Really, a faith as small as a mustard seed can move a mountain? That’s what Matthew 17:20 seems to say! (Part 2 of 7)

500px-HIGHROCKMatthew 17:20 (NIV) – He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

In this series we argue that the answer to the question in the title of this article is NO! You may click here to read the first argument.

Argument 2:  Adding the words “small” or “size” to Matthew 17:20 causes Jesus-Christ to contradict himself right here in this very verse

The KJV, NIV and NASB all agree with the Greek texts when it comes to how Jesus-Christ describes whom He is speaking to: He saw them as people of little faith. The Greek word translated unbelief (KJV), little faith (NIV) or littleness of your faith (NASB) is the word oligópistos, formed from olígos, meaning “little in number or low in quantity” and pístis, meaning “faith”.

Jesus-Christ is describing these people as people of little faith, not people of no faith. Furthermore, Matthew 17: 16, 19 tell us that these were disciples of Jesus-Christ.

Matthew 17: 16 and 19 – “…I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”…Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

As disciples, followers of His teachings, these people must have had some faith. This is also evident by the fact that they were surprised that they were not able to cast the demon out (Matthew 17:19). They must have had some faith if they thought they could cast a demon! May be because they had done it before…?

Therefore, if Jesus-Christ acknowledges that his disciples had some faith (although little), how can He at the same time imply they had no faith (their faith is not even the size of a mustard seed, which is sufficient to move even mountains)? This certainly appears like the kind of contradictory statement that would leave anyone scratching his or her head!

We believe that Jesus-Christ implied just that – that their faith was insufficient. But He certainly did not mean to say that their faith was smaller than even the tiniest of seeds…which would mean non-existent.


    • Coming up very soon:) It is an interesting topic, and I believe that it is misunderstood by many. I hope the arguments will make sense to everyone. If not, I would welcome any objection.

    • Dear Kalen;

      Very interesting find, and thank you for pointing that out. I went straight to check out my resources. They do have the word oligópistos, not apistia, but not in the KJV as you pointed out.

      oligópistos is used in the NASB and INT, at least. However, you are correct, the KJV uses apistia instead, not oligópistos.

      This is an interesting discrepancy. So I have searched but have not found out a definite answer as to which one it should be. Nevertheless, while this discrepancy should change the argument here, it does not seem to change the overall point, since the word “small” or “size” do not appear in the Greek in the first place.

      In addition, I am of the opinion (I could be wrong) that because these people 1) were followers of Christ, and 2) were surprised that they could not cast out the demon, they must have had some faith.

      Will continue searching here. Thanks! What is your take?

  1. I found this in my huge old Strong’s Concordance many years ago when I first started going back to the original language, and once I found it, it made perfect sense. I relate this to Thomas, when he said “Unless I see/touch…” I will not believe. It doesn’t make sense for Jesus to say that they couldn’t cast it out because of the littleness of their faith, because if they only had a little faith… He wouldn’t say that. It’s contradictory. I believe He said (meant) unbelief. I have personally run across Christians who do not believe something, whether it be healing, deliverance, forgiveness, and a host of other Graces. Maybe they don’t believe they’re worthy, or it doesn’t fit their doctrine, but for one reason or another, they shake their head no, they don’t believe. Granted, Jesus said that particular demon was tough, and the disciples (not Jesus) would have had to pray and fast to drive it out. I suspect it was a particularly nasty one, which set the guys back on their heels. I was preaching at a soup kitchen once and a homeless guy who was particularly drunk one day started yelling for me to preach louder, LOUDER! Then he started going off on the other patrons. I bound, quoted and declared my authority… blah, blah, blah, but it appeared to win, as my short little sermon was over before it barely began. That was an evil spirit, no doubt. And I was frustrated, and went to the Lord Jesus in the same way they did, “Why could I not take authority over it?” I reflected on this very scripture, and looked to my morning prayer time, or lack there of. I was busy that morning, and wasn’t as prepared as I normally was. The Holy Spirit gently reminded me that I need to be prayed up at all times. I believed I had authority, which is what Jesus said to do, believe. So, I prayed all week about it, and for that particular guy. The next week he was back, but never said a word. He wasn’t sober, but that disrupting spirit was no where to be found.

    For this passage, I think about what would have been Jesus’ preferred course of action the disciples should have taken. To have never stopped trying to cast it out? Probably. Personally, I’d like to think I’d have been there all night, rebuking left and right until I was blue in the face, or until Jesus walk up shaking His head and slightly laughing. I think He would have appreciated such determination. That’s what He wasn’t after all, don’t you think? To ask, and ask, and ask. To keep on knocking… To believe, and not ever quit. But I would have lacked the same confidence they had, and would have likely agreed to take him to the Boss, and find out what was wrong. But for some reason or another, they came to the conclusion they couldn’t do it. We can’t, they said.

    For me it is a simple lesson in determination and faith. Never stop believing we have the authority Jesus died and rose again to give us, no matter how the situation unfolds. That extra steps, such as fasting and praying, are sometimes required. Apistia, from which I assume we get the English word apostate, appears to be a refusal to believe. It does disturb me that thousands of scholars for millennia have used “littleness of faith” right next to ‘all you need is a little faith.’ How many people have struggled to understand how Jesus was NOT contradicting Himself? I know I press through by faith and trust, until I went to the original and finally got it. Thank Him (God), that my Strong’s Concordance was based on the KJV, which led me to the answer. I found others as well, especially in 1 John, when he talks about sin. “No one who sins has seen Him or knows Him,” for example. I can’t tell you the condemnation and fear the enemy put on me because I made a mistake and “sinned” that day. It was terrifying to think that I didn’t know Him because I sinned again, which we know is unavoidable in this flesh. Hamaritia and hamaratano (from memory, I didn’t look it up just now). One is the offense, the other is an archery term for “missing the mark.” No one in Jesus misses the mark. The original language completely turned that scripture around for me.

    Jesus is amazing, and will always lead us in the truth if we continue in the faith and keep our eyes on Him in all humility and love. Thanks for letting me share what I’ve learned. I too, could be wrong on many points. But abiding faith, hope and love, we’ll all be ok, yes? From glory to glory, He is beyond words beautiful!

    In Jesus,

  2. Dear Kalen:

    This is an inspiring comment you just shared, and I thank you for it. I think you are most likely correct regarding the fact that it should be apistia, and therefore translated “unbelief”, as in the KJV. It is also very interesting because the KJV does not make the mistake of adding either the word “small” or “size” as the other versions I cited do.

    I do not know if you have already read the 5 remaining parts of this article (I hope you will). But essentially, I argue against the interpretation that Jesus was saying that all you need is a little bit of faith — matter of fact a faith so small that it can be compared as the size of a mustard seed — to be able to move mountains. I believe that interpretation is wrong. Otherwise, why is there need to be strong in faith (as we are exhorted everywhere in the scripture?). And from your comment, I believe you believe that interpretation is wrong as well.

    I like how you presented “unbelief” by using the case of Thomas. Because you are saying that it is making reference either to a “point in time” or a “specific instance”. Just like you said…Christians (so they must believe in Jesus), yet in some instances, in some cases…they just don’t believe.

    It makes me think of Peter, who started to walk on water. Clearly he believed when he stepped out of the boat and started to walk, but yet he later doubted…it was at that moment, he should have continued to believe but instead started to doubt. It is not that he had no faith at all (it was Peter after all), but at that moment, at that critical moment, he doubted and started to think.

    When in the article I say…these disciples must have had “some faith”, this is what I am referring to. Just like Peter as a disciple, these disciples had faith. Yet, they doubted at that moment and failed. And it is precisely on that point that Jesus correct them…they doubted and the rest is history!

    I think you are right when you said “That’s what He wanted after all, don’t you think?”. A example on top of my head is the prophet who spent almost the entire day trying to bring that child to life (forgot the name)…he certainly did not quit! You are onto something…and I thank you for bringing that perspective!

    I shall make an edit to this argument (Part 2), to reflect the correction you brought up. I cannot thank you enough for commenting. And I look forward to your thoughts about the other arguments.

    God bless!!

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