“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matthew 17:19-20 ESV)
Few things frustrate me more than hearing a Christian say, “If you have just a little faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – you can move mountains!” Nothing is further from the truth.
Yet this crippling misunderstanding is pervasive in much of the Church, and has even led to error in some of our otherwise excellent English bible translations. It is time to set the record straight.
First, we must understand three Greek words used in the New Testament with relationship to faith.
The Greek word for faith is “pistis”. By contrast, the Greek word, “apistia”, means unbelief or refusal to trust and believe. Unbelief directed toward God is sin. (John 18:8) Unbelief can create an atmosphere where even Jesus could not do many mighty works. (Matthew 13:58)
The third Greek word, “oligopistos”, means little faith. It is a combination of the word for little, “oligos”, and the word for faith. “Oligopistos” is used five times in the New Testament, and is never directed toward people who have no faith or refuse to believe. Instead, it is used by Jesus to describe those who are following Him, but still worried, anxious or fearful about things. (Matthew 6:30; Luke 12:28; Matthew 14:31; Matthew 16:8) Little faith is immaturity.
Second, we must understand how Jesus uses the mustard seed in His teachings. He said the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed because it begins as the smallest seed but becomes the largest plant in the garden. (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:31-32; Luke 13:19) The Greek words used for “like” are either “hos” or “homoios”, both of which mean “like” or “of the same nature as”.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not like a mustard seed because it is small. It is like a mustard seed because it started small, with Jesus and a few disciples, but becomes great!
Third, we must understand the context within which Jesus teaches our parable of mustard seed faith and movable mountains.
While Jesus, Peter, James and John are at the mount of transfiguration, the other nine disciples go to town, and a father asks them to deliver his son from a demon. (Matthew 17:14-20; Mark 9:14-29) Even though the disciples had been empowered earlier by Jesus to cast out demons, they were unable to cast this demon out.
After Jesus comes and casts out the demon, the disciples ask Him why they were unable to cast it out. Jesus gives them two answers, with one recorded in Mark and the other in Matthew.
In Mark, Jesus explained this particular kind of demon could only come out by prayer and fasting [some translations simply say prayer]. The disciples had successfully cast out other demons, but this terrible demon was beyond their present pay grade, particularly in the atmosphere of unbelief created by the father and the crowd. (Matthew 17:17) The disciples needed to humble themselves and pray for God to do what they could not yet do in His name.
In our Matthew passage, Jesus explained they could not cast this type of demon out because of their little faith (oligopistos). Note: both the KJV and NKJ translate this as “unbelief” rather than “little faith”. That is error. The word, “apistia”, does not appear in the passage.
Jesus then goes on to encourage them. If their faith is like a mustard seed, then they will someday find themselves able to move mountains. Note: the NIV, NRSV and NLT all translate this as “faith as small as (or the size of) a mustard seed”. That is error. No Greek word for “small” or “size” is present in the passage. The word is “hos”, which as stated before means “like” or “of the same nature as”.
Jesus delighted in the great faith of the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman. (Matthew 8:10, 15:28) He never delights in little faith, but He tells us in this teaching that our faith doesn’t have to stay little. And He promised that as our faith grows, our pay grade will be upgraded and mountains will begin to move.
How do we grow from little faith to great faith? Faith is a combination of two things. It is trust in the person of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and it is trust in all God says and does.
God is love, always good, all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful and all-present. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand God. There is no reason why we cannot have complete trust in Him right now and every day.
As to what God does and says, we grow in faith as we “hear”, trust and “do” more and more of His Word. (Romans 10:17; Matthew 7:24-27; John 14:21; James 1:22-25)
My friends, the Church has been satisfied with little faith for far too long. (Revelation 3:14-22) Let’s develop great faith and move some mountains!
God bless you, and God bless our community.