Keep in mind that I envision this presentation being in the middle of a series. While this is not a traditional sermon, this would be fitting for a Saturday night series or adult class sermon. There would also be copious amounts of overhead use for the congregation.
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:
If the first is theft, it is difficult to see why the other four are not also theft.
- On a dark street, a man draws a knife and demands my money for drugs.
- Instead of demanding my money for drugs, he demands it for the Church.
- Instead of being alone, he is with a bishop of the Church who acts as the bagman.
- Instead of drawing a knife, he produces a policeman who says I must do as he says.
- Instead of meeting me on the street, he mails me his demand as an official agent of the government.
Contending for the faith can be a grueling job, considering all the variations offered to us.
- What is a proper definition of faith?
- How can it be applied to our lives?
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 praxology. 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.
Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
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 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.
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, 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.” 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.” Dr. 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.”
This “optimism” in one’s faith 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. These early Desert Fathers were small isolated communities that separated themselves in order to follow God in solitude. They were the early monks, so-to-speak, and were based primarily in the area stretching along the Nile river in Egypt. Originally refugees during the persecution of Christian’s at the hands of the Roman’s, later, they became outposts that attracted many Christian ascetics and hermits. About this same time and place Gnostics were busy writing their texts, the biggest find of which was at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, also along the Nile. Something I argue influenced some of these desert hermits greatly. Gnosticism that is, not the Nile. For example, paleo-theologian Thomas Oden, in his Systematic Theology mentions the following:
Amma Theodora, one of the fourth-century ascetic Desert Mothers, recognized the principle that when “one believes one is ill” the soul tends toward illness. She tells a story of a monk who was seized by cold and fever and horrible headaches every time he began to pray. … one day he said to himself, ‘I am ill, and near to death; so now I will get up before I die and pray,” yet simply by getting up, his fever abated. Merely by doing something positive – just getting up – he was taking a step of faith that tended toward his health. (adapted)
Apologist Robert Bowman documents in his book The Word Faith-Controversy Hagin’s view of “stepping out in faith”
Hagin claims that since 1933 he has never had a headache. This claim should probably be taken with a grain of salt (or perhaps an aspirin!) — since, Hagin has admitted that if he did have a headache he would never tell anyone he did. … he did admit once that his “head started hurting” but claims that by telling the devil, “In the name of Jesus I do not have a headache,” the pain went away. So when Hagin says he has not had a headache or been sick since 1933, he means he has never admitted to such ailments. (adapted)
So this Mind/body dichotomy found in Eastern thinking which infected the early church in some form via Gnosticism was seemingly addressed in-part early in Paul’s ministry as documented in Corinthians 15.
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… as… did I… 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 praxology, 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.
Another example of faith gone awry is told by a fellow contributor to a group blog dealing with the Word-Faith heresy. After John graduated from Rhema Bible Institute — having his degree conferred to him by Kenneth Hagin — he founded and pastored over a church for some years all the while living and teaching this formulaic view of faith. His children were steeped in this belief system. One day his daughter fell very ill, so John and his wife brought her to the emergency room. They were told that their daughter had inoperable brain cancer. The doctors were at a loss. Usually this illness showed some signs that would possibly have allowed them to save her life. John and his wife, after talking to their daughter, were horrified to learn that she had in fact been getting horrible headaches for quite some time. Staying true to her accepted theology she would dutifully rebuke these headaches and go on with her ignoring of them in light of her optimism.
Needless to say John is no longer affiliated with the Word Faith movement. Thankfully, he is still a Christian, and a strong one at that. John touches many lives for the better after he disbanded his church and wrote on his experiences. Many, however, walk away from the faith after their disillusionment is excised through the circumstances of life.
These two stark examples 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, 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.” 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, 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:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Let’s compare this to the passage we are reading in Mark, starting a bit into verse 24:
…whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
(Brothers?) True faith causes good works, so in this salvonic understanding: forgiveness of our brother or our enemies is often times an insurmountable task and one that shows true regeneration. 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…
…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.
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.
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. 3 vols. 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. Silverton, Oregon: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2006.
Post Script: 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." Now let's read from Hosea 9:16, and then from Job 18:16, respectively.
Ephraim is stricken;
their root is dried up;
they shall bear no fruit.
Even though they give birth,
I will put their beloved children to death.
His roots dry up beneath,
and his branches wither above.
This miracle of Jesus cursing the fig-tree then, can be seen as one of the many instances Jesus showed Israel He was their Messiah through fulfilling of Old Testament prophecy. Another quick thing I wish to point out is that many Bibles seperate verse 25 from verses 20-24. This shouldn't be. I think you can completely drop verse 26 and not include that at all, however, verses 20-25 should be looked at as a cohesive pericope.