Mark’s Gospel is replete with theological gems worthy of the time to mine them. None is more important to the times we live in today than the entire vignette of Jesus and the disciples leaving the temple complex, Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, and His admonition concerning “this mountain.”
The first item I would like for you to consider is that the expectation of the Messiah was also, of course, the expectation of His Kingdom’s arrival. The disciples were not wrong in thinking that way. The church age was a mystery to them.
That’s the primary reason the Jews wanted Messiah to arrive – to overthrow Rome. Then there’s the question of the Abrahamic Covenant fulfillment, especially the land aspect of that covenant.
Then we need to consider the fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant as well as the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant. They seemed to be ready to receive Christ as their King, but the nation was mired in rank apostasy and leading the way was the religious leadership.
We must not, as our Christian forefathers did to their shame, blame the Jews for Christ’s execution, and by that, give place to anti-Semitism. By “blame” I mean treat them as unredeemable. We must acknowledge that Jesus the Christ was foreordained to the cross as God’s Word makes clear.
The testimony of Scripture is that the hardening of the Jews occurred that the Gentiles would be grafted into the vine. That being the case, why is there hatred toward the Jews among professing Christians?
In God’s plan, there was the cross and there was the glory, both components of His plan with the latter having a yet future fulfillment.
This waiting period, the dispensation of the church age is summarized in Acts 2:34-35 which is a quote from Psalm 110:1:
“34 For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right Hand, 35 Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”’
Let’s start our study of the text at Mark 11:12 where we read: “12 On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry.” It’s Monday morning. Jesus and His disciples left the house of Lazarus without eating breakfast.
I think missing breakfast was intentional; it provided the backdrop for a teaching moment. The text gives no hint of this but, I wonder if Jesus, coming into the Temple, looked around and thought how weak and frail man is.
He had been in the Temple three short years earlier. Then, He drove out the merchants and criticized the religious leaders.
He had been in the Temple as a twelve-year-old boy and the religious leaders marveled at His understanding. Did Jesus think of His prophets who had announced His arrival previously?
For example, Malachi 3:1,
“1Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.”
Or perhaps He considered Haggai 2:9,
“9 ‘The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘and in this place I will give peace,’ declares the Lord of hosts.”
Or Ezekiel 43:1-4:
“1Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing toward the east; 2 and behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the way of the east. And His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory. 3 And it was like the appearance of the vision which I saw, like the vision which I saw when He came to destroy the city. And the visions were like the vision which I saw by the river Chebar; and I fell on my face. 4 And the glory of the Lord came into the house by the way of the gate facing toward the east.”
Or Isaiah 2:1-3:
“1The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. 3 And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
Did Jesus consider the folly of man that would sit in judgment over Him in a few short days? He, the Judge of all creation being judged in the place dedicated to Him but no longer occupied.
Did Jesus come into the Temple in silence as a picture He would duplicate in a few short days before the hastily called Sanhedrin?
We do see a clear change in focus after Jesus cleared the Temple a second time. Prior to that, His parables focused on Kingdom principles. From this point forward when Jesus used parables, the focus was on Himself as King. We see it immediately in Chapter 12.
The fig tree pictures hypocrisy and apostasy – a semblance of godliness but not true fruits of faith. Paul warned Timothy of this same thing in 2 Timothy 3:1-9.
“1But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. 6 For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, 7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected in regard to the faith. 9 But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, just as Jannes’s and Jambres’s folly was also.”
In Matthew 21:19 we read the parallel account. “19 Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered.” – Matthew tells us the fig tree was “by the road.” This means that it was not “owned” or a part of anyone’s grove of trees.
It caught the attention of Jesus because it was in full foliage. The expectation was that there would be figs even though “it was early.”
Finding no fruit when the outward appearance said there would be resulted in Jesus’s condemnation, v14, “14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening.”
Now that is a word picture that deserves investigating. The Bible is the inspired Word of God, amen? Do you believe even the order of the words, even verses that follow verses is intentional? I certainly do too.
So, it is no accident that after cursing a fruitless fig tree, Jesus goes directly to the Temple, v15-19.
“15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; 16 and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. 17 And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.” 18 The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.19 When evening came, they would go out of the city.”
Now, we see several differences in this second Temple cleansing than in the first cleansing. For example, in the first, the religious leaders confronted Him. But not here, the second time.
Instead, they decide it’s time to murder Jesus, v18, “18 The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.” They began plotting the “how” not the “if”.
In the first instance of cleansing, Jesus rebuked them but here He pronounces judgment. That is clearly seen in Jesus’s quotation of Jeremiah 7-8 in v17, “17 And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.”
Here is a synopsis of those two chapters that bear upon a right understanding of what is about to transpire the next day. Jeremiah 7:3-4, 8-12, 14-16, and 20, gives us a proper perspective.
3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
8 “Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, 10 then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the Lord.
12 “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel.
14 therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brothers, all the offspring of Ephraim. 16 “As for you, do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me; for I do not hear you.
20 Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched.”
12 “Were they ashamed because of the abomination they had done? They certainly were not ashamed, and they did not know how to blush; Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; At the time of their punishment they shall be brought down,” Says the Lord.
13 “I will surely snatch them away,” declares the Lord;
“There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; And what I have given them will pass away.”’”
There are no coincidences in Scripture and Jesus knows exactly what He does and says when He acts and speaks. So we read v20, “20 As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up.” He responds with what appears to be a “head-scratcher.”
Jesus set this whole thing up to teach the disciples a very significant truth and to give us very clear instructions today.
Unfortunately, sloppy hermeneutics and heretical theology have combined to create false teaching today. Verses 22-24:
“22 And Jesus answered saying to them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. 24 Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”
Pretty clear, right? Whatever we ask for in prayer, if we just believe, it will be given to us. What people think is impossible, picking up a mountain and casting it into the sea or literally, whoever speaks to a mountain, “be thrown into the sea,” if he believes, it will happen. In other words, nothing is impossible with faith.
Friends that is not what Jesus is saying at all. Your faith, great or small, in abundance or lacking, is most often not the point.
This passage of Scripture – Mark 11:20-25 – and its parallels is one of the most abused passages in the Bible. It is particularly abused by Word of Faith advocates and even by those who have no idea what Word of Faith is but who nonetheless subscribe to a wrong interpretation.
The central issue is the abandonment of accurate language studies. Verses 22-24 are the crux of the issue. Christians, without considering the implications of what they are saying, will most often interpret these verses as saying that if they ask for something in prayer and harbor no doubts, then God will necessarily grant their request.
You’ve heard me say this many times: such an interpretation turns the divine-human relationship on its head. In other words, it makes God our sugar-daddy, our cosmic vending machine. God becomes the servant of every human desire and is no longer our sovereign Lord.
The error of the Word of Faith people begins in verse 22 where we read: “have faith in God.” The Greek there is echete pistin theou. The NASB, KJV, ESV, and NIV have the correct translation there.
What Word of Faith teachers do is re-interpret “have faith in God” to “have the faith of God” or “have the God kind of faith.” Then to compound their error, they place a kind of magical characteristic upon the spoken word.
That’s why you will hear some people say things like “release your faith” or “speak your faith” or “you can have what you say.” Kenneth Copeland is fond of screaming “money come to me!”
- This is “positive confession.”
- This is a form of “mantra” akin to occultism.
- Nowhere in the Scripture are we told to do these things.
Speaking of the Copelands, Kenneth’s wife, Gloria, said this about the Mark 11 passage we are looking at:
“I can’t think of anything that changed my life more after I was born again and filled with the Spirit than learning how to release faith, because this is the way you get anything – healing, money, the salvation of your children, the salvation of your husband or your wife – anything you’re believing for, it takes faith…to cause heaven to go into action…It says in Mark 11…remember, now, the message was you can have what you say. You can have what you say…Here’s the Scripture…For verily I say unto you, that whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed and be thou cast into the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass, he shall have whatsoever he saith. I say – look at that, say, say, saith, saith, say – I say unto you, what things soever you desire when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them. Man!”
Now, I don’t want to get too technical here so let me just say this: the grammar does not say what the Word of Faith people say it does.
Biblical scholar Kirk MacGregor, whom Kathy and I have met and had the blessing of dining with several years ago, makes this observation about the Word of Faith error:
“Echete pistin theou is not a subjective genitive but an objective genitive, thereby depicting God as the object of faith and necessitating the translation, “have faith in God.” Less frequent but equally incisive is the observation that even if echete pistin theou were a subjective genitive, the lack of a definite article before pistin would connote “faithfulness” not “faith” thus precluding the translation “have faith the faith of God” and instead exhorting believers to “have God’s faithfulness.”
Now, Christians who have not been deceived by Word of Faith heterodoxy, normally concur with the general meaning of this passage and add a qualifier found in 1 John 5:14-15 which reads in part: “if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us…and we have what we have asked of Him.”
So, if this is not what Jesus is saying here then what is He saying? Our first clue is found in verse 23. Jesus does not say, “if anyone says to a mountain” but, “whosoever says to this mountain (Greek – to orei touto) literally “to the mountain – this one.”
Again, I don’t want to get too technical but Mark uses both the definite article to and the demonstrative pronoun touto. Either of these alone olrei would indicate a specific mountain.
So, because Mark combines the definitive article with the demonstrative pronoun, there is no doubt that one particular mountain is in view.
Now context is king, amen? Where is Jesus when He speaks these words? Where was He going when He cursed the fig tree? To the Temple. Where was He coming from when the disciples observed the withered tree that occasioned Jesus’s response that we are now examining?
He and they were going to and coming from the Temple.
Thus, Jesus speaking of this mountain being cast into the sea immediately after His act of judgment in the Temple, can only refer to Judaism represented by the Temple Mount, or “this mountain.”
Robert H. Gundry, in his commentary on this passage points out that this statement represents a curse analogous in meaning to Jesus’ curse on the fig tree:
“Being lifted up and thrown into the sea makes the mountain moving a destructive act. It’s destructiveness make the speaking to the mountain a curse, as much a curse as Jesus’s speaking to the fig tree that no one should ever again eat fruit from it.
However, the passive verb arthetai (be lifted up) and blethetai (be thrown) indicate that the denouncer lacks the power to personally carry out the curse but is invoking someone else to execute it.”
As Gundry reveals, this fact explains Jesus’s faith directive:
“Because of the command to have faith in God, the passive voice in ‘be lifted up and be thrown into the sea’ means, ‘May God lift you up and throw you into the sea’…The element of faith comes into this mountain-cursing because in themselves the disciples…the lack of power to speak a mountain into the sea.”
So let me summarize. This passage has nothing whatsoever to do with blessings for those that speak these words but this is instead a cursing of external, hypocritical, apostate belief systems, which describes Judaism then and some of the theology of Word of Faith advocates today.
Therefore, the point of Jesus’s action was to enact the symbolic destruction of the Temple and judgment upon Israel. That’s why Jesus quoted Jeremiah 7-8 which was a condemnation of the corruption with Judaism and Jewish society as a whole, and that fact necessitated the destruction of the Temple.
Jesus’s statement about the Temple being a “den of robbers” doesn’t mean “the place where robbery occurs” but instead according to the Jeremiah passage, the Temple had become a “robbers lair where they return for safe haven after committing acts of robbery in the outside world.”
Mark’s Greek word for “robbers” (lestes) and its Hebrew cognate parisim from Jeremiah refer not to “swindlers” but to “brigands” or “bandits.”
Now, note verse 24: “all things for which you pray and ask” or pray and plead for, taken in context of Jesus’s judgment upon the Temple and Israel cannot mean pray for blessings upon them or to pray for blessing upon ourselves.
Jesus commands his disciples to act in consequence of his pronounced judgment (“For this reason I say to you…”) in the same way that God commanded Jeremiah to act in consequence of his pronounced judgment (“So you…”). Thus we have established that Jesus is recalling Jeremiah 7:16 in such a way that he is expecting his hearers to take the next logical step.
If the faithful cannot pray and plead for the Temple regime, it follows logically that they can only pray and plead against the Temple regime if they are to offer petitions concerning it at all. Just as Jeremiah responded to God’s exhortation not to intercede for the religio-political system of his day by declaring God’s destructive verdict against it, so in its context “to pray and plead for” means “under God’s Kingdom authorization, to pronounce a divine judgment of destruction upon.” Again we emphasize that if Jesus had intended for this to be a general word about prayer or how to pray for blessings, he would have used either proseuchesthe or aitesthe, not both; their unparalleled joint usage strongly indicates that a radically different theme is in play, an inference certified by Jesus’ undisputed outworking of Jeremiah 7-8. Moreover, such fits perfectly with Jesus’ “mountain-uprooting” exhortation to invoke God’s judgment upon the Temple: the fate befalling the Temple will also befall all other systems of religiously legitimated sin.
The phrase “everything which you pray and plead for” means “every unjust system operating in the name of religion which you, as God’s ambassadors, proclaim divine judgment upon” and cannot plausibly be interpreted as “everything you ask for in prayer,” thus precluding the fallacious inference that we will receive whatever we ask with sufficient faith.
Armed with the necessary background, we are now in a position to spell out precisely what Jesus meant in Mark 11:20-25 by his carefully crafted synthesis of word and deed as well as the passage’s contemporary significance. Following his symbolic destruction of the Temple and Peter’s observation that the fig tree he “had cursed” (kateraso) had withered, Jesus was poised to explain his acted parable to his disciples. When faced with exploitative systems claiming religious support that oppress and persecute God’s people and deceive those whom God desires to save, his followers must have faith in their all-just and all-powerful God to vindicate them by overthrowing these systems. God’s justice, as corroborated by Jesus’ actions, ensures a divine verdict of condemnation against these systems, and God’s power guarantees that the verdict will be fully executed at the Day of Yahweh if not before. Knowing the mind and power of God on this score, Jesus therefore gives his followers the right to pronounce a sentence of divine judgment against both the Temple (the mountain – this one) and all other prima facie religious but de facto worldly institutions (everything which you pray and plead for).
In conclusion, far from promising that a person can possess whatever they pray for with sufficient faith, Mark 11:20-25 encourages believers to exhibit sufficient faith in God to stand up against religiously legitimated sin. Believers should expose such affairs resting secure in Jesus’ promise that, if they resist compromise while maintaining lives of forgiveness, they will be vindicated against the wickedness of the Day of Yahweh. Instead of a stumbling block that incites doubt in biblical authority following unanswered prayer, the message of this text is both plausible in light of and consistent with the broad canonical panorama once understood contextually.
So, the point Jesus is making here in context is that apostate Judaism has been judged. Jesus is teaching the disciples that it will be overcome by faith in God as He establishes a new work through His called-out ones – the body of Christ. This was the new way, the covenant Jesus instituted at the Last Supper.
Now, that doesn’t mean God is done with Israel. The Bible says otherwise. But, it does mean that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. This applies to everyone.
How important is it to accurately divide the Word of God? Our spiritual lives depend on it, friends.
Pastor Mike Spaulding
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