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The Disciples' Continuing Unbelief, Part 1: Faith as a Mustard Seed

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 4, 1998

Matthew 17:14-21

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 17.  Today we come to a new section of chapter 17.  In the first thirteen verses we saw a description of the transfiguration of our Lord on the mountain and now, as the Lord Jesus and His three disciples make their way down from the summit, they come to a very, very different scene.  The gospel writers seem to stress the tremendous contrast between the glory above and the shame and the confusion beneath in this town.  And so, let's turn our attention to Matthew 17, beginning in verse 14 and see these events which followed the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ on the mountain.  Hear God's word:  

Matthew 17:14-21 

Our Lord and our God, we ask that by the Spirit You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your word.  Teach us the truth.  Correct our hearts.  Draw us to Christ.  All these things we ask in Jesus' name.  Amen.   

It is very clear in this passage that Matthew wants to highlight the danger of unbelief.  At every turn, he sets before us the peril involved in refusing to believe Christ, in refusing to believe God's word.  He paints for us first the picture of sin, and the misery that always accompanies sin, and he paints in bold colors in the story of this poor, young possessed boy and the plight of His father as he comes to speak to Jesus about receiving help.  And then Matthew shows us Jesus' words, and in Jesus' words of response and rebuke we see the perversity of the unbelief of the multitude and especially the scribes.

And then, finally, Matthew shows us the lack of faith that exists even in the disciples' hearts.  And through each of those themes Matthew continues to point us to  the importance of faith.  And I’d like to look at this passage with you for a few moments, looking again at these main points.  Beginning again in verses 14 through 16.

I. Sin brings misery and self-destruction
In these verses we see Christ coming down from the mountain into this fallen situation, a tragic situation involving a young man, a demon possessed epileptic boy, and in those verses we see that sin brings misery and self-destruction.  Matthew has painted us a picture there of what sin does to a person.  Now it doesn't matter how this particular condition came about.  We're not claiming that this boy did something and was therefore being punished by these particular activities, but we're seeing, in this young man's misery is a picture of what sin does.  In a fallen world, you have both victimizers and victims.  Sin always ravages, and we're seeing a picture of those ravages painted by Matthew.  Jesus and Peter and James and John are returning to rejoin the other disciples.  The other disciples have been carrying on their ministry while Jesus and these disciples have been on the Mount of Transfiguration.  And as Jesus and these three disciples descend from the summit they come into a great multitude of people.  There's already a crowd gathered and there's arguing going on and there's great discussion going on and a great deal of turmoil.

But as Jesus and His three disciples come to meet this large crowd in which the other disciples are found, a man presents himself to Jesus and prostrates himself before Jesus begging Jesus for help.  Jesus is met by a grieving father.  And we're told a couple of other things in the parallel account of this event in the other gospels.  By the way, the parallel account to this story is found in Mark, chapter 9, and in Luke, chapter 9.  So in each of the synoptic gospels, and by synoptic gospels, we mean Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Synoptic simply means that they look at Jesus' life from, in general, the same perspective - with the same spectacles - where John gives us a slightly different look at the life of Jesus, often including for us personal details not included in the other gospels.  In each of the synoptics, this story of the healing of this boy is connected with the story of the transfiguration.  It's as if the gospel writers want to give you a comparison; they want to juxtapose the transfigured glory of Christ, and the wreck that sin makes in this world.  The misery of sin and the glory of Christ.  But in the other gospels, we learn first of all, that this son that this man comes to speak to the Lord Jesus about, is his only son.  This is the one to whom his treasures and inheritance is to be given.  This is the one who would take up the responsibility of the family business or the family farm.  This is this man's hope for the next generation and so it's somewhat more poignant.  Its moving enough to see a man begging the Lord Jesus on behalf of his son, but when it’s his only son, the hope for the future generation, it's particularly poignant. 

And we're also told a little bit more about what is afflicting this boy in the other gospels.  Matthew hints at it.  Notice that the father says to the Lord Jesus when he comes to speak to him that his son is a lunatic, and his son is ill.  Very interesting that in Matthew the word for lunatic is literally the word for moonstruck.  That is a term that is often used for epileptics in the gospels.  Indeed, if you would look at Mark, chapter 9, verses 18, 20 and 26, you would see Mark describe the symptoms of epilepsy: the grinding of the teeth, convulsions of the body, frothing at the mouth.  This is a case of severe epilepsy which is being dealt with here.  The father knows his son is ill; and so he is, with the malady of epilepsy.  Luke, the doctor, also notices this.  In Luke, chapter 9, verse 39, he describes the symptoms of this young man.  But Mark tells us something else about this young man.  In Mark, chapter 9, verse 25, we're told that this young man was also unable to speak, and he was unable to hear.  So in addition to being grievously vexed with this malady of epilepsy, he was deaf and dumb, and then, of course, Matthew and Mark make it very clear that this child is demon-possessed.  Three maladies vex this boy.  The exact relation between his demon-possession and the other diseases is not specified.  Was Satan given the power to bring about these physical symptoms, or did Satan take opportunity with these biblical symptoms to afflict this boy?  We are not told in full, but Satan’s hand is in it, the supernatural is in it.  But, also, this child is afflicted physically.  He has physical problems. 

This father comes to the Lord Jesus Christ appealing to His pity, to His mercy, to His compassion.  He knows that Jesus will care about him, and will care about His son.  Now, that says something.  But let me point out that this father still has a hard time believing that Jesus can really do something about this.  Scan, if you will.  Look at Mark chapter 9, scan these verses in Mark, chapter 9, verses 20 through 22:  “They brought the boy to Him.  When He saw him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth, and He asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’  And he said ‘From childhood.  And it has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him, but if You can do anything, take pity on us and help.’” 

The man is uncertain.  Now we don't know exactly why he's uncertain.  Perhaps the performance of the disciples had caused him to wonder if even Jesus could do something about this situation.  It's sad, isn't it, when the lack of faith of Christians causes those who don't know Christ to doubt His power and His goodness and perhaps the disciples failure had led this man to wonder if Jesus could do anything.  But notice Jesus' response in verse 23.  Jesus says to him, “If you can?  All things are possible to them who believe.”  Jesus makes it clear that He has absolute sovereign power, and the man's only duty and responsibility is to believe Him. 

So even this man , even though he believes Jesus' compassion and His pity, we're going to see that that's in contrast to something else he's experienced.   Even though he believes in Jesus' compassion and pity and mercy, he's not really sure that Jesus can do anything about it.  Maybe it's the fact that this man has been living with this malady in his son's life from the time that this boy was a child.  And, perhaps, he's lost hope.  The man had previously brought the boy to the disciples, and they had been unable to do anything about it, and so now in the midst of this multitude, he brings the boy to Jesus for healing. 

Now the picture of this boy, described here, is the picture of what sin does to you.  Sin always brings misery.  We have here a vivid, tangible picture of sin.  And it’s important for us to lock onto that for a moment because there are many of us who live in sin; we live lives of rebellion against God, and we don't have these symptoms, and it tricks us into thinking that we're okay.

But friends, if you are living a life of rebellion, this is a picture of you.  This is a picture of anyone apart from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is a picture of a person who has not cast their hope and their trust on the Lord Jesus Christ.  There might not be the physical symptoms.  You may not know until it's too late that you're that sick.  It's one of the sad things about sin.  It bring about self-deception as well as self-destruction, and even while people are destroying themselves, they don't realize that they themselves are deceived about their true condition. 

This also reminds us that this fallen world in which we live is not the way it's supposed to be.  Have you ever been around an unbelieving friend in times of tragedy?  Perhaps the tragedy has happened to a child, and that unbelieving friend who does not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ savingly, even though he is not, or she is not a religious person, suddenly in that time when they see their own flesh and blood afflicted, they shake their fist at God, whom they normally never think about, and they say, “How could You let this happen?” 

Now let me stop and remind you of something.  We live in a day and time where there are many unbelieving people who don't believe that God created the heaven and the earth.   They don't believe that God is the Providential Ruler of all things.  And yet when things go wrong, they're ready to blame God.  But I want to remind you of something: if the world is as they say it is, then afflictions like this - epilepsy, and maladies of horrendous sorts that befall children - if the world is the way they say it is, there is no God who created heaven and earth; there is no God in providential control - then that's just the way it is.  There's nothing right or wrong, or good or evil about those maladies that's just the way it is.  And yet, they wail against God, saying  “How could You do this?”   They sense that something is out of order.  They blame God for it, and yet they live with a worldview that says that things that happen like epilepsy – “That's just in the genes  … that's just the way we were created because this world evolved from some primitive protoplasm, and it's all just in the genes.  We're descended from our ancestors.  We got dealt this deck of genes and that's just the way it is.”  They focus on the physical but you understand that by the very act of shaking their fist at God, they're acknowledging that this is a moral universe and that there is right and wrong.

But they can't believe that on their own premises.  They've already decided that the world is the way it is and it always was and it always will be.  There's no great force out there caring for us.  the maladies that befall us, they may be tragic, they may break our hearts, but they're not good or evil, they're not right or wrong.  That is totally different from the Christian view.  The Christian view is one of Jesus Christ in compassion, caring for those who are under that type of affliction; and, God coming to their rescue and God in control.  So next time a friend shakes his fist at God, maybe you'll have an opportunity, when the emotions have run their course, to speak to them and to explain that you can't have it both ways.  You can't live in a world that is without God, and then blame God whenever that world isn't the way you want it to be.  You've either got to bow the knee to God - and recognize that this is My Father's world, and then go about the task about understanding why this happened - or you've got to reject God utterly.  Don't blame Him if you're going to live a life of atheism.  Don't blame Him for the bad spots in your life of atheism.

And so we see here a man who knew that God could do something about the situation, and he comes to the Lord Jesus Christ.

But before we pass on to the next passage, let me just say something to our young people.  Here is a young man, recently afflicted by Satan and by maladies, and these maladies are a symptom of the misery that sin brings.  And I want to remind you that there are many young people who have given themselves over to Satan and sin, and even though they have, they might not have these physical symptoms and maladies.  Listen to the words of J.C. Ryle: “There are thousands of young people today who seem to have wholly given themselves over to Satan’s sin, to be captive by his will.  They cast off all fear of God, all respect for His commandments; they serve various lusts and pleasures, they run wildly into every excess, they refuse to listen to the advice of teachers, parents and minister.  They fling aside regard for health and character and worldly respectability.  They do all that lies in their power to ruin themselves, body and soul, for time and eternity.  They are willing bond slaves to Satan -  Who has not seen such young people?  They are to be seen in town and country, among the rich and the poor.  Surely such young people give mournful proof that although Satan now-a-days has possession of a man's body, still he exercises fearful dominion over our souls.”  You may be living in sin and thinking that it's pleasure, but this is the picture of what your sin is really doing to you.  This is the misery that will attend that sin.  It may not be great now, but it will be great hereafter.  But usually God brings that sin and its misery home to roost in this life as well as the world to come.  It is a warning to us, my friends.  Even in childhood, sin can take hold of our hearts.  Are we ready to trust in Christ and to follow Him instead?  

II. Christ hates unbelief and perversity.
Look then with me at verses 17 and 18.  Jesus gives a rather surprising response in verses 17 and 18 to this grieving father's plea.  But, He also gives a very powerful and compassionate response.  We learn in verses 17 and 18 that Christ hates unbelief.  He hates unbelief and perversity.  When this father asks Jesus to help him, in Matthew - beginning in verse 17 - Jesus explodes with indignation.  You've got to ask yourself, “Why did Christ respond like this?”   Christ was not a fly-off-the handle, hot-tempered man.  Why is Jesus so angry in this response?  Why did He say, “You perverse and foolish generation, how long am I going to have to be among you?”  How long am I going to have to put up with you?  Why is Jesus so indignant?  Why is Jesus so angry?  Who is He angry with?  You've got to ask yourself that question. 

Now again, the other gospel accounts help you there.  In Mark and in Luke, but in Mark especially, you learn that Christ’s wrath is focused upon the scribes and the crowds.  We are told that as Jesus came up to meet this multitude that the scribes at that very moment were arguing with the disciples.  What were the scribes doing?  They were taunting the disciples about the disciples' incapability to help this man.  So instead of having compassion upon this young man and upon his father, the scribes were delighting in the fact that Jesus' disciples had failed in their ministry.  And that picture enrages the Lord Jesus Christ - that these, the leaders of God's people, could have so little compassion that they could be delighting in the failure of His disciples and ignoring the plight of this particular man; as well as rejecting Him in unbelief.

And furthermore, the crowds, just as we learned from John, 6:26, the crowds as usual, want to see the King do something spectacular.  But they don't want to accept the claims of the King.  And so Jesus' Scripture here - Jesus' words of admonition, words of anger and wrath - are directed at that perverse and foolish generation, at the crowds and the scribes because of their unbelief. 

However, everybody in this passage, except Jesus, shows a lack of faith.  The father, as we have already seen in Mark chapter 9, verses 22 and 24, wasn't really sure whether Jesus could do what He was asking him to do, and the disciples themselves had failed to persevere in prayer.  Their unbelief had defeated their efforts to minister to this particular man and his son.  And so Jesus' rebuke against unbelief falls upon everyone, if indirectly.

And then, Jesus displays His power.  He demands the demon to leave with a sharp rebuke, and that displays His love and His concern, His compassion in this time of need and malady and sickness and supernatural possession.  But it also displays His power, and we see in this passage the connection between unbelief and perversity.  It is hardened unbelief that has led the scribes to become so perverse as to take delight in seeing ministers not be able to minister to the people that they are attempting to minister unto.  Only perversity can look at this situation and feel that way.  And yet, these religious leaders felt that way.

Why?  Because of unbelief.  Hardened unbelief is now keeping them from having normal human compassion.

And then the crowds.  The crowds see it as a spectacle.  They see it as an opportunity to see some other miracle that Jesus is going to do.  But there is no compassion for this man or for his son.  And the disciples do not believe.  They do not persevere in their prayer and their belief as they attempt to minister to the young man.  Unbelief robs us of triumphs because faith is the conduit of divine blessing. 

It is not that faith is in something in itself.  It is not that victory over sin comes within us.  It is that faith is the link which God has appointed between us and His divine favor.  Faith is the instrument whereby we receive the grace and the blessing and the favor and the benefits of God.  And so as hardened unbelief turns to perversity in the scribes, so a lack of faith disables the disciples’ ability to minister to those that Jesus has called them; and a lack of faith in us robs us of the realization of the blessings of God which he intends for us.  And so the whole passage is a reminder to us of how Jesus thinks about unbelief and how dangerous it is.  This passage reminds us that faith is absolutely essential.

Listen to the words of J. C.  Ryle: “Faith is the key to success in Christian warfare: unbelief is the sure road to defeat.  Once let faith languish and decay and all our graces will languish with it - courage, patience, long suffering and hope will soon wither and dwindle away; faith is the root on which they all depend.”   Jesus is showing the disciples in the picture of the scribes what unbelief ultimately leads to, but He is also warning His disciples that they are not capable of ministering apart from faith.  And that is what we see in the last two verses in verses 19 through 21.

III.  Unbelief and littleness of faith cripples our ability to minister.
Those verses are basically a ministerial debriefing.  Mark tells us that they went into a house together after these events and they sat down to reflect.  And as they reflected, Jesus made it clear to the disciples one last thing.  Unbelief and faithlessness cripples our ability to minister.  As Jesus and His disciples reflect on the events of the day, this lesson is brought into bold relief.  They remember what they did and what they didn't.  And they see how their lack of faith played into their incapability of ministering to this family.

I want to mention one thing: as you compare Matthew and Mark it's very interesting to see what Mark emphasizes and what Matthew emphasizes.  Mark emphasizes in that little phrase that this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.  Mark emphasizes that this was a peculiarly virulent spirit.  This was a powerful spirit and it was going to take prayer that was accompanied by the kind of perseverance and focus that comes along with fasting.  It's not that fasting was magical.  It's that fasting reminds us of our dependence upon the Lord.  It reinforces our focus on prayer.  And so Mark focuses on the reality - the power of this supernatural warfare that they were up against - whereas, Matthew focuses on the faithlessness of the disciples. 

Now, think about something for a minute.  Mark was the writer for Peter.  Peter is behind the gospel of Mark.  Peter was where when this event happened?  Peter was on the mount of transfiguration.  Notice how Peter in his gospel account, in the Gospel of Mark, does not draw sharp attention  to the faithlessness of his fellow disciples.  But Matthew, in his account - and you remember where Matthew was?  He was down there trying to minister.  He was one of the nine that Jesus left behind.  He was one of the ones with little faith.  Matthew is willing to highlight his own faithlessness in his account, focusing his account in the faithlessness of the disciples.  So, here you see Peter through Mark, who is writing for him, focusing on the difficulty of the supernatural task in this situation whereas, Matthew highlights the faithlessness of the disciples.  That not only shows you the charity of the disciples.  Peter wasn't wanting to point fingers at his fellow disciples.  He was wanting them to all share in what had happened.  Matthew - having been there and having been guilty of faithlessness himself - highlights that lack of faith of the disciples' ministry for us. 

What we learn here is that mustard seed type faith does not  give up simply because it encounters obstacles.  Mustard seed faith, though it is tiny, grows to be a great tree.  You remember Jesus has taught the disciples this before in His parable of the mustard seed.  And yet, the disciples' lack of faith, their lack of belief, has led them to fail in ministry.  We need the full armor of God if we are going to be able to engage in spiritual warfare.  Ryle says, “Spiritual battles are not to be won without hard fighting.”

And that kind of fighting begins first with the prayer of faith; that prayer which recognizes our total dependence upon God and the power of His grace in the lives of those to whom we are ministering. 

This whole passage calls us to faith in Christ.  Have you trusted in Christ today?  Have you put your faith in Him?  Have you embraced His claims acknowledging him to be the divine Messiah, the Son of the living God?  Or, are you still attempting to live by your own efforts - on your own - in isolation from Him? This passage, if there is any passage that does so, calls you to trust in the Messiah.  Apart from the Messiah what are you like?  You are like that boy caught in the hands of the bands of Satan.  With Christ, what are you like?  You are like that boy transformed - transformed by the prayer and the power of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Let's trust in Him and pray to Him now.   

Our Lord and our God, we ask that, by Your grace, you would enable us to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel; to trust in Him and to live in that faith as we minister to others even this day.  For Christ’s sake we ask it.  Amen.

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