As we continue the lectio continuo (continuous reading) through the Gospel of Mark, we come upon a Gospel text which appears to make its central issue the topic of faith. Or, to put it more specifically: faith (pistis) vs. “unfaith” (apistis). The larger pericope sets the context through an encounter of Jesus and his disciples with the father of a demon-possessed boy. The issue comes to a head in vs. 23-24.
For those reading the Gospel of Mark up to this point, it should be noted that the topic of faith has been particularly important in recent chapters. Jesus has drawn attention to both lack of faith (see Mark 6:6a, 52; 8:12) and notable faith (see Mark 7:29; 8:29). But here, there comes a teaching opportunity in which a father is confronted with the consequences of unbelief, while subsequently learning the true source and object of faith: the person and the word of Jesus Christ.
In this week’s commentary, I want to briefly explore the theological concept of faith by first providing a brief word study, and then turning attention to the central verses of Mark 14-29, vs. 23-24.
In the OT, there is a small family of words used to speak of faith; many of them carry a moral sense. They include yara’ (“to fear”), batach (“to trust”), and chasah (“to take refuge in”). The word used most often, however, is some form of the root word ’aman, more popularly voiced today as the word “amen.” In its simplest sense, ’aman means “to be sure, firm, proven, or trustworthy.” In other (derived) conjugations it is often translated as “to trust” or “to believe” (see Exo 4:8; Psa 106:12; Isa 43:10; Jon 3:5) One key text where this verb is used is Gen 15:6 (“Abraham believed God…”). The noun form occurs significantly in Hab 2:4b (“the righteous shall live by (his) faith”). Both of these texts are quoted by the apostle Paul (see Rom 4:3; Gal 3:11).
Another significant use of this root word is in the form of the more recognizable “Amen” statement. In Deut 27:15-26 the people of Israel offer a repeated “amen!” following each curse promised toward disobedient behavior. And in Neh 8:6 the returned exiles respond to the opening of the Scriptures and the prayers of Nehemiah with a hearty, “Amen! Amen!” The use of this word in the OT is an expression of agreement and self-commitment to what has been spoken by God. When Jesus uses this phrase in the NT (variably translated as “verily, verily,” “truly, truly,” or “very truly”; see John 1:51; 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24, 25, etc.) it is unprecedented and seems to communicate a sense of authority in Jesus’ teaching, starkly different from the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes.
In the NT, the most common Greek verb used to express faith is the verb pisteuo; the noun is pistin. As observed in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, the family of words used for “faith” (faith, persuade, belief, unbelief) “gained a special importance and specific content through their application to the relationship with God in Christ: the trusting acceptance and recognition of what God has done and promised in him.”1
This leads us right to a key tandem of verses in this pericope. In verse 23, the father expresses uncertainty that even Jesus had the power to heal his son. As Jesus speaks a Gospel word to him, faith is created, even as the father recognizes his own weakness (vs. 24). Vs. 24 clearly serves to refute a “name-it-claim-it” theology, and highlights the fact that the amount of faith is not the issue. What’s important is the object of one’s faith. I’ve heard of faith described by means of the metaphor of a bag—faith is just an empty sack. Faith, in and of itself, does not accomplish anything. What matters is that which is in the sack. What matters is the thing in which one’s faith is placed or directed: namely, the word and promise of God through Jesus Christ. In this case, Jesus’ word to the father created faith—it persuaded him; it presented a sure promise which he heard and believed.
R. Alan Cole offers the following commentary on this verse:
“The father cries for help, honestly confessing the poverty of his faith; and Jesus answers, not according to the poverty of the man’s faith, but according to the riches of his grace. The man is doing exactly as the Gentile woman of chapter 7 had done: he accepts humbly Jesus’ estimate of him, and, even on that basis, pleads for God’s mercy, not for his deserts. No better illustration of the doctrine of justification by faith could be found than the father’s words here. This is clear from the fact that he used the same verb, boeœtheoœ, help, as he has above (verse 22). He had previously said, ‘If you can, help me.’ Jesus had rebuked this phrase, and so now with tears (some MSS) the father said, ‘Then help me just as I am, a doubter.’ In other words, the man was not praying that his unbelief might be ‘helped’ till it came to the point where his faith was worthy of meeting with a response from God. We do not need to ask God to increase our faith until it is deserving of salvation, as a sort of ‘congruent faith’. That would still be justification by works, not justification by faith. Instead, the father was asking Jesus for practical help, to be demonstrated in the healing of his son, and confessing, deeply moved, that he had not enough faith to make him worthy of such help. His very coming to Jesus showed faith, and that was enough. This is indeed justification by faith.”2
May you find encouragement and strength as you preach this text and proclaim the good Word of the Gospel to your congregation!
1. NIDNTT, s.v. “FAITH, PERSUADE, BELIEF, UNBELIEF,” 1:588.
2. R. Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1 of Tyndale New Testament Commentary. 2d. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 221.