In Christ Alone

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 9, 2020.

 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” “As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.’ And they were greatly distressed” (Matthew 17:14-23).[1]

Have you ever had a “mountain top experience” in your Christian faith? Maybe it was as a child at Vacation Bible School. Maybe it was as a youth at summer camp. Maybe it was as an adult at a conference or retreat. Or maybe it was right here during a time of teaching or worship. Maybe you’re on the mountain top right now.

The problem with mountain top experiences, as wonderful as they are, is what? You come down from the mountain. Perhaps it is a tragedy or a dilemma that brings you down. Or maybe it is simply the grind of everyday life in a fallen world.

Peter, James, and John had gone up a mountain with Jesus where on the mountain top Jesus’ glory was visibly revealed to them. They saw Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, and they even heard the audible voice of God the Father from heaven. Of all our mountain top experiences neither you nor I have had one to match this one. And yet, the three disciples, like us, did not remain on the mountain top but followed Jesus down the mountain, back to “the real world.”

It is not reaching to assume that the three disciples were shocked out of their euphoria. Down from the mountain they walked into chaos. According to Mark’s Gospel, the scribes are arguing with the nine disciples, surrounded by a “great crowd,” with a father and his oppressed son at the center of the controversy. Welcome down from the mountain! Peter, James, and John had seen but a glimpse of heaven and now they are reminded, with the blunt force of fallen humanity, that heaven is not on earth (not yet anyway).

It is times like these that we can be tempted to idolize our mountain top experiences, to think of the mountain top moments as being with Christ rather than the valley below with all its worldly chaos. Yet in the midst of this madness, Jesus is there too.  Revealing to his disciples then and today that faith, salvation, and freedom are not in our experiences or our circumstances but in Christ alone.

Faith in Christ alone

Amidst the maddening crowd, a father falls to his knees in desperation pleading with the Lord Jesus: “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water.” We should be careful not to read this as a medical diagnosis. The word translated “epileptic” is a Greek word from which we get our word “lunatic,” literally crazed by the moon. In ancient literature it is used to describe the uncontrollable action of a seizure, which is described here by the boy’s actions of falling into open fires or water basins of that age and culture. Mark adds that the boy can neither hear nor speak and has been like this since he was a little boy. You can imagine the desperation of this father. It is likely that he cannot recall a normal day in the life of his son.

Imagine Peter, James, and John’s perspective of this startlingly sick and oppressed boy, a sobering reality of the fallen human condition. Human sickness is not part of the original human condition but a result of the Fall. There was no heart disease, cancer, epilepsy, not even the common cold, in Eden, nor is there in heaven, but there is plenty here on earth, all of which is part of the fallen human condition. This boy, however, is not merely sick. He is demonically oppressed. A demon is controlling and perhaps causing the seizures as well as the deafness and dumbness, and it appears that the demon is bent on destruction, whether it be burning or drowning.

To add insult to illness, in Jesus’ absence the nine have attempted to exorcize the demon to no avail. The father tells Jesus, “I brought [my son] to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” The Gospel of Mark reveals a greater sense of resigned hopelessness in the father’s plea: “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22).

We may scoff at the father’s lack of faith: Does he not know the power of the Lord Jesus Christ? Does he not know that the creator of the universe stands before him? And yet, his plea sounds like the average Christian prayer, weak, faithless, pitiful: “Lord, if you can do anything…”

How does Jesus respond to the father, to the crowd, to the scribes, to his disciples? (How does he respond to our pitiful prayers?) “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Everything wrong in this moment is summed up in Jesus’ condemnation. The crowds are merely thrill-seeking spectators; the scribes are masters of self-deception and strife; the father is blinded by desperation; and, the disciples are ineffective.

And so, Jesus condemns them all as “twisted,” meaning “perverted.” Their hearts and minds are not captivated by whatever is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8). Rather, they are led astray by the enticements of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They are “faithless,” not believing in God’s provision in Jesus to heal and restore.

Thank God that his grace is not initiated by or waiting on our faith! Thank God that he does not respond as if manipulated by our belief. If Jesus had waited for someone to make a decision of faith, the boy would never have been healed. And, if salvation were conditioned upon us, no one would ever be saved. So fickle is our faith, rightly does the boy’s father cry out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Praise be to God for his grace, which we see vividly demonstrated in Jesus’ words and actions here.

In the midst of a faithless and twisted generation, Jesus says, “Bring [the boy] here to me.” Mark’s Gospel reveals that at this command “the spirit saw him” and “convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth” (Mark 9:20). What a graphic description of how the demonic, as well as the world and our flesh, hates the grace of God. Yet, amidst the faithless and the twisted Jesus rebukes the demon and heals the boy “instantly.”

The boy is healed, the scribes are silenced, the crowds are, according to Luke, “astonished at the majesty of God” (Luke 9:43), but the disciples are perplexed, and rightly so. At the beginning of their discipleship, Jesus “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Matt. 10:1). They had been given the power and authority to do the very thing they could not do here. What was the problem? It certainly wasn’t lack of confidence in their ability. They believed they could do it and attempted it. As the boy’s father tells Jesus, “I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” No, the problem was not confidence in their ability.

The problem was a lack of faith in Christ. Jesus says that it is because of their “little faith,” a term repeated through the Gospel of Matthew, referring to their lack of faith in the power of God in Christ. Perhaps they had grown over-confident or self-reliant. Perhaps the presence of the scribes and the crowds led them to fixate on their performance before man rather than faithful dependence upon God. Whatever the case, their lack of faith renders them ineffective.

How easy it is to put our confidence in the means and forget the necessity of faith in Christ. The disciples had been commissioned to perform the miracles of Jesus. They had in fact performed miracles, at one point even celebrating, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17). And now, what they had done before doesn’t work. The means of their ministry appear to be ineffective. Yet, as Jesus reveals, the problem isn’t in the means but their little faith.

We can relate, can’t we? Consider the ordinary means of grace. Is there power in the Word apart from faith in Christ?  Is there power in prayer apart from faith in Christ? Are the sacraments effectual apart from faith in Christ? Apart from faith in Christ, the Word is another ancient work of literature; prayer is merely a form of contemplative meditation; and the sacraments are ineffective religious rituals.

In contrast, faith in Christ alone, even as small as a tiny mustard seed, can move spiritual mountains. Through faith in Christ, the Word is not dead but “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Through faith in Christ, prayer is not a therapeutic practice but is “offering up our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (WSC 98). Through faith in Christ, baptism becomes a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace, and the Lord’s Supper becomes spiritual nourishment, encouraging our growth in grace, individually and in family fellowship. And, through faith in Christ, Jesus’ first disciples could have healed the boy, but they did not, because of their lack of faith in Christ.

Which takes me back to the problem of idolizing mountain top experiences. We can become so fixated on the way something was or should be or chasing after a feeling or previous experience that we can forget the essential: faith in Christ alone. On our recent recruiting visit to UCA, Coach Brown said to all of the recruits, “Men, your best days of football are not behind you but lay ahead of you!” Similarly, I say to you: “Christian, your best days with Christ are not behind you on euphoric peaks of your memory but lay ahead of you in Christ!” Let us remember that we do not live on the mountain top but in the valley below, and that in the midst of this chaos, also known as life, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).

We should pause here, however, and remember that faith in Christ is not merely a means to receive healing of this temporal body, or temporal blessings that rust and rot, or fleeting feelings amidst this present darkness. No, the miracles of Jesus are not an end in themselves but have telling and teaching purpose. Every miracle recorded in Scripture has a theological point. Is the point here merely that this world is full of twisted and faithless people? Is the point merely that Christ has the power to heal? Is the point merely that Jesus’ disciples are rendered powerless apart from faith? These indeed are themes of the passage but consider Matthew’s placement of Jesus’ prophecy of his passion and resurrection after the miracle: “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.”

What are we to make of the placement here of the prophecy of Christ’s redemptive work to come? Just as the boy was freed from the bondage of the demonic, so all who by God’s grace through faith in Christ are freed from the bondage of sin and death and saved unto eternal life. There is salvation in Christ alone.

Salvation in Christ alone

In his condemnation, Jesus asks two questions: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Answer? Not long: “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” He whose glory was revealed upon the Mount of Transfiguration is also, as the Old Testament prophesies, the suffering servant to come.  He is the Messiah of Israel, the Christ. He is the Son of God and the “Son of Man.” And, all of this is revealed in his humble, righteous life, his atoning death upon the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.

Just as God’s grace was revealed in Christ alone in the healing of the boy, God’s grace is most clearly revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ. The redemption of God’s elect is not merely made possible in Christ’s death and resurrection, but our eternal salvation is secured in Christ alone. That which greatly distressed the disciples, revealing again their lack of faith, is that which we celebrate every Lord’s Day, and the very basis of our worship is our salvation in Christ alone, a celebration of our freedom from the bondage of sin and the reality of our life in Christ.

Freedom in Christ alone

Mark’s Gospel reveals that after Jesus rebuked the demon, healing the boy, “it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose” (Mark 9:26-27). Healed, he appeared to be dead but by the hand of Christ he arose. What a beautiful illustration of our freedom in Christ! We who were dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3). We were like that demonically-oppressed boy, with no hope except for God’s mercy. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5). And by virtue of his mercy, by grace we have been saved, and raised up with him for now and forever (Eph. 2:5-7).

By God’s grace through faith in Christ, we are freed in Christ alone. Freed to live in righteousness in him and for his glory. Because we have died to sin, we are no longer to live in it (Rom. 6:2). And, because we have been set free from sin and have become servants of God, the fruit we received in Christ leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:22-23).

This is indeed the mountain top air that we breath: Freedom in Christ! And “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

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