Even though Gary was not a new believer, he had recently left another neighborhood church and was interested in learning more about the distinctives of our church. His questions during our class for new members offered a variety of opportunities for us to compare different perspectives on ministry, theology, and biblical interpretation. Gary was struggling with a long-term, debilitating illness that severely limited his ability to function. He had prayed for healing numerous times with a variety of church leaders and believed that his eventual recovery was assured, if he would only persist in faithfully claiming it. How did he know this?
I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (mark 11:23–24).
Gary’s understanding of the passage seems to be this: The power of faith can turn the impossible into reality for anyone willing to take the risk of true, believing prayer. According to this interpretation of the passage, asking God for the impossible is not something to be taken lightly, but neither is it out of the question for the true believer. Getting what we ask for, no matter how unlikely, is only a matter of time for anyone who persists, refusing all doubt. Gary had been suffering and praying for years. Despite the delay, he believed that he had already been healed and that some day complete physical health would be restored.
Gary’s reading of Mark 11 is not uncommon. I have heard similar claims about the power of faith-filled prayer many times. These verses do appear to offer a blank check to any request that can honestly be signed with the pen of mountain-moving faith.For many of us, however, such claims raise more questions than they answer: What about those who never see their long-requested, long-awaited miracles? Does the absence of a miracle suggest weak faith, or worse yet, doubt?
Any attempt to explain the New Testament’s picture of the relationships between prayer, faith, and God’s response must include taking a serious account of Mark 11:23–24 and related statements elsewhere in the Gospels—Luke 17 and Matthew 17.
He [Jesus] replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (luke 17:6).
Luke’s saying has no particular relationship to prayer. In its context (17:3–10) it is concerned with the faith needed to repeatedly forgive a brother or sister. In response to Peter’s astonishment over this expectation, Jesus identifies such faith as a requirement of true discipleship. But here Jesus is not suggesting an amount of faith necessary, but a genuineness of faith. Forgiving repeated offenses is not a matter of faith’s volume but of its authenticity. The comparison of faith to a mustard seed is not meant to suggest the amount of faith but faith’s reality in a person’s life. The lesson is not that we must “believe and not doubt” in order to see the impossible accomplished, but that we demonstrate that we believe at all by a willingness to repeatedly forgive a repentant offender. Great faith is precisely what is not required in this instance.
He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (matthew 17:20).
Matthew 17 also uses this mustard-seed saying independently of any reference to prayer. Although we might assume that prayer played some role in the disciples’ failed attempt to exorcise a demon-possessed boy, it is not explicitly stated in the passage. Matthew instead uses Jesus’s statement about mustard-seed faith to accuse the disciples of unbelief in their failure to exorcise the epileptic boy.
Our search for an explicit connection between faith and prayer leads us to Jesus’s statements connected to his cursing the fig tree (mark 11:23–24; matthew 21:21–22). In these passages, the power of faith free of doubt is apparently connected to the outcome of petitionary prayer.
Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree has raised more than a few eyebrows. English philosopher Bertrand Russell, author of Why I Am Not a Christian, claims that the distinct lack of virtue demonstrated in Christ’s outburst was one of the reasons he considered Jesus a lesser figure than Buddha or Socrates.1 Even among those more sympathetic to the New Testament, such words as “unedifying,” “problematic,” “objectionable,” “nonsense,” and “irrational and revolting” are not unusual, especially in light of the fact that “it was not the season for figs” (11:13). Jesus’s treatment of an unproductive fruit tree certainly raises questions for any curious reader, particularly in this noticeably longer version in Mark.
Most notable in Mark’s telling is the way that Jesus visits the fig tree twice over a period of two days, as opposed to once in Matthew’s account. The initial cursing (mark 11:12–14) comes before Jesus’s demonstration in the temple (11:15–19). In Matthew, however, the cursing of the fig tree follows the clearing of the temple. In Mark, the withered tree is rediscovered the next morning (11:20–21), and the incident is used as an occasion for instruction on prayer (11:22–26). The account in Mark unfolds like this: fig tree (11:12–14), temple (11:15–19), fig tree (11:20–21), prayer (11:22–26).
Jesus and the Temple
Most scholars agree that Mark intended his readers to understand Jesus’s behavior as a prophetic warning of the eventual doom that will soon overtake the temple, its priesthood, and even Israel itself.
The cursing of the tree is symbolic of the temple’s condemnation. This imagery is not new with Mark. The Old Testament often uses the image of the fig tree. It is a favorite prophetic symbol for the people of Israel. And the barren and withered fig tree, representing an unfaithful nation soon to be overrun by its enemies, is a common Old Testament image (isaiah 28:4; 34:4; jeremiah 8:13; hosea 2:12; joel 1:7, 12; amos 4:9; nahum 3:12; habakkuk 3:17).Quite often the center of Israel’s faithlessness was its abuse of the temple services. It was not unusual for the prophets to use a withered fig tree as a warning of the temple’s destruction. In fact, the passage quoted in Mark 11:17 is just such a text. Jesus quotes the prophet Jeremiah who condemns Judah for hypocritically thinking that temple attendance would expunge the guilt of her idolatry:
Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. . . . Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!”. . . But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. . . . Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? (jeremiah 7:2–4, 8, 11)
The lengthy judgment continues, and eventually Jeremiah incorporates a variety of images, including the withered fig tree:
I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them. (jeremiah 8:13)
Warnings about the faithless temple and images of barren fig trees are an easy prophetic association. Since the temple was the heart of the nation, there was no confusion in applying the fig tree imagery to both temple and nation. As goes the temple, so goes the nation, and so too goes the priesthood and its temple leadership.
The Fig Tree, Temple, and Prayer
Besides the relationship of the fig tree with the temple, Mark gives us another relationship to consider. The disciples’ eventual rediscovery of the withered tree (11:20–21) becomes the occasion for Jesus’s teaching on the effectiveness of believing prayer (11:22–26). This new association transforms Jesus’s curse into an example of petitionary prayer, and the withered tree becomes its miraculous result. The encouragement “have faith in God” (11:22) refers back to Jesus’s words in 11:14: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Jesus had spoken in faith, and the fig tree turned into an example of effective prayer from someone who believes that anything is possible with God. Jesus’s miracle takes on a dual symbolic significance because Mark associates the fig tree with both the temple and the lesson on prayer. Mark’s double association creates a dual role for the fig tree: negatively, the withered tree symbolizes the eventual destruction of the Jerusalem temple; positively, the tree also represents the power of prayer offered in faith.
One more result of the way Mark relates these elements should be recognized before we can make proper sense of faith’s role in effective prayer. The fig tree associates the rejection of the temple with prayer. It becomes a “metaphorical clamp to hold [these] two ideas together.”2 Jesus condemns the temple for its failure to become “a house of prayer for all nations” (mark 11:17, quoting isaiah 56:7).
To Jesus, the presence of a market in the temple’s Court of the Gentiles demonstrates the temple leaders’ failure to fulfill their divinely given responsibilities.
Like a fig tree in full leaf but devoid of fruit, the temple, bustling with priestly activity, was all show, with no true fruit for God.3 As a consequence, the temple, which was supposed to be functioning as a house of prayer for Jew and Gentile alike, would soon be destroyed (see mark 13) and replaced by a new community of prayer that would be drawn from all nations (11:22–26).
The connection between temple and prayer would have been crucial to Mark’s readers. The temple was God’s dwelling place; thus, prayer was typically offered toward the capital city. It was believed that prayer was more effective, if not guaranteed, because Yahweh communed with his people at Mount Zion. Solomon’s dedication prayer for the first temple (1 kings 8:22–61) emphasized the direct connection between God’s inhabiting the temple and the efficacy of Israel’s prayers:
Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, “My Name shall be there,” so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. (1 kings 8:28–30)
This connection between temple and prayer is reiterated throughout the passage (8:33, 35, 38, 42, 44, 48). Religious literature produced during the period of the second temple, the temple known to Jesus, continued to show the vital relationship between temple and prayer. In fact, this connection was so important that the destruction of the temple in ad 70 caused some rabbis to wonder if prayer was still possible for Israel. The temple’s destruction meant the withdrawal of God’s presence.
If the temple was connected to the very possibility of praying, Jesus’s warning of the temple’s impending destruction would have raised the question, If the temple is gone, how do we pray? What assurances could the disciples have that God would continue to hear the prayers of his people? Mark presents Jesus’s answer. His followers are destined to become the true house of prayer for all nations; they become the new temple.
1 Bertrand Russell: Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Allen & Unwin, 1957), 19.
2 Dowd, S. E., Prayer, Power, and the Problem of Suffering: Mark 11:22–25 in the Context of Markan Theology. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) 53.
3 Evans, C. A., Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Nelson, 2001, 154; and Geddert, T. J. Mark. (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2001) 266.
4 Babylonian Talmud, (Berakhot tractate 32b), 22.