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Confusion Now . . . Understanding Later

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 17:9–23; Mark 9:9–32; Luke 9:37–45

At times we see great potential in Jesus’ disciples, but we also frequently see a lack of understanding, faith, and power. God’s work in us has given us great potential too, but the disciples’ example gives us fair warning against self-assurance.


We pick up our chronological study of the Gospels as Jesus, Peter, James, and John make their way down the mountain following His glory-revealing transfiguration. I am sure these three disciples cannot wait to tell the other disciples what they have seen, but Jesus commands them in Matthew 17:9 to tell no one until after “the Son of Man [Messiah] is raised from the dead.” Mark 9:10 adds, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.”

Let me just take a moment to point out that perhaps the most challenging aspect of Jesus’ ministry was helping His disciples understand two things: first, that He had not come at this time to set up His kingdom; and, second, why He came to earth at this time. They did not grasp the idea that there would be two appearances of Israel’s Messiah; the first time for a crucifixion and the second time for a coronation. A big part of the challenge was that the Old Testament was not explicit on this matter.

Having just seen Jesus and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, these three disciples are wondering about the promise of the prophet Malachi, who wrote in his book that Elijah would appear before the Messiah came to establish His kingdom (Malachi 4:5). Jesus is the Messiah, and Elijah has just appeared, so why did Elijah not restore the people in preparation for the kingdom? In fact, Elijah has just disappeared back into thin air.

Jesus says to them here in verse 12:

“But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they [the Jewish leaders and the nation] did not [accept] him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.”

Matthew adds in verse 13, “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”

Yes, He is referring to John, but He is also saying, “As surely as they killed John the Baptist, you can be certain they will kill Me as well.”

Now listen; this is difficult for them to grasp. John the Baptist was not Elijah, but he functioned as an Elijah to his generation (Luke 1:15). His ministry revealed that Israel’s rejection of Jesus was evidence that the Messiah had come—at His first coming—for something other than the establishment of His kingdom on earth. John the Baptist had made it clear that Jesus was the “the Lamb of God” who had come to take “away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)—to pay the penalty for sin, so people can be forgiven and welcomed into His coming millennial kingdom.[1]

What is our message today, beloved? The message to our generation is that the Messiah came. He died so that all might believe in Him and receive forgiveness of their sin and the promise of eternal life in Christ. Beloved, we are to be Elijah-like today—living and testifying and pointing our generation to the Lamb of God.

Now when Jesus and the three disciples come down from the mountain, a large crowd meets them. Luke chapter 9 tells us what happened next as a heartbroken man cries out to Jesus:

“Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” (verses 38-40)

Wait a minute! Why could they not cast out the demon? They had been on a mission trip sometime earlier when they had been given power from the Lord to cast out demons and heal the sick. But now, nine of the disciples combined cannot cast out one demon. They have moved from powerful to powerless. Matthew’s account (17:20) says they were not trusting the Lord, and Mark’s Gospel (9:29) implies they did not even pray about it.

The Lord is going to teach them a lesson that this is what happens when you drift from dependency to self-sufficiency. So, with that, the Lord asks them to bring the young man to him.

While he [the boy] was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God. (Luke 9:42-43).

Jesus is demonstrating His deity—His divine majesty, grandeur, and greatness. He did it on the mountain in brilliant light, and He’s doing it here through His power over the kingdom of darkness. The majesty of God might be more obvious to us on the mountaintop, but it is just as majestic and powerful and operational down here in the chaos and confusion of our world.

Luke then continues in verses 43-44:

While they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”

Unfortunately, these words do not sink in very far at all. Verse 45 says they do not understand Jesus’ words and they are afraid to even ask for an explanation. Why would Jesus tell them something He knew they would not understand? Well, the Lord is giving them information that they will remember and understand after His crucifixion; they are going to realize that the crucifixion was not a mistake; it was not a tragic miscalculation. It was according to the divine plan.

And do not overlook that Jesus tells them about His coming suffering while they are “marveling at everything he was doing.” They are having thoughts of riding this miraculous moment right into the glory of the kingdom—but that is not God’s plan. So, Jesus is reminding them that there is a divine script, and it is a lot different from theirs.

You know, beloved, our agenda often conflicts with the agenda of God. Our script is often very different from God’s script. And one day we will understand that what God had in mind for us was so much better than anything we could have hoped for.

I am reminded of a young couple who were appointed as missionaries to the continent of Africa many years ago. The wife, however, came down rather quickly with a serious illness. Because of that, they had to leave their missionary dreams and return to the United States. To make a living, the young man joined his father in his dentistry practice. He also helped his father experiment with ways to pasteurize grape juice in order to keep it from fermenting so their church could use it during communion services.

Their experiments were successful. They began offering their unfermented grape juice to other churches in the community, and the word spread. It was not long before the demand for their grape juice was so great that they closed down their dental practice to develop their new business.

The young man who had longed to be a missionary was Charles Welch, who founded Welch’s Grape Juice Company. He was not able to be a foreign missionary, but he never lost his heart for missions. He would go on to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the work of Christ on mission fields around the world.

Sometimes it takes a lifetime to see God’s plan for us come together; maybe we do not see it now, but eventually—certainly one day in heaven—we will see that God did not make a mistake. He did not make a miscalculation with our lives. One day we will see that His majesty had been on display all along the way.

[1] Dr. Douglas Bookman at Shepherds Theological Seminary has significantly contributed to my understanding of this text.

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