Faith as a mustard seed is not small faith. It is big faith. It has the ability to look beyond its current reality and small beginnings. It has the ability to set its sight on its very large potential.
“If you have faith as a 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 17:20 (NKJV)
This may be one of the most misunderstood and misapplied Scriptures on the topic of faith. Most people interpret this passage to mean, “All you need is a little faith,” but if Jesus was telling us that all we need is little faith to do extraordinary things, we should see that principle confirmed all over the Bible, but its simply not there. In fact, a closer look at our opening verse and the surrounding context will shed some light on this.
When you back up in the context, we see that the disciples had experienced a failed attempt to get a certain man’s boy healed of epilepsy. This man then came to Jesus, and Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief.”
Jesus knows exactly what the problem is, and it is unbelief. The Greek word for unbelief is apistia and it literally means, “weakness of faith” or “little faith.” Here is how other versions of the Bible translate this same passage:
(NIV84) Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith…”
(NASB95) And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith…”
(ESV) He said to them, “Because of your little faith…”
Jesus is clearly stating that the problem–not the solution–is little faith. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus ever suggest that little faith is the solution. In fact, we see quite the opposite. Below are a few more passages of Scripture where Jesus responds to little faith:
“Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him. And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep. Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” Matthew 8:23–26 (NKJV)
“And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matthew 14:29–31 (NKJV)
Jesus also said: “If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith?” Luke 12:28 (NKJV)
In each of these situations, Jesus is correcting–not commending–little faith.
There are two things that caused Jesus to marvel. Little faith and great faith.
The Bible records that Jesus marveled at only two things. And He marveled for two completely different reasons. Notice:
“And He marveled because of their unbelief.” Same Greek word for unbelief: apistia, which means “little faith.” Mark 6:6 (NKJV)
“When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!”” Matthew 8:10 (NKJV)
Notice the two things that made Jesus marvel: Little faith and great faith! And He marveled for two completely different reasons. One was negative (i.e. little faith) and the other was positive (i.e. great faith).
Jesus clearly teaches that unbelief, or little faith, is a limiting factor, not a solution.
So what does it mean to have faith as a mustard seed? Let’s take a closer look at Matthew 17:19-20.
“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a 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 (NKJV)
Notice that Jesus did not say, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed.” He very clearly said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed.” In other words, Jesus is referring to the faith of a mustard seed, not the size of a mustard seed. The mustard seed has faith! Is there some significance to this? Absolutely! And to understand the significance, we need to understand the characteristics of a mustard seed.
Jesus said the following about the characteristics of a mustard seed:
Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.” Mark 4:30–32 (NKJV)
Matthew 13:31–32 says it this way: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.
Here is what we know about a mustard seed. In and of itself, a mustard seed is very small. Some would say it lacks significance. But Jesus points out that though a mustard seed has a small beginning, when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all. In other words, the smallest seed has the greatest potential. Jesus points out this characteristic and relates it to the kingdom of God, as well as to us.
Though a mustard seed is small, the faith of a mustard seed is not. The faith of a mustard seed does not limit itself based on its current, small reality. The faith of a mustard seed does not discount itself when compared to other larger seeds with seemingly more potential. The faith of a mustard seed, however, recognizes that it has the potential to become great; something significant; something fruitful.
From small beginnings to great potential. That is the characteristic of a mustard seed. And the gap inbetween requires great faith.
Does this principle work for people? You better believe it!
The Bible says that Abraham received a promise that he would become the father of many nations. When he received that promise, he was in his elderly years and his wife was barren. In the natural, their current reality seemed too weak and insignificant to see such results come to pass, but Romans 4:19-20 says the following about Abraham:
“And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God”
In other words, when Abraham received the promise of his potential, he did not focus on his current reality or his current weakness and limitations in the natural, but rather chose to believe the promise of God. And verse 18 says, “Contrary to hope [how it looked in the natural], in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”
Like a mustard seed, Abraham had an unlikely beginning and a seemingly weak potential in the natural, but because of faith, he believed and therefore he became greater than all.
When faith is sown, it has the power of God to transform your current reality from wherever you are today into the potential God has prepared for you.
Faith as a mustard seed is not small faith. It is big faith! It has the ability to look beyond its current reality and its small beginnings. It has the ability to set its sight on its very large potential.
Faith as a mustard seed will take you from your current reality, which may seem small and insignificant–especially compared to other people who may seem more gifted, more educated, and more talented than you–to a significant and fruitful end.
This kind of faith is ‘mustard seed faith.’ This kind of faith is big faith!