“Emmanuel’s Rebuke Pt1” – Matthew 17:14-23

January 10th, 2016

Matthew 17:14-23 (see also: Mk 9:14-32; Lk 9:37-45)

“Emmanuel’s Rebuke Pt 1

Auxiliary Text: Deuteronomy 32:1-6

Call to Worship from: Psalm 53


Service Orientation: Since the Fall this good and perfect world has become perverse.  We are so perverse we don’t know we are perverse.    Jesus saved the world by using the world’s perversion.


Bible Memory Verse for the Week:  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. —  John 10:10


Perverse (Webster’s) = Turning away from what is good or right.  Wrongheaded.  Arising from or showing stubbornness or obstinacy.


Jesus hates perversion of His created order.


Those that are faithless will be perverse; and perverseness is sin in its worst colors.  Faith is compliance with God, unbelief is opposition and contradiction to God.  Israel of old was perverse, because faithless (Ps 95:9), froward, for in them is no faith, Dt 32:20.  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. V, 247)


Background Information:

  • The frustration Jesus expresses here stands out as unusual in this gospel just as does his exultation in God’s revelation in 11:25-26; the two outbursts express the opposite poles of his paradoxical mission. It has added force at this point in the narrative just as Jesus and the three other disciples are returning from their “mountaintop experience,” and it is possible that the echo of Moses’ complaint reflects the recent meeting with Moses and Elijah, each of whom equally found the people of their day extremely trying (see, e.g., Ex 17:4; 1 Kgs 19:10).  (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 661)
  • Most commentators have realized that the Raphael canvas is a better commentary here than any words. He was right, as the Gospels are right: the Mount of Transfiguration and the pain-filled valley ought to be shown in one picture.  (George Buttrick, The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7, 462)
  • (v. 15) Matthew describes the boy by the verb selēniazesthai, which literally means to be moonstruck. (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 193)
  • (v. 15) It is the idea seen in the word moonstruck, an expression based on the ancient belief that mental illness or madness was caused by the influence of the moon. The Greek word was used to describe what we now understand to be various nervous disorders, including epilepsy, that cause convulsions.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 75)
  • (v. 16) We cannot but be moved by the faith of the boy’s father. Even though the disciples had been given power to cast out devils (Mt 10:1), here was a case in which they had very obviously and publicly failed.  And yet in spite of the failure of the disciples, the father never doubted the power of Jesus.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 194)
  • (v. 17) This “generation”–in Matthew’s Gospel you don’t want to be counted part of this “generation” (see 11:16; 12:39-45; 16:4; 23:36; 24:34)–will not fare well at the final judgment. Why?  They have no faith in Jesus as Lord.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 483)
  • (v. 20) When Jesus spoke about removing mountains, he was using a phrase which the Jews knew well. A great teacher, who could really expound and interpret Scripture and who could explain and resolve difficulties, was regularly known as an uprooter, or even a pulverizer, of mountains.  To tear up, to uproot, to pulverize mountains were all regular phrases for removing difficulties.  Jesus never meant this to be taken physically and literally.  After all, ordinary people seldom find any necessity to remove a physical mountain.

What Jesus meant was:  “If you have faith enough, all difficulties can be solved, and even the hardest task can be accomplished.”  Faith in God is the instrument which enables men and women to remove the hills of difficulty which block their path.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 195)


  • (v. 20) The meaning of the verse is that strong faith can accomplish the apparently impossible, for the man of faith is drawing upon divine resources. (R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 168)
  • (v. 20) It must also be clearly understood that Jesus was not talking about moving a literal mountain. Neither the apostles nor the Lord Himself ever performed such a feat–nor has anyone else in the nearly 2,000-year history of the church.  That would have been the sort of grand but pointless miracle the scribes and Pharisees expected of the Messiah but which Jesus refused to perform (Mt 12:38-39).  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 80)
  • (v. 20) In the Jewish lore of that day, the idea of moving mountains through faith was part of the metaphorical understanding of the power of trusting God. (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 518)
  • (v. 20) Their lack of faith is not explained. Perhaps they had become over-confident in the authority Jesus had given them, so that they assumed they could carry out an exorcism as a matter of course; the added comment in Mk 9:29 (and in later MSS of Matthew) that “this kind will not come out except through prayer [and fasting]” implies that they had not prayed for God’s power over the demon.  Or perhaps the problem was the opposite, that in the absence of Jesus and the leading disciples up the mountain the remaining disciples did not have the faith to draw on God’s power for themselves, despite Jesus’ authorization, and so their attempt had lacked conviction.  (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 662)
  • (v. 21) This verse does not appear in the best manuscripts that we have to work with of the book of Matthew.
  • Mark takes notice of attitudes, looks, tones of voice, and in this instance he has recorded for us some of the most pathetic and touching incidents in the whole case. It was Mark who saw the tears in the man’s eyes; it was Mark who overheard the great prayer, “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief” [9:24]; and it was Mark who observed all the contortions and paroxysms of the young man immediately before the devil was ordered to leave him.  (Joseph Parker, Christ’s Finished Work, Studies in Matthew 16-28, 25)


The questions to be answered are . . .  Why does Jesus call those around Him perverse?   What does that mean?  So what?


Answer:  Since the Fall everything has become depraved, corrupt, perverse.   Our relationship with God and all creation is perverse.   We will never enjoy shalom until we are transformed by the Gospel and made new.


The Word for the Day is . . . perverse


Why is it important for us to understand what Jesus means by perverse?:

A-  All evil is good perverted.   (Gen 1-3)


(Commenting on St. Augustine’s theological influence on Milton:)

  1. God created all things without exception good, and because they are good, “No Nature (i.e., no positive reality) is bad and the word Bad denotes merely privation of good.”…
  2. What we call bad things are good things perverted…This perversion arises when a conscious creature becomes more interested in itself than in God,…and wishes to exist “on its own.”…This is the sin of Pride…
  3. From (Augustine’s) doctrine of good and evil it follows (a) That good can exist without evil,…but not evil without good…(b) That good and bad angels have the same Nature, happy when it adheres to God and miserable when it adheres to itself…
  4. Though God has made all creatures good He foreknows that some will voluntarily make themselves bad…and also foreknows the good use which He will then make of their badness…For as He shows His benevolence in creating good Natures, He shows his justice in exploiting evil wills…Whoever tries to rebel against God produces the result opposite to his intention. (The Quotable C. S. Lewis pg.266 # 618)


There is no evil that is not goodness corrupted, or goodness perverted.  We can perhaps understand this most easily in relation to material things.  We said that a chair which collapses when you sit on it is for practical purposes not a chair at all.  We call it a “bad” chair, a “defective” chair, a “broken” chair, but there is no evading the fact that the worse it is, the less it is effectively a chair- i.e., something you can sit on.  So all talk about its being a “bad” or “worse” or “defective” chair is simply talk about its not being a chair at all.

Now “chair-ness” is plainly a good thing.  It’s nice and useful to have something to sit on.  But the “badness,” the “defectiveness,” the “broken-ness” of a chair is nothing at all:  it is a way of describing the material’s failure to be a chair.  There is “chair-ness” and there is “lack of chair-ness,” and you can make your choice between them.  When we say that a carpenter has made a “bad” chair, because a leg has broken when someone tried to sit on it, we clearly mean that he has failed to make a true chair.  It is not making, but failure of making, that produces defects.

“When I looked inside the room I saw that they hade stripped him naked and lain him on a metal stand, more than an ironing-board than a bed.  A harsh light shone down just above his body.  There were four masked figures bending slightly over him.  They looked like members of the Ku Klux Klan.  One was holding a cap over the victim’s face.  It appeared that some chemical was being used to immobilize him.  I saw one of the masked men take a gleaming knife and thrust it into his side.”

Is this the description of a torture-chamber or of an operating theater?  Clearly it might be either.  The one is an evil thing, the other a good thing.  What essentially distinguishes the one from the other is the different human motives behind what is happening.

An interesting thing is that when evil men want to torture to the utmost, they become conscious of this peculiar superficial relationship between evil and good.  Fiction writers often exploit this fact.  The Secret Police at their most vicious and cruel use the vocabulary of goodness and kindness for their torture.  The sinister agents of evil, determined to get their victim to talk, fall back on fake friendliness, fake sincerity, and fake kindness.  “Come now, a little hospital treatment would do you a world of good.  We’ll have you in the. . .er. . .operating theater in a jiffy. . . and you’ll come out a new man, with a totally different outlook.  You’ve no idea how well-disposed you’ll feel to us when our. . . er.. . surgeons and anaesthetics have put you through their latest. . . remedial treatment.  I think you’ll come round beautifully afterwards. . . I hope so…  The treatment is a novel one:  it uses all the refinements of modern medical know-how.  And we’ve had a hundred percent success rate with it so far.  Everyone who has been through it has proved grateful afterwards.  They’ve become really trustful, reliable friends, keeping no secrets from us at all.”

When you come up against the worst kind of evil, you recognize that it is essentially parodic.  It is a mock-up travesty of goodness.  The worst kind of hostility turns out to be fake friendliness, the worst kind of falsehood is fake sincerity, the worst kind of cruelty is fake kindness.  All evil desire parodies good desire.  Thieves desire for themselves things that are good in themselves, beautiful possessions; gluttons desire things that are good in themselves, steaks and strawberries; debauchees desire things that are in themselves good, the bodies of beautiful women; even corrupt tyrants often desire what is good in itself, an orderly harmonious society living in prosperity and peace.

The more you search for evil as something in itself substantial, the more elusive it seems.  That is not to question the “reality” of evil.  Evil is real enough– but only by derivation, by parasitism, by parody.  When the little boy kicks the kitten, the action is not physically different from kicking a football.  The leg is a good leg, the movement of good movement, the impulse to exercise himself is healthy.  Evil can be located only in exploiting those good resources and impulses to an unworthy end.  It is not kicking that is evil, but the perversion of a healthy act to a cruel purpose.

One great writer who understood the nature of evil perfectly was John Milton.  He was so sensitive to the parasitical and parodic nature of evil that in Paradise Lost he projected his Satan as a mock-up divinity.  There is nothing done by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost that does not in some way parody God’s thought and his work.  Satan is a mock-up divinity destroying man in parodic imitation of God’s work in creating and saving man.  So successful was Milton in presenting Satan as a mock-up divinity mouthing the vocabulary of goodness that, as Christian influence decayed, readers and critics began to say, “Satan is really Milton’s hero.”  What they meant (had they understood what they meant) was that, seeing the real God and the mock-up God (who is the Devil) confronting each other, they recognized that their own God was the mock-up one.  Milton’s psychological masterstroke in showing human beings where they really stand has been in that respect the most astonishing literary achievement of Christendom. (Harry Blamires; On Christian Truth, 77-80)


Evil in itself is self-defeating; it exists as a parasite, as a moocher, for evil can have appeal only by falsely identifying with something that is good, even while it perverts the good.  God ultimately overcomes evil not by exercising His superior power, but by expressing His superior quality.  When God withdraws everything good—light, love, peace, joy, friendship, kindness, pleasure—there will be nothing left that has any goodness in it…and that is hell!  Satan will be bound by the simple act of God withdrawing everything that is good and leaving evil to itself; there will be nothing left but hell.

Overcoming and withstanding evil is not to meet evil on its own ground and thereby cheapen our approach.  Rather, we overcome evil by bringing God and His goodness into every situation, evidencing the values of the spiritual qualities of life.  (Myron S. Augsburger; The Christ-Shaped Conscience,  80)


Covet = desire perverted

Adultery = sex perverted

Lying = truth perverted

Violation of the Sabbath = rest perverted

Idolatry = worship perverted

No honor parents = authority perverted


B-  Perversion ruins God’s harmonious creation thus making the abundant life impossible.  (Mt 6:10; 26:39; Rom 8:18-25)


C-  Since the Fall all mankind has become perverse which includes his relationship with God, creation and his fellow man.   (Gen 3; Jer 17:9; Rom 8:18-25)


That is half the meaning of the doctrine of Original Sin:  man has an ingrown tendency to evil.  The other half of the doctrine’s meaning is that this ingrown tendency is not a true characteristic of human nature but a perversion of human nature. (Harry Blamires; On Christian Truth, 23)


There is no subtler perversion of the Christian Faith than to treat it as a mere means to a worldly end, however admirable that end in itself may be.  The Christian Faith is important because it is true.  What it happens to achieve, in ourselves or in others, is another and, strictly speaking, secondary matter.  For the Christian Faith will remain true whether we who profess it turn into heroic saints or into even more miserable sinners.  We must insist that we worship God because he is God, not because we want something out of him.  What a mean blasphemy it would be, to go through magnificent acts of public worship always with the dominant intention at the back of the mind — “This is really going to make a better chap of me!”  What arrogance and presumption, to treat eternal God, throned in glory, as a visual aid to moral self-improvement. (Harry Blamires; The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think?,  110)


Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the Rich man as well as 2 Pt 1:12-14 tell us that we are perverted enough to think that we will trust our interpretation of experiences before we will trust God’s word.  How perverted are we?

  • God wants governments to be run decently and in order along with justice and promoting peace to prevent perversion.
  • God wants sports events to be run decently and in order along with equity to prevent perversion.
  • God wants churches to be run decently and in order along with faith building and love to prevent perversion.
  • God wants families to be run decently and in order along with love and encouragement to prevent perversion.
  • God wants work places to be run decently and in order to prevent perversion.
  • God wants neighborhoods to be run decently and in order to prevent perversion.



D-  Our perversion obscures or masks our ability to identify our own or other perversions which is a further indication of just how perverse we really are.   (Mt 15:14; 23:16-19, 24; Jn 9:1-41; 2 Pt 1:9; Rv 3:17)


Without a moral framework, society disintegrates into warring factions and isolated depraved individuals.   The result is a replay of the violence, perversion, and anarchy described in the book of Judges, which at once diagnoses the moral collapse of ancient Palestine and precisely defines postmodernist ethical theory: “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Jdgs 21:25 NKJV).    (Gene Edward Veith Jr.; Postmodern Times, 198)


Some people think that after a national disaster men and women will reform.  ‘Surely,’ they say, ‘when people have had to go through a thing like this, they will be pulled up.  They will see the folly of the way they have been living and will come to their senses.  They will live a new life.  There will be a better land, and a better way of living.’

What utter rubbish!  Men and women in the grip of sin never reform as the result of punishment and suffering; that is where they show that they are perverted and foolish.  No, the power of sin is so great that it dulls people’s memories.  Immediately after they have sinned, they are filled with shame and say, ‘I can’t possibly go through this again–that would be inconceivable.’  But by the next morning it does not seem quite so bad; the morning after that, it is still less bad; and in a week’s time there was nothing at all wrong with it!

And not only can sin paralyse the memory, it can twist facts; it can manipulate them, and prove anything it likes.  Sin can manipulate our reason and vitiate all our argumentation.  It will inflame our desires; it will paint beautiful pictures; it will put on rose-coloured spectacles.  It will also paralyse the will so that when temptation comes again we forget all about what we felt and do the same thing once more.

There is no need to argue about this.  If you do not agree with my exposition of the biblical teaching concerning the power and depth of sin, let me ask you this one question:  Why do you keep on doing that thing that gets you down, that thing you are ashamed of?  Why are you always down?  Why are you in this conflict that the apostle Paul speaks of?  There is only one answer: the power of sin is greater than your power.  Sin is the greatest power in the world, with one exception, and that is the power of God. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones; God’s Way, Not Ours: Isaiah 1, 63-64)


E-  If we fail to see our own perversion we will thus fail to see our need for Jesus and our constant need to look to Him.  (Mt 6:33; 9:12; Mk 2:17; Lk 5:31; Heb 12:1-2)


What can we learn from this text?


I-  The perverse post-Fall world is symbolized by the fire-scarred, demon-possessed boy who could neither hear nor speak.  (Mt 17:15)


Because the boy had actually fallen into the fire many times, he must have carried burn scars that added to his unattractiveness and probable ostracism.  He was also in constant danger of drowning by falling into the water.  The father or some other member of the family probably had to stay near the boy at all times, never knowing when a seizure might occur.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 75)


Luke’s version adds that the boy was this man’s “only child” (Lk 9:38) and that the father could “hardly leave” his son for a moment because when seized by the spirit the boy convulsed and foamed at the mouth (Lk 9:39).  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 484)


From the mountain of revelation Jesus and the three disciples come down to a scene of demonic oppression and human weakness which evokes a remarkably strong emotional response from Jesus (v. 17).  The parallel with Moses’ experience at Sinai is suggestive:  he came down from the mountain with the tablets of God’s revelation and was faced by a scene of religious apostasy which caused him to break the tablets in his anger (Ex 32:15-20).  (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 657)


The world is a lunatic at the door of the church today, and the church seems to care next to nothing for the sufferer and to have no power over the deadly affliction.  The church has its incantations, its old outworn forms of expression, its decayed machinery, and its exhausted institutionalism, but the miracle-working power, the divine inspiration, the sovereignty over all hindrances and stumbling-blocks—where have these fled?  What is the church worth if it cannot cure the lunacy of the world?  The church, like its Master, has nothing to do in the world unless it be to heal and to bless and to save mankind.  The church was not instituted to amuse the world, but to save it, not to mock the world by speaking to it a pointless and useless speech, but to redeem the world through Jesus Christ the Lord.  (Joseph Parker, Christ’s Finished Work, Studies in Matthew 16-28, 27)


II-  Humanity’s perverse relationship with God is symbolized by the faithless and perverse faith of those present. (Mt 17:16-17)


Although many of His listeners doubtlessly were also morally perverted, Jesus was here speaking primarily of the spiritual perversion that is inevitable in those who are unbelieving.  Any person who does not genuinely trust God cannot escape having a distorted view of him and His will.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 77)


Those words, faithless and perverse, belong together.  To be faithless is to lack trust in the truth of God, to not be committed heart and soul to the ways of God.  The word that is translated as “perverse” literally means “distorted or twisted.”  The people’s sense of right and wrong was twisted.  They embraced vice and ridiculed virtue.  Their values were upside down.  In short, they were perverse.  Does this sound familiar to you?  We live in a time when vice is celebrated and righteousness is ridiculed.  That is because we live in a time that is marked by the absence of faith.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 517)


Juxtaposing “perverse” and “unbelieving” implies that the failure to believe stems from moral failure to recognize the truth, not from want of evidence, but from willful neglect or distortion of the evidence.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Vol. 8, 391)


He brought his son to the disciples to drive out the spirit, an appropriate request since the disciples had been given this power (10:1).  The disciples could not drive out the demon, however, even though they had been given power to do so (10:8).  Matthew records the failure of the disciples through this section (14:16-21, 26-27, 28-31; 15:16, 23, 33; 16:5, 22; 17:4, 10-22).  It serves to teach that the power to heal is God’s nor ours.  We must appropriate it by faith.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 345)


His unusual words carry a biting rebuke.  They parallel Moses’ frustration as intercessor for God’s people (Dt 32:5, 20) and portray God’s frustration with his people (Nm 14:11; Isa 63:8-10).  The disciples had been given the authority to do the healing, but they had not yet learned how to appropriate God’s power.  Jesus’ frustration was with the unbelieving and unresponsive generation, including the crowd, the teachers of the law (scribes), the man, and the nine disciples.  His disciples merely reflected that attitude of unbelief so prevalent in the society.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 346)


Here “faithless” prepares us for the attribution of the disciples’ failure to their lack of faith in v. 20, while “perverted” introduces a direct echo of the LXX of Dt 32:5, 20, where Moses speaks of the Israelites of his day as the degenerate children of their just and faithful God, a “crooked and perverted generation,” “in whom there is no faith.”  (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 660-1)


NT usage is controlled by the OT.  Thus in Mt 17:17 and par. the charge of lack of faith which is brought against the disciples because they are unable to heal is supplemented by a reference to the crookedness of the human mind which turns so eagerly to what is evil, Gn 8:21, cf. 6:5.  Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, 718)


“Unbelieving” (apistos) indicates that the current generation has not as a whole placed their faith in Jesus as the anticipated Messiah, “perverse” (diestrammenos) indicates that they have become distorted in their evaluation of Jesus, likely a result of their own willfulness in rejecting Jesus’ demand for repentance as well as the influence of the religious leaders on them.  (Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 596)


Obedience is the one sure characteristic of the surrender of faith.  Faith that is not coupled with obedience is a pretense.  —Andrew Murray


The two rhetorical questions in verse 17 picture Jesus as visiting the world to establish his church.  How long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?  (Robert H. Mounce, New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew, 170)


The problem was that they were approaching the challenge with a formula, expecting inevitable results, the sort of error expressed in the Latin phrase ex opere operato.  It means that the results follow from the mere doing of the work, like sacraments producing right results with or without faith, just because they are done.  This is not biblical teaching.  Neither the sacraments nor anything else achieves spiritual results mechanically since effective faith is a relationship in which we actually depend on God.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, 329)


We go to church.  We read our Bibles.  We even teach a class or preach sermons.  But sadly we can do those and other worthwhile things without any real reliance on God, without true faith, and therefore fail badly.  Nothing, however good in itself, can substitute for a personal, continuing, trusting relationship with God.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, 329)


Christ gave his disciples power to cast out devils (ch. 10:1, 8), and therein they were successful (Lk 10:17); yet at this time they failed in the operation, though there were nine of them together, and before a great multitude.  Christ permitted this, (1) to keep them humble, and to show their dependence upon him, that without him they could do nothing.  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. V, 247)


Faith is not a measurable commodity but a relationship, and what achieves results through prayer is not a superior “quantity” of faith but the unlimited power of God on which faith, any faith, can draw.  The disciples, Jesus implies, had failed to bring any faith at all to bear on this situation.  (R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the NT: Matthew, 662-3)


The disciples’ failures are a recurring theme throughout this section (14:16-21, 26-27, 28-31; 15:16, 23, 33; 16:5, 22; 17:4, 10-11).  This failure in their healing ministry at first seems strange, since Jesus had clearly given them power to heal and exorcise demons (10:1, 8).  Yet it is part of the pattern of the disciples’ advance and failure.  In other situations they had shown lack of faith (14:27-27, 31; 15:5, 8)–a reminder that their power to do kingdom miracles was not their own but, unlike magic, was entirely derivative and related to their own walk of faith.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Vol. 8, 390-1)


At a superficial level the disciples did have faith:  they expected to be able to exorcise the demon.  They had long been successful in this work, and now they are surprised by their failure.  But their faith is poor and shoddy.  They are treating the authority given them (10:1, 8) like a gift of magic, a bestowed power that works ex opere operato.  In Mark, Jesus tells them that this case requires prayer–not a form or an approved rite, but an entire life bathed in prayer and its noncomitant faith.  In Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that what they need is not giant faith (tiny faith will do) but true faith–faith that, out of a deep, personal trust, expects God to work.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:  Vol. 8, 391-2)


When I write about faith, I usually say that biblical faith contains three elements: (1) the content of what must be believed, (2) assent to that content, and (3) trust in or commitment of Jesus Christ as the heart of the teaching.  The third point (trust or commitment) is what makes faith personal and not just an intellectual or mechanical thing, and it is that personal element that was lacking here.  It is why in Mark’s account Jesus tells the disciples that the reason they had failed to exorcise the demon was that they had not supported their efforts by prayer.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, 329)


Woe unto us, when our rebukes of others are far greater than the redemptive power that is in our own hearts.  He is not the savior of his age who can but curse it.  It may be in eloquent denunciation the prophet may pour his malediction upon his time, but unless he can follow his malediction by beneficent action on his own part, he is but a Balaam, self-inspired, and his curse may possibly return to his own head.  (Joseph Parker, Christ’s Finished Work, Studies in Matthew 16-28, 27-8)


It will be the beginning of better days for us when from the first line to the last we go in searching critical inquest through our whole ministry and mission in the world, asking how it is that we have not succeeded.  Do not cover up the case.  Seek not to wrap it up or throw it behind and become indifferent about it, but stand over your failures, acknowledge them, blame yourself for them, and ask the heart and ask the Master this searching question, “Why have we failed?”  (Joseph Parker, Christ’s Finished Work, Studies in Matthew 16-28, 30)


Even the smallest amount of effective faith can move mountains, misdirected faith, even if it is of the largest amount, can do nothing.  (Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 597-8)


III-  Have saving faith in Jesus.  He came to redeem, restore and renew perverse humanity by making good out of perversity. (Mt 17:18, 22-23 see also: Gn 45:5; 50:20; Eccl 3:1-8; Micah 4:11-12; Mk 9:20-27; Lk 9:42; 19:10; 22:22; Jn 10:10; 15:1-8; Acts 2:22-24; 3:13-20; 4:27-31; Rom 8:28; 1 Cor 2:1-16; Phil 4:13; Jam 1:2-4)


When Jesus tells the disciples that they have “so little faith,” it is not a matter of quantity since he explains in the next verse that even faith “as small as a mustard seed” can move mountains.  Moving mountains is a proverbial expression for overcoming difficulties (see Isa 40:4; 49:11; 54:10).  The disciples must have had at least that much faith in some sense or they would not have tried to do the exorcism.  Instead of referring to an inadequate amount of faith, Jesus is referring to a faith that is deficient.  That is, it is not the kind of faith that is effective.  (James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, 329)


According to Augustine, God would not permit evil at all unless He could draw good out of it.   (Thomas C. Oden; The Living God , 298)


But in His willingness to give His life a ransom for many, Jesus submitted Himself both to the evil plans of men and to the gracious and righteous plan of His heavenly Father (see Acts 2:22-23).  Because of His willing submission to wicked men, He was going to be delivered, by the treachery of Judas, into the hands of men.  Also because of His willing submission to wicked men, they (the Jewish and Roman leaders) would kill Him.  But because of His willing submission to His righteous heavenly Father, He would be raised on the third day.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 85)


Jesus clearly understands that this world is not his real home (“how long shall I stay with you?”) and that his departure is based at least in part on the recognition that this world will not fully turn to him (“how long shall I put up with you?”).  He reveals a conscious understanding not only of the contrast between the glory of his transfiguration and the realities of this world, but of his heavenly origin with his Father.  Jesus will only return to his heavenly glory after going through this world of demonic activity, faithlessness, and eventually the cross.  Demonstrating that he has ultimate authority over the satanic source of this illness, he directs the father to bring the boy to him.  Then Jesus rebukes the demon, it comes out of the boy, and he is immediately healed.  (Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 398)


Jesus wasn’t condemning the disciples for substandard faith; he was trying to show how important faith would be in their future ministry.  It is the power of God, not our faith, that moves mountains, but faith must be present to do so.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 346)


So let’s get clear:  Faith is not a carte blanche to supernatural power.  Faith does not make God your personal genie.  But. . .

Faith is the strongest power in the world, for it connects with God.  God rewards faith, even weak faith, and God loves our trust of him, even beginning trust.  Where faith is alive and growing, God is present and active.  Every day, pray for faith to grow.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 347)


Prayer is the key that unlocks and reveals faith.  Effective prayer needs both an attitude of complete dependence and the action of asking.  Prayer demonstrates complete reliance on God.  It takes our mind off ourselves and focuses it totally on God.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 347)


“Faith as a mustard seed” is the kind of trust in God which does not immediately give up in despair when its efforts do not meet with immediate success.  It maintains its uninterrupted and vital contact with God and therefore continues to pray fervently, knowing that God at his own time and in his own way will bestow the blessing.  Such faith links its possessor with the inexhaustible and infinite resources of God’s power, wisdom, and love.  It operates in harmony with God’s revelation in his Word.  Consequently, its prayers are not motivated by sinful desires, and it does not tempt God.  (William Hendriksen, NT Commentary: Matthew, 675)


The promise nothing shall be impossible to you is conditional, valid only within the framework of God’s will.  Mountain-moving faith is not faith in oneself, much less faith in faith, but faith in God.  It is not faith itself, no matter how great, that moves mountains, but the God in whom the faith is grounded.  Faith has only as much power as its object.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 81)


There are many who feel that the Church, the professed disciples of Jesus in their own day and generation, has failed and is powerless to deal with the ills of the human situation; and yet at the back of their minds there is the feeling:  “If we could only get beyond his human followers, if we could only get behind the facade of church order and the failure of the Church, if we could only get at Jesus himself, we would receive the things we need.”  It is at once our condemnation and our challenge that, even now, though many have lost their faith in the Church, they have never lost a wistful faith in Jesus Christ.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 194)


Why should the church be raising false issues and following false scents altogether, by supposing that the wound is in its intelligence, its literature, its genius, its intellectual department—whereas the church, probably, never was stronger in intellect or richer in literary resources than she is today?  It is her faith that requires renewal, replenishment, enlargement.  I know not of any nobler, sweeter prayer, punctuated with sobs and tears, than this cry “Help thou mine unbelief!”  (Joseph Parker, Christ’s Finished Work, Studies in Matthew 16-28, 29-30)

When the demon did not immediately leave they should not have stopped praying.  (William Hendriksen, NT Commentary: Matthew, 675)


Faith is not a particular substance, the more of which the disciples have, the more they can accomplish.  It is not a gift of magic that can be manipulated at will.  Rather, faith is confidence that we can do what God calls us to do–it is “taking God at his word.”  Therefore, the disciples should not place confidence in what they have but have confidence that if God calls them to do something, they can do it in his strength.  (Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 597)


The disciples had likely begun to look at their ministry as mechanical, being dependent on their own ability instead of on God.  Jesus pointed them in a different direction:  the way of trusting in His power.  By telling them that their faith need only be the size of a mustard seed, Jesus was urging them to focus on the object of their faith.  A little bit of faith in a great God can accomplish great things.  (David Platt, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Matthew, 230)


Little faith is not directed to Jesus, and little faith is not humble before Jesus.  But mustard-seed faith is the opposite.  It’s big on Jesus and not too big on self.  It’s humble prayer to Jesus.  Just look at this man.  This father’s faith is mustard-seed faith.  He’s kneeling. Kneeling is not the posture of self-worth.  He’s begging.  Begging someone else to help you because you’re helpless doesn’t strengthen one’s inner ego.  And begging someone on behalf of someone else is far removed from the natural necessity of looking out for number one.  So, yes, he’s kneeling and begging Jesus, and as he is doing so the mountain is girding its loins, and up and off it goes down the road, into the abyss, as far away as Heaven is from Hell.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 485)


Their question revealed their error; they centered on themselves (we), not on Christ.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 346)


Worship Point:  Worship Jesus Who continues to put up with us in spite of our continual perverseness. (1 Chr 16:34, 41; 2 Chr 7:3-6; Ps 100:5; 107:1; 118:1-4; ch 136; Isa 42:16; Jer 33:11)


When I consider how the goodness of God is abused by the greatest part of mankind, I cannot but be of his mind that said, The greatest miracle in the world is God’s patience and bounty to an ungrateful world. (Arthur W. Pink; The Attributes of God,  86)


To a greater or lesser extent all were faithless, lacking in the exercise of true, warm, enduring faith, a faith operating effectively.  By and large the minds and hearts of these people were “perverted,” that is twisted and degenerate, turned in the wrong direction, away from undivided trust in God.  When Jesus adds, “How long shall I be with you; how long shall I put up with you?” he shows that in view of his own trust in the heavenly Father, a confidence that was faultless, and in view of his own love which was infinite and tender, it was painful for him to “put up with” (the exact meaning of the original) those who lacked these qualities or who failed to exercise these virtues in a sufficient degree.  His ministry had lasted almost three years by now.  He was longing for the end.  (William Hendriksen, NT Commentary:  Matthew, 674-5)


The rhetorical questions—“How long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?”—express not only personal disappointment but also Jesus’ consciousness of his heavenly origin and destiny.  His disciples’ perverse unbelief is actually painful to him.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Vol. 8, 391)


No doubt He was becoming increasingly anxious to return to His heavenly Father, with whom He had just experienced a unique time of fellowship on the mountain.  In His humanness, He must have been tempted to doubt whether His soon-coming suffering and death would be worthwhile.  “If they do not trust You while You are with them,” Satan may have whispered in Jesus’ ear, “how do You expect them to trust You after You have returned to heaven?”  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 77)


Here Jesus gives a rare glimpse into the depths of His divine heart and soul.  Having been accustomed from eternity past to having the angels instantly do His bidding, He was grieved at the blindness and faithlessness of God’s people Israel, especially His disciples, whom He had personally chosen, taught, and endowed with unique power and authority.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 77)


Gospel Application:  Only Jesus and His accompanying Holy Spirit can transfigure you into a new creation so you are no longer thinking or acting in perversity and can begin to live in shalom. (1 Kgs 8:46-51; 2 Cor 5:17; Phil 2:12-18; Rv 21:5)


We won’t change the abuses until we reform the attitude that produces them. (Alan Keyes; Our Character, Our Future, p. 72)


As a potter can fashion again from the same clay a vessel which has gone wrong or has been broken, so long as it is not yet fired, so we can repent so long as we are on earth.  Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, 719)


Here he makes a claim to his disciples that if they have faith “nothing will be impossible” for them.  That claim is as crazy as the claim that he is the fulfillment of the Law, his words will last forever, and he will judge the world by separating the sheep from the goats.  Yes, it’s a crazy claim unless he has divine authority.  Or more than that, unless he is divine himself.  (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Preaching the Word: Matthew, 479)

The most Christlike people in the world are those who never find other people a nuisance.  It is easy to feel Christian in the moment of prayer and meditation; it is easy to feel close to God when the world is shut out.

But that is not religion—that is escapism.  Real religion is to rise from our knees before God to meet other people and the problems of the human situation.  Real religion is to draw strength from God in order to give it to others.  Real religion involves meeting both God in the secret place and men and women in the market place.  Real religion means taking our own needs to God, not that we may have peace and quiet and undisturbed comfort, but that we may be enabled graciously, effectively and powerfully to meet the needs of others.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 194-5)


He does not mean that God will give us every thing that we may mention, or that may strike our minds at random.  On the contrary, as nothing is more at variance with faith than the foolish and irregular desires of our flesh, it follows that those in whom faith reigns do not desire every thing without discrimination, but only that which the Lord promises to give.  Let us therefore maintain such moderation as to desire nothing beyond what he has promised to us, and to confine our prayers within that rule which he has laid down.  (John Calvin, Commentaries, Vol. XVI, 326-7)


Spiritual Challenge:  NOTE:  God says the greatest perversity is our lack of faith.  Take time to recognize the massive extent of your perversity. Allow this to drive you to increase your faith in Jesus where you can find restoration, renewal, reformation, revitalization, re-birth, resurrection, reconciliation, and redemption. (Prv 11:20; Mk 9:29; Lk 7:47; Rom 10:17; Gal 1:7; 3:24; Jam 5:15-16)




It might first appear that the demon-possessed, fire-scared boy is the perverted one in this event.  But, Jesus quickly identifies the real perversion here.  The more significant perversion is everyone who fails to believe and bring health, restoration and redemption to the boy and his father.  The real perversion is anyone who lacks faith. — Pastor Keith


Our sinful pride fights against the exposure of our thoughts, intentions, motives, and desires.  But without such exposure, we become easy prey to the wiles of the devil who knows our hearts and is able to exploit our weaknesses.  Seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “Truly it is an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil…to be unwilling to recognize them.”(Don Matzat; Christ Esteem,  43)


Among all created beings, no one dare trust in itself.  God alone trusts in Himself; all other beings must trust in Him.  Unbelief is actually perverted faith, for it puts its trust not in the living God but in dying men.  The unbeliever denies the self-sufficiency of God and usurps attributes that are not his.  This dual sin dishonors God and ultimately destroys the soul of the man. (A. W. Tozer; The Knowledge of the Holy, 35)


It is ever the Holy Spirit’s work to turn our eyes away from self:  to Jesus:  but Satan’s work is just the opposite of this, for he is constantly trying to make us regard ourselves instead of Christ.  He insinuates, “Your sins are too great for pardon; you have no faith; you do not repent enough; you will never be able to continue to the end; you have not the joy of his children; you have such a wavering hold of Jesus.”   All theses are thoughts about self, and we shall never find comfort or assurance by looking within.  But, the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self:  he tells us that we are nothing, but that “Christ is all in all.” Remember, therefore, it is not your hold of Christ that saves you—it is Christ; it is not your joy in Christ that saves you—it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument—it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to your hand with which you art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to your hope, but to Jesus, the source of your hope; look not to your faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.  We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul.  If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “Looking unto Jesus.”   Keep your eye simply on him; let his death, his sufferings, his merits, his glories, his intercession, be fresh upon your mind; when you wake in the morning look to him; when you lie down at night look to him.  Do not let your hopes or fears come between you and Jesus; follow hard after him, and he will never fail you.—C. H. Spurgeon (Alister Begg; Pathway to Freedom, 228-229)


Jesus does not point to the amount of faith but rather to its effectiveness.  By using the contrast to the mustard seed, the smallest seed known in Palestine, he declares that even the smallest amount of faith can accomplish tremendous feats.  The disciples’ themselves would declare that they have a larger amount of faith than that the size of a mustard seed.  So Jesus is getting them to look at the real nature of faith.  It is not the amount of faith that is in question, but rather its focus.  (Michael J. Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 597)


Dear Lord Christ, master of our lives, we have shamelessly tried to enlist you in our projects.  We have wanted you not to judge but to endorse our schemes.  In some perverse way, we have tried to convert you instead of waiting for you to convert us.  Forgive and correct us, O Lord, Amen. (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Assurances of the Heart, 155)


Soon after Jesus called them into His service, they sat among the crowd on the mountainside whom He charged with being anxious because of their little faith in God to provide for their physical needs (Mt 6:25-34).  When during the fierce storm on the Sea of Galilee they despaired of their lives, Jesus rebuked them before He rebuked the waves, saying “Why are you timid, you men of little faith?” (8:26).  When Peter started to walk on the water but became afraid and began sinking, “Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (14:31).  Shortly before healing the demonized boy, Jesus had again charged the disciples with having little faith in not expecting Him to be able to feed the multitude near Magadan (16:8).

Those incidents illustrate that little faith is the kind of faith that believes in God when you have something in your hand, when His provision is already made.  When things were going well with the disciples and everything seemed under control, they found it easy to trust their lord.  But as soon as circumstances became uncertain or threatening, their faith withered.  Their faith was like the faith of most believers in all ages.  When they are healthy and have the necessities of life, their faith is great and strong, but when they are in need, their faith is small and gives way to doubt.

Great faith trusts God when there is nothing in the cupboard to eat and no money to buy food.  Great faith trusts in God when health is gone, work is gone, reputation is gone, or family is gone.  Great faith trusts God while the windstorm is still howling and persecution continues.  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 79)


Small faith can accomplish great things only if, like a mustard seed, it grows into something greater than it was.  Only when small faith grows into great faith can it move a mountain.

Mustard seed faith is persistent faith.  It continues to grow and become productive because it never gives up.  It is the sort of faith exercised by the importunate man who kept knocking on his neighbor’s door late at night until he got a response.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, that “even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs” (Lk 11:8).  Jesus also illustrated mustard seed faith in the parable of the oppressed widow, a parable He gave specifically “to show that at all times [the disciples] ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Lk 18:1).  (John MacArthur, The MacArthur NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23, 80)


Ministers, who are to deal for Christ in public, have need to keep up a private communion with him, that they may in secret, where no eye sees, bewail their weakness and straitness, their follies and infirmities, in their public performances, and enquire into the cause of them.  We should make use of the liberty of access we have to Jesus apart, where we may be free and particular with him.  Such questions as the disciples put to Christ, we should put to ourselves, in communing with our own hearts upon our beds; why were we so dull and careless at such a time?  Why came we so much short in such a duty?  That which is amiss may, when found out, be amended.  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. V, 248)


We are called to live lives of faith in a godless society.  Every hour of every day we hear viewpoints that are on a collision course with the content of our faith, viewpoints that assault, undermine, and torpedo the precious truths we try to cling to, sometimes by our very fingernails.  We believe, but our faith is often overcome by our unbelief.  Jesus said this is why the disciples were powerless to defeat the enemy on this occasion, and that is why we often fail to live the faithful lives we aspire to live.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 518)


How much faith did they need?  Only as much as a mustard seed.  But they had forgotten their dependence on God as the only source of spiritual power.  The proof of their forgetting was their neglect of prayer and fasting.  (John Phillips, Exploring the Gospels: Matthew, 360)


Quotes to Note:

This was a wrestling match to end all wrestling matches, for in wrestling with an angel, Jacob was virtually wrestling with God.  But Jacob would not let the angel go.  That is the kind of prayer that Jesus was talking about, the kind that we need to conquer the forces of hell.  It is prayer with urgency and persistence.  It is prayer like the entreaties of the woman who would not give up until the judge heard her case (Lk 18:1-5).  It is wrestling all night in prayer if necessary.  (RC Sproul, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary: Matthew, 519)


Along OT lines (→lines 5 ff.) the Christian community in God’s name brings against those who are outside the serious accusation that they corrupt men, that they cause them to fall away from God.  Thus Paul tells Elymas (13:10) that he does not cease to “pervert” the straight ways of God, acting in a manner which is directly opposite to Isa 40:4.  In the passive expression in Acts 20:30 the same charge is brought against false prophets in the same term as that used in the OT at Ez 14:5, cf. Prv 16:30, namely, that they speak crooked things.  The reference is to apostasy from faith.  Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, 718)


We shouldn’t get upset at ourselves for being slow to understand everything about Jesus.  After all, the disciples were with him, saw his miracles, heard his words, and still had difficulty understanding.  Despite their questions and doubts, however, they believed.  Don’t repress your doubts or questions as if they are wicked–talk about them with Christian friends.  And even when you don’t have all the answers, look to Jesus for help and direction.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Matthew, 348)








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