Matthew 17:21 – There is Something in the Nothing

Posted: January 27, 2016 in 40-Gospel of Matthew

Matthew 17:21
The Missing Verse

A verse is missing. A verse is missing! A verse is missiiiiiing! This morning we are going to have to take a break from the train of thought that Matthew is developing in his gospel – preaching to the Jews (and us) that Jesus really is the long-awaited Messiah. Everything Matthew does in his gospel is to tie together Jesus with the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. Matthew is screaming out, Jesus is the real deal folks. We have to take a break because I am perplexed and worried. A verse is missing.

I have never noticed it before. Have you? When reading the New Living Translation (NLT) in my favorite Bible from which I have been writing my blogs for these past few years, The Chronological Life Application Study Bible, I found that Matthew 17:21 is missing. This Bible is chronological rather than book by book. For example, the gospels are not presented as individual books but rather are presented in the chronology of Jesus’ life (just as the rest of this Bible is done). Thus, you have the events of Jesus’ life presented together from all four gospel perspectives. You can be reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all within the same couple of pages. So, at first, I thought that this was the problem. I thought that maybe in the complexity of presenting the same segments of Jesus’ life from all four gospels together in chronological order that the publishers of this Bible simply made a small hidden mistake of omission that no one would notice unless a person was following a single gospel through this chronologically based Bible. But that is not the case. In some manuscripts the verse is there. In some manuscripts the verse reads, “”But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” And thus would be a continuation of the passage, Matthew 17:14-20 and not the beginning of Matthew 17:22-23.

What happened to make this verse be in some manuscripts of the Bible and not others? The passage is not in several Bibles. Here are some of them: New Century Version (NCV), New International Version (NIV), Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the New Living Translation (NLT). The verse is not included in the newer Bibles because the older and better manuscripts of Matthew do not include it. The translators of the older Bibles were not as careful in the manuscripts they used. Apparently in the process of copying the manuscripts, someone at a much later date copied the verse from the Gospel of Mark and added it to the Matthew account. Here is the Mark account. And He said to them, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” (NASB) Mark 9:29. The only difference is that “fasting” is left out of the Mark text.

This is a list of Bible verses in the New Testament that are present in the King James Version (KJV) but absent from some Bible translations completed after the publication of The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881 and the later Novum Testamentum Graece (first published in 1898 and revised many times since that date).
Matthew 17:21
Matthew 18:11
Matthew 23:14
Mark 7:16
Mark 9:44/Mark 9:46
Mark 11:26
Mark 15:28
Mark 16:9–20
Luke 17:36
Luke 23:17
John 5:3–4
John 7:53-8:11
Acts 8:37
Acts 15:34
Acts 24:6b–7
Acts 28:29
Romans 16:24
These editions of the Greek text took into account early manuscripts of the New Testament which had not been available to translators before the 19th century. Most modern textual scholars consider these verses interpolations, or additions by later authors, but exceptions include advocates of the Byzantine or Majority Text and of the Received Text. When a verse is omitted, later ones in the same chapter retain their traditional numbering.

I was expecting to write about Jesus’ second prediction of His own death this morning but this came about. I am inquisitive if nothing else and this was bugging me. I could not move on. I had to find out what the heck was going on. The first thing that was bothering me was my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. How could something be added to Scripture in medieval times and still be Scripture? I was troubled. However, two things have come to light in my mind that we can take away from this missing verse. I believe that we can learn something that in the nothing there is something. Typically, according to logic, in the absence of something there is nothing. However, in God’s design, there is something that comes from the nothing.

The first thing that I think we can learn from this nothing is that sometimes when we leave religion in the hands of man, we have a tendency to add things to a simple faith. There is really no harm in having borrowed Mark 9:29 and adding it as what had become Matthew 17:21. However, it is an uninspired addition to God’s Word. It is man saying this is incomplete; something needs to be added. We have so many traditions that have been added to Christianity over the centuries, particularly by the Catholic Church. We have shrines built over places the church “believes” that Jesus was born, but were really based on the best available evidence at the time. Yet, the Roman Catholic church will never admit that the evidence against suppositions made a thousand years ago were wrong. We have our traditions in protestant Christianity as well. Hymns written in the 1850s that appropriated bar tunes of the day are now considered sacred texts. John and Charles Wesley made these songs widely popular by in some cases borrowing bar tunes from the publican houses of the day. However, now, one would think that these tunes were in existence when Jesus was alive on earth and that He had a pipe organ and a piano with Him. Traditional churches of today take these things as sacred texts and are aghast when modern churches write “new fangled” songs that require drums and guitars. Even more ghastly is to modernize these traditional hymns. Before we modern church folk get too smug, we have developed our traditions too. Must have chairs, not pews. Must have worship pastor with a skull cap. Must have scruffy beards. Must have fog and lights and so on. Anything less than these standards is not true modern church. We add things. Before we get aghast at some medieval dude for borrowing a line from the Gospel of Mark and adding it to the Gospel of Matthew, we too can innocently and maybe even with good intentions add things to Christianity that are not based in Scripture but we take them as if they are. Let us make sure that the traditions that we develop and take solace in are just that, traditions. And let us make sure that our traditions have some scriptural basis.

The second thing that I think that we can learn from the something is that God is truly sovereign and that He protects His Word. The amazing thing here to me is that like the great detective stories that we see on TV and in the movies, the truth comes out. God has protected his Word through the centuries. The more we learn through research of biblical scholars, the more manuscripts that we discover that are ever and ever closer in history to the original manuscripts, the more we learn that God’s Word is amazingly intact. It has traveled through the centuries will little if any alteration. When we discover new manuscripts, God helps us ferret out the mistakes that entered into His text through copying errors of scribes and discoveries of inadvertent and innocent additions such as this one. Even though there was this borrowing here from one gospel to another, the text has survived pretty much unscathed. The care at which many of the manuscripts have been copied over the centuries is astounding when you consider the technology available in the early centuries. The other amazing thing is that with our greater technology today that we are discovering earlier and earlier manuscripts that will ferret out the outliers, the unwarranted additions to texts. With the technology of preservation that we have today, we will be able to ensure that the texts continue to stay pure and scholars today are willing to go to any length to ensure the purity of the text – to the point of leaving a verse space holder blank in Matthew 17:21 when it was learned that the earliest texts that we can find do not contain this statement that became Matthew 17:21. That, to me, is God working through the Holy Spirit to ensure that His Word remains pure. God is sovereign and His Word is sovereign and He will lead us to discover when texts have been borrowed or added or where a scribes margin notes mistakenly become part of the next copying of a manuscript. The truth comes out and will be discovered. Never have any of this mistaken additions changed the meaning of any text. What the first century Christians read and understood is what we read and understand today. And there is a whole line of 21st century biblical scholars who love God’s Word and it is there intent and purpose to ensure that we have the pure word of God and it is their life’s task, honor and duty to protect the purity of God’s Word. In that I have faith. I trust that God has preserved the meaning of His Word and will always do so through these men. They stand guard. They are the detectives who continually are working us back ever and ever closer to the original manuscripts. In some cases we are as close as 100 years after the original manuscripts of certain parts of the Bible. God guides. God ensures that His Word is pure and will guide us to ferret out impurities. God has ensure that the meaning of His Word has never been altered or changed. He has ensured its consistency throughout human history. On that I can rely. The story of God’s redemptive plan that begins with the first sin in the garden of Eden in Genesis and ends with the restoration of Eden in Revelation is consistent and it all hinges on the person and work of Jesus Christ. That story has never been changed and will never change under the Sovereign Watch of My God.

Thank you Lord for challenges to my faith. Thank you for making me wonder about things. Thank you for revealing to me what the answers are and in so doing increases my faith in You and Sovereign Lord. Amen and Amen.

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