Matthew 17:20 - Moving Mountains
A challenging word from our Saviour (in Matthew 17:20):
With just a tiny bit of real faith you can move a big mountain!
For some time now we (in The Netherlands) have been singing Hymn 171 from the new Reformed Church Book. In verse 3 of that hymn appears this passage:
Nothing is impossible for him who believes in him.
The melody requires that this line be sung with gusto, otherwise you will not reach the high notes. It sounds beautiful.
But is it true?
A Lack of Faith
Jesus spoke in response to a special occurrence. A father brough his ailing son to the disciples. He did not know what to do, and that was understandable. From the description we can conclude that the youngster suffered from a serious form of epilepsy. He would suddenly just fall, even in the water or in the fire (Matt. 17:15).
It is remarkable that a demon is thought to be at work here. We do not usually say it that way. An illness is an illness, no more. You go to the doctor then and hope to get some medicine for it. But this is not how the Bible deals with it.
The illness is described as a hostile force, which should not be there. It is something from the reign of the devil, whom we have assisted in his reign through our disobedience to God.
Illness does not belong to life, but it belongs to our sin. That is why that father was right when he went to Jesus. He who wants to forgive sins is also the One who can heal us from our illnesses.
But Jesus was gone for a little while, he had walked up the mountain with three of his disciples. The other disciples took care of the people in the meantime, but they were unable to heal the young man. And so, after all the father brought his son to Jesus, with his urgent request.
Jesus drove out the demon with authority. This to great joy of all who stood around, but also to great amazement of the disciples. Why had they not been able to do this? Had they not also received that power (Matt. 10:8)?
That was the question they posed to the Lord. A question that in all its modes has remained throughout the ages. Why could they not heal the young man? Should they have been able to do it? And what does this mean for us; what should we be able to do as Christians?
Jesus’ answer in Matthew 17:14-20 is especially important: “you could not cast out the demon because of your little faith”. Jesus even wondered aloud how long he would have to bear with this faithless and twisted generation. If only they had faith like a grain of mustard seed, they would be able to move a mountain.
True Faith is Abundance
A lack of faith, that is the reason of powerlessness. An answer with at least two aspects.
Firstly: a person cannot do this of themselves. There is no way. That is very clear: there is no one who can restore his sinful and damaged life. So that idea we should not cherish, and we should never let ourselves be talked into that.
Moses and Aaron once sinned when they created the impression that it was they who did the miracle for which God had given them instructions. The LORD took that extremely seriously, and neither of them was allowed to enter the promised land (Num. 20:1-13).
Secondly: Jesus can do this! To believe means: I cannot do it, but he can do it. He can do everything, for he is the Son of God. And in the meantime we can add to that, he paid the price for the whole creation. He is fully justified when he sends the illnesses away.
Thus, the actual question in all of this is: how much do you expect from God? Do you sincerely believe that he can and will do everything for your salvation?
The contrast between the extremely small seed and the very large mountain is remarkable. A very small amount of faith allows you to experience the biggest events.
Not much faith is real, but true faith is abundantly much. Characteristic in this is that you let go of the things that you entrust to God. The three friends of Daniel were threatened with death. The king was going to throw them in the fiery oven. They gave Nebuchadnezzar the simple answer that God could perhaps save them from the fire and was perhaps willing to help them.
But perhaps not. They would have to wait and see. They surrendered that (and themselves) to him, and in the meantime, they would not bow before the large image.
That is sincere faith, by which nothing is impossible. While the men did not control this themselves and did not claim this either. Nothing in their lives would be impossible. God can do all things…, but they did not have the right to anything. They surrendered themselves to God, who would save them, whatever it took, whether they would die or not.
For Jesus Nothing is Impossible
Only Jesus can move mountains. And yet, he has never done that. Not literally anyway. Figuratively he has. That is how we must understand this word. Not that it becomes smaller because of that, on the contrary, we must not think in a limited way of only real mountains.
People through faith have conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated (Heb. 11:32-40).
Paul writes in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He says that against the background of his changing circumstances, in freedom but also as prisoner, in times of plenty but also in times of want.
When mountains lie in your path, they block your way. You cannot look over the top of them and you cannot pass by (all the debris). Many have experienced in faith how God can move such a mountain. The prison where Paul was kept had to let him go. The chains which held Paul in place, could not hold him back. Friend and foe were amazed, nothing seemed impossible to clear the way for the servants of God. While that does not mean that it always happens like this. We cannot order such a miracle, not claim it, and we cannot manipulate it.
It will never become our power and it will never become normal. Only through true faith does it take place in our lives; by leaving it truly and completely to God. The disciples had received special powers from God when they went ahead as heralds for King Jesus to proclaim his kingdom. We cannot just copy their position and possibilities one by one to today. And yet, also they had to act in faith, it was not something from themselves. We learn that from this example, and it was proven later as well. Peter later became imprisoned, and God did not let the chains slide off his hands that time. Paul too did not always know if he would be freed again, the one time that indeed happened, another time it did not.
Nowhere does God promise us that his children, now already, will be freed from illness, prison, persecution, etc. On the contrary. We are being prepared for quite a different scenario, namely that the voice of witnesses is being smothered in blood.
Who Genuinely Believes in Jesus?
Therefore, it is necessary to shield ourselves from a superficial use of these words, as if a believer him/herself would be able to do all this in the Name of Jesus. Those kinds of applications buzz all around us, illustrated with examples. And often with disguised accusations that “too few” miracles are happening in church.
At the same time, we would make quite a mistake if we would remain stuck in that shielded environment. By only saying what is not meant here.
For what matters to Jesus is this: with whom does he find true faith? The faith by which people are firmly convinced that Jesus can always help; clears the way you are on, provides answers, can hold on to you, allows you to succeed, and so on. So that you will not in your own impotence continue to look at the mountains in your life.
One time it was Zerubbabel’s task to rebuild the temple, in a place with much debris all around and amid a variety of enmity. Then the Word of the LORD came to him: ““Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’, says the LORD of hosts. ‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zech. 4:6-7). That is it exactly. If Zerubbabel had relied on his own expertise, he would have never started this project. But with the LORD everything is possible.
How often has the solution not been something quite unexpected? Think of the people of Israel before they crossed the Red Sea; who would have thought that the sea would part? When God finds it necessary, it will happen. Those who have faith, will see it. Those who do not genuinely believe, never see anything or they see very little, as they continually try to control all things themselves. That is the difference.
But note: The Lord does not speak to unbelievers here, but to his followers, those who say that they believe. Today you find those people in church. Do we genuinely believe? In the life of the church, much can still be kept in human hands. The good order degenerates into a longing for control and a fear of everything that is different. That can surely be a reason why not much is happening, as God is not given the space to work any miracles. I am not thinking of healings or so, for those have not been promised.
But I think e.g., of people who come to faith, who arise from being dead! That is the great miracle of all times and all places. Obstacles disappear, people choose for Jesus regardless of the cost or how their environment reacts to it. That miracle no one controls. We only get to see this when we believe in Jesus in truth and let go of everything.
Otherwise, people turn their backs, the youth will leave, and our mountains will become bigger.
This is how simple it is, at the core.
When Jesus returns, will he then find true faith?