Text: Matthew 17:14-21
“Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?” (Matthew 17:19 AV)
These are words that highlight the devastating lack of spiritual power experienced by the disciples on this occasion. It is a question I believe must be asked by the people of God everywhere today.
There could hardly be a greater contrast than that seen in this passage between the experience of Christ and His disciples on the mountain and those who were in the valley below awaiting His return. On the mountain the power and glory of God was seen reflected in the person of Christ; the voice of God was heard; while below strife, defeat and devilish power is rampant. One scene is an illustration of how we could, and ought to live and, praise God, one day will live in glory with Christ—while the other is a reflection of what is so often, and tragically, the reality of our spiritual experience.
Events unfold which lead to the Saviour and His disciples discussing the issue of spiritual power—particularly their lack of it when it was most required. It was this lack of spiritual power that lay at the heart of their experience in the valley—far below an experience of the power and glory of the Saviour.
We can, if honest, easily identify with the disciples in this ‘valley experience’. We may, therefore, learn from the Saviour’s instruction to them on this matter.
I THE TRAGEDY THAT UNFOLDS WHERE SPIRITUAL POWER IS ABSENT.
1. The power of the devil is unchallenged. The power of the devil is manifested in the life of this young lad. His life is ruled and being destroyed by the power of Satan, v15, Mk 9:18. The devil can do as he pleases! The disciples can exercise no check upon him; can effect no deliverance. The Christian with spiritual power is no match for the devil. Cp Eph 6:10-13. The primary lesson that Paul is impressing on these believers is that we cannot contemplate engaging our adversary the devil without first having an experience of the power of God.
2. There is no ability to respond to the cry of a desperate father. Here is a man desperately looking for help for his son. He is brought to the disciples because they are supposed to be able to help. Disappointment on his part and failure on theirs are the outcome. Society is in a desperate state today! Men do not so much need the Church to be a social help/activist organization—they need men of God with the power of the Holy Ghost who can address the needs of their souls. Social ills are ultimately caused by sin and man’s slavery to it. Only as that matter is addressed by a Church energized by Divine power can the society we are to minister to be bettered. Sadly, the vast majority of Christians today have turned their focus to a social justice agenda rather than getting before God as these disciples did to inquire into the absence of life-changing spiritual power.
3. There is no answer to the proponents of error. Cp Mk 9:14. The disciples were brow-beaten, silenced, intimidated, cornered! These scribes represent the adversaries of Christ, teachers of an adulterated message. Nominally they held to the truth of God but their view of God’s word allowed them to reject the teachings of Christ. They were, therefore, false teachers and enemies of the truth. The disciples had no comeback, no effective answer or rebuke to the words of these liars who, it appears, had taken advantage of their lack of power to take the upper hand in the ‘debate’ going on here. The truth of Christ, represented by these disciples, is now firmly in retreat.
II WHY SPIRITUAL POWER IS ABSENT ON THIS OCCASION.
1. The disciples have experienced power over the devil previously. Cp 10:1. They have known in the recent past such power as is required on this occasion. This makes the absence of it now all the more glaring and troubling.
2. The absence of power must be inquired into, v19. WHY? They come to the Saviour privately to find the answer to this question. None but the Saviour can reveal the answer to this question and He does so in response to private inquiry. God’s people desperately need to get alone before God and start this soul-searching if we are ever to know again the power of God. The disciples themselves could see no reason for their failure!! It is a sobering lesson to have to realize that I cannot know my own heart! I cannot see my own sin and failure unless and until Christ shows it to me. Cp Psalm 139:23-24. They could not simply ignore this matter. This is something that should disturb us sufficiently to ask the Lord, Why?
3. The Saviour gives the answer. The mystery is not that difficult! His answer is communicated in His initial public rebuke (v17) and his answer to their private question (v20):
a. Perversity, v17. The disciples are denounced for being perverse. They had deviated/turned away from the straight path of duty and service. Their perversity is exhibited in a hardness towards Christ’s words, Luke 9:44; and by the obvious pride working in their hearts at this time, Luke 9:46. Such things are ever the mark of the powerless! However unpleasant it may be to have to admit it about ourselves, it is sin and a ‘twisted’ ‘deviation’ from the straight ways of God’s righteousness on our part that has robbed us of spiritual power.
b. Unbelief, v17, 20. Here He highlights that an absence of spiritual power is the effect of unbelief. At this point the disciples were not walking by faith—in simple obedience to the commands of Christ, relying on Him to supply the resources they needed. It is only in this manner that spiritual power can be known. See I Pet 5:8-9, I John 4:13-14, 5:4.
c. A matter of urgency. Cp v17. In His rebuke the Saviour demonstrates His impatience with such behaviour in His disciples. They needed to recognize that they had a limited opportunity to learn from Him in these matters. He further indicates that there is a limit to how long He will suffer such things in His disciples! Cp Matthew 5:13. Why should the Saviour ‘put up with’ powerless—and therefore useless—disciples? There is no reason for Him to do so! If we have a sense of unease over our lack of spiritual power then we need to address the issue as a matter of urgency.
III THE PROMISED POWER AND HOW IT MAY BE OBTAINED.
We have a Saviour who is able to restore power to His people. He prescribes a course for these disciples that will bring them to an experience of the mighty power of God that will make them effective servants of His.
1. Power to do anything God has commanded. The power of the Holy Spirit is never exercised to do what is contrary to God’s will. Faith cannot act contrary to the word of God. Yet, even when obedience to God’s word appears as impossible as moving a mountain by speaking to it, there is power available to faith to do it! Where even a small degree of faith is present—and faith simply takes God at His word and acts accordingly—mountains can be moved. All opposition can be overcome.
2. Specifically, the power in view here is over the devil. It is power to see needy souls delivered from the rampaging, destructive power of Satan in their lives. This is the power that makes a Christian a channel of the converting power of God in the lives of sinners.
3. This power can only be experienced by prayer and fasting. God imparts spiritual power to His people in answer to prayer, Luke 11:13. Prayer is vital! See the examples of how saints experienced the power of God in direct response to prayer in the early church, Acts 1:13-14, 2:1, 5:31. The kind of prayer in view is indicated by the reference to fasting. Everything is set aside in order to pray. This kind of dedicated, earnest prayer is sadly lacking in the Church today. It is no wonder we have no power! Will you give yourself to pray in this way—that nothing else matters but obtaining again the power of God to engage the power of Satan and sin in this world.
May God make us those who are filled with his power. A needy world filled with dying souls needs God’s people to have this power.
Click here to listen to an audio recording, or watch a video recording of this message preached in Faith Free Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC on May 16th, 2010.