The Scripture Passage
14 When they came to the crowd, a man came up to Jesus, falling on his knees before Him and saying,
15 "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic and is very ill; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water.
16 "I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him."
17 And Jesus answered and said, "You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to Me."
18 And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not drive it out?"
20 And He said to them, "Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.
21 ["But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."]
Was He Really Possessed, or Just Crazy?
The boy in this story was a "lunatic" - someone completely out of his mind and who was a danger to himself. Because the Bible identifies the source of his insanity as a demon, some people take one of two extreme views (both of which are Biblically inaccurate) of the situation.
First, some claim that New Testament people misunderstood psychological illness as demon possession, that this mistake was further committed by the Gospel writers, and that Jesus either (as a man living at that time) believed the same or just went along with their belief that it was a demon even though he knew it wasn't. However, there are a couple major problems with this view: (1) One of the central beliefs of genuine Christianity is that the Bible is fully inspired by God and has absolutely no errors (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, to say that the Gospel writers made a mistake would be to wander into dangerous, cultish territory. (I won't spend much time on whether or not Jesus, in His human state in which He temporarily gave up His power to know everything, could have made such a mistake because exactly how much Jesus did and did not know while on Earth is an endless debate...I'll just leave it at: I personally do not believe such a mistake would have been possible for Him because, although He gave up His ability to know everything, He maintained deep knowledge of spiritual matters, and this falls into that category.) (2) If you read through the accounts of healings and castings-out in the Gospels, some maladies are identified as actual physical problems, in which case Christ healed them, and other maladies are identified as demonic manifestations, in which case Christ cast the demon out. The distinction is made in Scripture, so clearly, some illnesses (physical or psychological) are truly caused by demonic possessions.
The Second dangerous viewpoint is that all psychological problems are caused by demons; in other words, the view is that if you suffer from depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, or epilepsy, or bipolar disorder, or have a clown phobia, or whatever, you are possessed by a demon. I take extreme issue with this view, as well. (1) In the Gospels, demons aren't just the cause of psychological maladies, they also cause physical illnesses and handicaps. So, to say demons cause all psychological problems would require you to say that they cause all physical problems - and that circles back to what we discussed above, how Scripture makes it absolutely clear that some problems are caused by demons, and others are not. The fact of the matter is, we live in a fallen world where people get diseases and handicaps and disorders because humanity is sinful and fallen, not because of demons. (2) Plenty of believers have psychological problems. As I have mentioned a few times before, there is not a single Scriptural indication I'm aware of that Christians can become possessed, and I think there are even direct hints in Scripture that it cannot happen. If all psychological problems were the result of demonic possession, no Christian would ever suffer from them.
So, to sum up: Some problems really are caused by demons (so don't just write these accounts off as an antiquated, pre-medical way of thinking), but all of them certainly are not (so if someone you know is suffering from a psychological malady, don't think they're possessed).
When Should a Christian Cast Out a Demon?
The issue of casting out demons itself is another issue of stark polarity, ranging from, "We don't really see a lot of possessions in America...and it scares me, so I just don't want to think about it!" to "Every single problem in every person's life is caused by demons, so I cast 'em out five times a day!" It's an issue I've mulled over in my mind and searched out in Scripture for about the past four years, and I've finally focused on a couple of indications in Scripture that seem to be really relevant guidelines.
First, in every case in the Gospels I can find where Jesus casts out a demon, it is specifically stated that the possessed person's friends or relatives brought that person to Jesus to get the demon cast out. The only exception to this that I'm aware of is in Mark 5:1-20, in which the possessed man sees Jesus from a distance and runs up to Him specifically to talk to Him. So, it doesn't seem like every time Jesus saw a possessed person, He cast it out - rather, they or someone they loved seemed to desire for release from the demon, and then He cast it out. It's kind of like how in Luke 11:24-26 if a person gets a demon cast out of them and there's no change in their life, the demon will just come back. Think about it - if a demon is cast out of a Satanist, and they keep worshipping Satan, of course it makes sense that they'll just get possessed again.
Another telling example is in Acts 16:16-18, in which a demon possessed girl follows Paul for a number of days, shouting as he tries to preach - and he doesn't cast the demon out until he becomes "greatly annoyed" at the end of "many days." Now, wouldn't you think that if we were supposed to cast out demons whenever we encountered them (instead of when someone specifically asked for the casting-out), Paul would have cast out the demon right away? But he didn't. He only did, finally, when it seems the demon possessed person was impeding his ministry.
So, the tentative conclusion I've arrived at so far is this: Believers are not intended to cast out any demon they encounter willy-nilly, but rather in cases where the possessed person or their friends/family specifically wants freedom from the demon, or where the demonic possession is interfering with a ministry.
Can a Demon Possess a CHILD?
In this story, the son's age is not indicated - he could easily be an adult (the same is true in Matthew 15:21-28). So, with the vagueness in those examples, we have no Biblical indication that children either can or cannot become demon possessed.
But here's the thing. Although different Christian branches and denominations hold to specific "ages of accountability" at which point a child becomes old enough to comprehend issues like sin and salvation, no such age appears anywhere in Scripture. Now, that doesn't mean that the principle isn't perhaps valid (here is a fascinating discussion of that issue at GotQuestions.org), just that it is absolutely wrong to assign some specific man-determined age. I personally have seen some children seem to grasp the Gospel as five and others not able to until they were just into their double-digits - it seems to vary from person to person.
So, if a child can make a decision to trust Christ as Savior, it follows that they could make the conscious decision to dabble in the demonic realm. If a kid is playing with a Ouija board or Tarot card deck or "playing pretend" as a wizard or fortune teller, I think it's entirely possible they could become possessed. We don't know - so let's not risk it.
Why Couldn't the Disciples Cast Out the Demon?
The problem here is lack of faith. While there are plenty of Scriptural examples of the person who seeks to be healed needing faith in order for the healing to succeed (for example, Matthew 9:27-29), there are also places where the healer (or demon-caster-outer) must have faith, such as here and in James 5:15. Although this is tangential to the main point, I find it interesting that heretical televangelists always blame failed miracles on the other person's faith instead of on themselves...
Anyway, why did the disciples lack adequate faith in this case? I mean, they'd cast out demons before (see Matthew 10:1-8, and the parallel passage in Mark 6:7-13 which records their success). Perhaps they were scared since this seemed to be quite an extreme case of demonic possession (lunacy and trying to kill the man, as opposed to more minor manifestations such as demons causing blindness). Or, perhaps their lack of faith in God was a result of too much faith in their own abilities - i.e., they had grown arrogant in their power to cast out demons. This latter case would explain Jesus's harsh reaction, and especially why He told them they had to fast and pray to cast out the demon. Fasting and praying focuses us back on God's provision, not our own abilities.
What About That Verse in Brackets?
You may have noticed that verse 21 is in brackets - this is because it appears in some of the original source manuscripts, but not all of them. Different translations will approach such verses in different ways: Some put them in brackets, or italics, or in the footnotes, and some pick and choose which such verses to include and reject without any indication to the reader that they did so (the NIV does this, which is one of the reasons I'm not a big fan of that translation - but please don't be offended if you prefer the NIV).
How do such discrepancies appear in Scripture? Well, if you think about the process by which the "books" of the New Testament were copied, it was all by hand, a lot by largely uneducated men, and probably quite often in a hurry. So, even though the original writing was inspired by God, there's no reason to think that every single act of copying it was guided directly by God, as well. So, that would explain why some verses don't appear in some manuscripts (a person could have mistakenly skipped over it). In addition, the New Testament books were not all necessarily regarded as Scripture the minute they were written, so a copier who had something they remembered or thought to add would have seen no moral reason not to write that in (which explains why some verses do appear in some manuscripts but not in others. And, with both of these, one addition or subtraction would be carried on to the copy of that copy, and the copy of the copy of the copy, and on and on exponentially.
So how does this mesh with our belief in the inerrancy of Scripture? Personally, I don't see a conflict. The fact that we're aware of where the discrepancies are and that none of them have to do with anything important (like being the basis of a doctrine) demonstrates to Me that God protects His Word even amidst human mistakes. In that light, the discrepancies support the idea that the Bible has remained the same, not the opposite.
Now, every Bible teacher you talk to will probably have a different approach to how to handle these "bracketed" verses. Some reject them all, some accept them all, and some go with a case-by-case approach based on some criteria.
I myself fall within the case-by-case category. My personal method is to check if it's the King James Version Bible. Even though I am definitely not the type of person who insists that the KJV is the only or even most accurate English translation of Scripture (as evidenced by the fact that I frequently pull from the NASB, ESV, NKJV, and AMP translations), I personally choose to treat it as the authority in the specific issue of "bracketed" verses. Why? Let's look at history...
The KJV was translated from 1604-1611 using the same Greek source texts as were used for the Latin versions. The primary Latin version accepted at the time was the "Authorized Latin Version," which was translated by St. Jerome in the 400s. Before him, Latin versions were translated from the same texts as early as the 100s (about as close to the original time period as you can get). Therefore, those specific Greek texts were what gave the entire continent of Europe their New Testament for 1500 years. Personally, I believe that God is powerful enough to not have an incomplete or flawed Word for 1500 years!!! So, when I encounter a "bracketed" verse, I check to see if it's in the KJV - if so, I treat it as Scripture, if not, I treat it as something that is perhaps true but not Scripture.
But, again, that is my personal method. I'm not saying it's the only way or the best way to approach such verses - it's just my way.
An Important Reminder and Questions for You
If you want to read through the Bible in 2013, check out the "Weekly Scripture Readings" tab above for a Through the Bible in a Year plan I developed, or check out this past weekend's post referring you to some other plans to best fit your needs. Make sure you find some way to dive into God's Word every day in 2013!!!
What is your approach (or thoughts on an approach) to the "bracketed" verses?
What's your take on the issue of whether or not children can become possessed?
Anything else you'd like to add or ask?
All Images courtesy of Sweet Publishing. Used by permission.