Pray with Faith and Forgiveness
Topic: Expository Passage: Mark 11:12-14, Mark 11:20-26
Last week we looked at a fascinating story in Mark 9, where the disciples lacked the power to cast out a demon, because they failed to labor in prayer. Jesus challenged us to give ourselves to a life of prayer that will bring the blessing of God. Today, I want to look at another heavy challenge that Christ gave regarding prayer. For the sake of context, we’ll begin reading in v. 12, but I especially want to focus on vv. 20–26 (read).
Jesus’ challenge in vv. 22–24 is one of the most significant statements about prayer in the NT. Of course, faith healers, prosperity preachers, and many others have used it to make very bold claims. And if you read Jesus’ words without context, you can see why they make such bold claims. Therefore, if we are going to have a sound theology of prayer, we need to know what to do with this passage.
But even more importantly, once we understand what Jesus is saying, we need to believe him and put his words into practice. The fact that this passage is often abused does not negate the powerful force of what Jesus says. Therefore, I want to spend most of our time, focusing on 3 challenges Jesus gives in vv. 22–25. However, we first need to establish the context for Jesus’ instructions on prayer.
I. The Context (vv. 12–14, 20–21)
It’s important to recognize that this story takes place during the Passion Week. So, Jesus is giving these instructions just a couple of days before his disciples’ world would be shattered by Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Passion Week began on Palm Sunday, when Jesus made his triumphal entry. The disciples were elated as Jesus marched into the city, as the crowds shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
But by the time they made it to the temple, it was already late. Therefore, v. 11 says that after looking around, Jesus and the disciples left the city and went out to Bethany to spend the night.
Verse 12 picks up on Monday morning. Jesus and the disciples make the short walk from Bethany toward Jerusalem in the west. As they are coming down the Mt. of Olives, Jesus spots a lush fig tree full of leaves. Apparently, Jesus hasn’t had breakfast yet, because the sight of this lush fig tree, makes him hungry. “He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.” However, when Jesus pulls back the leaves, he doesn’t find any fruit.
Mark notes that all of this is a bit curious, because “it was not the season for figs.” The Passion Week occurred in in the spring, but the primary fig harvest was in late summer or early fall. Sometimes, fig trees produce a smaller crop earlier in the year, but even these figs wouldn’t be ripe for 2 more months.
Jesus surely knew this, but surprisingly, he pronounces a curse on the tree. He says, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.”
It’s sort of funny to me, how some commentators want to feel bad for the tree. They sound angry at Jesus for cursing this poor, innocent tree. It’s a tree, people! But we are still left to wonder why Jesus does this?
Well, when Mark specifies that it was not fig season, he is hinting that there is a deeper significance to this curse. And this significance becomes clear in between the cursing of the fig tree in v. 14, and the explanation in vv. 20–25. Verses 15–19 tell how Jesus violently cleansed the temple to make a point about Israel’s spiritual corruption.
So, it’s pretty clear that Jesus curses the fig tree for its unfruitfulness as a prophetic symbol of Israel’s unfruitfulness and Jesus’ condemnation of the nation. In other words, like this leafy tree, Israel appeared spiritually alive, with its beautiful temple and religious structures. But it was all just a cover for hypocrisy and sin.
The OT confirms that this interpretation, because several of the prophets also compared Israel it to a fruitless fig tree (Hos 9:10; Nah 3:13; Zech 3:10). It’s a stark reminder that Jesus is not impressed with a religious show that is lacking in substance. He wants changed hearts and genuine spiritual fruit.
Returning to the story, the tree died; however, the effects weren’t immediately visible. Therefore, even though the disciples heard the curse, they probably didn’t think much of it,.
Rather, they continue walking toward Jerusalem, wondering what the day will hold. The only other recorded event from that Monday is the cleansing of the temple. Otherwise, v. 19 simply notes that at the end of the day, Jesus and the disciples returned to Bethany for the night.
Then v. 20 says that on Tuesday morning, Jesus and the disciples made their way back to Jerusalem. As they are walking along, Peter notices the fig tree that Jesus had cursed the previous morning. However, it’s no longer lush and healthy; instead it is, “dried up from the roots.”
Peter says, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.” Based on Jesus reply, we can assume that Peter sounded surprised. “Wow, the tree is actually dead!” Peter had seen far more impressive miracles over the past 3 years, but he still hasn’t fully grasped Jesus mighty power.
Peter’s amazement prompts Jesus to answer with 3 convicting challenges regarding our view of God and how we approach him in prayer. The first challenge is…
II. Believe in God’s power (v. 22).
Again, Peter must have expressed some level of surprise about the curse, because Jesus is clearly disappointed with Peter’s faith (read v. 22).
I want to emphasize that Jesus focuses on God, not on our faith. This is important, because very often, when our faith is weak, we look to ourselves to develop a stronger faith. We think that effective prayer is about me being stronger.
Maybe we really want God to heal our cancer, give us a new job, or save a friend. And we look at the promise in vv. 23–24 and conclude that if I can muster up enough faith, I can almost purchase the answer I want. We think there is power in a positive, faith-filled attitude.
A classic example is Norman Vincent Peale. He was a liberal pastor in New York City for 52 years, and he is especially famous for his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which he published in 1952. He begins the book with 10 rules for, “overcoming inadequacy attitudes and learning to practice faith.” Among the rules are, “Picture yourself succeeding.” “Repeat ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ ten times every day.” “Develop a strong self-respect.” Essentially, believing in yourself and believing that good things will happen will bring the blessing of God. It’s about me, not God.
The prosperity gospel teaches something very similar. For example, Kenneth Copeland states, “Whatever it takes to make you free, speak it out in the Name of Jesus and command it to come to pass. Speak the result that you desire. Then expect it to come to pass!” Again, the focus is on me and my faith as being the power that dictates God’s blessing.
But where does Jesus say we are to focus our attention? “Have faith in God.” Our faith or positive thinking is not ultimately what brings blessing. No, God does it. He is the one who is omnipotent and sovereign, not me. He is the one who can pick up a mountain and cast it into the sea, not me.
That’s quite a picture isn’t it. Take a look at the Marianas to the South of us. They aren’t the biggest mountains, but they’re still pretty big. If God wanted to, he could pick up the entire mountain range and chuck it into the Pacific. Our God is strong! And vv. 23–24 state that he acts on behalf of those who believe in his power.
In light of that, Jesus challenges us to grow a faith that is worthy of our God. Now, I want to be clear that this is not something we drum up on ourselves. Every day, I should pray the father’s prayer in last week’s text, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). God’s Spirit must grow our faith. As I emphasized last week, The Christian life is all grace. Grace is what saves us, and grace is what grows us.
But I am also responsible to develop my faith. And contrary to Norman Vincent Peale, I don’t grow faith by focusing on me; I grow it by focusing on God. See him in all his glory. Look at creation, and consider his creative works. Look at Scripture, and consider the incredible miracles he has performed in the past. Folks, our God is worthy of our absolute confidence, so keep your focus on him.
And then take steps to grow strong faith. Live in the Word and meditate on Scripture. Surround yourself with people who believe in a big God and act on faith.
And then turn your faith into action. Learn to ask God for big, specific requests, believing that he can do it. And then act on faith. You will never grow faith unless you are willing to take hard steps of faith.
So, Jesus command in v. 22 is profoundly important. We need to “have faith in God,” and we need to work on building this kind of faith.
So often, we live like practical atheists. We don’t really believe that God will do great things on behalf of his people. As a result, we don’t pray for big things, and we never act on faith. As a result, we don’t experience the power of God, or see him glorify himself through us. Christian, “Have faith in God,” and act accordingly. The 2nd challenge is…
III. Ask according to God’s will (vv. 23–24).
Jesus clearly wants to make a strong statement about how he responds to the prayer of faith. When Jesus spoke these words, he was standing on or near the Mt. of Olives. He looks out on the mountain, and then he looks at his disciples and says that there is enough power in prayer to do the unimaginable, to pick up a mountain like this and throw it in the sea.
Again, take a look at the Marianas, and imagine how overwhelming it would be if God picked them up and threw them in the Pacific. It’s amazing. And Jesus say that the prayer of faith provides this kind of power. It’s important that we just let the weight of that sink in. There is no limit to the power of prayer, because there is no limit to God’s omnipotent hand.
However, we’re all getting nervous, because we have never seen anyone cast a mountain in the sea. Or maybe at some point you really prayed hard that God would give you something big, and it never happened. So, did God not answer, because your faith was too weak? Or even worse, is Jesus a liar? Are vv. 23–24 just an empty promise?
As always, we must interpret Scripture with Scripture. This is because God is the author of all Scripture, and he does not contradict himself. Therefore, we need to ask if the rest of Scripture supports an interpretation of this text that says God will give us whatever we ask for, if we have enough faith? The answer is no.
First of all, consider the religious context of Jesus and the disciples. How would they understand this promise? Hiebert makes an important clarification, when he states, “In rabbinic literature, a rabbi who could remove noted difficulties of interpretation was spoken of as ‘a remover of mountains.’ The statement of Jesus is a picture of that which is utterly impossible with men.” In other words, the disciples would have understood that Jesus was speaking figuratively to make a point. They would have known that he wasn’t actually advocating for throwing mountains in the sea.”
Second, we need to consider what else Jesus said about prayer (John 14:12–14). You can see that Jesus makes another bold claim in vv. 13, 14 about the power of prayer.
But notice that “anything” doesn’t actually mean “anything.” Rather, v. 12 states that Jesus is concerned with his kingdom work. He’s saying that God will answer your prayers, when you pray for power to fulfill the Great Commission. That’s the focus! He’s not talking about buying cars, escaping suffering, or other temporal desires.
And we know this is how the disciples understood it, based on how they lived after Jesus’s ascension. They all lived very hard lives, but John wasn’t bashful about including this promise in John, because he knew Jesus wasn’t promising health and wealth; he was promising power in ministry.
And Jesus himself makes this clear in his most famous teaching on prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. He doesn’t tell us to pray for health and wealth; he tells to pray simply for “daily bread.” And more to the point, he tells us to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Again, the primary focus is on God’s will, not ours and on his redemptive, eternal purpose,
Third, 1 John 5:14–15 offers a vital qualification to how John understood Jesus’ teaching on prayer. John is very clear that God’s will is determinative, not ours. We don’t pray in order to change God’s will; rather, we pray for God’s will, even if it is costly to us.
And Paul offers a wonderful example how this works in 2 Corinthians 12:7–9. God knew better than Paul, so Paul embraced God’s will, instead of trying to drum up enough faith to change God’s will.
In sum, Jesus did not intend to offer us a blank check from God in Mark 11:23–24. God’s will is always supreme, and God’s will always places priority on his glory, our sanctification, and the Great Commission. If we are going to pray well, we need to embrace God’s priorities.
But all that being said, we still need to take seriously the offer that Jesus is making. He is telling us to have a big vision of what God can accomplish through prayer and then to make big, specific requests that we believe are consistent with his will.
So, what burdens are on your heart? BTW, it doesn’t have to be something big or super spiritual. 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your cares on Him.” Then ask, “How could God be glorified and his redemptive purposes advanced by relieving this burden?” In other words, how may God show his power or kindness by lifting this burden? How could God advance the gospel? How could God sanctify me or others by either lifting the burden or pushing it down harder?
In light of that, how could you pray according to God’s will about this burden? Don’t be afraid to think big and very specifically, because God is big and kind, and he loves to glorify himself in very specific ways.
And then pray very specifically with faith that God is able but also with humility in submission to his will. Fight the urge to doubt or to lean on human understanding. Rather, eagerly anticipate what God will do or how he will graciously direct you into his infinitely wise purpose that is better than what you think is right.
I wonder what God would do for the advance of the Great Commission in our community and how he would show himself kind among us if we really believed that God is able, and we learned to pray in the spirit of Jesus. I hope that we will all learn to ask God for big things that we believe are consistent with his will. The 3rd challenge regarding effective prayer is…
IV. Ask with a forgiving heart (v. 25).
To be honest, when I first began to plan this sermon, I didn’t intend to include v. 25. I wanted to emphasize faith, and I didn’t see this verse as essential to Jesus’ point. But as I began to study, I saw just how important this verse is to Jesus’ message. This isn’t some random appendix.
Rather, Jesus says that if we are going to expect God to shower his grace on us through answered prayer, we must first make sure that we are extending a similar grace to others. To say it another way, why should God be gracious to us when we are not gracious ourselves?
Therefore, Jesus commands us that before we come to God with our bold requests, we must first ask if we “have anything against anyone.” In other words, am I holding any grudges against others? Do I have bitterness in my heart? Has anyone sought to reconcile with me, but I have refused to do so?
Now, you might hear that and think, “Yes, but you don’t understand how badly this person hurt me. I can’t forgive, and he doesn’t deserve my forgiveness.” It might be that someone has hurt you very deeply.
But Jesus reminds us that we are eternally indebted to the Father’s forgiveness. I guarantee that no one has offended you the way you have offended God.
Therefore, how dare we stake our eternity on God’s abundant grace and refuse to extend that grace to others. It’s such a serious offense to God that Jesus says your own forgiveness depends on it.
Now, Jesus is not saying that we are saved by being forgiving. The Bible is clear that we are saved by grace alone and that our salvation is forever secure. But he is saying that God does not hear our prayers, when we refuse to forgive.
So, do you want the hand of God on your life? Do you want to see God answer those big dreams you have been thinking about praying throughout this sermon? Then, take a moment to reflect on whether or not your heart is in a place where you should expect God to look graciously on you?
If there are things that you need to make right with others, don’t make excuses and don’t delay. No, by God’s grace, forgive that person in your heart, and commit before the Lord that as soon as possible, you will talk with that person and make peace. It may be very hard and very painful, but God sees, and he will honor your humility and grace.
In conclusion, the opportunity to approach the throne of a holy and omnipotent God is a marvelous gift filled with incredible potential. So, let’s see the greatness of God, and believe that Jesus means what he says. Let’s pray for big things that we believe reflect the heart of God, and let’s anticipate all that God will do.