When I was a young pastor, I assumed that the Gospels were the easiest places to preach from. How wrong I was! The Gospels can present quite a challenge, and the text before us is one such example. I have found this to one of the strangest interactions in Mark, primarily because of its setting. Think about it.
A destructive act (vv. 12–14) is followed by another destructive act (vv. 15–17) and they become an object lesson for believing God for another destructive act (v. 23)! Jesus was in effect saying, “If you want to experience the power to do something destructive, then ‘have faith in God.’” Yes, Jesus used the context of destruction to encourage his disciples to faithful praying. That seems odd, until you grasp that such praying for destruction is necessary for fruitful construction. To this end, I want to exhort us to “have faith in God.”
We will study this passage under three broad headings.
Have Faith in God’s Plan
First, we must learn to have faith in God’s plan:
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.
Jesus trusted God’s plan. He therefore was destructive to be constructive.
Many years ago I heard a story about a farmer in Tennessee whose land had rich soil but also some massive hills—small mountains, if you will. This made farming difficult. And he had neither the means nor the money to level it.
One day, he was reading this passage in Mark and felt encouraged to pray and ask the Lord to remove the mountain. A few weeks later, there was a knock on his door. The local utility company was laying power lines and asked permission to lay them on his property. To do so, however, they needed to level the major hill on his property. Would he mind?
We serve a wonderful God who is Almighty, sovereign over all, and “able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Indeed, “to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21).
Our God is able to move mountains. But we need to understand what kind of mountains he particularly had in mind here. I don’t doubt God’s providence on that farm in Tennessee, but the mountain that Jesus spoke about here is something quite different.
You will remember that Mark 11 is an example of the frequent Marian sandwiches in this Gospel.
Mark writes about Jesus going into the temple (v. 11), then cursing a fig tree on his way back to the temple (vv. 12–14). Jesus then cleanses the temple (vv. 15–19) and the fig tree appears again on his way back to the temple (vv. 20–27). Mark is using his literary skill to help us to make a connection between the fig tree and the temple.
I was asked recently if the fig tree represents the temple only or Israel as a people. I think it represents both, with an emphasis upon the temple.
The temple was the fulcrum of Israel’s religious and even cultural life. Jewish males were required to go to several feasts each year in Jerusalem and these centred on the temple.
The temple was the purported dwelling place of God (even though, according to Ezekiel 10, God had departed long ago). Therefore one could not speak of old covenant Israel without reference (whether self-consciously or not) to the temple. The temple signified Israel like the White House signifies the United States.
This is important to keep in mind as we delve into this text.
Having cleared the temple the day before, instructing those who would listen about God’s purpose for the temple—and his purpose for Israel (vv. 15-17)—Jesus stirred up murderous hostility from the Sanhedrin (v. 18). He then goes back to Bethany with the disciples (v. 19).
The next day, he headed back to the temple (v. 20). I wonder what the disciples were thinking. “Oh boy, here we go again! Those chief priests and scribes were upset yesterday. Do you think we will be safe? After all, they are the big boys and we are merely country bumpkin Galileans. What is going to happen to us if Jesus keeps stirring up trouble?” Of course, we know what would happen, as did most of Mark’s original readers. Jesus would be crucified, rise from the dead, and will send these same disciples into a hostile culture to begin building a new temple, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. He would send them to face some very prominent mountains of opposition.
If the disciples were anxious about their return to Jerusalem, perhaps this pericope would have provided them with great encouragement. It should have.
Passing by the fig tree, the disciples saw that it had “withered away to its roots” (v. 20). The tree was clearly lifeless. Indeed, no fruit would ever again grow on it (v. 14). This is reminiscent of Jeremiah 8:13: “‘I will surely consume them,’ says the LORD. ‘No grapes shall be on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things I have given them shall pass away from them.’”
Peter spoke up and, with a sense of amazement, said “Rabbi, look!” Peter seemed surprised to see that what Jesus proclaimed had come to pass. Sound familiar?
Perhaps Peter thought that Jesus had spoken hyperbolically. Perhaps he thought Jesus was like him: prone to rashness. But seeing the fruit of Jesus’ words—fruit that went all the way to the root—was a sobering and even shocking awareness. Clearly Jesus meant what he said. Was Peter, and perhaps others of the disciples, beginning to put together this event and what happened at the temple.
That aside, I am puzzled that Peter referred to Jesus as “Rabbi.” It is a term of respect, which falls far short of “Lord” (see v. 3). It falls far short of Peter’s earlier confession that Jesus was the Christ (8:29). Mistaken identity can be problematic. Mistaken identity can lead to confusion and to disappointment. When it comes to Jesus Christ, if we don’t get this right, our faith will be adversely affected. This has often been the case with the disciples. It is often my problem. And you?
An Instruction about Destruction
Jesus’ response is rather strange, even perplexing.
The cursed fig tree was a declaration and display of judgement upon something that was not fulfilling its purpose. It was an action of destruction—an instruction for destruction, we might say.
Yet it seems that Jesus was transforming a work of judgement into a word of encouragement—specificity, a word of encouragement to pray. Further, the object for which he exhorted them to believe God and pray for was, again, a destructive act: a mountain cast into the sea. He seems to be saying that the disciples should expect to use their words in the same destructively effective way as did he. In fact, his example seems even more promising. Whereas Jesus, by his word, shrivelled up a fig tree, the disciples’ use of words in prayer could result in a mountain being taken up and thrown into the sea (v. 23). That is quite a promise. Jesus said that if a disciple does “not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” He reinforced this promise with an exhortation: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Jesus seems to have been encouraging prayer as a means to effect destruction. Should those on Table Mountain be nervous? I don’t think so.
A Considered Explanation
A few things to consider will help us to understand what Jesus was teaching.
First, the context focuses on Jesus and the temple. So, whatever else we glean from this passage, it is closely connected with the temple and recent events there. That is, whatever Jesus was teaching about faith and prayer, it has something to do with the fig tree and with what it pointed to: i.e. the condition of the temple.
Second, the context keeps this from being a carte blanche promise that guarantees God will always do the sensational. Rather, it’s a promise of God doing what he has promised—in spite of what seems impossible. It is precisely here that we need to be careful of turning these words of divine exhortation into ridiculousness.
Throughout church history many have been deeply disappointed, even disillusioned as they have flippantly applied a faulty understanding of Jesus’ words. A wrong understanding can lead to one stumbling in their faith. It can also create a stumblingblock for others.
Third, if we will grasp what Jesus was teaching, we need to understand what Jesus meant when he spoke about a mountain. Was this mere hyperbole?
Was Jesus simply using a proverbial saying to illustrate how, through faith and prayer, any big difficulty can be overcome?
Mountains are big and seemingly unmoveable. Like mountains, some problems seem completely insurmountable. Yet God can overcome them and we need to believe him for this. If we pray in a faith-filled manner, we will find ourselves having “received it.”
I think there is truth in this, as other passages in Scripture teach, and I believe there is good reason to apply this principle from these verses. But I don’t believe this is the main point. Jesus was speaking metaphorically, but not merely hyperbolically.
A Mountain of Trouble
What was Jesus referring to by this mountain? I think he was being quite literal, speaking either of the Mount of Olives or the Temple mount.
The Mount of Olives features prominently in the final chapters of Mark (11:1; 13:3; 14:26). Literally, everything that transpires from chapters 11–16 occurs in the shadow of the Mount of Olives. If this is what Jesus was referring to, Zechariah 14:1–5 may be the prophetic referent.
If Jesus was referring to the Temple Mount, then his discourse in chapter 13 would undergird this interpretation. The temple would, in less than forty years, be destroyed. It would be raised to the ground, though the actual mount upon which it was built would remain. In other words, Jerusalem and its temple would one day be thrown into the sea of the Gentiles.
This is all true, but they undergird the metaphor of mountains in scripture. In looking at the over four hundred references to mountains in Scripture, it’s clear that mountains often represent kingdoms. Eden was on a mount. The new kingdom began on mount where Noah’s (God’s!) ark rested. Israel was constituted as a nation on a mountain (Exodus 19–24). The Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms are sometimes referred to with mountain language. Most significantly, the nation of Israel was considered a mountain (Mount Zion). In her glory she, like a mountain, was formidable. Finally, the prophesied Messianic kingdom is sometimes described with mountainous terminology (Isaiah 11:1–9; Micah 4:1–2; see Ezekiel 40:1ff).
The Lord Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God (1:14–15; 10:15; etc.). When he neared and entered Jerusalem, people associated this with “the coming kingdom of our father David” (v. 10). A new mountain had arrived. And there was not room for two. One would need to be removed. One would need to be thrown into the sea. And it wouldn’t be Christ’s kingdom.
The disciples, like everyone else in Israel, expected a physical kingdom when Messiah arrived. They expected that Messiah would bring a revolution in which Rome would be overthrown. They expected the insurmountable mountain of oppressive Rome to be defeated and for Israel to become the kingdom, in all of its Solomonic glory, where everyone would prosper under his/her vine and fig tree (1 Kings 4:25).
But Jesus’ actions, both with the fig tree and subsequently in the temple, revealed that Messiah’s concern was not with removing Rome but with bringing judgement upon Israel—at least, upon her religious leaders and the paraphernalia connected to them (i.e. the temple). In other words, the primary mountain—the primary obstacle standing in the way of the mountain of God’s kingdom—was Mount Zion, as represented by the temple. Until this was removed, the kingdom of God would not prosper.
I don’t think the disciples understood this at the time. But later they, and the subsequent New Testament church, would. We certainly should.
To summarise, Jesus was exhorting them to pray for the establishment of the kingdom of God, which would require otherwise insurmountable obstacles to be removed. Willian Lane summarises: “The prayer [is] specifically a Passover prayer for God to establish his reign.”
The Temple Mount would need to be removed, making room for the temple of the body of Christ. That body of Christ is the church (see John 2:13–22).
Have Faith in God’s Promise
Second, we must have faith in God’s promise, as Jesus did: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (v. 24). Jesus knew the Father’s will and this informed his prayer list. We too should know his will. His will is that his kingdom will come.
John Calvin said that “the true test of faith lies in prayer.” That is, if we are not praying, we are not believing. Hence, followers of Jesus should practice expectant prayer. When we are up against a mountain of opposition, we must pray. The early church did.
A Look Through Acts
A simple reading through the book of Acts reveals the intense opposition to the church by Jewish religious leaders (e.g. 13:4–8, 44–45, 48–51; 14:1–7; 14:19; 15:1–2). Also note Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2:13–16.
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
(1 Thessalonians 2:13–16)
It’s clear from the scriptural record that Jewish opposition was the early church’s most intense nemesis. How would this fledgling, very counter-cultural, people be able to disciple the nations when, at every turn, they were being hindered from doing so? Through faith-fuelled, faith-filled prayer. By believing prayer, they would be able to see mountains of opposition removed.
Consider the opposition that the church faced in Acts 4:1–7 from the same people who crucified Jesus (see vv. 15–22). How did Peter and John and the church respond? They gathered and prayed. They believed God’s promise (see vv. 23–32; cf. Psalm 2). The result was the growth of the church (4:32–37; 5:12–15; etc.).
This is not the only place where prayer, God’s judgement, and the growth of the church are connected. The church faced Jewish opposition again in Acts 12. Verses 1–5 records the opposition and the church’s response of prayer. Verses 20–25 highlight God’s judgement upon the primary persecutor, and the following chapter shows the expansion of the church.
Revelation 6:1–16 and 8:1–8ff again connect prayer to God’s judgement of his people’s persecutors. They are imprecatory prayers. Interestingly, both mention mountains. And Revelation 6 mentions a fig tree, which has lost its fruit (6:13). Coincidence? I think not.
Revelation is about God’s judgement upon Jerusalem, with focus on destruction of the temple to make room for the new temple (3:12; 7:15; 11:1, 2, 19; 21:22–24). Chapters 6 and 8 record the prayers of saints for the advancement of the kingdom through the means of God’s new temple, the church of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:19ff; 1 Peter 2:1–10). God’s people prayed for God to defeat the enemies of his temple—New Jerusalem, which is from above (Galatians 4:26–27; Hebrews 12:18–24; Revelation 21:1–14).
Jesus was instructing his disciples, as well as those throughout history (including us), that God’s kingdom purposes will stand. But a means towards this is that we must “stand praying” (v. 25).
Too often, our prayers are very self-focused. We ask the Lord to bless us, to be gracious to us, and to shine his face upon us. But we tend to be oblivious concerning God’s agenda. We often give little, if any, thought to his kingdom purposes. We lose sight of the right motive for our praying for blessings.
Yes, we can trust God to move mountains of health and financial and relational and social problems. But we must ask for these with a kingdom mentality and motive. We must pray for big things.
How often do we pray for the removal of political obstacles to the advancement of the gospel (1 Timothy 2:1ff)? How often do we pray for the reversal of economies for the funding of the Great Commission? How often do we pray for the revival of God’s people so that more will be reached with the gospel and healthier churches established? How often do we pray for the restoring of relationships for the unifying of God’s people for the extension of God’s kingdom? How often do we pray for the reforming of churches for the glory of God’s name? How often do we pray for the rescue of God’s people from enemies of the gospel so the kingdom will march on?
Have Faith in God’s Pardon
Finally, we must have faith in God’s pardon. Jesus did—and he laid down his life to secure it. “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” (vv. 25–26).
Faith, Forgiveness and Fellowship
Jesus’ teaching emphasises the need for faith and forgiveness. Why is this?
R. T. France highlights that “prayer is here presented as something which the community of disciples undertakes together, not a private transaction between the individual believer and God.” If we are bitter towards one another, how can ever pray? We are to guard our attitudes and our relationships.
Calvin gets to the heart of the matter when he writes:
If we are not harder than iron, this exhortation ought to soften us, and render us disposed to forgive offences…. Those who refuse to forget the injuries which have been done to them, devote themselves willingly and deliberately to destruction, and knowingly prevent God from forgiving them.
If we will have power in prayer, we must have hearts that are softened by the grace of God. Otherwise we will ask wrongly (James 4:3).
We cannot pray for the advancement of God’s kingdom while at the same time hindering its advancement by a spirit of unforgiveness. We cannot be hot-headed nor hard-hearted and pray for the advancement of holiness. How can we pray for the advancement of the gospel if we ourselves are denying its power by a bitter, hardened, unforgiving, self-righteous spirit?
It is all too easy to pray in a way that is, well, not very Christian. This lies behind Jesus’ exhortation to “forgive if you have anything against anyone.” I’m guessing that the “sons of thunder” needed to hear this—as do, perhaps, some contemporary sons of thunder.
Further, if you can’t pray for God’s justice on those persecuting our brothers and sisters without a heart willing to forgive, imprecatory praying is not for you.
Jesus, Faith and Forgiveness
In a few days, all hell would break loose. Jesus would be unjustly arrested, unfairly tried, and unfathomably crucified—all at the hands of Jews, who were leading the Jewish nation. What a foreboding mountain. Add to this the assistance of those representing the Roman Empire and the mountain looms all the higher and more formidable. How on earth—literally—would the kingdom of God ever come in the face of such opposition? It would come by faith. It would come by forgiveness.
Jesus did not doubt his Father’s plan. He did not doubt his Father’s commitment to glorify his name. He believed God and therefore was sure that “the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it” (Micah 4:1). For this reason Jesus had entered Jerusalem, cursed the fig tree, cleansed the temple, and would confront the corrupt leaders. Ultimately, he would lay down his life as a substitutionary sacrifice, cruelly and unjustly treated.
But isn’t it interesting that he went with a forgiving spirit? We are familiar with his almost incredible words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
For whom was Jesus praying? Perhaps he was praying for the Romans who performed the actual act of crucifixion. As pagans, they clearly would not know who they were crucifying. But in the light of Acts 3:14–17 and 1 Corinthians 2:8 Jesus was also forgiving the crowd of Jews who called for and supported his crucifixion.
Consider what would happen. By means of an injustice, God would satisfy his justice (Romans 3:21–26). Later, he would bring about justice in the destruction of Jerusalem. By this action, the old covenant temple would be destroyed and the new covenant temple will come into full effect. Jesus saw one mountain removed in judgement and another mountain arise in vindication. And in the entire process, no bitterness arose. Rather a spirit of forgiveness permeated all he did. It still does. And how Jesus responded is precisely how we are to respond (1 Peter 2:21–25).
Let’s draw some important principles from this text.
The Father’s house is still a place of prayer for all the nations. There is something else going on here—a lesson that they would need as they found themselves cut off from the temple. As those belonging to Jesus, they could pray apart from the temple. As Witherington concludes, “To abandon faith in the temple is not to abandon faith in God.” Or to cite Edwards: “Jesus, and not the temple, is the object of faith…. It is a choice to trust in Jesus despite everything to the contrary, and to expect from him what cannot be expected from anything else in the world.”
Though the early church would initially meet often at the temple (see Acts), that will not always remain the case. But they could still pray, for the Father’s house would be wherever his people were!
Jesus was giving seed thought to these disciples to help them when they could no longer gather at the temple. Even then, they could pray. The lesson for us is that God’s house—his people—are to be a people who pray.
We should pray with deep conviction for big things concerning his kingdom—not necessarily a big church, but a maturing and healthy and unified church. We should pray for barriers to the gospel to come down in restricted access nations.
Our prayers should be kingdom-centred. We should pray for our health concerns—so that we might better serve the King. No doubt, God often sees our poor health as the best way to serve him. But when we do pray for health, let it be kingdom motivated.
We should pray about our financial woes—so that we can have to give to those in need, for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 8–9; Philippians 4:15–19).
By all means, pray for your desire for a family, but do so motivated by your desire to make disciples. Pray for church growth so that the church can make disciples and plant churches. Pray for political and economic stability so that nothing will hinder the effective spread of the gospel.
To have faith in God requires we defeat doubt. Our doubts are overcome with certainties of God’s word. As we become persuaded of God’s eschatological purpose—his promised eschatological purpose—our doubts are overcome, our faith is strengthened, and our prayers are motivated to ask for removal of mountains.
We must become persuaded, from Scripture, that God’s purpose will stand—that he will build his church, that the nations will be gathered in, and that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. When we are persuaded of this, we will pray accordingly. When we are persuaded of this, we will persevere like we believe it. When we are persuaded of this, we will preach like it. When we are persuaded of this, we will parent like it. When we are persuaded of this, we will pastor like it.
Read meaningfully and meditate deeply on the book of Acts. It will serve as a tonic to your soul. Read carefully, and prayerfully, Revelation 19–22. It will encourage your perspective. Read church history—including biographies of faithful Christians—and let this encourage you what God has brought others through.
But in all of this, the assumption is that the advancement of the kingdom of God matters to you. Does it? Is it what you are seeking “first” (Matthew 6:33)?
The kingdom of God is the mountain that makes all mountains surmountable. All earthly kingdoms will give way to the “great mountain” that is filling “the whole earth” (Daniel 2:35). The kingdom of Christ will prevail.
But for this mountain—this kingdom—to come, Jesus Christ would need to go to another mountain: Mount Calvary. And that is where Mark 11 is heading. Jesus was stirring up trouble by proclaiming truth and revealing sin. It would cost him his life, which he would gladly lay down.
Jesus had faced mountains of temptation, threats, and criticism. He had faced mountains of misunderstanding. Soon, he would pray in the shadow of the Mount of Olives (Gethsemane) for help to persevere (14:32ff). He would be arrested, unjustly tried, beaten, and crucified at Golgotha, on the Mount called Calvary (Luke 23:33). He would then be buried and three days later would rise from the dead.
On another mountain, he would commission his disciples to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:16–20). And then they would begin to face some enormous mountains. How would they ever persevere? The same way you and I are to persevere: by remembering the place where victory was sealed—Mount Calvary.
Paul put it this way: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). These “all things” are the promise of certain and eventual victory: glorified bodies in a glorified creation. The fullness of God’s kingdom will come. His name will be glorified. His revealed will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven will come to earth.
With this certainty, we can come up against various mountains, we can confront the various obstacles in church life, and with biblical faith, say,
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Christian, God still moves mountains, because God is still establishing his mountain. And his means towards this end are faithful Christians in faithful local churches. Let us believe and pray, and forgive, and anticipate greater things still to come.