22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. 23 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. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. 25 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. (Mark 11:22-25)
On Tuesday morning of passion week, Peter was surprised that the fig tree that Jesus cursed the day before was so soon withered. The surprise answer that Jesus gave was, “Have faith in God.” Whether the fig tree represented Israel or was simply a lesson in faith for the disciples, both were lacking in the trust which can come only from God the Giver of all things. Faith is the thing that takes us through those times when we don’t understand what is going on or why this is happening to us.
Spurgeon once wrote,
I bear my witness that the worst days I have ever had turned out to be my best days. And when God has seemed most cruel to me, he has then been most kind. If there is anything in this world for which I would bless him more than for anything else, it is for pain and affliction. I am sure that in these things the richest, tenderest love has been manifested to me. Our Father’s wagons rumble most heavily when they are bringing us the richest freight of the bullion of his grace. Love letters from heaven are often sent in black-edged envelopes. The cloud that is black with horror is big with mercy. Fear not the storm. It brings healing in its wings, and when Jesus is with you in the vessel, the tempest only hastens the ship to its desired haven.1
Too often faith today has become a human attribute to our own ability. We say, “I have faith that I can do it,” or “I have faith in my team,” or some such motivation that evidently means, “If I can just drum up enough faith or believe enough, I can make this happen.” If the thing turns out well we think our faith worked. If it turns out bad then we write it off to not performing the faith formula the way we should have, or maybe that others did not join in faith with me.
How different this is from the faith that the Bible describes! “The faith” in Scripture refers to the body of doctrine we believe, or in fact, the Scriptures themselves. To “walk by faith” means that we live in the light of God’s sovereign control over all that happens. To “have faith” means that God is able to do over and above what we could even know. Jesus’ response to the disciples, “Have faith in God,” was a way of saying, “Don’t lose your solid trust in God’s omnipotent power. He will never leave you nor forsake you.”
As Mark writes the next three verses (23-25), he records three ways in which doubters must have this kind of faith in God, not the human kind of faith that centers in human ability, but the divine-directed kind of faith that trusts God as a heavenly Father.
Faith in the Word
Verse 23 is one of the most interesting verses on faith in the Bible. Most think that we cannot take the verse literally. After all, no one has ever cast a whole mountain in the sea simply by faith as if it were some kind of inward force. So almost all commentators take this to be figurative of some kind of obstacle in our lives that we must have faith to overcome. Even premillennialists who believe that there is a literal kingdom coming with literal cataclysmic events, would rather take this as a figure of speech.
John Broadus wrote, “The example is evidently presented not as a thing likely or proper to be actually done, but as an extreme case of a conceivable miracle.”2 John Walvoord wrote, “In other words, they should not marvel, but believe and pray.”3 E. Schuyler English wrote, “The case of the mountain’s moving is illustrative.”4 And H.A. Ironside wrote, “Doubtless, behind the natural figure our Lord had in mind mountains of difficulty, such as Zerubbabel faced in Palestine.”5 Since, as Dr. Ironside reminds us, these kinds of things sometimes are figures of speech, this could be the meaning here by our Lord.
But what if the Lord was referring to something that will literally happen in the future? H.B. Swete suggested this:
The twelve were crossing the Mt. of Olives; below them, between the mountains of Judea and the mountains of Moab, lay the hollow of the Dead Sea. ‘Faith, cooperating with the Divine Will, could fill yonder bason with the mass of limestone beneath their feet.’ . . . . Of the Mt. of Olives Zechariah had foretold that when the feet of the Lord stood upon it, the mountains should cleave asunder and the two masses be removed to the north and south. Standing on Olivet, the Lord may have had this prophecy in His thoughts.6
Could not the Lord have been reminding the disciples of a great prophetic event that will certainly take place when He sets up the kingdom in Israel and reigns for a thousand years? Isaiah prophesied that “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa. 4:4-5). Ezekiel gives vivid details of this leveling of the mountains of Israel for 50 miles square so that the millennial temple can be built in the center (Ezek. 45:1-2). Isaiah also speaks of the “mountain of the LORD’S house” which will be established “in the top of the mountains” (Isa. 2:2-3).
Israel did not receive her Messiah by faith and forfeited the right to see the mountains leveled and the kingdom temple built. It wouldn’t have taken gigantic faith, only “faith as a grain of mustard seed” (Matt. 17:20). The disciples should not, and indeed will not, miss this opportunity to see prophecy being fulfilled.
How does this help us “have faith in God?” It helps because our faith in God is faith in His Word. This is true whether it is faith in what has already happened or what is going to happen. We have faith that the most fantastic accounts of Scripture are actually true. “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Heb. 11:4). By faith we also have no problem believing in a universal flood or a tower of Babel or a Red Sea event. If we look to the future we have no problem believing in a rapture of all living saints, or of a great tribulation, or of a New Jerusalem. As believers we have no problem believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
Faith in Prayer
Verse 24 is difficult to understand as well. “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” We should understand that the word “desire” is the normal word “ask.” That is, we should not be as the “name it, claim it” crowd who think that they have a way to trick God into giving them whatever they desire. If they “name it” in the right formula, God is obligated to do it, He has no choice. But surely this is not what Jesus meant here.
Jesus will later say (during the passion week), “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). Even the Lord put a caveat on our requests. We must ask in His name. And what does that mean? Does it mean that if we say those words at the end of each prayer, now God is obligated? No, asking in His name means that we understand that our prayers are only possible in the first place because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Only in this way is “the Father glorified in the Son.”
Our New Testament understanding of Jesus’ intercession is further made clear in John’s first epistle. “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22). Here is another caveat to our prayers. We must be ones who keep His commandments. We cannot be lawless and think that our prayers avail with Him. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). In addition, John adds, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (1 John 5:14-15). Our prayers also must be according to His will or they will be answered in a different way than we think.
God is a good parent concerning what His children ask. If our child asks for a fish we don’t give him a serpent. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt. 7:7-11). Paul revealed that we don’t know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Holy Spirit interprets our prayers before the Father and then He answers our prayers according to the Spirit’s interpretation. Only in this way do “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:26-28) for the believer.
My wife was in the toy department of a store with our grandson. He saw something he wanted and asked grandma for it. She quickly took her cell phone and checked the same item on Amazon and saw she could get it cheaper. She said to him, “no, not now.” He was disappointed and thought that his request was flatly denied. He did not realize that he would get what he requested later, and at a better price. Sometimes God is only asking us to wait. Sometimes God must say “no” and we won’t get what we wanted because we asked for something that would harm us. Sometimes He gives us our requests quickly. But faith in prayer is the maturity to understand that God always answers and that He always answers in the best way. If we understand that, we always have what we asked for.
Faith in Forgiveness
A third way for the disciples to have faith in God was to understand the nature of forgiveness. “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any; that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Jesus said this kind of thing often, “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matt. 18:35). Does this mean that our forgiveness from God is wholly dependent upon our action of forgiving others? Is this a kind of works salvation where we will have our sins forgiven if we do the work of forgiving?
We also know that our New Testament teaches us that our sins are forgiven forever, past, present, and future. “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth [present tense] us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1-2). “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Verses could be multiplied but we know that our forgiveness does not depend on anything we do but only on what Jesus has already done for us.
Before we knew Christ as Savior we were not forgiven ourselves and we didn’t know how to forgive others. At best our attempts at forgiveness amounted to, “I can proudly say that I won’t hold that against you.” Our acts of forgiveness were prideful and works oriented. We were like the Pharisee who, “stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:11-13).
The publican’s request of “be merciful” is literally to “be propitious.” He was an Old Testament saint bringing his sacrifice to the temple and asking God to BE propitious. That is why John, in contrast, said that Jesus IS the propitiation for our sins! Praise God that He is always cleansing us from all sins. Paul said it this way, “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). Again, our New Testament theology enlightens our minds as to faith in relation to forgiveness.
Jesus gave the parable of a man who had been forgiven ten thousand talents, or millions of dollars. The same man went out and would not forgive a man who only owed him a hundred pence, or a few dollars (Matt. 18:21-35). Forgiveness can only be based upon experience. We forgive because we have been forgiven. As believers, when we forgive anyone a trespass against us, we are in essence saying, “Christ has forgiven me all my sin, a world of iniquity, an immeasurable debt. The forgiveness of all our sins, yours and mine, is altogether in Christ alone and through Him alone. How can I not do toward you what God has done toward me.”
We don’t expect the world to understand forgiveness. Jesus could say, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This is what enabled Stephen when he was being stoned to also say, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). This has been the martyr’s prayer for two thousand years, even in the face of the most terrible persecution. This is to have faith in forgiveness.
And So . . .
Have faith in God, Jesus said. Not a self-righteous force that we conjure up from our own strength, but a knowledge we have through the revelation of God by His Son and His Word. We can have faith in what He has said, past or future. We can have faith in what He will do as He answers our prayers according to His will. We can have faith that He has forgiven our sins and will forgive anyone else who comes to Him through Jesus Christ.
- Taken from a mural at the Spurgeon Library at the Midwestern Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO. The quotation is only dated June 26, 1881.
- John A. Broadus, “Commentary on Matthew,” An American Commentary on the New Testament (Philadelphia: American Baptist Pub. Soc., 1886) 435.
- John Walvoord, Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974) 159.
- E. Schuyler English, Studies in the Gospel According to Mark (New York: Our Hope, 1943) 381.
- H.A. Ironside, Mark (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1948) 174.
- Henry Barclay Swete, Commentry on Mark (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977) 259-260.