1. This text is paralleled at Mt. 17:14-20 and Lk. 9:37-43. Please read all of these passages. The time is about six months before Jesus' suffering and death. He had predicted His suffering and death once. His second prediction follows the occasion of our text.
2. Jesus had just returned from the Mt. of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. The other nine disciples were waiting. When Jesus and the three join the nine, some scribes (probably from Jerusalem) were arguing with the disciples. A man had brought his devil-possessed son to the nine for help but they could not cure him.
3. This instance of devil-possession was very severe. Since childhood this only son had been plagued by the devil. See vss. 18, 20, 22, 26. It was a terrible situation.
4. Jesus had given His disciples authority over the unclean spirits. Mk. 6:7. They used this authority to cast out many demons. Mk. 6:13. (After His resurrection, when the disciples were commissioned as missionaries, Jesus did not give them this authority). But on this occasion when the man brought his son to the disciples, they could not cure him. Evidently the disciples were embarrassed in the presence of the scribes.
5. Vs. 19 gives us Jesus' very severe indictment of the people of His day. He says: "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?" The greatest problem which Jesus faced was that they would not believe Him. They would not believe that He was the Son of God. They would not believe that He was the Messiah. In Jn. 9, when Jesus healed the blind man, though the Jewish authorities had the evidence, they would not believe. Likewise when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jn. 11. Read Jesus' severe indictment at Jn. 12:37-40. Or His lament over Jerusalem. Mt. 23:37- 39. Sinners can be helped. But stubborn unbelievers cannot be helped.
6. Even the disciples lacked faith. See vss. 28 and 29. Vs. 29 should read: "This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer." Some manuscripts add: "and fasting." But scholars have determined, from better manuscripts, that the words "and fasting" should not be read here. (They have also learned that Mt. 17:21 is not in the best manuscripts). What does Jesus mean; "This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer"? Prayer is based solely on the promises of God. The basis of prayer is faith in the promises of God. Faith is a gift of the God. See Eph. 2:8. Luther says in his explanation to the third article of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith." Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. Rom. 10:17. The disciples failed to do what Jesus commanded because they lacked faith. That's what Jesus means.
7. Also the father of this devil-possessed boy was weak in faith. See 22 and 23. Jesus gently criticizes the man. Vs. 23. Then the man cries: "I do believe; help my unbelief." Very likely millions of Christians have prayed this prayer. And the Lord always answers the person who prays like this man did.
8. Jesus was severe with the people of His day because of their unbelief. He even criticized His disciples when He frankly told them that they had littleness of faith (Mt. 17:20) but He promised them that if they would have faith as a mustard faith (small but genuine) they could move mountains, that is, they could do things which, with people, are impossible. But the only one in our text who received help was the father of the possessed boy. Even his faith wavered but he did believe. He is very likely a picture of many Lutherans who fit the description of James 1:6-8. Their faith is like the waves of the sea, rising and falling, unsteady.
9. Our prayer today: "Lord I believe. Help my unbelief." Sinners won't be lost but unbelievers will be lost. See Mk. 16:16.
THEME: Lord I Believe. Help My Unbelief.
Our text is a picture of mankind. Some are like the scribes who just want to argue with Christians. They are an unbelieving generation of people who don't really want Jesus and His promises. Then there are people, like the disciples, who have received the gifts of God but who do not use them because of the littleness of their faith. And then there are people like the father of this sick boy who cry: "Lord I do believe. Please help my unbelief."
I. THE FIRST KIND: THOSE WHO REJECT GOD'S HELP
A. These refuse to believe in what Jesus did and said. Jesus says to them: "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?" They have heard that they are in need of salvation. They have heard about what God, in Christ, has done for them. But they reject it. Remember, it's not sinners who will be lost but unbelievers will be lost. Mk. 16:16. Unbelief damns. These people try the patience of God. The Lord permits them to live so that they will repent. The Lord invites them. See Mt. 11:28; Is. 40:27-31; Is. 55:1-13; Jn. 3:16.
B. These vex and harass Christians. When Jesus found the nine, a crowd and the scribes were arguing with them. Obviously the cause was the fact that they could not heal this man's son. This very likely vexed and embarrassed the disciples. The people of this world often vex and try the children our God. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were a grief to Lot, Abraham's nephew. The unbelieving Jews vexed Jesus in His day. Wherever St. Paul went to preach the Word, the unbelieving Jews hounded him and made life miserable for him. He escaped Damascus by being lowered in a basket over the wall. II Cor. 11:33. His enemies caused him to leave Jerusalem early. Acts 9:29.30.
II. THE SECOND KIND: LIKE THE HELPLESS DISCIPLES
A. This account of the disciples is truly a paradox. We are surprised when we read this account of the disciples. Jesus had given His disciples authority over the unclean spirits. Mk. 6:7. And we know that they used this authority to cast out many demons. Mk. 6:13. Why then could they not cast out a demon on the occasion of our text? Was the demon too strong for them? Were they afraid of the demon? No. We have the answer from Jesus' own lips. When they asked Him: "Why could we not cast it out?" Jesus answered "This kind cannot come out by anything but by prayer." His rebuke of His disciples is not as severe as His rebuke to the people in vs. 19 but it is still a rebuke. According to Mt. 17:20 Jesus said: "Because of the littleness of your faith." Jesus' authority did not work like a machine. Unless the disciples received it by faith, they could not use it.
B. The disciples perhaps remind us of ourselves. We are like the passage in James 1:6-8: "Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord." Or perhaps we need to read Lk. 18: 1-8. This parable teaches us to pray and not to lose heart.
III. THE THIRD KIND: LIKE THE FATHER OF THE SICK CHILD
A. He confessed his sin to Jesus. Read again vss. 22-24. The man had a grievous problem and desperately needed help. But he was struggling with doubt. He said to Jesus "If you can." He was not quite sure. When Jesus repeated these words to the man, He was criticizing the man's doubt. Jesus said: "All things are possible to him who believes." That is a promise. And then the man cried: "I DO believe; help my unbelief." He was confessing his sin. That's where a Christian must always start.
B. He did believe and was helped. Read Jesus' promises at Ps. 50:15; Jn. 14:13.14; 15:16; 16:24; I Pet. 5:7; Is. 40:27-31. Jesus will answer prayers which are prayed in faith, even if it is weak.