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When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:14-20)

In this amazing account in which the disciples attempt to drive out a demon, Jesus rebukes them very harshly for their failure to perform the miracle. Needless to say, contemporary Christian leaders never rebuke disciples for failing to drive out demons or heal the sick. Let us for the time being leave that issue aside, and concentrate on why the disciples failed. According to Jesus, it was because they had so little faith. We would like to examine exactly what kind of faith they lacked resulting in their failure to drive out the demon. This understanding is essential for believers today who want to obey Jesus’ commands to heal the sick and cast out demons as they preach the gospel to those who never heard.

To understand this, let’s examine an instance in Scripture which is the very opposite of what we see above. Here we see someone who had such great faith that even Jesus was amazed. In examining this diametrically opposite situation we will be able to understand what Jesus meant by their “little faith” when he rebuked his disciples.

No one with such great faith even in Israel

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. (Luke 7:1-10)

What kind of “great faith” did the centurion have such that even Jesus was amazed? Not even among the Israelites—God’s chosen people—had Jesus seen such faith. Let’s take a look.

It’s obvious that the centurion had faith in Jesus to heal his servant. But upon closer examination we see an additional dimension of faith that we do not see among those who came to Jesus to be healed. For example, the woman with the bleeding in Mark 5 came to Jesus with faith that when she touched him she would be healed. But the centurion had an additional dimension of faith. We can see it in his words, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The military understands authority

Being in the military, the centurion understood the nature of authority and how to exercise it. When he gave a command to a soldier or a servant to do something, he knew beyond a shadow of doubt that the man would obey and that it would be done. When he issued a command, he fully expected it to be carried out by those under his authority.

And he knew that Jesus had authority over diseases. Therefore he simply had to “say the word”—issue a command—and the infirmity would obey the command. In this way Jesus could heal his servant. Just as the centurion issued commands with no doubt in his heart, in the same way Jesus issued commands to diseases, demons, and the infirm with no doubt in his heart. He fully expected people to be healed and demons to obey his commands. And that is exactly what happened. Jesus had “faith-without-a-doubt.”

According to Jesus, the centurion understood and applied the same kind of faith-without-a-doubt when he issued commands to his men. Jesus had encountered no one else with this kind of faith, not even among his disciples. By contrast, his disciples had “little faith” when attempting to cast the demon out of the boy—they had doubt, uncertainty, and perhaps even fear of failure and public embarrassment when commanding the demon to come out. As a result of this “little faith” the demon refused to obey them, and the boy was not healed.

So that’s why we fail

This goes a long way in explaining why believers today usually fail when attempting to heal the sick or cast out demons in Jesus’ name. Almost universally we are wondering to ourselves, “what if nothing happens?” We are wondering whether or not they will be healed. We hardly ever expect them to be healed. In short, we doubt. Just like Jesus’ disciples, we have “little faith.”

Once we overcome this doubt, we will be able to heal the sick and cast out demons as Jesus taught and commanded and expected his disciples to do. John 14:12 will be fulfilled.

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing… (John 14:12)