Today’s meditation comes from Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43.
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This is my retelling, but the meditation includes the original text and discussion.
I hardly saw where I was stepping. I couldn’t stop replaying what James, John and I had just seen. Jesus, our Teacher and Master, was—glowing, so white we could scarcely look at him. His face changed too. I don’t know how to describe it, except to say he became a perfected version of himself, and yet so altered that he looked like someone else altogether. Two other men stood with him and talked with them, men who hadn’t walked up the mountain with us. I’d never seen them before, but by what they said to him, I recognized them as as Moses and Elijah. I’d felt like we were eavesdropping on a conversation we couldn’t understand. They said Jesus was going to Jerusalem, and then he would be leaving. Leaving where? I wondered. What were they talking about?
I started babbling something to the Master about building tents for him, Elijah, and Moses, but I didn’t know what I was saying. Sometimes when I’m on emotional overload, I just talk for the sake of talking. As I spoke, a cloud descended on us. There were clouds all around us, of course–the mountain was high. But this cloud spoke. I might have fallen on my face when I heard it, but I’m not sure. Even now, the memory of that voice from the clouds still makes me weak in the knees. It sounded like thunder, but I didn’t register what it said until I thought about it afterwards. At the time I was too overwhelmed. What it said was, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
James and John weren’t speaking either as we made our way down the mountain. They seemed just as rattled as I was. Jesus too was quiet, but his silence seemed different from ours. He was lost in thought, presumably contemplating what he had heard from the Voice, and what Elijah and Moses had said to him.
The Son of God. I was still wrapping my mind around that one. How exactly did I get here, one of not only his disciples, but in his intimate inner circle? Who was I? Just a simple fisherman… I wasn’t even educated.
Presently as we descended, Jesus said, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
None of us replied right away; I assumed James and John were trying to riddle out what he meant by this, as I was. Jesus always spoke in metaphor and parable. Son of Man was him, I got that much; but what was this “raised from the dead?” What did that represent? I didn’t want to ask, for fear of rebuke.
John spared me, and asked instead, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?”
Good save, I thought. Way to divert the question. He was referring not to the vision of Elijah that the three of us just saw in that radiant white light, but to what the prophet Malachi had written, that the prophet Elijah would return to make the way for the Lord. We had wondered about that too: everyone had more or less expected that he would return to earth as he had gone, in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind from heaven, so that there would be no question as to who he was or where he had come from.
“Elijah does come,” Jesus replied, “and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.”
As he spoke, it clicked. He was talking about his cousin, John the Baptist. The guy Herod had beheaded in prison. He was Elijah? Well, no wonder he could appear on the mountaintop then—he’d lately been freed from his body. A little while later, I replayed the rest of what Jesus had said in my mind though. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands. In the same way John the Baptist had? Surely not.
At the foot of the mountain, there was a crowd waiting for us. There was always a crowd following Jesus these days; we had to climb a very high mountain to get some peace and quiet. But as we drew near, we saw that it wasn’t just any crowd. There were some of the usual onlookers, but front and center were the scribes, surrounding the other nine disciples whom we’d left behind. My heart sank. The scribes were always trying to question Jesus, but he was too clever for them. So like wolves attacking the sheep while the shepherd is away, they had descended on the disciples. We could see from their antagonistic postures and my brothers’ distraught expressions that it wasn’t going well.
Jesus asked the scribes, “What are you arguing about with them?”
No one answered at first. The scribes looked triumphant, and the disciples abashed. At last, a man broke ranks and ran to Jesus, kneeling at his feet. He looked harried, and babbled, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. He is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. He foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”
Beyond the father kneeling before Jesus, the nine whom we’d left at the bottom of the mountain pressed past the scribes and onlookers to the front of the crowd. I caught Bartholomew’s and Matthew’s eyes. They both looked sheepish. We had a pretty good idea how Jesus would react to this. The longer we’d been with him, the more frustrated he seemed to become when we failed to imitate him. Sure enough, Jesus’ brow darkened, and he said to no one in particular, “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.”
The crowd parted as the boy’s father went to obey, and returned holding a boy of about ten or twelve by both shoulders. The boy stumbled along, not looking ahead of him, as if he could not see where his father was steering him. Then all at once, as soon as the crowd fell away and they could not help but see us standing before them, the boy’s eyes locked on Jesus. They widened, rolled back in his head, and the boy convulsed so violently that his father could no longer hold him. He thrashed on the ground before Jesus, foaming at the mouth.
I expected Jesus to simply command the spirit to come out of him, but first he looked calmly at the boy’s father. “How long has this been happening to him?” he asked.
Odd question, I thought. Why does it matter? But it distracted the father from his anguish, at least long enough for him to reply.
“From childhood,” the father replied. “And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.” Indeed, when I looked I could see burn scars on the boy’s face and legs even as he thrashed. “But if you can do anything,” the father pleaded, “have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus fixed the father of the boy with a penetrating gaze. “If you can,” he said pointedly. “All things are possible for one who believes.”
“I believe!” the father cried at once, falling to his knees again. “Help my unbelief!”
Now I understood. Jesus wasn’t asking the father how long the boy had been possessed because it made a material difference to him. But it did make a difference to the father’s ability to believe for his healing. After many years of daily torture, this father was heartsick. He’d clearly had some faith, because he’d heard about Jesus and brought his son to Jesus’ disciples. But when even they could not cast out the demon, the doubts took over. Presumably the disciples’ withering under the questioning of the scribes had only made it worse. That was what Jesus had been trying to elicit—he wanted to bring the father’s faith back to the forefront, however mixed it might be.
Jesus glanced up at the crowd, which had begun to converge upon us again. The onlookers were filled with unbelief after the disciples’ failed attempts and the poisoning of the scribes, and a spirit of unbelief was catching. This father couldn’t handle any more of it; the admission he’d given was the best he could do. So before they could reach us, Jesus rebuked the demon sternly.
“You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
He said it not a moment too soon; the crowd had just reached us when the demon responded to this by seizing the boy violently. Then he lay still. A hush fell over the crowd. Fear even seized my own heart; the boy truly looked like a corpse. Had Jesus killed him?
“He is dead,” I heard the whispers all around us. The onlookers were distraught or even grief-stricken, but the scribes sounded almost smug. They had been looking to discredit Jesus, and here, at last, was their chance. A wave of dread rolled over me. How would Jesus save face after this? Word would spread all throughout the region, all of his followers would leave, he’d be mocked as a fraud and a charlatan, if not a murderer…
But Jesus, ever in control, interrupted my terrible thoughts by reaching down and taking the boy by the hand. The muscles in the boy’s hand engaged, and the crowd’s whispers quieted. Jesus pulled him to his feet. The boy blinked, focused on Jesus’ face, and smiled. Jesus smiled back. His father started crying loudly, and pulled the boy to him in a violent hug. Where murmurs had been a moment before, there was a smattering of uncertain applause. The scribes grumbled, barely hiding their disappointment.
Jesus turned to go without another word. As he did, I caught just a glimpse of his expression. He looked troubled—which seemed strange, considering he’d succeeded. The boy was healed; the scribes silenced. Yet Jesus wasn’t rejoicing. James, John and I followed closely behind him, as did the other nine. None of us dared to walk beside him, let alone question him.
When we came to the house where we were staying and were alone, I heard Bartholomew ask him at last, “Jesus, why could we not cast it out?”
Brave Bartholomew. I know all the rest of them wanted to ask too, but they were afraid to risk his ire. But Jesus did not rebuke him; he merely sounded tired. “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.”
“But Teacher, we had faith,” Bartholomew insisted. “You’d given it to us, and we knew that! We had already cast out demons and seen them submit to us! Why was this one different?”
“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting,” Jesus replied, and walked away.
The twelve of us looked at each other, puzzling out what he meant by this. Fasting? The disciples hadn’t been eating at the time, surely. Were they to stop and pray, to ask God to drive out the demon? He couldn’t mean that either: after all, Jesus himself merely commanded it to leave and it obeyed, and he taught us to do the same. We were to speak directly to the problem in the authority he had given us, not speak to God about our problem. Jesus always spoke in riddles like this, leaving us to make sense of what he had said.
But I saw in the other disciples’ faces the moment that several of them understood what he had meant. ‘This kind’ did not refer to the demon; it referred to our doubts. That was why he’d said it right after saying our faith was the problem. It was why he’d told the father that he needed to believe. It was why he’d driven out the demon before the crowd, and especially the scribes, could converge upon us again. This kind of doubt—the kind that comes from focusing on what we perceive with our senses, rather than what we know in our heads to be true—can only be driven out by focusing so intently upon the spiritual realm that it becomes more real to us than what we see, taste, hear, smell, and feel.
That was why he was frustrated with the other disciples—and with me too, if I’m to be honest: that after three years with him, we are still more swayed by what we see than by what we know to be true. Here he’s talking about “leaving”, about being “raised from the dead” and “suffering” in the same way as his martyred cousin—which I still don’t understand, and don’t want to think about—yet we’re still nowhere near his level. If Jesus left, we’d fall apart. We’re nothing without him.
I want to go to Jesus and make bold promises. I want to tell him that even if everyone else fails him, I won’t fail him. I will believe, even if all the others doubt. He can count on me!
But deep down, I know it’s a lie. Jesus knows it too, and would say so. Jesus has no peer. For the last three years he’s been trying to make the twelve of us into peers, yet still, he has none. It suddenly occurs to me how lonely that must make him. No wonder he spends so much time alone in prayer. God the Father is his only peer, the Holy Spirit his comforter. The only way any human could ever hope to compare is if somehow God the Father put on us the same Spirit that He put on Jesus. But that’s impossible… we’re sinful men. God’s Spirit would kill us, just as Uzzah fell dead when he accidentally touched the Ark of the Covenant, and Moses had to rope off Mount Sinai when God descended upon it in fire so that the Israelites would not touch it on accident and die. We’ve borrowed Jesus’ power for awhile, but that’s all.
Yet, didn’t Joel prophesy exactly that? I recite it in my mind: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
I contemplate these things in my heart as I drift off to sleep that night. The Son of Man suffering. Jesus… leaving. Raised from the dead? This kind of unbelief cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting. God’s spirit poured out… on all people. What did it all mean?