A few days ago, I chatted with a person who described himself as a “former believer”. Eventually, he got around to asking why God didn’t heal amputees. And in doing so, he quoted Matthew 17:20:
“20 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.”
Then asked, “Why shouldn’t we expect an arm to grow back after an amputation? If you have enough faith . . .”
In response, I asked, “When you were a believer, is this how you interpreted this verse? And he said, “Yes. And the way my family and friends do too. If we pray for a miracle and it doesn’t happen, I am told it is because I lack faith.”
Ouch. Is this what we believe? No, I don’t think so. I hope not.
Friends, this is a problem. This verse by itself, from Jesus’ own mouth, seems to inform readers that they can perform actual miracles if only they have enough faith. Worse yet, any miracles unperformed serve to drag down the faithful, implying their faith is just not good enough. How would you deal with this reading of the text?
Context, Context, Context
The former believer, as many former believers do, took the Matthew verse out of context. The quote was said by Jesus to the disciples after they descended the mountain of the Transfiguration. They happened upon a possessed boy that the disciples tried to heal but could not. Jesus immediately healed the boy and then rebuked the disciples for either their substandard faith or as a lesson about the value of faith. Three times earlier in Matthew, Jesus mentions the disciples’ “little” faith. In 6:30, regarding the topic of worry. When Jesus calms the storm in 8:26, He calls attention to this faith issue. And in 14:31, Peter tries to walk on water and fails. It is clear from these examples that Jesus wants His disciples to be men of great faith. So He calls them out when they miss the mark.
So should we expect to literally “move mountains” with great faith? I won’t say that it won’t happen if God wants it too, but here Matthew 17:20 is not telling us that we will perform the miraculous, even though, in isolation from the rest of scripture, it seems to do just that. “Moving mountains” in this context (there’s that word again) means doing difficult things. It means doing the improbable. With the smallest faith we can do things God has equipped us to do that we could not do without Him.
How do we know that Jesus didn’t mean for us to be able to move literal mountains? Well, we can find support for this idea in Isaiah 54:10:
“‘Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,’
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.“
And in 1 Corinthians 13:2:
“2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
These word pictures were used by Jesus and the Apostle Paul metaphorically because Jewish people (like the disciples) who know their scripture would find the connection compelling or meaningful. And Jesus also may have used the image situationally, because He and the disciples just descended a mountain. Also, note that the Apostle Matthew is exclusively writing to a Jewish audience in his gospel. In neither of these instances are there any literal moving mountains.
Furthermore, in Matthew 10, Jesus gave the disciples authority to drive out evil spirits and heal every disease and sickness. So His rebuke stems from His equipping them to do a particular thing but their little faith causes them to fail.
So Matthew 17:20 doesn’t tell us that any amount of faith at all will heal amputees, in this instance, but we are able to do difficult things that God has equipped us to do with even the smallest (mustard seed-sized) faith. The miraculous only happens when the power of God is combined with the will of God. No amount of faith apart from this is sufficient.
We need to look at the whole of Scripture, gather more information, put the text in context, and avoid this cycle we see of people becoming frustrated or run down by incorrect expectations and leaving the faith.
All Scripture is in NIV.