(The was originally presented in front of some really great guys on 4-15-10, tax-day)
This sermon is one I am ambivalent to preach, there are not any funny stories or happy endings, merely a call to preserve “the faith once and for all given to the saints.” Before we dive in however, since it is the day we give to Caesar what is Caesars, I figured a thought experiment would be fitting:
A jab at high taxes aside, contending for the faith can be a grueling job, considering all the variations offered to us.
A sound understanding of faith may take some patience and thoughtful understanding today as we tackle just a few of the many differences between a healthy faith and the kind that leads to a very troubled praxeology (<< click to jump to definition). We will take the time here to look at some of the key concepts of a healthy faith through a verse many times misapplied. How one interprets Mark 11:20-25 will tell you a lot about a person’s understanding of faith. Again, the verse we will be reading from is Mark 11:20-25, so if you are ready we will jump in.
This verse is often used to make the point that OUR FAITH IS BIG ENOUGH to remove any aliment that besets us. It is often combined with another verse from Isaiah 53:5 that reads in-part, “by Your stripes we are healed.” As you will find, however, context and historical setting are key to a proper understanding of working out these types of verses into our everyday lives and the impact they have on our personal faith. We will cover just a few topics in this presentation, they are:
- How these verses are misused by some, and subsequently faith;
- we will discuss some of the Jewish cultural context and history involved;
- and finally, we will look at an oft overlooked interpretation of these verses.
Starting with how faith is often misused by many of the faithful, we will consider what Pastor Bob DeWaay calls anthropogenic fundamentalism.
- The term anthropogenic fundamentalism can simply be defined for our purposes as a “man-centered faith,” rather than “God-centered faith.”
Or, man trying to capture what God only provides and make it his own.
E.W. Kenyon, sometimes called the grandfather of the Word-Faith movement, wrote a book entitled, Two Kinds of Faith, in which we find Kenyon saying that “a spiritual law few of us have recognized is that our confessions rule us.”
Kenneth Hagin, who is known as the father of the Word-Faith movement, has taken bits-and-pieces from Kenyon and well-known faith healer William Branham and ordered them into a systematic word-faith doctrine/theology, culminating in the opening of Rhema Bible Institute in 1974. Mark 11:23 was one of Hagin’s favorite verses he used to justify his,
- creating verbalized capsules of thinking by “laws of faith” that control one’s circumstances with “formulas.” (my own definition)
This was a big-deal to him, even coining the term “have faith in your faith.”
In contradistinction Calvin says that…
- True faith “unites us to Christ and inserts us into His body creating the bond that enables us to receive, posses, and enjoy Christ Himself.” This is Calvin’s “union with Christ by Spirit worked faith.”
True faith is God centered, and aligns us — or tries to — with God’s will. Not the other way around. There are many examples of what faith should not be, but one James Montgomery Boice mentions that can replace true faith is optimism. Which he simply defines as a “mental attitude which is to cause the thing believed in to happen.”
In this “faith in your faith” aspect, you will never hear a person graduating from Rhema pray like Christ did in Matt 26:39:
- “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
A.H. Strong points out that God does “not change his mind when men pray, or when they believe… as [God] fulfills his purpose by inspiring true prayer, so he fulfills his purpose by giving faith.” Finishing his thought Strong quotes Augustine, “He chooses us, not because we believe, but that we may believe….”
You see, we want a faith that unites us to Christ and His work, nothing of ourselves. In Reformational thinking, we are not even capable of generating this kind of faith. Take note that Ephesians 2:8 ends with “it is a gift of God.” John McArthur points out that faith is included as preceding this statement. By contrast, Kenneth Hagin makes his concept of faith clear when he enumerates his understanding of Mark 11:23:
- He believes in his heart,
- He believes in his words. Another way to say this is:
- He has faith in his own faith . . . Having faith in your words is having faith in your faith.”
According to the text in the ISV, Christ’s faith — not ours — does the justifying. It is His focus of attention, not ours, that does the work. The “onus,” the, is put into proper perspective.
As an example from one of my favorite verses, Philippians 1:6:
This “optimism” in one’s faith that Boice warned us of, rather than a God Centered faith is really an old heresy that started with the early influence of Gnosticism on the Desert Fathers. If you do not know about these mysterious persons that are so influential on the emergent version of this Gnostic heresy, here is a quick introduction.
Now, As some may know, others here may not, my father was deeply involved in this understanding of faith. He would routinely claim financial success and good health as a matter of habit… neither of which he ever truly possessed. A few years back he was very-very sick.
He looked and felt awful.
However, he refused to go to the hospital, instead, he spoke health and healing to his body. When he finally acquiesced to the pain that C.S. Lewis says is our body verbalizing that something is wrong, he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer.
- In case you do not know, colon cancer is one of the most survivable cancers one could contract today.
Rejecting his doctors advice of immediate surgery, my father found renewed vigor that he wasn’t truly sick — even yelling at me in the doctor’s office:
- “GET BEHIND ME SATAN!!” (pointing an accusing finger at me)
In surreal fashion and doggedly claiming that this sickness was curable via faith in his faith, his body no longer allowed him the option of denial and he gave way to his doctor’s advice. Even with surgery, he had waited too long.
On October 25th, 2008, I was reading Scripture to my dad who was recently sent home with me diagnosed with two-months to live when his breathing started getting worse than it already was. I stopped reading from the Word and started to fluff the pillows and blankets surrounding my father. He managed to gasp “help” and shortly thereafter was strong enough to cry a bit…
…all the while telling him that I loved him while wiping the drool from his mouth and the sweat from his brow.
I could not dial 911 or call for help because my father was sent home with us for this reason… to pass as comfortable as possible.
All I could do is watch my father suffocate to death. He looked scared. I suspect for a few reasons, one is man’s tendency to not want to die.
Another reason is that if your faith is connected to your health and your health fails… failing faith in God’s finished work on the cross is not far behind.
He was coming to the stark reality that his theology was flawed and death is a one-for-one statistic.
While I know the work wrought on Calvary’s Cross was bigger than my dad’s praxeology, his view of faith led to a troubled walk that stifled his connecting with God and God’s people in a healthy well balanced manner. Even shortening his own life considerably.
Let me repeat that: his view of faith led to a troubled walk that stifled his connecting with God and God’s people.
Another example of faith gone awry is told by a fellow contributor to a group blog dealing with the Word-Faith heresy. This is the story of John Edwards and his struggle to come to terms with a cultic understanding of Biblical doctrine:
These two stark examples ~ my own and John’s ~ are the consequences of anthropomorphic fundamentalism: making oneself god in some sense of the word by guiding your own faith rather than allowing Godly faith in.
Another important aspect that seems to be missed by these Word Faith types is that the Bible incorporates parables, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and history. Within these categories you will find metaphors, hyperbole, symbols, and elevated language.
For instance, in Psalm 91:4 we read, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”
Obviously God the Father being Spirit, known only by God the Son, does not have literal feathers. Reading on in the verse we find it is a metaphor for God protecting us like armor — just more comfortably… metaphorically speaking.
Likewise, we find commonly used in the Jewish texts of the day speech about “removing mountains” as metaphorical for an “infinitely long or virtually impossible task accomplished only by the most pious of rabbi’s.”
James Brooks in his commentary on Mark mentions that Mark 11:23 may be an “allusion… to the temple mount, in which case faith in God makes the temple system obsolete.” Jesus was speaking to, directly, the “Judaizers” of His day in this “sermon” pointing to the fulfillment of his soon to be culminated mission. You see, since we are considered “priests” or “rabbi’s” in God’s new and better covenant we do not rely on our own piousness, a Priest’s standing with God, or formulas ~ but Christ’s alone.
So the question, I think, becomes this: “as priests, what types of unmovable mountains would be in the context of our offering of prayer to the object of our faith?” In Matthew 5:23-24 we find this:
Let’s compare this to the passage we are reading in Mark, starting a bit into verse 24:
True faith causes good works -SO- in this salvonic understanding:
Therefore, with faith based in what God has already done for us while we were yet sinners, forgiveness of others is what we are called to.
With that PapaG’ism in mind, do not forget that this verse is connected to Christ overturning tables for a second time on the Temple Mount and cursing the fig-tree as representative of Israel’s faithlessness, another seemingly insurmountable task.
As applicable and connective as I think these comments are, there is yet another often overlooked understanding which keeps Christ firmly in context, and not us.
Again, James Brooks mentions that Jesus may have been referencing “the Mount of Olives and the Dead Sea,” the “latter being seen from the summit of the former.”
William Lane expands on this in his commentary on Mark, mentioning likewise that the,
Evangelical scholar Walter Elwell likewise hits on this idea:
[See these and more commentaries in the Appendix]
So like the parable of the faithful and wise servant (Luke 12:35-48), we must watch over this great gift of faith and its awesome responsibility by prayer to the object of our faith… asking for these mountains of faithlessness, self-centeredness, and our unforgiving hearts to be cleared daily by God’s word and our union with Him… always saying like John did, “come Lord Jesus, come!”
- Boice, James Montgomery. Foundations of the Christian Faith. Downers Grove, Illinoise: Inter Varsity Press, 1986.
- Bowman, Robert M. The Word-Faith Controversy: Understanding the Health and Wealth Gospel. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001.
- Budziszewski, J. The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man. Dallas, Texas: Spence Publishing, 2004.
- Dewaay,Bob. The Emerging Church: Undefining Christianity. Saint Louise Park, Minnesota: Bob Dewaay, 2009.
- Geisler, Norman, Thomas Howe. When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook On Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, Illinoise: Victor Books, 1992.
- Hall, David W., Peter A. Lillback, ed. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2008.
- Hanegraaff, Hank. Christianity In Crisis: 21st Century. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
- Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Illinoise: Inter Varsity Press, 1993.
- Kelly, Douglas F. Systematic Theology: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity. Vol. 1. Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2008.
- Kenyon, E.W. The Two Kinds of Faith: Faith’s Secret Revealed. Lynnwood, Washington: Kenyon’s Gospel Publishing Society, 1969.
- Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark. Edited by F.F. Bruce. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1974.
- Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
- Lewis, Gordon R., Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.
- MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007.
- McConnell, D.R. A Different Gospel: Biblical and Historical Insights Into the Word of Faith Movement. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
- Oden, Thomas C. Systematic Theology: The Living God. Vol. 1. Peabody, Massachusettes: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
- Strong, A.H. Systematic Theology. New York, New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1896.
- Yungen, Ray. A Time of Departing. 2nd. ed. Silverton, Oregon: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2006.
I wanted to point out just a couple of after thoughts. The first part of the verse we read from (v. 20), there is an interesting event that is mentioned.
Something I know the Jewish mind would have surely known considering how well the pharisees knew (at least memorized) Scripture. in verse 20 we read this:
- “Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.”
This miracle of Jesus cursing the fig-tree can be seen as one of the many instances Jesus showed Israel He was their Messiah through fulfilling of Old Testament prophecy.
Definition of Praxeology
Just so the reader knows how I understand this term: “right” theology into “right” action. The “Word Faith movement/theology,” “Liberation theology,” as well as “Emergent theology” distorts this interpretation. Here is a more in-depth definition:
(Commentaries on Mark 11:20-25)
…But it also shows that we cannot pray in faith for anything that we like. In this matter, Jesus was “thinking God’s thoughts after him” and willing his father’s will. That sort of prayer, if asked in faith, will always be answered, for it is praying that God’s will may be done (as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane). We can only move the mountains that God wants removed, not those that we want moved. “Moving mountains” was a phrase used by the rabbis to describe overcoming seemingly impossible difficulties; we must not of course take it in the literal sense. If we pray in this way, we can give thanks for the result before we see it, for the answer is sure in the will and purpose of God.
There is one other condition for effectual prayer: we must freely forgive others, as God forgives us (25). If we do not, how could we pray “in Jesus’ name,” that is, in the way in which he would and did? This verse may indicate that Mark knew the Lord’s Prayer, though he does not record it in his gospel.
D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer, and G.J. Wenham, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVasity Press, 1997), 968.
Matthew Henry speaks to the miracle of faith, which rightfully understood, truly is one of the most miraculous of all:
Now this is to be applied,  To that faith of miracles which the apostles and first preachers of the gospel were endued with, which did wonders in things natural, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out devils; these were, in effect, the removing of mountains. The apostles speak of a faith which would do that, and yet might be found where holy love was not, 1 Co. 13:2.  It may be applied to that miracle of faith, which all true Christians are endued with, which doeth wonders in things spiritual. It justifies us (Rom. 5:1), and so removes the mountains of guilt, and casts them into the depths of the sea, never to rise up in judgment against us, Mic. 7:19. It purifies the heart (Acts 15:9), and so removes mountains of corruption, and makes them plains before the grace of God, Zec. 4:7. It is by faith that the world is conquered, Satan’s fiery darts are quenched, a soul is crucified with Christ, and yet lives; by faith we set the Lord always before us, and see him that is invisible, and have him present to our minds; and this is effectual to remove mountains, for at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, the mountains were not only moved, but removed, Ps. 114:4-7.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), Mk 11:12.
Whenever I read Henry I have to say “Amen.” This faith is not only miraculously accomplished, but is imported to us through the work of the Holy Spirit, as Augustine rightly notes this continuous miracle:
Whether they are going to speak before a congregation or any other body, or to dictate something to be spoken before a congregation or read by others who are able and willing to do so, speakers must pray that God will place a good sermon on their lips. If Queen Esther, when about to plead before the king for the temporal salvation of her people, prayed that God would place a suitable speech on her lips [Esther 4:16], how much more important is it for those who work for people’s eternal salvation “by teaching God’s word” [1 Tim. 5:17] to pray to receive such a gift?
Douglas F. Kelley, Systematic Theology, Volume One: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 54.
Many of these early thinkers referenced Isaiah 7:9 which basically says this: “If you don’t take your stand in faith, you won’t have a leg to stand on.” So here we are, mentioning some good interpretations of these verses, I believe that in context with the fig tree and some of Jesus’ other teachings, we can almost see that these verses tend to speak to the end-times, one of my favorite commentaries points this out:
The Dead Sea is visible from the Mount of Olives and it is appropriate to take the reference to “this mountain” quite literally. An allusion may be intended to Zech. 14:4. In the eschatological day described there the Mount of Olives is to be split in two, and when the Lord assumes his kingship “the whole land shall be turned into a plain” (Zech. 14:10). The prayer in question is then specifically a Passover prayer for God to establish his reign. What is affirmed is God’s absolute readiness to respond to the resolute faith that prays (cf. Isa. 65:24). What distinguishes the faith for which Jesus calls from that self-intoxication which reduces a man and his work to a fiasco is the discipline of prayer through faith. When prayer is the source of faith’s power and the means of its strength, God’s sovereignty is its only restriction. The assertion in verse 24 reiterates this assurance in more comprehensive and general terms. The man who bows his head before the hidden glory of God in the fulness of faith does so in the certainty that God can deal with every situation and any difficulty and that with him nothing is impossible (10:27).
William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 410.
Evangelical scholar Walter Elwell likewise hits on this idea:
Jesus has acted out two parables of terrible impending judgment of unbelief—the withering of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple; now, in response to Peter’s remark, he turns to the vital component in the eschatological drama that is inexorably coming to pass, namely, faith in God. This Israel does not have, but the disciples can and must have faith if they are to participate as victors in the coming destruction of the enemy-occupied land which will split at the Mount of Olives when the terrible day comes that precedes the kingly reign of the Lord over the whole earth (so Zech. 14:1–11). Jesus urges his disciples to pray with the faith expressed in Isaiah 65:24 and participate with him in the new exodus, and so avoid the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the faithless land. But they must humbly seek forgiveness and harbor no resentment (v. 25), as Israel has not done in the presence of Jesus the Son, if they are to stand in the Father’s righteousness through this cataclysmic time.
Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (electronic ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), Mk 11:20.
Another commentator mentions this eschatological allusion:
…Jesus was speaking generally, but there may be some allusion to the Mount of Olives (11:1) and the Dead Sea. On a clear day the latter can be seen from the summit of the former. Alternately, the allusion may be to the temple mount, in which case faith in God makes the temple system obsolete (cf. John 4:19–24).
James A. Brooks, vol. 23, Mark (electronic ed.; Logos Library System; The New American Commentary Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 183.
And this great working through the verses by a favored theologian of mine:
11:21 The Fig Tree Which You Cursed Has Withered
- ADMONITION FOR THOSE PREPARING TO BE BAPTIZED. CYRIL OF JERUSALEM: You are now being joined with the holy vine.’ If, then, you abide in the vine, you grow into a fruitful branch, but if you do not so abide, you will be burnt in the fire. Let us therefore bring forth worthy fruit. For let it not come about that it should happen to us what happened to the barren fig tree in the Gospel.’ Let not Jesus come in these days and utter the same curse upon the fruitless. But instead may all of you say, “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”
11:23 Whoever Does Not Doubt in His Heart but Believes
- THE POWER OF PRAYER. CHRYSOSTOM: Prayer is an all-efficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mine never exhausted, a sky unobstructed by clouds, a haven unruffled by storm. It is the root, the fountain, and the mother of a thousand blessings. It exceeds a monarch’s power…. I speak not of the prayer which is cold and feeble and devoid of zeal. I speak of that which proceeds from a mind outstretched, the child of a contrite spirit,’ the offspring of a soul converted—this is the prayer which mounts to heaven…. The power of prayer has subdued the strength of fire, bridled the rage of lions, silenced anarchy, extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, enlarged the gates of heaven, relieved diseases, averted frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. In sum prayer has power to destroy whatever is at enmity with the good. I speak not of the prayer of the lips, but of the prayer that ascends from the inmost recesses of the heart.
11:24 Believe That. You Will Receive It and You Will
- FULL CONFIDENCE. JOHN CASSIAN: While we are praying, there should be no hesitation that would intervene or break down the confidence of our petition by any shadow of despair. We know that by pouring forth our prayer we are obtaining already what we are asking for. We have no doubt that our prayers have effectually reached God.’ For to that degree that one believes that he is regarded by God, and that God can grant it, just so far will one be heard and obtain an answer
11:23 It Will Be Done for Him
- DIVINE GIVING AND HUMAN WILLING. AUGUSTINE: Note that Jesus said “for him,” not “for me,” and not “for the Father.” Yet it is certain that no human being does such a thing without God’s gift and workings. Mark well that even if no actual instances of perfect righteousness may be found among humans, that does not rule out perfect righteousness as if it were formally impossible. For it might have been realized if only sufficient responsive willing had been applied, enough to suffice for so great a deed.
Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II, Mark (Downers Grove, IL: InterVasity Press,1998), 162-163.