The Nature of Faith

Matthew 17:14-23


Most people do not know what faith is. Not true faith in the living God. They believe that they can say that simple belief is what faith is. And people stress so much how powerful our faith ought to be. If something doesn’t happen right, then they will say that our faith just wasn’t strong enough. And it is but a short step from there to saying that the size of our faith is determined entirely by what goes on inside of us. Now, we do not want to downplay the fact that faith can be more or less in a person. Jesus plainly tells us right here that there are degrees of faith. However, we must remember the true nature of faith in order to answer these questions.

This passage is not primarily about the healing of a boy with a demon. Rather, the healing of a boy with a demon is a test case in a larger discussion related to the nature of faith. Once we realize this, then we can begin to see that there are lessons here for us. After all, there aren’t many people here I know of who have epileptic seizures due to demonic possession. But the lessons of faith this passage can teach us are profound and far-reaching.

The story starts with a man being concerned for his son. Maybe “concerned” is a bit of an understatement. He is actually desperate. There is nowhere else to turn. He has even gone to the disciples, but the disciples were unable to cast out this demon. Sometimes Jesus allows His servants to fail, in order that people will come straight to the source, which is Himself. He is jealous of His own glory and honor, and will not share it with another. And so he often reminds us that He alone is sufficient. We need then to keep on coming back to the source of all blessings.

The problem with this man’s son was that he was demon-possessed. The demon afflicted him with what is probably epilepsy. Literally, the word is “moon-struck.” He was a crazy boy, doing many weird things all throughout his life. He would jump into fire and water and suffer harm as a result. In the parallel account in Mark, we learn that the demon made him mute as well. The man had brought his son to the disciples, but the disciples were unable to help him.

Jesus’ answer to this is something of a puzzle. Why would Jesus call this generation unbelieving and perverse? Why would the entire generation be seemingly responsible for this one man’s problem? And isn’t the trouble related to the disciples’ lack of faith? Well, the answers to these questions get us to an important place in our examination of this passage. Jesus is here expressing frustration over the lack of faith in the current generation. It seems to be a fairly comprehensive statement that includes just about everyone. The people in the crowd are unbelieving and perverse. Certainly the epileptic son is unbelieving and perverse. Certainly the disciples are struggling with a lack of faith in God’s power. Now, the disciples did believe in Jesus. But they did not always believe in their commission. You might remember that Jesus commissioned them to cast out evil demons. He gave them the power to do that. In chapter 10, Jesus sent out His disciples with power to cast out demons. However, because that power is there does not mean that the connection to that power is always present. Maybe there is a short in the line somewhere. The disciples found this out when they could not do what the man had requested. Fixing the short in the line means that we realize the true nature of faith. True faith has its power not from something inside us, but rather from the power of God. Let me say that again. True faith has its power not from something inside us, but rather from the power of God. Faith is not powerful because we believe better and harder than someone else. True faith is rather an unhindered access to our all-powerful God. The power of faith comes from the power of God in which our faith rests.

Here is a helpful way of thinking about faith. Imagine that you are canning some fruit. You have your jars in the boiling water so that when you take them out, the lids will seal. You can’t just reach in your hand to the boiling water to get them out, or you will scald your hand badly. You need something like a pair of tongs. I know that they make these special tongs that can grab hold of a jar. You use these tongs to lay hold of the jar and bring out the jar from the boiling water. Similarly, our faith is like a pair of tongs that lay hold of God Himself. We cannot touch God in and of ourselves, for God is holy and we are not. However, we can lay hold of Christ by faith. Faith, then is not where the power resides. Faith rather lays hold of our God, which is where the power resides.

It should be evident by now that the greatness of our faith is not quite as important as the greatness of our God. A small faith that is true to God can still access that great power. However, there is truth in saying that some people have more faith than other people have. What we mean by that, however, is not so much that the power comes from within the person. Rather, what we mean, and what we should mean, is that a person with great faith has fewer obstacles in the way to his access to the power of God. This is evident from what Jesus says about little faith. He describes faith the size of a mustard seed. You might remember from Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed and the kingdom of God that mustard seed is a very tiny seed. Nevertheless, faith even as small as that can move mountains when it is a true faith in the living God. God is the one who does the heavy lifting. So, when Jesus says that the reason the disciples could not cast out the demon was their little faith, what he means is that the faith of the disciples is faulty. There is a short in the line somewhere. The faith is not functioning properly. Probably, the problem was that the disciples forgot where the power actually lay. They thought that the power of God somehow transferred over to them. They probably forgot that the only way to do what God calls us to do is to rely on the power of God, and to trust that Jesus will do what is best for us.

When Jesus says that true but little faith can move mountains, what He means is that true faith can things (by the power of God, not by the power of itself) that might seem impossible. The last phrase confirms this when it says “nothing will be impossible for you.”

When I think of the great heroes of the faith who had this kind of faith, with no obstacles in the way of faith, the figure that comes to mind most strongly was George Muller. He ran an orphanage asylum in England. He often did not have daily food for the children in his care. Things were always tight. They lived on a shoestring budget. In such an environment, Muller’s faith grew by reading the Scriptures and by prayer. One day there was no food. There was simply nothing to eat. The children and the workers all called out miserably in despair, not knowing where the food would come from. Muller calmed them down, and told them that they should pray. When Muller prayed, he thanked the Lord for the food that was coming and that was already on its way toward their house. No sooner had he finished the prayer when there was a knock on the door. A milkman was there. His horse had gotten a lame foot, and so he could not deliver the milk to the people of his route. Rather than see the milk go to waste, he wondered whether Muller could use it for his orphans. Muller recognized, you see, that the milk was coming because of the power of God, not because of the power of his faith. Because he recognized that, his faith was functioning properly.

The disciples’ faith was still not functioning properly in the last part of this passage when they hear for the second time that Jesus had to be delivered into the hands of men and be crucified. Now, their reaction was one step better than Peter’s reaction in chapter 16, which was to reproach Jesus for His obviously bad theology! They believe that what Jesus says is true. But they do not yet know that this had to happen for them to be saved from their sin! The reason that they were distressed was that it seemed to them a prophecy of the end of what they believed. But as Jesus told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ death and resurrection were written in large letters all over the pages of the Old Testament. They should have known, and were slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken! Their faith believed Jesus’ words, but did not yet realize all the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The faith believed, but did not trust fully yet.

In the Reformed faith, we have always said that faith has three parts to it. The first part is belief. This is the content of faith. What doctrine do we hold to? What do we know about God? That is what we believe. It is a vitally important part of faith. But it is not all of what constitutes faith. The second part of faith is that we agree with what we know. We call this “assent.” We assent or agree with what we believe. We can know something, and yet not agree with it. We might know someone else’s opinion on something, for instance, and yet not agree with it. The third part of faith is trust. This is the part that actually connects ourselves with the power of God. It is trust. As James tells us, even demons, even the very demon that possessed the boy believed that Jesus is the Son of God. That demon might even have assented to this truth. But that demon would never entrust himself to Jesus. This is in many ways the key aspects of faith. Again, to back to our image of the wire, knowledge is the substance of the wire, maybe copper. Assent is like the outer coating of the wire. After all, we know that exposed wires are dangerous, and so we cover them with something. But if that wire is not connected to the power source, if there is no trust, then the wire is useless. So the actual connection with the power source, that is like trust. A good thing to meditate on. I know that a lot of us can do electrical wiring. Think of this the next time you wire something. Think of the nature of faith, and ask whether you trust Jesus, whether your faith is actually connected to Jesus.

In practical ways, we can see the importance of this. Faith means that we won’t hold back when an opportunity for evangelism presents itself. For we know that the One to whom we are connected has all the power. True faith means that we will not despair in difficult circumstances, for we will trust our God that He knows what He is putting us through, and that He only designs to consume our dross and refine our gold, as the hymn has it. True faith believes great things and hopes great things from God, knowing that He can do far more than all we ask or imagine. Let us not be part of that faithless and perverse generation of which Jesus spoke. Let us instead be part of a generation like George Muller, knowing that all the power comes from God, and so we can do what God requires of us, not because of our faith, but because of the object of our faith.

1 Comment

  1. Beth said,

    January 3, 2012 at 10:31 am

    I’ve been using your writings to help me prepare a Bible study for my kids. We are working through Matthew now (we did Genesis last) and your messages have been very helpful. But I’ve reached 17:23, and there is nothing else posted. Do you have messages on the rest of the book? Or if not, can you recommend something else I can use. Thanks. God bless you.

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