“Great faith” and “little faith” are spoken of in the book of Matthew. The records seem very clear about great faith being good and little faith being bad until we get to the reference to faith as a grain of mustard seed.
Matthew 6:30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Matthew 8:8 The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.
9 For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
10 When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
Matthew 8:25 And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.
26 And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.
Matthew 14:29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.
30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
Matthew 15:22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
Matthew 15:27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
Matthew 16:6 Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
7 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread.
8 Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread?
9 Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?
10 Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?
11 How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?
12 Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
The only two other records in God’s Word of “great” or “little” faith are in Luke 7:9 and 12:28. These records parallel the records in Matthew 8:10 and 6:30 and offer no additional information relative to the considerations at hand.
Great faith, little faith; it all seems so clear, but then there is the record of “faith as a grain of mustard seed” in Mathew 17:20:
Mathew 17:20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
The mustard seed is known for being very small. Some varieties produce a large plant for the size of the seed. It has been suggested that the comparison here is not to the smallness of the seed but to the tremendous power latent in such a small seed. Even if this is the case, the mind picture is none-the-less one of comparing “faith” with something very little, a very little thing with great power in it.
As is clear from the references above, “little faith” as opposed to “great faith” does not have great power associated with it. The “faith as a grain of mustard seed” cannot be this faith as opposed to some other faith (great faith). Yet, that is exactly how the King James and other versions read.
In English, a restrictive clause limits the word or phrase it modifies. For example, we might say, “I prefer swimming at a beach where there are no sharks.” The clause, “where there are no sharks”, limits the word, “beach”. Some beaches have sharks. We want one that does not. Restrictive clauses are not set apart by commas. They are considered essential to the meaning of the sentence.
A nonrestrictive clause, however, is set off by commas. This clause is set apart by commas to show that it is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence; it does NOT limit the word or phrase it modifies. Rather than restricting the word or phrase, it merely gives additional information. For example, we might say, “I prefer swimming in a chlorinated pool, where there are no sharks.” No chlorinated swimming pool has sharks. We are not limiting which ones of such pools we prefer. We are merely giving additional information about them; thus, the comma.
In the phrase “faith as a grain of mustard seed”, the clause “as a grain of mustard seed” is not set apart by commas. It is presented as a restrictive clause. It limits the word “faith”, describing “what faith” as opposed to some other faith. The mind picture of the smallness of the mustard seed (even with great power) is inescapable. With small, or “little”, faith as opposed to some other faith (bigger, great, faith) you can say to this mountain. “Remove hence to yonder place.” It just does not fit the previous records.
However, had the translation read “faith, as a grain of mustard seed”, we would have a nonrestrictive clause. It would not be describing “what faith” as opposed to some other faith; but rather, giving additional information about “faith”. Faith is as a grain of mustard seed. It is just a small thing (with great power). If you had it (rather than your unbelief) you could say to this mountain, “Remove hence to yonder place, etc.”. Now the phrase fits with the rest of God’s Word.
The wording of the King James Version (and the many other versions which are identical for this phrase) is perfectly sound. It is only the punctuation here that is the difference between truth and error. What a difference a little comma can make!