Last week, I mentioned that never did Jesus attempt to heal someone, and failed to do so. There was however, at least one instance where the disciples tried to heal someone and were unsuccessful. They had to wait for Jesus to come and heal the person.
The disciples had been attempting to drive an evil spirit out of a boy, but at the time, Jesus was up on a mountain with three of the disciples. It was there, on this “Mount of Transfiguration,” where these three disciples saw the body of Jesus transformed during what was a unique bodily meeting with God the Father (so far as we know). Astoundingly, also present were Moses and Elijah, reappearing in their celestial bodies. The clothes of Jesus radiated a brilliant white, such as the disciples had never before seen and apparently even brighter than could otherwise even appear on earth.
Afterwards, when Jesus and the three disciples had descended the mountain and returned to the other disciples, the disciples were engaged in an argument with some of the scribes. A large crowd of people had gathered around them to listen to the discussion.
When the crowd of people saw Jesus approach, they all ran to meet him.
Jesus asked the disciples, “What is the dispute you are having with these people?”
It was not the disciples who replied to the question. Instead, it was a man in the crowd. The man came up to Jesus and bowed down to him.
“Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not heal him.” (Matthew 17:15-16 BSB)
A Word about Evil Spirits and Epilepsy
I realize that what was happening with the boy sounds very much like an epileptic seizure, which leads some to wonder if the neurological disorder of epilepsy as we know it today is actually demon possession.
Although the outward manifestation may have similarities, they are not the same thing. There are two separate words used for them in the New Testament. Those who are possessed by an evil spirit are said to be “demonized,” that is, coming under the power of a demon or an evil spirit.
In describing one who has epilepsy, the word used includes an allusion to the moon, since the current thinking in the first century was that the epileptic seizures were caused by the phases of the moon. It is somewhat how the word lunatic is used, which mean someone controlled by the moon rather than reason. We may also say “moon-struck.”
In the case of the boy, although the father did not know the cause, what Jesus cast out of him was defined as a demon (Mathew 17:18)
The father of the boy came to Jesus saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son. He has seizures and is suffering terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
O unbelieving and perverse generation!” Jesus replied. “How long must I remain with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to Me.” (Matthew 17:17 BSB).
The reply, I suppose that we could say, was directed toward the father, since he is the one who had answered the question of Jesus. Nevertheless, the reply also seems to be a broad response, directed not only toward the father, but the entire crowd as well, and even to the disciples. By extension, it was a reply directed even to the people of this age, including to you and to me.
I hear in the response of Jesus a bit of frustration. After having just enjoyed a brief time of transfiguration in which he had the opportunity to experience life above this world and in the presence of the Father, Jesus once again had descended into the unbelief and corrupt age in which we now live. It was a difficult adjustment to make.
Some others in the crowd brought the boy forward, and when the boy saw Jesus, the evil spirit within him immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus, unshaken by the scene and as if he were a doctor making a diagnosis, asked the father, “How long has this been with him?”
“From childhood,” the father replied. “It often throws him into the fire or into the water, trying to kill him. If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
“If you can?” Jesus asked in response.
Jesus echoed the words of the father to emphasize what he was to say next: “All things are possible to him who believes!”
Unbelief in the Presence of Belief
Without hesitation the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”
His words are contradictory with themselves, but perhaps there is no one who reads his response who cannot identify with his sentiment. We believe, but it seems always in the midst of our belief, there is a shadow of a doubt that lurks in the recesses of our heart.
Like the father of the boy, we may cry out, “Jesus is my hope in desperation, he is sovereign in authority—but, what if he will not help me? Or, more disastrous yet, what if he cannot help me?”
It is the bipolar moral conflict within each one of us. It seems never can we have a faith that is completely free of all doubts at all times. We believe, but we need help also with our unbelief.
As it happened, Jesus did indeed help the man with his unbelief. Jesus spoke to the evil spirit within the boy and said, “I command you to come out and never enter him again.”
The boy began shrieking and went into violent convulsions as if the evil spirit was fighting to stay. But in the end, the demon left the boy. The boy was left lying on the ground, looking lifeless.
“He is dead,” said many people who were present.
But Jesus took the boy by the hand and helped him to his feet. He stood up, free from the evil spirit.
The First Reason for the Failure of the Disciples
Shortly afterwards, when the disciples were once again alone with Jesus, they asked him the question that they had been waiting to ask: “Why couldn’t we drive the evil spirit out of the boy?”
The answer of Jesus was two-fold. First of all, in the Gospel of Mark, we read that the answer of Jesus was, “This kind cannot come out, except by prayer.”
The word is genos, “This genos cannot come out, except by prayer.” The word is probably somewhat familiar. It is a word that can be used to speak specify a certain kind, race or family. There is more than one type of evil spirit. Though the Bible is not meant to be a primer on evil spirits, it does mention several different kinds throughout its pages.
When Jesus asked the father of the boy how long the seizures had been with the boy, Jesus apparently was determining what type or which of the many kinds of evil spirits had possession of him. Presumably, Jesus was not doing this for his own information, but for the benefit of the disciples. They were, after all, in training. He was teaching them information that they would need to know in the future.
It was some time before this when the training began. It was a training not only to minister to those who had demons, but also to the sick and the infirm.
In the Gospel of Luke, the story of the boy with the demon is found in the ninth chapter. The first part of that same chapter begins, “Then Jesus called the Twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and power to cure diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2 BSB)
Jesus had his apostles with him for three years. He was teaching them and he was training them.
Concerning the demon which inhabited the boy, Jesus then told the disciples, “This kind cannot come out, except by prayer.” Some manuscripts also add the word fasting. “This kind cannot come out, except by prayer and fasting.”
The evil spirit that inhabited the boy was of a particularly stubborn and resilient sort, and would strongly resist leaving. This became apparent with the violent convulsions and shrieking that the spirit caused as he was leaving the boy.
Jesus wanted the disciples to know that this was the reason for their failure. They had been up against a power for which they were not prepared. The removal of that type of spirit was not something that they as mere men could simply perform with a simple command. There was much more than would go into it—much prayer and even fasting.
Why would prayer and fasting make any difference? The difference comes in the preparation of the one who does the healing. The faith of the person must be strong enough to go up against a demon such as the one that inhabited the boy.
The Second Reason for the Failure of the Disciples
This brings up the second reason for the failure of the disciples to drive out the demon. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read of this second reason for their failure.
“Because you have so little faith,” Jesus told them.
And then he added this: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 BSB).
It was much later in the ministry of Jesus, in fact it was in his final week on earth, that Jesus performed what seemed like a rather capricious and random miracle by making a barren fig tree wither so that died. This he did perhaps for more than one reason, but the reason that he told his disciples was the same one that he gave them when they could not heal the boy with the evil spirit.
Of the fig tree, he said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21-22 BSB)
The lesson was of the importance of faith. Even at the end of his three-year period with the disciples, Jesus was still trying to teach them about faith. It is no wonder that we have so much trouble understanding the concept of praying in faith, for even the disciples under the direct tutorship of Jesus himself had a difficult time of it.
The Importance of Faith
On yet another occasion, the apostles said plainly to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
His initial answer was similar to the other responses that we have seen: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
In each of these instances, Jesus is telling his disciples of the importance of faith. His illustrations are meant to show that faith is calling upon God in the heavenly realms to affect situations upon the earth. By using such extravagant examples, Jesus means to teach us that earthly realms are in complete submission to God in the heavenly realm. There is nothing on earth that cannot be moved by heaven.
You may not have seen any mulberry trees flying through the air on their way to be planted by the sea, nor any mountains sent there by someone who had great and powerful faith. And that is the picture that usually comes to our minds when we read words like these—some man or woman with tremendous faith and probably also a very flashy super-hero spandex costume over a youthful and muscular body, who can command these types of things.
The Heavenly Perception of Faith
But that is not what Jesus is talking about. These ideas come to us by an earthly perspective of what power is. But that is not the heavenly perspective. Nor does he speak of fighting against doubts that may come to mind in order to increase our faith. Here is what Jesus said in response to the request of the disciples to increase their faith:
Which of you whose servant comes in from plowing or shepherding in the field will say to him, “Come at once and sit down to eat”? Instead, won’t he tell him, “Prepare my meal and dress yourself to serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”?
Does he thank the servant because he did what he was told? So you also, when you have done everything commanded of you, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” (Luke 17:5-10 BSB)
Increasing faith does not arise out of visions of self-grandeur, but rather out of servanthood. Also in the Gospel of Luke, we find this story:
A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which of them would be considered the greatest.
So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as the One who serves. (Luke 22:24-27 BSB)
Notice that the path to increasing our faith and even to great power in faith returns to the very declaration of the centurion whom we spoke of last week, “I am not worthy; I am not worthy.”
The one who wishes to have great faith in God is not someone who would wear a cape and fly through the air, rather it is one who would use that cape and bow down to wash the feet of those in need.
At the last supper, after Jesus had washed the feet of the disciples, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13:12-15 ESV)
Paradoxically, one’s faith does not grow by increasing in our own self-confidence. Rather, it grows when one learns to serve. It is a difficult lesson for us to learn. The disciples failed to heal the boy because of the smallness of their faith, and even until their very last night with Jesus, he was teaching them this lesson.
He is still teaching us today.