Pastor John Piper recently revealed the one Bible story that has left him baffled and somewhat confused — a surprising admission from a preacher who is known for masterfully unpacking the scriptures.
Piper’s admission centers around Matthew 17:14–20, Mark 9:17–29 and Luke 9:37–43, verses that refer to a story about Jesus performing an exorcism on an epileptic boy who was possessed by a demon. A man named Scott wrote to Piper to ask what Christ meant when he referred in these scriptures to the disciples’ “little faith.”
“What does Jesus mean by ‘because of your little faith’? What is it exactly that the disciples lacked?” Scott asked. “It seems like Jesus’s answer gives easy fuel to suffering Christians who might be told that Jesus suggests that if they just had enough faith they could be healed. How is that not the takeaway?”
Piper responded on his Desiring God podcast by admitting that he doesn’t fully understand Jesus’ words here and that he finds them “in part baffling.” From there, the pastor said he would “struggle out loud” and invite other Christians to process the story with him, adding that he wants people to know that there are certainly parts of the Bible that leave him with questions.
That said, Piper also made it clear that confusion over Bible verses doesn’t hamper his faith.
“Jesus has done so much and said so much that the glory of God in him has won me over to trust him and treasure him because of what I do see and I do understand, even if there are aspects of what he says that sometimes I don’t understand,” Piper said.
The preacher then went on to recap the story of the boy’s possession as well as the words Christ had for the disciples:
Matthew 17:17–20. Jesus comes down off the Mount of Transfiguration. He finds that the disciples were unable to heal a boy and cast out the demon that the father had brought to the disciples. Jesus’s response to their inability and the father’s statement that they couldn’t do it comes in verse 17:
“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” I think that’s a reference, not just to the crowds, but to the disciples because they’re the ones who couldn’t do it. They’re the ones who didn’t have the faith. He’s saying some pretty strong things — “O faithless and twisted generation.”
He keeps going so that in verse 18 we see that Jesus rebuked the demon:
Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him [the boy], and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. 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.” (Matthew 17:18–20)
With all of this in mind, Piper said that he was left scratching his head over the fact that Jesus first said that the disciples had no faith. Then, Christ said that they had “little faith.” It is this latter part, though, that is the sticking point, as Jesus also proclaims that a mustard seed is the smallest of seeds.
And he says the following in Matthew 17:20: “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, 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.”
Piper wondered why the disciples, then, even with “little faith” couldn’t thus move mountains, as Jesus said in the verse about the mustard seed. After all, as Piper noted, small faith that’s the size of a mustard seed is still small faith, yet while Jesus said this sort of faith could move mountains, he also said that the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon because of it.
“You see why I’m confused?” Piper said. “I’m baffled by what Jesus is saying here.”
He then went on to explain some potential theories, including the notion that Jesus could have been saying that the disciples not only had a small amount of faith, but that they also had the wrong kind of faith. Perhaps this had something to do with what was in their hearts, or some other element that the reader can’t readily or easily see.
In the end, Piper warned people to look at the Bible in its entirety and not to assume, based on this story, that a failure to heal is always indicative of a low level of faith. Read Piper’s entire analysis here.