And the apostles said unto the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
And the Lord said, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say unto this sycamine tree, ‘Be thou rooted up, and be thou planted in the sea;’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5-6).
The natural world provided Jesus with plenty of examples to help explain spiritual truths. He found great value in the illustration of the mustard seed and its growth pattern. Mustard seeds start out very small– about four millimeters in diameter– but they grow into a shrub-like plant, far larger than similar herbs. We have seen how Jesus described the growth of His Kingdom in terms of the mustard seed (cf. Mark 4:30-32). Let us now see how Jesus uses the mustard seed to describe our faith in Luke 17:6.
Jesus, in Luke 17:3-4, tells His disciples that they are to forgive their brother who sins against them every time. This was no easier for the apostles to swallow than it is for us. They felt that their faith was insufficient to accomplish that type of obligation; therefore, they asked Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5). Jesus’ illustration of the mustard seed is His response to this request.
We can certainly sympathize with the desire of the apostles. How nice it would be to have faith granted to us! How much simpler our task would be if God automatically provided us with the level of trust and devotion to Him necessary to accomplish His great work in His Kingdom! Alas, despite the views of many in the religious world, this is not the case. God does not dispense faith like a vending machine dispenses a candy bar. Faith is the expected response when we recognize who God is and how worthy He is of our trust (Romans 1:17, 5:1-2, Hebrews 11:1-40). Yes, it is easier for some to have faith than others; different people have different proportions of faith (cf. Romans 12:3, 6). But faith is not automatic, and as Jesus is indicating, it is not something that can just be granted.
It is easy to focus on the smallness of the mustard seed and therefore perhaps get the indication that Jesus could be talking about having a small measure of faith. That is quite unlikely. When Jesus describes the apostles as needing to have “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” He is speaking about how that faith starts– not how it continues or ends.
Our faith in God starts small. When we first come to God, we recognize that we are sinful and in need of redemption (cf. Romans 5:1-11), and trust that God will deliver us. But, at the beginning, that’s about it– we still trust in ourselves and rely on our own strengths to get through the difficulties of life.
If our faith stayed as the “grain of mustard seed,” it would not be worth much of anything. “Stillborn” faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23, James 2:14-26). Instead, just as a grain of mustard seed must take root and then grow to its expected size, so our faith must take root in our lives and then grow to overtake us completely!
Jesus has made this clear in plenty of images, including the parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15) and the parable of the minas (Luke 19:12-27). We are commanded to grow in our faith (Hebrews 5:12-6:4, 2 Peter 3:18). Our faith may start small, but through growth, be it learning more of God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15), trials and tests (1 Peter 1:6-9), and through other experiences, it can grow until we can say, with Paul, that we have been crucified with Christ, and that it is no longer ourselves who live, but Christ in us (Galatians 2:20).
When our faith is in God and not in ourselves, God is able to accomplish great things through our service (1 Corinthians 3:4-8). We know that no tree can be uprooted physically and then planted in the sea, and so does Jesus. But Jesus also knows that what is impossible with men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).
Jesus makes it evident that faith is not something that you can just obtain in some miraculous or providential manner. Faith must first be a decision and then a growth process. The Apostles themselves experienced this: they recognized, based on what they could perceive, that Jesus was the promised Christ (cf. Luke 9:20), and they followed Him throughout His ministry. He then granted them the baptism of the Spirit and they began doing great things for God’s Kingdom as recorded in the book of Acts. They could not have just been granted faith. They had to walk with Jesus. They had to feel the shame of abandoning Him during His darkest hour (cf. Mark 14:27-50). They had to learn to trust God even though none of it made sense anymore after Jesus was killed, and then they had to experience the joy and exultation at His resurrection.
So it is with us. We can only become vessels of God’s power through us when we learn to let go of our ideas, our expectations, and ourselves, and allow our trust in God to overtake our lives. Let us learn from the mustard seed and allow faith to spring to life within us!
Ethan R. Longhenry