8. Preaching the gospel, 13:53-17:23

xii] The healing of the epileptic boy


The inner circle of disciples have just experienced the wonder and grandeur of Jesus' transfiguration, but now they descend to the real world of sin and death, a world lost and apart from Christ. Here Jesus must again face the stupidity and unbelief, not only of the crowds, but even of his own disciples. The disciples have failed to heal an epileptic boy and so Jesus takes charge, lays hold of the evil powers and heals the boy. Later, the disciples ask Jesus why they had failed to drive out the evil spirit. Jesus goes on to explain to them that it was because of their "little faith." The episode concludes with Jesus' second passion prediction.


Faith as small as a mustard seed sets us free.


i] Context: See 16:13-20.


ii] Structure: The healing of the epileptic boy:

Setting / healing, v14-18:

The reversal of a failed exorcism.

"you unbelieving and perverse generation ..."

Discussion, 19-20:

A failed exorcism "because you have so little faith."


"if you have faith as small as a mustard seed ....."

"nothing will be impossible for you."

The second passion prediction, v22-23.


iii] Interpretation:

Like Moses at Mount Sinai, Jesus and his inner circle come down the mountain, and confront a "faithless generation" below - a people "who are repeating the pattern of unbelief of their ancestors in the Exodus period", Nolland. Both Moses and Jesus come down with the covenant / gospel, a word from God stating his intention to set his people free, by grace through faith. Sadly, as with Moses, unbelief confronts Jesus when all that is required is faith as small as a mustard seed.

Although this episode aligns in Matthew and Luke, a different emphasis is evident. In Luke the focus is on Christology, Jesus the healer, but in Matthew the focus is on faith. If Matthew intends this narrative to look forward to the 4th. Discourse then the stress will be on the disciples and their "little faith", but it is more likely that Matthew wants the narrative defined by the 3rd. Discourse - the gospel. The Word / gospel / news of the coming kingdom realizes the long-promised blessings of the covenant, it sets God's people free, and this by faith, a faith as small as a mustard seed, a faith focused on the faithfulness of Christ (his death on our behalf).


Little faith and the business of moving mountains: When Jesus chides the disciples for their "little faith", he is pointing to a flaw in their faith, not its size. When it comes to size, even a faith as small as a mustard seed achieves God's purposes. Yet, in what sense is it faulty? Morris suggests a faith of "poor quality", but in what sense "poor"? Surely not as D&A suggest, a faith "that does not trust God totally" - only Jesus possessed such a faith. They suggest further that it is "weak and ineffectual", but that sounds like the faith of most of us, a mustard seed like faith. Hagner suggests it "does not qualify to be called a genuine faith at all, even of a minimal amount", and surely that's the intention here. Nolland handles the issue nicely when he states that "Matthew's choice of 'little faith' represents a refinement of 17:17, where the disciples, having been linked to the generation of their contemporaries, share the epithet 'unbelieving'. Although in their failure the disciples are like their contemporaries in their unbelief, in their case Matthew would prefer to speak of 'little faith': they have followed Jesus and are on the journey, which, despite all its ups and downs, is to be thought of as one of growing faith."

It is interesting to note that in Mark's gospel the point Jesus makes seems quite different. "This kind/type" of unclean spirit, a powerful kind (Mark has made this point in his description of the boy's symptoms), necessitates prayer. Seeing Jesus didn't pray, it is usually argued that the need for prayer applies to the disciples. They needed to put the exorcism into divine hands, given its difficulty, rather than rely on their own abilities. This, of course, indirectly becomes a matter of faith; "prayer is faith turned to God", Grundmann. Actually, it is from the father that we learn the lesson of faith; he asks Jesus for forbearance and his prayer is answered.

When it comes to "little faith", Jesus reminds his disciples of the faith that moves mountains, a faith where nothing is impossible for us, v20. The moving of mountains has proverbial precedence and so the statement should be treated metaphorically. The realization of the mountain of promised blessings in Christ are ours through faith, a faith weak, feeble, even doubting. Too often believers feel that they have the authority to decide on what mountains need moving. When the mountain fails to shift, they then punish themselves for their weak faith, or worse, punish others for their weak faith. Of course, it is the Lord who decides what mountains need moving, not believers, mountains such as forgiveness, eternal life, ....., and he does the moving. So, faith is only ever properly exercised with respect to the propositional statements of scripture - promises of scripture which apply to all people at all times, eg., Jn.3:16. God's impossible promises in Christ are realized for everyone who believes / trusts / has faith in / rests on / ...... them.

So, the disciples "little faith" was more like unbelief, but they were on a journey of growing faith and were beginning to learn that all things are possible, not all the things they dream of, but rather all the things that God promises.


iv] Synoptics:

Central to the discussion over the failure of the disciples to drive out the demon is Matthew's use of two independent sayings of Jesus in v20. A version of the first saying is found in both Mark and Luke in a different context, Mark 11:23, Luke 17:6. Matthew will use the saying again in 21:21. Some argue that Luke is closer to the original with Matthew using "mountain" to reference mount transfiguration. A version of the second saying in found in Mark, again in a different context, "everything is possible for one who believes", Mk.9:23. Matthew's use of these sayings in this miracle story reshapes it into a pronouncement story.


All three synoptic gospels place this incident after the transfiguration, possibly indicating that the stories were aligned well before they were documented by our gospel writers. Both Matthew and Luke provide an abridged version of Mark's account which evidences that either Luke used Matthew as his prime source, or Matthew used Luke. It is, of course, possible for both to end up with a similar abridged version of Mark independently. Other suggestions include the use of a proto-Mark / proto-Matthew source. Yet, it is possible, irrespective of whether Mark was sourced by both Matthew and Luke, that a local oral tradition was available to the gospel writers at this time and that this served as their prime source. There is some evidence that Mark's account involves the conflating of two separate healing stories, one with the focus on faith and the other on the failure of the disciples, cf., Bultman. Of course, if Mark has conflated two stories then this would support the priority of Matthew (the Griesbach hypothesis).

All three synoptic gospels follow the healing of the epileptic boy with Jesus' second major passion prediction. Mark and Luke then links this with the discussion on true greatness, but Matthew separates the two with the temple tax issue. It seems likely that Matthew, in line with his narrative theme of the gospel at work, wants to tie the passion prediction to the issue of faith rather than discipleship.

Text - 17:14

Faith, v14-23: i] The reversal of a failed exorcism, v14-18. This narrative focuses on the disciples' failure to exorcise a demon and Jesus' comment "you unbelieving and perverse generation." Commentators divide as to the intended target of Jesus' words, eg., France suggests the disciples in particular, Gundry suggests Israel, Hagner suggests the crowd, D&A suggest everyone ("Jesus is casting a mournful eye over his disciples who have, by their little faith retrogressed to the spiritual level of the multitude", D&A - but "little faith" is not "faithless"!!!). Schweizer thinks that "Jesus' bitterness is directed at the people as a whole", particularly given that the wording comes from Moses' lament over Israel, while Nolland suggests the crowd and the disciples. The crowd, and particularly the disciples, seem to be the focus of Jesus' words, but probably not the father, for he knows that his only hope lies in the mercy of God; "Lord, have mercy on my son."

elqontwn (ercomai) gen. aor. part. "when they came" - [and] having come [to the crowd]. The genitive absolute participle serves to introduce a temporal clause, as NIV; No subject is provided but presumably it was Jesus and the inner circle of disciples; "And when they came to the crowd", ESV.

autw/ dat. pro. "[a man approached] him" - [a man came to] him. Dative of direct object after the proV prefix verb "to come to."

genupetwn (gunupetew) pres. part. "and knelt before [him]" - kneeling down before [him]. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the verb "came to", "a man came and knelt", or possibly adverbial, modal, expressing the manner of his approach, "a man came kneeling."


legwn (legw) pres. part. "he said" - [and] saying [lord, have mercy / pity / compassion on the son of me]. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the verb "came to", v14; "he came ....... and said."

oJti "-" - because. Introducing a causal clause explaining why the Lord needs to have mercy on the boy, "for he is an epileptic and suffers terribly", ESV.

selhniazetai pres. "he has seizures" - he is moonstruck = an epileptic. For Matthew, an evil spirit lies behind what is a physical condition; "He is a lunatic and is in a terrible state", Phillips.

kakwV adv. "greatly" - [and he suffers] greatly, badly, severely. Adverb of measure.

gar "-" - for. Here more reason than cause so left untranslated; introducing a explanation.

pollakiV adv. "[he] often" - many time, often [he falls into the fire and] often [he falls into the water]. Modal adverb expressing frequency; "frequently he is pitched into the fire, other times into the river", Peterson.


toiV maqhtaiV (hV ou) dat. "to [your] disciples" - [i brought him] to the disciples [of you]. Dative of indirect object.

qerapeusai (qerapeuw) aor. inf. "[they could not] heal [him]" - [and they were not able] to heal [him]. Complementary infinitive, completing the sense of the negated verb "they were not able." It's interesting how the problem requires healing, although Jesus will "rebuke the demon." One casts out a demon, but heals a sickness. The two are linked in the mind of a first century Jew.


As indicated above, Jesus' frustration is likely directed toward the gathered crowd, and particularly the disciples.

diestrammenh (diastrefw) perf. mid./pas. part. "perverse [generation]" - [but/and having answered jesus said 'o generation faithless and] having been perverted - twisted, distorted, corrupted']. The participle serves as an adjective, attributive, limiting "generation"; "O faithless generation which is perverted" = "O faithless and (kai) perverted generation." Mark has only "you faithless generation." The additional phrase kai diestrammenh alludes to Deuteronomy 32:5, genea skolia kai diestrammenh, "a (morally??) twisted and distorted generation." A touch more Exodus / Sinai typology. "'This generation has no faith'", Jesus answered, "'there is a fatal perversity about it'", Barclay. Possibly better that these negative qualities are "characteristic" of this generation, so Carson.

apokriqeiV (apokrinomai) aor. pas. part. "[Jesus] replied" - having answered [jesus said]. Attendant circumstance participle, redundant, expressing action accompanying the verb "he said." Mark has the indirect object autoiV, "to them", which in the context means the crowd, given that a representative of the crowd answers Jesus' question "what are you arguing about with them (the disciples)?"

eJwV pote "how long" - up until when. Interrogative temporal construction.

meq (meta) + gen. "with [you]" - [will i be] with [you]. Expressing accompaniment / association.

uJmwn gen. pro. "[shall I put up with] you" - [how long will i suffer, bear with, endure] you. Genitive of direct object after the verb anecw, "to bear with", which takes a genitive of persons. "A little glimpse of how trying it must have been for such a one as Jesus to be set in the middle of such spiritual pygmies", Morris. "How much longer have I got to put up with this?"

moi dat. pro. "to me" - [bring him here] to me. Dative of indirect object.

w|de "here" - Adverb of place.


autw/ dat. pro. "the demon" - [and jesus rebuked] it / him. Dative of direct object after the epi prefix verb "to rebuke." Presumably the rebuke is directed to the demon rather than the child or the father.

ap (apo) + gen. "[it came out] of" - [and the demon came out] from [him]. Expressing separation; "away from."

apo thV wJraV ekeinhV "at that moment" - [and the child was healed] from that hour. Temporal use of the preposition apo, "from". "It went out of the boy and at once he was healed", CEV.


ii] The danger of "little faith", v19-20. The disciples had the power and authority, at this point in time, to cast out the evil spirit / heal the child, but failed due to their "little faith", see v20.

An important principle of Biblical interpretation applies at this point, namely, a command or promise to a specific person, or persons, at a specific point in time, is not necessarily a command or promise to all people at all points of time. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to perform the messianic signs of the coming kingdom to God's people Israel so declaring that "the time is fulfilled." There is no scriptural evidence that this authority extended beyond the 1st. century. For the Gentile mission, such signs would be mere magic, rather than the fulfillment of prophecy.

tote adv. "then" - The temporal adverb indicates a step in the narrative.

proselqonteV (prosercomai) aor. part. "came to" - [the disciples] having approached. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the verb "said"; "came .... and asked."

tw/ Ihsou (oV) dat. "Jesus" - Dative of direct object after the proV prefix verb "to come to."

kat idian "in private" - according to one's own. Idiomatic adverbial modal construction; "privately."

dia ti "why" - [they said] because why. A causal interrogative construction; "Why weren't we able to get rid of it?", Phillips.

hJmeiV pro. "we" - were we. Emphatic by use and position; "why is it that we your disciples were not able to cast out the demon?"

ekbalein (ekballw) aor. inf. "drive it out" - [not able] to cast out [it]? The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of the negated verb "not able."


"It is not the task of faith literally to move mountains. That is irrelevant, however. Jesus was not speaking of the task of faith, nor the direction in which it must be exercised, but only its power. This power is unlimited because it is based on God's omnipotence", Ridderbos. The disciples had been given the authority to cast out demons by Jesus, so they possessed the power to undertake that task. Their failure to rest / depend on their gifted authority / word from Christ inevitably detached them from the source of their power.

autoiV dat. pro. "[he replied]" - [but/and he said] to them. Dative of indirect object.

dia + acc. "because" - Causal; "because of, on account of."

oligopistian (a) "[you have] so little faith" - the little faith [of you]. Hapax legomenon - once only use in the NT. Most likely expressing the flawed nature of their faith, rather than the size; see Interpretation above.

gar "-" - for. Introducing a causal clause explaining why the disciples' faith is flawed, because even if it was "as small as a mustard seed" it would have facilitated the exorcism / healing of the child.

amhn gar lew uJmin "truly I tell you" - truly I say to you. Always used to introduce an important statement. The gar here is probably causal, as above, but possibly just emphatic; "and indeed, I can give you solemn assurance of this", Cassirer.

ean + subj. "if" - Introducing a conditional clause 3rd. class where the condition has the possibility of coming true; "if, as may be the case, you are having faith as a seed of mustard plant, then you will say to this mountain depart from there and it will depart" = "if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, 'Move!' and it would move", Peterson.

wJV "as small as" - as, like. Comparative.

sinapewV (i ewV) gen. "mustard [seed]" - [seed] of a mustard plant. The genitive is adjectival, partitive.

ereite (legw) fut. "you can say" - you will say. "You are well able to say" ????

tw/ orei (oV) dat. "to [this] mountain" - Dative of indirect object.

enqen ekei adv. "from here to there" - [move] from this place / here to that place / there [and it will depart]. Adverbs of place.

uJmin dat. pro. "for you" - [nothing will be impossible] for you. Dative of interest, advantage, or possibly reference / respect. The full-blown saying is found in Mark 9:23, "all things are / everything is possible for those who believe", which of course, is the point Matthew is making.


iii] Faith in the dying rising Christ, v22-23. As noted above, Matthew's backward referencing intent to reveal the gospel at work is furthered by the separation of Christ's passion prediction from the issue of true greatness, 18:1-5. In Matthew's gospel, this passion prediction is firmly linked to the healing of the epileptic boy and the issue of faith - freeing / saving faith. Such a faith, weak, fumbling, doubting, .... both rests upon, and is empowered by, the death and resurrection of Christ. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew does not specify that these words are just for the disciples - the "they came together" is rightly a coming together of the crowd with the disciples. Both the disciples and the crowd need to hear that they are a "faithless and twisted generation", but that faith in the gospel, the grace / mercy of God exercised in the dying and rising of Christ, will set them free. Note that the first dying / rising prediction is found in 16:21, with a saying on the suffering of the Son of Man in 17:12.

de "-" - but/and. Transitional, indicating a step in the narrative.

sustrefomenwn (sustrefw) gen. pres. mid. part. "when [they] came together" - coming together. Genitive absolute participle, temporal, as NIV. The coming together in Galilee is possibly in preparation for the journey to Jerusalem.

en + dat. "in [Galilee]" - Local, expressing space. Caesarea Philippi is not in Galilee so the gathering is well after the events recorded up to this point.

autoiV dat. pro. "[he said] to them" - [jesus said] to them. Dative of indirect object.

tou anqrwpou (oV) "[the Son] of Man" - The genitive is adjectival, relational. For "Son of Man" see 8:20.

paradidasqai (paradidwmi) pres. pas. inf. "[is going] to be delivered" - [is about] to be handed over to the power and authority of = delivered. With mellei, a futuristic present; "will be delivered" = imminence of. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of the verb "is about." Best taken as a divine / theological passive, ie., God does the handing over.

anqrwpwn (oV) gen. "[into the hands] of men" - [into hands] of men. The genitive is adjectival, possessive. The Son of Man, the authoritative judge of humanity, will be handed over to "into the hands of" (= "power of", Culy) humanity - unbelieving Israel + secular Rome.


The focus of faith becomes "the heart of the faith", Morris - In his dying we die to sin, in his rising we are raised to new life, eternal life. See 16:21.

th/ ... hJmera/ (a) dat. "on the [third] day" - [and they will kill him and] the [third] day. The dative is adverbial, temporal, of time, as NIV.

egerqhsetai (egeirw) fut. pas. "he will be raised to life" - he will be raised. A divine / theological passive; God does the raising. You can't keep a good man down!

sfodra adv. "the disciples were filled with grief" - [and they were grieved] very much. Adverb of measure; they weren't just sad they were very sad. The NIV has "disciples", but Matthew does not identify the "they"; he probably envisages a wider group than the twelve. In Mark, they (the disciples) lack understanding and are afraid to get into the subject, but in Matthew they (a group wider than the disciples) do understand and are "very sad."


Matthew Introduction


[Pumpkin Cottage]