Jesus urged in The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 “Do not be anxious for your life.” He encouraged His disciples, “Don’t worry about your basic needs being met like food and clothing.” Believe God, and He will supply your needs. Faith cures anxiety.
In prayer we were exhorted, “Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” Prayer works because God is generous! However prayer only works when it is accompanied by faith.
Faith is needed. And stronger faith is best of all. Many times in the gospels we read about Jesus either correcting little faith or encouraging greater faith. In Matthew 8:10 Jesus (speaking of the Centurion in Capernaum) ” … marveled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.'” Then in Matthew 8:26 He said to (the disciples in the boat who were worrying about the storm), “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Referring to the hemorrhaging woman in Matthew 9:22 Jesus “…(turned) and seeing her said, ‘Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.'” At once the woman was made well. Yet to Peter on the water in Matthew 14:31-32 “… Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?'” Back and forth go the lessons about faith and trusting God and believing His promises! To say that people’s faith was important to Jesus Christ is an understatement! He evaluated their entire readiness to see God’s power at work in their lives on that one criteria. Christ’s message to us could be summed up in the words He told to Martha in John 11:40 “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God!” It’s no wonder Hebrews 11:6 teaches, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”
One passage in the gospels that speaks of the need of having greater faith is Matthew 17. The passage also works to expose and correct little or weak faith. If you sense weakness of faith in your own life, or if you want to grow in faith, this passage teaches you practical lessons about weak faith and how to grow stronger in faith.
The first lesson is how to spot weak faith from v.14-16. If you back up in the passage to v. 9 the readers are informed that the 3 disciples and Jesus had just come down the mountain to join the others. By 14 they have found them, but a situation has arisen that needs immediate attention. As they approach, there is a crowd, and out from the crowd came running a father who had a demon possessed son. The man looked desperate. We can only imagine the pain this man felt. Luke 9:38 informs us that this was the man’s only son. So he came begging for mercy, and he fell on his knees before Jesus saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son …” He recognized Jesus to be the one in authority over demons and he begged for help. He demanded nothing from Christ, nor was he presumptuous about what he could claim. Rather he was lowly and humble desiring to receive anything Jesus would be willing to give.
We should take time to understand how grave his situation was. V. 15 states that his son was crazy! Literally the text states that he was struck by the moon, i.e. a lunatic. He clearly wasn’t in his right mind. The Gospel of Mark adds that he was dumb, that is, unable to speak. This boy was also very ill! He would foam at the mouth and grit his teeth. He would stiffen up and then have severe convulsions. The description fits Epilepsy, but in this instance it is associated with demon possession. Mark says the demon attempted to kill the boy by throwing him in the fire or water. Open fire pits for cooking and for heat were very common in Israel as were open bodies of water and wells. So the danger of sudden death was real, and this father knew it. The poor kid must have had scars all over him. How could this dad ever know when a seizure would come next? He must have been exhausted and frightened having to constantly care for his boy.
Therefore, next the father says in v. 16 “I brought him to your disciples and they couldn’t cure him.” There’s the twist to this narrative. Jesus’ disciples never had a problem casting out demons before, not since they were given power to cast out demons way back in 10:6-8. They obviously tried to heal him! They did the routine they had always done! They had invoked the Lord’s name, commanded the demon to leave, and waited for him to leave. But this time the demon wasn’t going anywhere! The boy was still in the same pathetic condition. They probably even repeated the process to make sure they had not messed things up. But the demon was stubborn! They were impotent before this demon.
As a side, but important note … often so-called “Faith Healers” today explain failed healings by putting the burden on the sick person for not believing enough. Here, however, the responsibility is put on the ones doing the healing. Here the failure belongs to the healers not the man or the boy coming for the healing. Indeed the failure of the disciples will become a constant theme in Matthew. That’s part of the training of disciples! They have to know their weaknesses so they will learn to rely more on God and grow in faith.
So how do you spot weakness of faith? It’s simple: By failure to do the will of God. God commands something to get done, and His people do not get it done. We are told God’s resources are available to use, but we do not appropriate His power and resources. That’s weakness of faith!!! God commanded Gideon to attack and drive out the Midianites. At first he did not think that was a good idea! He didn’t want to act. Weakness of faith! God told Moses go down to Egypt and deliver “My people.” At first Moses said, “I am slow of speech; send Aaron my brother. Weakness of faith! God told Sarah, “You will have a baby in your old age one year from now.” At first Sarah laughed. Weakness of faith! And here the disciples could not cure this man’s son. This is also weakness of faith.
Lesson #2, What God Thinks of Weak Faith v. 17-18. Jesus expressed some agitation in these verses. His answer in 17 was to the father, but you can immediately tell that His words were also directed beyond the father. He was disappointed at His disciples lack of faith also. And beyond them, Jesus was speaking to the whole generation of unbelieving Jews He had to live among during His stay upon earth. He came down off the mountain rejoicing in His glorious communing with the Father on the Mount of Transfiguration (read chapter 17:1f). The feeling of glory was all over Him. And the first thing He faced was this! Pathetic weakness of faith in God and His power! So with a sigh and some degree of anger, He called His generation “unbelieving and perverted.” Though He had just descended the mountain, the atmosphere of rank unbelief in society made training disciples in faith seem like an uphill battle.
Then Jesus with this sigh asked two questions: How long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? “Put up” is the verb anecō that means “to bear up with; to endure.” From these words we get a glimpse into how it must have felt for a spiritual giant like Christ to dwell among spiritual pigmies. It was trying and painful to live among such a generation. It dragged at the soul. This is a rarity, to see Jesus so vexed in spirit and express it so openly. These two questions express the weight Jesus had to carry in trying to train leadership for his church among those who could not even take baby steps of faith.
Does God really react so negatively to our weak faith? We see this same reaction in God among the people of Israel in the Old Testament. In Numbers 14:11 they had just been guided to the edge of the promised land, told it was a good land, told the Lord would fight for them, witnessed so many miracles in the wilderness, but rather than trusting God and going in, they balked. They didn’t believe God would do it. So, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?” That’s what Jesus was thinking in our passage also. Psalm 95:10 expresses God’s thoughts, “For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart, And they do not know My ways.” God loathes our not trusting Him. God is so patient! He puts up with so much of our folly!
Next Jesus simply ordered, Bring him to me.” At this point Mark tells us that Jesus had a conversation with the father, Mark 9:19-27. This man too had smallness of faith! Weak faith believes some. It believes a little, but it recognizes there is much inside that is still unbelieving. So Jesus directly asked him: Do you believe in me and what I can do? Yes or no? And all he could muster out was Yes, but help my unbelief. Then in mercy Jesus rebuked the demon. The Pulpit Commentary points out, “In spite of his grief and disappointment, (Jesus) does not withhold relief,– in the midst of wrath he remembers mercy.”
Next the demon tried to make a show of power. it shrieked and made the boy go into terrible convulsions and caused a scene. But it came out anyway. Jesus’ power worked instantly with but a word. However the boy looked dead; he was motionless. So Jesus grabbed him and raised him up. And the question that is not asked but implied here anyway by Jesus is: Why did you ever doubt my power and my care for you?
Lesson #3, Why Greater Faith is Needed 19-21 The disciples’ question came privately later in a house Mark tells us. Some degree of embarrassment, no doubt, was felt by them. They also had perplexity. They knew they could not cast it out. They just did not know why. The answer Jesus gave was both pointed and instructive, “Because of the littleness of your faith.” It is not that they had no faith, but they had only little faith. Their little faith had been enough with every demon they had encountered so far, but their littleness of faith for this one did not cut it. This demon exposed their weakness. Mark points out that more prayer was needed.
Why would prayer be necessary? Jesus explained, “This kind” (meaning this particular kind of demon) only comes out with prayer.” This was a particularly difficult demon to dislodge. Jesus was teaching that because of the littleness of your confidence in God the demon did not feel obliged to come out. They needed more faith, and that faith was to be expressed in believing dependent prayer to God. James 5:16 promises, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Jesus took that moment to teach them on the value of faith in prayer. “For truly I say to you if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move.”
Now a point of clarification … Jesus seemed to contradict himself here, because he just finished saying essentially that they failed because their faith was little. Now He turns around and states that with the tiniest faith, the faith of a mustard seed, you can accomplish grand things like moving mountains. This is not a contradiction. As sad as this may sound, the disciples had smaller faith than even that of the mustard seed! The mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds in the garden. (not in the world; the garden is what is in mind.) But the disciples in this one instance were much more filled with doubt then belief. For if they even had just a little, it could have latched onto the power of God, and the demon would have left.
That tells us something very important: The faith itself then is not the most important thing. What is important is what the faith latches onto – God’s power. God’s power can move mountains. That’s why you only need a little faith for God to move the mountains in your life. Jesus was not talking so much about moving a literal mountain. (We have no need to move literal mountains.) Jesus did not even move mountains. The Apostles never did either. That would be a grand miracle but pointless. God does not just throw his power around and make a big splash in the ocean. Moving mountains was proverbial for overcoming great difficulties. He was talking about mountain sized difficulties like that boy who had multiple problems. God wants our faith to grow, but He is so gracious by even taking the little we have and working with it.
We should aim to grow in our faith in God and His power. Acts 16:5 teaches that you can be strengthened in the faith. Romans 4:20 tells us that Abraham grew strong in faith through the years. That can happen to you too. 2 Thessalonians 1:3 says, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater;” 2 Corinthians 8:7 speaks of abounding in faith. Acts 6:5 tells us Stephen was a man full of faith. Even Christian ministers are to join God in that work and labor to strengthen and mature the faith of the saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:10 Paul wrote that he wanted to complete what was lacking in their faith. In 1 Timothy 4:6 Paul urged Timothy – a pastor, “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.” Titus had a difficult assignment to minister to the believers on Crete who were undisciplined and unruly. He wrote to him in Titus 1:13 “reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith.” We need to be strengthened in faith, nourished on the words of faith, so we can be strong in faith, sound in faith, abounding in faith, and full of faith
How much will God’s power do if we are willing to believe Him? Well look how Jesus concludes this faith pep rally! “And nothing will be impossible to you!!” Nothing! This sounds like what the angel told Mary in Luke 1:37 when she was told she would be pregnant without knowing a man, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Nothing is impossible to those who desire the will of God. Jesus is not teaching you that faith makes you omnipotent with a free will. Rather faith connects you to God’s power to do God’s work and God’s will, not your own. Faith is not the power operating independently of God. Such is a blasphemous idea! It is the height of arrogance for anyone to think they can command God. That is the worst kind of false religion. Faith is believing God to work His will in and through your life. Paul worded it like this in Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
So it is not the greatness of the obstacle that is the problem. It is not the strength of the bad habit that is the problem. It is not the size of the financial difficulties that is the problem. It is not the stubbornness of the people that is the problem.The problem is with us! The problem is our smallness of faith! Why? Because there is a God who has promised to work in us, but he demands to be believed. When He is believed, and when He is submitted to, He does great things!