We have been looking at the hard sayings of Jesus that are found in Matthew 16-20. Matthew continues to record challenging words as he looks to develop faith and show what it means to be his disciple. In this paragraph, Matthew 17:14-20, Jesus says hard things that we are going to look at in today’s lesson. Jesus is going to challenge our faith and show us why we unable to accomplish what God has called for us in our lives.
The Problem (17:14-16)
Peter, James, and John are coming down the mountain with Jesus. They have just experienced seeing the glory and majesty of the Lord Jesus on the mountain. Jesus was transformed before their eyes as he stood with Moses and Elijah. The Father proclaimed from the cloud that covered the mountain, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Now something happened while Jesus, Peter, James, and John were on the mountain. When Jesus comes down from the mountain experience, a man comes to Jesus begging him for mercy to heal his son because he has seizures and suffers terribly, falling into the fire and the water. Now listen to verse 16. This man brought his son to Jesus’ disciples while Jesus was on the mountain, but they could not heal him. This should be startling to us. The disciples could not heal his son. It is not that they ignored this sick son. They could not heal his son. It is important to remember that Jesus had given authority to his disciples for this work. Listen to what we read earlier in the Gospel of Matthew.
And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 10:1 ESV)
Jesus gave his disciples authority to heal every disease and every affliction. So this is startling to read. A man brought his suffering son to his disciples but they could not heal him. Now I love the heart of this father. He does not leave and think that these disciples are a bunch of phonies and fakes. He now goes straight to the source. He bypasses the disciples and asks Jesus directly, even though there is a great crowd around them.
Faithless Generation (17:17)
Listen to Jesus’ answer because it is a strong rebuke. Jesus, before the crowd, proclaims them to be a faithless and twisted generation. These are very strong words. Listen to what else Jesus says. “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This seems like a really odd response. This man asks for his son to be healed because his disciples had failed. Jesus answers by calling the people a faithless and twisted generation and then wondering how much longer he has to bear with them. This response shows that there is a problem with the people. We will come to see that there is even a problem with the disciples. Jesus calling the people “a faithless and twisted generation” is not a random description. This is the only occasion when Jesus calls the people this particular title: a faithless and twisted generation. This description comes from a sermon Moses gave before his death that is recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 32 Moses twice calls the people “a faithless and twisted generation” as he recalls the failure of the wilderness generation.
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation. (Deuteronomy 32:4–5 ESV)
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. The LORD saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, “I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.” (Deuteronomy 32:18–20 ESV)
What Jesus is doing is connecting the people to the generation that died in the wilderness for their lack of faith. You are not any different that those who fell short of the promised land and died in the wilderness because of their lack of faith. They were a twisted generation because they dealt corruptly with the Lord. They were a twisted generation because they forgot their God who gave them birth. The context of Deuteronomy 32 reveals that the people turned to idols and abandoned the Lord, scoffing at his salvation (32:15-17).
Explaining Faith (17:18-20)
Now Jesus rebukes the demon that was in the son. The demon is cast out and the son was immediately healed. But notice that the healing is not the point of the account. We do not read about the response of the father or the son. Rather, the disciples come to Jesus privately with an important question. “Why could we not cast it out?” Why were we unable to drive out this unclean spirit? Why could we not heal this son? Please carefully read Jesus’ answer.
“Because of your little faith.” Please let those words hit you. Jesus does not say that this was a hard demon. Jesus does not say that this healing is a little tricky. Jesus does not say that you just need a little more practice. Jesus does not tell them that they did not say the right words or perform the right motions. Jesus has a very simple answer. You lack faith. You did not have the faith. Jesus pushes this truth even further in the rest of verse 20. Jesus tells his disciples that if they would have the faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be able to tell a mountain to move from here to there. This is an important picture. Mountains are used in the scriptures as symbols of obstacles. Paul spoke of having the faith to move mountains in 1 Corinthians 13:2. The prophecy of John the Baptizer was he would prepare the way for the Lord by filling every valley and lowering every mountain and hill (Luke 3:5). If you would have even the faith the size of the mustard seed, which was considered one of the smallest seeds, then you would have the faith to overcome obstacles. You would have had the faith to cast out this unclean spirit. Listen to the words at the end of verse 20. “Nothing will be impossible for you.” Jesus says that the problem was not the obstacle. The problem was the lack of faith.
To understand what Jesus is trying to teach us, we need to think about how Jesus ends his point. “Nothing will be impossible for you.” Is Jesus trying to tell us that we can do anything we want if we just put our mind to it? Is Jesus telling us that if we just have enough positive affirmation in our lives that we can accomplish anything? Is Jesus telling us that we just need to think highly of ourselves, dream it, and we can achieve it? No. I want us to think about why nothing would be impossible for Jesus’ disciples. Nothing would be impossible because it was not going to be by their power, but by faith in God’s power to act in their lives. This is so important that I am going to say it again. The reason nothing would be impossible for them was not because it was by their power, but by faith in God’s power to act in their lives. The scriptures illustrate this key truth.
When Moses was leading the people in the wilderness, the people want meat to eat. They are tired of the manna that they have been eating so far. The Lord tells Moses to get the people ready because he has heard their crying. The Lord tells Moses to tell the people:
“Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we come out of Egypt?’” (Numbers 11:18–20 ESV)
Now notice what Moses says next.
But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” (Numbers 11:21–22 ESV)
Moses says that he cannot do this. The Lord’s answer is of course he can’t. But the Lord can!
And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Numbers 11:23 ESV)
The problem was a lack of faith in what God can do. It is not that nothing is impossible for us to do. There are so many things that are impossible for us to do. There are so many obstacles in our lives that are completely impossible for us to deal with. But nothing is impossible with God. This is what Jesus is saying. You do not believe that God can do something about this. You lack faith. If you have even the smallest amount of real, true faith, then nothing would be impossible because you would know that God can do anything. Nothing is too hard for God.
Let me give one more illustration from the scriptures. Hebrews 11 is a chapter that we often note as the heroes of faith. But sometimes we miss the big picture. We read about these people like Abraham and Moses and think that we could never be like them. But how were they able to do anything that they did? How were they able to overcome the great obstacles that came along? They were able to do everything they did only by faith. That is what the whole chapter says. Listen to it:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11:32–34 ESV)
The writer of Hebrews says that they did these things “through faith.” It was not them. It was God. Why could we not cast out this demon and heal this son? Because of your little faith. This is why they are a faithless and twisted generation. Rather than believing in the Lord and what he is able to do in their lives, they put their trust in the physical. They look to themselves. They look to their wealth. They look to their possessions. They look to their knowledge. They are not mindful of the Rock. Jesus is asking us the same question. How long must we be with Jesus before we understand the point that nothing is impossible with God?
What do you believe God cannot do? Now we are probably going to answer this question too quickly. We are going to quickly say that God can do anything. But I really want you to think about this in your life right now. What obstacle is in your life that you think God cannot do anything about? What mountain is in your life that you believe God cannot overcome? Why can’t God radically change the direction of your life? Why can’t God turn things a new way? Why can’t God give you a fresh start? Why can’t God level the obstacles of your life?
But let me be a little more precise because we are seeing something important in Matthew 17, Numbers 11, and Hebrews 11. What do you believe God cannot do through you? The disciples did not believe God could heal through them. Moses did not believe God could feed the people through him. The people of faith in Hebrews 11 were only able to do what they did because they believe God could work in their lives and through their lives. Why can’t you be a leader in this church? Why can’t you be a teacher of the good news of Jesus? Why can’t you be a great encourager? Why can’t you do great work in the kingdom of God? The answer is simple. We don’t believe that God has the power to do it. We don’t believe that God can work in us and through us to accomplish his plans and purposes. Let me end the lesson with something the apostle Paul said.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Romans 6:12–13 ESV)
The apostle Paul says you are an instrument. But here is the choice. You have to decide to have your body and your life be an instrument in the hands of God and not sin. So long as we look to ourselves, God is not going to be working through us. So long as we keep giving ourselves to sin, God is not going to be working through us. But if we will see ourselves as an instrument and put ourselves in God’s hands, then God can move mountains and do his work in the world through us. God says the only thing holding us back is faith.