Little or Great Faith? – Matthew 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43

Download MP3

(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click Here)

For the PowerPoint presentation for this sermon, Click Here)

Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
June 5, 2016

Little or Great Faith?
Matthew 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43


The last few sermons have put an emphasis on the fact that the very nature of salvation and being a true Christian is about following Christ. True Christianity is not about a culture, a list of taboos, or a system of rituals and liturgy. It is about a radical spiritual change – from death to life – and the resulting new direction of life. A Christian, in the proper sense of that word, is a “little Christ,” a follower of the Lord Jesus. “Believers” in Jesus Christ deny themselves, taken up their cross and do their best to follow Jesus because they have placed their faith in Him. (See: Setting Your Interest on the Things of God)

Tragically, that definition does not fit many who claim to be Christians. They profess to be something that they are not. They identify with the name of Jesus, but they do not actually follow Him, yield to Him, or know Him personally. They are in fact not saved regardless of their claim and outward displays of piety, and if they continue on their present path, they will spend eternity in hell separated from Christ and not in heaven in the presence of God. I am highly motivated to prevent that tragedy from occurring to anyone that attends this church. That is why I preach as I do and give such strong warnings. It is also why we practice church discipline as a last effort to persuade a professing brother of their error and warn everyone else from following their example.

We are changing direction slightly this morning for our text today reveals a problem that can occur among genuine believers because their faith has not yet matured enough. They have faith, but it is “little” faith. They believe, but there are still some doubts. 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? Those questions will be answered as Jesus responds to those who had littleness of faith.

Little Faith
The Scene. Matthew 17:14, Mark 9:14-15, Luke 9:37

We begin with Luke 9:37, “On the next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met Him.” Apparently the news had spread of where Jesus and the disciples had gone, and a crowd had gathered with the other nine disciples to await His return. Those in the multitude would have had a mixture of reasons for wanting to see Jesus. Some would have desired to be healed from a disease, sickness or some crippling handicap. Some would have wanted to be set free from some demonic affliction. Others would have been curious and just wanted to see for themselves some miracle Jesus might perform. Those are reasonable assumptions based on the previous crowds that had gathered to see Jesus. We know there were those present who were antagonistic to Jesus and looking for an opportunity to try and discredit Him for Mark 9:14 points out that there were Scribes there that were already arguing with the disciples that had not gone up on the mountain.

We are not told how long the crowd had been there, but some may have waited a long time for Luke is specific is it the day after Jesus was transfigured that they came down from the mountain. The multitude was anxious to see Jesus for Mark 9:15 states, “immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him.”

Jesus had noticed the argument that had taken place for Mark 9:16 records He asked His disciples, “What are you discussing with them?” Before they could answer, a man from the crowd responds.

A Pleading Father. Matthew 17:15; Mark 9:16-18; Luke 9:38-39

Each gospel account adds to the picture of what occurred. Luke 9:38 states he shouted out, “Teacher, I beg You to look at my son, for he is my only boy.” Matthew 17:14-15 explains that he came from the crowd and fell on his knees before Jesus and said, “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.” Luke 9:39 explains further, “and a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth; and only with difficulty does it leave him, mauling him as it leaves.” Mark 9:17-18 explains further, “whenever is seizes him, it dashes him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth, and stiffens out.”

The description here is very much like what we would call an epileptic fit except these fits were caused by a demon which, according to Mark 9:17, has also made the boy mute. The man had come out of love for his son and hope that Jesus would cast the demon out. This was very serious because these seizures were very dangerous in themselves in slamming him to the ground and the convulsions, but made worse in that they often caused him to fall into fire or water. Remember that they did not have a nice range and oven in their homes back then. They cooked over a fire so the danger of being seriously injured was real. There were also many cisterns and ponds around to hold water from the rainy season, and these presented a real danger of drowning. It is understandable that this man wanted his son healed as soon as possible from the demon that was trying to destroy him.

The Disciples. Matthew 9:16; Mark 9:18; Luke 9:40

Since Jesus was not there, the man tried the next best thing with all three Gospels recording that he asked and begged the disciples to cast the demon out. The problem was that they were not able to do so. The argument between the disciples and the Scribes revolved around the inability of the disciples to help this man’s son. There is no doubt that the Scribes were trying to take advantage of the situation in an effort to discredit them and therefore Jesus as their teacher.

The disciples did not fail because they did not know what to do or that they had not done this before. Back in Matthew 10, Jesus had sent them sent out to preach the gospel saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and they were given the power to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons.” When they returned from their assignments, they reported to Jesus that they had done all those things. Dealing with demons was not a new thing to them, but they had still failed. Why? What was the problem?

Jesus’ Response. Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, Luke 9:41

Jesus’ desire was to strengthen the faith of His disciples, before He could do that they needed to understand that He was disappointed with their failure for they should have known better. They should have already had sufficient faith by that point to cast out this demon. Jesus was not upset just with them, He was 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!”

There is a great contrast between what had just occurred on the mountain and what was occurring now. Jesus had revealed some of His glory to Peter, James and John and had 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. (See: A Glimpse of His Glory)  Now it is only a day later, and here was a scene of confusion, weakness and unbelief. Again, Jesus’ disappointment is with this “unbelieving and perverted generation” and not just with the disciples.

The demonstration of that generation’s unbelief had been 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. This was demonstrated by the foolishness of the Scribes arguing with the disciples. It was seen in the inability of the disciples to cast out the demon even after they had spent so much time with Jesus. It was exhibited in 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 their understanding 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 resulted in even Jesus’ disciples not understanding why Jesus was headed 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. There is a sense in which this should be true for Christians as well. The more that we understand both the holiness and glory of God and the contrast of 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 end up like Paul in Philippians 1:23-24 of feeling betwixt the two. There is a longing to be with Jesus and yet also the desiring to finish whatever work God has for us here.

Jesus’ response demonstrated His disappointment with the people and His longing for His work here to be completed. His response was also one of compassion for his desire was fulfill the man’s request on behalf of his son and to strengthen his faith. He tells them to bring the boy to Him.

A Humble Father. Matthew 17:18; Mark 9:20-27, Luke 9:42-43

Matthew and Luke summarize what happens next while Mark 9:20-27 give much more detail that presents a clearer picture of the man, his son and Jesus’ actions. 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. However, there was a weakness in his belief because it was mixed with doubt..

“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 it there was only a little of it. Faith was there, but it was shallow, weak, immature. Jesus’ desire was to not only take pity on the boy, but to strengthen the faith of this man and of the disciples. The questions Jesus asked and the manner in which Jesus cast the demon out demonstrated His power and authority and were designed to increase the faith of the man and those watching. Luke 9:43 comments that “and they were all amazed at the greatness of God.”

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 not do any good to deny reality. No one here has yet been glorified and reached perfection. We may be at various levels of spiritual maturity, but all of us are still subject to human frailty with its fears, anxiety and doubt. You simply need to confess the truth and ask for the Lord’s help. Jesus consistently responds with compassion to those who are humble and ask as demonstrated again in this example. Jesus granted the request to heal the man’s son while also strengthening his faith. Your faith will become greater in amount and depth as the Lord takes you through the various trials of life and you see His faithfulness to fulfill His promises.

Great Faith
The Disciples Question. Matthew 17:19-20, Mark 9:28-29

Mark 9:28 records that sometime later Jesus and the disciples had returned to the house in which they were staying and had some privacy. The disciples now bring up the question that had been on their minds since they had failed to cast the demon out earlier that day, “Why could we not cast it out?”

It was still perplexing to them why this demon did not respond like the ones in their previous encounters. The disciples had cast out demons before. When Jesus sent out the seventy, the demons became subject to them when they commanded them in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17). Why did that not happen this time?

The disciples 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 you hinder yourself in growing in Christian maturity because you are unwilling to ask why you fail or get stuck in a malaise. You hear the sermons and think it is for someone else. You read your Bible and apply the lessons to everyone but yourself. The first ingredient needed to develop great faith is humility. The disciples have it here.

Jesus answer to their question is direct and yet encouraging. Matthew 17:20, “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.” Mark 9:29 adds, “But this kind does not go out except by prayer.” (This phrase was eventually added to later copies of Matthew’s text along with the addition of and “fasting.”)

The problem with the disciples was that their faith was too little. They had already demonstrated on several occasions that their faith was too small such as the feeding of the more than 5,000 (Matthew 14), the feeding of the more than 4,000 (Matthew 15) and during the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8). Their faith at that point was the kind that trusts God when His provision was already in hand. Such small faith is still common today.

This is the faith that believes God because there is good health and prosperity. This is the only kind of faith offered by the preachers of the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. 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 then and He does not want you now to remain with such little faith. His desire is to see your faith strengthened into great faith. That is the kind of faith that trusts God when our cupboard is bare and your broke. 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, serving the Lord and keeping His commandments regardless of circumstances. Praise for the Lord is there at all times both good and bad. This is the faith that Jesus wants His followers to have and that includes 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 FaithMatthew 17:20

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 and so it became a metaphor for anything that was very tiny. Faith does not have to be large to be successful for it is the quality of faith that makes it great and not its size. A very tiny faith can accomplish what would seem to be impossible if it is a proper faith.

Faith must be placed in the right object. You can have a lot of faith, but if it is in the wrong object you are in trouble. It is the object of faith, not faith itself, that must be able to accomplish what is being asked. If your hope of going to heaven is based in a faith that is placed in anything or anyone other than the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, then you are headed to hell, not heaven, for no man can come to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6). Mustard seed faith is small, but it 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 persecuted by the ungodly for simply desiring to live in righteousness. Mustard Seed faith is tiny, but it has the right direction and purpose in seeking to grow and glorify God with its life regardless of circumstances. That is why our brothers and sisters who are severely persecuted in so many places around the world and still have meaning, purpose and even joy in their lives. A couple of years ago I mentioned Yubelina, and Indonesian Christian who was horribly burned in a fire during a Muslim attack on her village. Her picture says it all about her attitude. Though terribly disfigured and blind in one eye, she radiates joy for she knows she belongs to Christ, and her great desire has been to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to those who caused her suffering.

Faith must also be persistent. That is why Jesus said it would take prayer to cast out that kind of demon. It is also why fasting is so often attached to prayer as evidence of the persistence in it. Jesus illustrates this point in several parables, the widow and the unrighteous judge in Luke 18 being the most familiar. 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” (vs 6-8). The purpose of the parable was to “show that at all times [the disciples] ought to pray and not to lose heart” (vs 1).

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

Jesus is not talking about moving a literal mountain of dirt and stone. Such a feat would be the kind of grand but senseless miracle the Scribes and Pharisees were demanding. Imagine if people of faith were doing that according to their whim. Mountains would be sailing across the sky all the time making it dangerous to fly as one person moved a mountain out of their way to some place inconvenient to someone else who would then move it to a different place. To be able to “move a mountain” was a common figure of speech of that time that meant overcoming some great obstacle in the same way we still use the figure of speech. 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 not an open invitation for you to get whatever you want. The idea of “name it and claim it” in faith and prayer is absolutely wrong. Faith and prayer are always 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 that Jesus is describing. Faith in itself can accomplish nothing. Faith must be in the proper object. It is the God in whom the faith is grounded that accomplishes the work. James 1:3 also makes it clear that God does not grant prayers that are asked for the purpose of personal pleasures. Prayer is to be for God’s will to be done, not our own.

The disciples failed because their faith was too little. It was not that of a mustard seed for they were not persistent. There is even some legitimate question if they had prayed. The demon they were dealing with was resistant and would only leave after persistent prayer. Demons have no obligation to obey a human no matter what words or incantations are used. Demons are subject to God and not man. They become subject to man only when that man is himself in humble submission to God with faith to do God’s will in God’s way.

Christians often fail to be the instrument of God’s blessing to others or fail to receive His blessing themselves because their faith is not that of even a mustard seed. Be sure that your trust is in God and that you are trusting Him to accomplish His will and not trying to manipulate Him to do your own will, and then be persistent. As those elements mark your faith, your faith will grow. You will find that God will provide and you will be able to overcome the obstacles that come upon you in order to fulfill everything that God asks you to do.

Sermon Notes: Little or Great Faith
Matthew 17:14-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43


True Christianity is about a _______spiritual change (from death to life) & the resulting new direction of life

The proper definition of being a Christian does not fit many who profess to be Christians – they are _______

_______________believers can spiritually fail because their faith is still immature

Little Faith: The Scene. Matthew 17:14, Mark 9:14-15, Luke 9:37

There was a mixture of ________________in the crowd that was waiting for Jesus to return

Jesus, Peter, James & John returned the day ____________Jesus had been transfigured

The _____________were arguing with the other disciples

Little Faith: A Pleading Father. Matthew 17:15; Mark 9:16-18; Luke 9:38-39

The boy was afflicted by a ____________that made him mute and caused epileptic type fits

Open fires and open cisterns and ponds made the boy’s affliction even more _____________

Little Faith: The Disciples. Matthew 9:16; Mark 9:18; Luke 9:40

Jesus was not there, so the man begged the ______________, but they could not cast the demon out

The disciples had __________________cast out demons – Matthew 10

Little Faith: Jesus’ Response. Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, Luke 9:41

Jesus’ disappointment is with this “unbelieving and perverted ______________,” not just the disciples

Their unbelief shown in their ___________of Jesus despite His teaching, miracles and prophetic fulfillment

Their _______________of the Old Testament was perverted so that they did not understand Jesus’ teachings

The ___________between the transfiguration and this contention caused Jesus to long for His return to glory

Jesus was disappointed, but He still had ______________for the man and his son

Little Faith: A Humble Father. Matthew 17:18; Mark 9:20-27, Luke 9:42-43

Jesus’ _____________was designed to bring out and then strengthen the man’s weak and immature faith

________, confession and asking for God’s help is the means to see His hand at work and your faith to grow

Great Faith: The Disciples Question. Matthew 17:19-20, Mark 9:28-29

The disciples were _______________why they could not cast this demon out, so they ask Jesus in private

The humble have the potential to develop great faith while pride ____________such growth

Matthew 17:20 – Jesus’ answer is direct and __________________

Even a ___________faith can trust God when the provision is already in hand

Great faith trusts God in the midst of the ____________as well as on the sunny day

Great Faith: The Nature of FaithMatthew 17:20

A mustard seed became a ______________for anything that was very tiny

Faith must be placed in the right ____________- faith itself can accomplish nothing

Faith must have proper direction and _____________

Faith must be ___________- Luke 18

Great faith ___________whatever obstacle is in their way to accomplish whatever God has given them to do

    “Move a mountain” was a common figure of speech referring to a great _____________

Faith and prayer are always _____________to only that which is in the framework of God’s will – James 1:3

Demons have no obligation to obey a _____________no matter what words or incantations are used

Faith must be in ____________to accomplish His will and remain persistent

Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up later. 2) Count how many times faith is mentioned. Talk with your parents about the nature of true faith – its object, direction and purpose.

Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. Why must a true Christian deny himself, pick up his cross and follow Jesus? Can a person who does not do that be a true Christian? Can true Christians fail in their obedience to and trust of God? Explain. Why was a crowd waiting for Jesus when he came down from the mountain? Why were the Scribes arguing with Jesus’ disciples? What was the problem with the man’s son? Why does this upset Jesus – Matthew 17:17? How did that generation demonstrate their unbelief and perversion? How does the father demonstrate his humility to Jesus? What demonstrates that his faith was small? How does he an example of the proper response of a person with small faith? Why were the disciples perplexed by their failure to cast out the demon? What good character traits are demonstrated by the disciples in asking Jesus why they had failed? What can a small faith trust God for? What can a great faith trust God for? What does the mustard seed refer to? Can faith itself accomplish anything? Why must faith be in the right object? Why must faith have direction and purpose? What direction and purpose does a Christian’s faith have? Why must faith be persistent? What is the relationship between persistence and prayer and fasting? Is Jesus talking about moving a mountain of dirt and stone? Why or why not? Are there any conditions to Jesus’ promise that “nothing shall be impossible for you“? Explain. Why did the disciples fail? Why do true Christians often fail in the tasks God has given them? How have you seen this happen in your own life? How do true Christians overcome the obstacles that block them from doing God’s will? How have you seen this happen in your own life? How have you seen this happen in your own life?

(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click Here)

Grace Bible Church Home Page || Sermon Archives

For comments, please e-mail  Church office