our defilement as defilement. We ignore it. We justify it. We call evil good. So what is the answer? How do we clean what is on the inside?

We trust the one who knows us inside and out. The one who can change us.

God made a promise to his people through the prophet Ezekiel: “I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances” (36:25-27). This is the description of what the New Testament calls being “born again” (such as in John 3).

Part of the beauty of the gospel hope we have through Jesus is new life. He doesn’t wash the outside but leave the inside dirty; no, Jesus makes us fully clean. With a new heart, we begin to love God supremely and love others deeply. With a new heart, we are able to flee from the acts of defilement and instead produce acts of grace: purity, faithfulness, selflessness, kindness, and the like. Let us, then, entrust our hearts to Jesus and be truly clean.

Even Molecules Obey

When they saw Jesus walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke with them and said, “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” – Mark 6:49-50 (CSB)

After miraculously feeding thousands, Jesus told the apostles to board a boat and head to the opposite shore. He stayed behind for some time to pray alone. During the night, a storm formed that caused even the experienced fishermen to struggle.

In these conditions, Jesus stepped onto the water and began walking to the other side. When the disciples saw him and were frightened, Jesus spoke to calm them.

Both this and the feeding show Jesus’ absolute control over nature as the Son of God. Even the molecules of water beneath his feet bend to his will. This also shows the calming effect of God upon his people.

Scripture often confronts our fearful hearts with the command “don’t be afraid.” Fear and faith are opposite poles. Fear comes when we look at a situation and find it overwhelming, sometimes being overwhelmed by the sense of the unknown. Fear creeps in at times when we think we have perfectly rational reasons while other fear is irrational from every angle that we can view it.

Faith, however, trusts that God is actually in control. Even if we don’t understand a situation, even if it does overwhelm our abilities, and even if it ultimately leaves us drowned in a sea. Faith looks to God and says, “I trust you no matter what, because you are good, you love me, and you are bigger than everything in the universe you created.”

Trust Jesus in faith. Trust him even with your deepest fears. After all, there is not a molecule in creation beyond his control.

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The Great Provider

Jesus asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” When they found out they said, “Five and two fish.” Then he instructed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves. He kept giving them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. Everyone ate and was satisfied. They picked up twelve baskets full of pieces of bread and fish. Now those who had eaten the loaves were five thousand men. – Mark 6:38-44 (CSB)

Faced with hungry crowds and a late hour, and tired from the days of ministry, Jesus’ apostles urged Jesus to send away the people to find something to eat. Instead Jesus told them to feed the crowd of thousands using what they had: Five loaves of bread and two fish.

When Jesus divided the food, this provided enough that not only were all present satisfied with the meal (these weren’t scrawny rations), there were enough left overs that each of the apostles came back to Jesus holding a basket.

Yes, Jesus worked a miracle. The God who created all things with his words can multiply a meal only good for a family or two into one that feeds thousands. But here we see more than Jesus’ sovereign power over nature, we also see Jesus as the great provider, the great satisfier.

This same account in John 6 is followed by Jesus’ discourse on being the “bread of life.” There, he calls people to focus their attention beyond the bread that merely satisfies the stomach and instead look to him who satisfies the soul. There, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again” (John 6:35).

Like the crowd, we all know the pangs of physical hunger. But we also know those of spiritual hunger. In life we try to dull the pain or ignore it through different religious rituals, good works, or the fleeting pleasures of sin. Yet, each ultimately leaves us craving more. Each does not finally satisfy. With Jesus, we are freed from dead ritual and brought into living relationship. We are free from the need to earn God’s favor because God freely gives us his favor. We are free from sin’s passing pleasures and the disasters that ultimately follow because Jesus provides greater pleasures and eternal life.

So, let us partake of Jesus by trusting in him for rescue from sin and the hope of true life. Let us rest, satisfied, in what he has provided through himself. Let us live daily with the joy and hope that magnifies his greatness.