NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 14: Jesus and the three disciples returned to the crowd of people. As they approached, a man came running to Jesus and bowed down before Him.
You talk about going from a mountain high to a valley low, that’s what happened here. Peter, James, and John just descended from where they saw the magnificent glory of God, as Moses and Elijah had witnessed, only to find out that those disciples left at the bottom of the mountain were in the throes of disappointment over their lack of power to confront demonic power. So they were about to learn another important lesson.
Here’s how early church father Origen sees it: “If every disease and weakness which our Savior cured at that time among the people represents different symptoms of the soul, it stands to reason then that paralytics symbolize the sick soul, keep lying paralyzed in the body. Those who are blind symbolize those who are blind with respect to things seen by the soul alone, and these are really blind. The deaf symbolize those who are deaf in regard to the reception of the word of salvation. So, on the same principle, it will be necessary that the matters regarding the epileptic should be investigated. This disease attacks those who suffer from it at considerable intervals, during which time he who suffers from it seems in no way to differ from the man in good health, during those times when the epilepsy is not active in him. You will find some souls that are often considered to be healthy suffering from symptoms like these in their morality and the other virtues. But there comes a time when they are attacked by a kind of epilepsy, and then they seem to fall from their solid foundation and are seized by the deceits and other desires of this world.”1
Verses 15-16: The man said, “Lord, be merciful to my son. He suffers so much from the seizures he has. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to Your followers, but they could not heal him.”
Once, several Rabbis were discussing erratic human behavior as outlined in the Jewish Mishnah,2 especially the one they called “kordiakos.” So, one Rabbi asked: “What is kordiakos? Rabbi Samuel said: Being overcome by new wine from the vat. Then why does it not say: If one is overcome by new wine? The mode of expression teaches us that this spirit which causes the dizziness is called kordiakos. What good does it do to know this? That it is a spell. What is the remedy for it? Red meat charred on hot coals, and highly diluted wine.”3 Most Bible scholars believe they are talking about epilepsy here. But as usual, they attribute it to an evil spirit.
Chrysostom has this to say about what is occurring in this text. He writes: “The Scripture shows that this man is very weak in faith. This is evident from many things: from Christ’s saying, ‘All things are possible to him who believes,’4 and from the fact that the man himself as he approached said, ‘Help my unbelief.5 And it is evident from Christ’s ordering the demon ‘never to enter him again,’6 and from the man’s saying again to Christ, ‘If you can.’7 But you will say, ‘If his unbelief was the reason why the demon had not gone out of the boy, why does he blame the disciples?’ To show that they can often cure the sick, even though no one brings them in with faith. For just as the faith of the one bringing in the sick was often sufficient for receiving a cure even from lesser ministers, so the virtue of the minister was also sufficient to achieve a miracle even without the faith of those bringing them in. Both of these are demonstrated in the Scriptures; for those around Cornelius drew to them the power of the Spirit by their faith. And in the time of Elisha, when no one believed, a dead man was raised.’8”9
But another thing to consider isn’t that the disciples could not exorcise the demons from this boy, but that they were unprepared to overcome the doubt that this man expressed about their ability to do so. It is also critical that we note, the father of this boy was the one who stated that the disciples were unable to make his boy whole again. Only later would the disciples ask the Lord why they could not do what they saw Him do so often.
Verse 17: Jesus answered, “You people today have no faith. Your thinking is so mixed up! How long must I stay with you? How long must I continue to be patient with you? Bring the boy here.”
So it is clear that Jesus’ denouncing of the lack of faith and His admonition about the lack of believing is directed to this father. This is clear from Mark’s account where the man pleads with Jesus to help him with his unbelief.10 After all, Jesus Himself was unable to perform any miracles in Nazareth because of the same lack of faith and believing. We know that if a woman can be instantly healed just by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment because of her faith, and a man’s servant can be healed without Jesus laying hands on the subject because of his believing in the authority of Christ over disease and death, then those were the things lacking here that prevented a miracle.
Here’s what Chrysostom has to say about what happened here. “Note this man’s lack of sense in another instance: in full view of the crowd he pleads to Jesus against his disciples, saying, ‘I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him.’ But Jesus dismissed these complaints before the people and blamed him the more, saying, ‘O faithless and obstinate generation, how long am I to be with you?’ He is not addressing this person alone, so as not to upset him, but he is addressing all the Jews. For it is likely that many had been offended and thought ill of the disciples.”11
Verse 18: Jesus gave a strong command to the demon inside the boy. The demon came out of the boy, and the boy was healed.
Chrysostom continues his commentary on this exorcism of the demon by Jesus from this boy. He says: “He did not put up with their complaints, but what does He say? ‘Bring him here to me.’ And He Himself further asks him, ‘How long has this been this way?’ He is thereby both defending the disciples and leading the man to a better hope, that he should believe that there will be an end to his troubles. And Jesus lets him be convulsed, not for display (for when the crowd gathered he rebuked the demon) but for the father’s sake, that when he saw the demon being put to flight at Christ’s mere call, so at least, if in no other way, he might be led to believe the coming miracle.”12
Another thing to notice here is that even though Jesus directed His strongest condemnation for the lack of faith and belief to the father and other Jews who came to see what happened, not that this had been settled, He concentrates on the real culprit and that is the demon tormenting this boy. Jerome makes this comment: “Note that it was not the suffering victim but the demon who had to be directly rebuked. It may be that He indirectly rebuked the boy and the demon went out of him because it was owing to his sins that the demon had oppressed him.”13 While I agree with the bishop on the first part, I see no evidence in the text that would suggest that the boy himself had brought on this demonic possession by sinning. We all know by now that in Jesus’ day things such as epilepsy, seizures, autism, mental disorders, etc., were attributed to demonic power. The fact that Jesus addressed the demon inside the boy shows that in this case there either was demonic possession or, Jesus addressed epilepsy, seizures, autism etc., as metaphoric demons that torment humankind.
Verse 19: Then the followers came to Jesus alone. They said, “We tried to force the demon out of the boy, but we could not. Why were we not able to make the demon go out?”
Now Jesus’ attention is turned toward His disciples, who, after watching Him free this boy of his misery, wanted to know why they were unable to effect the same healing. It is obvious that they were not afraid to ask the Master about their failure, knowing that they would not be reprimanded or belittled but shown how to better cope with the same situation the next time. But Matthew points out that they made sure they discussed this with Him in private so that Jesus was free to share with them any secrets He may have on the subject. If the disciples felt that their Lord had also addressed them when He spoke of an unbelieving generation, then they would have had no reason to ask. Jesus was quick to answer.
Verse 20: Jesus answered, “You were not able to make the demon go out because you were also lacking in sufficient faith. Believe me, when I tell you if your faith is only as big as a mustard seed you can say to this mountain, “move from here to there,” and it will move. You will be able to do anything.”
So, in the disciples’ case, Jesus was referring to a different type of faith. Not only did Jesus’ disciples receive censure back then, but throughout history, some polemic writers have seized on this occasion to ridicule the followers of Jesus. One of them wrote: “It is also written in their books: ‘Anyone who believes in Jesus even like a seed of millet can move a mountain with his speech.’ We see, however, that even their saints cannot do this, and surely not the rest of the people; thus, none of them believe in the Creator.”14 Of course, he was speaking about the church during the Middle Ages, who, for the most part, had given themselves over to formalities and rituals rather than ministering to faith by faith.
One of the church’s earliest theologians has this to say: “The mountains here spoken of, in my opinion, are the hostile powers that have their being in a flood of great wickedness, such as are settled down, so to speak, in some souls of various people. But when someone has total faith, such that he no longer disbelieves in anything found in holy Scripture and has faith like that of Abraham, who so believed in God to such a degree that his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness,15 then he has all faith like a grain of mustard seed. Then such a man will say to this mountain—I mean in this case the deaf and dumb spirit in him who is said to be epileptic—’Move from here to another place.’ It will move. This means it will move from the suffering person to the abyss. The apostle, taking this as his starting point, said with apostolic authority, ‘If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains.’16 For he who has all faith—which is like a grain of mustard seed—moves not just one mountain but also more just like it. And nothing will be impossible for the person who has so much faith.”17 In other words, to Origen, when Jesus uses the term “mountain,” He is doing so as a metaphor for big challenges and hindrances to a believer’s faith.
But Chrysostom sees it this way: “The disciples seem to me to be in anxiety and fear that they had lost the grace with which they had been entrusted. For they had earlier received power over unclean demons. So they approached Jesus in private and asked Him the question, not out of shame (for if the matter had got out and they were criticized, it would have been superfluous for the future to have been ashamed of admitting it in their words) but because what they were going to ask him was secret and of great importance. What, then, does Christ say? ‘Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as 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 to you.’ But if you say ‘Where did they move a mountain?’ I will say that they did things much greater than that in raising up innumerable dead. For moving a mountain and moving death from a body are not at all comparable. After them, other saints, far inferior to the disciples, are said to have moved mountains when necessity demanded. It is clear that the disciples also would have done so had necessity demanded. But if there was never need at that time, do not find fault with them.”18
So, for this great early church preacher, the term “mountain” was to be taken literally. But because our Lord knew there would never be an occasion when they would need to move such a mountain, He used it as an illustration for the impossible that becomes possible when there is faith even the size of a mustard seed.
Verse 21: Some Greek copies of Matthew do not have verse 21. Others have this: “But this kind of spirit comes out only with prayer and fasting.” In fact, the earliest Hebrew version of Matthew has it as a separate line not connected to the one before or the one following, that may suggest that by that time it had already been added by a copier. But Origen, who seems to have accepted it as part of Scripture by 200 AD, makes this comment: “Let us examine also this statement: ‘This kind is not cast out except through prayer and fasting.’19 If at any time it is necessary that we should be engaged in the healing of one suffering from such a disorder, we are not to entreat nor put questions nor speak to the impure spirit as if it heard. But [by] devoting ourselves to prayer and fasting, we may be successful as we pray for the sufferer, and by our own fasting we may thrust out the unclean spirit from him.”20
In other words, the prayer and fasting is to prepare the believer so that if and when they are confronted with such an irrepressible evil spirit, their own faith will have risen to such size and heights that they will not waver in their belief that the power they have been given to face such demonic control is far greater than the power by which the demons operate. However, this type of thinking can lead to believers thinking that the power lies in them rather than in Christ. This can be seen as a “faith combination” making things happen. Our faith in the power of God through Christ, and the faith of the person needing to be delivered in Christ through us. Jesus emphasized that such faith needs only to be the size of a mustard seed to be effective.
1Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 13.4
2Mishnah, op. cit. Third Division: Hashim, Tractate Gittin, Ch. 7:1
3Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nashim, Masekhet Gittin, folio 67b
82 Kings 13:21
9Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 57.3
10See Mark 9:23-24
11Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 57.3
13Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol 3. 17:18
14Naẓẓaḥon Vetus, op. cit., page 202
161 Corinthians 13:2
17Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 13.7
18Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 57.4
19See Mark 9:29