When we consider God’s answer to our prayers, there is one statement that was made by Jesus that is almost always misunderstood. In order to correct this misunderstanding, we must first remember that Jesus, in His earthly ministry, ministered to the Jews in order to bring their thinking to the fact that He was the fulfillment of all prophecy in reference to the Messiah. But not only did He fulfill the prophecies, He was also the suffering Servant about whom Isaiah prophesied.
The initial disciples of Jesus were Jews. His immediate audience was made up of Jews who knew well their Old Testament prophets, though they had difficulty connecting the dots between Jesus and the prophecies of the Messiah. Nevertheless, in His private teaching of His twelve apostles there was one figure of speech that the Jews understood well because of their past history of survival:
“For truly I say to you, if you [apostles] have faith the size of a mustard seed, you [apostles] will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. And nothing will be impossible to you [apostles]” (Mt 17:20; see Mt 21:21; Mk 11:23).
This statement was made on the occasion when the disciples’ were not able to cast out a particular demon. Because they could not cast out the demon, they came to Jesus privately, after having been embarrassed by their inability to cast out the demon. They then asked Jesus why they could not cast out the demon. After Jesus chastised them for their “little faith,” He made the preceding statement in reference to “this mountain.” The common misunderstanding of this statement of Jesus is in reference to the “mountain.”
But Jesus was not finished with the preceding exhortation in reference to “mountains.” On another occasion, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it did not produce fruit. In answer to the disciples’ marvel about the withered fig tree, He made a similar statement that He had earlier made in reference to their inability to cast out the demon: “If you [apostles] have faith and do not doubt, you [apostles] will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you [apostles] will say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and cast into the sea,’ it will be done” (Mt 21:21).
The problem is not in understanding what Jesus said, but what He meant in both statements in reference to moving mountains. Some have unfortunately misunderstood what Jesus was personally saying to His apostles in reference to their faith. Some have concluded that He was referring to moving literal mountains of dirt and rocks if only they had enough faith. In other words, some assume that Jesus used a hyperbole (an exaggeration to emphasize a truth) in order to illustrate the power of faith. But if we were Jews who knew well the prophets’ use of the word “mountain,” then we would think differently.
Therefore, we question the interpretation that Jesus had in mind physical mountains of dirt and rocks. He was not using a hyperbole in reference to moving great mountains of dirt and rocks by a faith that was even as small as a mustard seed. The first indication that He did not have this in mind is in the fact that He made both statements to Jewish disciples. For this reason, we must understand what He was saying in reference to how His Jewish disciples understood the frequent use of the word “mountain” throughout the writings of the Old Testament.
The second reason we question the traditional interpretation of physically moving mountains of dirt and rocks to define one’s faith is in what Jesus said in reference to the inability of the disciples to cast out the demon. He said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed.” A mustard seed is not large, but small. Therefore, the reference is not to a strong faith, but a very small faith. Now consider this if Jesus used the hyperbole of moving mountains of dirt and rocks. For example, since we have no historical evidence that either Peter, James, Matthew or the other apostles literally moved any mountains of dirt and rocks, then we could suppose that their faith never grew to be at least the size of a mustard seed. But their faith did grow, and yet, we still have no evidence of them “moving mountains of dirt and rocks.”
In reference to a “mustard faith,” we need to consider the extent to which the apostles faith grew. On one occasion, the religious leaders beat the apostles, and then “commandment that they should not speak in the name of Jesus” (At 5:40). But the apostles left the presence of the Jewish council, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (At 5:41). Their faith had grown far beyond a mustard seed. It grew to the point that they could mentally move the mountains of the resistance of the religious leaders of the day.
We would suggest, therefore, that Jesus was not using a hyperbole. He was using the word “mountain” as a metaphor. His audience for centuries had used the word “mountain” as a metaphor in prophetic pronouncements. Even in the personal lives of the Old Testament Israelites, the word “mountain” was used as a metaphor as it is often used today.
[Next in series: Nov. 21]