In Mathew 14, we read the account of the Apostle Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water. After Jesus pulled Peter out of the water, the Lord said “You of little faith, why did you doubt.”
Many believe Peter failed simply because he needed “more” faith. But was this actually the case? Did Peter need more faith or was their something else more sinister at work here?
What does oligopistos mean?
Faith was one of the important teachings of Christ. It was so important, that Jesus used an unusual word — oligopistos, commonly translated ‘little faith’ — to describe the disciples’ faith (Matt 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8 and Luke 12:28).
It’s unusual because of its rarity. None of the other New Testament authors — other than attributing the word to Jesus — used oligopistos in their writings and surprisingly the word is not found in any Greek literature of this period.
Oligopistos combines two Greek words, oligos and pistis. Pistis means faith and oligos is used to describe how small an object is such as a “little” fire (James 3:5) or a small quantity of fishes (Matt 15:34). But the word can also refer to duration — a short period of time — as it is used in Rev 12:12 and Acts 26:28. In both these verses it is translated “short time” in the NASV.
So how did Jesus want “oligos” used when describing Peter’s “oligopistos?”
Sinking at sea
In Mathew 14, Jesus had just fed 5000 people and the decision was made to return to the other side of the lake. Jesus sent the disciples ahead, promising to join them later. The Lord then dispersed the crowd and climbed a nearby mountain to spend time alone in prayer.
Meanwhile out on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples’ journey took a significant turn for the worse. It was the fourth watch (sometime between 3 am and 6 am). The winds were contrary meaning that the waves were battering against the front of the boat hindering the disciples’ progress. Their few hour journey turned into an all-night nightmare. The disciples were frustrated, weary and scared.
It was at this hour, the disciples saw a figure floating towards them on the water. Understandably, they were terrified, believing they were actually seeing a ghost.
But Jesus spoke, telling the disciples not to be afraid.
Recognizing His voice, Peter cried out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus summoned His impulsive disciple:
“And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” (v 29 NASV)
But then Peter made the fateful mistake of taking his eyes off Jesus. He looked at his situation — the waves and “became frightened” (v 30). Peter began sinking and he instinctively cried out for help.
Jesus grabbed Peter’s hand and pulling him out of the water said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.”
Peter’s episode of “brief faith”
Looking at this story — we see Peter accomplished a tremendous miracle. He had ever so briefly walked on water.
So in this context was Jesus saying Peter had “little” faith meaning he didn’t have enough faith or “brief” faith — meaning he stopped believing?
The answer is self evident — Peter stopped believing.
This is why Jesus added the cryptic words, “why did you doubt.” Jesus did not tell Peter he needed “more faith.” Jesus was simply implying Peter’s initial burst of faith had been eroded by fear, doubt and unbelief.
But the way the word is often translated, christians are left with the impression Peter needed more faith to complete this miracle. Because of this, Christians have trudged down a road seeking “more faith” when in fact, the real issue is “unbelief” or “doubt.”
That is what we need to deal with.