The transfiguration called the disciples to listen to Jesus. The miracle that follows explains why this call was issued. The disciples' failure to heal a possessed boy indicates their failure to trust. The contrast between Jesus' glorious power and the disciples' impotence is significant. Jesus' authority can be trusted, but disciples acting on their own are useless.
This event is the first of several failures the disciples have at the end of this chapter. They will not understand Jesus' passion prediction (vv. 43-45), nor will they understand greatness and cooperation (vv. 46-50). Instincts fail the disciples; they must listen to Jesus.
There is another important lesson in this passage. Even as Jesus turns to face rejection and death, he still overcomes the forces of evil that attempt to bring people down. Listening to Jesus is worth it, because listening to him means triumphing over evil.
The juxtaposition of this event to the transfiguration has always caught the eye of artists. One of Raphael's most famous paintings, The Transfiguration, places these two scenes side by side. The mountaintop experience is followed by an everyday failure to trust. Such an up-and-down spiritual record is often the product of failing to trust God.
Jesus descends from the mountain and encounters a huge crowd. Mark 9:14 notes that there was an ongoing dispute between the disciples and the scribes. Luke lacks such detail and keeps the story simple. A man with an only son is in distress over his child's condition. So he asks for Jesus' aid: "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child." Only Luke notes that the boy is an only son. The note adds pathos to the scene, because in ancient culture boys were highly prized and only sons were especially precious. The man's family heritage is at stake here. Matthew 17:14-15 says the boy is "moonstruck" and describes symptoms of epilepsy, a disease that ancient Jews viewed with much apprehension (van der Loos 1965:401-5). The disease brought terror because of its associations with darkness. It was this condition that David feigned as having before Saul (1 Sam 21:13). The detailed description of the possession's effects underline the father's terror as he watches his son controlled by forces that seek to destroy the boy. There is hardly a better metaphor in the whole Bible for the effects of evil's presence in one's life. So for the child and the father, emotions run high and the need is great.
The father has sought relief once already: "I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not." We can almost hear the disappointment in his words. Jesus is the last chance for this father. The father's "begging" here recalls the earlier request of verse 38. The entreaty is filled with desperation.
Jesus' response makes it clear that something is awry: "O unbelieving and perverse generation, . . . how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?" The rebuke is broad and indicates the futility that imperils the creation because of lack of response to Jesus (Rom 8:18-25). Without him creation runs haywire, going its own way. The hope is that he will reverse its effects one day. Those who refuse to believe live in the same futility. Jesus wants the disciples to learn to trust him and find their way. His rebuke indicts all the disciples, since it is a response to their failure. The description of the generation as perverse has Old Testament roots. The language most closely resembles that of Deuteronomy 32:5, a passage on covenant unfaithfulness (Num 14:27; Deut 32:20; Prov 6:14; Is 59:8). This is a generation that strays due to lack of trust. Such straying calls for much patience on the part of the One who has come to turn humanity onto the path of true life.
Jesus asks that the child be brought to him. Immediately the demon takes hold of the child and tries to seize control, but Jesus issues a rebuke. So the boy returns to his father healed. Jesus' authority and the extent of the reversal of evil's presence emerge before all. They were all amazed at the greatness of God. God is gloriously present in Jesus' acts, but the implication, given Jesus' rebuke, is that such a glorious presence demands trust. Only Jesus has the power to reverse the effects of evil. Jesus may have to be patient with some people's unbelief, but when faith like that of this father appears, evil's defeat becomes possible.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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