A Puzzling Saying


Matthew 17:14-23

Text Comment

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai where God had given him the law, he was confronted with the scene of Israel worshipping a golden calf. When Jesus came down from the mountain on which he had been transfigured he also encountered a scene of unbelief and spiritual conflict.  In sharp contrast to the glory revealed on the mountain, Jesus is “brought down to earth” as he rejoins his disciples.  If you compare Matthew’s account of this incident with the much longer one in Mark you will see that Matthew wants to emphasize the question of the disciple’s faith.  He leaves out much of the account that does not pertain to that issue.  Remember, this is the episode in which the father of the demon-possessed boy famously says, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”  Matthew is more interested in the disciples, their faith or lack of same, and the lesson the Lord taught here bearing on Christian discipleship.

v.15     The verb that the NIV translates “has seizures” means literally is a lunatic, is moonstruck.  It refers to a set of symptoms that scholars generally equate with epilepsy.  That it was, in fact, a case of demon-possession is indicated later.  But, of course, demon-possession often produced the symptoms typical of physical disorders.

v.16     Remember, the disciples had previously driven out demons and healed the sick by the authority of Jesus.  We read of that in 10:1.  So, we think, they should have been able to heal this boy.  Their failure and the reason for it becomes the burden of this incident as Matthew narrates it.

v.17     The statement about the “unbelieving generation” is not made about the disciples alone, but it includes them.  In their lack of faith they are all too typical of the rest of the Jews who lack faith in Jesus Christ.  In 12:39 the Lord said a similar thing about that entire generation of Israel to whom the Messiah had come but who had rejected him in their unbelief.

The Lord’s statement, “how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?” gives us a little sense of how much of a trial it must have been for Jesus to have to deal day after day with people who simply didn’t get it, who continually missed what was as clear as the noonday sun, who were, at best, spiritual pygmies.  [Morris, 447]

v.18     With apparent ease, Jesus did what his disciples could not do.  He spoke and the boy was delivered of the demon and healed of his condition.

v.19     The disciples were aware that they hadn’t the power to drive out the demon and seem puzzled by that fact.  They had driven demons out before.

v.20     The “faith deficit” that the disciples suffered from has already been raised in this Gospel three times before, most recently in 16:8.

At that time “moving mountains” was a proverbial way of speaking about the most difficult, the most unlikely, the most improbable of outcomes.  Because of its use here the same phrase has become proverbial in all the languages of western culture.  We say of a man who is capable of great accomplishment that he can “move mountains.”  In the same way the “mustard seed” was in that time and place a proverbial image of the minute, the tiny.  The Lord will return to this manner of speaking about the power of faith in 21:22.

v.21     You will notice that v. 21 is missing.  In the KJV that verse reads “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”  The verse is missing in many early manuscripts and seems rather clearly to have been imported into Matthew’s text from Mark 9:29.

v.23     Once again we are reminded that through this entire period, from one occasion to the next, the Lord was speaking about his impending suffering and death.  His prediction grieved his disciples, but did not lead to understanding.

Now this is a familiar enough text.  We have read and heard many times about how faith, even as small as a mustard seed, can move mountains.  We have read how nothing is impossible for those who believe.  Whether we really believe that any longer may be another question.  But we know that Jesus said it.

Some of us have believed so long for things that we have not received that we don’t know what to make of the Lord’s extravagant words here.  We have mountains in front of us that we have tried to move and they have not moved.  We certainly have not cast them into the sea as Jesus said faithful men and women would be able to do in 21:21.  What are we to make of this statement.

The more we think about it, in fact, the more confused we become.  After all, Jesus rebuked his disciples on this occasion for having only a little faith but then turns around and immediately says that if one has faith even as small as a mustard seed, the smallest thing around, he can move mountains.  If even the smallest faith can move mountains surely it should be able to cast out a demon, but these disciples, with their little faith, could not.

What is more, we know these men were believing men, Judas excepted.  You will sometimes hear people argue that the disciples were not really converted, did not become true followers of Christ until later, even after the resurrection, but this is clearly not the teaching of the Gospels.  We have just heard Jesus tell Peter that his confession of Jesus as the Christ was an understanding, an insight that the Father in heaven had given him.  On a previous occasion the Lord had specifically told them to praise God that their names were written in the book of life. All the four Gospels represent the disciples as genuine followers of Jesus from the beginning of their association with him, represent them as real believers, as true Christians we might say.  Even here the Lord does not say that they are unbelieving, but that they have little faith and that in their faith being small they were too like the unbelieving generation around them.  But if these are believing men, then they have some faith, and they should have been able to move the mountain of this boy’s demon-possession.  As so often in the Gospels, the Lord’s remarks startle us, even at first hearing confuse us.  We are meant to ponder them, to consider what they might mean, and in that careful consideration discover the real impact and application of his teaching.

So what are we to make of this statement that even the smallest faith can move mountains when the believing disciples were unable to help this boy precisely because they didn’t have enough faith?  I suppose most of us very easily and naturally identify ourselves with the disciples.  We have no difficulty thinking that, had we been there, we would have failed as they did to help the boy.  We would have been rebuked for our little faith.  And we would have wondered as, no doubt they did, precisely what the Lord was saying to us when he said that, notwithstanding our failure, with faith as small as a mustard seed we could do the impossible.

A solution begins to emerge when we compare the failure of the disciples to the seemingly effortless success of the Lord Jesus.  They tried to cast the demon out and nothing happened.  The Lord spoke a word and the boy was healed.  What Matthew makes the significant contrast is the disciples’ impotence and the Lord’s power.  But, of course, it was always the Lord’s power.  When the disciples healed the sick and cast out demons when the Lord sent them out on tour, as we read in chapter 10, it was explicitly with his power and authority that the disciples acted.  Here, in chapter 17, they do not have the Lord’s power.  They have only their own and it is not nearly enough to drive a demon out of this boy.

We are left to ponder this contrast.  It was never their power, so why were they able to exercise it in one instance and not in another?  The Lord explains that the difference was their faith or, better, their want of faith on this occasion.  By their lack of faith they had lost connection to the power of God.  Very likely the disciples had begun to think of the power they had exercised over demons as something that they possessed in their own right.  Perhaps they had come to think of it as their power.  That is easy to do if you enjoy success at something, to begin to attribute the success to yourself.  It would be hard, in fact, to avoid the temptation to do that.  It would take wisdom and godliness always to remember that it is God’s power and not your own when you do such remarkable things and to act and pray accordingly, and nothing about the Gospel accounts of these men at this time leads us to believe that they were by now particularly wise or discerning men.  Indeed, their failure to understand what the Lord repeatedly told them about his coming death is some indication of how slow these men were to learn the lessons of faith.

Adolphe Monod, the saintly French pastor of the 19th century, once wrote that “Faith is nothing more than the power of God placed at the disposal of man.”  [Farewell, 30-31]  Well, it seems it was precisely that which the disciples had forgotten.  It is so easy to forget it.  It is so easy for us all to think of the practice of the Christian life as a kind of magic – a spiritual routine that results in predictable outcomes.  In its more serious usage, “magic” is not the practice of sleight of hand, what magicians do nowadays to entertain an audience. “Magic” in its accepted sense, is that belief in a supernatural force, real or imagined, that is wielded in isolation from the ethical demands of God’s law and covenant.  In this sense, magic was a constant temptation to God’s people in the ancient world and still today, for it includes all efforts to manipulate God apart from a genuine trust in him as a personal God and a genuine submission to his will.  You and I are always finding our Christian faith being corrupted into nothing but magic.  It happens whenever we find ourselves simply going through the motions of the Christian faith and life, contenting ourselves with an outward conformity, and are not living in the active conviction of the Lord’s presence, are not looking up to him, personally, for our life, our godliness, our fruitfulness, are not living by the power of genuine prayer.

Here is C.S. Lewis admitting how often he struggled with precisely that failure.

“The trouble with me is lack of faith.  I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my own skeptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.  Mind you I don’t think so – the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.”  [Letters to Arthur Greeves, 398-399]

Something like this must have been the case with the disciples that day as it is so often the case with you and with me.  Nothing less than constant spiritual vigilance can keep us from succumbing to this temptation to depersonalize our Christian faith and make it a matter of habit and procedure rather than living, active, personal confidence in a present Heavenly Father, Lord Christ, and Holy Spirit.  If, as Luther said, “Faith is nothing else but a sure and steadfast looking to Christ,” how often is our faith small to non-existent.  If, as Robert Murray McCheyne recommended, we are to take ten looks at Christ for every look at ourselves, how much faith do you and I really have from this moment to that in our daily lives.  Is it not the case that, with us, we are more likely to take ten looks at ourselves, or twenty, for every look at Christ?

What had happened, it seems, was that the disciples had lost sight of the source of the power they had once wielded and, given the fact that they had no power in themselves to order demons about, they found themselves powerless, just as we so often do.

I think of it this way.  These men were believers in the fundamental sense.  They really were followers of Christ.  That is why the Lord says that their problem was that their faith was small, little.  But in the particular instance in question, in their unsuccessful effort to cast out the demon, they were acting in the spirit not of faith at all, not even of little faith, but of faithlessness, of unbelief.  They were acting in their own strength and not with a conviction of their dependence upon the Lord.  They had forgotten that it was his power and that their only access to that power was by a living confidence in a present Lord, in an active dependence upon what he and he alone could accomplish.  That is faith and in that moment that is what they were lacking.  And, of course, so it is with us.  We believe, we really do.  But, fact is, far too many times in a day we think, speak, and act as if we do not believe; not really.  In practice, too often by far, we are unbelievers, believers that we are notwithstanding.

That, I think, solves the first part of the puzzle:  viz. how the Lord can say that of these men that they have but little faith and it was the smallness of their faith that defeated them, but then proceed to say that if they had but a tiny bit of faith they could move mountains.

The second part of the puzzle is the statement about moving mountains and doing the impossible.  There are so many mountains we long to move and we genuinely believe in Christ and we often have the spirit of real dependence upon him, plead for his help to move our mountains, and yet they have remain where they are.  They haven’t moved an inch.

One of the wonderful things about preaching the Bible is that I am always sure that when I say something like that, everyone before me knows precisely what I mean.  You are already thinking about your own mountains.  I may not know what your immovable mountains are, but I know you have them, I know you are, even now, thinking about them, and I know that what I am about to say is going to be relevant and important to you precisely because you have mountains to move and because, Christian that you are, you have sought to move them by faith.

But here is what we need to understand.  What the Lord is talking about is the power of faith.  If faith is the power of God at the disposal of man, then, obviously, nothing can stand in the way of the power that is wielded by faith.  It is omnipotence and nothing less, because it is the power of God.

But, of course, in speaking about faith’s power on this occasion, the Lord was not dealing with the very different question of what God’s will may be for the life of any of his followers.  The Lord certainly does not mean here, as he makes clear enough on many occasions, that whatever you want to accomplish by faith in God’s power, you shall accomplish.  God’s will remains a secret to us and must remain so.  There are many mountains that the Lord places in our way that he intends to remain in place.  It was so in our Savior’s life and it will be so in ours.  Jesus has just said that, remember, at the end of chapter 16.  What we have here, then, is not a blanket promise that God will empower us to change everything we would like changed in our lives or the lives of our loved ones or in the life of the world.  It is true that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose, but it is not true that we have been given the right to define what “the good” will be that God works for and how it will come to pass in our lives.  Indeed, in that immortal passage in Romans 8 Paul, like Jesus in Matthew 16, reminds us that there will be, must be much affliction, trouble, and sorrow in a Christian’s life and that it is precisely, supremely in those things that God works good in our lives.

We must take our lessons one by one.  And the lesson here is not about whether we may live what we would define to be a supremely successful life, that we may enjoy a superabundance of joy and prosperity in our lives.  The lesson here is that true and living faith in Christ, because it connects us to divine power, because it puts the power of Christ at our disposal, makes possible the accomplishment of extraordinary things.

But, then we ask, we all ask sooner or later: what impossible things, what extraordinary things is the Lord talking about?  We tend to think, you and I, far too often, in very worldly ways at this point.  We tend to think that the impossible things that faith accomplishes will be those things we most desire to enjoy in this world.  You know what they are in your case; what you long for and what you think about and what you really want the Lord to give you.  But think for a moment about these disciples to whom the Lord first addressed these remarks.  When they came into the fullness of their faith, after the Lord’s resurrection and then again after Pentecost, what became of them.  What did they accomplish by the power of Christ?  What mountains did they move?  Well, they lived difficult lives.  They suffered a great deal.  They lost many things.  But they turned the world upside down.  They brought salvation to many places and to multitudes of people.  They gave glory to God and bore the name of Christ in such a way as to cover it with honor in the world.

Now there is a mountain worth moving!  One’s life a beacon of light, one’s words the truth that sets men and women free, one’s character and conduct a window on the unseen world through which others may look to see God and heaven.  I tell you, brothers and sisters, with the entire history of the Bible and the history of the church since before me, that these are the mountains that are most regularly moved and even cast into the sea by the power of living faith in Jesus Christ.

Listen to this from Alexander Whyte:

“Give me a passionate man, a hot-headed man, and one that is headstrong and unmanageable; and with faith as a grain of mustard seed, I will, by degrees make that man as quiet as a lamb.  Then give me a covetous man, an avaricious man, a miserly man; and with a little faith working like leaven in his heart, I will yet make him a perfect spendthrift for the church of Christ and for the poor.  Then give me one who is mortally afraid of pain; and one who all  his days is in bondage through fear of death; and let the spirit of faith once enter and take its seat in his heart and in his imagination, and he shall, in a short time, despise all your crosses and flames…. Then show me a man with an unclean heart and I will undertake, by his faith in Christ, to make him whiter than snow, till he will not know himself to be the same man.”  [Bunyan Characters, iv, 109-110]

These may not be the mountains we first think of removing, but they are the mountains the world cannot move and that faith can.  And they are the mountains we know it is God’s will that they should be and shall be moved.

This is the great work of God in the world and if faith obtains access to God’s power, we are right to conclude that this divine power will be put to work accomplishing what God intends.

So what are Christians to take away from the Lord’s teaching here?  1) That faith is an active dependence upon a present Christ, that it is not a going through of Christian motions, but a genuine looking to Christ to act and to work.  2) And that faith, because it connects us to God’s great power, is mighty to achieve wonderful, surprising things that cannot be achieved by human strength.

No serious, no earnest, no thoughtful Christian hears these words of the Lord who does not immediately acknowledge that this is a message he or she very much needs to hear and take to heart.  No sincere follower of Christ  hears him speak of the disciples’ little faith and of the power of faith even as small as a mustard seed without realizing that the great spiritual defect of his or her life has been unmasked, discovered, laid bare.  We work so much more easily than we believe.  We look to ourselves so much more often than we look to Him.  We feel like the father of this poor boy, possessed by a demon and suffering from epilepsy, who heard the Lord Jesus and the first thing out of his mouth was “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Which is to say, Lord, I have faith, help me to practice it every hour of every day.  Help me actually to look to you always and in every situation, to know you are present, to remember your promises, to count on them, to believe in your great power and ask you to exercise it on my behalf.

We are inclined to think about faith as a fundamental intellectual conviction and spiritual commitment.  It is that, to be sure.  And the disciples had that.  But faith is also and always must be a daily, hourly practicing of Christ’s presence, a reliance upon him, a looking to him, a depending upon him.    To the extent that we do not do that, we are people of little faith.  At the moment we are not doing that we are, at that moment, people of little faith.  When we turn to him, however small and unimpressive our faith may be, when we look to him and count on him and speak to him, at that moment our faith can move mountains and will.

The disciples had faith, but they were not exercising their faith and that is the distinction that Jesus made.  When Christians exercise their faith, really exercise it by placing their confidence directly, immediately, intentionally, personally in Jesus and his Word, then the power of God is at their disposal.