I’ve been thinking a lot about God and His promises of late. Some are unconditional and some are contingent upon the response of the people to whom He made the promise. I think a lot of misunderstanding comes from not recognizing 1) to whom God made the promise and 2) which kind of promise He made.
I’ll start with the one that gets thrown in the faces of Christians quite often by those who wish to call into question God’s existence: Mark 11:23-24.
Truly I say to you, “Whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore, I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”
Sure, people who don’t believe in the power of God, will say, mountains cast into the sea! Happens every day.
A few scholars address this issue, first by saying what the passage is not, then giving their views on what the passage is, based primarily on the context. First, what the passage is not:
This passage has been “fodder” for many sermons on “Mountain-Moving Faith.” I have heard sermons on “a mountain of debt,” “a mountain of worry,” “a mountain of problems,” “ a mountain of sickness,” on and on ad nauseam. Time and again this passage [Matt, 21:21-22], along with Mark 11:23-24, becomes the “launching pad” for a “faith rocket” aimed in any direction we want it to go. This is a clear example of “a text taken out of context becoming a pretext for just about anything.” (“The Mountain Cast Into The Sea”)
Next, what those of this mindset believe the passage is:
In the context of the passages, Jesus has been interacting with the scribes and chief priests (Matthew 21:11-15; Mark 11:9-18). They are critical of him because he is receiving the praise of children, who call him the Son of David and the Prophet of Nazareth. It seems that Jesus and his disciples are visiting the temple on essentially a daily basis, returning at night to Bethany.
In both passages we are told as well about a fig tree. From the passages we learn that Jesus came on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem and found a fig tree that had leaves but no fruit, and he cursed it. On the following day, returning along the same path, the disciples noted that the cursed tree had completely withered, and they marveled.
It is upon this occasion, the marveling at the withering of the fig tree, that Jesus [answered] . . .
Notice a word that is frequently overlooked. Jesus does not say simply, “say unto a mountain,” but “say unto this mountain.” What mountain is he speaking of? There is the possibility that it is any mountain between Bethany and Jerusalem, but in the context of both accounts, the very next thing that Jesus does is to enter into Jerusalem and specifically the temple (Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:27).
Thus, it is reasonable to view Jesus’ remarks as being directed toward the mountain to which they were approaching, namely Jerusalem, and especially the temple mountain. With this in mind, what Jesus is speaking of is of the destruction of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem, and especially the temple mount was complete. (“Mountain Cast Into Sea”)
All well and good. Except for the “therefore” part of the Mark 11:23-24 passage: “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”
The verse seems to say, in the same way that you can ask for the mountain to be cast into the sea, you can ask whatever else.
But praying and asking is something that a number of different passages in Scripture address. Jesus said to ask in His name (John 16:23), to pray in secret (Matt. 6:6), to persevere in prayer (Luke 11:8-9), to pray according to God’s will (Luke 22:42), in agreement with two or three others (Matt. 18:19-20), upon abiding in God’s word (John 15:7); Paul says we are to pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18) and without wrath or dissension (1 Tim. 2:8); James says we are to ask, but if we ask with wrong motives we won’t receive (James 4:1-4), that the prayer offered in faith will restore (James 5:15), and that the prayer of a righteous individual can accomplish much (James 5:16); Jude says we are to pray in the Holy Spirit; John says we have what we ask for if we keep God’s commandments (1 John 3:22).
Quite a list, but I suspect there is more. The point here is this: there’s no one thing that we can do to insure that God will—in fact, has to—answer our prayers.
I knew this even as an early teen. I read the verse about casting the mountain into the sea and thought I’d try it out to see if “it worked.” Well, I quickly recognized that by running my own little test on that verse, I was already not without doubt. In fact, I did doubt.
Then there’s the issue of God’s will. Is it His will that this mountain, or any mountain, be cast into the sea? Am I going to find two or three other Christians to agree with me on that? And is my motive right? Am I asking in Jesus’s name—not just the ritual add on we conclude our prayers with, but in the name of the Almighty who has the power over wind and waves, demons and disease, life and death—am I praying in His name?
Trying to sort through all the “prayer requirements” can get pretty complicated. How do I know if I’m abiding in God’s word or living in obedience, particularly regarding the command to love my neighbor as myself? How do I know if my motives are pure? And if I have even faith that’s at least as big as a mustard seed?
There’s a passage in Romans that I’m finding helpful with all this:
yet, with respect to the promise of God, he [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Rom. 4:20-21)
I admit, at times I want God to spell out His promises to me just as clearly as He did to Abraham. But of course, I have the Bible—I have the benefit of knowing what Abraham went through and much, much more.
The part that catches my attention is that Abraham was fully assured that God was able. Combine that with what God had promised. I’m fully assured that God is able to cast a mountain or this mountain into the sea. I’m also confident He didn’t promise such a thing just because.
So what has God promised that I am fully assured of? Everlasting life for those who believe in Jesus, for starters. There are others, but this post is already too long. Suffice it to say, the mountain into the sea reminds me of God’s power, and it serves as a check on whether or not I’m fully assured that He will perform what He’s promised.
Can He? Yes, absolutely. Will He? That’s the question.