14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:14-20 ESV
While Peter, James, and John had been on the mountaintop witnessing the miracle of Jesus’ transfiguration, the rest of the disciples had been down in the valley trying to manufacture a miracle of their own. But they had failed miserably. In Jesus’ absence, the crowds had not stopped showing up. In once instance, a man had approached the disciples seeking help for his son, who was possessed by a demon that caused the young boy to have violent, uncontrollable seizures. The disciples had tried to help the boy but had been unsuccessful. Now, the man had returned, bringing his need directly to Jesus.
This story sets up an interesting contrast between the three disciples who had been privileged to witness the transfiguration and the nine who had remained behind. The primary issue is that of faith. Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transformed into a glorified state. They had observed Moses and Elijah “who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure” (Luke 9:31 ESV). The word translated “departure” is actually the Greek word exodos, which refers to “one’s final fate” or “departure from life” (“G1841 – exodos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 7 Sep, 2018).
Peter, James, and John had listened in as Moses and Elijah discussed with Jesus His coming death and then had heard God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5 ESV).
But the rest of the disciples had experienced none of these things and Peter, James, and John had been sworn to secrecy by Jesus. So, when Jesus heard the father report the disciples’ unsuccessful attempt to heal his son, He was confronted with the lagging faith of the men He had chosen as His followers.
This scene is reminiscent of the time Moses came descended from Mount Sinai, holding in his hands the tablets containing the law of God. When he arrived in the camp of the Israelites, he found them dancing before the golden calf. They had lost faith. In their minds, Moses had abandoned them, so they had turned to Aaron and said, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1 ESV).
Their creation of the false god was simply a sign of their lack of faith in the one true God. And when Jesus returned from the mountaintop and heard His disciples had been unable to heal in His absence, He recognized it as a lack of faith.
It’s important to note that these are the same men whom Jesus had sent out earlier and had empowered to preach the gospel and perform miracles in His name.
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. – Luke 9:1-12 ESV
And according to Matthew’s account, Jesus had been very specific in what He expected them to do with the power He was giving them.
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” – Matthew 10:6 ESV
Luke tells us that they did just as Jesus had commanded them.
And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. – Luke 9:6 ESV
Yet, in this most recent case, they had been unable to heal the boy. They had tried but failed. And the response of Jesus seems surprisingly harsh.
“You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you?” – Matthew 17:17 NLT
Jesus was constantly surrounded by unbelief. The Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees refused to believe in Him. The Jewish people, while enamored with His power, were unwilling to recognize Him as their Messiah. And now, He had to witness the lack of faith of His own disciples. What a letdown from His experience on the mountaintop. There, He had been encouraged by Moses and Elijah, who spoke to Him of the necessity of His coming death. He had been confirmed by His heavenly Father who spoke of His pleasure in Him. But to return from the mountaintop to the valley and find His disciples struggling with their faith was a rude reminder of the enormity of His task.
The words of Jesus echo those of God, spoken in regard to the people of Israel hundreds of years earlier.
“…they are a perverse generation,
children in whom is no faithfulness…” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV
The disciples were Jesus’ hand-picked followers in whom He was going to place the responsibility of carrying on His ministry after His departure. They were to be His apostles, His messengers of the Good News. But at this point, they were still struggling with a lack of faith.
After they had watched Jesus heal the boy, they asked Him why they had been unsuccessful. And His answer was probably difficult for them to hear.
“Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:20 ESV
It would seem that the disciples had divorced their ability to heal from their faith in Jesus. To them, the capacity to heal was nothing more than some kind of new power they possessed, in and of themselves. They must have seen themselves as permanently endowed with the same kind of miraculous powers that Jesus had. In a way, they had placed their faith in their ability to heal. They had done it before, so why not believe they could do it again. But what was missing? Jesus. Or better yet, their faith in Jesus. They had tried to heal the boy in their own strength, and they had failed. The source of their miraculous powers was Jesus. In fact, it was their faith in Jesus as the Son of God that would enable them to do great things in His name. The apostle Paul would later explain the focus of his faith and the source of his strength.
For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:13 NLT
Jesus would later tell the disciples, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22 ESV). The disciples had lacked faith. And it was not the quantity of their faith that was the issue. It was the focus of their faith. A little faith, properly placed in Jesus, is enough to move mountains. But even great faith, placed in something or someone other than Jesus, will always prove insufficient.
It’s likely that the disciples had tried to heal the boy in order to impress the crowds with their supernatural powers. They wanted everyone to know that they could do what Jesus could do. But without Jesus, they were impotent. Left to themselves, they had no power. And Jesus described them as faithless and twisted. They were without faith in Him. And they were actually twisted in their perceptions of why Jesus had come. It wasn’t about healing and miracles. It was about the kingdom of heaven. Their focus was on the wrong thing. Their minds were set on something other than what Jesus had come to do. And until they placed their fledgling faith fully in Jesus, they would continue to struggle.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.