Matthew 17:14 – 18:9
Summary: Jesus always understands what is happening at the deepest levels, and is entirely sufficient for the need.
This morning we’re going to learn more about Jesus. I hope that’s why you came – to learn more about Who He is, what He has done, and what He has to say to us. You will not be disappointed if you’re here for that, because God wants to reveal more of Himself to you. He wants you to understand the spiritual dynamics of this life, and He’s actually disappointed if you don’t.
So let’s jump back into the timeline here as Matthew tells us about the life of Jesus. He’s just been up on the Mount of Transfiguration with three of His disciples where they saw a tiny glimpse of His eternal glory and heard the actual voice of God. It was a powerful moment, an unforgettable experience, but now they’re coming back to meet up with the disciples they left behind and they discover pretty quickly that they’ve been missed.
Matthew 17:14 And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”
So, picture this scene in your mind: while Jesus was gone a man brought his suffering child to be healed. Luke also records this event and tells us this was the man’s only child. And you have to remember this was at a time when families were large. Having only one child was rare, it wasn’t what people were going for, in all likelihood he wanted more, but this one is all he has, and the child is being tormented by a demon. That, of course, is tormenting this father who then seeks out Jesus to do something about it. You’ve got a distraught dad who is desperate for a cure for his son. Imagine his disappointment when he arrives and discovers Jesus is out of the office – He’s gone on a trip with some of the other disciples.
But the disciples who are there say, ‘No worries, let us help!’ If you remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Jesus sent them out two-by-two to go to the surrounding villages and announce the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, and He gave them power to work miracles and cast out demons.
Luke 9:1 Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. 2 He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Mark tells us they were successful on that trip:
Mark 6:12 So they went out and preached that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.
But today they’ve got a problem.
So picture the scene – you’ve got the distraught father who made this whole trip to come see Jesus only to discover Jesus isn’t here, you’ve got the suffering child, and you’ve got the disciples all crowded around trying to do something and wondering why it’s not working.
And you know if you’ve seen a group of guys try to solve a problem before, they all stand around and let one guy give it a go for a bit, but when it seems like he’s not getting it, they all start offering up their suggestions about try this, or do that, or let me show you how to do it. So picture all of that happening, they’re each trying, each giving it a go – “you’ve got to pray like this”, “try putting your hand here”, “what if you say this instead of that?” and nothing is happening and the dad is just shaking head wondering if it’s all just a waste of time when Jesus comes walking up and asks what’s going on? They give Him an update and
17 Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.
Notice there is no mention of a struggle, there’s no epic conflict here between Jesus and the uber demon, He doesn’t have to stretch and do a bunch of warm-ups first, He doesn’t pull back make an assessment and develop a strategy. It’s more of an annoyance – Jesus rebukes the demon like He’s picking lint off His own shirt and instantly, effortlessly, everything is done. The contrast between His effort and the disciples’ struggle couldn’t be greater. So, like all men who just watched someone solve a problem they couldn’t figure out:
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”
20 So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. 21 However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
Jesus says they couldn’t do it because of unbelief. They didn’t have faith. In other words, they didn’t trust God. I think it’s because they were trusting in their own experience instead of God’s power.
The disciples have prayed for many people by this point. They’ve seen people cured, they’ve seen demons cast out. But because God had used them before they thought they actually owned the ability to work miracles instead of seeing themselves as the pipe which miracles flowed through.
And because they approached the situation with confidence in themselves and their experience instead of dependence on God, the only power they had was the power they brought which, obviously wasn’t getting the job done. They fell back on prior experience and completely overlooked the power behind the experience.
That happens to us all at times in our Christian walk, doesn’t it? It’s easy for us to go on autopilot. There’s this tendency in many of us to reduce our relationship with God to a set of spiritual best practices. So something comes up in life and we think we think we’ve got this, we’ve seen this before. We know what to do, we know what to say, we know how to pray in this situation. And we fall back on the form of what worked last time, but we forget that there is a difference between the things we say and do and the power at work in and through us.
Those of you who know your Bible well know the story of Samson – and you remember how after his hair was cut Delilah told him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” And he thought to himself, “No problem, I know what to do, I’ve done this before,” and he tried to get up but he didn’t realize the power had departed from him. He was going through the motions, doing what he had always done, instead of relying on the power of God each and every time.
I suspect that is what was happening here with the disciples, they were going through the motions of casting out the demon like they had in the past, but without relying on the power of God in the present; following the recipe, but skipping the secret ingredient.
So Jesus tells them, you couldn’t do it because you weren’t trusting God. If you had been trusting God, even the tiniest amount – like the size of a mustard seed – you could have moved mountains.
Now, that’s all hyperbole – intentional exaggeration – the idea of moving a mountain was a common one in ancient Jewish literature, a way of saying “to do the impossible.” Jesus never moved a mountain as part of His miracles, no Christian in history has ever moved a mountain, and I don’t think Jesus is up there disappointed in Heaven because we’re not down here moving actual pieces of dirt and rock as proof of our faith. But the point of it all is – we’re called to trust in God, actively, continually, not to live on spiritual auto-pilot. God wants an active, present tense relationship with us built on us trust that is demonstrated daily. And when that is occurring in our lives, we’ll see amazing things happen.
Some people hear Jesus talk about mustard seed sized faith and moving mountains and they beat themselves up because they think, well, I need to really, really, work on my faith, because I’m obviously doing things wrong here – I’m not moving mountains, am I even saved? Does God even hear my prayers? How can I ever see any answer to prayer if these guys don’t even have a mustard seed of faith?
Well, I think you need to see the bigger picture here – you need to know that the disciples, the ones who just got stuck casting out the demon, are actually getting a little full of themselves and Jesus is going to be putting them in their place pretty soon. They’re starting to think they’re spiritual giants – so Jesus telling them they don’t even have faith the size of a mustard seed is intentionally shocking and shows them how incompetent they are on their own.
In fact, one of them is actually going to betray him in a few days.
22 Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.
Jesus has been telling them of the opposition that lies ahead and it hasn’t been easy for them to accept. Now He tells them that someone in their own group is going to betray Him.
But make note of what we mentioned earlier as a theme for this morning: Jesus knew what was going on and exactly what to do about it. Jesus knows what’s coming and He still keeps going. He knows what lies ahead. He knows it’s going to be hard, He knows of the betrayal. But He still keeps plowing ahead through increasing difficulty and opposition, like what happens next:
24 When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”
Only Matthew tells us about this, but if you remember, Matthew used to be a tax collector himself, so he has special interest in things like this.
Way back in the book of Exodus God ordered a collection to be taken from every Jew over the age of 20 in order to provide funds for the tabernacle. This practice continued throughout the years. It was not a civic tax; it all went straight to the priests to help cover the costs associated with worship at the Temple. This was on top of other offerings made to God; it was a flat fee paid by everyone once a year, equal to about two days wages for a day laborer.
So now the temple tax collectors come to Peter and ask if Jesus pays the tax. And Peter, without consulting Jesus, always one to get himself in trouble by speaking out, tells them, “Of course.”
25 He said, “Yes.”
But now he has to go and have this awkward conversation with Jesus and find the funds to pay for what he just committed to. But, remember our theme this morning: Jesus knows what’s going on and exactly what to do about it. So before Peter can even try to slip it into the conversation, Jesus beats him to it:
(25 cont.) And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?”
Think about it, if you’re a king, do you collect taxes from your own kids? Of course not. So,
26 Peter said to Him, “From strangers.”
Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
Did you see that? Jesus knows what’s going on and exactly what to do about it.
Is it necessary for Him, as the Son of God, to pay the tax for the Temple in which He is worshipped? Of course not. But, Nevertheless, lest we offend them go and do it.
And Peter, you’re a fisherman right? Let Me do something here that you are not likely to forget – I want you to go fishing, and you’ll find the money you need, equal to four days wages, enough for you and Me – in the mouth of the first fish you catch. Which, you know tempted him to wonder what if he caught a second…
But don’t miss the connection here with the inability of the other disciples to cast out a demon earlier. Fishing is something Peter knows how to do. He’s caught thousands of fish in his life. If Jesus wanted, Peter could have taken a few days and gone out and caught enough fish, using his own skill, to pay the taxes. And Jesus could have let him do that to give him some time to think. But instead, Jesus says go and do something that you KNOW how to do, but discover a totally unexpected result as you do it in dependence on Me. Do it by faith. Do it trusting in Me and watch something different happen even though you’re doing the same old thing.
Maybe that’s a word for some of you from God. Have you heard the saying, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? Well, this must seem insane to Peter – but it’s not, because Jesus said to do it. Is there something in your life that you need to do again, something you’ve done before, or something you’ve prayed for before, and there was nothing spectacular about the results – is God calling your attention this morning and saying, do it again, but do it with a fresh sense of dependence, of trust, in Me? It’s something to consider.
Notice what else is happening here. Jesus is doing something He does not have to do, for the sake of keeping the peace. Jesus has no problem being offensive; we saw that earlier when He interacted with the scribes and Pharisees about ceremonial hand washing. But that doesn’t mean He was always harsh and abrasive. There were times, like this, where Jesus went out of His way to keep from causing a problem.
And Christian, this is a good example to us. There are times when we too will need to do things we don’t agree with, things that aren’t our preference – as long as they don’t compromise a deep spiritual truth or principle, there will be times when we follow our Master and do things we don’t feel naturally compelled to do in order that we might not give offense. There will be times when we need to remember: we serve a God who allowed Himself to be wronged and brought our salvation out of it.
Don’t expect it to be easy, but also don’t grumble about it as you go. Do it willingly, joyfully even. And take special note of this: Jesus even provided for Peter in the process. So how might He provide for you, as you go along with things, in order to avoid causing an offense? Again, it’s something to consider, especially as we look at what comes next:
Matthew 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Now, you have to know – the other gospels tell us they’ve actually been debating this among themselves – they’re vying for cabinet positions in the new administration of the Messiah. They’re arguing over who is going to be where in the pecking order.
But keep in mind, they just got stuck praying for a boy and couldn’t help him. Keep in mind Jesus just told them, again, that He’s going to be killed and one of them will betray Him, and keep in mind that Jesus just humbled Himself by paying the Temple tax and realize: these guys are all arguing over who’s number two?!?
2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.
6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.
Jesus is saying, “Guys, you’re arguing over who is going to hold what position in My kingdom, but your attitudes and actions suggest you might not even get in. You need to be converted and become like a little kid – not a teenager who thinks they’ve got it all figured out – no, a little kid who depends on their parents for everything.”
And then, He warns them about the example they’re setting for people like that – people with childlike faith. He says, if you lead someone astray, it’s not going to end well for you.
These guys should be setting a good example for people to follow, they should know Jesus the best, they’ve had the most access to Him. People should logically be able to watch the disciples and understand some things about Jesus. But right now, the similarity between Master and student isn’t that great. And so He encourages them to be radical about getting rid of the sin in their lives.
Just like when He spoke about mustard seeds and moving mountains, Jesus uses hyperbole here, intentional exaggeration, to make a point: we need to be serious about dealing with things that endanger our souls and the souls of people around us.
Christian, there are people around you watching your life in order to understand what it means to be a Christian. They’re making judgments all the time. And you’re either leading them to look toward Jesus with childlike trust and obedience or you’re tying a heavy stone around their neck and seeing how well they can swim.
This applies to co-workers, neighbors, friends, and many others, but it also applies directly to mom and dad. Parents, of all ages, how are you doing on teaching your children to have childlike trust in and obedience to God? Are you modeling things that foster your children’s walk with God, or are you doing things that harm them spiritually while making excuses for yourself because, well, you’re older?
What is there in your home, on your playlist, on your phone, that needs to be cut off and thrown away? Ask yourself: if Jesus did a tour of my car, my room, my workspace, my house, what would He be offended by? And ask yourself, do you really need that?
Be radical, as radical as gouging out an eye or cutting off a limb. It’s not going to be easy, but the point of the amputation is to save the life. If there are things in your life that lead to compromise or set a bad example or endorsement for others, will you get rid of it?
Remember, we’re talking this morning about a Jesus who knows what is going on and what to do about it. The question is, will you respond to what He’s saying?
Are you going through the motions spiritually and missing the power you once had? Are you doing the same things over and over without depending desperately on God? Or, is your life and your heart clogged with things that are weighing you down?
The answer to all of these things, and many, many more, is a renewed appreciation of Jesus. Just Jesus. Make Him the center of your life, make Him the essential source of strength in your life – in everything you do, even the things you’ve done a thousand times – stay vitally connected to Him and let Him drive out everything that gets in the way. Have boldness, have trust, be obedient and let Him lead you wherever He wants to go.