So should the normal Christian life be a never-ending victory parade? It looks as though it ought to be, but I’ve found three reasons in this section of Mark’s gospel why it isn’t.
First of all, there’s the example of Jesus. The Jews thought that they knew what their Messiah would be like and what he would do – and they were wrong. Jesus’ disciples have grown up with the idea that the Messiah, when he comes, will be a guerrilla fighter like David. He’s going to triumph over his enemies, drive the Gentile invaders out of God’s holy land, and set up God’s kingdom in Jerusalem. So deeply ingrained is this belief that it’s going to be very, very difficult to change it. So as soon as the cat has been let out of the bag, so to speak, Jesus has to make sure that it doesn’t run too far. Although the disciples now know that He is the Messiah, they must keep it secret. And they must start to learn what being Messiah really means: rejection, suffering and death by crucifixion (Mark 8:31). Only after all that will there be a glorious victory – and it won’t be a victory over human enemies, but a victory over death. This is the King that we are called to follow – and if this is the way that Jesus went, this is the way that we will have to go too!
All the disciples would have found this hard to swallow; but as usual, Peter is the one who verbalises their feelings. He’s spent over a year following Jesus and listening to His teaching, submitting to His authority – but all of a sudden he feels he has the right to tell Jesus that on this matter He’s completely wrong!
When Peter talks to Jesus like this, he isn’t speaking words of wisdom; he’s being used by Satan. Through him Jesus is being tempted all over again, like He was in the desert after His baptism. He’s being tempted to build God’s Kingdom by using the methods of the world instead of by dying for our sins. And it’s a very powerful temptation, one that He finds hard to resist. That’s why He reacts so sharply – to the consternation of Peter and all the other disciples.
So here’s the second reason: we have an enemy who’s going to do his utmost to make things difficult for us. Even Jesus, despite being the Son of God, had to fight against the devil. And the enemy is always there, whether we’re aware of him or not. In fact, he may be closest to us when we’re feeling on a spiritual ‘high’. While Peter, James and John are being overwhelmed by the tangible presence of God up on the top of Mount Hermon, the other disciples are struggling against the powers of darkness in the valley.
Here we have a young boy who needs healing. He has a severe form of epilepsy (by the way, this is an absolutely classic description – a textbook case – of what’s called ‘grand mal’ epilepsy). Now epilepsy has many different causes, most of which are amenable to medical treatment, but in this particular case there’s a demon involved. On the face of it, this should be a routine exorcism, like many the disciples have already done. Now I’ve no military background, but I suspect that when an army is fighting a war, there’s no such thing as a routine battle; each one is a new situation that demands full planning and a proper strategy. Otherwise you’re asking for trouble. Now from what Jesus tells the disciples in verse 29, it could be that they’ve become over-confident in their own abilities: they were expecting to do it in their own strength and not relying upon God. And once they had tried and failed to cast out the demon, their confidence evaporated and it became even harder for them. We don’t know how many unsuccessful attempts they have made, but as soon as Jesus Himself appears on the scene, the situation immediately changes. His authority is absolute, and the boy is healed on the spot.
In the middle of all this there’s a very interesting conversation between Jesus and the boy’s father. This man came to the disciples in good faith, expecting his son to be healed, and they let him down. And that happens all too often: people come to churches, seeking help – and get let down for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s because their expectations are unrealistic, but sometimes it’s because we fail to be as welcoming and loving as we should be. Sometimes their experiences are bad enough to put them off Christianity for life.
Christians find themselves in a similar situation more often than we care to admit. It’s hard to keep on attending church services when God never seems to show up. It’s hard to keep on praying when our prayers don’t appear to be answered. And it’s even harder to be honest and admit that we’re having doubts – doubts about whether God really loves us, or maybe doubts that we really are genuine Christians.
“Everything is possible for one who believes,” (verse 23) says Jesus. Does that mean we can put all our failures down to lack of faith? I’m not sure about that; God has often done amazing things through people who didn’t have much faith – Gideon, for example, who was so doubtful that he asked for a special sign twice! Probably most of us are like the boy’s father, at least some of the time: a mixture of faith and doubt. There are occasions when we could all pray, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” (verse 24)
So we need to understand the relationship between those two things. Most people think that doubt is the opposite of faith, but it isn’t; doubt is the opposite of certainty. Faith can’t co-exist with certainty; faith actually presupposes a certain amount of doubt. If there were no element of doubt, we wouldn’t need faith! Doubt can become the enemy of faith, but only when it stops us from acting in faith. If that man had given up and gone home, if he had taken his son away from Jesus at that point, the boy would not have been healed. Because he stayed, even though he doubted – and because he still asked for Jesus’ help – the boy was healed.
So that’s the third reason: ourselves. We’re weak, we make mistakes, we have doubts. And that’s true of all of us – even the Smith Wigglesworths of this world.
So what does the normal Christian life look like?
It’s not all victory, that’s for certain. It’s often struggle, it may involve shame, it might lead to crucifixion. “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34) In the ancient world, the only people who carried crosses were condemned criminals going out to their execution. There are some parts of the world where following Jesus may well mean martyrdom. But for us here in the UK, ‘facing death daily’ will probably take a less literal form. Our problem is that we all have selfish, sinful hearts. That’s why we crave an easy life, we want prosperity, we want success, we want to live a life of victory. To put it bluntly, Jesus doesn’t offer us those things. His manifesto is more like Winston Churchill’s promise of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ in 1940. We can’t win the victory until we’ve fought the war! And in fighting that war, part of us will have to die – that selfish sinful nature of ours that wants to pursue success, prosperity and an easy life. As the apostle Paul puts it, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24) We have to crucify those sinful desires – nail them (metaphorically) to a cross and leave them there to die. Now crucifixion was a very slow and lingering death, and it takes a whole lifetime to kill the sinful nature. That’s why we have to keep on doing it every day; otherwise, it just bounces back, full of life again.
I don’t want to sound too negative though. There will be a victory – but it won’t be just yet. The Kingdom is coming: Jesus promised His disciples that they would begin to see it in their own lifetime (Mark 9:1), and when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost the power of the Kingdom was unleashed. But the Church was still persecuted; Christians still fell sick and died; Paul’s description of his ministry in II Corinthians 11:23-29 shows that it was no bed of roses for him. The full glory still awaits us – but as the disciples saw on Mount Hermon, what a tremendous glory it is!