Prayer that Moves Mountains

I invite you to take your Bibles this morning and make your way to Mark 11. We will be in vv. 22-25 today. There is a sermon outline included in your worship guide to aid you in following along with this morning’s message. 

Today we come to the topic of prayer. Frankly, it’s a bit unexpected as prayer kind of jumps into the narrative out of seemingly thin air. Jesus ha just come to Jerusalem. We are in the week is his death. On our timeline it’s most likely Tuesday. Sunday, he entered the city on a donkey as Israel’s Messiah-King. Monday, he came back to cleanse the temple. Each night he’s been staying in Bethany a short two-mile walk down the city of Jerusalem. 

And then bam. Here’s this little instruction concerning prayer. Mark includes it. And so does Matthew. They viewed it as highly important. 

As we begin then we can start by defining prayer. Prayer quite simply is directly addressing God. In that address you can be petitioning or asking, praising, thanking, or interceding. It can be done silently in your heart, or expressed verbally, out loud with your lips. The key component is that you are expressing yourself directly to God. There is a personal dimension to it. 

Thinking is not praying. Reading is not praying. Meditating is not praying. 

This is why, for example, when we pray, we often say, Father, God, Jesus, Spirit, and that’s appropriate because we are indicating who we are addressing. Jesus himself when he prayed addressed his prayers to the Father. We then follow his example in prayer.

In fact, Jesus taught his disciples much about prayer. It was a priority in his own life. It was a priority in his training of his men before his departure. 

Over the course of time he taught them how to address the Father. He taught them to endure in prayer and not lose heart. He taught them to have confidence in prayer. He taught them about the Spirit of God, the helper who would come and strengthen them in prayer. He taught them to be spiritually alert. And he taught them to present requests repeatedly while expecting good things from the Father.

Not only that, but Jesus modeled prayer. Is it not staggering that our Lord himself needed to depend upon his heavenly Father in prayer through the Holy Spirit? We could spend a couple of weeks trying to wrap our minds around this one reality and all of its implications. It is incomprehensible.

Today, Jesus is giving disciples yet another lesson on prayer. This is a simple lesson. It isn’t comprehensive. Actually, it’s very basic. And it’s very encouraging.

My friends, if you belong to God. If you have been saved from your sin and you have the Spirit of God within you then you do desire fellowship with God through prayer. And God desires for you to worship him and fellowship with him through prayer.

But often we are weak in prayer.

I am often weak in prayer. 

I plan to pray, and instead I fall asleep. I commit to pray for people and then forget. I pray urgently for a critical need for a season and then I stop not because the need is met, but because I lost interest in praying for it as time drags on. 

Then there are the times that I find myself expending energy trying to solve a problem or worrying about an issue only to realize that I haven’t even brought it to my heavenly Father. 

Sometimes I view prayer as required obligation to get over with so that I can move on to what I really want to do. Still other times I find myself praying words, and yet even while I say them, not really believing God would do what I’m asking him to do.

This is what I mean when I say that I am weak in prayer.

Thank God that’s not the totality of my prayer life. I do love to commune with my God in prayer and it often a joy and delight. It’s the first think I do when I wake up even before my eyes open and usually the last think I do before I go to sleep. 

I offer up prayers throughout the day as I am going and in set apart times—in solitude and with others. I pray for my preaching, I pray for your individually and collectively for your spiritual growth and practical needs. And I thank my God and praise him for many good things that he has done.

But the truth is that my prayer life is still dogged by weakness.

And if you can relate to any of these challenges, then I hold for to you this passage as a gift to your prayer life. The simplicity of the text makes it easy to understand and apply.

Jesus today is going to remind us of the power and promise and provision of the God whom we pray to. See, if we relegate our weakness in prayer merely to an issue of scheduling or planning or busyness then we misdiagnose the true issue and then we lose out on the remedy.

Practical considerations do matter in prayer. If you don’t plan well to pray you won’t pray well. You do need to learn about prayer and how to pray. But today’s message is not so much practical. Jesus focuses on the central issue impacting the effectiveness of your prayer expressed in the simple question: do you believe God?

Key question: Do I regularly pray and expect God can and will powerfully intervene in the events of my daily life?

Your immediate answer if you are born-again is, “yes, I believe God.” But our ability to answer this question is going to come into sharper focus as we study these verses together. So, with that in our minds, this passage is going to break down into three sections:

3 Beliefs that Produce Effective Prayer (11:22-25)

The opposite of these is also true. Not trusting God in these areas results in weakness or ineffectiveness in our prayer.

  1. Trust in God’s power—your starting conviction (22-23)

  2. Trust in God’s promises—your sustaining confidence (24)

  3. Trust in God’s provision—your sobering constraint (25)

*We’re adding v. 23 into point one.

Let’s read our passage together, we’ll start back up in v. 12—

Mark 11:12–14—12 On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. 13 Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening.

Mark 11:19–26—19 When evening came, they would go out of the city. 20 As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 22 And Jesus answered saying to them, “Have faith in God. 23 “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. 24 “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. 25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. 26 “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”

Jesus begins teaching here on prayer, coming right on the heels of this miraculous act of killing a tree with one phrase. Mark, as we have come to expect, is staccato in his writing and leaves out anything that isn’t necessary to his storyline.

So, when he begins in v. 22—

(22) And Jesus answered saying to them, “Have faith in God.” καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἔχετε πίστιν θεοῦ. 

You have Jesus responding to unbelief. I’m thinking what here is indicating unbelief.

The text reads literally: And answering, Jesus says to them… which indicates somebody said something if Jesus is answering. An answer is a response to a previous statement.

We could assume what was stated, but Matthew recorded it, so we can use our divinely sanctioned cheat-sheet to go get the answer.

Matthew 21:20—Seeing this, the disciples were amazed and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” 

Everyone is shocked when they encounter the tree. We lost a large Scotch Pine on our property two years ago due to a beetle infestation. It took a year from the infestation for things to really look wilted. It typically takes time and it starts at the extremities.

This tree died overnight. Imagine pulling out of your driveway in the morning on Monday and the tree in the year full of green leaves. Then Tuesday morning you go to n pull out and its deadwood.

Shocking. To borrow from our illustration last week, imagine that you heard a bible study leader curse the copier when it wouldn’t make copies and when you come into the church office the next morning the copier is laying there in 5,000 little pieces. 

Jesus said, “you’ll never bear fruit.” The disciples were probably expecting the tree to either remain alive but sterile and never bear fruit, or die over time just like our tree that took a year to die after the deadly infestation. 

Cause of death for this tree was not due to natural causes.

Something supernatural has just taken place. Divine power. Sovereign power. Power not limited by human activity or time or distance. 

And Jesus looks at Peter and the rest and he says three words in the original:

Have faith in God. Ἔχετε πίστιν θεοῦ.

Guys come on! You’ve seen one kid’s lunch get multiplied into dinner for 10,000 people. You’ve seen dead bodies raised to live (Lazarus happened just weeks ago). There’s been walking on water. There’s been transfiguration with levitating and being transformed into the glory of God. There’s been authority over demons. There’s been miraculous healing after miraculous healing.

And now, seeing a fig tree die instantly amazes them.

When you read this, two implications immediately pop out from the words of Jesus to Peter and the other disciples:

  1. You need to trust God and believe in his power

  2. You don’t trust God and believe in his power, at least not as you ought. These disciples are slow of heart to believe. Like Peter getting out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus they do trust in God’s power, but then quickly doubt.

This brings us to the big idea for today’s passage. Here’s the main statement that Jesus is making, and that everything else is going to support: the disciples, although true believers, after all they have witnessed, still doubt God.

You and I can relate. That there is resident unbelief that lingers in our thinking. We are prone to unbelief. We doubt God’s power and ability because we can’t see God, we look to him by faith. He’s reminding them of the basics here.

Foundational to prayer is a trust in God’s power and ability. 

Peter is surprised.

And now Jesus makes an often-abused statement to drive home his point about believing in God’s power when you pray:

(23) “Truly I say to you, ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν

Truly I say to you. Everything Jesus says is true. But this was like putting extra weight on the significance and the validity of what was being stated.

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.”  ὅτι ὃς ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ, Ἄρθητι καὶ βλήθητι εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν, καὶ μὴ διακριθῇ ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ ἀλλὰ πιστεύῃ ὅτι ὃ λαλεῖ γίνεται, ἔσται αὐτῷ. 

Before we say what this means, it is good to say what this doesn’t mean:

  • Word-faith (explain)

  • Literal (explain)

Jesus is using hyperbole and an expression to demonstrate a point…

  • I’m so hungry I could eat a horse

  • That cake was to die for

  • She’s told me this a million times before

No one hears those statements and pictures that you have a bathtub full of horse meat that you are going to eat, or that you signed a death certificate in order to secure piece of delicious cake, or that you actually hear something more than 999,999 times.

These are hyperbolic statements that exaggerate in order to bring home a point: you could say I’m very hungry, the cake is delicious, or I’ve heard this story before. But it’s much more dramatic to bring home the point using one of the expressions I just made.

No record of Jesus moving a mountain. No record of the apostles moving mountains. No record of Christians moving mountains. What we do have a record of, however, is that moving mountains was an expression used by rabbis at that time.

It was used to refer to something that was insurmountable. 

We understand this. Today we might say of something that seems impossible: “she moved heaven and earth to make that happen.” Or, “we saw obstacle after obstacle fall down.” Moving mountains = things that are impossible.

Jesus is saying that if you believe God, then the things which are humanly impossible, become possible. God is powerful to do what no person on earth has the power to do.

More than likely while Jesus makes this statement he is actually looking at a mountain when he says it.

Nature related to killing the tree.

Mt. Olives and the Dead Sea, 10 miles away. This mountain.

Faith in God’s power to do what is humanly impossible.

  • Consider even 1 Corinthians 13:2—if I have faith so as to move mountains.

  • Elsewhere Jesus ascribes faith that uproots a mulberry tree. Mulberry trees had long taproots made it nearly impossible to remove.

  • This theme keeps coming up. Remember 10:26-27—how can anyone be saved? With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

  • 9:22-24 the father comes and says Lord, my son is getting crushed by a demon, if you can do something, please help. And what does Jesus say, “If you can? All things are possible to him who believes.”

but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him.

Here’s how we know Jesus isn’t just talking about speaking generally, but he’s referring to prayer. It will be granted him. That means he was asking for it.

Again, this isn’t an unqualified promise, but it is revealing what limits God’s powerful intervention in our lives, which is asking for things while not believing him.  

Faith looks to God and believes that he is powerful to do anything that he wants to do.

How does this truth play itself out in our prayers to God? Do you ever ask God to do something, and even as you are asking it, talk yourself out of his ability or willingness to do it? Prayer that honors God trusts in God’s power. It says the contingency is whether or not this is in God’s perfect plan right now to do what I’m asking.

A few points here of application:

  • This is for every child of God. v. 23 – whoever: not pastors or priests not men or women not adults or children. This promise, like the promise of the Gospel is that you but believe. We find inequality all over the place. Opportunities aren’t equal. Access to education, healthcare. Some have great privilege and others significant disadvantage. But when it comes to accessing God the Father there is absolute equality through Jesus. There’s no special anointing or calling.

  • This isn’t faith in faith. It isn’t about the power of your faith. Faith doesn’t have power. It isn’t a force. Your faith can’t do anything. Your faith doesn’t speak things into existence and make them happen. If your faith itself contains the power then you are essentially a little god. This faith is one that trusts and depends upon the power of God. It’s the simultaneous affirmation that you need God and that he is able.

This isn’t demanding things from God. Consider Jesus who always perfectly believed in his Father’s power:

Matthew 26:39—And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Add to the list…

  • Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

  • Timothy’s stomach problems—“frequent” (1 Timothy 5:23)

It wasn’t God’s will to give Jesus relief from facing the cross when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. It wasn’t God’s will to give Paul relief from facing the thorn that tormented him. It wasn’t God’s will to heal Timothy’s frequent stomach issues.

Why? Unbelief? Jesus didn’t believe in the Father’s power? No. God’s purpose and plan for each of these situations was to strengthen these individuals in the midst of their difficult circumstances.

What does this mean for us? This dimension of prayer that Jesus is dealing with pertains to praying for things that we aren’t specifically promised, but we request God to do.

Other prayers you don’t have a promise for:

  • God save my mom or my dad, or my spouse, save my relative or my friend (they have rejected the truth before and I just don’t see that happening)

  • God give me a spouse.

  • God provide me with a job.

  • God heal my sickness.

  • God provide us with a church building.

  • God bring an errant sheep to repentance.

  • God make my emotional difficulties go away.

  • God restore a broken relationship that keeps me awake at night.

These are heavy burdens that we take to God in prayer. And when you ask for these things you are to believe that God change any of these circumstances.

But you aren’t promised that God will say yes. But you are promised that he listens, that he cares, that he knows what you need, that he is good, and that he is powerful to do anything you ask. The only contingency then becomes—is it God’s will?

When we don’t see God remove the thorn or the ailment or bring relief, our tendency is to begin to lose heart. Jesus reminded the disciples elsewhere not pray and not lose heart because he knew that sometimes you will pray and pray and pray for something to come to pass and you will still wait upon the Lord without a resolution.

We need these encouragements in prayer.

First, believe God’s power. The next two flow quickly out of this first one.

3 Beliefs that Produce Effective Prayer (22-25)

  1. Trust in God’s power—your starting conviction (22-23)

  2. Trust in God’s promises—your sustaining confidence (24)

  3. Trust in God’s provision—your sobering constraint (25)

(24) “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. διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν, πάντα ὅσα προσεύχεσθε καὶ αἰτεῖσθε, πιστεύετε ὅτι ἐλάβετε, καὶ ἔσται ὑμῖν. 

Literally, you could phrase this, ”because of this… believe that you (already) received everything you have prayed and asked for, and it will be yours.”

You will receive what you believe God for. Those are the words.

Now this verse is a favorite of word-faith teachers. It is ripped out of context and abused. When I was in college I got my first significant interaction with the word-faith movement. A young man started going to our church who was deep into the teaching of Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar and T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen.

Mark 11:24 is key verse in these teachings. Just look at the words: all things… believe that you have them, and you will get them. If you don’t have it’s because you don’t believe, keep believing and you will get it.

That if you want riches. If you want success. You just believe that you have received them, and then you will. The key then to unlocking what you want in life is believing God for it.

It’s sad how popular these teachings are. The fact that millions of books have been sold by these authors. But that of course misunderstands this verse. This verse is an incredible comfort if we understand what Jesus means by what he says.

He isn’t saying if you want it and you believe you got it, you’ll get it.

It means that you can bank on having whatever God has promised you.

This is about receiving whatever God has promised when you ask God to do it for you. 2 Corinthians 1:20—all of the promises of God are yes in Jesus Christ.

This verse is about God’s willingness to give you all things freely in Christ. Because he loves Jesus and you have been united to Jesus, you are now a sharer in him. And it’s about his faithfulness to do what he has said.

God hasn’t promised you healing or financial success or a spouse or children or any of those things. But what has he committed to do for you? Just think about the things that you need, that you can pray for, that you can depend upon God to do, and trust him to do it.

  • God make me wise because I need wisdom (I am so unwise and inexperienced, that I can’t become wise) James 1

  • God make your Word bear fruit in my life by the power of your Holy Spirit that I may see victory in an area of long-standing struggle (I’ve been sinning for so long, I just don’t really expect to change) Galatians 5

  • Sustaining grace that will meet you in your need (2 Corinthians 12)

  • Endurance to remain in him until you die (Jude 21)

  • Divine comfort (2 Corinthians 1:4ff)

  • The nearness of himself (fear not I am with you)

  • Peace if you give him your anxiety and trust him (Philippians 4:8)

  • Purity in exchange for lust (how can a young man keep his way pure, Psalm 119)

  • Grace that is the foundation for walking in newness of life (Romans 6 no long slaves of sin, but slaves to God)

  • His faithful presence (I will never leave nor forsake)

  • That his word will not return void (Isaiah)

  • That meditating on God’s word will make you wiser than your teachers and your enemies and lead to the blessed life (Psalm 1, Psalm 119…)

  • That temptation will not be too powerful for you to withstand by faith (1 Corinthians 10:13)

  • Your ability to love enemies and bless those who persecute you

  • Your sanctification—Jesus prayed for it in John 17, Paul said it’s God’s will for your life in 1 Thessalonians 4.

Part of why we doubt God in prayer is because you are looking to an unseen God to provide you with something that you can’t provide for yourself. 

You look at yourself and say, “I have sinned for so long in an area, I don’t ever see myself changing… I have such deep-seated anxiety I could never know that kind of peace… I’ve been giving in to temptation for so many years, I don’t think I could ever have inner purity… I’ve tried to forgive, but I can’t… I am lacking in wisdom so badly, how I could I ever be biblically wise?”

And so we see Jesus ministering to our souls. Saying, Christian, go back to the Scriptures, take hold of the promises that God has made to you concerning these issues. And boldly ask him to accomplish them in your life, believing that he not only can, but he will do it.

Don’t limit God’s power by unbelief. See, we view this wrongly. Your weakness doesn’t thwart the power of God in your life, it is actually an opportunity for it to be magnified. 

Flip all of those things on their head: God, I am sinned for so long in an area, and I trust you can change me, and your power will be put on display when that happens because it certainly isn’t coming from me. God I’ve had deeply engrained patterns of thinking and anxiety and I trust that you can give me peace, and as you do, it will be you who gets all of the glory.

Listen, when you pray like that… watch out. Because you will see God’s power at work in your life. This resets our expectations for the Christian life. This produces hope in our hearts. This truth infuses prayer with great expectations.

We simply say God, you said you can do it, so I believe you can do it, and I believe you will do it.

Friends, if you doubt his willingness, read Luke 13, read Matthew 6, read James 1. Our God is a Father who knows what we need and he is generous in what he gives to us. You are taking God at his Word by saying, “Lord, make good on your promises to me in Christ.”

3 Beliefs that Produce Effective Prayer (22-25)

  1. Trust in God’s power—your starting conviction (22-23)

  2. Trust in God’s promises—your sustaining confidence (24)

  3. Trust in God’s provision—your sobering constraint (25)

There is a qualification here. There is a condition on your prayers. It is a constraint that will render your prayer life powerless.

In fact, if you are weak in prayer, and you are troubleshooting it’s possible that this is the issue:

(25) “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. καὶ ὅταν στήκετε προσευχόμενοι, ἀφίετε εἴ τι ἔχετε κατά τινος, ἵνα καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς ἀφῇ ὑμῖν τὰ παραπτώματα ὑμῶν.

What’s the point? God sees your heart and if you are unwilling to forgive your brother or your sister, then don’t expect to have intimate fellowship with God.

God hates hypocrisy. And your prayer is hypocritical if you are harboring resentment in your life.

Fundamentally, of course, if you have been offended and you won’t release someone of the debt of their offense against you, then you aren’t believing God.

There is close connection between forgiving and being forgiven.

Standing for prayer was a typical position for Jews when the prayed. We find this connection to forgiveness elsewhere:

It is quite clear that for both Jesus and the evangelists, being forgiven by God and forgiving others go hand in hand. Sometimes our forgiving others may be portrayed as preceding God’s forgiving us (11:25; Matt. 5:23–24; 6:12, 14; Luke 6:37), sometimes as being simultaneous with God’s forgiving us (Luke 11:4), and sometimes as following God’s forgiving us (Luke 7:41–43, 47b; cf. Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). What is clear from all this is that forgiveness and forgiving cannot be separated (Matt. 6:15).

The Psalmist understood this…

Psalm 66:18—If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear;

Peter sharpens the pencil a bit and applies this specifically in the context of marriage that your relationships horizontally impact your vertical relationship.

1 Peter 3:7—You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

1 John 1:6 is clear that we can say that we have fellowship with God and yet walk in the darkness and if we walk in the darkness then we are liars and don’t practice the truth. So here it is. If you are an unforgiving person and you claim to be a Christian, then God says you are a liar.

(26) “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”

Verse 26 is true. Its truth is contained elsewhere in Scripture. It wasn’t included here by Mark, but it was an addition to the text later as the manuscripts were copied. Because of English translation history, it remains in our Bibles.

It sounds like a condition. Like if you don’t obey you aren’t going to be saved…

Well yes. And no.

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Your never worthy to be saved by God. But as the parable in Matthew 18 teaches, if you don’t forgive, then you haven’t been forgiven. Forgiven people forgive others. The unforgiving slave in that parable didn’t lose rewards, he was cast into hell. He didn’t know God’s grace, and the evidence of that was that he was ungracious towards other people. 

That’s the foundation of the call to forgive in Ephesians 5. Just as God in Christ has forgiven you. If you have tasted of the mercy of God in being freed from the penalty of sin you committed, not because you earned it or deserve it, but because God was lavish in his care for you, then you will do the same to others.

So tight is the connection that if as the pattern of your life you don’t forgive people then you aren’t a Christian. Of course, you may struggle with it at times. It isn’t always immediate. But you will be a forgiver.

Jesus says, if you want powerful prayer, then you need to trust in God’s provision—meaning his forgiveness of you. Otherwise, your prayer will be vain and ineffective.

Well Jesus and the disciples are going to have a long day in Jerusalem today. It’s a very long day of ministry and conflict. But on the morning stroll into town, the disciples get this special lesson on prayer from their Lord whom they love so much.

This is such a gracious reminder by Jesus. Jesus is tenderly caring for his men right now. Think of the timeliness of this message. He’s been at their beck and call for three years. Face to face conversation. Looking into his eyes. Hearing his voice. Embracing his touch. Eating. Walking. Serving. Teaching. 

In four days, he’s is gone. Today is Tuesday. Friday is the crucifixion. Do you think these men need reminders to trust God’s promise? 

Jesus’ departure from earth is right around the corner. The disciples are going to lose their leader and their friend. Of course, he will be with them in Spirit as he sends the Spirit to comfort and empower them. But his physical presence goes away, and within a few weeks they will spend the rest of their lives communing with him through prayer by faith and not by sight.

We have every reason to believe that God is, and that he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him.