There are several instances in the gospels where Jesus expressed dissatisfaction with His apostles or rebuked them. I find it remarkable that men who had the advantage of the instruction from the master Teacher sometimes fell woefully short of what He expected. Several times He called them “O ye of little faith” (Mt 8:26, 14:31, 16:18) and later “faithless and perverse” (Mt 17:17) even though they had been following Him for many months and were eye-witnesses of miracles, probably nearly every day. The apostles had even gone out into Israel healing and casting out demons in a previous commission, yet after all their success and witness of the power of God, when they encountered a more difficult case that did not immediately yield to their ministrations, they gave up.
When the apostles asked Him why they could not cast out the demon from the epileptic boy, Jesus implied they could not do it because they did not have the faith of a mustard seed (Mt 17:20). I find the standard of faith that Jesus required of His disciples to be amazing. As far as we read in the Bible and from history, there is not a single apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, or person who rose to the level of faith possessed by the humble mustard seed who could by faith cast a mountain into the sea, yet Jesus expected that kind of faith of His apostles to the point that He sharply rebuked them for not having it. Jesus also was dissatisfied with the apostles’ response to their failure to cast out the demon. He appears to have expected them to have had sense enough to pull out the bigger guns of prayer and fasting to amplify their faith when their initial attempts at exorcism failed. Instead of patiently working to amplify their faith through prayer and fasting, they gave up and discredited the Master who commissioned them. Jesus had already told them they were to “bring forth fruit with patience” (Lk 8:15), but they impatiently expected immediate results.
While we and the apostles may be at first shocked at Jesus’ response to their failure, what we glean from Jesus’ response is that He expects His disciples to learn the principles of faith, generalize them, and be able to apply them where required. Jesus’ expected the apostles to be able to learn and generalize the teaching found in His example where He prayed all night as He was about to make momentous decisions (Lk 6:12-13), and He expected them to learn from His examples of prayer and fasting. If the Master required 40 days of fasting to prepare for His ministry (Lk 4:2) and sometimes required all-night prayer to accomplish a task (Lk 6:12), how much more the disciples, but they had not apprehended the application of what they had witnessed.
The previous occasions that Jesus rebuked His disciples for lack of faith should have prepared them for the test with the demon possessed boy, but they had failed to learn. It is no wonder Jesus was exasperated with them and called them faithless and perverse, because He already had rebuked them for their lack of faith in God’s provision in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:30), when the ship was sinking in the Sea of Galilee (Mt 8:26), and when Peter began to sink in the sea because of his fear of the wind (Mt 14:31).. Jesus demonstrated His long-suffering with His disciples for their repeated faithlessness by rebuking them in order to bring about their repentance, by helping them in spite of their little faith, and by not abandoning them though they repeatedly failed to meet standards.
After all of Jesus’ admonitions and teachings regarding their little faith in regard to God’s physical provision for the disciples’ needs, the disciples again failed in their lack of trust of God’s provision. The disciples forgot to buy bread before they left to cross the Sea of Galilee, and they arrived on a deserted coast with no food. When they arrived Jesus began to teach about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead of understanding Jesus was beginning instruction regarding the teaching of the Jewish leaders, the disciples took His remarks to be rebuke for their failure to buy lunch. Because they responded to His teaching from a fleshly perspective, Jesus was again provoked to rebuke them for their lack of faith.
When we first read Jesus’ rebuke for the disciples’ lack of faith, we are puzzled at why Jesus would rebuke His disciples for lack of faith when He began teaching about the Pharisees. It is not immediately apparent to us readers, even with the benefit of 2000 years of study, as to what provoked the rebuke. Out of the blue Jesus said, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Mt 16:6). The disciples were focused on the need to prepare a meal, and they didn’t have anything, so in the context their confusion regarding His remarks appears reasonable, but our confusion as readers shows our lack of spirituality as much as that of the disciples. Because the disciples were focused on the physical and not the spiritual, they did not remember two recent instances where God had fed people from heaven. Since they had two examples where God fed multitudes from very little, they should have realized that Jesus would depend on God and not the disciples to feed them, and hence His reference to “leaven” had nothing to do with physical bread that God could easily provide. Jesus had also told them that the context of “leaven” was “the Pharisees and Sadducees”, so they should have immediately understood that buying bread from a vendor was not buying from the spiritual leaders of the people. The disciples’ problem was not listening to what Jesus actually said but filtering it through their carnal bias. They lacked faith in God’s provision and were not putting spiritual things first.
The problem of the disciples is often the same among believers today. We can look at the numerous daily instances of God’s provision for His creatures and still lack faith that He will provide for our needs. We see the birds outside our window eating the seeds from flowers they did not plant or cultivate, yet God feeds them, and when these flowers are gone, He gives the birds food in another way. We see God time after time providing for the needs of the brethren, yet we often lack faith in God’s provision for our physical needs even though we profess to have faith in God’s ability to provide the much more costly salvation of our souls. May God grant us repentance to have faith in His ability to feed our bodies and to save our souls.