Little or Great Faith Matthew 17:14-21

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Faith Bible Church, NY

March 6, 1994

Little or Great Faith

Matthew 17:14-21

Over the last several weeks, the texts that we have been studying have been emphasizing that the very nature of salvation which we could summarize by saying that being a true Christian is about following Christ. It is not about a culture, a list of taboos, or a system of rituals and liturgy. True Christianity is about a relationship with God and a new direction of life. If a person is truly a Christian in the proper sense of that word, it means that he or she is a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. A “believer” in Jesus Christ has denied himself, taken up his cross, and will do his best to follow Jesus.  (See: The Church That Jesus Built)

It is sad to acknowledge the fact that many people who call themselves “Christians” do not fit those descriptions. They profess to be something that they are not. They identify with the name of Jesus, but they do not follow Him or yield to Him. They do not know Him personally because they are not actually redeemed, and their destiny is eternal hell separated from Christ, and not heaven in the presence of God. I would hope no one here is merely a “professing Christian.” I hope that each person here who professes to believe in Jesus truly knows Him and strives to follow Him as only a real Christian can do. God knows your heart and knows who belongs to Him and who does not.

This morning we are going to change direction slightly, for this morning’s text shows a problem that can occur with someone who is a real believer. A person can be truly saved but have a faith that is not yet to the mature level it needs to be. They have faith, but it is a “little” faith. They believe, but they have some doubts they are still working through. What is the difference between little faith and great faith? What are the marks of a mature faith? How might God be maturing our faith through the failures we suffer? Let us see Jesus’ response and instruction to the little faith of his disciples. Turn to Matthew 17:14.


The Scene

“And when they came to the multitude, a man came up to Him, falling on his knees before Him, and saying . . . “

We know a few more details from the parallel accounts in Luke and Mark. Jesus along with Peter, James, and John are coming down off the mountain where Jesus had been transfigured before those three disciples. They saw a glimpse of the glory that is part of Jesus’ unveiled nature. (See: A Glimpse of His Glory – 2/27/94). As they descending the mountain, a crowd has gathered at its base that is awaiting Jesus’ return. The other nine disciples are there waiting to rejoin Jesus in ministry. Some Scribes are among the crowd waiting to see what Jesus will do and say. They want to catch Him in something which they can use to discredit Him. The majority of people are waiting for Jesus to come to do some miracle. Some are desiring a miracle because they are diseased, sick, or crippled. They want Jesus to make them well. Others are afflicted by a demon and want to be free. Then there are those who only want to watch. They are there only for entertainment.

As Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John come down off the mountain, they see the crowd and that there is an argument going on between Jesus’ disciples and the Scribes. However, when the crowd sees Jesus, Mark tells us that they run to meet Him.

One of the men in this crowd has come because of his love for his son. His son is afflicted by a demon that causes the boy to fall down and thrash around. The argument that had been going on between the disciples and the Scribes revolved around the disciple’s inability to help this man’s son. When the disciples reach Jesus, He asks them what was going on. It is at this point that the man speaks up and describes to Jesus his need and what had occurred. Look at verse 15, 16.

“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic, and is very ill; for he often falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him.” Mark adds that the man specifically says that these lunatic fits (the description of which matches what we call epilepsy) and the boy’s inability to speak is brought upon the boy by a demon. “. . . whenever it seizes him, it dashes him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth, and stiffens out. And I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it” (Mark 9:18).

The man had come to find Jesus, but seeing that He was not present, he brings his request to the nine disciples that were there. The man displays a great love for whom Luke describes as his only son. He is concerned for his safety and the danger he faces because this demon is out to destroy him if possible by causing the epileptic attacks to toss him into the fire or into the water. In a culture where open fires were common place and could be found anywhere people were, this is a very real threat. They did not have a nice range and oven inside their homes. They did all their cooking over an often open, outside fire. These presented a danger to this man’s son. In addition, there were many cisterns and ponds around to hold water from the rainy season. These also presented a danger. It is understandable that the man wanted his son healed as soon as possible, and if Jesus was not there, why not ask the disciples to try? However, the disciples failed.

The Disciples

The disciple’s failure was the reason for their argument with the Scribes, who were no doubt trying to take advantage of the situation to try and discredit both t hem and Jesus. They did not fail because they did not know what to do or never done it before. Remember, back in chapter 10 they had been sent out to preach the gospel saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and were given the power to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.” When they returned, they reported that they had done those things. Dealing with demons was not a new thing to them, but they still failed. Why? The problem, as we shall see, was their lack of faith

Notice that it wasn’t that they did not believe or that they did not have faith. The problem was that they did not have enough faith. Their faith was insufficient to conquer the problem at hand. The demon did not respond immediately to their efforts to make it leave. At that point doubt entered and they wondered what they were doing wrong. The Scribes then started to taunt them, and they entered into a debate with them rather than being persistent in prayer and casting the demon out. They had faith, but not enough of it to persist when there was opposition.

Jesus’ Response

Jesus’ desire was to strengthen the faith of His disciples, but first there would be a rebuke in His response to them. Jesus would strengthen them, but before He could do that they needed to understand that He was disappointed with their failure, and they should have known better and already had sufficient faith by that point. But Jesus was not upset just with them, He was also upset at the whole scene.

Matthew 17:17, “And Jesus answered and said, ‘O unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to Me!”

Understand the contrast of what had just occurred and what was now occurring. He had just revealed some of His glory to Peter, James, and John. Jesus had just been talking with Moses and Elijah. Jesus had just heard the voice of God the Father commending Him and instructing the disciples to listen to Him. Now there was a scene of confusion, weakness, and unbelief. But again, His disappointment is not just with the disciples, it is with this “unbelieving and perverted generation.”

The demonstration of that generation’s unbelief was seen over and over again. Jesus taught them and performed miracle after miracle before them. The Old Testament prophecies were being fulfilled in Him, and yet that generation still refused to recognize who He was. The foolishness of the Scribes arguing with the disciples attested to that. The inability of the disciples to cast out the demon even after they had spent so much time with Jesus showed how much they still did not understand. The multitudes who were so quick to come and rejoice over Jesus’ miracles, but were so slow and hesitant to believe and follow the teachings of Jesus.

The perversion Jesus speaks of here is not so much moral perversion, as in the perversion of the Old Testament, which was resulting in the rejection of Jesus’ message that He is the Messiah. It was a perverted understanding of God’s revelation that was resulting in even Jesus’ disciples not understanding why Jesus was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die for the sin of mankind. That same perversion kept them from comprehending what it meant that Jesus would be raised up on the third day.

The scene that had just occurred on top of the mountain was in sharp contrast with the scene at the foot of the mountain. It only made Jesus long even more for the time when His purpose in coming as a man would be completed and He would return to the glory that He shared with the Father. That is true for us as well. The more that we understand both the holiness and glory of God and the sin and perversion of this world, the greater our desire to finish God’s plan for our lives here on earth and to depart and be with Him. We become like Paul in Philippians 1: feeling betwixt the two in longing to be with Jesus and yet desiring to finish whatever work He has here for us.

Jesus’ response was one that demonstrated His disappointment with the people and His longing for His work here to be completed. His response was also one of compassion because His desire was to fulfill the man’s request on behalf of his son and to strengthen his faith. Verse 18 tells us what Jesus did after the boy was brought to him. “And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once.”

The Man

We get a clearer picture of the man, his son, and Jesus’ actions in Mark 9:20-27. The man that had come asking for help was not really in any better shape than the disciples in terms of his faith. The man had come begging Jesus to have compassion and take pity on his son which in itself demonstrates that the man had some faith. He believed that Jesus could and would probably help, but there was a weakness in his belief because it was mixed with doubt. Starting in Mark 9:20, we pick up Mark’s account of what occurred after Jesus had asked that the boy be brought to Him.

“and they brought the boy to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling about and foaming at the mouth. And He asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can!’ All things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father cried out and began saying, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief.’ And when Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.’ And after crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, ‘He is dead!’ But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up.”

Belief was there, but there was only a little of it. Faith was there, but it was shallow, weak, and immature. Jesus’ desire was to not only take pity on the boy, but to strengthen the faith of this man and of the disciples. In the questions that He asked, and in the manner in which Jesus cast the demon out, He demonstrated His power and authority. Matthew’s account simply condenses this whole scene into one that emphasizes Jesus’ power rather than the details of what happened to the boy.

Jesus’ desire was to increase the faith of the man and those watching. The man understood that his faith was not great and that is why he confessed it and asked the Lord to intervene where his faith was weak (“I do believe, help my unbelief.”) That is the proper response. It does us no good to deny it. We simply need to confess the truth and ask for the Lord’s help. Here we have another example of Jesus’ compassio n to frail man in His granting the request while strengthening faith. Our faith becomes greater in amount and depth as the Lord takes us through the various trials of life and we see His faithfulness to fulfill His promises.


The Disciples Question

When the disciples were finally alone with Jesus later that day (Mark says specifically that it was when they had returned to the house) they wanted to know in detail why they had failed. In Matthew 17:19 they ask Jesus directly. “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?'”

The disciples had cast out demons before. It was still perplexing to them why this demon did not respond like the ones previously. They thought that the demon should have responded and left at their first command as had happened at earlier times. They are to be commended for asking Jesus this question. It demonstrates their potential to have great faith because they are willing to risk their pride in order to learn and grow. How often do we hinder ourselves in growing in Christian maturity because we are unwilling to ask why we fail or get stuck in a malaise? We hear the sermon and think it is for someone else. We read our Bible and apply the lessons to everyone but ourselves. The first ingredient needed to have great faith is humility, and the disciples had it.

Jesus’ answer to their question is direct and yet encouraging. Look at verse 20. “And He said to them, ‘Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.” And then verse 21 being added in from Mark, “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”.

The problem with the disciples was that their faith was too little. They had demonstrated on several occasions already that their faith was too small, such as at the feeding of the 5,000+ and 4,000 +, as well as during the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Their faith at that point was the kind that trusts God when He has provided what is already in hand. There are many people today, and perhaps many of you as well, who also have this kind of faith. We believe God and our faith seems so strong and healthy when our health is fine and we have the things of this life we desire. One of the great tragedies of the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel so often preached on “Christian” TV and Radio is that this is the only kind of faith they offer. It is easy to trust God when life is going well, but the true mark of faith is what happens when things turn sour, your efforts fail, adversity rises, and tragedy strikes. How you respond then is the true mark of your faith.

Jesus did not want the disciples, nor you, to remain with such little faith. His desire is to see your faith strengthen into great faith. That is the kind of faith that trusts God when our cupboard is bare and we have no money. Will God still provide if you continue to seek His kingdom and His righteousness first? This is the faith that generates an incomprehensible peace when your job is terminated, your health declines, and your enemies rise against you. Great faith holds fast to God in the midst of the storm as well as on a sunny day. Great faith is marked in the life that is persistent in the pursuit of personal holiness and serving the Lord and keeping His commandments regardless of circumstances. Praise for the Lord is there at all times in both the good and bad. This is the faith that Jesus wants all His followers to have including you and me. Jesus gave the disciples and us the hope that we can have that kind of faith. We do not have to remain immature with a limited faith. We can mature and gain a great faith.

The Nature of Faith

What Jesus said to the disciples describes the nature of great faith. “. . . if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.”

What did Jesus mean by “faith as a mustard seed”? The mustard seed was the smallest agricultural seed used in the ancient middle east. It is not the size of faith, but the quality of it that makes it great.

Faith must be placed in an object. You can have a lot of faith, but if it is in the wrong object you are in trouble. If your hope of going to heaven is based in a faith that is placed in anything or anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ, then you are headed to hell, not heaven. Mustard seed faith has the right object.

Faith must also have direction and purpose. You can say that you have faith in Jesus, but for what? What are you trusting Him to do? If it is to provide you an easy life, then you do not understand who He is, what He came for, or what He promised. Jesus said that in this life we would have tribulation and that if we lived righteously we would be hated by the ungodly. Mustard Seed faith has direction and purpose. It is seeking to grow and glorify God with its life.

Faith must also be persistent. Jesus illustrates this point in several parables with the widow and the unrighteous judge in Luke 18 being the most familiar one. The judge grants the woman’s request simply because she was persistent. Jesus concludes, “shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily” (Luke 18:6-8). The purpose of the parable Jesus said was to “show that at all times [the disciples] ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

Mustard Seed faith is placed in the correct object, it has the correct direction and purpose, and it is persistent. That is great faith of a mustard seed. If that is the faith a person has, they will be able to overcome whatever obstacle is placed in their way and accomplish whatever God has given them to do.

Jesus is not talking about moving a literal mountain. Such a feat would be the kind of grand, but senseless miracle the Scribes and Pharisees were demanding. To be able to “move a mountain” was a common figure of speech of that time that meant overcoming some great obstacle. William Barclay commented on this phrase explaining that it meant, “If you have faith enough, all difficulties can be solved, and even the hardest task can be accomplished. Faith in God is the instrument that allows men to remove the hills of difficulty which block their path.”

Jesus’ promise that “nothing shall be impossible for you,” is restricted to only that which is in the framework of God’s will, for that is the very nature of the faith as a mustard seed tha t Jesus was talking about. Remember that faith must be in the proper object. Faith in itself can accomplish nothing. It is the God in whom the faith is grounded that accomplishes the work.

The disciples failed because their faith was too little. It was not that of a mustard seed because they were not persistent. The demon they were dealing with was resistant and would only leave after persistent prayer. How often have we failed to be the instrument of God’s blessing to someone else, or failed to receive His blessing ourselves because our faith was not that of a mustard seed. We must make sure that our trust is in God and that we are trusting Him to accomplish His will, not trying to manipulate Him to do our will, and we must be persistent. As those elements mark our faith, our faith will be great. We will overcome the obstacles that come upon us and we will be able to fulfill everything that God asks us to do.

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