Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 12)

June 27, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Casting Out Demons (Part 2)

Throughout the synoptic Gospels1 we read of instances when Jesus cast out demons. Exorcism was an important part of His ministry of proclaiming liberty to the captives and setting at liberty those who are oppressed.2 There are several general statements within the Gospels which show that Jesus cast out demons in numerous places and at various times.

He went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.3

He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.4

They brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.5

He delivered men, women, and children from the bonds of Satan.6 He also gave His disciples power over demons.

He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.7

The first of two exorcisms we’ll cover in this series is described in all three synoptic Gospels. In each case, this story follows that of Jesus’ transfiguration—the time when Jesus took three of His disciples up a mountain, and there was an appearance of radiant light that emanated from His body.8 The rest of the disciples remained below, and when Jesus and those accompanying Him returned to the others, They saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”9 Having successfully cast out demons in other situations, for some reason the disciples were unable to do so this time.

From the description of the boy’s symptoms, many Bible scholars think that epilepsy was involved. However, as we see in the father’s further explanation, the demon has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him,10 which goes beyond the effects of epilepsy.

Jesus answered them:

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”11 

Here Jesus speaks both to the disciples and to the crowd. He expresses exasperation at the lack of faith. It’s uncertain whether He is referring to the father’s lack of faith or that of the disciples. Immediately preceding this event, Jesus had been transfigured on the mountain, and Peter, James, and John failed to understand its significance; and upon coming down from the mountain, He finds that the other nine disciples were unable to cast out a demon, something they had previously done.

Jesus commanded the boy to be brought to Him.

They brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.” 12

Such a sad state of affairs. This boy had suffered this affliction since his childhood, and the demon was intent on killing him through burning or drowning him. Upon seeing Jesus, the evil spirit was violent, but unlike in other exorcisms performed by Jesus, where the demons spoke or cried out,13 here the demon said nothing, probably because part of the manifestation of the possession was muteness. The amount of time this boy had suffered with this affliction, and the consequences of the possession, showed the strength of this particular demon. It also showed the superior strength of Jesus’ spiritual power.

The father said to Jesus:

“If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”14

Perhaps since the disciples weren’t able to exorcise the demon, the father wasn’t sure that Jesus could either, and thus said, “If you are able, help us.” Jesus’ first words of response, “If you can!”15 show His surprise that the father thought He might not be able to do it. Jesus then said, All things are possible for one who believes. Here Jesus used hyperbole for emphasis, the “all things” being an overstatement used to make the point of the importance of having faith.

The father understood:

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”16 

The father’s faith was weak, but he asked Jesus to help him have enough faith so that his son would be healed.

When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”17 

The fact that He took action when He saw the crowd coming seems to indicate that He preferred not to draw a lot of attention to the healing of the boy, just as was the case in numerous other healings.18 Jesus’ command for the demon to depart is spoken directly to the demon and consists of two commands—to come out of the boy, and to never enter him again. By including the command to never again enter the boy, Jesus made the point that it is possible for a demon to return into someone who has been exorcised. Elsewhere in the Gospels we’re told: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” 19

After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.20

While the demon seemed to ignore the disciples’ command to depart, at Jesus’ command, it had to obey. Some Bible commentators think that the boy may have been dead and that Jesus raised him up, since the wording is similar to when Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter:

Taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.”21 

However, the majority of commentators consider that the boy had most likely passed out from the ordeal, given the phrase the boy was like a corpse.

When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”22 

Earlier in the Gospel of Mark, as well as in Luke, we read that after Jesus gave the disciples power to exorcise demons, They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.23 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”24 Jesus had given the disciples authority to cast out demons in His name. In His instructions to them prior to this event, He had made no reference to them having to pray, as commanding demons with the authority of His name was sufficient to cast them out. In none of the accounts of the disciples casting out demons is there mention that they prayed before exorcising them.

It surprised the disciples that they couldn’t cast out this one, and they were confused as to why. Jesus clarified here that in some instances commanding the demons in the authority of His name was not sufficient, and in such cases calling for God’s help through prayer was required. (The KJV adds “and fasting,” implying that prayer and fasting are required to cast out some demons. While the words and fasting are found in many early Greek manuscripts, they are not included in some of the earliest and most important ones. Given the context mentioned earlier—that up until this point Jesus' disciples hadn’t been instructed to pray when casting out demons, and were successful at it without specifically praying—it seems that the emphasis was meant to be on Jesus instructing them to pray, and less likely that Jesus would tell them that they had to fast.)

The disciples’ time with Jesus was their training period. They were learning. It was only after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the infilling of the Holy Spirit that they were more fully empowered for their ministry of taking the gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

Here are various possibilities as to why they couldn’t cast out this demon, when they had successfully cast out others:

One author writes:

This is the only episode in [the Gospel of] Mark where the disciples are clearly portrayed as impotent, unable to do something Jesus had previously empowered them to do. Yet it is hard to doubt that the lack of power must be related in some way to the lack of understanding or faith. In this case, they do not know that the power of exorcism bestowed on them is in fact not theirs to use at liberty. Jesus informs them that they have failed because this type of exorcism requires prayer, which is to say constant reliance on the source of power. The power is conveyed through communion with the Almighty; it is not inherently resident in the disciples on an ongoing basis without such communion.25

Others think that Jesus was making the point that there are some cases of demon possession which are more difficult; that since there is a hierarchy of demons, some are stronger than others. None were too strong for Jesus, but this demon was stronger than those the disciples had confronted up until that time. In cases of such strong demons, it would take both prayer and commanding them to leave in Jesus’ name.

Still others interpret that it was because of the disciples’ little (though growing) faith. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read:

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”26

Jesus often made reference to their “little faith,”27 probably as a prod for them to grow in it. Note that when Jesus referred to having the faith to move a mountain, He was again speaking in hyperbole, making the point that faith in God can make things which seem impossible happen.

The way I see it, what Jesus was teaching seems to include elements of four understandings: (1) It seems likely that some demons have more power than others, and thus prayer is needed in order to cast them out. (2) It’s also possible that the disciples had grown somewhat overconfident in their ability, since they had already successfully defeated demons. (3) As they were in a sense apprentices to Jesus and going through a training phase, their faith, while growing, wasn’t strong enough in this instance. (4) The power to cast out demons comes from God, and wasn’t resident in the disciples themselves.

This last point is the primary takeaway. While this particular demon was too strong for the disciples, Jesus easily handled the situation and successfully cast it out. Jesus’ ability far exceeded that of His disciples, because while the disciples cast out demons using the authority of Jesus’ name, Jesus cast them out using His own authority—the authority of God.

One purpose of the Gospels was and is to show that Jesus was more than just a human. While human, He was also God, and as such had power that exceeded that of anyone else, including His disciples. He had given them marvelous power to do miracles and cast out demons, but His power, as the Son of God, was far greater.

(This topic will continue in “Casting Out Demons, Part Three”)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stassen, Glen H., and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. Mark. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Witherington, Ben, III. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Witherington, Ben, III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

2 Luke 4:18.

3 Mark 1:39.

4 Mark 1:34.

5 Matthew 8:16.

6 Men: Matthew 9:32–33; Women: Mark 16:9; Girl: Matthew 15:22–28; Boy: Matthew 17:15–20.

7 Matthew 10:1. Also Mark 3:14–15.

8 Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36.

9 Mark 9:14–18.

10 Mark 9:22.

11 Mark 9:19.

12 Mark 9:20–22.

13 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24).

Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known (Mark 3:11–12).

See also Mark 5:7, 9–10.

14 Mark 9:22.

15 Mark 9:23.

16 Mark 9:24.

17 Mark 9:25.

18 Mark 1:38–44, 3:11–12, 7:36, 8:26.

19 Matthew 12:43–45.

20 Mark 9:26–27.

21 Luke 8:54.

22 Mark 9:28–29.

23 Mark 6:13.

24 Luke 10:17.

25 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 265–66.

26 Matthew 17:19–20.

27 Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8.