Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 17:20

On mountain removalists:

In a recent piece, also a part of this series on difficult Bible passages, I mentioned that not everything Jesus said was meant to be taken literally. Sometimes he was using figures of speech, including things like hyperbole. The passages in which he says we should pull out an eye or lop off a hand would be a case in point. See that article here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/02/04/difficult-bible-passages-matthew-529-30/

It would seem that the passage I am considering here would be another example of this. Let me offer the text in its context (Matthew 17:14-20):

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Once again, are we to take the words of Jesus literally here? Should we all be heading off to the nearest mountain range – or even a big hill – and start praying like mad, hoping we have enough faith to pull this off? Well, a few things can be said about all this.

Firstly, the truth is, we do not have one mention in the Bible of the Patriarchs, Moses, the prophets, Jesus, the disciples, or anyone else ever moving a mountain. Nor do we find any such incidents recorded in 2000 years of church history. While arguing from silence can be unhelpful at times, it would seem the complete lack of this sort of thing ever happening (as far as we know of) would be one indication that Jesus was using hyperbole here to make a point.

Secondly, I must state the obvious. I of course am not trying to downplay faith. We all can use a whole lot more faith – no question about it. But some believers, including those in the Word of Faith camp, and the Name It Claim It churches, will insist that if we just have enough faith, we can do basically ANYthing – including anything we want.

I have written plenty of articles before on how these groups and movements can radically distort the Word of God, including their understanding of the nature of biblical faith. As I and others have said often enough, the key here is not our great faith in God, but our faith in a great God.

Trying to rev up a lot of faith in order to do whatever we want is not the biblical message. Indeed, everything we ask for in prayer and faith must always be according to the will of God. So we have to look at all of Scripture here, otherwise we will end up turning things like prayer and faith into acts of magic.

And we must bear in mind that sometimes at least in the gospels a miraculous event would occur, but no one seemed to be exercising any faith about it. How much faith did Lazarus have for example? Not much I would assume, given that he was dead at the time when Jesus resurrected him! See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/11/06/faith-or-presumption-prayer-or-magic/

In that article I spoke of Mark 6:1-6 in which we read how Jesus could not do many miracles in Nazareth because of the people’s unbelief. But I quoted from Pentecostal scholar Keith Warrington and his important 2015 volume, The Miracles in the Gospels:

Some have understood this passage to imply that Jesus needed an expression of faith on the part of those present in order to activate his healing power, and that lack of faith disabled him. . . . However, such a notion is nowhere articulated in the Gospels; indeed, on occasion Jesus restored people in the absence of even a request for healing (Matt. 8:14-15; 12:9-13; Luke 7:11-15; 22:51; John 5:6-9; 11:38-44).


This incident may not be used simplistically to assert that a lack of faith restricted Jesus. Rather, Jesus is presented as choosing not to heal because of an absence of faith. The identity of that unbelief is to be defined as unwillingness to accept him, a determination to oppose him, rejection, not doubt. The faith that brought a positive response from Jesus is the readiness simply to go to him for help. The people of Nazareth did not offer this, but instead expressed rejection – a tragic mistake.

I repeat: yes, faith is vital, but so too is making sure we do what it is that God wants us to do. This goes for praying for healing, for things like deliverance, and for anything else really. Naming and claiming some pretty Christian lass that you happen to fancy does not mean she will become your wife. What matters here is the will of God, not what you happen to want.

Faith is not magic, and faith is not presumption. But see much more on this here for the difference between biblical faith and non-biblical magic: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/03/29/prayer-faith-and-testing-god/

Getting back to the text at hand, the context makes it clear that the issue is NOT one of mountain-moving, but of exorcism – of casting out demons. Now THAT is something Jesus, the disciples, and many others HAVE done, and often. It is faith in terms of this particular activity, not shifting the Alps, that Jesus is focusing on here.

A few words from others can be of some help at this point. They also want to bring some biblical realism to bear here. Leon Morris helpfully covers some of the points I have raised:

By small faith he is probably referring to the poor quality, the poverty their faith, for he goes on to speak of even a very little real faith as able to move mountains. Perhaps the disciples had been treating their power to cast out devils as a new possession of their own—a kind of magic—they would go through their routine and the devil would come out! But that is not the way it was. There was nothing in the disciples themselves that overcame demons. It was God who in every case gave the power, and it was necessary for them to look to him and to act in humble faith. Jesus speaks of faith like a mustard seed (see on 13:31 for this smallest of seeds), an expression that clearly had become proverbial for the smallest thing. Jesus is saying that even a little faith would enable the disciples to do what they had just proved they could not do. It is not necessary to have great faith; even a small faith is enough, as long as it is faith in the great God.

Image of Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Preaching the Word)
Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Preaching the Word) by Douglas Sean O'Donnell (Author), R. Kent Hughes (Series Editor) Amazon logo

And Douglas Sean O’Donnell in his expository commentary on Matthew nicely captures the heart of the matter:

You see, it’s not the amount of faith that matters; it’s the posture and object of faith. (Little faith is small; mustard-seed faith is small.) The posture here is kneeling, and the object here is certainly not self and not merely God but Jesus—Jesus as “Lord.”


Do you want to move mountains? I’m not talking about commanding Mount Kilimanjaro to skip into the Indian Ocean. And neither is Jesus. I’m not talking about getting that new Rolls-Royce you’ve been eying in that magazine. And neither is Jesus. God is not your personal pleasure genie. Your wish is not his command. But do you want to move mountains—the mountains God wants you to move?’ You don’t need the world’s biggest backhoe; you just need a bit of faith in the right mountain-mover, Jesus. You don’t need more self-reliance. You don’t need more gumption. You don’t need more faith in faith. You need humble faith in Jesus. For apart from him, in his own words, “you can do nothing” (John 15:5), but if you abide in him and his words (and his power) abide in you, “ask whatever you wish”—according to God’s will and for his glory—and Jesus promises, “and it will be done for you” (v. 7).


It’s not the amount of faith—it’s the posture and object of faith. Mustard-seed faith is humble prayer to Jesus for power over evil—the evil we see and the evil we don’t see in this demon-infested world.

Quite so. Instead of spending time trying to rev up your faith to toss Ayers Rock into the Pacific Ocean, or getting that new dream home complete with a really big swimming pool, why not concentrate on what God is calling you to do right now to bring him glory?

Maybe praying to be more loving to your wife and kids, or praying for more faith to speak up in the culture wars, or praying to trust God more in dark times, and so on. Those are the sorts of things we all need more work on, and more faith in.

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One Reply to “Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 17:20”

  1. Thanks Bill, my greatest prayer at the moment is faith in God to overturn all the mess the world is in and that only He can do it but the literal does happen sometimes as I did hear about a missionary who visited an orphanage, I think it was, on an island overseas, and they couldn’t expand the buildings as there was a big hill behind them which I think they owned the land. So they prayed about it and when he came back several years later, the hill had been removed by the council who wanted the soil for filling elsewhere and so they were able to expand buildings rather than move.

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