Jesus once again demonstrates His power and authority over demons in Matthew 17:14-21 as he casts out a demon with seemingly little effort. However, this scripture actually puts more emphasis around the disciples’ inability to cast out the demon.
14 At the foot of the mountain, a large crowd was waiting for them. A man came and knelt before Jesus and said, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son. He has seizures and suffers terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 So I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”
17 Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Then Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy, and it left him. From that moment the boy was well.
19 Afterward the disciples asked Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we cast out that demon?”
20 “You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.[d]”
On the surface, this passage may seem to be about Jesus casting out the demon, but as we study we see that is actually of secondary focus. Jesus’ rebuke of the demon is described in one line. There is much more emphasis in this scripture on the disciple’s inability to heal the boy, on their lack of power, and what this reveals about their spiritual condition.
Jesus’ tone while speaking expresses frustration in the lack of faith resulting in the disciples being unable to cast out the demon. The disciples did in fact show some evidence of faith in that they tried to cast out the demon and again in that they did not understand why it did not work… they expected it to work. What we can see though is that the faith of the disciples is still developing and growing. They have farther to go.
The statement about being able to move a mountain with faith of a mustard seed is often misunderstood and misused. It is not simply…
“If I believe God exists, I can use His power to do whatever I want.”
More correct would perhaps be to think of it like the following…
“Jesus demonstrated that powerful prayer life, disciplined study of the scriptures, and absolute submission of His life to God’s will are essential in knowing and living God’s will. When we have that kind of relationship with God we will have the faith required to empower us to do whatever is in His will for us.”
It is also helpful to remember that during Jesus’ earthly ministry, God had not yet sent the Holy Spirit to be the helper for the disciples and other believers. That took place after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return to heaven. It is actually quite an interesting study to compare the ministry and faith of the disciples before the death and resurrection of Jesus to the same individuals after God had sent the Holy Spirit to be their helper. They transitioned from those that ran, hid, or denied Christ when He was to be crucified to standing strong on their own and proclaiming the good news of the gospel in the face of death. They had faith strong enough to willingly die for Jesus rather than deny Him.
There is yet another subtle point made in this scripture and in many others throughout the New Testament and throughout the Bible as a whole. If the Bible were, as some claim, just a fictional text written by the followers of Jesus then they would not include so many examples where the disciples themselves failed as part of the text. Those parts could easily be omitted. The fact that the Bible chronicles the failures (along with the successes) of those who are or were leaders of the faith is compelling evidence of the truth of the Bible.
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