Your Faith May Not Be Too Small, Just Too Short

Matthew 17:20

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.”

I was meditating on this verse one morning and saw something, or more like didn’t see something, that I had never seen before. This may be old news for some but for me it was new. I had always understood Jesus’ words to his disciples in the way the NIV version has it translated. It says, “If you have faith as SMALL as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

However, this morning I was reading from the ESV version and Jesus’ words are translated, “If you had faith LIKE a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree…”. I thought to myself, “Wait, doesn’t Jesus say that if you have faith as SMALL as a mustard seed?” I then looked up the parallel account in Luke 17:6 and sure enough Jesus again says “LIKE a mustard seed”. However, I could have sworn that Jesus said “as small as a mustard seed” and so I searched other translations of the Bible and quickly found it in the NIV version (as quoted earlier).

So why did the NIV translators include the word “small” when it’s not in some of the other translations? By the way, whenever you see a difference between Bible translations there’s a good reason for it. It’s not arbitrary and you can read more about it in chapter 2 of the book, How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.

Anyway, the word “small” is not in the original Greek manuscript and although there’s probably a good reason why the NIV translators put it in there, it confuses the point I believe Jesus is trying to make.

Jesus is gently rebuking the disciples for their “little faith” because they could not heal the demon-possessed boy. So, if Jesus was saying that they only needed faith as SMALL as a mustard seed in order to heal this boy, then Jesus was essentially telling them that they could not heal the boy because their “little faith” was so miniscule that it was like having no faith at all!

But I don’t think that’s the case. The disciples had already gone out and ministered in power back in Matthew 10. I believe they did have faith to cast out demons but in this case, they were trying to heal the boy but it just wasn’t happening. The longer they tried without any results, the weaker their faith became. Their faith did not persist.

It is their waning faith that I believe Jesus is addressing in verse 20. He’s not saying, “Guys, all you need is a little bit of faith in order to move mountains.” No, he’s saying, “Your faith lacks stamina. You must have faith like a mustard seed. It must persist and endure, and when it does remain like a mustard seed, it will grow into a huge tree. That kind of enduring faith can move mountains.”

Also, verse 21 (which is not in some manuscripts and so it’s in italics or in the footnotes of some translations) says, “But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting” implies that Jesus is not addressing the amount of one’s faith but rather the persistence of it. There are some battles that can only be won with resolute and enduring faith. Faith for a moment or for a day will not do.

So, when we face hateful or hopeless situations that do not change, or repetitive sinful patterns of behavior or attitudes that persist in our character; let us turn our hearts to the Lord and trust him when he says, “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.”