Jesus had twelve disciples, and one day, nine of them got into a serious situation which God used to answer the question which we have all wondered: “Do I have enough faith?” It happened this way:
Jesus had divided the disciples into two groups—three in one group and the remaining nine in the other. He had then taken Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain for that famous event that we call “The Transfiguration.” Meanwhile, the other nine disciples remained at the base of the mountain and presumably continued to minister to the needs of the crowd that always followed Jesus everywhere.
At some point the nine disciples were approached to rid a young boy of a demon that had been plaguing him. He was subject to seizures and foaming at the mouth, but this was no ordinary epilepsy! It is clear in the text that he was actually being tormented by a demon because the seizures happened whenever he was near water where he could be drowned or near fire where he could be burned to death. This was an evil spirit bent on homicide, not simply a medical case of epilepsy. According to Matthew 17, the nine disciples faced a desperate situation, and the boy’s father was a desperate man.
When the disciples gathered around the boy and tried to cast the demon out of him, try as they might, they could NOT exorcise the demon. This no doubt confused and alarmed them, but apparently the situation worsened, because when they failed, the crowd became agitated.
Mark 9 tells us that when Jesus and the three disciples with Him approached the base of the mountain, they found an angry crowd surrounding His nine other disciples and an argument in progress. Jesus waded in and asked what everyone was arguing about. The father of the demon-possessed boy explained what was going on and made known to Jesus that His nine disciples had been unable to free his son from the demon.
When Jesus heard this, He said something that appeared strangely out of character for Him. “Unbelieving and perverse generation!” That’s what He said!
His words were so shocking that, for the last 2,000 years, people have argued about what He meant. The English translation of His words are as follows: “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me” (Matthew 17:17).
Some attribute this response to the notion that Jesus, exasperated with their lack of faith, vented His anger at the boy’s father. Others have said that Jesus was expressing frustration at His disciples who had failed, and still others have speculated that He was indicting the entire generation of people who were alive on earth at that time.
With any approach, Jesus sounds really angry! Why else would He call them perverse (or, as some translations say, “perverted”)?
To be blunt, why would their inability to free a boy from a demon demonstrate that they were perverted? That description seems to come out of left field!
Is there a better way to understand what Jesus was really saying in this passage? I believe there is!
Here’s the thing: Translators can sometimes overlook common “trade jargon.” For example, when Peter (a fisherman by trade) wrote his first epistle, he used terms that a fisherman would use. In fact, this fishing vocabulary is used to verify Peter’s authorship of this epistle!
In the same way, when Jesus spoke in this passage, He used a term that carpenters would use a lot (which only makes sense because for nearly two decades, He worked as a carpenter).
Because we forget that Jesus would have been familiar with a carpenter’s vocabulary, the Bible translators mistakenly say that He called His generation “perverted.” But the word literally means, “thoroughly bent out of shape.” In other words, “WARPED”! Since Jesus was a carpenter by trade, He knew very well what “warped” boards looked like, and it was an ideal metaphor for expressing His meaning.
He knew by long, personal experience that wood warps when exposed to the elements. If left on the ground by itself instead of covered and bound together with other boards, the influence of the elements causes a board to dry unevenly and warp.
CARPENTERS CANNOT USE A WARPED BOARD FOR ITS INTENDED PURPOSE.
Jesus was saying that because His generation lacked trust in God, they were warped out of shape by their exposure to the world; this kept them from being useful for the purpose for which the Lord had made them.
The same is true today! When we fail to trust God, we find ourselves influenced instead by our world and its values. That spiritual warping renders us incapable of fulfilling our purpose until God intervenes.
In Deuteronomy 32:4-5 we see this exact same comparison between the Lord’s straight and upright character and the people’s warped condition. Look for it:
“He is the Rock, His works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He. (But) they are corrupt and not His children; to their shame they are a warped and crooked generation.”
Clearly our Lord had this Old Testament passage in mind when He used the imagery of a carpenter to describe how their lack of faith made them unusable in the way God longed to use them.
In order to rescue warped boards from the burn pile, carpenters would thoroughly moisten the boards and then clamp or tie them to stronger, un-warped boards.
And this is why Jesus immediately followed His use of the word warped with the phrase, “How long shall I be WITH you?” The word for WITH here is not their usual word. Instead, it is a different word that emphasizes being closely tied together. Both words mean with, but with different intensity and duration.
Let’s use a modern-day example. When you were in high school and saw a boy and girl unexpectedly sitting together, you might say in surprise, “Does she just happen to be sitting with him, or is she WITH him?” In that sentence, you would use the phrase “with him” twice, but the second use of the phrase “with him” would have a connotation of a much more intentional and long-lasting with.
Why did Jesus use the more UNUSUAL word for with? Because that PARTICULAR word indicates a very intentional joining of two or more, and that something CHANGES as a result of being joined WITH that person or thing . . . like pressing a warped board against a larger straight board until it is fixed.
His disciples needed straightening by constant, personal contact with His straight and unbending character.
To emphasize the point, Jesus used a second phrase in that same verse. After saying, “How long shall I be (intentionally joined) WITH you?,” He continues, “How long shall I put up with you?” This sounds in English like Jesus is sick of them. But the word that is translated “put up with” in your English Bible literally means (according to Strong’s Concordance), “To hold oneself firm and erect against someone or something.” You may want to re-read that definition before continuing.
Again we find a word that would have been used in carpentry when faced with the need to fix a warped board. In order to correct the defect, the warped board had to be firmly clamped against a stronger, straighter board which would not bend. In that way, the smaller warped board would be pulled back to a condition of being straight and useful once again.
This took some time! Days, and perhaps weeks, in the case of boards, but obviously longer in the case of humans.
So Jesus is ACTUALLY saying to the nine disciples, “How long must I be closely tied to you in person like this, where I stand firm and steady against you . . . until by long and constant contact with you, you are no longer warped by lack of faith and useless to fulfill the purpose for which I made you?”
After a warped board has been clamped to other stronger, straighter boards for a while, the clamps are removed to check progress. If the board immediately reverts to being warped, it must be re-soaked and re-attached under pressure to the straight boards. The restoration process isn’t finished yet, so the board is not ready to be used.
As soon as Jesus left the nine, they reverted to being without enough faith to accomplish the purpose that God wanted them to accomplish. And so He “re-clamped” them to Himself and performed the miracle while they stood right there WITH Him. “Bring the boy to me.”
As someone has said, “He speaks to . . . the crowd, and bids them bring the boy to HIM, not to the disciples. . . . if the desired miracle was to be performed, Christ Himself must do it. In spite of His grief and disappointment, He does not withhold relief . . . .”
And so Jesus, standing straight among His wavering disciples, performed the deliverance that they could not yet manage and freed the boy forever from the attack of this demonic spirit.
Fast-forward to the end of the story. Later in the day the disciples privately approach Jesus to find out why they had failed to cast out the demon. In verse 20, Jesus makes a direct assessment: “Because you have so little faith.” The phrase He uses is that they have Oligopistos, which at first blush means, “little (Oligo) faith (Pistos).” But in the very next verse, Jesus declares that they don’t NEED bigger faith!! He says that if their faith is as small as a mustard seed (those tiny black dots in your mustard), that they can tell mountains to move out of the way, and it will happen!
WHICH IS IT, JESUS? IS THEIR FAITH TOO SMALL, OR IS EVEN SMALL FAITH SUFFICIENT?
This passage can seem to totally contradict itself . . . until you realize that OLIGO can also mean small in time, i.e. a short period of time! For example, once when Paul was witnessing to King Agrippa, Agrippa asked him, “Do you think that in such a “OLIGO” TIME, you can persuade me to become a Christian?” Here, and in various other places, we learn that OLIGO can mean a short period of time, not just a small amount of something.
And this causes us to notice something else. When Jesus comes down the mountain, He is not told, “Your disciples are over there trying to cast the demon out of my son.” Instead He was told, “They couldn’t do it.” Past tense. Which means that they had tried and then quit, and were NO LONGER TRYING when Jesus arrived on the scene.
With that understanding of what the passage ACTUALLY says (and doesn’t say), we can see that Jesus was not saying that they had miniature faith (because the tiniest amount of faith will do the trick!), but INSTEAD that their faith had not lasted long enough! They had just given up when it took longer than they expected.
That is what Jesus meant when He said in another Gospel, “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” He was saying that with some demons, perseverance is key. You have to make it a matter of continuing prayer. You may even have to fast. But the one thing that you must NEVER do is quit. Because you DO have faith enough to conquer as long as you are willing to go the distance, trusting God for as long as it takes to see the victory come.
So let’s apply this long teaching to our lives and ministries. You and I are victims of the toxic effect brought on by being born into a world that is no friend to faith in God. The negative effect of that environment is that it is hard for us to trust God; it has warped us to the point where, in ourselves, we are unable to fulfill the purpose for which God made us.
But Jesus comes and, instead of tossing us aside, draws us close to Himself. As we remain attached closely to Him, we are drawn to the moral straightness and steely character that He intended for us all along. We are empowered with all the faith we need to do our ministries as we remain “glued to Him,” but the only thing that we must not do is give up. Success may take longer than we expected.
We must not worry about whether we have enough faith, because that can trick us into quitting. We must commit to trusting Him no matter how long it takes, because faith that goes the distance will certainly be rewarded. “Do not grow weary in doing good, because in due season you will reap a harvest, if you do not give up.”