A few years ago I went to my office at 5:30 A.M. to pray as I had done so many mornings, but before I began, I heard the Holy Spirit say, "Go to Luke 17 and start reading from verse 5."
Excited, I turned to the reference and noticed it was a portion of scripture with which I was very familiar. I had even preached on it before. This didn't dampen my enthusiasm, for I knew if the Teacher told me to read specific verses I'd learn something I'd missed before. Let's examine it.
The apostles cried out to the Lord, "Increase our faith" (Luke 17:5). These men had come to learn what pleased the Master more than anything else was faith, and what disappointed Him was the lack of it. Hebrews 11:6 tells us in no uncertain terms: "Without faith it is impossible to please Him." In seeing the Lord's consistent response to faith, or the lack of it, they now desired more and cried out for it.
Upon hearing their passionate plea for more faith, Jesus responded with this parable: "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you" (v. 6). I was familiar with Jesus' admonishment to have the faith of God, and that if we say to the mountain to be removed and cast into the sea and would not doubt in our heart, we would have what we say. (See Mark 11:22-24.) This was no different, but now He was using a mulberry tree.
Jesus illustrates faith as a mustard seed in keeping with the kingdom principle of seed time and harvest. In another parable Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground" (Mark 4:26). Each of us is allotted a measure of faith (Rom. 12:3). Faith is in seed form, and it is our responsibility to cultivate and grow it. How does it grow? The answer is forthcoming.
I read carefully the next four verses of Luke 17, for they had always stumped me. Yet that morning I discovered Jesus was giving His disciples more than mere formulas on how to increase their faith; He was directing them in a way of life that deals directly with the area of obedience to authority, which in turn increases our faith. Listen to His parable: "And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down to eat'? But will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not'" (Luke 17:7-9). I had always questioned why the Lord apparently changed subjects. He went from speaking about the faith that plucks up trees or mountains to protocol for a servant. It just didn't make sense to me, but that morning this would all change.
I read these verses again slowly, while listening to my heart for His inspiration. Suddenly, I heard this question: "What is the ultimate purpose of a servant who works your field? What is the ultimate purpose of a servant who tends your flocks? What is the end result?"
I thought a moment. Then it came to me: to put food on the table. I realized what Jesus was communicating. If the end result of the servant's labor is food on his employer's table, why would the servant eat before his master was served? Wouldn't he complete his job first? Of course he would! An unfinished job can be just as bad as one never started. Why have your fields plowed and not eat? Why have your flocks tended and not partake of the wool, meat or milk?
Once I understood this, it set me up to comprehend the concluding statement of this parable: "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10, emphasis added). Now Jesus turns this example back to us. As I read, the words done all and commanded jumped off the page. Jesus connected this servant's obedience to his master with our obedience to God. In doing so He makes three important points related to increased faith. They are as follows:
1. There is a direct connection between faith and obedience to authority.
2. Faith increases only when we complete what we are commanded to do.
3. An attitude of true humility is of utmost importance to finish our Christian race successfully.
Let me briefly discuss the first two points (the third point we discussed in a recent newsletter article). First, the greatest faith Jesus encountered in over thirty-three years on earth was not that of John the Baptist or that of His mother Mary. It was not from any of the children of Israel who received healings or miracles. It was not any of the twelve. It was a Roman citizen, a soldier, one of Israel's conquerors.
Jesus said of him, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!" When we hear this amazing statement by our Savior, we must ask, "What made this Roman's faith so great?" The answer is clear in the Scriptures; he understood and lived under submission to authority. (See Matthew 8:5-13.)
The level of faith we walk in is directly proportional to our submission to divine authority. The greater our obedience, the greater our faith. Now tie this in with what Jesus said to His disciples who desired increased faith: "You can say to this mulberry tree…and it would obey you" (Luke 17:6). Notice Jesus said that all you have to do is speak a word, and the tree will obey you! Who does this mulberry tree obey? The one who "...did the things that were commanded him" (v. 9).
The second major point Jesus communicated is that our faith increases when we finish what we're commanded to do. A servant is responsible to carry out to completion the will of his master, not just a portion or a sampling of it. Too often we begin assignments we never finish because we lose interest, or the labor and suffering become too intense. The true and faithful servant completes the project no matter the hardship or obstacles. He works the fields, brings in the fruit of his labor for his master and prepares the meal. This represents true obedience.
This is best seen in the life of Abraham. After waiting for years for the child of promise, God tested him by commanding him to offer his only son up as a sacrifice. Scriptures record, "So Abraham rose early in the morning…" (Gen. 22:3). Notice his instant obedience. Some people mull around for days, weeks, months and sometimes even years contemplating whether to obey God. Meanwhile their faith lies dormant.
It took Abraham three days to get to Moriah. This three-day journey gave Abraham time to think things through. If he was going to turn back he would have done it during this time. But he didn't. He continued all the way to the top of the mountain and bound his only son on the altar they built together. He raised the knife to slay Isaac when the angel of the Lord stopped him.
Abraham obeyed to completion! He did not stop short, even by letting go of the most important thing in his life, Isaac, his heir and hope, his promise from God. Abraham proved his passion for obedience outweighed even his desire for the promises! For this reason he is called the father of faith (Rom. 4:11-12) and the friend of God. We must have this resolve in our hearts as well, for God says, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Heb. 11:6). Faith is not true faith apart from obedience. Make no mistake about it, Scripture makes it clear that by obedient actions faith is made complete! (See James 2:20-26.)
In these days the Lord is searching for men and women who will obey God no matter the cost. They will recognize divine authority and will be steadfast in their service as the faithful servant Jesus described working the fields of his master. They will be the ones who walk in great faith and do mighty exploits. They will manifest His glory, impacting their neighbors, their city, their nation and the world.
(This article was adapted from John's newest book, Under Cover-Your Secret Place of Freedom.)