The author of the book of Hebrews says that, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” This bothers a lot of Christians – because we worry that we can never measure up to the type of faith that Jesus and Paul and other people in the Bible demonstrated. But did Jesus’ disciples really have any more faith than the average Christian today – at least in the three years that they followed Him on earth? I don’t think so. In fact, the disciples were constantly reminded of this by Jesus.
- Remember the instance when Jesus told His disciples to get into a boat with Him, and cross the Sea of Galilee to minister on the other side. When a terrible storm came up, the disciples were so afraid they were going to die that they woke up Jesus. He commanded the weather to be calm, then told them they had little faith. Matthew 8
- Remember another time when Peter saw Jesus walking on the Sea, and enthusiastically got out of the boat to join Him, how he suddenly became afraid because of the high waves and cried out, “Lord, save me!” After Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, he said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matthew 14
- And remember the time Jesus starting talking in metaphorical terms about being cautious of accepting “the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” and His disciples erroneously thought He was criticizing them for not bringing bread to eat on their journey. Jesus said, “O you of little faith,” and reminded them how He had multiplied the loaves and the fishes; then He explained that He was warning them to beware of the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ doctrine.
I don’t think Jesus was deriding Peter or any of His disciples for their weakness in faith. Neither is God going to criticize us when we go through times of doubt and worry. I think Jesus, in these instances was just trying to encourage His followers to trust God more and to not be double minded. Double minded just means that we claim we trust Him, but then act like we don’t. He wasn’t angry with them, and He’s not going to be angry with us, as long as we’re trying to serve Him the best we know how.
When Jesus got angry, you knew it: He tipped over the tables of the vendors selling merchandise in the Temple and drove them out. He called the Pharisees and lawyers “a brood of vipers” who took advantage of the people. He told the Jewish leaders their father was the devil. He accused them of having the blood of the prophets on their heads. You knew when Jesus was angry.
No! Jesus wasn’t angry with His disciples for their “little faith.” And He’s not angry with you or me. He was teaching His future Church leaders a lesson that they would need when He wasn’t around to help them. It was for their own good – and it’s for our good today – to place our trust in God, and not in ourselves, in our abilities, in the government, or in anyone or anything else. And what’s more encouraging – He even indicated that it takes only a small amount of faith (as small as a mustard seed) to move the mountains in our lives and to do other important things for God.
Two of my favorite sections in the Bible are Luke 9 and Mark 9, because they demonstrate the love and the patience Jesus has for His imperfect followers – like me. Jesus was on His last trip toward Jerusalem, where, in a short time, He would be tortured and crucified. He had told His apostles this earlier, and they had decided to go with Him – they promised to either protect Him or die with Him.
Luke 9 begins with Jesus anointing His twelve apostles with the power and authority He had been given by His Father to preach and to heal the sick, then sending them out on a hands-on training mission.
Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. And He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece. “Whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And whoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them.”
The apostles didn’t have the baptism of the Holy Spirit available to them yet, like we do today. How do I know that? Because Jesus hadn’t died, and risen and ascended to heaven yet. So He hadn’t yet sent the Holy Spirit to dwell with them. But He had anointed His twelve apostles with power and authority – at least for the training mission that He was sending them on. And we read in the 6th verse: So they departed and went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. [I think it’s an interesting side-note that Judas Iscariot – who would later betray Jesus – was also in this group of new evangelists, preaching and ministering healing under Christ’s anointing.]
Jesus told these men to not take any money with them on their trip. We know they all had money – because they all had jobs, as fishermen, tax collectors, etc. – but they needed to learn to trust in God completely to provide for their needs. They needed their “little faith” to grow. I think that God would prefer that we all have complete trust in Him from the very first day we get saved to the day we receive our heavenly reward. It’s not His perfect will that any of us go through hard financial times. But sometimes, if we’re too self-absorbed, or if we put institutions above God when it comes to having our needs met, then I think He’ll sometimes let us hit bottom to get our attention.
We don’t know how long this training mission lasted for the apostles – a week, a month – but it was long enough for them (probably in groups of two) to go through several towns around Galilee and Judea, sharing the message and doctrines that Jesus had taught them over the previous three years, healing the sick and casting out demons. And when they returned they were excited to tell their stories of what God had done in the name of Jesus. And I’m sure Jesus critiqued them as He continued their formal training. Verse 10 says, And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done. Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida.
Now a number of interesting things happened over the next couple weeks.
In verses 11-17 we read how thousands of people suddenly showed up unexpectedly to listen to Jesus preach, bringing with them their sick friends and relatives to be healed. At the end of this meeting, Jesus first gave the apostles the opportunity to feed these people, before they headed back to their homes. But the apostles failed this new test of their faith – these men who had just been out healing the sick and casting out demons in the name of Jesus – didn’t know what to do with this many people. So Jesus ended up multiplying the five loaves and two fishes to feed the people. It probably disappointed Him – but He didn’t get angry with them.
Right after that, in verses 18 and 19 we read that Jesus again took His disciples aside and asked them: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Their answer was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the old prophets risen from the dead. Then He asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.” (verse 20) But shortly after this wonderful confession of Jesus as his Savior, Peter was then deceived by the devil into debating with Jesus that He would surely not have to suffer and be crucified. Jesus ended up responding, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Matthew 16:23 The leader of Jesus’ inner circle of friends demonstrated again his weak faith. Jesus knew that it was the devil influencing Peter’s words, and He commanded the enemy to leave Peter alone.
The third significant event that happened eight days later is described in verses 28-36. Jesus took Peter, James and John up a mountain and they were witness to His transfiguration to what He looks like as He sits on His heavenly throne today. As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him.
You would think that this last experience would give a surge to their level of faith, but the very next morning they failed another test. Luke describes this next incident in verses 37-42; but it’s also described in Mark 9 and Matthew 17. I prefer the more detailed version of this incident taken from Mark 9. Jesus had delayed a bit coming down from the mountain – probably spending the time praying to His Father, for He had a habit of early morning prayer – a benefit His disciples had yet to learn.
14 And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. 15 Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. 16 And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?”
[Jesus directed His question to the Jewish leaders who were causing all the commotion – but a frantic parent of a sick child responded to Him.] 17 Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. 18 And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” [Matthew 17 says that the boy was epileptic.]
19 He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. 21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.
[And this is the part I like most – and I often quote it to remind a person who is going through difficult times in their life – who may have doubts about whether they or their loved one will ever be healed, or set free, or saved, or whatever the need is. The father pleads with Jesus:] But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe – all things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
If we are honest, this is what most of us feel when we are in the middle of a trial – whether it’s a financial hardship, a medical emergency, or a marital or parental difficulty – we hopefully know God’s promise that addresses the situation we’re going through – but we wonder, do I really believe and trust God to move on my behalf and that of my loved one? “Lord, help my unbelief – remove all doubt that lingers!” That’s the time that we need to simply believe that “It only takes a little faith,” that faith the size of a mustard seed. And when we merge our little faith with the little faith of other believers who stand in agreement with us, it is multiplied many times over. Then we’ll see what the boy’s parent saw:
25 When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” 26 Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.
The Bible says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This episode should give each one of us great hope, even when our faith is little.
The apostles then go to Jesus privately and ask Him why they couldn’t cast the spirit out? Matthew’s Gospel gives a more expanded discussion of Jesus’ explanation:
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as 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. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Matthew 17:19-21
I believe that what Jesus was saying is that when you are in the midst of unbelief and doubt, (as the apostles were that day, especially surrounded by the Jewish leaders who were only there to cause an interference) it’s much harder to minister – and it may cause you to question your own power and authority over the evil that is attacking the person you’re ministering to. Prayer and fasting makes you more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s voice, so you know how to overcome the other distractions around you. There are even situations where Jesus and His followers found it necessary to remove the distraction before they ministered healing and deliverance. Consider the two examples below.
In Matthew 9 we read how Jesus was asked by a grieving parent to raise their little girl who had gotten sick and died. But Jesus wouldn’t even enter the man’s house until the people who were ridiculing Him were made to leave. Then he took her by the hand, and the girl arose.
And we read in the 13th chapter of the Book of Acts, how Paul and his friends went to the island of Paphos to minister to the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. But a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus or Elymas tried to interfere and sought to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Paul caused the evil man to be temporarily blinded, and he left the scene with the help of someone to guide him away. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.
Jesus used every one of these situations in which His followers made mistakes to teach them a new lesson. So right after the apostle’s latest “failure,” of not being able to heal the man’s son, Jesus continued His on-the-job training. Jesus is never discouraged by our mistakes and weaknesses – neither should we be. All He asks is that we keep trying to do better. Whenever we fall, we need to get back on the horse as the saying goes. All we need is a little faith to please God. God will provide everything else.