Matthew 17:20, a little faith? What does it mean? Devotional Commentary

By Practical Christianity Foundation, (PCF)

There are a few puzzling statements that Jesus makes in the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, regarding faith . In Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:23, Luke 17:6, Jesus told His disciples, if they had just a little faith then they would be able to move and command mountains and trees. That is, they would do impossible things with just minuscule faith. Such statements capture our attention with a mesmerizing grip because we want to have what we think these verses promise.

Countless sermons and teachings have been delivered through the years encouraging believers to seize the power of faith allegedly promised in texts such as the above. Preachers, teachers, and evangelists have taken advantage of the face-value meaning of the verbiage in those verses with little or no consideration of the context of the entire segment of the text. So they urge us with the full force of their convictions to "have" faith and "act" on it. They exhort us to believe the prima facie credibility they assign to what they feel the verses are stating. And if we don't move the mountain, then the problem is our own. They tell us with straight face that we don't have enough faith. If it were not so, the mountain would have scampered at the force of our faith-laden command.

We say that such teachings are far from the truth. They are misleading and misrepresent the real message of a great biblical truth. We are not, in any sense, alleging that any one particular teacher or group of deliberately working at propagating falsehood. But we are convinced that the rank and file of the Christian majority and Christian leaders alike suffer from a chronic deficiency of the proper and contextual understanding of the Scriptures.

If we diligently pay attention to the context, what Jesus said to the disciples is not difficult to perceive. In all four occurrences, (Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:23, Luke 17:6,) Jesus' statement about small faith and its big outcome was a response to the disciples' questions and awe! The disciples were captivated in awesome wonder when they saw Jesus doing what they couldn't do.

  • When they saw Jesus drive out the demon they couldn't expel, they said to Jesus, "Why couldn't we cast it out?"
  • When they saw the fig tree instantly wither at Jesus words, they marveled at the power in His words.
  • When Jesus spoke to them about forgiveness, they asked Him to increase their faith.

In other words, the disciples' questions were contrastive reactions unveiling the difference between them and Jesus. Why couldn't we do what Jesus is able to do? They were looking to have the means and the ability that Jesus had in order to do what He was able to do or, perhaps, even be like Him.

Jesus' answer was instructive. He told them that what they needed was faith. Using the metaphor of mountain, tree, and the sea, Jesus told them that through faith great and impossible things could take place. We must exercise caution here lest we take the proverbial leap of faith to "seize" this thing called faith and "possess" the power to do great and mighty things with faith at our disposal.

Jesus did not say to have the power of faith and toss mountains around and command trees to occupy the sea. Jesus did not say to upgrade or inflate our faith so we could be more powerful Christians. All He said is we need faith. Where do we get such faith and what does having faith mean?

The Bible tells us in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus Christ Himself is the Author and Finisher of faith. So faith is God's gift to us right from the very moment of our salvation. We are saved by His Grace which we received through the Faith He gives us. It is not something we work-up out of our commitment, determination, smarts, or anything out of ourselves. Faith comes from God and Him alone.

Once given, faith serves as the bridge which spans the gap:

  • between our unbelief and the Lord's trustworthiness,
  • between our weakness and His strength,
  • between our finiteness and His infinitude,
  • between our foolishness and His wisdom,
  • between our sinfulness and His righteousness,
  • between our selfishness and His selfless generosity,
  • between our greed and His charity,
  • between our instability and His stability,
  • between our vanity and His glory,
  • between our ignorance and His omniscience,
  • between our limitations and His omnipotence,
  • between our irresponsible ways and His unfailing providence,
  • between our doubt and His certainty,
  • between our defiance and His enduring mercy,
  • between our disappointments and His satisfaction,
  • between our toil and His rest,
  • between our bitterness and His Grace,
  • between our losses and His blessings,
  • between our waiting and His patience,
  • between our sadness and His joy,
  • between our despair and His guaranteed promises,
  • between our discouragements and His sure hope,
  • between our wishes/wants and His purpose,
  • between our schemes and His plans,
  • between our efforts and His leading,
  • between our darkness and His Light,
  • between our struggles and His Victory,
  • between our bondage and His freedom,
  • between who we are and Who He is!
Faith is God's tool in us. It is not a power tool which we could use at our disposal. So when the Lord said have faith and it'll happen, He was instructing us to abandon our unbelief and lean on Him through faith so that His power accomplishes the impossible in our lives. Christ did not promise to us to be more able with the "power of faith". But He assured us that His power will work in us when we lean on Him through faith.

In the end, it is not the power of faith available to us. But it is the power of Christ effectively working in us through the faith He has given to us. Not our power of faith, but the Power of Christ in faith!

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Here at Practical Christianity Foundation we believe that God has mercifully extended His Grace toward us and has given us His living and Holy Word to guide us in our journey in this world. We count it privilege to come alongside you and minister to you through prayer and the sharing of God's living and holy Word. Please contact us if you have any questions concerning your faith and journey as a Christian.

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Matthew 17:20, a little faith? What does it mean?
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