Mark 11: Faith and prayer that can move mountains

Application

Mark 11 marks the beginning of the Passion Week. Starting with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey’s colt, the chapter records a single scene from Sunday before Jesus retired to Bethany for a good night’s rest. The next morning, as he and his disciples set out for town, an early fig tree promised a breakfast treat, but when they went looking for fruit, they found the tree bare.

Frustrated, Jesus glowered, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” and he and his disciples continued on their way.

That night, in the twilight, no one noticed that the leaves on the tree were grayed and curling. By the next morning, though, there was no mistaking it. In fact, the entire tree was now withered and thoroughly dead, the leaves that hadn’t fallen to the ground shriveled and hanging limply down.

The disciples were astonished at the coincidence that the very tree Jesus had cursed just 24 hours earlier was now dead to the core, but Jesus was unfazed. And as they fanned out around the tree to inspect it for themselves, Jesus kept walking, telling them, “Have faith in God,” and going on to explain the power of a faithful prayer.

Sadly, Jesus’ words here have been the source of much dismay for many followers through the centuries. How many countless men and women have hung their faith on the idea that they could tell the mountain to throw itself into the sea, and then, when the mountain didn’t move, walked away from their faith frustrated and dejected. Indeed, we pray for healings, new jobs, miraculous interventions, finances, babies, spouses, and on and on and on and on. In fact, entire churches have been founded on the idea that whatever we pray in Jesus’ name will be done for us. And yet we can’t escape the fact that bad things which no one in their right mind would have prayed for still happen, and quite often, we simply don’t get what we want out of prayer.

We grasp the idea that “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ it will be done for him.” But is that really what Jesus said?

If we look more closely at what Jesus says here, we discover four things that I believe are essential to having our prayers answered, whether they are big or small. The first is in what Jesus says right off the bat: “Have faith in God.” In our day and age, that word faith is a little bit misunderstood. You see, we interpret faith as a synonym for “belief,” which is technically true. But faith is more than just a cognitive recognition that something is true. It is a cognitive recognition which compels practical action. In other words, faith is a life-driving belief in something. Just like we believe that the room we’re sitting in right now is filled with air, including life-sustaining oxygen, versus water, and so we go ahead and breathe normally, we must believe in God, the creator, sustainer, ruler and judge of all creation, and so live our lives in relationship with Him, in submission to His revealed will and in pursuit of His likeness in our own lives. All of this is easy to forget, though, when we mistake faith for mere belief. So the first thing that we have to remember (and realize) if we’re going to experience the powerful prayer of which Jesus speaks here in Mark 11 is that we must have faith in God. This is where it all starts.

The second thing we discover is found in the clause that we often like to skip over when we read this passage. The idea that we can tell the mountain to throw itself into the sea and it will be done is awesome, but it must not be uncoupled from the qualification that we do not doubt in our hearts. To put this a little differently, our prayer must not be “Go, throw yourself into the sea, and then I will believe in God.” Oh, I know. We would never pray that out loud! But how often are our prayers really worded like that in our hearts? We pray, “Lord, if You heal my mother, my husband, my son, my finances, my marriage, me, then I will believe.” We plead, “God, if you will get me out of this situation, then I will obey.” We beg, “Give me what I want now, and I’ll do whatever You say for the rest of my life.” You see, we play these games with God that, if He’ll just do this one more thing, He’ll have proved Himself to us, and then we’ll be faithful. Jesus, however, makes clear that God isn’t in the business of answering prayer to convince people. He’s in the business of answering prayer for convinced people.

And then there’s verse 25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him.” The first two conditions have to do with God. This third one deals with others. More specifically, it deals with others who may have hurt you in some way. Put simply, we cannot hold a grudge and expect to have our prayers answered. What’s interesting about this condition, though, is that it is a unilateral deal. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to seek out the person who hurt them, compel them the apologize, and then forgive them and continue with the prayer. They are to simply forgive, then and there. And it’s also an unconditional deal. Jesus doesn’t provide for any but’s, and we’re not allowed to pick up our grudge when the prayer is done and answered, either. The mandate here is to get over it, once and for all.

Finally, the fourth thing that we discover is actually more of a non-discovery. We don’t discover Jesus mentioning anything about what to do if someone else has something against us. Considering that he clearly tells us what to do if we have something against someone else, this is a rather striking omission. And it leads us to one of two conclusions. The first is that it’s not a big deal if we’ve done something to hurt someone else. Frankly, though, considering the Great Commandment (Matt 22:39) and Jesus’ instructions about worship in Matt 5:22-23, I don’t think this is a viable option. So we’re left with this: Jesus assumes that we haven’t done anything to hurt anyone else or that, if we have, we’ve already addressed it by repenting and seeking their forgiveness. Indeed, this is the only way that we are truly in compliance with the “Have faith…” clause above.

So, here’s the thing. Pray boldly and without fail for everything. And expect God to do great wonders when you do. But make sure that (a) you’re living a life consistent with your belief in God, (b) you’re not presenting your request as a test to determine whether or not you will start or continue to live by faith, (c) you’re not holding any grudges, and (d) no one has any reason to hold a grudge against you.

I dare say that, if the church would start living by these guidelines, we would probably have a dramatically more effective prayer life and church than any of us have ever known! So what are we waiting for?

Notes

  • (6) Clearly, these people had heard about Jesus. Clearly, they had heard he was on his way to Jerusalem. Clearly, they had already concluded that he was the messiah. They may have even realized that he was the Son of God, that they would respond to this statement that “the Lord needs it.” Why else would they just let these strangers take a colt – the ancient equivalent of a Cadillac – without permission.
  • (7-8) The description here contains a couple of opposing images. The people are clearly hailing Jesus as a conquering messiah, even a new and powerful king. Yet rather than a noble steed, Jesus chooses a donkey’s colt for his transportation. This is essentially saying that the president doesn’t need his armored limousine with Secret Service escort, but that he’ll go with a simple Cadillac instead. It was a little more special than most people’s cars, but certainly not to the level that the people were expecting.
  • (11) After a procession like what has just happened, I know that the disciples and the entire city were likely excited when Jesus arrived at the temple, thinking that he would immediately proclaim himself king and overthrow Rome by morning. But instead, he merely had a look around and then retreated by to Bethany. How anticlimactic for these people! And how clear the message, that Jesus wasn’t there to overthrow Rome but had bigger, more important deliverance in mind!
  • (12-14) Apparently, fig fruit are supposed to appear at the same time as the leaves. So this tree in leaf should have been heavy with fruit. But instead, there was nothing on it at all.
  • (15-18) There seems to be a bit of a dispute in the timing of this. Matthew records the cleansing happening on Sunday night, before Jesus cursed the fig tree the next morning. Luke records it rather ambiguously, simply saying “Then he entered the temple” (19:45 NIV). John records only a similar incident happening near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, but that may be a separate deal entirely. At any rate, the timing isn’t all that important; just something that needs to be noted.
  • (20-25) Jesus’ teaching here is profoundly simple. If we will believe that God can and will do something, it will be done. But it must be noted that this hangs on two things: the real believer in God will pray according to his understanding of God’s will, and the forgiveness outlined in vs 25. We can’t hold a grudge and expect our prayers to be answered.
  • (27-28) “these things” and “this” = to drive out the merchants from the temple courts on Monday and make sure they stayed out on Tuesday.
  • (29-33) Jesus’ question clearly reveals these men’s priorities. They were too consumed with their own agenda to acknowledge the obvious conclusion that John’s baptism was from heaven. And they were too afraid of the people rejecting them to deny it. They were, in essence, politicians, providing a nice, fluffy answer that actually said nothing except that they were more interested in keeping their positions of authority than being decisive.
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