The normal method employed by Jesus and his disciples for casting out demons is not prayer at all. Prayer is speaking to God while, casting out an unclean spirit is commanding a spirit to depart, and it must obey.
And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. (Mar 1:25)
For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. (Mar 5:8)
(For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For oftentimes it had caught him: and he was kept bound with chains and in fetters; and he brake the bands, and was driven of the devil into the wilderness.) (Luk 8:29)
And as he was yet a coming, the devil threw him down, and tare him. And Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the child, and delivered him again to his father. (Luk 9:42)
These are all examples of Jesus who, obviously, could be an exception, however, he gave his apostles authority over unclean spirits through his name. They too cast out demons in the same way, but evoking the authority of Jesus though his name:
And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease. (Mat 10:1)
And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name. (Luk 10:17)
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven. (Luk 10:19-20)
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; (Mar 16:17)
And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour. (Act 16:18)
Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth. (Act 19:13)
In this event addressed by the OP we see that clearly, their normal approach of casting out the unclean spirit with authority in the name of Jesus was unsuccessful:
And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not. (Mar 9:18)
Notice however, Jesus still employed the same method:
When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. (Mar 9:25-26)
His disciples were confused because they did the same but could not cast it out, so when they asked him why they were unsuccessful his answer is:
And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out? And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. (Mar 9:28-29)
Notice a few points:
- Jesus did not cast out the foul spirit by praying
This would suggest that Jesus is not saying the method of casting out this kind of evil spirit is different but rather that for the person ministering, prayer and fasting, is a pre-requisite, or vehicle, or empowering technique or some form of equipping to drive out the evil spirit.
- Prayer and fasting was not the requirement for the vexed person, but the person ministering the deliverance.
The variable in the first attempts with the disciples and this attempt with Jesus was Jesus. It was the same person and same spirit, so something about Jesus enabled him to cast out the foul spirit. From the answer Jesus gives it seems to be the active lifestyle of prayer and fasting. In other words this instruction is not what we should be doing to overcome demonic activity in our lives, but what ministers should be engaged in to minister deliverance from the oppression of certain foul spirits.
I think this is an incredibly important point and one of those places where a difference in the text used to translate, actually does make a doctrinal difference: does deliverance from certain foul spirit require fasting?
It is incredibly suspicious that “prayer and fasting” appears in four places in the New Testament in the Majority Text, and not in the Critical Text:
Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
verse absent from the critical text
And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.
And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,
And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing
1 Corinthians 5:7
Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
So what is the evidence that this verse (Mat 17:21) or the “and fasting” are original?
- Mat 17:21 is clearly supported by Mark 9:29 as being consistent with the narrative of the actual events.
- There is no evidence that the disciples were not prayerful and were often encouraged and taught to pray by Jesus, but they certainly did not fast while Jesus was on earth, which would explain why they could not cast out the foul spirit:
And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink? (Luk 5:33)
- Prayer and fasting is frequently considered together as an effective and powerful spiritual practice especially for ministers.
Jesus’s teaching on prayer in the sermon of the mount is followed by his teaching on fasting.
And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. (Luk 2:37)
As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.(Act 13:2-3)
And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (Act 14:23)
- Of 1700 ancient manuscripts only 10 does not contain the verse in Mat 17:21
- Important Manuscripts including Mat 17:21 is Codex W (late fourth/early fifth century), Codex C and D (both fifth century), Codex E and L (both eighth century), Codex G (ninth century)
- Though the original text of Sinaiticus does not contain it, it is corrected by a later scribe around the 5th century
- Mark 9:29 inclusion of “and fasting”: Codex W (late fourth or early fifth century), Codex A (early fifth century), The second corrector of Codex Sinaiticus (fifth, sixth, or seventh century), Codex C and D (both fifth century), Codex N and Σ (sixth century), Codex E (eighth century) Codex L (eighth century), Codex G (ninth century)
P45 (third century), our earliest manuscript for this section of Mark, is fragmentary and missing the place on the page where "and fasting" would be. However, when one measures the size of the letters and space on each line and estimates which text would better fit the missing space, it seems that "and fasting" was probably there.
Early Translation evidence:
- Most Old Latin MSS most from the fourth century and all from the fifth century;
- the Vulgate (late fourth Century) contains it;
- the Syriac Peshitta (Aramaic translation dating back to the second century testifies of all 4 these passages to include “fasting”) and Harklensis;
- the Middle Egyptian codex (ca. 350) and part of the Bohairic;
- part of the Georgian;
- the Armenia;
- the Ethiopic; and
- the Old Church Slavonic.
- every Old Latin manuscript other than Codex Bobiensis supports the reading "and fasting."
- The later Latin vulgate tradition also contained "and fasting,"
- the Coptic in both the Sahidic and Bohairic dialects.
- also found in the later Gothic and Slovenian manuscripts.
- There is Georgian manuscript evidence for the words
Early Church Fathers’ quotations suggest that Matthew 17:21 is authentic and Mark 9:29 should include "and fasting" and definitely proves that their manuscripts, that were earlier than those omitting it, did contain it.
Pseudo-Clement (ca. 100–200)- Preserved in Syriac:
“they speak with terrible words, and affright people, but do not act with true faith, according to the teaching of our Lord, who hath said: 'This kind goeth not out but by fasting and prayer,' offered unceasingly and with earnest mind.”
Tatian's Diatessaron (harmony of the Gospels) section 24:45 (170-175 A.D)
And when Jesus entered into the house, his disciples came, and asked him privately, and said unto him, Why were we not able to heal him? Jesus said unto Arabic. them, Because of your unbelief. Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say to this mountain, Remove hence; and it shall remove; and nothing shall overcome you. But it is impossible to cast out this kind by anything except by fasting and prayer.
Tertullian (215 A.D.)
Tertullian wrote a book On Fasting and testifies in it of both Gospel passages and Acts 10:30:
After that, he prescribed that fasting should be carried out without sadness. For why should what is beneficial be sad? He also taught to fight against the more fierce demons by means of fasting. For is it surprising that the Holy Spirit is led in through the same means by which the sinful spirit is led out?
Finally, granting that upon the centurion Cornelius, even before baptism, the honourable gift of the Holy Spirit, together with the gift of prophecy besides, had hastened to descend, we see that his fasts had been heard, I think, moreover, that the apostle too, in the Second of Corinthians, among his labours, and perils, and hardships, after hunger and thirst, enumerates fasts also very many.
Origen (246-248 A.D.)
Origen's Commentary on Matthew book 13. Origins quote the full verse Matthew 17:21 and is the surest witness of the presence of this verse as authentic which predates any omission by 100 years. His commentary:
But let us also attend to this, “This kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting,” in order that if at any time it is necessary that we should be engaged in the healing of one suffering from such a disorder, we may not adjure, nor put questions, nor speak to the impure spirit as if it heard, but devoting ourselves to prayer and fasting, may be successful as we pray for the sufferer, and by our own fasting may thrust out the unclean spirit from him.
When studying the casting out of demons, I would make a distinction between exorcism (ἐξορκίζω - ἐξ + ὅρκος = out + adjure/conjure) and casting out (ἐκβάλλω= ἐξ +βάλλω = out + throw) unclean spirits. There are accounts of exorcisms and exorcists both in the Bible and in historical accounts where the exorcist expels the evil spirit through incantations and conjuring methods. This is not the way in which Jesus and his disciples did it, they did it with simple authority over the spirit: authority Jesus seemingly had (and initially Adam also) because he was without sin and therefor not a slave to Satan (John 8:34) and therefor Satan and his ilk had to obey him:
Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (Mat 4:10-11)
As noted already, conjuring out was the way in which Jesus and his disciples delivered people from vexations – and their method of casting it out was unheard of at the time of Jesus when Jesus first did it:
And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee. (Mar 1:27-28)
This was not the way in which Jewish exorcists and other magi over the years performed exorcisms. Here is an account of a Jewish exorcism recounted by Josephus Flavius (Book 8 Section 42):
I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man;...
Post Biblical Accounts and the Role of Prayer and Fasting
Exorcisms of this kind, as a science and practice, continued throughout the ages till today. It is interesting to compare Catholic and Protestant approaches to demoniac possessions:
Peter Canisius, the celebrated Jesuit exorcist, conducted a spectacular exorcism of a possessed noblewoman in the Feggur household, which employed pilgrimages, the Laurentian litany, an image of the Virgin Mary, the rosary and the cross to expel a particularly obdurate demon. In puritan exorcism Satan and his legions were conquered through fasting and prayer. Although puritan writers are insistent that by applying fasting and prayer to cases of possession they were merely following scriptural commands that demons ‘goeth not out but by prayer and fasting’ (Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29), fasting was not a part of many early puritan exorcisms. Even the godly John Foxe did not employ fasting in his spectacular exorcism of Robert Briggs… although he did rely heavily on group prayer…John Parkhurst, the bishop of Norwich, seems to have been the first English Protestant to use fasting as a means in exorcism; in 1574…Darrell, however, relied on both fasting and prayer in all of his exorcisms after Wright. Before exorcising Thomas Darlin, Darrell demanded that the participants observe a day of fasting and prayer. Similarly, the demoniacs in the Starkey household were only exorcised after Darrell, two other puritan ministers and a congregation of about thirty people spent a day in fasting and prayer. Later puritan writers were equally insistent on prayer and fasting as the only legitimate and effective method of exorcism.
Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, C. 1560-1660, Chapter 2 Demons, Defiance and Deviance: John Darrell and the Politics of Exorcism in late Elizabethan England (edited by Peter Lake and Michael Questier)
Note: the references above is of John Darrell, an Anglican with puritan views famous for casting out unclean spirits in the second half of the 16th century.
Peter Horrobin, in his massive work on the topic: Healing through Deliverance, writes on p 155 about this specific passage and their experience at Ellel Ministries:
We have found, on numerous occasions, that a special season of prayers (and sometimes fasting) have been strategic in preparing both the ministry team and the counselee for deliverance.
Personally, I can attest to ministering deliverance to two people soon after I read The Gospel of Mark with my family during our devotions and we noticed that Jesus, his disciples and consequent believers had three parts to their practical ministry: preaching the Gospel, healings and casting out unclean spirits. Though inexperienced, awkward and insecure, I did see two definite manifestations and deliverances in the last year. The first one was a young lady who was convinced she was bewitched: her ex-boyfriend was deeply involved in African-witchcraft and cursed her when she left him. Before attending our church, she had grown very sick and medical practitioners could not find the cause. She was fading away physically, weighing, if I recall, around 40 kg. She had many Charismatic ministers attempt to heal her but unsuccessfully. Under the Gospel preaching in our Church (where I am a lay preacher) her health improved tremendously but she still felt an evil presence in her body, which (unfortunately) was dismissed as superstition. After a sermon I preached on this topic she asked me for help: we ministered to her, but I felt that we needed to fast together. Both of us fasted and prayed for three days. On the third day, she had a dream of a man in her apartment that seemed to know his way around - he was very familiar with the surroundings as if he lived there a long time. In the dream, she cast him out in the name of Jesus, and he left. She woke up and threw up yellow bile – and from then on she testified of being free.
I do not think post-biblical accounts and personal testimony are necessarily appropriate for this site focusing on hermeneutics, but I do think that for practical ministry these witnesses are important to test our hermeneutical conclusions. I am personally convinced, by the testimony of Scripture, sufficient manuscript evidence and early witnesses, as well as the testimony of the godly protestant witnesses and my own experience, that ‘this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting’.
The OP’s question now is: What “kind” of demon would not be able to be driven out in the normal way; what deeper spiritual significance does this passage bring?
Concerning what "kind" of demon? I simply don't know from the Biblical account. It was a "deaf and dumb spirit" that manifested in epileptic fits, trying to kill the young boy by throwing him into the fire or water. Could it be spirits that tries to kill its host? Since that does not appear to be common. We do not know, Jesus does not tell us, what we can and should know though, is this:
Firstly, Jesus is addressing his disciples – ministers of the Gospel, healing and deliverance and not the demoniac. So, whatever our hermeneutical conclusion, it is not that people should pray and fast more to get deliverance from whatever they are battling with.
Secondly, it is not the technique that is being critiqued by Jesus – Jesus cast the foul spirit out the same way as any other, but rather the spiritual disciplines of the minister.
Finally, the main point is that prayer and fasting are spiritual exercises that equip and empower God’s servants “to deal with the more fierce demons” (Tertullian). Was that not what Christ did for 40 days before He encountered the Prince of the devils? Is it not curious how His first temptation was weighing up Jesus’s physical hunger against believing the Word of God? And was this not launching point of mankind’s enslavement: “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise”?
Prayer and fasting is a key component of Spiritual practice and exercises that equip God’s servants to oppose Satan and his ilk. As one person rightly answered, the inability to remove this “mountain” was due to a lack of faith (Mat 17:20), and it was suggested that prayer increases faith – and maybe it does, but from the supporting verse it rather seems that faith is a pre-requisite for prayer. The word of God received through grace is what increases faith:
But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience. (Luk 8:15)
So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Rom 10:17)
Without going into a whole teaching on it, fasting is a spiritual practice that allows us to buffet our bodies/flesh (notice what choked fruitfulness in Luke 8:14) to feed ourselves instead with real food:
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Mat 4:2-4)
It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not…(Joh 6:63-64)
To summarise an answer, believers have been given authority over unclean spirits and casting them out in the name of Jesus should actually be a sign accompanying our faith (Mark 16:17). One hindrance is therefor a lack of faith, evidenced by an inability to cast out some kind(s) of evil spirits. This is sufficiently addressed by prayer and fasting as a means of grace that increases faith.