Whatever you ask
Last week we saw the living parable of the fig tree as a representation of the temple. The temple was that of the rotten figs that could not be eaten and not the good ripe figs. Mark sandwiched the cleansing of the temple with this living parable of the fig tree. This week we will be looking at the lesson from the fig tree. After returning to Bethany for the night, they walk past the fig tree that Jesus had cursed the day before. Peter had noticed that the fig tree had withered away to its roots. Peter pointed this out to Jesus. Jesus then begins to teach a lesson from the fig tree. Although Peter is the one to point out the fig tree, Jesus’ response is given to the disciples; all the following verses are to be read not speaking to a particular person but a collective group. We often only think of prayer between a person and God (especially with these verses). However, we need to be reminded that prayer is a community activity that should be practiced in private and public.
I. Have faith in God (22)
The first statement Jesus makes is “have faith in God!” The Scribes and the chief priests did not have faith in God but in their actions. They thought the fruit of their good works would be enough. However, they did not have faith in God. As we have mentioned before, faith is not an abstract emotion of wishing or desiring a specific event to take place, like wishing for something as you blow out your birthday candles. Biblical faith is more like a foundation of a house. That is secure and certain. However, the scribes and chief priests were like the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. The author of Hebrews has the perfect biblical definition of what faith means, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith means assurance and conviction. The fig tree is a parable of the temple, but it was fruitless. The temple is the shadow of heavenly realities, mainly of the presence of God in amongst his people. They thought if they made sacrifices and paid their census taxes, they would be able to draw near God. However, the only way to approach God right from the start is through faith. Abraham was counted righteous, not because of circumcision or sacrifices but by faith (Gen 15:6). Fruit begins with faith, and faith is a gift from God (Eph 2:8-9). Faith is assurance and conviction found in God. Jesus teaches the disciples that you must begin with faith, or all other things are fruitless. They will wither. All sacrifices must be made in faith, or else they are futile.
II. Come to Pass (23)
I have commented on this several times, so I will try not to belabor the point, but often words are translated correctly, but we can miss how they are connected to one another because of the limits of English. The word for believe and faith come from the same root word. However, faith cannot be used as a verb (faithed or faithing). Jesus continues to teach the disciples that whoever says to this mountain “be taken up and thrown into the sea.” If you do not doubt in your heart but believe (faith), it will be done. We often begin with a wrong understanding of faith (i.e., a birthday wish), then we come to this passage and expect that this passage is encouraging us to make a big birthday wish that seems impossible to do. The bigger the birthday wish, and the more ‘faith’ we have, the better it will be. If the unthinkable does not happen, we did not ‘believe’ in our birthday wish enough. However, we have multiple problems with this interpretation. This passage is not speaking about big birthday wishes. Jesus is not using this example of a mountain into the sea to represent praying for the impossible or big dreams.
Jesus begins by using ‘a mountain,’ but ‘this mountain.’ Now this mountain could mean serval mountains (e.g., Mount Olives, Mark 11:1, 13:3); however, I do believe he is talking about Mount Zion, which is where the temple of the Lord is. This section of Mark is centered upon the temple. Before this, we must also consider that before this, Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7, which says, “These I will bring to my holy mountain.” The mountain Christ is talking about is that of Mount Zion. Jesus then explains that you can tell the mountain to be thrown into the sea. This wording is used precisely in Revelation 8:8 when the second of seven angels blow trumpets. After the second angel blows his trumpet, John records, “The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood” (Rev 8:8). Later in Revelation, after the seventh angel pours out his bowl, no mountains are found (Rev 16:20). Even later, John is taken to the high mountain where the city of God is, and he sees it come down from heaven. Mountains often are the image of man’s proximity to reach the heavens. Jesus explains those who have faith in God will no longer need a mountain to get God. The temple is but a shadow of heavenly realities. The gap is not reached by birthday wishes but through faith and only through faith. John Chrysostom has a beautiful image of prayer by faith,
“Prayer is an all-efficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mine never exhausted, a sky unobstructed by clouds, a haven unruffled by storm. It is the root, the fountain, and the mother of a thousand blessings. It exceeds a monarch’s power.… I speak not of the prayer which is cold and feeble and devoid of zeal. I speak of that which proceeds from a mind outstretched, the child of a contrite spirit, the offspring of a soul converted—this is the prayer which mounts to heaven.… The power of prayer has subdued the strength of fire, bridled the rage of lions, silenced anarchy, extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, enlarged the gates of heaven, relieved diseases, averted frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. In sum, prayer has power to destroy whatever is at enmity with the good. I speak not of the prayer of the lips, but of the prayer that ascends from the inmost recesses of the heart.”
III. Believe it, Receive it (24)
Jesus then utters words which have been twisted and distorted by many a false teacher, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). What does this mean? If I ask God for something in prayer and pretend I have received it already, it will be mine. This is called “name it and claim it.” So, if I ask for something and do not receive it, does that mean I have not had enough faith? Again, this concept of faith is a birthday wish; there is no assurance or conviction in a birthday wish. Faith is then a limpness test. Then sadly, the church has failed because many people are unconverted, many people who suffer from illness, and the list can go on.
We need to understand this verse within its context. Sadly many false teachers know this verse but not the verses surrounding it. “Whatever you ask in prayer, have faith that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Jesus began this teaching explaining who we should have faith in, God. To give us more understanding, we could expand this verse to read, “Whatever you ask in prayer, have faith [in God] that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Faith then is not some potential desire but has the foundation of God. Prayer then is not merely asking God for anything; prayer is trusting God to hear your requests and answer them according to his will. Prayer, BM Palmer said, is creaturely dependence. We are dependent on God not merely to listen to our prayer but also to respond to it according to his will, not ours. If prayer were according to our will, we would not be dependent on God. We would be commanding God.
The issue with the “name it and claim it” teaching is that they think they can define the ‘it.’ The person praying can pray anything they want, and if they have enough faith, they will get it. Sadly, in that equation, you don’t need God. James gives the perfect example of this, combining verses 23 and 24. James says,
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:5-8).
The example James provides for us is a prayer for wisdom. We are to pray to God for wisdom, in faith, without doubting. The author of Proverbs instructs us what true wisdom is (Prov 2:6-10). Doubt is the opposite of faith. Doubt is a birthday wish; faith is assurance and conviction. Faith rests not in our own ability to cause a particular outcome but rests wholly on God and his character. Trusting in God to answer every prayer according to His will. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
IV. Forgiveness (25)
Jesus ends by saying, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). This might appear like a strange statement to include at the end of this passage. What does forgiveness have to do with faith? Well, everything, we trust in God for his faithfulness. We stand before him in prayer only because of what Christ had done for us. This passage is the only time in the Gospel of Mark that we see God being referred to as “your father.” The glorious truth of our adoption by God through Jesus. This should remind us of the Lord’s prayer, yet again, which is why some people believe verse 27 appears in some manuscripts. As John Chrysostom finished in the quote above, “I speak not of the prayer of the lips, but of the prayer that ascends from the inmost recesses of the heart.” Prayer is not merely uttering words with our lips but comes from the heart. How can we go to the Lord in prayer asking that he forgive us of all of the transgressions that we have committed against the Holy God and hold resentment and unforgiveness to others who have sinned against us? Prayer must begin with the heart. We often downplay our sin against God and increase a sin committed against ourselves.
In Matthew 18:21-35, we are told of the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master shows great mercy to the first servant who owes him 10,000 talents; however, the first servant shows no mercy to his servant who owes him 100 denarii. The second servant’s debt of 100 denarii is not small, about100 days of wages. However, the debt the first servant owed was astronomically more. We might have others that have caused us great pain and sorrow. We are called to forgive them as God our Father forgives us (Matt 6:16-15).
The fig tree’s fruit is faith in God; unfruitfulness is unbelief. The author of Hebrews explains, “without faith, it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). As we will see next week, the issue of unbelief comes up in contrast to faith. Jesus teaches his disciples that they must have faith in God. They seek God the father and are dependent upon him, which is prayer. Prayer is faith put into words as it begins in the innermost recesses of the heart and ascends to God the Father, who is in heaven.