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Hi my name is Dean Smith and and in this episode we ask the question, and hopefully answer: What does a dog insult have to do with what really sunk Peter?
Many of us are familiar with the story found in in Mathew 14 of the Apostle Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water. This account has been used repeatedly to show us that we need “more” faith for Divine miracles and that’s because as Jesus pulled Peter out of the water, the Lord said “You of little faith, why did you doubt.”
“Little faith” leaves the impression that Peter failed simply because he needed “more” faith. But was this actually the case?
Did Peter need more faith or was there something more sinister at work here?
Faith was one of the important teachings of Christ. It was so important, that Jesus actually developed his own special word — oligopistos, commonly translated ‘little faith’ — used to describe the disciples’ faith.
We see the word used in Matt 6:30 and Luke 12:28. But oligopistos is unusual because of its rarity. Other than attributing the word to Jesus, we don’t see any of the other New Testament writers using the word and oddly the word is not found in any Greek literature of this period.
Oligopistos is a compound word that combines two Greek words, oligos and pistis. Pistis means faith and oligos is used to describe how small an object is. It is used to describe a “little” fire (James 3:5) and a small quantity of fish (Matt 15:34).
But oligos can also be used to refer to as short period of time as it is used in Revelation 12:12:
“But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”
So the question we need to ask ourselves is how did Jesus want “oligos” used when describing Peter’s “oligopistos?” And more importantly does it make a difference in how we understand “little faith?” To find that out we need to take a closer look at the story.
In the lead up to Peter sinking in the Sea of Galilee, Jesus had just fed 5000 people and the decision was made to return to the other side of the lake. The disciples went ahead and Jesus promised to join them later.
The Lord dispersed the crowd and climbed a nearby mountain to spend time alone in prayer. Meanwhile out on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples’ journey was taking a significant turn for the worse.
It was somewhere between 3 am and 6 am in the morning and the disciples were still out on their boat. They were caught in a storm and the winds were contrary meaning that the waves were battering the front of the boat hindering their journey.
The disciple’s two-hour trip had turned into an all-night nightmare. They were frustrated, tired and probably a bit fearful. It was at that hour the disciples saw a figure hovering on the water coming towards them. 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.” (Matthew 14:28 NASV)
So Jesus summoned His impulsive disciple:
“And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” (v 29 NASV)
The important thing we need to notice is that Peter was walking on water, just like Christ. But then Peter made the fateful mistake of taking his eyes off Jesus. He saw the raging waves and “became frightened” (v 30). When fear gripped his heart, Peter began sinking and instinctively he 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.”
Now as we read this account, we see Peter accomplished a tremendous miracle. He ever so briefly walked on water. So was Jesus saying that Peter had “little faith” meaning he didn’t have enough faith to walk on or water or was Jesus saying Peter had “brief faith” — meaning he stopped believing?
I think the answer is self-evident — Peter stopped believing. There is no greater destroyer of faith than fear and worry. This is why Jesus added the cryptic words, “why did you doubt.” Jesus did not tell Peter he needed “more faith,” because Peter had walked on water.
Jesus was simply stating that Peter’s initial burst of faith had been eroded by fear, doubt and unbelief. Peter already had enough faith to walk on water, he just quit using it. But Christians are often 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.” So how is Peter’s brief faith tied to a dog insult?
It is no coincidence that just 18 verses after Peter’s “little faith” crisis, we find a story about a person demonstrating “great faith.” It is obvious that these two stories are intentionally connected. The incident involving a Phoenician woman recorded in Matthew 15:21-28 drips with controversy. We read how Jesus lauded the woman’s “great faith”:
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
At the outset, you certainly get the sense that the Lord was speaking of a woman with a huge quantity of faith. It was also clear, Jesus was also purposely contrasting the ‘little’ faith of Peter with the ‘great’ faith of a woman, but not just any woman, she was a gentile woman as well.
In that day, this would be a humiliating comparison for any self-respecting Jewish man. And this is where it gets interesting, because you can only understand the Phoenician woman’s “great” faith in light of Peter’s “little” faith. The Greek word for ‘great’ — megas — that Jesus used to describe the Phoenician woman’s faith provides exactly the same problem as “oligos.”
The word indicates quantity as it is used to describe the “large” stone that covered Jesus tomb (Matthew 27:60). But megas is also used to describe an extended period of time. In fact we can see both Greek words — “oligos” and “megas” — being used in the same verse to describe time:
29 And Paul said, “I would wish to God, that whether in a short [oligos] or long [megas] time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29 NASV)
So how did Jesus want us to understand the woman’s ‘great’ faith? To find out we need to take a closer look at the story.
In Matthew 15 we read that Jesus entered the district of Tyre and Sidon. This was gentile territory.
Shortly after they arrived, a Phoenician woman with a demon-possessed daughter approached Christ’s entourage pleading for help. At first Jesus ignored her, however when the woman persisted in her pleas for help, the ever-merciful disciples asked Christ to shoo her away complaining that her shouts annoyed them. But this desperate woman would not take “NO” for an answer.
She ignored their rebuffs and continued to plead for help. It was this commotion that finally caught Jesus’ attention. At this point, Jesus said:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house Israel.” (verse 24 NASV)
Jesus was trying to explain as tactfully as possible why He could not deliver her daughter. The Lord was purposefully putting her off. But with the undivided attention of the one person who could help, the Phoenician woman stubbornly refused to stop and fell to her knees pleading:
“Lord, help me!,” she pleaded again (verse 25 NASV).
Her unwavering persistence forced Jesus to use stronger language:
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (verse 26 NASV).
Now whether it’s politically correct or not, dog was a term of contempt that the Jewish community commonly used to describe gentiles. In other words, the Lord deliberately insulted this woman. He tried to offend her and drive her away. How unChrist like? Or was it? Even in the face of this heightened rejection, the woman refused to back off saying:
“Yes Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs, which fall from their master’s table” (verse 27 NASV)
She could have been offended and had every right to be, but chose not to. This Phoenician woman doggedly stood her ground even after Christ rejected her twice. And it was her unrelenting persistence that finally caught Jesus’ attention.
Describing the woman’s faith as Great, Jesus then delivered her daughter
Jesus saw something in this woman, and He used her to teach His disciples yet another lesson on faith. This is why Jesus pushed her away. He deliberately rejected the Phoenician woman because it was a blatant contrast to Peter who Christ had openly invited to join Him on the water.
This gentile woman was the perfect antidote to Peter’s brief faith and unbelief. The Phoenician woman’s “great” faith was not defined by its quantity, but rather by its unrelenting persistence.
This is how we should interpret ‘megas.’ She had the faith and refused to allow unbelief, doubt or fear to erode her faith. She chose to believe. She refused to quit believing even the face of rejection.
There are a number of words that we can use to describe this woman’s faith: persistent, stubborn, obstinate, intransigent, unyielding, harassing, nagging, determined, resolute, unbending, relentless, inflexible, dogged. This is the type of faith, Jesus considers great.
- Lead image: Credit: Matt Phillips/Flickr/Creative Commons