On Lunatics and Moving Mountains

Jesus stated that He is building His kingdom (Cf. 16:18). He was unveiled before three of His disciples to prove how His death and resurrection fulfilled the Law and Prophets (Cf. 17:1-13). As a point of clarification, Moses and Elijah did not represent the Law and the Prophets, but literally talked with Jesus about the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18 and Malachi 4. The disciples have been reminded twice that Jesus is the one to be listened to and followed. Now, we begin to transition into the next section of Matthew’s Gospel, the place of the disciple.

We often think about faith as the defining characteristic of a disciple. In today’s text, we learn something about faith that we did not see before (Cf. 9:18-26). Our understanding of faith grows fuller. We ofter perceive faith as something that is of us. In today’s text, faith is shown to be alien. It is not mere trust or belief. Faith is something more foundational than even those things.

Matthew 17:14-23

When they came to the crowd, a man came up to Jesus, falling on his knees before Him and saying, “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. I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him.”

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.”

And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once.

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?”

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. [“But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”] And while they were gathering together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” And they were deeply grieved.

The sickness (v. 14-16)

When they came to the crowd, a man came up to Jesus, falling on his knees before Him and saying, “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.”

After returning from the mount of transfiguration, there is a man who emerges from the crowd desperate for his son’s healing. He does not refer to his son as a demoniac. Instead, he refers to his son as a lunatic and very ill. Some scholars liken the sickness to epilepsy—the little boy suffering seizures caused by the light of fire and the reflection of light off watery surfaces. The ailment was known and recognizable in the First Century and described using the same term the father uses here, σεληνιαζομαι, meaning “moon-struck.” Thus, the translation into lunatic works nicely in English—luna means moon. We don’t have to speculate to be confident that epilepsy is in view, here. Even in the ancient world—without headlights, street-lights, televisions, cell phones, computers, and video advertisements playing on the streets in many cities—epilepsy presented many challenges to living. There was no cure, and they did not have the drugs that are available today to help control seizures. The father recognizes a known sickness, knows there is no cure, and comes to Jesus—the one who has the reputation of being able to heal any sickness.

“I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him.”

The man had already brought his son to Jesus’s disciples, the nine who did not go with him to the mount. The nine were not able to cure the son’s epilepsy. That is not a surprise to the father. He knows the sickness is incurable.

Jesus’s power (v. 17-18)

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.”

In reply to the man, Jesus says, “You unbelieving and perverted generation…” Why? Matthew has quoted Jesus saying similar things previously in his Gospel account (Cf. 11:16; 12:39, 41-42, 45; 16:4. Notice, even though Jesus is replying to the man, he addresses an entire generation. He uses the language of Deuteronomy 32:20, in which God refers to Israel at that time as a perverse generation—meaning specifically that the nation was not faithful to Him. When Jesus calls out the generation as unbelieving and perverted, he specifically refers to the general unfaithfulness of the people to their God who chose them.

What about this man’s question demonstrates faithlessness? Has the man not come to Jesus so his son may be healed? Jesus is not referring to the faithlessness of one man; His disciples were unable to heal the man’s son despite the fact that Jesus gave them the specific apostolic authority to heal the sick and cast out demons (10:1). After confessing Jesus as the Christ and Son of the living God (16:16), Peter has now tried to lead Jesus instead of listening to Him and following Him (16:22; 17:4). There may be something about the man’s approach that merits this kind of response from Jesus; If there is, it is not evident in the text. It is evident that the apostles keep failing at those things that are necessary for Christ’s church to be built upon the foundation of their testimony (Cf. 16:18). The time is near for Jesus to come in His kingdom (Cf. 16:28), and His twelve apostles are nowhere near the spiritual maturity they need to be for the task ahead of them.

One application can be made at this point. Perhaps you’ve heard that God’s doesn’t call the qualified but qualifies the called. The maxim could not ring truer for the disciples. It could not ring truer for Paul, of whom God will say after Christ’s resurrection, “… he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15b-16). God’s calling always comes before we are ready, whatever that calling might be.

How long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” Jesus asks the generation present with Him. Doubtless Jesus works out our salvation and sanctification by grace alone through faith alone. Doubtless He is willing to put up with our immaturities. Sometimes He must speak harshly to bring His disciples out of the spiritual immaturity, sanctify them, and prepare them for the task ahead; Jesus will not be physically present with them much longer. As we get closer to Pentecost, Holy Week, Matthew’s Gospel zooms in and we are seeing more space dedicated to a smaller period of time at the end of Jesus’s bodily ministry on this earth. The focal event in Matthew’s Gospel is a single week in Jesus’s life that culminates in the crucifixion and resolves in the resurrection.

And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once.

It turns out this boy is plagued by a demon. It’s not merely a sickness. His epilepsy is merely a symptom of demonic possession. We cannot make the claim that every sickness or every epileptic case is caused by demonic possession. I do, though, wonder how many cases of incurable disease are merely symptoms of demonic oppression and possession. Jesus accomplishes what the disciples could not, showing that He is the one with immutable authority.

The disciples’ question (v. 19-23)

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?”
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.

Anytime we read the Bible, it is important for us to consider the context before interpreting or, certainly, seeing how the text applies to us. In this case, the immediate literary context shows us that Jesus is talking to His twelve disciples particularly—the apostles upon whom Jesus will build His church. In Chapter 10, verse 1, it was these men only whom God gave authority over unclean spirits and every kind of sickness. Matthew perspicuously has the apostolic gifts in view, here. It is a misinterpretation of this text, and blatant narcigesis, to assume the disciples represent us and think that if we have enough faith we will be able to operate with the authority Jesus bestowed on His twelve disciples particularly. That does not mean we do not have spiritual gifts. It simply means Matthew has the apostolic gifts in view. No matter how much faith I have, I don’t have the authority to go out and move the mountains in front of my house. Believe it or not, there are many people who mock Christianity based on a misinterpretation of the text; They failed to see the literary context. “Let me see you move that mountain,” they say, “Didn’t Jesus promise you could move mountains with just a little faith?”

Granted, there are some preachers who try to explain away Jesus’s promise. They claim Jesus was speaking hyperbolically or metaphorically. There is no indication of hyperbole or metaphor in the text. Jesus is talking to His twelve apostles, the foundation stones of His church (Cf. Revelation 21:14).

The apostles could not drive the demon out because of the littleness of their faith. Jesus does not say they could not drive it out because they did not believe they could or because they doubted. It was because of the littleness of their faith. What is faith? As we saw when we looked at Chapter 9, verses 18-26:

True faith is a gift from God (not a work of self) that causes God’s people to depend fully on God and reveals the righteousness of God (not people) for the purpose of our humility and God’s glory, bringing about obedience in those who are given faith. 

Click here to see this Biblical definition of faith explained. Faith is a gift and the mechanism by which an elect person is brought to place his or her attention on God rather than self. In other words, the disciples were unable to cast out the demon because they were relying on their own power rather than on the authority Jesus had delegated to them as apostles. To have a little faith is to recognize that we have no inherent authority. All authority is delegated by Jesus. He owns it, and we can do nothing apart form Him.

If the apostles have a little faith, they will be able to do what Jesus has given them authority to do. In fact, nothing will be impossible for them. Faith brings about the denial of self, taking up of crosses, and the following of Jesus—falling upon Jesus’s instruction, leadership, authority, and power rather than their own. This sort of sanctification is the outcome of salvation through faith alone. We are finally saved at once by grace. Our being perfected for Christ’s kingdom is worked out through the mechanism of faith, which causes us to die to ourselves and be conformed to Christ. (Cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). That is what we mean when we claim, with Paul, that salvation is by grace alone and through faith alone.

[“But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”]

This verse seems a little out of place. It seems odd that Jesus would first say that the only requirement is faith, which is itself a gift form God, and then to claim that there also must be prayer and fasting, which are works and not faith. Nothing is impossible on the basis of faith, not prayer and fasting. How, then, can Jesus now add works requirements to faith? Does this not place the attention back on the apostles ability, which is the very problem Jesus has been addressing through this discourse?

It is important to note that this verse is not present in the earliest and best manuscripts and was probably not part of the autograph (the original document). It is likely, since Mark’s Gospel was written earlier than Matthew’s, a scribe inserted this verse either intentionally or not because he recalled Mark 9:29, where Jesus does in fact say that this kind of demon cannot be driven out except by prayer. Matthew’s Gospel has a different purpose than Mark’s. Matthew likely omitted this detail because he is careful to major on Jesus’s role as the king of the Jews—the only one with true authority. That is why this statement seems out of place in Matthew’s Gospel but rests perfectly in its context in Mark’s Gospel. Each synoptic Gospel stands on its own. There are no contradictions between them. It can be unhealthy to mix them together like a scribe most likely did here.

And while they were gathering together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” And they were deeply grieved.

Do you sense the change in the disciples’ attitude? Instead of arguing with Jesus, telling Jesus what they think is best, or relying on their own authority and works, they are simply grieved. They don’t like Jesus’s plan, but now they seem to be submitted to it.

We are not always going to like God’s plan or what He has to say either. It’s not so important that we like it. It is important that we are submitted to His authority, His revelation about Himself, and His way of doing things. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.


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