Mark 11:20-25. Whatever? Really?

“As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

 Jesus has finally entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, acclaimed by the crowds singing psalms and saying, “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David.” He has come as the rightful heir of David, to claim the kingdom. But he begins in Jerusalem by inspecting the Temple, turning over tables in the Temple courts, and teaching the crowds there that the whole system was corrupt- that the Temple had become a den of robbers. Woven together with that account, is the account of how Jesus cursed a fig tree because it bore no fruit. Jesus wanted to find fruit in Israel, but found nothing sweet and pleasing, not even in the Temple.

The day after the white-knuckle ride in the Temple, as Jesus and the disciples walked back into Jerusalem from their lodgings in nearby Bethany, Peter pointed out the cursed fig tree, which had withered from the roots. Jesus then made a few comments. Read them carefully. Then read them again.

1.      Do we have any good reason to assume that Jesus’ words must be coherent and connected?

  • Do Jesus’ words here represent a coherent line of thought, or are they a series of disconnected statements?
  • Do Jesus’ words have any connection to the withered fig tree?

2.      Jesus tells us that mountains can be cast into the sea- if we believe that God will do it when we pray for it. He then says that whatever we ask for will be given us- if we believe we’ve received it. So if we ask and don’t get, is that because we didn’t believe well enough?

3.      Seriously, what is there in this passage to prevent that kind of interpretation?

4.      In the OT we find mountains being moved (e.g. Isa 40; Zech 4:7; 14:4-5). What theme connects these passages?

5.      Where in the OT do we find things being cast into the sea?

6.      How does the immediate context help us to understand this passage in Mark?

7.      Why are we told to forgive whenever we stand praying? What is the connection of that clause to the rest of Jesus’ statement?

8.      This sort of sensible exegesis might guard us from all sorts of error, but guarding from error isn’t enough. What should we take from this passage?

  • What is Jesus actually promising us?
  • What is Jesus telling us to do?

 

1.      Do we have any good reason to assume that Jesus’ words must be coherent and connected?

  • Do Jesus’ words here represent a coherent line of thought, or are they a series of disconnected statements?
  • Do Jesus’ words have any connection to the withered fig tree?

The passage we have here almost reads as if it could be a disconnected stream-of-consciousness. What has faith in God got to do with the fig tree? And what has forgiveness got to do with believing prayer? Jesus says thing, but doesn’t always join the dots for us. And sometimes we’re left wondering whether the dots actually make a picture at all.

Peter has just seen the withered fig tree, and he catches Jesus’ attention, and says, “Look! See that fig tree? That’s the one you cursed yesterday, and now it’s withered.” But Jesus doesn’t say “Wow! You’re right!”, and he doesn’t say “Well, what did you expect, Peter?” Instead, he teaches the disciples about prayer and faith. He says “Have faith in God. And pray for completely impossible things- like mountains being thrown into the sea. And when you pray for impossible things, believe that they will be done, and so they shall be. And also when you pray, be sure that you’ve forgiven other people, so that God may forgive you”. “Have faith in God” is good advice, for sure. But it isn’t obviously connected to anything Peter’s just said- what does any of this have to do with the fig tree and the Temple? And it isn’t even that obviously internally connected from one end to the other- is the bit about forgiveness of sins just tagged on as a helpful thought at the end, or is it necessary to the whole?

This is the sort of passage that contributes to the popular perception of Jesus as a kind of spaced-out peaceful hippie dude. You know the kind of thing- where people imagine Jesus wandering about in sandals and a long clean white robe. He’s got long flowing hair, and a gentle voice. It’s probably a pleasant sunny day, and he’s got a crowd gathered round him, in a nice grassy area, maybe under a tree, and he’s teaching all about peace and love. He’s doing this by making cryptic statements so that his followers can think for a while and then go “Mmmmmmm. Deep, man. Deep”.

But I think we have good reason not to read it as though it were the musings of a spaced-out guru. Jesus attracted as followers, not pretentious middle-class university students who were trying to find themselves, but blue collar fishermen, worldly tax collectors, and hot-head political firebrands. He wasn’t some ineffectual hippie with barely two serious thoughts to rub together. If you read the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t come across as a man with his head in the clouds, a man with no sense of reality. It is a good starting point to assume that what Jesus said must be intelligible and coherent, and then to work from there. If we don’t see the connection between Peter’s observation on the fig tree, and Jesus’ comments, then maybe that’s because we don’t see it, not because it’s not there. So we need to work at seeing it.

And in order to see how all the parts are connected into one whole, we need to consider the parts severally. We’ll start by considering what the passage doesn’t mean…

 

2.      Jesus tells us that mountains can be cast into the sea- if we believe that God will do it when we pray for it. He then says that whatever we ask for will be given us- if we believe we’ve received it. So if we ask and don’t get, is that because we didn’t believe well enough?

Ever fancied a relaxing holiday for three weeks in the sun? How about a shiny red motorbike? Or an elegant mansion in a rolling green estate? Or an offensively enormous yacht? Or why not all of them at once? If you think you would like those things, then why don’t you just pray for them and trust that they will all be yours? After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”?  What’s the matter? Don’t you believe Jesus?

Just remember, even the devil can quote scripture to his own ends. And even though Jesus did say the words above, his “whatever” was quite a specific whatever. So if you’ve just started praying for the holiday, and were wondering whether to stop off in town on your way home to buy sunglasses and shorts; don’t.

Seriously though, this really is the way this passage is used in some circles. The Word-Faith movement, the Prosperity Gospel, the name-it-and-claim-it theology- all these are terms used to describe this interpretation. And it’s huge. The biggest “churches” in the world believe versions of it. The biggest church in America, Lakewood Church in Houston, averages over 40,000 weekly attendees. The senior pastor and church figurehead is a man named Joel Osteen, whose books have repeatedly made the New York Times bestsellers list. And he preaches this kind of theology. The largest church in the world, Yoichi Full Gospel Church in Korea, is led by Paul Yonggi Cho. 800,000 people listen to him every Sunday. And he teaches that Jesus Christ is what can only be described as a grown-up version of Santa Claus. This isn’t a fringe movement of a few hundred deluded nutcases. This is mainstream.

Basically, the interpretation of these verses in that kind of church would be that if you just ask for something, and if you believe you’ll have it, then you will have it. Maybe there are a few qualifications to that rule; maybe you have to visualise it, or maybe you have to really really want it. But if you learn the trick of the thing, then God will give you whatever you ask.

That sounds dangerous and loopy to me. Osteen would probably tell me that it’s my own mental limitations which stop me having whatever I want to have, and that I need to stop being so negative. This is the first page of the first chapter of his recent book- “Your Best Life Now”.

 “I heard a story about a man on vacation in Hawaii with his wife. He was a good man who had achieved a modest measure of success, but he was coasting along, thinking he’d already reached his limits in life. One day, a friend was driving the couple around the island, showing them the sights. They stopped to admire a gorgeous house set high on a hill. The property was replete with beautiful palm trees and lush green gardens in a picturesque, peaceful setting with a panoramic view overlooking the ocean.

As the man gazed at the magnificent home, he commented to his wife and friend, “I can’t even imagine living in a place like that”

Right there, something inside him said, Don’t worry. You won’t. You will never live in a great place like that.

Startled at his own thoughts, he asked himself, What do you mean?

As long as you can’t imagine it, as long as you can’t see it, then it is not going to happen for you. The man correctly realised that his own thoughts and attitudes were condemning him to mediocrity. He determined then and there to start believing better of himself, and believing better of God. It’s the same way with us. We have to conceive it on the inside before we’re ever going to receive it on the outside. If you don’t think you can have something good, then you never will. The barrier is in your mind. It’s not God’s lack of resources or your lack of talent that prevents you from prospering. Your own wrong thinking can keep you from God’s best.

 Osteen goes on to talk about how you must see yourself through the eyes of faith- by which he means you must picture yourself succeeding. He gives examples, including his wife Victoria, who wanted a really nice house and got one by following his methods.

Do genuine followers of Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head, obsess about having an expensive house? There’s plainly something wrong there, but Osteen appears to think it’s a mark of godliness to desire and have riches in this world. He equates “God’s best” for you with success in this life. This is madness. It’s quite plainly not what Jesus meant to say to Peter in the verses from Mark’s Gospel about believing and having.

And besides, it’s a form of unkindness. Osteen tells us that “It’s not… your lack of talent that prevents you from prospering”. He argues that it’s only a lack of vision or ambition that limits us. But plenty of people are limited not by their ambitions, but by their abilities. It’s cruel to persuade them otherwise. If somebody doesn’t have the promotion he or she wants because, frankly, they wouldn’t perform very well at a higher level in their company, then why encourage them to believe they deserve better than they’ve got? They might like to believe their position is down to their attitude, but that’s because changing attitude is easier than changing ability. It does people no favours to tell them that the key to success is simply to visualise the success they desire.

Worse even than unkindness, it can be a form of tyranny. Sometimes, when the wide-eyed trusting subject tries to believe, and remains unsuccessful, he comes back to the teacher to complain. And too often, the teacher ends up saying something that amounts to: “Well, it should have worked. Maybe you don’t have enough faith, brother.” Imagine a believer with cancer, who desperately wants to be healed? Is it a kindness to tell them that if they pray for the removal of the cancer, then God will surely remove it, if they only believe hard enough? What happens if they pray, and really do believe, and yet they die anyway? What if that is the way in which they can best glorify God? God has not bound himself to do anything we want him to do, and it is shameful to pretend otherwise.

3.      Seriously, what is there in this passage to prevent that kind of interpretation?

To answer that, we need to go a bit deeper into the passage, and study what it was that Jesus said…

4.      In the OT we find mountains being moved (e.g. Isa 40:3-5; 45:2; 49:11; Zech 4:7; 14:4-5). What theme connects these passages?

5.      Where in the OT do we find things being cast into the sea?

When Jesus says to Peter- “Have faith in God, and mountains will be thrown into the sea”, it’s a metaphor. It makes sense as a metaphor for something impossible being accomplished. But it’s more than mere metaphor; it’s Biblical metaphor. This metaphor has a background, a history. And Peter knows that history. He knows Isaiah and Zechariah. So when Jesus starts talking about mountains being moved, Peter knows roughly what Jesus is talking about. And it isn’t a shiny new fishing boat for Peter. It is the fulfilment of God’s salvation for his people. There is plenty of OT prophecy about mountains being moved or removed. We have Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness, crying out “make the mountain a plain”; we have Zechariah’s mountain becoming a plain before the royal heir; and we have plenty of other passages. All these passages have some reference to the outworking of God’s great plan of redemption.

 “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

 “Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. 7Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zechariah 4:6-7)

 “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19)

 Look at the first reference in Isaiah. It is quoted in the first chapter of Mark, and Mark plainly sees it as being fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark recognises that it is a metaphor. John didn’t come driving a JCB to move a literal mountain, or to lay down tarmac for a physical highway. Rather, he came to make the way ready for Messiah. And the way he did that was to gather together a repentant people, a new Israel, ready for Messiah to save them. There was a mountain in his way, but it wasn’t a physical mountain. It was the mountain of Israel’s sins. Israel was wicked, and most people didn’t want to hear John’s message. But John was a man of faith- which meant that he obeyed God regardless of the consequences- and so he preached about the wrath to come, and preached repentance, and preached that Messiah would come soon and sort everything out. And God removed the mountain. There were many who came to be baptised and join John in the desert. The metaphor of mountains being moved has similar meaning in all the other references too.

The most relevant of all the references, given the context of this particular saying with the recent events in the Temple, is Zechariah 4. Zechariah is seeing visions meant for the returned exiles who are rebuilding the temple after Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed it. Those exiles are led by Zerubbabel, who is the Davidic prince. He’s never actually crowned, but he’s the heir to the throne, the man who can trace his descent from David. The exiles are also led by Joshua, the high priest- and those two leaders come as a pair. We can read about the history of Zerubbabel, Joshua, and Zechariah in the book of Ezra. In Zechariah’s book though, he records visions. Zechariah saw a vision (Zech 3) of the high priest being accused by Satan. Joshua is wearing filthy clothes, and the point is that he’s defiled. He is unclean and unfit to be a priest. Satan’s accusation is that God is allowing these people to rebuild the temple, when they are not holy! God’s answer is to say “remove his filthy garments, and give him clean ones”, and God tells Joshua “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you”. Then in the next chapter, it is Zerubbabel who faces an obstacle. There is a huge mountain before him, stopping him rebuilding the temple. But God says that the mountain shall become a plain, and Zerubbabel shall carry the top stone forward while the people shout “Grace, grace to it”. The obstacle faced by Zerubbabel is the same as the obstacle faced by Joshua. The mountain in his way is the uncleanness of the people.

In Micah 7:19. It is the sins of God’s people that are cast into the sea. Jesus deliberately brings the Micah quote into the frame, because the mountain that is cast into the sea is a mountain of sin. That’s clear enough anyway, simply from Zechariah 3 and the accusation Satan levels against Joshua. But I think Jesus is making it more clear. In every age, the great obstacle is the guilt of God’s people. That’s the mountain to be moved. How can a house of prayer be built while the people are still sinners? How can a defiled people meet with God? It is impossible, and yet it must happen if God’s purposes are to be fulfilled. If God is going to save his people, then here must be a place for them to meet with him and pray. But how can they do that, while they are sinners. Their sin is a great obstacle in the way, a mountain that only God can move.

So back in Mark, Jesus has just come into the city as David’s heir, as the final king in the line of which Zerubbabel was part. Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple, set up the top stone, and God moved mountains of defilement out of his way so that he could do it. And Jesus too is rebuilding a temple. The Temple that stands is not a proper temple at all. The king has just pronounced his curse on the fig tree and on the Temple- it’s a den of robbers. There’s no fruit there. The Temple is not fit for purpose. It’s worse than useless. It has to go, just like the Solomon’s temple had to go in the end. But if the temple isn’t a house of prayer, does that mean that there is now nowhere for God’s people to gather and pray? No temple at all? No place for God and his people to meet? Of course not. If Jesus’ words bring about the destruction of the old Temple, then Jesus’ words and the words of his disciples will build a new temple. If Peter has faith in God, then he will move mountains. Peter’s job is going to be the pronouncement of forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.

 

6.      How does the immediate context help us to understand this passage in Mark?

Maybe before we understand Jesus’ remarks, we must first understand Peter’s remark. I would argue that when Jesus cursed the fig tree, the disciples understood what he was doing. They knew this wasn’t just a fit of pique- it was representative of the judgement coming on Israel. Jesus clears out the temple, and they understand on one level at least, that Israel is unfaithful. They still don’t understand what is going to happen. They don’t understand that Jesus is going to die. They are very impressed with the outward appearance of the Temple. But they understand that there is something rotten in the state of Israel, and they understand that the tree is a picture of Israel. So when Peter says “Rabbi, look! The tree has withered!” he isn’t merely making a passing and inconsequential observation. His tone of voice is not the light surprise we use when we say “Look! An air-balloon”.  You can catch Peter’s tone of excitement, “Rabbi! Look!”

Peter had seen Jesus do many miracles. I don’t think he could have had any doubts that Jesus was capable of causing a tree to wither. The fact that the tree had died was not the cause for his surprise. Rather, I think that it was the speed at which the tree had died. Peter is surprised that it has happened so fast. Perhaps he is worried that Israel will now wither like that too. He looks around and sees very few people following Jesus. He can see the mountains in the way of salvation for Israel; mountains of unbelief and hard-heartedness; mountains of sin.

I think we have to read Peter’s statement that way, precisely because of the response it calls forth from Jesus. If we understand Peter’s worries when he sees the withered tree, then we understand why Jesus says what he does. Peter is thinking, “Rabbi, this is serious. The tree has withered already. Is Israel that far gone in wickedness?” And Jesus replies, “Peter, do you think God can’t deal with that? Have faith in God. He can move those mountains. He’ll cast them into the sea, when you ask him to.” Jesus’ words are not about impossible things generally. They’re about a very particular sort of impossible thing- the removal of sin from God’s people.

If we’re even approximately right in our reading of v23, we understand something of the breadth and the narrowness of the promise in v24. Some want to make it very broad indeed- “Ask and you’ll receive! Visualise the blessings and they’re yours. Believe and receive. Fancy a new BMW? Well, why don’t you ask? What’s that? You’ve not had it yet? Well, you clearly didn’t believe very hard, were you?” That is extremely irresponsible exegesis. All the whatsoevers, whatsoever they may be, are firmly in the context of the sin-mountain. It’s that which staggers Peter. He can’t see any way round that mountain. So the faith Jesus tells him to have isn’t just a free-floating thing, faith in anything at all, faith that you will get that promotion or lose those extra few pounds. Rather, it’s faith that God will work his purposes out and will build his church, and will forgive his people’s sins. Peter struggles to see it. He’s been a good Jew all his life, and he’s just learned that the actual Temple is fruitless. Wow. What hope is there for God’s people then? Even the Temple is a den of robbers. But Jesus wants him to see that God is greater than the temple. God will build himself a house. All mountains will be removed except the mountain of God, the holy mountain (Zech 14).

And this forgiveness will be brought about by the effective faithful praying of the disciples. They are to pray that God would save sinners, and God will. They are to pray that God will build a holy temple, and God will build himself a temple, a house not made with hands, a house of living stones. The wickedness of those living stones will be taken away and cast into the depths of the sea. God’s house will be a holy house, a tree which does bear fruit. There are mountains in the way, but there will be a faithful people of God, a people whose sins are forgiven. And it will all happen through the disciples’ prayers. If the disciples trust God, then God’s power is the only limitation on how he will build his church through them. If God is ready to respond to the faith which cries out to him, what cannot be done?

7.      Why are we told to forgive whenever we stand praying? What is the connection of that clause to the rest of Jesus’ statement?

Some people see v25 as a tag-on, a fragment added into the tradition at this point. Jesus said similar things during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:14-15) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:37), and some commentators think that Mark thought that this was a statement worth including in his Gospel, and so put the words on Jesus’ lips here. But we can’t seriously hold to such a view and claim to be Bible-believers. If Mark is willing to play fast and loose with Jesus’ words like that, then nothing in Mark’s Gospel can really be trusted. Mark is recording the words Jesus actually spoke on this occasion, and those words make perfect sense without assuming that they are snuck in here from another place.

The idea of forgiveness is central to the whole idea of mountains being moved by prayer. The disciples are to pray that mountains will be moved, which is the same thing as praying that God’s house will be built, which is the same thing as praying that sins will be forgiven. Well, if they’re going to pray for that, they will have to forgive others for the sins committed against them. This is indeed a theme Jesus has stressed elsewhere, but it makes sense to stress it again here. On the one hand, all our prayers are prayers for forgiveness (in the end), and we can’t pray unless we are forgiven ourselves. And on the other hand we’re hypocrites if we pray that sort of prayer without being willing to forgive others. We’re participants in God’s economy of grace. It all works by forgiveness. If we won’t forgive, it grinds to a halt.

 

8.      This sort of sensible exegesis might guard us from all sorts of error, but guarding from error isn’t enough. What should we take from this passage?

  • What is Jesus actually promising us?
  • What is Jesus telling us to do?

Jesus is promising us that he will build his church. And we are told to pray for it, and work for it. We might not see it happening. We might see the mountains in the way, but God is able to remove any mountains. “There is too much unbelief. People are too hard, too much in love with their sins.”

 “How can my colleague possibly, ever be saved? He takes no thought for God at all. It’s not that he’s hostile, he’s just not remotely interested. He cares about his family, and going on nice holidays, and getting his kinds into decent schools. God doesn’t feature in that picture. If I asked him to church, he’d be bemused. I just don’t see him being saved.”

Well, if he’s one of God’s elect, he will be, because God will build his church. God will remove the mountains of that man’s sin, of his indifference and hardness. Pray for it to happen. Pray for God to draw his people together, and form them into his house, a house of prayer for all nations, and it will happen. That’s a promise. Wesley was already there years back; “Give me the faith which can remove and sink the mountain to a plain. Give me the childlike praying love, which longs to build your house again” He saw that the mountain removal was connected with the rebuilding of God’s house. That’s the sort of solid insight you get in great hymns.

The building of God’s holy temple, his church, is intimately connected with the removal of sins. If we want to pin down what sin Jesus here has in mind, then we probably need to talk about the whole elect community. Conversion is about individuals, but it is the community together that form the temple of God. What prevents that whole community from being the temple of God? Answer: their sin does. It doesn’t need nuancing. If the sin is removed, and the way is made a plain, then the temple can be built.

We need to keep on praying that God will remove sin, even from believers. In one sense, our sins were forgiven when Jesus died. In another sense, our sins were forgiven when we were justified, but in yet another sense, our sins are forgiven daily. John can write to believers and say “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins”. We do have continuing sin and continuing guilt. In eternal terms, we’re forgiven. Once for all, and amen to that. But in terms of our ongoing life stories, we need to pray for ongoing forgiveness. In one sense, the temple has been built, sins have been forgiven- Christ is raised and the whole church is raised with him. But these things are already and not yet. So we pray to experience the things we already have.

And if we are to be God’s holy people, then we need to behave like God’s people. We ourselves have been forgiven. If we’re God’s people, part of his church, then we are forgiven people. That’s the only way we can approach God in prayer at all. So we must be willing to forgive others their sins against us. We can’t harbour grudges. We can’t count off seven strikes, and then the guy’s out. We need to be ready to be reconciled with others.

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4 Comments on “Mark 11:20-25. Whatever? Really?”

  1. Vociferous Heckler Says:

    Thanks for your response.

    1) You say things like, “Generally, they are fluent in OT imagery, but they have one huge blind-spot.” and “they are familiar with the thought world of the Old Testament in a way that we are not. It is home to them- they grew up there and have lived there all their lives, and they know about fig tree and mountain metaphors the same way I know that my bathroom is the second door on the right after the top of the stairs.” But you don’t give any supporting verses or other evidence. Perhaps it is accepted by most Biblical scholars that all first century Jews were this familar with Scripture, but I’d like to know their grounds for thinking this. The disciples do think that Elijah must come first, though their phrasing there (Mt. 17:10, Mk. 9:11) might be thought significant: they ask “why do the scribes say …”, not something like “but it says in Mal. 4:5 …”. If your view is correct wouldn’t the latter expression be more natural? They seem to be relying on scribal testimony for a verse which, if they knew about it, wouldn’t involve any difficult issues of interpretation.

    Having said that, Peter seems to know a lot of Scripture in Acts. Though possibly this could be attributed to Jesus’ ministry and some hard and fast pre-ascension seminars in which Jesus helped Peter prepare his speeches.

    2) I can see how the context in your example would clearly limit the range of things to ask for, but I struggle to find anything so clear in Mark. In the case of the child I suspect the inference is this: Since my father brought me into the bike shop before telling me I could have anything, he must intend that my choice of what I can have is limited to the contents of this shop. For if there was a possibility of me requesting a yacht, then he would have asked before we entered any shop, to save time. I’m not sure what the inference is supposed to be in the disciples’ case, such that it would invalidate a “Jesus says we can have x,y,z; he says this because of a more general fact: we can have anything!” interpretation.

    I think another point to bear in mind is that we automatically take a human being’s offer to get us ‘anything’ as coming with a great many caveats, these following from evident limitations in human ability. But such limitations don’t hold in the case of God. If God tells you you can have anything, then, for once, there is a real possibility that no strings are attached. (Though there would still be moral and logical limitations – God won’t do anything immoral and can’t do anything logially impossible, but that is all that needs to be read in.)

    Another point: I think you agree that it isn’t sufficient merely to claim that Jesus might have intended various caveats. He certainly might, but in order to be preserved from the charge of being deceptive it is necessary that these caveats be plain to the disciples and to us. And you think these caveats are contextually plain.

    A question: Is Jesus possibly alluding to God’s offer to Solomon here? If he is doing that then he might be expecting the disciples to play Solomon and ask for wisdom. If they ask for anything else then they aren’t acting in accordance with their role.

    I like your analysis of vv. 23-25. My problem is that I don’t see why v 24 can’t be a diversion of sorts. Why can’t it go: 23 (This sin-mountain can be thrown down); 24 (Diversion – Indeed, you can have anything you want thrown down); 25 (Where were we? Ah, yes. Now when you are praying about those sin mountains…). I don’t think it is implausible to view 24 as a diversion since the dia touto (because of this) indicates (actually the opposite of what I initially thought) that 24 is supposed to follow from/is an interesting consequence of v 23. So I think the structure of the three verses could be captured as follows:

    23 – 1st Assertion
    24 – Claim deduced from/especially prompted by 1st assertion
    25 – 2nd Assertion

    Also, you didn’t address my redundancy objection! (Isn’t v. 24 failing to contribute anything new on your view? But then why say it?)

    For all these reasons I’d prefer a defense of your view that came from an analysis of panta, but I don’t yet know enough to be able to check that out.

    Thanks – all very interesting.

  2. Vociferous Heckler Says:

    You’ve 3/4 convinced me. I have two reservations:

    1) The disciples seem too clever. You say:

    “Peter had seen Jesus do many miracles. I don’t think he could have had any doubts that Jesus was capable of causing a tree to wither. The fact that the tree had died was not the cause for his surprise. Rather, I think that it was the speed at which the tree had died. Peter is surprised that it has happened so fast. Perhaps he is worried that Israel will now wither like that too.”

    But the disciples always seem so thoroughly inadequate in Mark. As recently as 10:28 James and John play the dupes asking for they know not what. Peter gets a glimmer of insight in 8:29, though only a glimmer – shortly afterwards in 8:33 Jesus calls him Satan, surely reinforcing just how little it is that Peter has grasped. In general they function as the dull foils for Jesus’ wisdom and insight. Is Mark going to break with this trend without a clear marker? (I don’t think Peter’s confession is going to be such a marker for the above reason.)

    Although the request of James and John does appear to be their last dense moment. Do you think the healing of Barty in 10:46-52 is supposed to represent the opening of the disciples’ minds?

    Also, is he explaining the fig-tree incident in 13:28? This would suggest they hadn’t really understood it.

    One way out might be to read Peter’s words as a Caiaphas-style event: He asks in ignorance the same question he would have asked were he well-informed. Jesus then treats him as if he asked it well-informed.

    2) The way you restrict the scope of v. 24 doesn’t seem to clearly do the work you want it to do. You say:

    “All the whatsoevers, whatsoever they may be, are firmly in the context of the sin-mountain. It’s that which staggers Peter. He can’t see any way round that mountain.”

    But that they are firmly set in this context doesn’t seem obvious. I can’t see why the following exegesis is implausible: v. 23 “If you pray for the removal of this sin-mountain and believe etc., it will done for you.” v. 24 “Why will it be done for you? Because anything at all you ask for in prayer (and believe, etc.) I will give you.” The latter more general truth grounding the former more particular one. In fact, on your view v. 24 seems a bit redundant. What is Jesus expressing in that verse that is different from what he expresses in v. 23?

    An analogy might be: I tell my kid I will buy him anything in the shop. Can I have this bike then, daddy? Sure. What about this bike? Yes. This bike? Yes! You can have any bike you want because you can have anything in the shop you want! You can have any sin mountain removed because you can have anything removed.

    But the possibility of this exegesis doesn’t rule your exegesis out (except for the point about redundancy), it’s just not a compelling exegesis. So maybe say that your exegesis should be preferred because it is a datum of Christian experience that we ask for good things and don’t get them?

    • allanhim Says:

      Thanks for the critique. On the subject of your reservations…

      Reservation 1) Yes, on my reading, the disciples do seem quite clever. But in one sense the disciples are “clever”- or perhaps not so much “clever” as “insightful”. They are insightful in the way that almost all Israelites will be- they are familiar with the thought world of the Old Testament in a way that we are not. It is home to them- they grew up there and have lived there all their lives, and they know about fig tree and mountain metaphors the same way I know that my bathroom is the second door on the right after the top of the stairs. If I try to enter that world, then I do it as one entering a strange house- I need all the lights on, where they can move confidently in the dark without knocking stuff over.
      On top of that, they have been given to see things that nobody else can see. They have had their ears opened, and can hear what Jesus says. Many others in Israel don’t see that Jesus is the Messiah, but the disciples do.
      That said, Peter and the others have indeed been “dupes”. But their blindness is very particular in scope. Specifically, they provide a contrast of misunderstanding against which Mark sets the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Generally, they are fluent in OT imagery, but they have one huge blind-spot. They don’t see how Messiah can “lose”, which is why they react badly when Jesus tells them that he will be handed over to his enemies and die.
      Mark wasn’t being unkind or dishonest ion recording this blindness- he was close to Peter, and this Gospel is heavily shaped by Peter’s own testimony and preaching. Peter and the others really were blind. Their problem is that they already have a script in their heads for how the drama has got to play out. Their storyline runs like this… “Messiah comes. Messiah raises his banner. Faithful Israel (that’s us!) flocks to him. The nations and unfaithful Israelites line up against him. There’s a big fight. Messiah flattens the opposition. The reign of God is established forever in peace and prosperity. The End”. If you ask them to interpret events within the confines of that script, they can be very bright. They understand OT symbolism at least as well as we do (which shouldn’t be a big surprise). Their problem comes when Jesus goes off-message, which he does because he has a different script. In the second half, he is hammering home to them that he, the Messiah, is going to die. Their script doesn’t allow for that- it is a thought they are incapable of thinking. It has all manner of practical implications for them, as Mark illustrates. A kingdom led by a king who dies for his subjects is very different from the kingdoms of the Gentiles, led by kings who lord it over their subjects. The whole kingdom takes its character from the king, so in Jesus’ kingdom, nobody should be striving to climb the greasy pole, nobody should be giving themselves airs and seeking their own honour. That’s what the disciples don’t get and won’t get. They do indeed act as the dull foils for Jesus’ insight and wisdom, but every example of this is linked to the theme above. Other than that, they can be quick to see things.

      I think that the structure of the whole Gospel backs this up. Mark’s Gospel more than any of the others is about the disciples and their understanding.
      It has a 2-part structure, the halves differentiated by content and by location, and with 3 markers at the voices identifying Jesus as the Son of God.
      • Part 1- Set in Galilee. Jesus comes as king, and his kingdom is manifest. The Father speaks from heaven at Jesus’ baptism to mark Jesus as his Son, but only Jesus hears it (John the Baptist also hears it, but that’s not in Mark). Jesus calls the disciples, who hear and follow and begin to understand.
      • Centre- The disciples finally get it. They’re clear. Jesus is Messiah. Peter confesses this to be true, and Jesus immediately begins to teach about his death; which has not been explicit before now and which the disciples do not understand. Peter reacts against it, and sets the tone for the chapters that follow. The Father speaks from heaven at the transfiguration of Jesus, and is heard by the three closest disciples. Jesus heals a blind man in two stages- the eyes of the disciples need a two-stage opening.
      • Part 2- Set on the way to, and in, Jerusalem. Jesus comes as suffering king. He teaches repeatedly about his coming death. He teaches that his kingdom is one of humility and self-sacrifice. The disciples repeatedly don’t understand, and repeatedly show by their actions and words that their understanding of Messiahship is diametrically opposite to Jesus’ understanding in this particular aspect. Always, their misunderstanding is linked to the particular theme of Messianic suffering and death.

      Just to deal with a few other bits…
      No, I don’t think the healing of blind Bartimaeus represents the opening of the disciples minds. They don’t understand that Jesus must die until post-resurrection. Bartimaeus is the culmination of Chs 9b and 10- the ultimate low-status loser, despised and rejected by the crowds who all want to make a fuss of the great king.
      No, I don’t think that 13:28 is linked to the fig-tree incident of Ch 11. I’d like to find a link, but I can’t. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar- I think that Jesus is simply using the fig-tree opening up as an appropriate picture of a sign that something is just around the corner.

      Reservation 2) Yes, the sin- mountain bit in v23 doesn’t on its own totally rule out the interpretation you give. But I think it works against it. I’d change your analogy “I tell my kid I will buy him anything in the shop. Can I have this bike then, daddy? Sure. What about this bike? Yes. This bike? Yes! You can have any bike you want because you can have anything in the shop you want! You can have any sin mountain removed because you can have anything removed.”
      I’d say that a more exact analogy would be that Jesus and the disciples are in a bike shop, not just a general shop. Jesus has established the context of the sin-mountain- what he goes on to say will be in that context. So if a father says to his son- while they are standing in a bike shop- “Son, whatever you want, I’ll buy for you”, then he means “any bike you want”. If the son says, “I’d like a yacht. Can you buy me a yacht?”, then it would sound discordant. He is supposed to pick a bike, not ask for something not sold in a bike shop. So even on the basis of just v23 and v24, I think we can deliver a conclusive refutation to the interpreter who uses v24 as a proof text for naming and claiming. The verse doesn’t necessarily prove what he says it does- there is at least one other legitimate interpretation. And I think that the other interpretation works better with the internal logic of what Jesus says, even without considering Christian experience.

      And when we bring v25 into the mix, v24 is much more clearly controlled by v23. For the passage to work the way your analogy works, I think the order of verses would have to be 24-23-25: v24 (anything you want), then v23 (even something really huge like a sin-mountain), then v25 (and if you want your sins removed, then you can’t be holding sin against your brothers). Instead, it is v23 (removal of sin-mountains), v24 (yes really, removal of any sin mountain at all), v25 (and don’t act opposite to the way you’re asking God to act).
      The fact that v25 comes at the end indicates that Jesus has been talking about sin and forgiveness throughout. If he has moved on from talking about the sin mountain and broadened the promise of answered prayer to include everything without restriction, then it is odd for him to return to the specific theme of sin just at the end.

      • Vociferous Heckler Says:

        (Posted in the wrong place above.)

        Thanks for your response.

        1) You say things like, “Generally, they are fluent in OT imagery, but they have one huge blind-spot.” and “they are familiar with the thought world of the Old Testament in a way that we are not. It is home to them- they grew up there and have lived there all their lives, and they know about fig tree and mountain metaphors the same way I know that my bathroom is the second door on the right after the top of the stairs.” But you don’t give any supporting verses or other evidence. Perhaps it is accepted by most Biblical scholars that all first century Jews were this familar with Scripture, but I’d like to know their grounds for thinking this. The disciples do think that Elijah must come first, though their phrasing there (Mt. 17:10, Mk. 9:11) might be thought significant: they ask “why do the scribes say …”, not something like “but it says in Mal. 4:5 …”. If your view is correct wouldn’t the latter expression be more natural? They seem to be relying on scribal testimony for a verse which, if they knew about it, wouldn’t involve any difficult issues of interpretation.

        Having said that, Peter seems to know a lot of Scripture in Acts. Though possibly this could be attributed to Jesus’ ministry and some hard and fast pre-ascension seminars in which Jesus helped Peter prepare his speeches.

        2) I can see how the context in your example would clearly limit the range of things to ask for, but I struggle to find anything so clear in Mark. In the case of the child I suspect the inference is this: Since my father brought me into the bike shop before telling me I could have anything, he must intend that my choice of what I can have is limited to the contents of this shop. For if there was a possibility of me requesting a yacht, then he would have asked before we entered any shop, to save time. I’m not sure what the inference is supposed to be in the disciples’ case, such that it would invalidate a “Jesus says we can have x,y,z; he says this because of a more general fact: we can have anything!” interpretation.

        I think another point to bear in mind is that we automatically take a human being’s offer to get us ‘anything’ as coming with a great many caveats, these following from evident limitations in human ability. But such limitations don’t hold in the case of God. If God tells you you can have anything, then, for once, there is a real possibility that no strings are attached. (Though there would still be moral and logical limitations – God won’t do anything immoral and can’t do anything logially impossible, but that is all that needs to be read in.)

        Another point: I think you agree that it isn’t sufficient merely to claim that Jesus might have intended various caveats. He certainly might, but in order to be preserved from the charge of being deceptive it is necessary that these caveats be plain to the disciples and to us. And you think these caveats are contextually plain.

        A question: Is Jesus possibly alluding to God’s offer to Solomon here? If he is doing that then he might be expecting the disciples to play Solomon and ask for wisdom. If they ask for anything else then they aren’t acting in accordance with their role.

        I like your analysis of vv. 23-25. My problem is that I don’t see why v 24 can’t be a diversion of sorts. Why can’t it go: 23 (This sin-mountain can be thrown down); 24 (Diversion – Indeed, you can have anything you want thrown down); 25 (Where were we? Ah, yes. Now when you are praying about those sin mountains…). I don’t think it is implausible to view 24 as a diversion since the dia touto (because of this) indicates (actually the opposite of what I initially thought) that 24 is supposed to follow from/is an interesting consequence of v 23. So I think the structure of the three verses could be captured as follows:

        23 – 1st Assertion
        24 – Claim deduced from/especially prompted by 1st assertion
        25 – 2nd Assertion

        Also, you didn’t address my redundancy objection! (Isn’t v. 24 failing to contribute anything new on your view? But then why say it?)

        For all these reasons I’d prefer a defense of your view that came from an analysis of panta, but I don’t yet know enough to be able to check that out.

        Thanks – all very interesting.


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