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The following is an excerpt from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Matthew 21.
And seeing this, the disciples marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it shall happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” (21:20–22)
When the disciples passed the cursed fig tree the next morning and saw that it was “withered from the roots up” (Mark 11:20), they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” A diseased tree might take many weeks or months to die, and even one that had been salted, either by accident or from maliciousness, would take several days to die. For the fig tree to wither overnight was to do so virtually at once.
At that point the Lord moved from the visual parable of the fig tree to another truth He wanted to teach the disciples. The principle taught in the parable was that religious profession without spiritual reality is an abomination to God and is cursed. The principle Jesus was now about to teach related to the disciples’ marveling about how quickly the fig tree withered. They knew why it withered, because they heard Jesus curse it; they just could not understand how it could wither so fast. The Lord took the opportunity to teach them about the power of faith joined to the purpose and will of God, which can do far more than instantly wither a fig tree.
In response to their bewilderment, Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it shall happen.”
Jesus obviously was speaking figuratively. He never used His own power, nor did the apostles ever use the miraculous powers He gave them, to perform spectacular but useless supernatural feats. It was precisely that sort of grandiose demonstration that He refused to give to the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees who wanted to see a sign from Him (Matt. 12:38). Jesus had already performed countless miracles of healing, many of which they probably had witnessed. And He performed many more such miracles that they could easily have witnessed. But the sign they wanted was on a grand scale, one in which fire would come down from heaven or the sun would stand still as it had for Joshua. The literal casting of a mountain … into the sea would have been just the sort of sign the scribes and Pharisees wanted to see but were never shown.
The phrase “rooter up of mountains” was a metaphor commonly used in Jewish literature of a great teacher or spiritual leader. In the Babylonian Talmud, for example, the great rabbis are called “rooters up of mountains.” Such people could solve great problems and seemingly do the impossible.
That is the idea Jesus had in mind. He was saying, “I want you to know that you have unimaginable power available to you through your faith in Me. If you sincerely believe, without doubting, it shall happen, and you will see great powers of God at work.” At the Last Supper Jesus told the Twelve, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). The requirement for receiving is to ask in Jesus’ name, that is, according to His purpose and will.
Jesus was not speaking about faith in faith or faith in oneself, both of which foolish and unscriptural ideas are popular today. He was speaking about faith in the true God and in God alone, not faith in one’s dreams, aspirations, or ideas of what he thinks ought to be. “You ask and do not receive,” James warns, “because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3). “This is the confidence which we have before Him,” John says, “that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Mountain-moving faith is unselfish, undoubting, and unqualified confidence in God. It is believing in God’s truth and God’s power while seeking to do God’s will. The measure of such faith is the sincere and single desire that, as Jesus said, “the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
True faith is trusting in the revelation of God. When a believer seeks something that is consistent with God’s Word and trusts in Godq’s power to provide it, Jesus assures him that his request will be honored, because it honors Him and His Father. When God’s commands are obeyed He will honor that obedience, and when any request is asked in faith according to His will He will provide what is sought. To do what God says is to do what God wants and to receive what God promises.
When the disciples asked Jesus why they were unable to cast out the demon from a young boy, “He said to them, ‘Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you’ ” (Matt. 17:20). Jesus was not commending small faith. It was the littleness of the disciples’ faith that prevented their success in casting out the demon. He rebuked them for having small faith that stayed small, but exhorted them to have faith that, though it begins small, continues to grow. The point of the mustard seed illustration is not in its smallness but in its growing from smallness to greatness. In the same way, the virtue of mountain-moving faith is its growth from smallness to greatness as God blesses and provides.
Mountain-moving faith is activated by sincere petition to God. “All things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive,” Jesus explained. The parables of the friend who asked his neighbor for a favor at midnight and of the widow who petitioned the unrighteous judge (Luke 11:5–8; 18:1–8) both teach the importance of persistent prayer. Persistent prayer is the prayer that moves mountains, because it is truly believing prayer.
Whatever our finite minds may lead us to think, there is no inconsistency between God’s sovereignty and man’s faith, because God’s Word clearly teaches both. It is not the believer’s responsibility to fathom God’s inscrutable ways but to obediently follow His clear teaching. Persistent prayer that is believing God’s Word cannot be inconsistent with the operation of God’s own sovereign will, because in His sovereign wisdom and grace He commands such prayer and obligates Himself to honor it.
The believer who wants what God wants can ask from God and receive it. The Christian young person who truly wants what God wants for his life will have it. The woman who truly wants what God wants for her family will have it. The pastor who truly wants what God wants for his ministry will have it.
God’s will for His children does not, of course, always involve things that are pleasant to the flesh or the things one might naturally prefer. His will for His children includes their willingness to sacrifice, suffer, and die for Him if necessary. For the believer who seeks God’s will, it is never a matter of succeeding or failing, of prosperity or poverty, of living or dying, but simply of being faithful (see 1 Cor. 4:2). Therefore Paul declares, “If we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8).
When the church is impotent, as so much of it is today, it is because so many Christians are impotent. And Christians are impotent because they are not persistent in praying for what God wants, believing He will provide it. God desires His children to ask and keep asking, to seek and keep seeking, to knock and keep knocking, and it is through that persistence that He promises to bless. He guarantees that they will always receive, always find, and always have the door opened to them (Matt. 7:7).
God does not build His church or build up His people by better ideas, better programs, or better methods, although such things can have a place in His work. God promises to truly reveal His power only through faithful believers who, in persistent prayer, seek only His will.