1. Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?
The first and chief difficulty is the sheer immensity of the idea of mountain-moving faith. Did Jesus really mean that could happen?
A second smaller issue is how to relate the various contexts in which similar sayings occur.
This type of saying about mountain-moving faith appears in four different places in the synoptic gospels. In Mark 11:22-25, it is in the context of the story of the fig tree and teaching about forgiveness follows. We find it in Matthew 21:21,22 also in the context of the quick demise of the fig tree. We also find a very similar saying in Matthew 17:17-20 in the context of the disciples’ inability to heal the boy brought to Jesus immediately after the transfiguration. A fourth mention is in Luke. Set in the context of a teaching section on the challenge of forgiveness, Luke 17:5,6 NIV reads, “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
2. How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?
The first question we need to take up is, “Is this saying about faith moving mountains intended to be taken literally?” I believe the answer to this is found in the fact that the saying has variety in the various places where it is found. In Matt. 17 the mountain moves from here to there. In Matt. 21 the mountain is thrown into the sea. In Luke 17 the mulberry tree is uprooted and planted in the sea. In Mk 11, the mountain moves into the sea. These differences are what one would expect from a teacher who taught the same basic truth in various settings and used similar but varying illustrations. Each illustration is then seen to be for the purpose of stretching the thinking of the disciples, of helping them to think that God in them is able to do “immeasurably more” than all they had up to then “asked or imagined” (Eph. 3:20,21). The fact that the illustration seemed impossible was part of the point. The verse is not there to be looked at literally, that is not the point. But to limit the power of faith would also be to not get the point Jesus is making. Faith in God is more powerful that we think. “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Lk 18:27 NIV). Think about Peter walking the water. He was doing the impossible and when he started to sink, Jesus chided him for doubting and having “little faith” (Mt. 14:31).
Another thing we can do is look for possible Scripture background. One book pointed out that the question regarding the fig tree would have come as the disciples neared the Mount of Olives.
“Now, in current expectation regarding the time of the end, the Mount of Olives played a special part. It would be the scene of a violent earthquake on the day of the Lord. “On that day,” said one of the prophets (referring to the day when the God of Israel would take final action against the enemies of his people), “his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south” (Zec 14:4).” (from Hard Sayings of the Bible, Copyright © 1996 by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.)
Perhaps Jesus’ choice of illustration in the story of the fig tree is influenced by his knowledge of the ultimate history of the mountain they are looking at.
3. What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?
Despite all our more methodological questions about the these passages, the main purpose of Jesus is abundantly clear and simple every time. Each time he was helping the disciples to see that they were living at a level of faith far less than was available to them. He was encouraging them to step up. Whether it was the charge of watching themselves lest they cause offense to others (Lu. 17:1-3), the challenge of forgiving others (Lu. 17:3-5; Mk. 11:25,26), the desire to be able to heal the boy (Mt. 17:19,20), or the question about the fig tree (Mk 11:20-24; Mt. 21:18-22); each time the disciples had too little faith to believe that either what Jesus had done or what he had asked them to do was possible. Jesus was assuring them that they needed more faith and with it they could meet the challenges. [Additional Scripture to compare include: Mt. 8:13; Mt. 9:29,30; Mk: 9:23; Mt. 8:26; 14:31.]
One person asked, “When we say a person has greater faith, what do we mean?” It’s a thought-provoking question. We decided together that it meant several things. First it meant that they had an increased vision of who God is, of his power and a greater sense that he was at work or of what He was doing in the current situation. As a result of this they also showed increased trust and confidence in God and were able to act on that confidence and infuse others with it too.
Finally we noted that Jesus may also be trying to encourage us along the line that it really doesn’t take much faith. If we only have a little (mustard seed size) we can do great things.