He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small 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.”
So long as I have faith, even if it’s just the size of a mustard seed, I can move mountains, right?
Throughout church history, faith has been given a place of utmost importance. For Protestant Christians, we have Sola Fide – salvation by faith alone and not by works. This is one of the Five Solas of the Protestant reformation, central to the Christian belief of salvation and justification. Biblical passages also teach us that it is impossible to please God without faith (Heb 11:6), and it is by grace through faith that we receive the gift of salvation (Eph 2:8). Hence, we see that faith is very important for those who believe in Jesus.
But does having faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed, give us the power to move mountains? After all, Jesus did say that nothing will be impossible for those who have faith. And if Jesus said that, then it must be true. Right?
UNLOCKING THE CONTEXT
Matthew 17:20 closes the account of Jesus healing a demon-possessed boy. In summary, Jesus had just returned with Peter, James, and John after showing them a glimpse of his divinity (Matt 17:1–9). While they were away, a man brought his demon-possessed son to the remaining disciples for help. However, they could not heal him. Seeing that Jesus was back, the man went up to Him in hope that He could heal his son (17:14–16).
Now, this is where the main action begins. Jesus rebuked a “unbelieving and perverse generation” (Matt 17:17). It is unclear who exactly Jesus was rebuking, but the nine disciples who did not witness His transfiguration were surely included since they had displayed a lack of faith to heal. Jesus then rebuked the demon and the boy was healed immediately (17:18).
The disciples privately, likely out of sheepish embarrassment, asked Jesus why they could not do what Jesus had done (17:19). After all, they had already been commissioned and empowered by Jesus (Matt 10). Why did they fail? Was Jesus’ empowerment temporary? This is where Matthew 17:20 comes in. Answering the disciples, Jesus told them that they failed because of their “little faith.”
LACKING FAITH, HAVING FAITH
How then should we understand faith? Did you notice that when Jesus rebuked the disciples, He compared their little faith to faith the size of a mustard seed? If you have never seen a mustard seed, it is about 1–2mm small; just slightly bigger than a font size 20 full stop.
JESUS WAS POINTING OUT TO HIS DISCIPLES THAT THEIR ” LITTLE FAITH” WAS ALMOST AS GOOD AS HAVING NO FAITH.
This would mean that the disciples’ “little faith” was even smaller than the already tiny mustard seed! By comparison, the mustard seed-sized faith now seems very grand. In other words, Jesus was pointing out to His disciples that their “little faith” was almost as good as having no faith.
MORE IMPORTANT THAN HAVING FAITH IS WHO WE PLACE OUR FAITH IN.
In the NKJV translation, the disciples’ faith was described as “unbelief”, and this reflects the purpose of the comparison. The focus was not so much the size of faith, but whether or not the disciples had faith, even if a little bit. And as it was, their lack of faith called for serious attention. Jesus was rebuking them to move from having no faith to having faith — even if all they could muster up was faith the size of a mustard seed.
You may be wondering now whether the idea of moving the mountain was literal or figurative. While it is not impossible for God who could make a donkey speak (Num 22:21–30) to literally move a mountain, Jesus was speaking figuratively here. Note that the word “this” in Matthew 17:20 is a demonstrative pronoun, indicating that Jesus was pointing to a mountain close by. “This mountain” He was referring to was likely to be the Mount of Transfiguration He just came down from (17:1, 9). What Jesus did was to reference the mountain as an example of achieving the impossible when one has faith.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?
Having faith is not simply naming and claiming our desires and believing that God will do our bidding. Having faith is not believing that God will give in to our every prayer demand. On the contrary, having faith is believing that God will and can do what He knows is best for us. Having faith is believing that God will empower us to do great things to further His kingdom.
If you find yourself, like the disciples, lacking faith as you walk with the Lord, choose to have faith in Him once again today. The Christ you believe in is powerful and almighty. He is able to heal, cast demons, and raise the dead. As you have faith in Him, know you can do great things or move mountains, figuratively as we have examined, for the sake of His kingdom, and nothing will be impossible for you because nothing is too difficult for Him.