During Jesus’ ministry on earth, he used the phrase little faith to describe the nature of his hearers’ unbelief. In the gospel of Matthew, this phrase occurs five times while it occurs once in the gospel of Luke. There is potentially a seventh reference in the latter gospel within the seventeenth chapter; however, Jesus does not use the phrase “little faith.” I would argue that our Lord alludes to it, so file this one away as an indirect reference. Here is the point. Little faith was a common phrase used by Jesus to characterize the unbelief of the crowds and his disciples. For example, here is a passage where our Lord rebukes his disciples by using the phrase little faith:
“19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 20 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).
Let me set the context of this passage in its proper place. At the beginning of Matthew, chapter seventeen, Peter, James, and John witnessed their Lord’s transfiguration, and they saw Moses and Elijah speaking with him (Matt. 17:1-3, ESV). The Father’s voice boomed from heaven by stating that Jesus is his beloved son, which meant listening to him (Matt. 17:5-6, ESV). Three out of the twelve apostles witnessed the fullness of the glory of the Son of Man, who is the Messiah. Where were the other nine? The text does not indicate with any specificity, but most likely the other apostles remained in the town. This harmonizes well with the parallel accounts in the gospels of Mark and Luke; although, the latter, gospel writer includes the bit that Jesus returned to town the next day with the three apostles (Luke 9:37, ESV). What is going on here?
There is not enough space or time to perform a thorough harmonization between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I offer up the bone regarding Luke’s narrative mentioning Jesus’ return the next day to illustrate a point. On the surface, Luke appears to contradict the accounts in Matthew and Mark. The latter two seem to suggest that Jesus and the three return the same day. This is the sort of thing that renders some folks unwilling to trust the scriptures as the word of God. My exhortation to those reading this post would be to wrestle with the three gospel narratives regarding this section. Sit with these passages in the presence of the Holy Spirit and with trusted followers of the Good Shepherd. Give the Spirit of God an opportunity to illuminate the spiritual principles in these passages while providing interpretive insight into how they fit together like pieces to a puzzle. Alright, the detour has come to an end, and it is time to get back on track.
During the absence of Jesus and the inner three (Peter, James, and John), one of the men who lived in the town had approached his disciples about his demon-possessed son. Apparently, the disciples who stayed in town were unable to cast out the demon, which afflicted the boy. When Jesus and the three returned to the town, the father knelt before the Lord and pleaded with him to set his boy free of the evil spirit (Matt. 17:14-15, ESV). He had asked his disciples to perform this task, but they failed at it (Matt. 17:16, ESV). In his customary, non-cuddly way, Jesus issued a harsh rebuke by characterizing this situation as evidence of a faithless and twisted generation (Matt. 17:17, ESV). Clearly, the disciples are in view, but also the father and the surrounding townspeople, too. Once again, Jesus demonstrates his authority and power over the kingdom of darkness by casting out the demon (Matt. 17:18, ESV).
Right at this point, someone might raise an objection in defense of the disciples, the father, and the townspeople. It might sound a little bit like this: “Jesus drove out the demon because he’s the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. The disciples, the father, and the townspeople are merely weak, human beings. What power over the enemy and his minions could they possibly have in and of themselves?” That my friends is a sturdy rebuttal and not without some warrant; however, it is an attitude of the heart that Jesus came against throughout his entire ministry. Because of this unbelieving attitude or spirit, Jesus rebuked this generation as faithless and twisted. Does anyone want the Lord to call him or her faithless and twisted?
There is another problem that the objection creates for the objector. It indicates on some level that the one bringing the objection does recognize his deficiency or powerlessness in light of that which is greater: in this case, the evil spirit. This begs the question…whom are we to fear: the Lord or the enemy and his minions? Everyone in this town knew about Jesus and the power and authority displayed in his ministry. Somehow this knowledge failed to produce belief within their hearts. The passage in Matthew seventeen does not spell out that the disciples, the father, or the townspeople feared the evil spirit for afflicting the boy. I might not want to press the text too much in that direction, but such a notion is not outside the realm of possibility. In the parallel account in Mark’s gospel, Jesus called out the father’s unbelief, who confessed it and asked the Lord to help him overcome it (Mark 9:21-24, ESV).
After Jesus freed the boy and everyone gawked in amazement, the disciples asked the Lord the reason for their inability to cast out the evil spirit. Our Lord answered that it was due to their being of little faith, which I take to mean as unbelief. Why do I conclude this way? Jesus used the metaphor of having faith the size of a mustard seed, which is the mother of all ironies as this seed was the smallest of garden seeds in their day. The Lord is not saying that the disciples faith had been too small or puny. If that was his rebuke, then the metaphor of the mustard seed loses all significance. What Jesus drives at with this metaphor is the object of believing faith. Christ is the object of my faith, and the foundation upon which it rests. It is a gift God and not a work. My faith has power and authority because my Lord has all power and authority.
In our culture today, there is an attraction toward that which is bigger and grander. It has to be powerful…just look at its imposing size. This is not how followers of Jesus are to determine the might of their faith. Do we muster up faith, or stir things up in order to make our faith bigger, grander, and more powerful? All the music and emotional hooplah means nothing to the enemy or to the Lord if our faith is not grounded in Christ. I find this passage in Matthew seventeen to be liberating and unsettling. It does not allow for middle-of-the-road engagement. If I claim that Jesus is my Lord, if I say that I have overcome bondage to sin, yet I demonstrate little faith or unbelief, then I am a liar and a hypocrite. There is nothing worse than to make a false profession of faith in Jesus.