By Justin Rossow
In Mark 9, right after the Transfiguration, a concerned father brings his son to Jesus in desperation. The father (in Greek, ὁ πατὴρ, ho patēr) says to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything (εἴ τι δύνῃ, ei ti dynē), have compassion on us and help us.” To which, of course, Jesus replies: “IF you are able?? All things are possible (πάντα δυνατὰ, panta dynata) for the one who believes.”
You probably know the rest of the story: with an emotional, screeching caw like a raven, the father turns to Jesus in deep distress: “I do believe! Help me in my battle with unbelief!” Jesus responds in compassion and heals the father’s son.
I love that scene in Mark 9, and I was surprised to find echoes of this exchange repeated in Mark 14 when Jesus, in deep distress, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Because English handles things differently than New Testament Greek does, some of the parallels are easy to miss in translation, but I am beginning to suspect the parallel vocabulary is there on purpose.
In Mark 14, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John off on their own to pray, just like at The Transfiguration. Deeply moved, Jesus falls to the ground and prays that if it is possible (εἰ δυνατόν ἐστιν, ei dynaton estin) the hour would pass from him, saying: “Abba, father ( ὁ πατὴρ, ho patēr) all things are possible (πάντα δυνατά, panta dynata) for you…”
The dyn- stem in NT Greek has to do with power or ability. English owes the word “dynamite” to this Greek stem (leading many a young preaching into an unfortunate metaphorical blind alley when they try to unpack the implications of the Gospel being the “dynamite of God” in Romans 1:16. I mean, yes, POWER; but blowing stuff up doesn’t really fit the Gospel. In this case, knowing that “the power of God unto salvation” is related to the word “dynamite” is more of a fun etymological connection than a metaphor you want to push too far…)
So we say in English, “If you are able…” and “If it is possible…” but in Greek, the dyn- stem covers both of those meanings, making the parallels between Mark 9 and Mark 14 a little clearer in the Greek. We also don’t use “the” when we address someone: I would say “Hey, Dad!” not “Hey, the Dad!” if I were calling my father. But Greek can use the the that way. Jesus prays, “Abba, the Father,…” which you could translate “my father” or just “father.” Not a big deal, except that “the father” shows up in Mark 9 and Mark 14, strengthening the connection.
The slam dunk, however, is the phrase “all things are possible.” Both in the Greek original and in English translation that exact phrase shows up in Mark 9 as well as Mark 14. You can see the dyn- stem at work again: “all things are possible” = “πάντα δυνατά, panta dyn-ata.” The grammatical similarities are adding up, and leading us toward a stark contrast that I think might be significant. Here’s what we have so far:
The father (ὁ πατὴρ, ho patēr)
If you are able
(εἴ τι δύνῃ, ei ti dyn-ē)
All things are possible
(πάντα δυνατὰ, panta dyn-ata)
Abba, Father (ὁ πατὴρ, ho patēr)
If it is possible
(εἰ δυνατόν ἐστιν, ei dyn-aton estin)
All things are possible
(πάντα δυνατὰ, panta dyn-ata)
The vocabulary lines up in surprising ways, only to lead us to a surprising difference: in Mark 9, the punchline goes: “All things are possible for the one who believes.” But just when we are expecting a parallel punchline in Mark 14, we get instead: “Father, all things are possible for you… yet not what I desire, but what you [desire].”
That almost startling break from a pattern that sure seems intentional invites us to double-click on the difference. Who is “the one who believes?” And how does that parallel the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane?
“For the one who believes” in Mark 9 is a translation of the Greek phrase “τῷ πιστεύοντι, tō pisteuonti” and I always took that to refer to the father in the story: “All things are possible when you pray as someone who believes, i.e. when you pray in faith” or something like that, meaning, “If you, dad, pray with faith, this healing will indeed be possible.”
I think the guy in the story interprets it this way; his response to Jesus is, “I do believe!” “πιστεύω, pisteuō! Run to my aid in this battle with unbelief!”
You can see the Greek stem pist- in both expressions, and English again has two different words that cover the same Greek concept. In English, we use the noun faith, the adjective faithful, and the verb to believe when we translate words that start with pist-. So “All things are possible for the one who believes,” is a totally a legitimate translation.
The thing is, that Greek phrase could just as easily mean, “All things are possible for the faithful one.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the Greek writer intends “the one having faith” or “the one who is faithful” or, if the author is being sneaky, maybe you are supposed to assume the one but understand the other is also possible. (There’s even a big debate over whether we are saved through “faith in Christ” or through “the faithfulness of Christ” in verses like Galatians 2:16 or Romans 3:22. There are good reasons for either translation, and you can read either translation with good or bad theology, but the point here is simply that grammatically, it could go either way…)
So while Jesus seems to be saying to the father, “If you have faith, this will be possible…” there might be more goin on. In fact, the father didn’t question if the healing was possible; rather, he questioned whether or not Jesus had power to do anything. So maybe Jesus is saying, “You question if this healing is possible for me? All things are possible for me, the faithful one.“
While that reading is exegetically feasible, it seems unlikely to me, because the father’s response seems clearly to indicate his understanding that Jesus was referring to the faith of the father, not the faithfulness of the Son. In general, if someone in the story thinks the Greek words mean something different than you think they mean, you are probably wrong. After all, the father was there, in the moment.
Except the strong parallels in the vocabulary in Mark 14 make me wonder if the father in Mark 9 misunderstood Jesus in the heat of the moment. Don’t we often look to the strength of our own faith when the Scriptures are actually inviting us to focus on the faithfulness of Jesus? Or maybe Mark has placed a double entendre there on purpose, one we only recognize when we get to the Garden of Gethsemane.
But this much seems certain to me: Mark is drawing a parallel and setting up and expectation. We get “the father” in chapter 9, and “the father” in chapter 14; we get “if you are able (dyn-)” in 9, and “if it is possible (dyn-)” in 14; we get “all things are possible (dyn-)” in 9, and the exact same phrase in 14. But just when we expect, “all things are possible for the one who believes” we get instead, “all things are possible for you … yet not as I desire, but as you [desire].“
What happened to “the one who believes?”
I think it is at least possible that Mark has set us up to see Jesus as the one who believes. Jesus prays to his Father, the One for whom all things are possible, and submits his will, his delight, his desire to the will, delight, and desire of the Father. Jesus prays in faith and as the faithful one. Jesus is able to heal a father’s son because he is the Faithful One. Jesus submits his life and his will to the Father because he is the Faithful Son. All things are possible for God; and all things are possible for the Faithful One, Jesus, who trusts and prays and loves and serves and heals and suffers and dies and rises again as the One Who Believes; the One Who Trusts the Father, the Faithful Servant of YHWY; the Obedient Son.
Maybe, when I hear Jesus say, “All things are possible for the one who believes,” I shouldn’t check my own heart and my own faithful prayers and my own level of trust. Maybe, when I hear Jesus say, “All things are possible for the One who believes,” I should look to Jesus and his heart, and his faithful prayers on my behalf, and his trusting the Father even unto death and resurrection.
“Lord, I am trying to believe; run to my aid in my battle with unbelief!” will always be a faithful prayer. And until the Son stands once again upon the earth, that battle with unbelief will also endure. So when push comes to shove, don’t evaluate your own heart, or your own faith, or your own faithfulness. Turn to Jesus, the Faithful One. Jesus always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Jesus never fails.
Then, with your eyes focused on the Faithful One, learn from him to pray, “Abba, Father; all things are possible for you. Not my desires, but yours be done.”
For more on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane and what it means for the Holy Spirit to shape that prayer in us, listen to the Next Step Podcast episode “Go to Dark Gethsemane” with special guest Dr. Leopoldo Sánchez.