Have you ever come across something in the Bible that doesn’t make sense? There are some crazy stories in the Bible! One of my favorites is…especially since I work with youth…the story of Elisha and the she bears.
2 Kings 2:23-25 – 23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.
I’ve never preached a sermon on that. I’m sure there’s an important lesson in there, but I haven’t dug deep to find it out yet. That story is entertaining, and I love it, but it really doesn’t make sense to me. There are some things in the New Testament that are hard to understand, too. I love that God guided this next verse to be in scripture. He wants to make sure we know, “Yeah, there’s some stuff in here that is hard to understand and doesn’t seem quite right. Keep reading and seeking to understand though.” Hear what the Apostle Peter had to say about the Apostle Paul, who has written most of our New Testament.
2 Peter 3:15b-16a – 15 …our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand…
Peter says…recorded in the Bible…that there are things Paul says that are just straight up hard to understand. So, don’t get worried and give up when you come across difficult passages. Study and dig deeper.
Some passages are hard to understand because at face value they don’t seem to be true. The passage we’re going to look briefly tonight is that way. Based on our experience our whole life, it doesn’t seem to be true. But, we will see why it is and how we should live in light of it. We are going to see what it means to have faith like a mustard seed.
There are two passages that talk about faith like a mustard seed. Let’s read them both, see what they mean, and how to apply them to our life.
Matthew 17:20 – He said to them, “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.”
Luke 17:5-6 – 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “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.
Who in here has faith in God? Who in here has complete faith that God can do anything? That he is omnipotent.
Ok, in complete faith, ask God to pick me up and make me hover. Like, Eleven on Stranger things can do…or Baby Yoda with a frog.
That’s what both of these passages seem to say. If you have even the tiniest amount of faith…not even big faith…you can make things hover and move. I vividly remember sitting in class talking to God while in High School. I was asking Him for a sign. I told Him I believed in Him, but please just give me a sign that He is really real. I said I have complete faith. And I put out my hand next to a yellow pencil on my desk and I said, “Please just move this pencil. I have complete faith.” And you know what happened? IT MOVED! Seriously! It moved!…after I picked it up…
These passages about mustard seed faith don’t seem to make sense based on our experience. Surely someone in the world has mustard seed faith. Surely many people do. Yet nobody can make mountains hover and throw mulberry trees with their mind.
So, when you come to a difficult passage, what do you do? Well, first thing you do is look at the context. Read around the passage and see why and in what context it was said.
In Matthew 17, some of the disciples just witnessed the transfiguration. Can you imagine?! They saw Jesus in all his glory talking with Elijah and Moses! Can you imagine what kind of faith-building that would do? That would strengthen anyone’s faith. Then as they came down the mountain, they watched Jesus heal a demon-possessed boy. But here’s the kicker. The boy was brought to the disciples first, and they weren’t able to cast out the demon.
Matthew 17:14-16 – 14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”
The disciples were supposed to have the power to cast out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 16:17; Matthew 7:22; Luke 10:17; Acts 19:13; Matthew 12:27). The disciples couldn’t do it, so Jesus did. The disciples knew what they were supposed to be able to do, so they approached Jesus and asked him why they couldn’t do it when they knew they were supposed to be able to. And Jesus replied with the phrase we’re studying right now.
Matthew 17:19-20 – 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “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.”
Here’s another thing we need to know about understanding the Bible. Not all writing is to be taken literally. Scripture is writing. It is literature. There are all sorts of different writings in it, and it has many conversations between people, just like what we just read. You have to realize what is to be taken literally and what is not. When you read just one single passage out of context, it can seem like it needs to be taken literally, like faith can literally move mountains. But when we read it in context, we know that’s not what Jesus is talking about. What is the mountain he was talking about? They couldn’t cast out the demon. That was their immediate need. That was their mountain that Jesus was referring to. Jesus was using a simile. If you remember back in English class, a simile is when you say something is like something else. Jesus is saying, “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, nothing will be impossible for you.”
He was making a point about their faith and about their circumstances.
The point he was making about their faith is: It isn’t the amount of faith you have that matters. It’s the object of your faith that matters. A mustard seed was the smallest known seed to them at the time. Jesus purposefully was saying if you have even the smallest amount of faith, that’s what matters. It isn’t the amount of faith that matters, it’s that your faith is in Jesus. Our faith isn’t in our power, it’s in the One who has all power. Demons flee from Jesus.
The object of our faith is what matters. I can have complete sincerity of faith in something false. I can be 100% convinced that rocks taste good and are nutritional for me. They are organic and natural. They are paleo. There are keto friendly…no carbs. They are as old as the earth…as natural as it can be. And I can eat rocks to my heart’s content…until my heart gives way. Because I will die if I eat rocks, even if I have complete faith and belief that rocks are nutritional. It’s the same if I have 100% faith that if I flap my arms hard enough, I can fly. I can be completely sincerely wrong in my complete faith, and I won’t know until I fall flat on my face when I try to fly. Many people live their life this way.
The object of our faith is what matters. God is the object. But we must have faith in him, that he will do what he says he will do and that he can be trusted when things don’t make sense.
Jesus told the disciples they couldn’t cast out demons because of their little faith. But then he goes on to say that they must have the smallest amount of faith they can imagine…that of a mustard seed.
Faith must be accompanied by action. You can say you have faith, but the mustard seed part comes in when it’s lived out. I can say I have faith that a stool will hold me up. I don’t really have faith in it until I put some of my weight on it, though. This is why James says in James 2:26, “Faith apart from works is dead.”
Put weight on your faith. If it can’t hold you up, your faith is in the wrong object. I have been more and more convinced lately that what you truly believe, you should fully believe. And if the implications of your belief lead to something irrational, your belief is in the wrong place. And if you are not living out the implications of your belief, you’re not really believing it…just like the disciples Jesus is talking to.
If I am pro-life and believe the Bible teaches that, I should live out its implications. I should not just say I believe that, but I should live it out. I should adopt and foster and give and help single mothers. If I say I believe it but don’t live like it, do I really believe it? It’s good and right to say, “Don’t kill babies.” But to say I am pro-life requires me to live out those implications. And as Christians, we should!
If I don’t believe God exists…If I am an atheist, I should live out its implications. If I believe in Darwinian evolution…which if I’m an atheist, it is likely I would believe that…I should live out its implications. There’s nothing I shouldn’t do to get ahead. There are really no grounds for morals, except for what helps me. There’s no meaning to life because we are just here and then we’re gone. Yet, most atheists don’t live this way. They borrow meaning and morality from theism and don’t live out the implications of their lack of faith. So, the object of their faith, that God doesn’t exist, doesn’t hold them up and should be abandoned.
There are so many other examples we could look at. But so many people say they have faith but don’t actually live like it. Jesus is telling his disciples, “Ditch your lack of faith. Trust me alone. Don’t trust your own efforts. Trust me alone.”
This kind of faith allows us to face any mountains in our way.
Sometimes the faith of a mustard seed doesn’t move our mountains, but it allows us to keep walking in the valley. We see this in Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Often, faith is realizing that when your mountain isn’t moved, God is walking with you through the valley. We see this testimony in scripture. Paul pleaded three times that the thorn in his flesh would be removed, but it wasn’t (2 Cor 12:7-10). And God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (vs 9). I pleaded in complete faith for my twin sister to not die, yet she did. I never had more faith in my prayers, yet my faith in God remains because he is with me when that mountain wasn’t moved.
In the Luke 17 passage, the context is forgiveness. Jesus had just told them to forgive someone over and over and over and over again. We can’t do this in our own strength, but when our faith is in God, the one who forgives and restores and redeems, we can tell the mulberry tree to jump in the sea. We can forgive again.
Faith like a mustard seed is trusting in God to do what we cannot do.
They couldn’t cast out demons, but Jesus could. They couldn’t forgive again, but Jesus would. You can’t move your mountains, but God is with you in the valley.
So, live out your faith. What you believe, believe it fully. The object of your faith matters. Only when that object is God who can do all things…is Christ and his sacrifice…is the Holy Spirit at work in you and through you…only then can you face anything that comes your way.
All you need is faith like a mustard seed when your faith is in God. So, how do you need to demonstrate your faith right now?