Mountain Moving Faith
When they came to the crowd, a man came to Jesus, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell 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 for you.”
There are two other passages (in Matthew 21 and Mark 11) where Jesus talks about speaking to mountains and making them move, and they both relate to the incident of the fig tree that withered after Jesus cursed it. Those two passages about the fig tree are referring directly to Israel’s spiritual condition of fruitlessness (see Hosea 9:10) and have a quite different context to the passage here in Matthew 17 where the immediate context is still Israel itself.
In the passage that we just read, the Greek word translated as ‘faithless’ (apistos) indicated that the current generation of Israel back then had not as a whole placed their faith in Jesus himself as the anticipated Messiah. Furthermore, the Greek word translated as ‘perverse’ indicated that that current generation of Israel had become distorted in their view of Jesus because of their own unwillingness to repent and also because they were under pressure from their religious leaders.
Mark 9:14-28 has a parallel passage to Matthew’s account of this father and his epileptic son. In Jewish literature, moving a mountain was proverbial for doing what was virtually impossible (see Isaiah 40:4; 49:11 and 54:10). The specific context here in this passage in Matthew 17 is the direct presence and work of the enemy in people and in their lives. This really was no surprise since, in Jesus’ day, the demonic was completely out in the open and common place, and demonic manifestation would not have surprised anyone. Consider:
- There was Simon the magician who amazed people by the things that he did (Acts 8).
- Jesus sent out the seventy-two who returned with news of overcoming demons (Luke 10).
- Others had ministries in casting out demons (Mark 9 and Luke 9).
In our Greek influenced logic-based society of today the demonic hides. The unclean spirits hide so successfully today that huge numbers of Christians don’t even accept that they exist, let alone that they affect human beings.
Mark’s parallel passage tells us that this incident in Matthew took place in the context of a heated argument between the disciples, the scribes and some people in the crowd. Jesus, along with Peter, James and John had come down off the mountain to find this argument raging. It is very important to realize that the man in this story had come looking for help from Jesus and found his disciples. We cannot impose our help on anyone.
The disciples’ apparent inability to help the man’s epileptic son had quickly turned into a theological argument. Theological arguments block the flow of grace. When grace is blocked, acts of kindness are blocked, too. When grace is blocked and acts of kindness are blocked, Jesus is blocked, too.
When Jesus spoke of his disciples as having ‘little faith’, he was not referring to the amount of faith that they had (or not), but rather that whatever faith that they did have was not functioning – it was not working. In Jesus’ reply about faith as small as a mustard seed, Jesus is not speaking about the amount of faith that the disciples had (or did not have) but to the fact that the disciples’ faith was inactive – it was inert, ineffective and so it did not find any outward expression. An inactive faith does not take any risks that might cause that faith to be disappointed. An inactive faith does not do acts of kindness. An inactive faith has become a self-preservation society.
The disciples were either relying on a formula to cast the demon out, or they were trying to show off to the people; perhaps it was both. Faith that is inactive is about what we have, rather than about what we use. Inactive faith is about having, rather than about using. Furthermore, the faith that Jesus was referring to was faith in Jesus himself – it was personal faith in the person of Jesus. It was not faith in a formula, or in an arrangement of words, or in religious gestures. So, I make these statements:
- Active faith looks to Jesus; inactive faith looks to formulae, liturgy and gesture.
- Active faith listens to Jesus; inactive faith goes through the motions and plays it safe.
- Active faith means to be focused on Jesus himself – for it is about faith in him and in him alone.
- The specific context here in which Jesus spoke of faith moving mountains is the presence and work of the enemy in people.
There is absolutely no scriptural foundation whatsoever for saying that we can simply speak to every single mountain in our own personal lives and that they will then be removed. Yet that kind of teaching has been very common in Christian circles over the last fifty years. Such incorrect teaching causes great disappointment when the personal mountains do not move. Great disappointment causes faith to become inactive.
When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Jesus was clearly saying that the focus of his ministry was in undoing the work of the evil one. The kind of teaching that says that we can speak to every mountain in our lives and that they will then disappear is a teaching that totally denies personal responsibility. Jesus spoke about (the specific) mountain being moved – not removed. He spoke of relocation – not removal.