The terms oligopistos (adjective: a person of little faith) and oligopistia (noun: little faith) first occur as Greek terms in the Gospel of Matthew (and once in Luke 12:28 which is a parallel text with Matthew 6:30). The almost complete limitation of this term to Matthew’s Gospel might suggest he has added this term to the sources about Jesus he had at his disposal. However, the occurrence of oligopistos in the parallel passage located in Matthew 6:30 and Luke 12:28, suggests that Jesus himself used this expression in his teaching, at least in the Sermon on the Mount.
In later Rabbinic materials a similar expression occurs. For example, in a rabbinic commentary on Exodus, Israelites who gathered more than enough manna for one day, contrary to God’s instructions, are defined as people “of little faith”. “He who has bread in his basket and says: ‘What shall I eat tomorrow?’ is a man of little faith” is another example of a rabbinic saying. Because these materials were written much later than Jesus’ time, we do not know whether they represent ideas contemporary with him. However, they do provide some evidence that this concept was known in Judaism. The fact that we find no use of these Greek terms before Matthew’s Gospel suggests that they reflect Jewish religious ideas.
All examples in the New Testament occur in sayings of Jesus addressed to his disciples. At first sight this fact seems surprising. We tend to think of the disciples as being people who had faith in Jesus and expressed this by following him. When we look at each case, however, it becomes clear that oligopistos/oligopistia define a faith that is broken and not working properly. For some reason the faith principle operating in such people has proven impotent at a point of crisis.
This sense of oligopistos emerges in two Galilean storm scenes. In Matthew 8:26 (parallel in Mark 4:40) the disciples are crossing the Galilean Sea in a boat with Jesus. He has fallen asleep and a vicious storm suddenly has arisen, threatening to swamp the boat and drown the occupants. Terrified, the disciples rouse Jesus. Turning to his disciples, he asks them, “Why are you afraid, little faith ones (oligopistoi)?”1 He then makes the storm desist by uttering a simple command. They in turn are totally amazed. They have responded to Jesus’ call to follow him, heard his teaching and observed some of his miracles. So they have expressed some faith. Yet at this point of crisis, facing imminent death, their confidence in Jesus fails. But Jesus acts to restore it and instill new faith.
The second example occurs in Matthew 14:31. After feeding the five thousand men, Jesus sends his disciples across Galilee in a boat at night. A storm arises and Jesus, having finished his private prayer session with his Father, walks across the stormy waters, intending to meet the disciples on the other side. As he is walking by them on the water, they see him, but do not immediately recognize him. Peter challenges him to demonstrate that this ghostly figure is indeed Jesus by commanding him to walk to him on the stormy water. Jesus tells him to come. Peter responds, but almost immediately realizes what is happening, loses his confidence in Jesus and begins to sink. In terror he cries out for Jesus to save him. Jesus does, but asks him “Little faith guy (oligopiste), why did you doubt?” When they get into the boat, all the disciples worship Jesus, affirming “Truly you are the Son of God!”
Mark retells the basic story, but does not have the section about Peter’s watery excursion. At the end of the story Mark attributes the failure of the disciples to recognize Jesus to their “hardened hearts”, terms that Matthew does not have in his account.
Once again we have a situation where followers of Jesus at a point of crisis could exercise faith in Jesus, but fail in some way to do so. Jesus defines this failure as expressing “little faith”. The verb “doubt or hesitate2” that Matthew uses in the question (14:31) suggests what lies behind this failure of faith.
A third example of failure due to ‘little faith’ is recounted by Matthew in 17:20. Mark (8) and Luke (9) have a similar story, but define the failure of the disciples differently. A father has brought his demon-possessed son to the disciples and asked them to deliver him from this demonic assault. Jesus previously gave them such power (Matthew 10), but for some reason they are impotent and can do nothing to help this boy. When Jesus joins them, the father complains and Jesus has to step in and heal the child. Afterwards the disciples want to know why they could not help the family. Jesus says:
Because you have so little faith (oligopistia)….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 and nothing will be impossible for you.
Since the mustard seed was regarded as the smallest seed, Jesus is saying that they were operating virtually without faith. In v.17 he named them an “unbelieving and perverse generation.” Jesus in Mark’s account tells them that prayer is essential for such spiritual work. Luke makes no comment on the reason for their impotence. The failure of faith again disables the disciples.
The last example in this series comes at Matthew 16:8. Jesus is warning his disciples about the unbelief exhibited by the Pharisees and Sadducees. Because he uses the metaphor of leaven and they have just witnessed the feeding of four thousand men, they debate whether Jesus is referring to their failure to bring bread with them for the boat trip. Jesus rebukes them, naming them “little faith ones” (oligopistoi). However, for Jesus their problem is a lack of understanding, which in turn reflects a lack of faith. Jesus is challenging them to make the connections between his feeding of the multitudes and his parabolic description of the religious leaders’ deceptive teaching about him as leaven. Again Mark in the parallel passage (8:17) attributes their lack of understanding to “hearts in a hardened condition.”
In these four contexts Jesus uses these two terms to define a faith that fails to grasp the opportunity for expression. It breaks down and needs fixing and restoration. Yet such failure can only happen, ironically, because these people have faith in Jesus. These words cannot apply to the Jewish religious leaders because they do not have any faith in Jesus at all. His disciples, conversely, have followed him and will continue to do so, even though they do not understand everything and often fail to exhibit the confidence and trust in Jesus that he deserves and desires.
The other context where Matthew has this term is in the Sermon on the Mount (6:30; paralleled in Luke 12:28). Here the issue is confidence in God Himself. If people accept Jesus’ message and enter the Kingdom, will God’s care for them prove constant and sufficient? If people pursue God’s agenda and obey His will, Jesus says that they should have no anxiety about their other human needs – food, clothing, housing. Feelings of anxiety about these things indicate that such disciples are in a crisis of faith – people of little faith.
In Matthew’s Gospel oligopistos/oligopistia describe sincere followers of Jesus. From time to time their faith is challenged. Faith comes under pressure. They must act with confidence – that Jesus’ is with them, that God will provide for them, that the Holy Spirit will help them understand what God is doing, that Jesus will provide them with the spiritual power necessary to represent the Gospel. Often they fail at critical points because their faith breaks and has to be repaired. Mark in his Gospel attributes such breakdowns to ‘hardness of heart’, a believers continual battle to understand and then fully accept the power and reality of Jesus.
How does Jesus respond in such cases? He demonstrates his presence, he shows his power, and he encourages them to restore their confidence in him. The fact that this cycle of opportunity for faith, failure in faith, and restoration of faith happens again and again should be noted. Perhaps this is the spiritual reality of our discipleship as well. We should not be depressed by this, but understand how challenging it is for us to walk by faith. Jesus realizes our struggles and continues to walk with us in the person of the Holy Spirit to keep our faith resurging.
- 1. Mark 4:40 reads “Why are you afraid? Do you not yet have faith?” The text tradition in Mark 4:40, however, is quite varied. Also, Mark sets the question of Jesus after he has stilled the storm.
- 2. For further information on this verb, please refer to Internet Moments With God’s Word #62. You can access this at www.nbseminary.com through the “Internet Moments” page.