Little Faith or Mustard Seed Faith?



The healing of the demoniac boy offers much enlightenment regarding the nature of faith. In the previous post I explored how faith (an action), though genuine, may come with a sense of doubt or unbelief (a verb). In this post we are going to explore the bewildering reason why the Apostles could not cast it out.
To be very clear I have done a post before dedicated to exploring why the Apostles could not drive out the demon- while my previous study was right, I largely missed the point and neglected the more specific lessons on faith.

After the Apostles could not cast the demon out from the boy, they asked Jesus why they could not cast it out. Jesus gave two responses:
“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (see Jesus Heals the Demon)
 and 
“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” 
This answer presents a conundrum: on one hand Jesus criticizes the Apostle’s for having “little faith”, yet he says they must have faith “like a grain of mustard seed”- the smallest known seed in the day. How can both things be true? Why shouldn’t a Christian have “little faith”, yet have “mustard seed faith”?  [Note: some manuscripts say “unbelief” in place of “little faith”]

Little Faith

First we must understand what Jesus means by “little faith”, so we will explore the other uses of “little faith” in the New Testament. Little faith is a compound Greek word, oligopistis (ολιγοπιστις); adding the prefix oligo (the same prefix in the English word, oligarchy), which means little to pistis, which means faith. 

Anxiety

In Matthew 6:30 and parallel (identical) Luke 12:28 Jesus says that, 
“...if God so clothes the grass of the field [in splendor greater than Solomon, vs 29], which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more cloth you, O you of little faith?”
Here Jesus is speaking the Sermon on the Mount, seemingly with the primary audience of his Apostles. In context, Jesus is telling all of his listeners to not be anxious, but to trust God’s provision. He calls them out for being the possessors of “little faith”. In this case, their little faith is causing them anxiety to not trust in God’s provision for basic necessities of life. 

Despair

In the infamous account of Jesus calming the storm, Jesus and the twelve used a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. While they were traversing, Jesus was sleeping during a storm. The Apostles were very frightened and so they said, 
“Save us, Lord; we are perishing.”
“ And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” Matt 8:26 
Here Jesus called them people of little faith because they did not trust his power to protect them in difficult circumstances. 

Fear

In a very similar scenario, the Apostles were out on a boat when Jesus approached them by walking via water. Jesus called Peter to venture out in the waves with him as an act of trust. When Peter ventured onto the water he became afraid and began sinking, crying out for Jesus to save him. Jesus grabbed him and said,
“O you of little faith, why did you doubt”. Matt 14:31
 Jesus called Peter one of little faith, because he doubted God’s control of the circumstance.  

Doubt

Lastly (excluding Matt 17:20), Jesus was telling the Apostles to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. The religious leadership had been testing Jesus, asking him for proof of his Messiahship. When Jesus and the disciples left the religious leaders, Jesus told them to beware their leaven. When the disciples heard this, they began worrying among themselves that they had no bread. So Jesus said,
“O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive”?- Matt 16:8
Jesus had been speaking figuratively, referring to the self-righteous teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples failed to understand this and were worried about having food to eat- which Jesus assured them that he had provided in the past with two mass feedings. They had little faith, not trusting God’s provision and allowing their lack of trust to hinder their understanding of Jesus teachings. 

In every circumstance where the term, “little faith” is used, Jesus is calling out his disciples for a lack of trust. Clearly this is a negative thing that Christians should not have.

Mustard Seed Faith

Asides from Matt 17:20, mustard seed faith is referenced one other time. After Jesus taught his Apostles they cried out to him
“Increase our faith!” Luke 17:5
And Jesus replied, 
“If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.” Lu 17:6
Some translations say, “size of” instead of “like of”. The original language makes it very clear that this is a simile and does not specifically refer to the size of a mustard seed. The conundrum is: what qualities of mustard seed, aside from their size, makes them notable? In Luke 17:5-6, The Apostles specifically ask for their faith to be increased and Jesus’ answer is to have a mustard seed faith, therefore the idea of size would not make sense here or in Matt 17:20.
Jesus talked about mustard seeds regarding the Kingdom of God in an idiomatic saying,
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.  It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matt 13:31-32, Mark 4: 30-32, Luke 13: 18-19
The Kingdom of God is not small. Jesus compares it to a mustard seed talking of the potential of the Kingdom of God.

Is Mustard Seed Faith, A “Little Faith”?

Faith, like a mustard seed, is not a “little faith”. A “little faith” or a “small faith” is one that is limited in its size. This kind of faith is small and does not have the capacity to grow anymore, causing a lack of trust in God’s power and provision (and thus hinders Kingdom work). 
Faith like a mustard seed is one that, like the Kingdom of God itself, rests in the potential for growth and the potential of its results. Mustard-seed faith trusts God and the future fulfilment of his promises, even if that is not the present reality. 
The Apostles had a small and limited faith- with no room for growth. Instead, they should’ve had mustard seed faith- one that is continuously growing in trusting God and the results of faith, even when they are currently not being experienced. 

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