Frustrated Jesus? Little or Lack of Faith…

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(Matthew 17:14-21)

What’s happening here? Why is Jesus frustrated & who is He frustrated with? And what can we learn from this encounter?

The context for this passage is that;

  • The disciples had seen Jesus heal many, raise a girl from the dead and deliver people from demons (Jesus’ authority over sickness & demons)
  • They had witnessed Jesus calming the storm, making wine from water & miraculously multiplying food twice & walking on water (Jesus’ authority over the natural world)
  • Then Jesus had authorized the disciples to go and do the very same things they had seen him doing; “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” Matthew 10:7–8 (Jesus had delegated His authority to them)
  • Peter had just had the revelation that Jesus was the Messiah in front of all the disciples & Jesus confirmed that this revelation was given to him by God (Matthew 16:16)
  • Lastly, just preceding this moment, Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. God revealed Jesus in a visual display of His glory & with an audible confirmation from God as to who Jesus was and how the disciples should relate to Him – with obedience. (Matthew 17:5)

It appears that while Peter, James & John were up the mountain with Jesus, witnessing His transfiguration – a man had brought his epileptic son to the other disciples of Jesus and asked them to heal him. But they couldn’t.

When Jesus arrives, the man approaches Jesus with faith (he addresses Jesus as Lord, not rabbi). He tells Jesus of his son’s problem and that Jesus’ disciples had been unable to help set the boy free.

Jesus appears to be frustrated. But who is He frustrated with? The context implies that Jesus is frustrated with the disciples – after all, the man and his son had not done anything wrong. And it is the disciples whom Jesus later addresses (vs19-21).

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.”

Matthew 17:17 (ESV)

Passages like this surprise us at first – if we are honest. It is surprising to see Jesus frustrated. We know Jesus never sinned, but He feels frustrated at the disciples’ lack of faith and their distorted view of Him – failing to perceive the authority He had invested in them.

“How long am I to bear with you?” Jesus appears to be lamenting the lack of progress in His disciples’ faith. Jesus knows His time on earth is short, and these slow, simple guys are the ones He is entrusting His world mission too!

This encounter is both challenging & comforting to me!  

Firstly, if I place myself in the disciples’ shoes, I am aware that my lack of faith and courage to step out and deal with sickness and the demonic through the power of Jesus frustrates my LORD – that is challenging.

Secondly, if I place myself in the shoes of my LORD, also as one who disciples and leads others, I empathize with Jesus’ feeling of frustration that they hadn’t grown or grasped more by this stage in light of all they had seen and heard – and so this is comforting to me. Jesus didn’t get a new group of disciples but kept shaping faith in them.

Turning back to the man’s request and his son’s problem, Jesus rebukes a demon that is causing this boy’s problem and instantly, the boy is set free.  

I love how the demonic influence in this boy is dealt with so instantaneously without any fuss, but Jesus, with absolute authority’s diagnoses the problem as being demonic influence and deals with it – setting the boy free.

How often do we/I overlook the potential root cause of some sickness as being a demonic influence?  

Although it is not always the cause of sickness (as Jesus did not always rebuke a demon to heal people), it was the cause sometimes in the Gospels.  

So, may we not overlook this potential cause of sickness and suffering, but rather may we not be like the disciples who were seemingly stumped by what Jesus intended for them to have clear authority over (Matthew 10:7-8).

When the disciples and Jesus are alone, the disciples approach Jesus. They must have felt the frustration of Jesus towards them and the chasm of contrast between their ineffective help and Jesus’ towards the epileptic boy. So the disciples ventured to ask Jesus why they were so ineffective? (Vs19)

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.”

Matthew 17:20

But was it the amount of faith the disciples did/didn’t have? Or was it more that they didn’t have any – even a little faith?

Although all the translations I have looked at translate ‘oligopistian’ as ‘little faith’, this contradicts what Jesus goes on to say to the disciples.  

So, humbly I suggest that a better translation is ‘lack of faith’ or ‘ineffectual faith’ (see Louw-Nida 31.95) for the following reasons; 

  1. Jesus’ teaching in the remainder of vs20 points not to the size of their faith but the lack of their faith that was the reason they were unable to deliver the boy from the demonic influence. Jesus says to them that even faith as small/tiny as a mustard seed can cause “nothing to be impossible for them”! If oligopistian – is translated as ‘little faith’, then there is a contradiction in vs20.  
  2. Translating oligopistian as ‘lack of faith’ or ‘ineffectual faith’ also fits vs17 better where Jesus exclaims, ‘Oh faithless and twisted generation.’ Jesus is lamenting not the amount of faith in those he is speaking to but their lack of faith (apistos).

Jesus’ frustration with the disciples appears to be that they did not have any faith to heal the boy, despite all they have seen & the mandate He had given them to go and heal and deliver people in His name.  

Jesus knew that even just a tiny mustard seed size of faith would have been sufficient to deliver the boy – but they didn’t even have that amount of faith – they had a lack of faith…

It reminds me of how the issue is not the size of our faith, but rather who that faith is in! If even your little faith is in Jesus, then ‘nothing is impossible for you’ (vs20).

Lord, I thank you that all we/I need is some faith in You. Help me see everything in life and ministry through this lens of faith in You, the only One worth trusting. May I/we be both challenged & comforted by seeing these truths in this encounter.

Gareth Bowley

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