New Testament Study:

Matthew 17:10-23

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A Question Concerning Elijah

 

10The disciples asked Him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

11Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13Then the disciples understood that He was talking to them about John the Baptist.

 

The three disciples (Peter, John and James), having just come down from the mount of transfiguration, were more convinced than ever that Jesus is Son of the living God, and the promised Messiah.  And the sight of Elijah on the mountain probably reminded them of the prophecy that said that the return of Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah.  So, “The disciples asked [Jesus], ‘Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’” (vs. 10).  The prophecy about Elijah comes from Malachi 4:6:  “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”  The teachers of the law foresaw only one coming of the Messiah.  The prophecy in Malachi (we now realize) refers to the second coming of Jesus, for it says that Elijah will come “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”  The phrase “the great and dreadful day” refers to the end-times of tribulation and judgment which will occur when our Lord returns.

So, Jesus replied to the disciples: “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things” (vs. 11).  Note, He says “will restore all things.”  Jesus knew that He was to return in the future, and that Elijah would precede Him then.  But then also, there was a man who preceded Jesus in His first coming, who came in the “spirit and the power of Elijah” (see Luke 1:17).  Jesus told the disciples:  “‘But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished.  In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’  Then the disciples understood that He was talking to them about John the Baptist” (vs. 13).  The children of Israel “did not recognize” John as fulfilling the prophecy about Elijah, nor (by and large) did they accept Jesus as their Messiah.  Had Jesus been accepted by His people as the Messiah in His first coming, John the Baptist would have fulfilled the prophecy concerning Elijah, for John came in “the spirit and the power of Elijah”.  But Jesus will come again, and another man will precede Him, and, as Jesus taught, “will restore all things.”  “There seems no doubt that the prophecy in Malachi, like many other OT passages, has a two-fold interpretation; the secondary and symbolic meaning referred to John at Christ’s first appearing, and then literally before Christ’s second coming.  This entire section, suggesting Scripture to be fulfilled in a wider sense than appears on surface, shows how often God’s Word is found to be much deeper and fuller in meaning than its mere words seem to imply; and it is therefore wise to follow disciples’ example and ask Divine guidance in its interpretation” [Griffith Thomas, 259].

 

Faith

 

14When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before Him. 15“Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

17“O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.

19Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

20He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. 21But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”

22When they came together in Galilee, He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. 23They will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief. 

 

In all three Gospels which contain the transfiguration (Matthew, Mark and Luke), this episode closely follows.  Therefore, I assume that this episode took place not long after Jesus and His disciples came down the mountain:  “When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before Him.  ‘Lord, have mercy on my son,’ he said.  ‘He has seizures and is suffering greatly.  He often falls into the fire or into the water.  I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not heal him’” (vss. 14–16).  In these last few chapters of Matthew, lapses of faith by the disciples and other failures are a recurring theme (see 14:16–21; 14:26–27; 14:28–31; 15:16; 15:23; 15:33; 16:5; 16:22).  In this case, the disciples (presumably the nine of the Twelve who did not go to the mount of transfiguration) were not able to heal a demon-possessed boy.  “This failure in their healing ministry at first seems strange, since Jesus had clearly given them power to heal and exorcise demons (10:1, 8).  Yet it is part of the pattern of the disciples’ advance and failure.  In other situations they had shown lack of faith (14:26-27, 31; 15:5, 8)—a reminder that their power to do kingdom miracles was not their own but, unlike magic, was entirely derivative and related to their own walk of faith” [Carson, 390].

Jesus was not happy with their failure:  “‘O unbelieving and perverse generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?’” (vs. 17).  Nothing grieves our Lord more than people’s unbelief, for this obstructs all the blessings which are appointed to come by faith” [Dickson, 204]. 

Note the two rhetorical questions, “How long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?”  The implication of these questions is that lack of faith drives Jesus away.  “The longer that Christ hath offered Himself to a people or person, and the more patience He hath shown towards them, the more He is provoked by their unbelief to reject them, and depart from them” [Dickson, 204].

Jesus made up for their lack of faith:  “‘Bring the boy here to me’  Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment” (vss. 17–18).  “Note, Christ’s glories do not make Him unmindful of us, and of our wants and miseries.  Christ, when He came down from the mount, where He had conversation with Moses and Elijah, did not take His estate upon Him, but was as easy of access, as ready to poor beggars, and as familiar with the multitude, as ever He used to be” [Henry].

By way of application, parents whose children have gone astray may take hope from this episode.  “Bad as this boy’s case was, of whom we read in these verses, he was ‘cured from the very hour’ that he was brought to Christ!  Parents, and teachers, and ministers should go on praying for young men, even at their worst.  Hard as their hearts seem now, they may yet be softened:  desperate as their wickedness now appears, they may yet be healed” [Ryle, 211].

The disciples themselves were surprised that they could not drive out the demon:  “Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’  He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith.  I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you.  But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting’” (vss. 19–21).  The disciples, it seems, treated the gift of healing given to them by Jesus, as a sort of magic, which they could use unconditionally, when and where they wanted.  We learn here that the spiritual gifts of God are not unconditional, but must be accompanied by faith, and dependence on God.  “Unbelief, and other unrepented sins, may mar the exercise of most excellent gifts” [Dickson, 205].  And in this particular case, it was necessary that the gift of healing be accompanied by other spiritual weapons in order to be successful:  “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (vs. 21).  “When we find Satan strong and violent, and not yielding ground to us, when He is opposed, or set upon by us, then must we set an edge upon our faith by prayer and an edge upon our prayer, by fasting and separation of ourselves unto the exercise of prayer” [Dickson, 206].  In fact, undoubtedly, if the disciples went about exercising their gift properly by faith and dependence on God, the Spirit of God would have led them to success through leading them to prayer and fasting.  “Faith would have suggested and supplied these special means:  since they were absolutely necessary in the case if the disciples were to succeed in it, faith would have exercised herself in them” [Spurgeon, 240].

Jesus teaches us of the power of God that can be exercised through the faith of His people:  “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible to you” (vs. 20).  Of course, for us to move a mountain through faith, it must be commissioned to us by God to move the mountain, just as it was commissioned by Jesus to the disciples to drive out demons (see Matt. 10:1, 8).  “It is possible to misunderstand the will of God and to try to move a mountain that should not be moved.  In that case the believer will be disappointed” [Morris, 449].  “He does not mean that God will give us whatever comes heedlessly into our minds or mouths.  In fact, since there is nothing more contradictory to faith than the foolish and unconsidered wishes of our flesh, it follows that where faith reigns there is no asking for anything indiscriminately” [Calvin].  However, when commissioned by God, we can do great things, with even a tiny amount of faith, “faith as small as a mustard seed.”   “It is not necessary to have great faith; even a small faith is enough, as long as it is faith in the great God” [Morris, 449].