Matthew 17 is a fascinating chapter, and we will not deal with all of it at this time. I would like to look at verses 14-21 in order to really discuss the practical implications of verse 20.
I must admit it is difficult to focus on this short passage, especially because the context is always so important to the study of any biblical passage, but I really want to make smaller posts for the benefit of those who are afraid of longer posts. Therefore I have decided to split most topics into smaller, bite-sized, devotionals. Also, this should make it easier for me to post more often.
Enough explanations, lets jump into it.
Matthew 17:14-21 tells the story of a father who asks Jesus to heal his son who is an epileptic. Some may want to extrapolate from this passage that epilepsy is a sign of demon possession. The Bible is clear that in this case demon activity was related to it. The Bible is also clear that Jesus had the power to heal both physically and spiritually. I believe that we fall short if we try to deal with disease with only prayer or with only medicine. I believe God has blessed many with the power to research and discover great things regarding our physiology and we can benefit from those blessings by visiting and listening to competent doctors. The Bible also clearly teaches that there is a spiritual side to life that falls beyond the realm reachable by science and that spiritual realities, though often invisible, can have a very real impact in the physical world. What I mean by this is that I trust modern medicine and I believe in prayer and I believe that good science and faith lead to a healthier lifestyle.
That was not my main point, but I have had so many people ask about this I thought it was worth taking a short detour.
Matthew 17:17 records Jesus' words to His disciples who were unable to cure the boy and this is closer to the point I wish to make in this post.
“O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.”
Jesus proceeds to rebuke the demon and cure the child. Later the disciples come to Jesus privately wondering why they could not cast it out. This I believe is a question worth asking. I believe many Christians ask themselves the same question today. How come we don't witness the miracles Jesus performed while here on earth? How come we often feel like God is no longer moving in a mighty way in our lives or in the lives of those around us?
Many of us, Christians, believe in Jesus, we are familiar with the Bible we attend church but its not like we have cured anyone lately or cast out demons. Maybe the reason we can't do it is because we are not Jesus right? Maybe Jesus was able to do it because He is God, He had a special birth and everything!
But Jesus walked on this earth like one of us, using only power that is available to us.
How can I know this?
Well, there are many verses that point towards this truth, but even if we just stick to this story (which I would rather do at the moment) we are able to answer this question.
Read carefully Jesus' reply on verse 20.
“Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
Notice that Jesus doesn't say that the disciples are not able to do it because they were not divine, or because they were not chose or because they were not special. Jesus identifies one main reason for the failure of the disciples. Jesus says it was because of their unbelief. Here you can read this verse in several different translations.
Jesus said the problem was not that the disciples were not God but rather that they lacked faith.
Not only that, Jesus also said even a tiny amount of faith is able to move mountains! Some have interpreted this to mean that it is not the amount but the quality of the faith and personally I believe that interpretation exchanges six for half a dozen (a Portuguese expression meaning the exchange makes no meaningful difference). Weather the amount (however one measures faith) or the quality (however one determines it) was lacking.
What I understand from Jesus' words recorded in Matthew 17:20 is that God has unlimited power at our disposal, and if we only believe it is ours to accomplish incredible things here on earth.
Think about the mission reports we hear about believers in Africa, Asia and South America. Think about the amazing stories we hear. It's not that God is more powerful in certain parts of the world, it is not like certain continents are in His jurisdiction and others are outside. It could be that in parts of the world people believe more. But God is active in North America too. Recently a movie came out about Desmond Doss and though I have not yet watched the movie I have see the documentary and God worked miracles in Desmond's life because he believed. Desmond believed so much that he obeyed and God came through in an incredible and miraculous way.
What I got from this passage is that the miracles done by Jesus can be done by us. We read about the disciples also doing miracles after Jesus ascended to heaven. The only thing that stops us is our unbelief, our lack of faith.
Finally verse 21 records Jesus saying that certain miracles come about only through prayer and fasting. That is, how much, or how often you pray has a direct impact on your faith level/quality.
Conclusion and Application
We can experience miracles and there are no limits to what God can do in answer to our prayers. But in order for that to happen we need more faith. And more faith will come in many ways, one of which is by spending more time in prayer and fasting.
I do not want you to think about prayer is a work to earn God's answer, but rather as a way of getting closer to God, developing a closer relationship and the more you get to know Him, the more you talk to Him, the more you will trust Him, and as you get closer to Him your prayer life becomes more robust.
All of us could benefit from spending more time in prayer. All of us could benefit form having stronger faith. What I want you to take away from this is that there is so much that can be accomplished through prayer but, because we lack faith, we don't pray. When we don't pray, we limit what God can do in our lives and in the lives of others though us.
Verse 21 is missing in some English translations of the Bible. Some have argued that this verse was added later from Mark 9:29. I really don't want to get into textual criticism here but this verse is present in some of the older manuscripts and missing from others. There is quite a bit of debate over the text but even if it is missing from Matthew 17 it is in line with the biblical teachings and does not make any major alterations to what Jesus taught.