Crucifying Unbelief

Pastor Craig Carter

The disciples had been traveling with Jesus for more than three years when He made the astonishing declarations we looked at last week. 

First of all, Christ informed them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22 NIV)

As disturbing as that news was to His followers, His second announcement was even more troubling. 

Then [Jesus] said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 NIV)

Jesus made it clear that living as a Christ-follower is not a life of ease. Instead, it is one marked by self-denial and sacrifice. 

I’m sure the Twelve were somewhat shell-shocked by Jesus’ distressing news and they must have wondered what was going to be demanded of them. It didn’t take them long to find out as on Jesus’ own journey toward the Cross, He revealed areas in His followers’ lives that must be crucified and done away with. 

Each one of us who calls ourselves Christians must be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20a NIV)

In order for that to happen we must do as Paul suggests later in that same letter:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. (Galatians 5:24 NLT)

So in our Lenten series we are exploring specific ways to be crucified with Christ.

The first thing that we must give up and nail to the cross is found in an incident that came immediately after Jesus’ prediction and warning in Luke chapter nine. Jesus and three of His disciples – Peter, James, and John – spent a night in prayer. During that evening, the glory of the Lord was revealed on what has become known as the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus’ clothing became dazzling white, Elijah and Moses made an appearance, and God spoke from the clouds.

Coming down from that great mountaintop experience, here’s what happened:

The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.” 

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. (Luke 9:37-43 NIV)

If this scene wasn’t so tragic, it would be almost comical. A man had brought his seizure-ridden son to the disciples and asked them to heal him. The boy may have suffered from epilepsy, but in the minds of those present, he was under the influence or even the control of an evil spirit. One by one, each of the disciples tried his hand at delivering the boy and casting out the demon, but to no avail. 

It’s like a bunch of teenage boys, taking their turns at attempting to lift a heavy object. They grunt and they groan, they heave and they ho, but nothing happens. 

According to Mark’s version of this story, an argument ensued between the disciples and the religious leaders present – “Can too!” “Cannot!” “Says who?!” “Says me!”

Keep in mind, all this occurred in the presence of a father who was begging for help for his beleaguered son who was only a moment away from his next violent convulsion. 

Jesus waded into this ugly situation with a two-fold purpose in mind. For one, He was determined to bring relief to the suffering boy. For another, the Lord wanted to teach His followers an all-important lesson. He got right to the heart of the problem with a seething indictment:

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” (Luke 9:41 NIV)

Uh, what do you really think, Jesus? 🙂 

Jesus was both surprised and disgusted with the disciples’ inability to heal the boy. He had invested three years in their lives and now only a few days remained before His departure from this planet. Hadn’t they learned anything? Didn’t they understand the key to kingdom living?

Seeing His example and teaching go for naught must have been part of the suffering Jesus had to endure. 🙁  

Christ’s words of judgment brought a death sentence to unbelief. Jesus was saying that if the Twelve wanted to continue to follow Him, they had to crucify their unbelief. And we must do the same as there is no room for a lack of faith among God’s people. 

In Jesus’ own words, unbelief is perverse in that it’s contrary to the very nature of the Christian life. After all, we are to “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) and “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). 

Most of us have professed faith in Christ at some point in our lives and said we believe. But, have we really ridded ourselves of unbelief? Before you answer that question, consider these related questions:

How many evil spirits have you cast out? 

How many miraculous healings have you been a part of?

On a more personal level: Are you ever surprised when something you’re praying for comes to pass? Do doubts and fears ever seem to weigh you down? Have you resigned yourself that things will never change or get better? Have you given up hope for some person or situation?

Jesus would say the problem is our unbelief. If that’s the problem, then what’s the antidote? 

It’s belief, faith and trust. If you and I are going to rid ourselves of unbelief or the lack of faith, it must be crucified and put on the cross with the nails of belief and faith. 

Jesus’ argument against unbelief and why it is so detrimental is revealed through an ensuing conversation with the boy’s father that is recorded in Mark’s gospel, chapter nine:

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered…“But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” 

‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “Come back when you have more faith,” or “Get rid of your doubts and then we’ll talk.” Instead, He throws it right back in the father’s hands.

I like the way some modern versions translate Jesus’ reply:

“If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.” (MSG)

“If you can do anything! Everything is possible to the man who believes.” (JBP)

In other words, “The cure depends on you and your faith, not on me.”

Are you beginning to see why there is no room for unbelief among God’s people? We say that we believe God is omnipotent, all-powerful. If that’s the case, where is the power of God in our lives?

Is the problem with Him or with us? Is the Lord failing to come through or are we in some way preventing His power from being displayed? It’s not a matter of if God is able – He is. And He can do ALL things, not just some things. 

It’s a matter if we are able to trust Him to do what He definitely can do. Our unbelief restricts the flow of God’s power into our lives. But faith or belief opens up the floodgates.

With that said, our normal response is, “Okay then, I’ll believe more!”

But guess what? That approach doesn’t work. The reason is because most of us completely misunderstand the nature of faith. 

Again, this is where we learn a valuable lesson about crucifying unbelief through this story in Mark’s gospel. In response to Jesus’ statement, “Everything is possible for the one who believes,” immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 NIV)

From the father’s response, two principles emerge: 

First, faith is received, not achieved.

“Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.” (Romans 12:3b NLT)

Our responsibility is not to create faith, but to use the amount given to us. That means we can relax a little because we don’t have to try and summon up more faith. We simply have to take the level of belief we have and run with it. As we do, we will gain faith because of God’s faithfulness to us. 

It’s worth noting that after Jesus berated the disciples for their unbelief, He asked a rhetorical question: “How long shall I stay with you and put up with you? (Luke 9:41b NIV)

The answer: As long as it takes because God never gives up on us. Since God is always faithful, He faithfully gives us faith!

Second, faith must have an object – it is not an end in and of itself. 

It is never enough just to believe for believing sake. Faith must always be rooted in someone or something. For the Christian, the object is the Lord Himself. 

The father expressed his trust in Jesus by saying, “I do believe!” Notice he didn’t ask for more faith, he simply asked Christ to help him overcome his unbelief. 

This shows us the amount of faith is not nearly as important as the object itself. More or stronger faith doesn’t enable us to crucify unbelief. Unbelief is nailed to the cross and overcome by putting our faith in Jesus. 

That means we can truly believe even when we really don’t feel like it or think we can muster another ounce of faith. 

It seems to me that belief is always intermingled with some measure of unbelief. Faith is not being free of doubts. It is having doubts and believing anyway!

The father struggled to believe for sure, but deep down, he wanted to believe. And that was enough because the power of faith is found not in faith itself but in the object of our faith. 

Unbelief is crucified by trusting in a person – Jesus. 

And it is more than trusting in what He can do, it is trusting in who He is. If we only believe that God is able, we’ll sometimes be disappointed when He doesn’t do what we know He can do. But if we believe in the One who is able, we’ll be willing to accept it when He doesn’t. 

Real, genuine Christian faith requires a personal relationship with the Lord. That’s what was demonstrated in the conversation between the father and Jesus. As they talked, the man came to know and trust Jesus so he used personal language like, “If you can … take pity on us … help me …” 

It’s interesting that this was the missing ingredient for the disciples. Even though they had spent countless hours with Jesus, they had not learned the most valuable lesson of all – that it is essential to cultivate a personal relationship with the One who is able. 

In Mark’s account, the story ends with the disciples asking Jesus what went wrong: After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive [the evil spirit] out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:28-29 NIV)

Do you remember where Jesus had been prior to this exchange? He had been on the mountain praying, spending time in conversation with His Heavenly Father. 

Apparently the disciples did not enjoy that type of closeness with God. 

If we are going to crucify unbelief and see the marvelous results that genuine faith can bring, we’re going to have to pray, pray, and pray some more. Only when we develop an ongoing, intimate relationship with God are we going to be able to trust Him completely. 

One hour a week in worship ain’t gonna do it! Our faith and trust grows as we spend time with the object of our faith.  

As the story ends in Luke chapter nine, Jesus’ two purposes were fulfilled. First, the boy was set free and healed and God got the glory: “And they were all amazed at the greatness of God” (Luke 9:43 NIV). Second, the disciples learned a valuable lesson about how to crucify unbelief. 

I’m convinced the Lord wants to accomplish the same things in our lives. God wants to save and deliver us from the things that afflict us – sin, fear, doubts, habits, sickness, and broken relationships. But He also wants us all to leave behind our unbelief as we continue our journey with Jesus. 

Our lack of faith or unbelief needs to be placed on the cross with the nails of genuine faith and trust in Christ. May it never be said of us, “You unbelieving and perverse generation!” (Luke 9:41 NIV) 

Instead, let’s remember that “Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23 NIV)

Join me in making this affirmation of faith: “Lord, [we] do believe; help [us] overcome [our] unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 NIV paraphrased)

Note: In our Worship Center from now until Easter there will be two crosses to serve as a place for you to crucify anything and everything that is preventing you from truly following Jesus and experiencing all that He has to offer. You can come and kneel, figuratively nail what needs to be left there, or pray with an intercessor (on Sunday mornings or by request).