Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.’ (Matthew 21:21)
Most everyone has heard the phrase, “faith like a mustard seed,” referring to the Bible verse above, quoting the words of Jesus. Non-believers have probably also considered it yet another proof that the Bible is full of errors. But for those of us who have studied the Bible as a whole, it’s a wonderful verse with which holds a very special promise.
Why a Mustard Seed?
It all starts with the disciples wondering at the ability of Jesus to make a fig tree wither and die in seconds. The men were astounded at this, and asked Jesus how he did it. His reply also features a plant.
The plant Jesus called “mustard” was actually not the smallest seed known to his listeners of that day, but it was certainly tiny, and created a stunning visual. Though it was extremely small, the mustard seed yielded a huge plant which often reached the height of eight to ten feet. Jesus possibly used the word because in that time Jewish people often referred to mustard seeds when they wanted to denote small size.
The Impact of the Story
Throughout the New Testament we read examples of Jesus’ story-telling abilities. He was a master of capturing and holding peoples’ attention, and this story is no exception. Since one of the most common means of teaching in that day was exaggeration, Jesus frequently used it to make his point. This is a prime example of that teaching style.
Beginning with a tiny seed, he helps his followers understand the reality of faith. Since Jewish leaders of the day would single out the best and most learned teachers among them by calling them “a remover of mountains,” Jesus was also using a term very familiar to his listeners. They understood the mountain to be a difficult situation or a hard teaching.
Thus, Jesus is using the same expression which Jewish leaders used to praise the education and virtues of their men, but changing it to a symbol of the power of faith: it can do “all things.” (Mark 9:23)
What Jesus is really saying
You have probably heard the phrase, “a little faith can go a long way.” That’s what Jesus is telling his followers – and us – in this verse. The disciples had discussed faith with Jesus, and even asked him to increase their faith. In response Jesus tells them it’s not the amount of faith a person has, but rather the quality of your faith that is important.
Throughout the New Testament we can read stories of Jesus healing people because of their faith. Mark 9: 21-26 tells one such story. A man brought his son, who was possessed by a demon, to Jesus for healing. Jesus complied, telling everyone it happened because of the man’s faith.
Though this father’s faith was small, it was enough to release God’s healing power. In fact, the man asked Jesus to help his unbelief! Still, that little kernel of faith was enough for God to “do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine…” (Ephesians 3:20)
But you need faith IN something for it to work.
Faith alone is not enough to do amazing things. After all, we all have a measure of faith. We go through red lights with the faith that drivers on the cross road will stop. We sit in a chair with the faith that it will hold us. The faith that Jesus speaks of here is more – it is faith IN him and his power.
The object of our faith, as expressed in Mark, should be God. It is a sure that God will enable you to do whatever it is you are asking him to do. Mark is speaking about faith in the power of God. It is trusting that God is able to act supernaturally, above anything any man could do.
How much faith is enough? As I mentioned before, it’s the quality of your faith, not the quantity, that matters. Jesus notes that there must be no hesitation in your mind – no thinking through how the thing could possibly happen, for this faith to work.
If you are focusing on the difficulties involved, God is not honored and you will fail. If you act as one fully persuaded that you will be successful, then God delights in showing how he works!
Why was this story recorded?
First of all, judging from the context of this passage, I believe Jesus was preparing his disciples for his imminent death. He had warned them over and over that he must die to succeed in his earthly mission. But they were still thinking he would take over the leadership of Israel as they believed Messiah was destined to do. Jesus wanted them to be able to manage without him!
I don’t think it means that Jesus’ disciples would wither trees or move physical mountains. He wants them to understand that, if they have faith, they will be able not only to do lesser miracles like withering the tree, but also to do things much more difficult and surprising as they built the church and spread the Gospel.
Today believers face many “mountains” in life – things that seem impossible to overcome and get past. Jesus’ words, recorded for us thousands of years ago, encourage us that the same power which raised him from the dead is alive and at work in us!