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What Did Jesus Mean By ‘Ye of Little Faith’?

As important as the faith lesson is in Matthew 8:26, the spotlight shines to illumine one prevailing reality: Jesus Christ is the King who has come to subdue evil, drive out chaos, and take back what rightfully belongs to him.

Updated Jun 30, 2022
What Did Jesus Mean By ‘Ye of Little Faith’?

Of all the choices that Jesus made during his public ministry that deeply impact me today, none is more encouraging than his choice of 12 ordinary men to be his closest followers. The Bible makes no effort to hide or gloss over the raw humanity of these men who seldom seemed to be up to the task to which they were called. And intuitive gospel readers might be tempted to wonder why the Lord would select any of them at all.

Though there were likely a billion reasons why Jesus handpicked these particular 12 rather than others, I am certain I know of at least one reason why he did. If Jesus could use uneducated, irreligious, simple men who were slow to believe, then maybe there could be hope that he could equally use someone like me to manifest his glory and represent his kingdom agenda. This brings me great comfort and joy.

Little Faith

Nowhere in the Bible do we see the disciples’ collective lack of faith exposed more than in the scene where Jesus had fallen asleep in the boat during a storm which seemed to threaten the very lives of everyone on the boat, especially the disciples. The story is a well-known narrative, in which the disciples wake the Lord from his sleep crying out, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” (Matthew 8:26).

At first glance, their request seemed like a reasonable one to most of us. If you can’t cry to Jesus in the midst of the storm, then where should we turn? I submit to you that there is more to the story than what meets the eye, and to truly understand Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples we must consider this scene against the backdrop of the events preceding the storm.

You see, this story of the fierce storm and the disciples’ lack of faith is not an isolated or disconnected account, standing alone to provide a simple “moral of the story.” It is part of a larger story that has as a singular purpose, which can only be fully understood when read together and evaluated in their relation to one another.

It is only then that we begin to comprehend with greater depth what Jesus was thinking when he rebuked the disciples, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?”

Let me set the stage for you. The tremendous events, which we read about in chapter eight, come right on the heels of Jesus’ thrilling teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), in which he set forth the new kingdom ethics by which all subjects in the Kingdom of God will be characterized. It was the very arrival of Christ, which had ushered in a new way of living and thinking.

By his own admission, Jesus had come to “fulfill the law, not to abolish it” (Matthew 5:17). We see this in statements like, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart’” (Matthew 5:27). Not only had Jesus appeared merely preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here” (Matthew 4:17), he was teaching and modeling what that kingdom looked like under the faithful reign of the good King.

Great Faith

Many people were “amazed” (Matthew 7:28) by Jesus’ teaching, but amazement doesn’t always translate to submission, which can clearly be seen in the number of people who followed the Lord — merely motivated by curiosity or a desire for a handout (John 6:26).

But as chapter eight unfolds, a shocking exchange unfolds before our very eyes when a Roman centurion came to Jesus “imploring him” (John 8:5) to heal his young servant who was “paralyzed at home and fearfully tormented” (John 8:6).

When Jesus agreed to come to the home and heal the child, the centurion stopped the Lord by saying, “I am not worthy for you to come under my roof.” Apparently, the Roman understood that for Jesus, being a Jew, to enter a Gentile home would be a gross offense of the Jewish tradition, and the centurion seemingly did not want to be party to such a breach of custom.

What the centurion said next became a staggering exposition of his own understanding of Christ’s identity as King and a stunning expression of submission. This military man understood the authority and work of Christ through the lens of Roman military authority and hierarchy. He said, “For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me” (John 8:9). It seems that the Roman was saying that Jesus worked in the same way!

Is it possible that the soldier was suggesting that Jesus need not come into his home to administer healing, but rather simply give the order for healing to take place? After all, Jesus himself would acknowledge that neither did he act (John 5:30) nor did he even speak (John 14:10) by his own initiative, but by the Father’s alone.

“When Jesus heard this, He marveled” (John 8:10). This word marvel (ἐθαύμασαν) is the same word that Matthew uses to describe the disciples’ astonishment over Jesus’ power over the storm and sea (John 8:27). Think about this: Jesus’ response to the centurion mirrors the response of the disciples having witnessed Jesus speak to the sea and have it obey. And then comes this staggering pronouncement by Jesus to the centurion. “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel” (John 8:10).

Faith in Jesus

Let’s fast forward for just a moment and check in on the disciples. Shortly following the encounter with the Roman, Jesus and his disciples climbed into a boat to go to the other side of the sea. Matthew tells us from his own experience that “there arose a great storm on the sea so that the boat was being covered with the waves, but Jesus himself was asleep” (Matthew 8:24).

Storms on the Sea of Galilee are nothing unusual. Because of where the sea is situated between the mountains, storms arise quickly and violently, but there seemed to be something different about this one. The indication is that this storm was the devil’s work as indicated by Luke’s choice of the word “rebuke” to describe what Jesus did to the sea and storm. The word is the exact same word that is used in other places to describe the exorcism of demons (Mark 1:25; Luke 4:41).

Now as Jesus conquered the raging squalls, he was also overcoming the demonic source. They woke Jesus from his sleep crying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” (Luke 4:25). The same Jesus who had marveled at the centurion’s great faith now rebuked his closest followers for their lack of faith, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?”

These stories stand in contrast to one another. The centurion’s great faith is presented to us to expose the failure of the disciples to believe. Those whom we would expect to believe don’t, and the one who seemingly has no reason to believe Jesus’ claims regarding the kingdom and authority is quick to believe and receive the Lord’s blessings.

Not only do the disciples fail to believe as faithfully as the Roman centurion, but it could also be said that the disciples more resembled the description of the young servant who was “paralyzed and fearfully tormented” (Luke 4:6).

The disciples were paralyzed by fear despite the fact that the Creator of the water was in the boat with them. How different the story might have played out if the disciples were as focused on the sleeping King in the boat as they were the stormy gales around the boat?

As important as these faith lessons are in the story, neither the Roman’s great faith nor the disciples’ weak faith are the central focus of this passage. The spotlight in this section of Scripture shines to illumine one prevailing reality, and that is that Jesus Christ is the King who has come to subdue evil, drive out chaos, and take back what rightfully belongs to him.

The evil that invaded the garden is no match for King Jesus, and the centurion seems to understand this whereas the disciples are likely still thinking that Jesus has come to restore Israel to a place of national power.

What Does "Ye of Little Faith" This Mean?

Almost always when this passage is taught, well-meaning teachers and preachers strip it of its rich kingdom implications, choosing, instead, to reduce it to a picture of how Jesus will rescue you in the midst of your storm. This is far from the intended meaning. Instead, we must ask ourselves, “What did the centurion see and believe that the disciples did not?”

All of Jesus’ miracles, among other things, are intended to show that Jesus is the One who is already reversing the curse and its effects. Jesus is the One whom the Creator pointed to when He promised that Eve’s seed would “crush” the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). 

With each demon that Jesus tramples underfoot, he is providing one more clue to His identity as the Sovereign King who has come to vanquish the usurper and reclaim his Kingdom while restoring peace in the land. May God grant us the faith to see as the centurion saw and the grace to embrace Christ as the Ruling King.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/whiteson

Dr. Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, lives in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer for organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Erskine Theological Seminary. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in India, Romania, Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffeeYou can find other works by Kirby at www.rickkirby.org.


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