Question: If faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, why has there never been anyone who could do anything super human? Why would Jesus mention it if it’s not possible for humans?
Answer: The first thing that needs to be considered is the bible’s use of literary techniques. The bible is first and foremost God’s revealed word; we want to be clear on this point. The writer of Hebrews says that “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Now while the bible is God’s revealed word, it is revealed to us by way of language. God condescended – he lowered himself – to speak to us in ways in which we would understand. Consider a father trying to communicate with his young child. The father has to condescend in order to be understood by the limited intellect and understanding of the child. This is analogous (though not identical) to the way in which God speaks with us.
Now even a cursory reading of the bible will reveal that it employs many forms, or genres, of literature. There is historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic writing, and epistolary literature (to name a few). Among these various literary genres, several literary techniques are used. For example, there is metaphor, simile, imagery, allusion, irony, personification, paradox, and hyperbole. As readers of the bible, we must be aware when any of these techniques are being used so we can properly interpret the meaning of the original author. For example, in John 10:7, Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep.” How are we to interpret this verse? If we’re being too literal, then when Jesus says “He’s the door,” we might start looking for a doorknob hidden somewhere on his body. However, if we understand this to be a metaphor, then we can begin to understand his meaning (Jesus is the way of access much like a door is the way of access into a room).
Another thing to consider in biblical interpretation is the context of the passage. Someone once said that the three most important rules for proper biblical interpretation are “context, context, and context.” More often that not, when we take a single verse out of its native context, we end up misinterpreting the verse. This is a common mistake with people who like to “proof text” their theological positions. Someone comes up with a novel way to think theologically, and then searches the Scriptures to find biblical support for their view. Not that proof texting is inherently wrong, but it can devolve into the above scenario if we’re not careful to consider the context of the verse we’re citing.
So when we get to a passage such as Matthew 17:20 and Jesus says, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you,” we first look at the overall context of the passage – what is the setting for this statement of Jesus’? Jesus, along with Peter, James and John, had just come down from the mount of transfiguration, and they encounter a man with a demon possessed child. The man tells Jesus that he brought his son to his disciples, but they couldn’t cast the demon out (recall that Jesus earlier in Matthew 10:1 gave his disciples the authority to cast out evil spirits). Jesus then chastises the crowd for their lack of faith and then casts the demon out of the boy. When his disciples inquire as to why the demon didn’t obey their command, Jesus replies with the statement in Matthew 17:20.
So there is the context. Jesus rebukes them for their weak faith and says that even if they had mustard seed sized faith, they could command the mountain to move. Contextually speaking, to what does the “mountain” refer in this passage? The mountain must refer to the demon that was afflicting the man’s son. Jesus tells his disciples that if their faith was stronger, they could have commanded the demon to leave the boy, and it would be so. This was clearly the case in Matthew 10 when Jesus sent them out to cure diseases, cast out demons and spread the gospel. Therefore, it should be clear from the context that Jesus does not intend to assert that mustard seed sized faith can literally move mountains. If you consult commentaries on this passage, you will learn that the expression Jesus uses was a common colloquialism of that day; to a Jew of Jesus’ day, a mountain is a metaphor signifying a seemingly impossible task.
Faith that can move mountains is not meant to imply a faith that can literally move literal mountains. The point Jesus was making is that even a little bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – can overcome mountainous obstacles in our lives.