Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
(Matthew 21:18-22 ESV)
When the disciples saw that the fig tree had withered in response to Jesus’ command, they were amazed and asked Jesus how did the fig tree wither so quickly. Jesus uses their question as an opportunity to explain a spiritual lesson about prayer.
Jesus explains that successful prayer is the result of faith. According to the dictionary definition of “faith”, faith must be placed in something or someone. It does not exist independently. Therefore we can conclude that Jesus was not speaking of faith for the sake of faith (i.e. simply believing). Nor was Jesus speaking of having faith in oneself because He had previously stated that apart from Him we can do nothing [John 15:5].
Jesus had also taught that our prayers must be aligned with God [John 14:4]. So the faith that Jesus is calling us to in this verse is clearly faith in God to do things that only He can do in our lives.
The example Jesus gives in this passage of moving a mountain is clearly figurative. Jesus never used His power as God to perform useless miracles, not even when He was goaded into doing so by the Pharisees [Matthew 12:38]. Jesus is using a metaphor common to the people of Israel at this time to describe accomplishing a task that seems impossible.
The term “rooter up of mountains” was a common phrase ascribed in ancient Israel to a great teacher or spiritual leader who could solve great spiritual and moral dilemmas. We use a similar phrase today – we call someone who gets difficult things done “a mover and a shaker”. When Jesus said we could say to a mountain ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea’ He was simply expressing the idea that if we have faith in God we can accomplish the most difficult of tasks.
Faith in God will get us through every difficulty in life. That is why we pray. Prayer is a response to, and is evidence of, faith in God.
Many people approach prayer as if it were a way of convincing God to remove problems from our life. But the purpose of prayer is not to deliver us from situations we don’t want to be in. That is not how God designed prayer to work.
Rather prayer is the mechanism by which we learn to see things the way God sees them. Prayer is how we obtain the strength to get through problems because we see God’s purpose. When we are weak we are made strong [Philippians 4:13].
When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane He prayed for God to remove the cross from His future. Instead He found the strength to accept the situation and see it from God’s point of view.
Prayer does not deliver us from problems. It strengthens us to perservere through them for the purpose of achieving God’s will and building our spiritual character.
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