Mustard Seed Faith

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Translation Continuum
(c) Copyright 2019 RC Beaman
The Translation Continuum

Jesus talks about faith in today’s Bible reading*. In response to the Disciples’ request for Jesus to increase their faith, He says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it will obey you.” Luke 17:6 (CSB) But is that what Jesus said?

Whenever I bring up the question of the way a Bible verse should be translated, please hear me clearly that I believe that the translators of the modern English translations have done a fantastic job of faithfully communicating God’s Word from the original language to modern English. But different translations depend on different translation goals. Some translations aim to translate the words faithfully, other translations aim to translate the thoughts faithfully. Most translations fall somewhere between these two “extremes”.

I posted a larger version of my translation continuum. You’ll see the terms “Formal Equivalence” on one end of the continuum and “Functional Equivalence” (also called Dynamic Equivalence) on the other end. Formal Equivalence aims to faithfully translate the Bible in a “literal”, word-for-word way. Functional Equivalence aims to faithfully translate the Bible in a less formal, thought-for-thought way. Neither “Formal” nor “Functional” translation philosophy is “better” than the other; they just have different purposes. So to best understand the Bible, it’s often helpful to read and study from a variety of translations, preferably from a different translation philosophy.

There are a few English translations that truly are “literal” translations. But trust me, these translations are very difficult to read because they translate words in the order they appear in the original language. For instance, to translate a familiar passage, John 3:16 literally, you would read,

“Thus for he loved the God the world so that the son the only begotten he gave, in order that all those believing into him not they shall perish but they shall have life eternal.”

How awkward!

As you can see from my translation continuum diagram, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is probably the most popular modern translation on the “literal” end of the translation continuum. Another popular modern translation on the “literal” end of the continuum, but not quite as “wooden” and thus, more readable is the English Standard Version (ESV)   Near-paraphrases would fall on the other end of the translation continuum. The Message could be called a near-paraphrase. The Living Bible (LB) was truly a paraphrase rather than a translation.

I often use the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) in my devotionals and in my preaching. The CSB translators aimed at creating an “optimal equivalence” to be as formal as possible, while making it as readable as possible.

It’s a slight difference, and I don’t want to split theological hairs, but the ESV does a better job of communicating Jesus’ comments on mustard seed faith in Luke 17:6. It reads “faith like a mustard seed” rather “faith the size of a mustard seed”.

Jesus’ emphasis is not on the size of your faith, but rather the character of your faith. The context of the Disciples’ request for an increase of their faith supports the translation, “faith like a mustard seed”. Yes, a mustard seed is small, about the size of the sesame seed on your hamburger bun. But it doesn’t stay small for very long. The mustard bush can be as large as ten feet high! And Jesus rightly points out that it’s large enough for birds to build their nests. (Luke 13:19)

Acknowledgment: A friend pointed out the mustard seed character vs. size one morning after Sunday School. Thanks, Don!

According to The CSB Study Bible, the mulberry tree is known for its extensive and deep root system and they could live for several hundred years. So for a mulberry tree to be uprooted would be a tremendous task! It couldn’t be done with a small, dormant faith, but it could be done with a dynamic, growing faith like a mustard seed.


Do you merely have a small faith? Or do you have a growing faith?

As the Disciples did, ask God to grow your faith. Now, note that in asking God to grow your faith, you will be challenged in your faith. Remember that accomplished sailors get their experience from sailing in both calm and rough seas. And the only thing that was ever produced by very rare storms is a dry, scorched desert!

* Today we are reading Luke 17.

This devotional was originally published on July 19, 2019.

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