When looking at the cornerstones of the Christian life, some tenets include prayer and worship, but the key one is faith. Putting our trust in God, that He will take care of the future, provide for needs, and provide for salvation. Jesus spoke about the power of faith several times in His teachings and used multiple metaphors to explain what faith is and how important it is.
One of the most powerful is that faith can be like a mustard seed. Jesus said to those struggling with belief, “Because of the littleness of your faith; 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; and nothing will be impossible to you” (Matthew 17:20).
God wants to work with His people, but will not force them to become instruments of His will like puppets; instead He works through them based on their faith, challenging believers to a deeper relationship with Him.
What Does It Mean to Have Faith of a Mustard Seed?
The mustard seed would have been a common enough plant in that culture; they would be able to picture it without reference. Classified as an evergreen, the Salvadora perisica can grow to twenty feet wide and tall. They can thrive in environments typically hostile to plants. Their seeds are very small, but they grow large.
The mustard seed in Jesus’ example symbolizes the potential in faith. When a believer begins their journey, they have just begun to learn about how much God loves them, how much He wants to do for them, and all that He has for them. God wants to work with these believers to bring others to Himself, and to build His kingdom; “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). By following God’s plan, Christians will do great things for Him, even with the small faith they have at the beginning of their walk.
Of course, the truth about a seed is that it does not remain a seed. It eventually germinates, where the seedling breaks out of the shell, and grows into a full-sized plant. Mustard trees are huge, despite the size of their seeds. Faith cannot remain static or the same in order to have a deeper relationship with the Lord. The things people will do for God, and their courage they do it with, is correlated with the amount of faith present. If someone has faith that God saved their sins, but that God cannot heal an illness, they have a smaller amount of faith than someone who does. The courage to share faith in dangerous settings, or to be martyred for it takes a lot of faith. James even wrote, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26b). Faith must grow, and be tested, and be acted upon with good deeds and evangelism.
What Is the Context of Matthew 17:20?
The mustard seed comparison appears several times in the Gospels, usually as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. In this instance in Matthew 17, however, the Lord uses it to discuss faith with his disciples.
A man had a son possessed by a demon that gave the child seizures, forcing him to often fall into water and fire. Jesus’ disciples tried and failed to exorcise the demon, but He succeeded with one rebuke. When the disciples asked why they failed, Jesus uses the mustard seed analogy to explain: “Because of your little faith. For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed ... nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). Jesus wanted to highlight that it does not take much faith for God to work in a person, but the disciples needed to believe.
It can be inferred they were trying to exorcise the demon because the father asked, and because they saw Jesus do it, but lacked the faith in God to actually expel it. This trait in believers is not just true of the disciples back then, but through the centuries. It is easy to believe that Jesus could do great things, but difficult to believe He can use us to do even small things.
Does It Matter How Much or Little Faith We Have?
If Jesus is saying faith as small as a mustard seed is all it takes, then is that all that’s needed? Can one have just a little faith?
Putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ is an important step. In the same chapter where Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed, the people in his hometown reject Him, and lacked faith. The Bible says, “And [Jesus] did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). It was not just in Nazareth where Jesus would not work great miracles because of a lack of faith. He declared, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works one in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21).
In Mark 8:22-26, an account of Jesus healing a blind man in Bethsaida recounts that Jesus took the blind man out of the town before He healed him, and ordered the man, “Do not even enter the village” (Mark 8:26b). The people of Nazareth, Chorazin, and Bethsaida had so little faith that nothing Jesus could have done would have led them to repent. There are still people like that today.
The level of faith one has can also impact how God can bless individual Christians. In the Book of James, the writer stated, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You cover and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Believers in James’ time were fighting amongst one another because they lacked, but they did not have the faith to go to God and ask. This statement does not mean that one can have anything, or that ‘name it and claim it’ philosophy is true, but that it is important to rely on God, and ask Him for the things needed.
Without faith, the Christian life is inhibited, and lacking the fullness that God wants to bestow upon those who love Him.
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What Does This Verse Mean for Us Today?
The importance of faith is as crucial today as it was when Christ walked the earth 2,000 years ago. Jesus gave a commission to His followers as He ascended into Heaven, a command to follow until He returns, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Once the seed of faith has been planted in someone’s heart and they are saved, the next steps of faith are to learn more about this new relationship, and obey this commission.
Faith can be difficult, which is why it seems that in some moments in life it can be easy to have great faith, but at others, almost none. When pursuing a relationship with God, growing that faith regularly can empower the believer to know their Savior better, and obey Him fully.
A Mustard Seed Faith Prayer
Father, thank You for loving us in spite of how messed up we are – for the grace of mustard seed faith and for the promise of answered prayer. Help us understand that every answer to our prayers is filtered from Your heart of love, even when it doesn’t look like what we think it should. Fill those pockets of unbelief in our prayer lives with mustard seed faith. And Lord, when we struggle to believe You, please help our unbelief. Amen - Stephanie Shott
A Prayer to Increase Faith
Thank you that nothing is impossible in my life as I trust you in every area. Give me wisdom in all these difficult things facing me today. Give me the faith to be able to trust again, to forgive, to care, to love all those who have caused me pain. Give me the faith that I need to keep doing the right thing at work and at home. Give me the faith to be able to keep on trusting You for all the hard spots in my heart, home and work. I’m giving You all the worries and concerns facing me today and trusting You to do the impossible Lord. Increase my faith, today Lord, I pray. Amen. - Tiffany Thibault
Balfour, John Hutton. The Plants of the Bible Trees and Shrubs. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1857.
Frost, John. Remarks on the Mustard Tree Mentioned in the New Testament. London: Henry Fisher, Son, and Co., 1827.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.
Wright, Tom. Small Faith, Great God. e-book, 2012.
Photo credit: ©SparrowStock
Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy-to-read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. We hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in your life today.
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