Mark 11:19-26 (spring AD 30, Tuesday of Passion Week)
One principle of understanding what the Bible says is that where possible we should look for the plain reading of the text as the most likely way to understand it.
Another principle is that the Bible never contradicts itself; God is the author, and the Bible is a single story, not merely a human-derived assortment of disparate writings. (We know this through faith, what God claims in Scripture, and through the overwhelming evidence that everything stated in Scripture comes true, with all the prophecies about Jesus being fulfilled in front of many witnesses.)
Yet another principle is that the primary means we use to interpret Scripture is the rest of Scripture.
Which brings us to this, “Wait…what??!!” little section of the Bible, in which Jesus says that, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (v.24). Any time you try to argue with someone preaching the hellish prosperity non-gospel, you can guarantee this is one of their highlighted rebuttal verses.
First, the context: Jesus had earlier cursed the fig tree (Mark 11:13-14) and on returning to it now, the disciples were surprised, pointing out to Jesus that the fig tree had, in fact, withered – as per Jesus’s curse (v.21). With all due respect to Peter, that was an enormously daft thing to say. Peter had personally witnessed Jesus spontaneously heal sickness, raise the dead, calm the storm, and feed 5,000 people using a small snack. And yet he seems surprised at the successful tree curse.
Jesus’ point in our verses is therefore in part to say, you think THAT’S impressive or surprising? That’s nothing. YOU can make amazing things happen through prayer (never mind ME!).
With that being the main lesson, what is Jesus really saying about the effectiveness of specific prayers?
Does he mean we can ask for anything and the answer is a guaranteed ‘Yes’?
An instinctive ‘No’ isn’t enough: there will be times when we need to rebut heresy or dangerous misunderstandings and we need to do that from a position of saying that the Bible is our only authority. Otherwise all we’re really saying is that ‘the Bible is the only authority unless I instinctively know it’s wrong’.
Equally, an instinctive ‘Yes’ isn’t enough if you need to ignore everything else the Bible says on prayer to maintain that view.
How does the ‘plain reading’ of these verses (i.e. you get everything you ask for) sit with the rest of Scripture?
THREE DAYS LATER, Jesus offered the following prayer:
“…Father…everything is possible for you. Take this cup [of wrath – i.e. crucifixion] from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
Jesus was and is the Son of God, God himself, yet he deferred to his Father (the boss), specifically requesting something that he simultaneously acknowledged might be denied to him. Sure enough, it was a ‘No’ from God the Father – Luke 22:43 points out that it wasn’t merely a ‘No’, but rather God sent an angel to comfort Jesus – to help him through the suffering that he really did need to go through to fulfil God’s will.
Importantly, there was no silver lining or explanation there – it wasn’t God saying no, but here’s why and you’ll like it. It was really nothing more than a no, but I’ll help you through it.
Paul the apostle, arguably the finest Christian in history, said this: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [‘a thorn in my flesh’] away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you…’” (2 Corinthians 12:8). i.e. God said no to him, too. But again, God didn’t say no and disappear, he said no and reiterated his promise to be always with Paul and never leave him.
So…God said no to Jesus, and God said no to Paul. In both those cases, the threat or challenge facing them was enormously unpleasant, but paled into insignificance compared to the greatest threat of all – that of being separated from God, which is why God’s response to both of them was to remind them of his presence with them.
Without deep-diving further into the theology of it, those two examples are perhaps the best illustration of why Jesus wasn’t saying what he appears – to twenty-first Century readers – to be saying. Besides which, the notion of throwing a mountain in the sea was a common enough expression at the time to denote something obviously impossible.
Jesus was reminding the disciples of the incredible power of prayer, not because it’s a magic wand but because the one who answers prayer is God himself, and nothing that looks like a miracle to us is anything more than mundane to him. Don’t be surprised when God does tremendous things for his glory in response to your prayers. So don’t limit your prayers to small requests, because when you want what God wants, the sky’s not the limit.
Equally, don’t be complacent, Jesus warned them in closing (v.25). Don’t go thinking that we can be unforgiving to others whilst expecting God to provide us with the greatest miracle of all: total forgiveness of all our sins through the finished work of Christ (v.24-25).