As you read the Gospels, it becomes quickly clear that the life of an apostle (like the life of any disciple of Christ) was one of highs and lows. For three apostles—Peter, James and John—one high point in their walk with Jesus was the experience atop the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–13). Peter recalled this event many years after it occurred (2 Peter 1:16–21) and John may also have alluded to it in 1 John 3:1–3.
The apostles never got over this event, though they came to understand that God’s written word is “more sure” (2 Peter 1:19) than that experience. But while they remembered with fondness their mountaintop experience, they, like us, had to learn to live faithfully in the mundane. They would experience other highs, but much of life was lived in the mundane.
God is gracious to afford us “mountaintop experiences” at various points in our lives, but more often than not we simply need to learn faithfully in the mundane. We spend the vast majority of our time at the base of the mountain. We are called the minister faithfully and fruitfully in a very messy world in very messy situations. And a life of faithfulness and fruitfulness is one that is lived in dependence on God.
Matthew 17:14–21 gives a beautiful illustration of this biblical principle. Peter, James and John had just descended the mountain with Jesus after experiencing the transfiguration. The other nine disciples were below, awaiting their return. But things were messy at the base of the mountain. As the Lord and the three descended, they happened upon a scenario of utter chaos. The nine apostles left behind had not been sitting idle; they had been facing a tremendous challenge. While the three were in fellowship with the Lord at the top of the mount, the other nine were trying and failing to exorcise a demon from a young man at the foot of the mount.
The Lord had left them to continue the ministry for a few days while he was gone, but they failed miserably. The ultimate cause of their fruitlessness was presumption—which the Lord, identified as unbelief. They lost sight of—and therefore needed to be reminded of—the fact that they must minister in total dependence on Jesus Christ.
A failed ministry
Matthew, who failed with the majority of the disciples at the base of the mountain, recalls the situation to which Jesus returned after the transfiguration. “And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is ban epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water’” (vv. 14–16).
This is the short version. Both Mark and Luke expand upon it. Luke’s account (Luke 9:37–40) is fairly similar, and he adds only a few details. Mark 9:14–18 gives the fullest account, adding details that neither Matthew nor Luke include. When the three accounts are taken together, a fuller picture arises. The picture involves four characters: the scribes, the father, the crowd and the disciples. Each responded in a different way.
The scribes responded with scorn. They mocked the disciples for failing to do what they claimed the ability to do (cf. Matthew 10:8). The father responded with sorrow. This was his only child (Luke 9:38), and the demonisation had manifested itself terribly in a physical manner (Mark 9:18, 25). The multitudes responded superficially by ignoring the disciples’ failure and running straight to Jesus when they saw him. The disciples, no doubt, responded with shame. They knew they had the ability to perform this miracle, and had done so before (Mark 6:13), but something had gone awry.
A faithless multitude
Matthew recalls the Lord’s rebuke: “And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me’” (v. 17). The whole group was faithless and distorted: the scribes, the multitude—even the disciples. This puts a finger on the problem of the disciples: They did not lack ability, they lacked faith. But Jesus would do something: “Bring him here to me.”
A fantastic miracle
The Lord responded to the faithless multitude with a fantastic miracle. “And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly” (v. 18). Once again, Mark offers the fullest account of this miracle (Mark 9:20–27).
While the disciples had failed, Jesus’ words resulted in immediate deliverance. Imagine how the disciples must have felt! They had tried and failed. The Lord did exactly what they had done and achieved the desired result. They would verbalise their questions a little later, but for now the critics had been silenced.
A fruitful meeting
The miracle having been accomplished, the Lord now left the multitude and entered a house with his disciples (Mark 9:28). They were now alone with the Lord, and immediately they verbalised the question that was on their mind.
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Though the Lord responded in love and tenderness, the rebuke is nevertheless obvious: “Because of your little faith.” The NKJV offers a slightly stronger translation, speaking of their “unbelief.” In what way did they display unbelief? I suspect that their unbelief was manifested in self-sufficiency. The problem was not that they doubted God’s ability or willingness to deliver, but that they trusted too much in their ability to do so! By trusting in themselves, they disbelieved God.
When we take our faith off God and put it in ourselves, we are guilty of unbelief. We may disciple, teach and witness, but only out of habit. We may think that our ministry to children will be effective because we just have a natural affinity for children. We may trust our own musical talents to glorify God in our music ministry. But that amounts to unbelief. We must beware of taking ourselves too seriously.
Lest they misunderstand the issue, Jesus assured the disciples that they did not require great faith, only well-directed faith. If their faith was in him, they could accomplish great things.
A foundational mandate
Some translations of the Bible (AV, NKJV) record some extra words of Jesus at this point: “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (v. 21, NKJV). Other translations (NASB, HCSB) include these words in brackets, but with a footnote questioning their accuracy. The ESV simply excludes the words entirely.
Regardless of textual questions, these words teach a foundational principle: There is nothing in the Christian life that displays our dependence on God quite like prayer. At grassroots level, prayer is an admission of dependence on God. As Dave Butts writes,
The most practical way to live the life of dependence upon God, is to make prayer the central activity of our lives. In prayer we recognize our need and God as the One who can meet our need. We come before Him with empty hands, having nothing to offer but our need. This is the place that causes many to resist being people of prayer…. We can say that we believe we are dependent upon God, but it is in our daily prayer lives that we will see the “rubber hit the road.” In the life dependent upon God, prayer becomes as natural as breathing—all that we do is brought before the Lord. There is no aspect of life that is outside the realm of prayer.
If we will truly live dependently on God, we must draw near to him in intimate prayer. We thereby learn to submit to him in word, thought and deed. He gives direction and provision as we come to him in prayer. Let us therefore come to God empty-handed—hopeless and helpless on our own—and learn increasingly to live a life of dependence on our all-sufficient Saviour.