Moving Mountains of Unbelief

Matthew 17:14-27

14 And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

17 Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”

20 So Jesus said to them, “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. 21 However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”

22 Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.

24 When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”

25 He said, “Yes.”

And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?”

26 Peter said to Him, “From strangers.”

Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”

Introduction

What is the faith that moves mountains? What is Jesus talking about there? Is he saying that if you believe hard enough you can have a giant mansion with an infinity pool, a fleet of Ferraris and Lamborginis, and a private jet? Or is He talking about something else?

The Unbelief of Israel (vs.14-21)

Jesus and the three disciples have come down from the mountain. And we should remember the all but explicit symbolism from the Mount of Transfiguration. This event is a fulfillment of Sinai. A greater Moses is coming down the mountain. Keep in mind how the original story went. Moses comes down from meeting Yahweh in the glory cloud on Sinai. He has the two tablets of stone in his hand. And what does he find? Israel had replaced worship of Yahweh for worship of a false god, a demon in a golden calf. And he is furious, he shatters the tablets of stone, and grinds up the golden calf and makes all Israel drink it.

Jesus climbs down the mountain with His three disciples, and reaches the multitude, where a man had come to Him, begging him to help his son who is moonstruck. His son was demon-possessed and the demon throws him into the fire and the water. Before we go any further, we have to stop back and think about this for a minute. We are so used to Jesus casting out demons as “just a thing that Jesus always does” that we don’t think about the fact that everywhere Jesus goes in Israel, there are people possessed by demons.  If you know your Bible, if you know your Old Testament, there were many periods were Israel was incredibly wicked, where they would worship demons, and even sacrifice their own children to them. But there were never periods in Israel’s history where the land was overrun by demons. The sheer regularity of Jesus encountering them is evidence that Israel’s wickedness has reached its zenith, its peak. Everywhere Jesus goes there are demons. Even (especially?) in their places of worship. God had purged the land of idols when He drove Israel into exile and returned them, but the demons now found the place swept and tidied and brought many more demons with in the period between return from exile and Jesus’s day.

So when we see Jesus dealing with demons in the gospels, we should be reminded just how wicked Israel was at this time. They are worse than in the Exodus. They are worse than in the time of the kings. A wicked grown man is capable of far more evil than a wicked child. Israel has matured as a people from the time of the Exodus and the time of the kings and the time of the exile. Israel in Jesus’ day is capable of far greater wickedness than their fathers were. Israel’s fathers merely rebelled against Yahweh and His law. Israel in Jesus day has Yahweh come directly to them in the flesh and rather than listen to Him they murder Him.

So when Jesus comes down from the mountain, He encounters something far worse than the golden calf that Moses saw. A boy was possessed by a demon, and even Jesus’s disciples, whom Jesus had given authority to cast out demons, were unable to do anything to help him.

This is why Jesus’s response to this is saying “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” This demon, and his own disciples unbelief, is evidence that this is Israel’s most wicked generation in her history.

Jesus rebuked the demon and the child was cured, but later His disciples come to Him asking why they had failed. Jesus told them because of their unbelief. They lacked the faith necessary to accomplish the task. Jesus then tells them that if you have faith even as tiny as the mustard seed, you can move a mountain by your voice. Nothing will be impossible for you. What does this mean? Does Jesus literally mean that His disciples could command mountains to move? Does He literally mean that if they just believe hard enough they can do anything they want? Is that what He means?

So many people want what Jesus is saying here to mean “If you just believe hard enough, you will have a 10,000 square foot mansion with six Lamborghinis in the garage and you will be healthy and wealthy and nothing bad will ever happen to you, and if you don’t have that you just are not believing hard enough.” Is that what Jesus is saying? Of course it is not. The very next thing He talks about is suffering and dying. The belief Jesus is talking about here is God acting in His world on behalf of His people, not as some cosmic vending machine.

The language Jesus uses here of mountains being moved is the same kind of language the prophets used in the Old Testament concerning what? Concerning great world empires coming and destroying Israel. What Jesus is talking about here is coming to pass. The wickedness of Israel and the Old Covenant order has nearly reached its absolute height. Israel will have committed blasphemy against the Son in murdering Jesus, and for forty years they will have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by persecuting Christ’s church. And that blasphemy is not forgiven. Christ comes in wrath against this wicked and perverse generation. Revelation 6:12-14 gives us a glimpse into this:

12 I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. 13 And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. 14 Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place.

The disciples will move mountains this way. Their preaching and their ministry to Christ’s church, and their prayers and their fasting hastened this event. 

To Give Offense or Not? (v. 22-27)

Jesus and His disciples return to Galilee and again He tells them about His impending death. The Son of Man will be betrayed, killed, and raised up on the third day. And the disciples, clearly not understanding the last bit, were saddened by this. It is clear they do not fully understand what Jesus is taking about.

From there Jesus and the disciples return to Capernaum and there is a controversy over the temple tax. The support of the temple was not a tax the Romans required but rather it was a patriotic duty to support the temple, one that the Pharisees were especially enthusiastic about, but Jesus shows Peter that they are under no obligation to pay it. They are sons, not strangers. But Jesus is sly. He maneuvers a way around this one. He is not obligated to pay it, but He does so in order to not give offense. He does not want to give them something to accuse Him of, even if the charge is not a valid one. Jesus is happy to give offense when the occasion is right. He perfectly sums up the old quote “A gentleman is someone who never offends anyone—unintentionally.” It is a question of answering a fool according to his folly lest he be right in his own eyes, or not answering lest you become like him yourself. Whether or not to give offense is a question of wisdom. And here, Jesus exercises wisdom by paying the tax. And how He does it is just as interesting. He has Peter catch a fish with a coin in it. The symbolism here is uncanny. All throughout the Old Testament, the sea and the fish represent gentiles. And here Peter catches a gentile fish that brings its treasure to the temple. A stranger is paying the tax, not a son. The gentile nations are streaming into Zion with their treasures.

Conclusion

Our passage today contrasts Israel’s faithlessness and wickedness with the kind of faith in Christ’s kingdom that tosses mountains into the sea. Look at what happens after the Resurrection and after Pentecost. A small mustard seed of just a few disciples who have seen the risen Christ grow into a mighty tree that spreads and covers the whole Greco-Roman world. The mighty kingdom did not seem mighty. It seemed weak. It was constantly persecuted, its people martyred. They existed in a world filled with unbelief and wickedness. And this was a world they overcame by faith. Those that persecuted them seemed like a mountain, but they were a mountain that was cast into the sea, by faith. 

This is very similar to our situation today. We are thankfully not being killed, but churches subject to obviously punitive lockdowns by a regime growing in their open hostility to Christian belief is something that is hard to miss. Just north of us, nearly 20 churches have been burned to the ground this year on the wild accusation they committed genocide against the native population. There is a rising tide of unbelief and wickedness. Many try very hard to be as oblivious to it as they possibly can, but it is real. And you might feel like you are a tiny group swimming against this great tide. Or a small group standing against a great mountain. What is a such a small group of people against that? Well when such a small group of people have the faith that can throw a mountain into the sea, such a great mountain is nothing to them. That is what Jesus is talking about in the passage today. And that is what you must have. His kingdom is one that nothing can stand against. And you are part of that kingdom. You must believe that with all your heart. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!

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