Only by Prayer and Fasting
“And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:14-21)
In this passage of Scripture we have the healing of the lunatic by the word of our Lord. It was a miracle that the disciples were not able to perform because of their unbelief. While the Lord Jesus was in the mount of transfiguration, a certain man brought his epileptic son to the disciples. But the disciples were unable to help him.
Mark’s more detailed account of this event (Mark 9) shows us that this all took place in the midst of large crowd of jeering adversaries. The disciples tried in vain to cast out the evil spirit and cure the child of his seizures. You can imagine the father’s disappointment. When the Lord Jesus appeared, he immediately appealed to him, saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.”
This is one of those miracles that is recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is reported to us three times because the Holy Spirit intends for us to recognize the importance of and learn the spiritual lessons taught by it. So, without introduction, let me show you what these lessons are.
A Good Father
Blessed are those children who have such a good father. The best parents are those who seek the mercy of God for their children. This young man’s father recognized the great need of his son. He recognized that his son’s needs were primarily spiritual, not physical. He realized that his boy was possessed of a devil (Mark 9; Luke 9). Blessed is that son, blessed is that daughter whose parents earnestly seek the salvation of their souls.
This man recognized his son’s great need was the mercy of God found in Christ (v. 15). He brought his needy son to the Lord’s disciples, hoping for his cure (v. 16). These were the men he knew had been used of God for the healing of many. Therefore, he brought his son to them. Blessed are those children who have parents who bring them to the house of God, whose parents see to it that they hear the preaching of the gospel. That is the means by which God gives life and faith to chosen sinners, the means by which he communicates mercy to the needy (Rom. 10:17; 1 Pet. 1:23-25).
But it took more than the work of the disciples to cast out the evil spirit and cure the child; and it takes more than the voice of a preacher to save a sinner. The Word preached must be accompanied by the power of God, or it will accomplish nothing. Let us, like this man, take our children and their needs directly to the Savior, making intercession, earnest intercession, on their behalf (vv. 14-15).
Here is something that must not be overlooked, when this man brought his child to the Savior, he obtained the mercy he craved for his son (v. 18). I would not make more of this fact than is warranted by the Scriptures; but it is a fact that ought to encourage every believing mother and father to bring their children, in the arms of faith, to the Son of God by prayer. — I do not find a single example of anyone bringing a needy soul to Christ during his earthly ministry who did not obtain the mercy craved for the one brought to the Savior.
We have before us a pitiful example of the destructive influence of Satan upon those who are under his influence. This young man was possessed of a devil. During the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry, demon possession was a very common thing. One reason it was allowed was to give clear evidence of Christ’s power over hell. Another reason why God allowed that horrible evil was to teach us that Satan’s influence is always destructive (v. 15).
Like a roaring lion, he seeks to devour the souls of men (1 Pet. 5:8). The old serpent appears to seek the destruction of young souls especially. Thousands upon thousands of young men and women seem to be wholly given over to Satan’s influence, and are “taken captive at his will” to the destruction of their souls (2 Tim. 2:26).
Ignorant, indulgent parents often look upon the reckless rebellion of their children as a passing phase. They excuse a child’s disregard for authority, moral perversity, and pleasure seeking behavior as “sowing their wild oats” of youth. How foolish! How irresponsible!
Do not overlook the fact that this young man was raised by a man who believed and worshipped and loved the Lord Jesus Christ. Many look upon parents whose children are rebels as though the parents themselves must be bad parents. Such thoughts arise from hearts full of pride and self-righteousness. David was a man after God’s own heart. Yet, his sons and daughters were all, except Solomon, reprobate rebels.
Though this man’s son had been under Satan’s dominion for a long time, though it appeared that he would ultimately be destroyed (or destroy himself) by Satan’s devices, he obtained mercy. What a blessed, sweet, revelation that fact is! Satan was given permission to torment this young man to make way for the greater manifestation of Christ’s glory in healing him. As God gave Satan permission to afflict Job, that he might show his goodness and grace more gloriously, he often allows the fiend of hell to cast his chosen into the fires of their own lusts for a season, that he may snatch them as brands from the fire by his omnipotent mercy.
We must never despair of those who seem most in need of mercy. When the Son of God spoke to this young man, he was immediately cured, immediately healed, immediately saved from the grasp of Satan. When we read of our Lord’s miracles like this one, we should be encouraged to believe that he may yet repeat his wonderful work in the lives of others today.
Faithless and Perverse
In verse 17 we read, “Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.” These words are often misunderstood. Our Lord Jesus was not here speaking to his disciples, but to the jeering multitude, and specifically to the scribes and Pharisees who had mocked his disciples for their failure. Those words, “O faithless and perverse generation,” he never used n speaking to or about his disciples. Though, like his disciples today, their faith was often weak, they were not faithless. Neither were they a perverse, rebellious, and stubborn generation; though, like us, there was much perversity in them. The Pharisees, on the other hand, though they were highly respected religious leaders, were just that, a “faithless and perverse generation,” just as their fathers had been (Deut. 32:5). The Lord Jesus demanded that the child be brought to him publicly, before those “faithless and perverse” people, that he might publicly shame them.
Faith and Unbelief
Yet, when the disciples asked why they could not cast out the evil spirit, our Savior said plainly, “Because of your unbelief” (vv. 19-20). Sadly, there is much unbelief in the most faithful believers. These disciples were believers. Yet, they could not perform the work before them because of their unbelief. The weakness of their faith is often set before us, and in many ways, in the Scriptures. It is set before us for the encouragement of God’s people in every age (Rom. 15:4).
It is faith in Christ, not great faith, just faith in Christ that is the evidence and assurance of a God-wrought salvation in our souls (Heb. 11:2; 1 John 5:1). The weakest faith in Christ is as truly the evidence of grace as the strongest. A drop of dew is as truly water as all the rivers of the world. It is of the same nature and quality, though not the same in quantity. So it is with God-given faith. That faith, which is the gift and operation of God the Holy Spirit, is the evidence and proof of our union with Christ, of our election, redemption, and regeneration by his grace (Acts 13:39, 48).
Yet, we must not fail to see that nothing so greatly hinders our usefulness as our unbelief. These disciples truly trusted Christ as their Savior and Lord. Yet, their unbelief made it impossible for them to perform the miracle they had been commissioned to perform (Matt. 10:8). I am fully aware of God’s sovereignty, divine predestination, and eternal election. I know that the purpose of God stands forever, and that it is altogether immutable. But we must never blame God for our failures. The word of God lays the blame upon our unbelief, and nowhere else. Peter sank because of unbelief (Matt. 14:31). Israel’s failure to obtain the blessedness that might have been theirs was because of their unbelief (Isa. 48:18; Matt. 13:58; Mark 6:5-6). The disciples failed to grasp the good news of Christ’s resurrection because “they believed not” (Mark 16:11-14). I often wonder what blessings I have missed, what works I have been unable to perform, and what wonders I have failed to see because of my unbelief (John 11:40).
Let us not pass over this matter lightly. Faith is the key to success in our warfare. Unbelief is the path to heartache, trouble, and defeat. As faith languishes, usefulness languishes. The same Israelites, who went through the Red Sea in triumph, became cowards on the borders of Canaan, and could not enter the land because of unbelief (Heb. 3:19).
Our Savior says, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you” (v. 20). I think there is an obvious reference here to Zechariah 4:7. — “Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain.” Zerubbabel, of course, typified our Lord Jesus Christ. And our Savior here declares that if we look to him, if we trust him, no obstacle will be too great for us to overcome, no work too difficult for us to perform, and nothing shall be impossible to us.
That is not to be understood as a blanket promise that we can do anything we want to do, or have anything we want to have, if we just believe and our faith is strong enough. This promise is made to the smallest grain of faith, not to strong faith. If we have true faith in Christ, nothing shall prevent us from glorifying our God, doing the work he has given us to do, and overcoming every obstacle that opposes us or would hinder us in this world.
Faith in Christ is the most powerful influence in the world (1 John 5:4). The Word of God gives constant testimony to the power of faith in the lives of God’s elect. It was faith in Christ that caused Joshua and Caleb to give a good report (Num. 13:30). It was faith in Christ that sustained Job in hope (Job 13:10). It was faith in Christ that caused Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to remain faithful (Dan. 3:17-18). It was faith in Christ that caused the woman who was a sinner to love her Savior (Luke 7:47-50). Hebrews 11 gives us example after example of the power of faith, showing us that faith honors God and God honors faith.
In this 20th verse, our Lord once more compares faith to a grain of mustard seed. Mustard seed faith is little faith with a big Object — The Omnipotent Christ!
God’s work must never be attempted by the arm of the flesh or with careless indifference. — “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (v. 21). These words were addressed as a gentle rebuke to the disciples, who had perhaps become overly confident of their powers as the servants of Christ (Lk. 10:17). Like Israel, puffed up with the fall of Jericho, we are all quick to say, “The men of Ai are but few there is no need for us to put forth all our strength” (Josh. 7:3). But it is a mistake, a fatal mistake, to underrate our foes (Eph. 6:12). Satan will not be unseated without a fight. “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” So long as we are in this world and seek by faith to serve our God and Savior, let us do so “by prayer and fasting,” by faith in Christ, denying ourselves.
As always, we must interpret this statement in verse 21 in its context. Our Savior is still referring to the message of Zechariah’s vision in Zechariah 4. The vision was about God’s work, the building of his house, the saving of his people, which is the very thing portrayed in the mercy performed upon this demon possessed boy. God’s message to his prophet then is his message to his disciples here, and his message to us today. — The work is all God’s. He uses men to perform his work. He allows us to lay brick, take away stones, and preach the gospel. But nothing depends upon, or is determined by man. The work is all his. — “This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts. Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it” (Zech. 4:6-7). Let us, therefore, serve him with prayer, trusting him, and fasting. By fasting (if I understand it correctly) I mean denying any strength, goodness, power, or ability in ourselves, seeking not our will but his, seeking not our own gratification but his glory.