All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed.
Vss. 14-15: While Jesus, Peter, James, and John were on the mountain, praying, experiencing God’s glory, and talking, the rest of the disciples were below, attempting to serve people in Jesus’s name. One of the ways in which they did this was by casting out demons, and a desperate father came to them for this help. However, this case would prove to be impossible for them to handle.
Hearing that Jesus’s disciples were in their area, dozens, if not hundreds, or even thousands, of people had flocked to them to be healed of their illnesses, and to have demons cast out of their loved ones. The crowd, as usual, consisted mostly of the poorest people of the land. They were suffering, and sometimes desperate people. It was this crowd that Jesus and His three leaders met when they reunited with the other disciples.
As soon as they reach them, a desperate man falls on his knees at Jesus’s feet, and begs Him to “have mercy”, or “compassion”, on his son. He calls Him “Lord”, which literally means “Master”, and could either represent his faith in Jesus as the God of the Old Testament, or more likely, his recognition of Jesus as the man to whom God has given authority over him. He gives two reasons for his son’s need: he’s a “lunatic”, or literally “moonstruck”, which means that he has seizures, and he’s “very ill”. He further explains that his seizures or convulsions many times cause him to fall into both fire and water, burning him, and threatening to drown him. This probably forces the father to save him every time this happens, causing him great distress and sorrow.
V. 16: After he describes the problem with his son, the man then describes the problem with Jesus’s disciples. After presenting his son to the disciples to miraculously cure him of his seizures, they’re unable to do so. But the father knows that if anyone can do it, the disciples’ Master can, who gave them the power to perform miracles.
V. 17: Jesus’s reply to the man is not what we would expect, but it shows that the man’s biggest problem isn’t the disciples inability to heal his son, but with his, and most of his fellow Jews’ spiritual and moral condition. Just as when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, and found that Israel was worshiping a golden calf, demonstrating themselves to be “unbelieving and perverted”, so now Jesus has come down from a mountain, and finds a crowd of such a people. In fact, the phrase, “unbelieving and perverted generation” is almost word for word what Moses calls Israel in Deuteronomy 32:5, except the Hebrew text uses “perverse” instead of “unbelieving”.
So what is the man’s biggest problem, along with the rest in the crowd that have come for healing or exorcism? They don’t believe God’s Word, and they’re perverted, or morally crooked, constantly disobeying, and dishonoring, God. Therefore, Jesus rhetorically asks how much longer He’ll have to tolerate their sinfulness, since He hates it, and it grieves Him. It’s this unbelieving and perverted character of most of the Jews that is the reason for their desperate conditions that are being caused by demons, such as the one that is living inside of the man’s son.
However, since Jesus later chastises His disciples for the “littleness” of their faith, it’s not only the man who is demonstrating unbelief through the condition of his son, but also the disciples through their inability to deliver him. Although they’re no longer “unbelieving and perverted”, they still often act that way through their unfaithfulness and sinfulness. So, instead of immediately telling them what they need to do to cure the boy, Jesus orders them to bring him to Himself, so He can answer the father’s request.
V. 18: Jesus saves the son — who’s revealed to be a “boy” — from his seizures and illness by “rebuking” him, which means to tell someone that they’re doing something wrong, and need to stop. However, He’s not really rebuking the boy himself, but the “demon”, or evil spirit, who is living inside of the boy. As soon as He commands the demon to stop tormenting him, he stops being an epileptic, and is restored to a normal mental condition.
Vss. 19-20: After Jesus’s disciples have a break from serving the crowd, and they’re alone with Jesus, they ask him why they couldn’t cast the demon out of the boy. The reason Jesus gives is that their faith is so “little” or “small”. But what does He mean by “faith”? He means their trust in God’s willingness and ability to enable them to perform the miracles that Jesus gave them the authority to do. Apparently, they really didn’t believe that God was willing and/or able to enable them to cast out the demon. Perhaps this was due to fear, since the boy was in such an unusually terrible condition.
And what does Jesus mean by “little” faith? Well, He explains what He means by promising them that if their faith is as big as “a mustard seed”, they’ll be able to tell the mountain next to them to move, and it will move. According to Mark 4:31, the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds that they knew of, so the fact that Jesus describes the disciples’ faith as “little” shows us that it was almost non-existent when they tried to cast out the demon. Nevertheless, if their faith in God, and in Him, is only as big as the tiniest of seeds, they will have the power to do what seems impossible. He’s not saying that they’ll literally be able to perform miracles that alter geography, or that they’ll be able to do anything. Rather, He’s saying that what seems impossible for them to do, they’ll be able to do through God’s power, granted to them as representatives of Jesus, and doing His will. But they must have faith in Him and in God, not in themselves, or even in their authority to do miracles.
So, how does this apply to followers of Jesus today?
- Jesus is still putting up with an unbelieving and perverted generation today, and He’s demonstrated that He’s extremely patient. He even still has mercy on those who humbly ask Him for it as their divine Lord, so they can be saved from the devil’s oppression.
- If we’re unable to accomplish anything that the Lord has called us to do, it’s because we’re not trusting in Him to enable us to do it. We may have faith in our ability, but we don’t have any ability unless He gives it to us.
- If we’re relying on the Lord to enable us to do anything He’s called us to, He’s promised to enable us to do it, no matter how impossible it seems. Just as He gave the apostles the power to perform miracles, so also He’s given us the power of His Holy Spirit to accomplish supernatural things, although we can’t do true miracles like the apostles.