Faith isn’t a magic pill that gives us the power or right to accomplish whatever we want. But the faith of Jesus-followers is a wonderful means through which God wants to act in this world, and has acted in this world for two-thousand years. Having faith does not enable you to do whatever you want – it enables God to do whatever He wants, in and through you.
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There is a persistent, widespread belief that the New Testament was written, or edited, by people who had an agenda, people who wanted to use it to manipulate others. Therefore, before we dive in to the main text today, I want to mention verse 21, because it is the kind of thing that more or less takes all the air out of that silly notion. When we see the actual facts, we know that we can have confidence that the New Testament we have today really is what the apostles – those who actually knew Jesus – wrote.
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) puts brackets around verse 21, and makes a footnote about it, which reads: “other mss omit bracketed text.” The NIV has it only as a footnote. The English Standard Version (ESV) also has it as a footnote. Their footnotes read something like this: “some manuscripts insert verse 21: But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.”
This is what we in the exciting business of Bible Teaching call “a major textual variant.” I have mentioned before that there are almost six thousand ancient manuscripts and partial manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Scholars have been comparing them to one another for many years now, and have found very few variations between them. What this means is that long before Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, all Christians were using the same New Testament we use today. It wasn’t changed to suit the purposes of people in power. It wasn’t shaped by various faith communities to suit their particular agendas. All Christians have been working from the same text for almost two-thousand years, from a time hundreds of years before following the words of Jesus provided anyone any sort of prestige or power.
But there are some variations. This is an example of what is considered a major variation. The earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament does not have the words “But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting,” in the book of Matthew. A large number of later manuscripts do have those words in Matthew.
Mark records the same incident in chapter nine of his gospel. Every text of Mark 9:29 has this:“This kind can come out by nothing but prayer.” Some variants of Mark 9:29 add “and fasting.”
So first, let’s look at the big picture. The use of prayer and fasting while performing exorcisms is not a major Christian doctrine. If we take this out altogether, we have not really changed Christianity in any significant way.
Second, it is clear that Jesus did actually say, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer,” – it’s just that it is unlikely that Matthew recorded those words – probably only Mark did. So, actually, the only thing we aren’t sure Jesus said was “and fasting.”
Do you see what’s going on here? Nothing. This is considered a major textual variant and yet it doesn’t affect any significant Christian belief. The only real question we are left with is whether Matthew wrote it (we know Mark did) and whether Jesus says it is helpful, in addition to praying, to also fast while driving out demons.
All right, on to the main text today:
14 When they reached the crowd, a man approached and knelt down before Him. 15 “Lord,” he said, “have mercy on my son, because he has seizures and suffers severely. He often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 I brought him to Your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”
17 Jesus replied, “You unbelieving and rebellious generation! How long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him here to Me.” 18 Then Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and from that moment the boy was healed.
19 Then the disciples approached Jesus privately and said, “Why couldn’t we drive it out? ”
20 “Because of your little faith,” He told them. “For I assure you: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.
Mark records that the failure of the disciples to drive out the demon led to a dispute between them and some of the religious leaders (Mark 9:14-16).
14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes disputing with them. 15 All of a sudden, when the whole crowd saw Him, they were amazed and ran to greet Him. 16 Then He asked them, “What are you arguing with them about? ”
Let’s use our imagination here, and I think we might find a familiar scenario. Imagine this: John Smith is a skeptic. He doesn’t know if he really believes in God, and is not sure at all that God will help when someone asks. John has a friend named Fred Jones, who gets very sick. John asks his Christian friends to pray for Fred, and then when Fred isn’t immediately healed in the way John wants, John gets mad at God for not doing anything. I’ve been involved in several scenarios like that, and I think there is a little bit of something I might call “perversity” in that. If you really don’t believe, why do you ask for, much less expect, any help? How can you seek help from a place of faithlessness, and then turn around and hold God responsible for not doing what you never trusted him to do in the first place? How can you blame him if you don’t believe in him?
I suspect that this is what was going on between the disciples and the religious leaders, and this is what Jesus ran into when he came down the mountain. I think it is this attitude that he called “unbelieving and rebellious.” The translation above (HCSB) translates the Greek word “rebellious,” while others use “perverse,” but the root word means “to distort.” That is exactly what is going on. The people were using the failure of the disciples as an occasion to distort the truth about Jesus.
I think the disciples provide an admirable example to us when they go to Jesus and humbly admit that they failed, and seek the reason why. The world is already generally inclined to reject Jesus and persecute his followers, but we don’t need to give them unnecessary reasons. A little humility, and some genuine honesty about our failures doesn’t hurt, and may help at least a few people to be more open to the message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. At the very least, it is helpful to us spiritually both to admit that we have failed, and also to bring those failures to Jesus.
Jesus’ reply to them is one of the few places where I think the HCSB really misses the obvious meaning of the Greek. It says “Because of your little faith.” Little faith doesn’t capture it at all. This is not the same word Jesus used during the calming of the storm when he said “you of little faith, (Matt 8:26),” or when Peter started to sink after walking on water (Matt 14:31), or when the disciples were talking about the yeast of the Pharisees (Matt 16:8).
The Greek word for faith (or trust) is pistis. Here, Jesus uses a single word for the “little faith” of disciples: apistis. In Greek, an “a” in front of a word generally means “the opposite of” or “the absence of” or “the contradiction to.” In other words, Jesus is not saying the disciples had very little faith – he is saying they had none at all (at least in this situation). Everywhere else in the New Testament, the HCSB translates apistis as “unbelief.” I believe it should have been the same here, or maybe, “lack of faith.”
I think this puts things in a different light. It is not that the disciples had some faith, but not quite enough for the healing of the demon-possessed boy. In fact, they had no faith at all. That is why Jesus uses the analogy of the mustard seed. A mustard seed is about one-third the size of a grain of rice. Not much bigger, really, than a grain of sand. In those days before microscopes or magnifying glasses, the mustard seed would be one of the smallest visible objects in the world. Jesus doesn’t mean their faith was even smaller than that – he means they had none.
I don’t know about you, but telling them “it is because you have no faith,” seems a little harsh. Remember, they had left homes and careers to follow Jesus. They had seen some incredible miracles. None of the others objected when Peter said Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and it seems likely that many, if not all, agreed with him. We know that Andrew (Peter’s brother) thought Jesus was the Messiah from the very first day (John 1:41). Also, Philip told Nathaniel that he believed Jesus was the one predicted by the Old Testament. So how can Jesus say they had no faith?
I think Jesus probably means something like this: “You may believe that I can do miracles when I am present. You may believe that I am the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But you still do not have faith that this means anything real and practical for you right now, in the situations you face. When it comes to your real life and the problems you face, you have no faith that I am available to you, that I will make an actual difference for you.”
RT France writes about this text:
“It is a striking illustration of the fact that faith is, for Jesus, not a matter of intellectual assent, but of a practical reliance on a living God.”
The disciples were probably willing to give their intellectual assent to the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. But they had not yet learned to practically rely on the Lord in real life situations. Their doctrine is correct, but it doesn’t yet make a difference in how they live or deal with life.
So Jesus tells them, “if you have even a tiny amount of faith (any faith at all) you could move mountains.” By the way, the moving of a mountain is a proverbial saying. It’s like saying, “if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times.” When you say that, you don’t mean that you have literally repeated yourself 1,000,000 times. It’s a common saying that uses exaggeration to make a point. In the same way, in those days in Israel there was a common saying, or proverb, about moving mountain, and that is what Jesus is using here. I do not believe it is meant to be taken at face value. I think the point Jesus is making is that any amount of faith allows us to access the unlimited power of God.
I want to make sure we understand what Jesus is communicating here. Some people take all this as if faith is a means to harness the power of God to do whatever we want done (as long as it isn’t overtly sinful). You hear people say things like “I’m just standing in faith that the Lord will provide a new car for you,” or “I will not receive this diagnosis of cancer.” You may even hear people say “You have to stand in faith. Don’t doubt! Don’t speak doubt. God will act if you just stand in faith.” God may indeed want to give someone a new car, or heal someone of cancer. However, I think these sorts of statements often represent a misunderstanding of faith. Having faith does not enable you to do whatever you want – it enables God to do whatever He wants, in and through you. Through faith, you give God permission (and therefore power) to act as He pleases. Faith begins with the understanding that it isn’t up to you, it’s up to God.
Perhaps you want to move a mountain. Faith doesn’t give you power do that. You will never have that sort of power. That power is God’s. Also, faith doesn’t give you the right to go around re-arranging the landscape. They aren’t your mountains – they are God’s. The mountain is only moved by God’s power, and only if it is God’s desire to move it. Faith is simply opening the door to him. Faith isn’t a means to control God or “harness” his power – it is simply asking him and trusting him to act as he pleases in and through us.
This is one of those things in the Christian life that calls for balance. We don’t control God. We don’t control our circumstances through faith. The Lord never promised us freedom from all trouble, hardship or sickness in this mortal life. And yet, he does want us to rely upon him in practical ways in this mortal life. Though we should not lose our eternal perspective, we should also realize he does often want to act in us and through us while we are alive on earth. He wants to heal people through us. He wants to deliver people from demonic oppression through us. He wants to communicate his grace and love to others through us. He wants to comfort others through us. He also sometimes want to do these same things for us. Sometimes, he wants even to provide for our physical needs. All of these things happen when by faith we open the door for him to act. Faith isn’t a magic pill that gives us the power or right to accomplish whatever we want. But the faith of Jesus-followers is a wonderful means through which God wants to act in this world, and has acted in this world for two-thousand years.
Our faith should make a difference in real life. Jesus wants us to learn to rely upon him practically in all things. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel alone in attempting to really rely upon Jesus. It seems like people either think faith is a way to personally control the power of God, or faith has no practical value here on earth. But there are people who take a balanced approach. Their hope and goal is heaven. And yet, here and now, they live in daily dependence upon the Lord. One group of people who live like this are the missionaries of the World Mission Prayer League. They have been relying on Jesus in practical and balanced ways for almost ninety years. Here are some excerpts from World Mission Prayer League Documents:
We want to communicate our dependence upon God, as well. We want our prayers and communications to demonstrate that we have no hope but heaven, no resource but God, and no guarantee but his faithful promises…
We choose to depend upon Jesus, for all things at all times. Jesus secures our redemption and has become our eternal hope. We may count on him to provide as well everything necessary for life and service (2 Peter 1:3)…
The dependable grace of Jesus frees us from the anxious need to supply ourselves from the limited store of our own abilities….
Dependence upon “the dependable grace of Jesus” is a choice. It is a practice and a lifestyle.
It is something that we learn… And it is, of course, a kind of mystery, too. It is the mystery of faith itself, in a way. It is one of the irreducibly untidy things that I love about the Prayer League…
Dependence on Christ as gracious Lord sustains us in our calling when other ties may fail. Christ makes us heirs of the kingdom of heaven! Now we may face hardship with joy, endure privation with contentment, and suffer loneliness and adversity with the courage of faith. Funds might run short and fail. The Mission may disappoint us, or even cease to exist. Yet the Lord will never fail us (Deuteronomy 31:8). We may put our trust in him above all…
This fundamental relationship of faith will challenge our attitudes and shape our behaviors at every turn.
World Mission Prayer League lives and does business by these principles every day, even now in 2015. To support their work around the world, they need about $70,000 per month. Over more than eight decades, the only person they have ever asked for money is God. If they need more missionaries, they pray. If they need money to support a new missionary, they pray. If they need a new computer system, they ask Jesus for it.
Now, I don’t share this because I think the people of the World Mission Prayer League are perfect. They are flawed human beings like everyone else. But they are human beings whom I know, who really do live their lives in the flesh by faith in Jesus Christ. People really do live in practical dependence upon Jesus. It can be done in a biblical, balanced way. By the grace of God, many people even today are living that way. By the grace of God YOU can live the life of faith well. As the Prayer League said, this approach to faith should challenge our attitudes and shape our behaviors at every turn.
Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you now.
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