Likely, when it became day, Jesus and his disciples descended from the location where he had been transfigured. Arriving where his other disciples were, he saw a large crowd around them. Certain scribes were disputing with his disciples. Possibly these scribes tried to discredit Jesus on the basis of the inability of his disciples to cure a boy in his name. Jesus’ unexpected arrival appears to have startled the crowd. Seeing Jesus, the people began to run toward him to greet him. In response to his inquiry about their disputing, a man in the crowd spoke up, “Teacher, I brought my son to you; he has a spirit of muteness.” After telling about the boy’s afflictions, the man added, “I brought him to your disciples, but they were unable to cure him.” (Matthew 17:16; Mark 9:14-18; Luke 9:37-40)
Possibly, after first speaking out from the midst of the crowd, the man knelt before Jesus, pleading, “Lord, pity my son, for he is an epileptic [literally, “moonstruck].” (Matthew 17:14, 15; Luke 9:38; see the Notes section for additional comments.)
The boy was his only son. He would scream, fall to the ground, and be violently convulsed. Foam would flow from his mouth, and he would grind his teeth and lose his strength. The falls and convulsions would leave him bruised. His seizures, when occurring near an open fire or a body of water, endangered his life, causing him to fall into the fire or the water. Besides suffering from severe epileptic seizures, the boy was deaf and mute. (Matthew 17:15; Mark 9:17, 18, 25; Luke 9:38, 39)
Jesus’ response, which was directed to the people (including the scribes), suggests that the inability of his disciples to bring about a cure appears to have been taken as a validation for their unbelief. He addressed them as a faithless or unbelieving and crooked (not upright) generation, asking how much longer he would have to remain with them and to put up with them. Jesus then requested that the boy be brought to him. (Matthew 17:17; Mark 9:19; Luke 9:41)
As the father had been speaking to Jesus, some from among the people must have brought his son. Then, in front of Jesus, the boy experienced a severe seizure. He fell to the ground, continued to roll around, and foamed at the mouth. (Mark 9:20; Luke 9:42)
In answer to Jesus’ question about how long this had been happening to the boy, the father replied, “From childhood,” adding that he had been repeatedly thrown into fire or water. The father pleaded, “If you can do anything, pity us and help us.” (Mark 9:21, 22)
The father’s expression “if you can” revealed a measure of doubt. Therefore, Jesus, in his reply, stressed the need for faith, saying, “If you can? All things are possible to one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)
Aware of a weakness in his faith and sincerely desiring more faith, coupled with the desperation of wanting his son to be freed from his terrible suffering, the man replied, “I believe; help me with my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
Observing people gathering in greater numbers, Jesus acted quickly, doubtless to avoid even more attention. He commanded the “demon” or the agent responsible for the boy’s suffering to leave and never to afflict him again. Then followed screams from the boy and violent seizures. When the convulsions stopped, he lay motionless, causing observers to conclude that he was dead. Jesus took hold of his hand, raised him, and the boy stood up. Thereafter Jesus presented the healed son to his father. (Matthew 17:18; Mark 9:25-27; Luke 9:42) The impressive manifestation of God’s power overwhelmingly amazed all the observers. (Luke 9:43)
Later, his disciples asked Jesus privately why they had been unable to drive out the demon. He told them that it was on account of their little faith and that only prayer would have accomplished the cure. This suggests that when the disciples did not see immediate results from their efforts to free the boy from his affliction, they gave way to doubt and did not persevere in prayer. They failed to continue to look to their heavenly Father to effect the cure by means of his spirit and so failed to maintain a strong faith. (Matthew 17:19, 20; Mark 9:28, 29; see the Notes section for comments on Mark 9:29.)
Jesus then said to them that even a little faith, the size of a mustard seed (the smallest seed of the plants the Israelites commonly cultivated), could have moved a mountain or what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle. With faith, nothing would be impossible for his disciples in the carrying out of their commission. (Matthew 17:20; see the Notes section for comments on Matthew 17:20, 21.)
According to Matthew 17:14, the father of the epileptic boy approached Jesus and knelt before him. This is not mentioned in the accounts of Mark and Luke, which refer to the man as speaking after Jesus asked the crowd about the disputing. Unless Matthew 17:14 relates to the same interchange with Jesus, the man first spoke out from the crowd and then approached Jesus.
Jesus comment about nothing being impossible for the disciples (Matthew 17:20) should be understood in a relative sense. They had been commissioned to proclaim the message about God’s kingdom and empowered to perform miracles. Consequently, when it came to accomplishing all that their commission required of them, nothing would prevent them from doing so if they maintained their faith.
Matthew 17:21, which refers to prayer and fasting, is missing from the original text of fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, and other ancient manuscripts. Therefore, it is also missing from the main text of many modern translations.
In Mark 9:29, many manuscripts add “and fasting” after “through prayer.” Modern textual scholarship, however, favors the shorter reading of fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, and this is reflected in the omission of “and fasting” in many translations.
The father attributed his son’s suffering to demon possession, and this is also how the disciples and the people regarded the boy’s affliction. Whether this was the actual cause of the epilepsy, the deafness, and muteness cannot be determined. Jesus never spoke about the physical causes of the various ailments and diseases he cured. His expressions accommodated the existing understanding of his contemporaries. There would have been no value in his providing explanations that they could not have comprehended. Therefore, the narratives accurately reflect the prevailing views and do not necessarily identify the actual causes for various ailments and diseases.