Q. I just read an interesting answer you gave concerning sentence construction, pronouns, etc. It reminded me of this passage of scripture that I believe many have misunderstood, which is Matthew 17:20-21, which states, “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” Looking at the nearest noun, this passage would be talking about this kind of unbelief, not this kind of demon (King James version.) (Interestingly, the NIV deletes verse 21 altogether.) So what do you think…is “this kind” referring to this kind of demon or this kind of unbelief?
A. The NIV carries Matt. 17:21 in a footnote. Some translations place it in parentheses, while others omit it altogether. The reason for this is that verse 21 is missing in some of the oldest and most reliable Greek texts. Omitting verse 21 leaves no alternative to attributing the phrase “this kind” to our faith.
But the majority of English translations follow the KJV and place verse 21 in the main body of the text. And of the commentaries I’ve read on these translations, I’ve only seen one that says the phrase “this kind” refers to the word faith. Most say it refers to the demon. Various translations say this kind does not go out, or come out, or is not cast out, and one even says, “this kind of demon is not driven out” except by prayer and fasting.
Mark 9:14-29 carries a more complete account of the incident and has Jesus answering the question “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” simply by saying, “This kind can only come out by prayer.” In Mark’s account it’s clear Jesus was referring to the demon.
All the commentaries agree that the verse is a difficult one because it implies that some demons are so strongly entrenched that no one (except Jesus) can drive them out except after a period of prayer and fasting. This either means there is a special class of super demons or that the demon was initially invited in and somehow encouraged to stay. This may be the reason Paul said, “Don’t give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:27). Footholds can become strongholds. Paul also said we have weapons at our command with divine power to demolish strongholds (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Maybe he was thinking of prayer and fasting.