Part of our ethos as Interservers is that we are a people of prayer. We are not alone in this. I think it is a common attribute of all followers of Christ. Our interest in prayer demonstrates that we have a real relationship with God. As a result, we think about prayer a lot; and we do it. We may feel like we may be weak in certain aspects of prayer, like intercession, but we pray. This post is to help us in our thinking about prayer just a bit more. And as I proceed, let me say that I have found one book to be especially helpful in thinking about prayer. It is by a professor at Calvin College named David Crump. The book is: Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. It was published by Baker Academic in 2006. I highly recommend it.
Although prayer has many dimensions to it, in its simplest form it is the way we express our relationship with God. It is talking with God, it is walking with God. It is the act that categorically expresses our absolute dependence upon the Lord. Prayer can arise at a time of extreme emotion- when we are so overwhelmed that we pour out our hearts to him. However, prayer can also be a simple moment of awe and thankfulness- like when we are struck by the beauty of His creation around us.
Prayer for many years was a conundrum for me. I simply didn’t understand it (to be honest- I still don’t but I think I have a better handle on it now than when I was younger). My beliefs were often shaped by sermons I heard about prayer and by people’s comments about it. Since my friends’ comments lined up with the sermons I heard, I figured that they were right. And many of the comments and sermons were based upon our level of faith. If we only believed enough we could see great things happen through prayer. As a result, I often tried to work up my faith so that it got to the level of “strong” faith. What I was really doing was working up my emotions, trying to get them in line with what I thought equalled strong faith. It was a flawed way to think about prayer, but it is what I thought and did.
I found that I misunderstood some of the fundamental biblical passages about prayer. And this misunderstanding led me to develop flawed expectations about the power of prayer. So, I am write a series of posts about prayer that look at a series of biblical passages. I hope that this brief look into the Word is as rewarding for you as it was for me. May the Holy Spirit open His Word to us in wonderful ways, to the end that each one of us will have a greater appreciation for prayer, and that each one of us will pray with more confidence, with greater expectancy, and with more frequency.
Our first text is Mark 11:22-25:
22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23Truly, 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. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.25 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.”
What does this text imply? Does Jesus really mean that if we really believe that whatever we ask for in our hearts, and if we don’t doubt, then what we ask for will happen?
We want to try to answer this question by focusing on these verses, on their immediate context in Chapter 11, and on the literary and historical context of the book of Mark.
If you look back into Mark 11, this passage winds up the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Chapter 11 begins with Jesus approaching Jerusalem. Then in verse 11 Mark tells us that Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. In verse 15 we see that Jesus came to Jerusalem the next day, entered the Temple, cleansed it, and taught. Then we see in verse 19 that at the end of the day Jesus departed from of the city. While Jesus was cleansing the temple in Mark 11, Jesus said that the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations (11:15-17). Sandwiched between the first entrance and the second entrance of the temple is the cursing of the fig tree. On the second morning Peter notices that the fig tree withered. Then we arrive at 11:22-25.
These details, especially the details about the city and the Temple, are significant. It appears that the mountain Jesus refers to in verse 23 was the mountain on which Jerusalem stood, symbolizing the religious authorities and the Temple system that stood in opposition to Jesus. The cursing of the fig tree demonstrated by analogy that Jesus was about to destroy the opposition he encountered from the religious powers in the city and in the Temple. What this means is that Jerusalem and the Temple were no longer going to be the center for worship of God. Contrary to what many Jewish people would be inclined to think, the destruction of the temple did not mean that prayer was going to come to an end. (This is what some Jewish Rabbis actually taught after the destruction of the Temple. Since there was no Temple, how could there be prayer?)
Remember when Mark was written. According to Guelich (1989, xxxi), Mark was likely written before the destruction of the Temple, around 67-69. The Temple was not yet destroyed. There was a lot of messianic fervor in the air. There were conflicting expectations. Some expected Rome to fall apart. But would it or would Jerusalem and the Temple be destroyed? Mark remembered Jesus’ words and he knew the temple would be destroyed.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, in spite of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple prayer would not come to an end. This is because once Jesus had poured out his Spirit at Pentecost, the physical Temple was no longer localized as the dwelling place of God. Followers of Jesus had become the new Temple. God has chosen to dwell with us, inside us, and among us.
Prayer did not cease because God is with us. He is our Father, our provider, our keeper. We pray because we joyfully live in complete dependence upon him. In addition, since the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations, God’s purpose is that all nations will be represented in the Temple, the Church, so they can pray. Also, we, as members of the Church are to pray for all nations so that they can also become part of this new Temple.
The second lesson Jesus wanted us to learn was this: This cursing of the fig tree and this admonition to pray in faith shows us that as his people and representatives, we would be faced with the same kinds of obstacles/mountains to his kingly rule that he faced. So, in these verses Jesus wants us to know that as we look to him in complete faith, he will overcome any and all obstructions to his kingdom. The Holy Spirit and the angelic hosts were with Jesus as he was establishing his eternal reign. The Spirit and the angelic hosts are also with us as Jesus’ followers. Jesus said these words so that we would have complete confidence in his promise that he will build his Church among all the peoples of the earth and even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
I know that we all believe this; but, we occasionally come to a point where we sometimes doubt whether this will be so or not. Numerous situations arise that tempt us to lack confidence in what he promised. Yet, Jesus wants us to be fully assured that He will overcome all opposition to his kingly rule. Now, if we step back and take a look through history, it seems that when his people saw one mountain removed, they eventually encountered another. Opposition to Jesus’ rule seems to be a constant. However, in spite of these mountains the Church has grown, and many of the historic mountains were removed. So, Jesus is asking us to remain confident, keeping our hands lifted in prayer, and keeping our feet continually shod with the Gospel of peace. This is what Jesus is saying here: If you don’t doubt, the mountains we face will be removed.
But let’s remember the immediate context when Jesus said this. After Jesus said these verses he walked up that very mountain and was crucified on it. So, there are times when the mountain may first crush us before it is removed. But our firm conviction is that it will be removed. Let me ask you- Where are the Sadducees now? Where is Rome now? Those mountains were removed.
What mountains of opposition are you facing? Do they appear overwhelming? Jesus wants us to be completely assured that whatever mountain it is, it will be removed. Nonetheless, what Jesus’ mountain tells us is this: How God removes the mountain may not happen the way we expect. However, of this we can be assured, it will be removed.
There is a dimension in these verses that is implied by Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree. The fig tree withered overnight. This was a miraculous event. So, by implication, our confidence in this promise of Jesus puts us in touch with the miraculous power of God.
We all know that miracles still happen. But do these verses teach us that they will happen if our faith is strong enough? I believe that in these verses Jesus invites us to pray with confidence that all things remain possible for our Creator. No request is ever too great. No need is beyond the reach of God’s ability.
If this is implied in these verses, then do these verses guarantee that miracles will happen if we have “strong” faith?
I think not. In contrast, there are many Christians who believe that there is a spiritual law embedded in these verses. They think that if we have the right amount of faith, then that faith releases God’s power. I heard that a lot when I was a young follower of Jesus. I would assert that Jesus is not talking about healing or miracles here. He is talking about the advancement of his Kingdom.
Nonetheless, sometimes people apply these verses to God’s power to do the miraculous. They interpret this passage as if it is giving a spiritual law. Unfortunately, such an understanding diverts our attention away from God and directs it to ourselves, and to the level of our ‘faith.’ Do we really believe that what we are asking for will come to pass? If we do, then God will be willing to be rise up, get involved, and the petition will be granted. But this interpretation contradicts Jesus’ command in verse 22 to have faith in God. Jesus said: “Have faith in God.” He didn’t say: “Have faith in the power that is released by strong faith.”
I may be wrong here. But I think that Jesus’ life and all his teachings demonstrate that he wants each and every one of us to place our complete confidence in God’s character as the Redeemer and in God’s power as the Creator. Jesus wants us to know that God as the Redeemer is predisposed to get involved in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. God is love. His love is an active love. It is a love that wants to be fully involved in our lives. God is not the reluctant, sit and wait till we get our faith strong enough kind of person. He is active love and he has unlimited power.
In addition, by saying “Have faith in God” Jesus is saying that the outcome of our prayers depends entirely on God. The outcome of our prayers does not depend on our ability to have strong “faith.”
Please don’t misunderstand my point here. Miracles are still possible; but they are not guaranteed. Why is this? It is because God is not bringing an end to the fallen world yet. For this we have to wait for his second coming. But, since miracles are still possible, are we willing to ask for them? Let us feel free to do so. If our friends are sick, let’s pray for them. We should believe that God wants to actively get involved in their lives and reveal himself to them, revealing to them his love and grace. So, let’s take the opportunity to pray. Pray for their healing. If no healing happens, God will do something because he cares for them.
In review, these verses teach us that: 1) we are the dwelling place of God and we are to be a house of prayer for all nations; 2) as we work together with the Lord to see his Kingdom established and as we encounter mountains of opposition, those mountains will be removed. They may not be removed as we expect, but they will be removed. Of this we are to be certain. 3) Jesus told us to have faith in God. By saying this he wants us to have complete confidence in God’s love and power. God wants to be actively involved in what we are doing and he wants to be actively involved in the lives of those around us. Prayer invites him to be and remain involved.
Finally, prayer also demonstrates that we are totally dependent upon him. This is because prayer is the act that categorically expresses our absolute dependence upon the Lord. I don’t know why this happens; but, for some reason, we sometimes forget how important prayer is. Somehow we are tempted to forget to pray. When we do so we begin to work on our own strength, even when we are doing His work. This is one mistake Jesus does not want us to make.
May His peace and joy be with you.