Unbelieving Believers (Mark 9:14–29)

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Doug Van Meter - 14 July 2019

Unbelieving Believers (Mark 9:14–29)

The Christian life is a life of contrasts: glory above but grief and groaning below. Coupled to this is the contrast between faith and unbelief. Like the disciples in this story, we find ourselves, at times, faithless—or, like the father, living with the tension of believe yet unbelief. We are often unbelieving believers. This text serves to equip us to be believing believers—characterised by, among other things, a spirit of dependence upon Christ, demonstrated by a life of prayer.

Scripture References: Mark 9:14-29

From Series: "Mark Exposition"

An exposition of the Gospel of Mark by Doug Van Meter.

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Italian artist Raphael’s last painting was his famed Transfiguration. It is an amazingly insightful piece of art. It preaches well the text and the context that is before us. R. Kent Hughes explains:

The uppermost part pictures the transfigured form of Jesus, with Moses on the left and Elijah on his right. On the next level down are the three disciples, Peter, James, and John recently awakened and shielding their eyes from Jesus’ blinding brilliance. The, on the ground level, is a poor demon-possessed boy, his mouth hideously gaping with wild ravings. At his side is his desperate father. Surrounding them are the rest of the disciples, some of whom are pointing upward to the glowing figure of Christ—who will be the boy’s only answer. Raphael has brilliantly captured something of the overwhelming contrast between the glorious Mount of Transfiguration and the troubled world waiting below.

Raphael also captured what is often the contrast that the Christian faces in the world: glory above and grief and groaning below. Coupled to this is the contrast between faith and unbelief. Like the disciples in this story, we find ourselves, at times, “faithless”—or, like the father, living with the tension of “I believe, help my unbelief.” We are often unbelieving believers.

That may seem unbelievable, but this story (and our experience) confirm this too frequent reality.

My desire is that our time together in this text will equip us to be believing believers—as those characterised by, among other things, a spirit of dependence upon Christ demonstrated by a life of prayer. May this be increasingly true of us.

The Dispute of Unbelief

The text opens by setting up the conflict:

And when they came to the disciples, 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.”

(Mark 9:14–18)

The Synoptic Gospels all record this story, but Mark fleshes it out more than the other two. Someone has counted and recorded that Matthew uses 110 words, Luke tells the story with 144 words, while Mark uses 272 words. Why? Perhaps because the audience to whom he was writing needed the reminder that the difficulties they were facing could be overcome. As his audience of Roman Christians faced much persecution, they needed the encouragement that the evil one had been defeated and that, through Jesus, they were more than conquerors. They needed the reminder that the darkness and detractors and the doubt they faced was not unique and, like other Christians, they were more than conquerors through Jesus Christ—by faith.

Mark’s audience needed to learn, as did the first disciples (and as do we), that “the interplay between the journey inward to God and the journey outward to the world is common” (Edwards). This reality is portrayed time and again in the biblical narrative.

Moses descended from the glory of Sinai to rebellion and idolatry below. Elijah left the quiet strength of Horeb to face the paganism of Jezebel and Ahab. Jesus himself went from the glorious affirmation of his baptism to the wilderness to face the devil. Here, Jesus and his three disciples descended from the glorious transfiguration to face chaos of unbelief below.

But as is the case whenever Jesus enters the arena, chaos is transformed into cosmos. Though the passage commences with chaos of unbelief, it ends with the cry of faith and its consequence of gracious order. As we will see, things would get worse before they got better. Nonetheless, they would get better.

Jesus and the disciples descended from the Mount of Transfiguration to the plateau of confusion. They went from glory to groaning, from the heights to the depths, from ecstasy to agony, and from the divine to the demonic. As we saw previously, this is often the path of the Christian: We move between the majestic and the mundane. This pericope reminds us of this.

But it also reminds us of a similar, though not exact, duplicate scene hundreds of years earlier. Though not all commentators are persuaded, the echo seems too loud to be a mere coincidence. I am speaking of Moses’ ascent to Mount Sinai followed by his descent to an unbelieving chaotic scene below—just like here.

Exodus 24, as we have seen, parallels the scene of the transfiguration. And here there is another parallel, for in both scenes, not only was there a manifestation of the glory of Israel’s king and deliverer, but both also share a not-so-encouraging response from those who were left behind. Exodus 32 records that, while Moses was up above, the people below turned to unbelieving idolatry. In the scene before us, in the absence of Jesus, the disciples fell into disbelief and subsequent ineffectiveness. In both scenes, unbelief was writ large. And people suffered because of it.

What Were they Up To?

It should be noted that, while Jesus and the three were absent, the nine were carrying out their ministry. They had been commissioned to teach, heal, and cast out demons. So here.

We can also note that the crowd, the scribes, and the demon-possessed had congregated, as they had throughout Mark’s Gospel. Further, as previously, “whenever the disciples are separated from Jesus they fall into crisis” (Edwards). It seems that they were struggling with living by sight rather than by faith. And that is never a productive course.

As Jesus, Peter, James, and John descended, they saw “a great crowd around” the other nine disciples who were engaged in a dispute with some scribes. We don’t know precisely what the arguing was about, but we do know that, on other occasions, official designations had been sent from Jerusalem to inspect the legitimacy of the ministry of Jesus. No doubt this was their intention with the disciples. Since Jesus was not around, their target became these disciples.

Further, as the text makes clear, the disciples had been trying to exorcise a demon from a young boy. Perhaps it was this that led to the dispute with the scribes. The scribes probably were questioning the authority of these men to engage in such activity. And perhaps—just perhaps—there was a note of compassion on their side. They saw this suffering child and a grief-stricken father, and perhaps they were upset that their grief was being exacerbated by these failing disciples. Not only did these disciples look like inept frauds, but their inability to meet the request no doubt reflected on Jesus of Nazareth whom they represented (see v. 22).

Whatever the exact dispute, it is an ugly scene upon which Jesus arrived not a moment too soon. The people were “greatly amazed.” Usually this terminology is reserved for after Jesus had done something, but here it precedes it. Some have suggested that the face of Jesus glowed as in the case of Moses (thus calling forth this amazement). But given our Lord’s concern for secrecy at this point (v. 9), this seems doubtful. Most likely they were astonished by his presence since his arrival was so timeous. After all, in a tense situation like this, surely here was one who could do something both helpful and hopeful. Here was a promise of rescue.

Jesus asked the question, “What are you arguing about with them?” This was driven probably both by a desire to intercede for his disciples as well as to intervene in the situation to provide both help and to utilise a teaching opportunity.

While he awaited their reply, he received a painful answer from a distraught father. His son, throughout his life, was subject to demonic attack, so severe that sometimes he would be thrown into water (attempted drowning) or into fire. Perhaps burn scars were evident. This shows the malicious hatred of Satan and his demons towards those made in the image of God.

The boy’s father had apparently become aware of the power of Jesus and his disciples (3:15; 6:7–13) to deliver from demonisation. Therefore, he came to where he heard they were. He pleaded with them to help. The text says that “they were not able”, which literally can be translated, “they were not strong enough” to do it. They had tried but had failed. This father’s summation of the impotence of the disciples would prove significant in what follows. These disciples were ministering in the absence of Jesus, and any seasoned minister of the gospel knows the ineffectiveness of such activity. Yet I think there is something else going on here: These disciples could have ministered effectively in his absence, but they were relying on their gifts rather than on their God. And so, even though they were doing something very religious, they were doing so in the flesh, not by faith. Therefore, their ministry was futile.

To summarize, this was a very heated, and a very hopeless, scene. The arrival of Jesus was therefore providentially appropriate.

The Disappointment of Unbelief

Upon hearing this report, Jesus lamented, “O faithless generation” (v. 19). “O” occurs sixteen times in the New Testament. It carries great intensity and is used to get someone’s attention.

Jesus was deeply disappointed. This is a word of lament concerning the spiritual condition, not only of the wider generation of Israel, but also that of Jesus’ disciples. People sometimes speak of their being “disappointed with God.” There is never any basis for this. But there is plenty of reason for God to be disappointed with us.

Jesus had previously spoken with near contempt for “this generation” (8:12), and had spoken with condemnation of “this adulterous and sinful generation” (8:38). In those cases, Jesus was specifically referencing the spiritually corrupt leaders of Israel and those they had misled. But here the words of strong rebuke appear to have included the disciples as well. These men who were chosen to lead and to feed and to give heed to God’s flock were seemingly as inept and unbelieving as the ones they were to replace.

The Lament

Jesus’ lament indicates that he fully expected his disciples to fruitfully carry on their appointed ministry in his absence. In other words, they had been granted the authority to be “able” (v. 18) to help this child. But they failed, and their failure was a faith failure. This awareness resulted in Jesus lamenting their spiritual obtuseness. You can sense the frustration as he says, “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Would they ever learn? What was going on here? Was Jesus giving up on them?

We dare not soften Jesus’ response. He was troubled by the faith failure of his disciples. As Lane writes, “Jesus’ poignant cry of exasperation is an expression of weariness which is close to heart-break” (c.f. 3:5; 8:12). He goes on to comment that his response expresses “the loneliness and the anguish of the one authentic believer in a world which expresses only unbelief.”

Some might argue that, since the disciples were not privy to what Peter, James, and John had experienced, their lack of faith was understandable. Apparently not, according to Jesus. I find this instructive. In other words, we don’t need some super-sensational experience for our faith to be strong. On the contrary, we simply need to take Jesus at his word, as the Twelve had been doing since Jesus sent them on mission. So, though these nine were not up on the Mount, they had every reason to continue to faithfully serve down below.

We should pause and consider the words of Jesus and what lay behind them. Consider that, comparatively, Jesus had not been with these disciples all that long—two years at the most. But these two years were, for the most part, unbroken. They were together night and day.

Further, also consider all that Jesus had taught them and all that he had demonstrated before them. With all the evidence provided, how could they be so unbelieving?

Perhaps, like you and me, they were so close they could not see. Perhaps they were spiritually thick because, like you and me, they were mentally thin when it came to thinking through the implications of this life and teaching.

But perhaps there is another underlying reason (related to the above). In keeping with the context (8:29ff), these disciples had not reached the point where they were denying self. That is, they were still too self-assured. Let me explain.

When Jesus called them to follow him, his intention was, among other things, to give them authority over unclean spirits (3:13–15). After some time with him, Jesus had sent them out with this authority and they had exercised it. They had experienced this power as they had cast out demons (6:7–13). It seems that they were quite excited by this experience (6:30). But because of what Jesus would say shortly (v. 29) I think I am correct when I say that their success is what led to their unbelief.

They became self-sufficient. We will look at this more closely soon, but for now I simply want to observe that it may very well be that these brothers assumed too much about their abilities. They were not depending on Christ alone and that is always a problem. And it is a problem because it is synonymous with unbelief. They should have learned that, apart from Jesus, they could do nothing.

The problem was not that they attempted to cast out this demon while Jesus was absent. After all, by prayer they could have grasped his power. The problem was that, apparently, he was not factored in at all.

The Deliverance through Unbelieving Belief

Where the disciples had failed, Jesus would not:

And he 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.” And 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. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him,  “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And 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.” And 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.

(Mark 9:19–27)

It is often said that, when training others, it is essential to give both responsibility and authority for the responsibility. Jesus had done that. It is also counselled that, when training others, they should learn to fail and to pick up the pieces themselves and not be micromanaged. This is usually the best course of action. But when a situation is urgent, sometimes the leader must step in—as Jesus did here. There was too much suffering for Jesus to sit back and leave it to those who were presently incompetent. Hence, Jesus, having expressed his divine frustration, immediately intervened to bring relief to this child and to his family. He said urgently, passionately and compassionately, “Bring him to me.” Though his disciples could not do anything to help, he could and would.

The boy was brought to Jesus with the result that the evil spirit “immediately … convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.” I can’t think of a more pathetic, pitiful scene in Scripture. This evil spirit so hated Jesus and this boy that he did all he could to destroy him in the presence of the Son of God. “It was the impotent rage of the defeated enemy” (Cole). The father must have been deeply distraught as our Saviour.

Perhaps we should observe that, often, when demonised people were confronted by Jesus, they seemed to get worse before they were made better. A case in point would be the man of Gadara in Mark 5 as well as the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (7:30). The evidence of these texts seem to point to the fact that being rescued by Jesus could often be painful. Repentance is not an easy task. Sin and self and Satan would hardly let go without a fight. The domain of darkness doesn’t want to lose any of those it has enslaved. But, thankfully, such is the power of Christ that the worst of these slave-holders is no match for the emancipation proclamation of the gospel of God.

Jesus asked (and we can assume that he did so with great tenderness), “How long has this been happening to him?” The father replied, “Since childhood,” which could be translated, “From infancy.” The father then described how the demon had tried to kill his child by either drowning or burning him. How tragic. How hopeless this father must have been. No wonder he would say, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Who can blame him?

For those who are so foolish to make light of the devil, let this passage sink deep into your thoughts. The devil hates humanity—all humanity—because humans bear the image of God. He is set on destruction, both temporal and eternal. He knows his fate, and he wants to take as many with him as he possibly can.

The father, heartsore, desperate, and teetering on the edge of hopelessness, dared to seek the help of the Lord. Even though the disciples had proven unhelpful, perhaps the one they so had poorly represented would be able to help. So he pleaded, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” These words make you want to weep. He and his son—and perhaps his family—had come to the end of their aspirations. Who knows how often they had sought the help of the religious leaders? They had perhaps gone from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, looking for compassion and for a cure. And even if they had not always received compassion (which no doubt they often did not), they would have happily settled for a cure. But all to no avail.

They had heard about Jesus and about his disciples who had become well-known in certain circles for their ability to exorcise demons. So he came to the disciples, but all to no avail. Perhaps as the scribes were arguing with the disciples, and as the disciples were arguing with the scribes—as perhaps the crowd was complaining against the disciples and perhaps even speaking contemptuously of the boy and his father—Jesus appeared, having descended the mount. “Hope springs eternal,” the poet wrote, and the father saw one last possibility. What would happen? He believed, and yet he did not believe. This is seen in his response, “If you can.”

The Wrong If

I love Jesus’ reply. On the surface, it seems as if Jesus was sarcastically asking a rhetorical question, “‘If you can?’ Of course, I can!” In fact, I think that is exactly what he was doing, minus the attitude. Jesus wanted the man, his son, and the demon to know that indeed he was able and, thankfully, willing.

I wonder if the failure of the disciples was a factor behind this man’s hesitating faith? I wonder if their inability tempted this man to be sceptical of the Lord. And I am not the only who has wondered about this. Grogan writes concerning the father, “He may well have wondered whether the leader of this group really special power had when his followers had shown such impotence. The behaviour and actions of disciples of Jesus can, unhappily, make faith in him seem less rather than more credible.”

This scene has made me wonder if my spiritual failures do the same to others. I wonder if my failure to help people in their extremity tempts them to doubt rather the Lord is able, or even interested, in helping them?

If You Believe

Jesus assured the man that “all things are possible for one who believes.” That is quite a carte blanche statement. And it has become one of the most abused verses in all the New Testament.

False teachers and preachers have used this to manipulate and to misguide many. Many Christians, not handling the word of God accurately, have become deeply discouraged in their faith. We need to know what Jesus meant by this and how to correctly apply it. After all, it is a promise and so it is for our benefit. So, what did he mean?

Quite simply, we are to believe God because of what he has revealed he is able to do. Jesus had demonstrated, several times, his power over demons. And this power was given to his disciples. Presumably, this was why the father had come to them. But apparently the father doubted Jesus’ ability, for he asked, “If you can do anything.” This raises some questions.

Was he initially doubtful and therefore included in Jesus’ rebuke of “this faithless generation”? Was he, like the disciples, an unbelieving believer from the start? Or, was his current doubt due to the failure of the disciples? We don’t know for sure, but whichever, the Lord used this as a teaching moment for them and for us.

Jesus was making a statement of fact: If one believes, then the thing believed for is not only possible, but probable. In fact, if it is true faith, the thing is promised. But this is where we need to be clear and careful. The fundamental issue is the nature of such faith. That is, this kind of faith is rooted in the right object, which is also the source of this faith. You see, the kind of faith Jesus was speaking of originates with God. Therefore, when God gives us the faith to believe something, we can be sure it will come to pass. God always keeps his promise. He kept his promise to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to Paul, and he will keep his promises to you. Hughes (quoting Alexander Maclaren) says it well: “Faith must never go farther than God’s clear promises, for ‘whatever goes beyond God’s Word is not faith, but something else assuming its appearance.’”

Jesus was instructing us that we are to come to God with confidence in his ability. But his ability is defined by his revelation. When we lay hold of God’s promises, when we believe him and his word, all things become possible. All things, in this context, become probable.

This kind of faith is not worked up emotionally or mentally. It is not merely the power of positive thinking. No, it is faith that clings to God and to his word. It is “man in his weakness trusting God’s promise in his Word” (Ferguson).

Unbelieving Faith

The father of the demonised boy responded to Jesus with these very honest, transparent words, which should encourage us: “I believe, help my unbelief.” I agree with Ferguson that underlying his response is the example and exhortation of Jesus. In other words, “Because you, Jesus, have such perfect trust in the power of God, help me to cast out my unbelief and trust fully in him” (Ferguson). If the disciples had hindered this man’s faith, in listening now to Jesus his faith was more confident. His faith was not perfect (whose is?!) it was nevertheless effective. The fact that the man would even come to Jesus indicates the presence of real faith. As Cole says, it is as though he was saying to Jesus, “Then help me, just as I am, a doubter.” “A faith that declares itself publicly and at the same time recognizes its weaknesses and pleads for help, is real” (Hughes).

Doubt did not annul his radical trust in Jesus and in his word. Unbeliever, you should think about that.

You may be struggling with doubts such as, “Can all of my sins really be forgiven?” or, “Is it really possible that I can be reconciled to God considering the kind of life I have been living?” or, “How is it that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection can secure my justification before Holy God?” I understand this. More importantly, God does. Yet he has promised, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” You see, the Bible does not demand strong faith to be saved. No, it demands the right object of faith. It demands a faith that comes from outside of you, though expressed from inside of you. In Paul’s words, faith “is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:9). As Jesus reminded his disciples, believing on God is his work: “This is the work of God, that you believe on him who he has sent” (John 6:29).

God is compassionate towards sinners who cry out to him for help. He can, and he will, save those who do.

Christian, to some degree, each of us is an unbelieving believer. Nevertheless, the “believer” aspect is our encouragement.

Don’t allow doubt to keep you from trusting the promises of God. Don’t allow the faithless failures of others to make you doubt what God in Christ can do for you. Push against the self-sufficient and even sometimes cynical naysayers and believe the word of God. The world has been changed by God through such people. Join that crowd.

Believe God for power to overcome sinful habits. Believe God for provision as you seek him first. Believe God for what you need to raise a godly seed. Believe God that he will build his church. In other words, trust and obey.

The result of this man’s unbelieving belief was the deliverance of his son from the power of the evil one. Yet, as he would experience, God’s response to faith “can produce storm and stress before anything constructive is accomplished” (Edwards). As observed above, things would get worse before they would get better. We see this in vv. 25–27. The child seemed to be delivered from temporal suffering by losing his life. Interesting. To those watching, this boy lost his life but, in the end, he saved it (8:35).

Earlier Peter, James and John were confused by Jesus’ words about his rising from the dead (v. 10). Here they were provided with an example. What seemed to be the end of the matter was, in actuality, the beginning. Where the evil one brings death, Jesus brings life.

Friend believe on Christ and experience the life that only he can give. For only his life and death secure the deliverance from sin and its penalty that we deserve. Sister, brother, take up your cross, die to self and experience afresh the life of Jesus Christ.

The Discouragement of Unbelief

The text closes with a reference to the disciples’ disappointment over their failure to deliver the boy: “And 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’” (vv. 28–29).

The disciples were perplexed, if not discouraged, by their earlier failure. Having witnessed Jesus’ success, they wondered why, as his representatives, they had failed. Apparently, there was nothing remarkable about the form of Jesus’ casting out the demon. So, what was the problem? As they gathered with Jesus for private consultation in a house (this is a pattern in Mark), they asked him, “Why could we not cast it out?”

As one who, for thirty years, has pastored many troubled people, some whom I have not been able to help, my heart syncs with this question, and with these probably discouraged believers. “We are happy that you have helped this child. But when we tried, we failed. Why could we not cast it out? What was (is?) our problem?”

Jesus responded, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Jesus’ answer reveals that their faithless response was because they had been prayerless, which means that they had been guilty of self-sufficiency rather than being dependent upon God. They had seemingly forgotten that “any effectiveness their ministry had was because they were God-appointed channels of divine power” (Grogan). They had presumed that their ability to cast out demons was simply a matter of having the gift, without any reliance on the giver of the gift. As Hughes observes, “They forgot that there had to be radical dependence if God’s power was to course through their lives.” And biblical prayer is the ultimate confession of such dependence. As Edwards comments, “prayer is faith turned toward God.”

Inadequacy of Power and Fervency of Prayer

God in Christ had bestowed upon the disciples the gift of authority to cast out demons. But this was dependent upon their dependence! Their authority would always be a derived authority, not merely a delegated authority. That is, as channels of God’s power, they need to be in communion with him to experience this power. Hence their need for prayer. Jesus’ instruction in the house was a means to reminding them of their inadequacy, which would drive them to prayer. This too was the gift of God to them (Edwards). What a vital lesson for every Christian.

We are tempted to rely on the memory of past victories rather than seeking the Lord afresh in the present. We are tempted to rely on our gifts rather than on our God. We are tempted to trust in our Bible knowledge or in our reformed orthodoxy rather than in the living Lord. And in the end, we resemble the fruitless, futile existence of a “faithless generation.” O may God deliver us by driving us to our knees!

If we will be effective in our battle against sin, against the sinful world system and in our battle against Satan, we must remember to be strong in the Lord (Ephesians 6:10). That is why, after exhorting the Ephesian believers to put on the whole armour of God, Paul concludes with an exhortation to prayer (6:18).

Christian, if we will grow in our faith, if we will overcome our tendency towards unbelieving belief, we must be weak enough to pray. Then we will be strong enough to face the world, the flesh, and the devil to the glory of God.

Practically, disciple of Jesus, take time each day to pray. Work throughout the day to keep God in all your thoughts, constantly practicing the presence of God, offering up prayers of dependence in all that you do.

Make corporate prayer a priority.

Pray with your friends, with your family, with your spouse. Let us be a people, like Elijah, fervent in prayer (James 5:16). But remember that, even in our praying, we can be guilty of unbelieving belief. Therefore, when we pray, let us beware of relying on our ritual. Rather let us pray in dependence upon God. Jesus, as in everything else, serves as our example.

Jesus would face the onslaught of the evil one as he went to the cross to die for those who would repent and believe on him. And he would pray along the way. When his faith was assaulted, he would commune with the Father and would be strengthened. His last words on the cross would be a prayer. And, unlike the boy in our passage, who merely seemed to die, Jesus would actually die. But he would also rise from the dead. And because he did, we can believe. Will you believe on him? You may begin as an unbelieving believer, but the more you pray the more you will become a believing believer to the glory of God.

AMEN