Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

106. The Epileptic Youth (Matt. 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43)*

It would seem that the Transfiguration took place at night-time for it was next day (Lk.) when Jesus and three apostles rejoined the rest. There they came upon a scene of great excitement.

A man, whose only son was subject to terrible epileptic fits, had brought the boy (probably in his teens) to Jesus (Mk) seeking a cure. But access to Jesus was not possible. No one precisely where he was. However nine of his disciples were available, and willing to help! So the anxious parent sought their aid. Evidently it was known that earlier in the ministry Jesus had sent out the twelve on a preaching mission and tad imparted to them some of the powers which he himself exercised: "he sent them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits" (Mk. 6:7).

Embarrassed Disciples

However all efforts on the part of the disciples had now proved fruitless. Nor was this to be wondered at. For, inevitably, with wavering faith in their leader had come also cessation of the powers he had given them.

The scribes, ever on the alert to make capital out of a situation, saw a splendid opportunity to weaken yet further the loyalty of these followers of Jesus. Using all their considerable dialectical skill, they exploited the embarrassment of the disciples to the full. Powerless disciples, powerless Leader, of course! Should not their present failure set them wondering whether or not they had been hoodwinked by a demagogue who was too clever for them?

And the disciples had no convincing reply. Thus, whilst Jesus received honour and glory from his Father (2 Pet. 1:17) these nine disciples encountered shame, defeat and dishonour. Before the large crowd which had gathered their incompetence was thoroughly exposed-no display of miraculous healing, and in argument only tongue-tied incoherence. When Moses went up mount Sinai and communed there with the angel of God's Presence, the situation in the camp of Israel had rapidly gone to pieces, and Moses returned to a scene of apostasy and corruption. Now Jesus similarly returned from the mountain of the Glory of the Lord to find his disciples beset with difficulties, and with faith at a low ebb. The weakness Aaron had shown (Ex.32:1-6, 21,25) was now matched by that of the apostles.

Yet in another respect there was marked contrast with the experience of Moses. When he returned from the mount "the skin of his face shone: and the people were afraid to come nigh him" (Ex.34:30). But when the crowd saw Jesus, "they were greatly amazed (at the sight of the Transfiguration Glory still to be seen in his face?), and running to him they saluted him" (Mk). They "saw Christ's glory, full of grace and truth."

Luke hints at the same phenomenon when he comments: "They were all amazed at the mighty power of God" (9:43). The word means literally "majesty" (as in 2 Pet. 1:16 and Dan.7:27).

Paul, commenting on how "the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the (fading) glory of his countenance, asks: "Shall not the ministration of the spirit be more glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory." It is "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor.3:7,8; 4:6).

Elisha, prefiguring Christ, had a like experience: "And when the sons of the prophets . . . saw him (after Elijah was taken away), they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him" (2Kgs.2:15).

Stephen, that outstanding servant of Christ, who so closely recapitulated his Lord's experience, was also radiant with divine glory: "They saw his face as it had been the face of an angel"; and the explanation of this is withheld to the end of the next chapter: "Looking steadfastly up to heaven, he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God" (Acts.6:15; 7:55).

In a later study (213) it will be seen that when Jesus was in Gethsemane, the Glory was once again seen in his face (Lk.22:43 with Jn.l8:6 andPs.43:5).

Jesus knew that he had returned to a scene of argument and contention. Without a moment's delay he came to the help of his embarrassed and hard-pressed disciples. He addressed a question to the scribes point-blank: "What question ye with them?" This was enough. These able men, who possibly had already been worsted in discussion with Jesus on some earlier occasion, were happy enough to score points over the untutored Galilean followers but did not at all relish a head-on collision with Jesus himself. So they quietly subsided into the background. And the disciples, unwilling to proclaim their own defeat, left explanations to the father of the stricken youth.

Father and son in distress

The man was only too ready to explain. Kneeling in humble supplication before Jesus, he told his story-how he had hopefully brought his pathetic afflicted son, his only son (cp.Lk.8:42; 7:12), and had turned to the disciples for healing (Mt.lO:8), but in vain. It was the experience of the Shunamite woman over again. Even the staff of the prophet Elisha in the hand of his unworthy minister Gehazi had achieved nothing (2 Kgs.4:29-31). Perhaps the man's mind ran on this wonderful Old Testament story, gathering hope that even now, as then, the prophet might graciously make up for the failure of his servant.

He went on to tell the details of his poor son's sufferings. A pooling of details from the three records builds up into one of the most vivid and poignant pictures to be found in the gospels:

"Teacher, Lord,
I have brought my only son to you.
I beg you to look on him,
and have mercy on him,
For he has a dumb spirit (ie. it makes him utterly speechless).
He is moonstruck (ie. the attacks are intermittent),
and he suffers terribly.
Behold, whenever the spirit seizes him,
he suddenly cries out:
it convulses him, and dashes him down:
often he falls into the fire,
and often into the water;
he foams at the mouth,
and grinds his teeth:
it (the spirit) shatters him,
he becomes rigid,
and it will hardly leave him" (RSV mainly).
The father went on to explain: "I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him (they were not empowered, that is, by God". Matthew, one of those nine failures, has left this on record against himself!

It is not unlikely that this experience was in the nature of a test-case for Judas. First, he found himself not included in the apostolic group of highest privilege. Then failure to heal. Then a withering exposure by the cleverness of the scribes. And finally the Lord's own censure.

"Faithless Generation"

The man's pathetic pleading proceeded: "Look on my son", that is, with concern and sympathy. This is a meaning that is fairly common in LXX, especially in the Psalms.

In response Jesus became a turbulent conflict of compassion and indignation: "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?"

It is no easy problem to settle whom these words were intended for. Surely not for the man himself, already wracked with misery and helplessness. Yet the best texts of Mark's gospel say that the words were addressed to him. But in that case why the word "generation"? The same difficulty rules out the disciples also, even though in some respects the epithet "faithless" was by no means inappropriate. However it is difficult to imagine Jesus castigating his own followers in the hearing of their adversaries and of the multitude. Nor does it satisfy to apply the words either to the scribes or to the crowd. Fitting enough, no doubt, where the scribes were concerned, but was the father's heart-rending appeal the right and proper moment to turn on them in this way?

More likely the Lord's vigorous disapproval was not directed at any one present, but was an apostrophe to the nation generally. Jesus, with an eye always to the spiritual significance of circumstances saw this father and son as a figure of the two aspects of the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel.

As will be seen by and by, from this point of view the entire incident becomes a wonderful acted parable. "Faithless and perverse generation" is Moses' scorching censure of Israel (Dt.32:5,20). It came to be used also by Peter (Acts.2:40) and by Paul (Phil.2:15) in precisely the same way (cp. Ps.78:8). "How long shall I bear with this evil congregation"? was the expostulation of the angel of the lord to Moses (Num.14:27).

After this brief explosion of indignation, the compassion of Jesus, ever irrepressible, took charge of him. "Bring him here to me", he ordered. Yet it may be inferred from the details of the narrative (Mark 9:25) that, not content to wait till they brought the boy, who was now evidently resting some distance away, Jesus left the crowd and with the boy's father went to meet him.

As they were approaching each other, the boy had another fit. Its onset threw him on the ground and very rapidly the convulsions intensified. He roiled about, foaming at the mouth - a piteous and frightening spectacle.

"If thou canst..."

Strong as the compassionate urge in him was to heal the poor sufferer at once, Jesus held back, questioning the father. "Has he been long like this?" "Ever since he was very young", came the distressed reply. "If you can do anything – if you can — do have pity on us, and help us." Those plural pronouns spoke volumes, the soul of that helpless father was contorted in suffering just as much as his child was. Yet he could not bring himself to speak with hope or confidence. The long series of disappointments with one doctor after another, and last of all from the futile efforts of the Lord's own disciples, had brought his spirits to their lowest ebb.

The reply of Jesus may be read in two different ways, depending on which of two manuscripts readings is followed. There is rather better evidence for the AV: "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth"; but the switch of pronouns from "thou" to "him" is awkward. So, if accepted, this reading needs to be helped out by an ellipsis: "If you can believe (I can help you)..." The alternative reading (less certain than would seem from its appearance in RV and RSV) makes the Lord's words into a somewhat reproving ejaculation "You say: If you can! Let me assure you-all things are possible to him who has the faith."

In desperation the poor man cried out: "I do have faith; help me in my lack of faith." There he spoke for thousands of the Lord's followers in every generation, whose ideals would take them all the way in faithful following of Christ, but who find themselves continually held back from higher achievement by inability to do without the earthly aids and props which are the ordinary man's insurance policy.

Yet God, in His gracious understanding of the weaknesses of human nature, is willing to accept a half-faith as the stepping stone to the real thing. Abraham, promised in his old age that he should have a seed as the stars of heaven, believed God. Yet almost immediately he was asking for a support to his faith: "Whereby shall I bow that I shall inherit the Land?" There is no lack of Biblical examples of this kind. God does not expect the new-born members of His family to be giants at birth.

Appreciating the man's intense internal struggle, Jesus went into action without further delay, for the crowd, not to be restrained by the apostles any longer, was surging towards them.

Dead? . . . Healed

Addressing himself to the 'unclean spirit' he spoke in terms of authority: "I charge thee-l, Jesus, and not one of my ineffectual disciples - Come out of him, and enter no more into him."

When this was said, the fit Jesus had just witnessed was past its worst, and the boy was lying unconscious, breathing heavily. But immediately Jesus spoke, another attack came on. The boy cried out and rolled about in violent contortions. Here was a yet further trial of his lather's faith. It seemed at first as though Jesus was even less successful then his disciples.

Then the attack ceased, and the boy lay still as death. He was a ghastly colour. Breathing seemed to have ceased. Someone knelt to examine him, and looked up at his father, pronounced him dead. And nearly all who could get within sight of him agreed: "He is dead."

But then Jesus took him by the hand and sat him up. To the astonishment of everyone, the boy came to. With a word of encouragement Jesus got him on to his feet. There was an alert look in his eye, and a healthy colour in his cheek—and holding him, an excited father incoherent with gladness and gratitude.

"Enter no more into him", Jesus had said, addressing himself to the evil malady just witnessed. That spasm-racked constitution had suffered for the last time.

And the crowd saw and marvelled at "the majesty o\ God". This unusual expression is that reserved by Peter to describe Jesus' appearance in the Transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16), so the conclusion is probably correct that the heavenly Glory was still to be seen in the face of Jesus, and it was to this the crowd attributed the miracle.

Disciples' Problem

Naturally the man pressed Jesus and his followers to accept the hospitality of his home. When they were come into the house the disciples, put out by their own failure and by the exposure of it before many people, asked Jesus anxiously: 'Why could not we heal the boy? Whose fault?-yours, or ours?'

In reply he had to tell them bluntly: "Because of your little faith." This is not to be understood as meaning (what modern evangelicals and Pentecostals are eager to claim) that the only essential qualification for working miracles is a firm faith that God will so work through them. This situation was special to the apostles. Earlier, when they went out preaching, Jesus had shared with them his own marvellous endowment of healing power. But in the last few months doubts had grown in their minds about the claims of their Leader. His idea of Messiahship seemed so different from theirs. At times loyalty had been strained to the limit, and faith had been replaced by hesitance and timidity. How, possibly, could the divine power of Jesus continue in them whilst they thus halted between two opinions?

Their biggest problem, exemplified in a further clash with the scribes that day, was their Master's intransigent attitude to "the establishment." Recognizing this, Jesus proceeded to underscore that there could be no coming to terms with a system which was not prepared to acknowledge him. "Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."

Those who would attempt to take this saying literally emulate the worst blunders of the disciples and proclaim their spiritual immaturity. "This mountain" is, of course, the Mount of Transfiguration, with its foretaste of the glory and fellowship of Christ's kingdom. "Yonder place" can hardly be other than Jerusalem, which was almost in sight from where they were. Thus the essential meaning of Christ's saying was: The coming of the kingdom of God to Jerusalem, so that it is reality and not just an unrealised hope, depends, at least in part, on the faith of those who believe in me.

It is a principle which the Bible teaches in many places, but which the first and twentieth century disciples alike seem loth to learn. Yet it was there, set out in impressive symbolic form, in the miracle of healing Jesus had done that day.

Type of Israel

The boy and his father are a figure of Israel, in desperate need of spiritual regeneration. The boy's epilepsy represents the unceasing troubles and afflictions of the Jewish people. Hence Christ's seemingly heartless words: "O faithless generation, how long shall I suffer you?" The apostles, making futile efforts to heal, typify the ecclesia in the time of Christ's coming, with neither the faith nor the power to achieve any progress towards the kingdom of God. The scribes, controversial and with even less power, stand for the useless perversions of the gospel, in modern times, or maybe for the futilities of Jewish orthodoxy. Jesus comes again, from heaven and in visible glory, at a time when his nation is enduring a paroxysm of suffering (see the references to fire and water in Ps.66:12; Is.43:2). The outcome is that Israel is now given up for 'dead'. Yet, at such a time, for the father's sake, there is miraculous restoration to complete and lasting health, so that all nations, beholding, marvel at 'the majesty of God.' It is to be noted that this culminating keyword comes in only two places in the Greek Old Testament: "The greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High" (Dan.7:27;cp Jer.33:9).

This is not the first time that a miracle of Jesus has proved to be also a very vivid parable. That such was the intention behind it is indicated by the further answer, perhaps more enigmatic than the first, which Jesus gave to his disciples' enquiry: "This kind can come forth by nothing

but by prayer and fasting" (Mk.) Few readers of the gospel will be disposed to interpret this as meaning: 'I have been praying and fasting; you have not. Therefore I have the power to work this miracle, when you are impotent to do it.' If this is what Jesus meant, the ascetics in the 4th and 5th centuries would have been the outstanding wonder workers of all time. Then what did Jesus mean?

First, it is necessary to settle the textual problem. Should the word 'fasting' be there at all? The facts are that, besides the Sinaitic and Vatican codices, there is hardly any ancient authority which leaves the word out. The massive consensus of witness by manuscripts, early versions and quotations in the Fathers is in favour of retaining the word 'fasting'. It is not difficult to see that some in the early church misunderstood the gist of the passage, found that fasting did not work miracles, and promptly decided that something had gone wrong with the text.

Yet if the suggestion made earlier, that the transfiguration took place on or near the Day of Atonement, be considered, it will be found to help out the meaning here very considerably.

That important day in the Jewish Year was the only fast which the Law of Moses required: "ye shall afflict your souls" (Lev.l6:31). The people assembled in the court of the temple and whilst the high priest followed the appointed ritual inside the sanctuary, they prayed in silence and waited in expectation. The acceptance of the sin-offering on behalf of the nation was signified (in the early days) by the manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, and then the high priest came forth to the waiting multitude and blessed then in the name of the Lord.

So, when Jesus declared that "this kind can come forth by nothing but prayer and fasting", his mind was on the symbolism of the Day of Atonement and of the miracle he had just performed. And when he said "this kind" he meant the kind of ill men cannot cure-sin!

In this twentieth century the force of the saying is greatly intensified. Not until the peopled Israel show the repentant spirit of which prays and fasting are the outward tokens will the High Priest come forth from the Divine Presence to bless them with the forgiveness of sins: "Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation" (Heb.9;2!| Then the demon will enter into Israel no more.

Notes: Mk.9:14-29

A great multitude, and the scribes. Would this be likely at the foot of Mt. Hermon?
One of the multitude. Luke's word suggests a man of importance.
Faithless generation. Consider Phil 2:15; Ads.2:40; Ps.78:8; Dt. 32:5 LXX; as well as Num.14:27.
Probably means: and when he (Jesus) saw him, and not as RSV.
He asked his father. For a similar apparently callous delay, see Mk.5:35.
If thou canst do anything. In 1:40 the leper said: "If you want to..."
All things. A lovely contrast with 'any thing' (v. 22)
My unbelief. Could this be a confession that hitherto he had been a worldly irreligious man, not taking his Jewish religion seriously, and therefore not deserving of help?
Deaf and dumb spirit. Zacharias was made deaf and dumb by the angel Gabriel! See Study 30.
This seems to describe another fit following on that in v.20.

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