To be perfectly honest with you, the passage here in Matthew 21 is coming – for me, at least – at just the right time. And perhaps for you as well.
Given the current political climate in our beloved country, and the increasing despair that I have felt as the presidential primary season has now concluded, I so desperately need to hear my own message, courtesy of Jesus.
Jesus assured His disciples, “Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
As you will hear in this PODCAST, the irony of what Jesus said is so thick that you could cut it with the proverbial knife.
The irony being this: Jesus said those words to the disciples on the eve of His crucifixion in order to strengthen, to fortify their fragile faith. And frankly, to strengthen and to fortify ours.
Jesus knew that the events in their lives were about to spin seemingly out of control. The hopes they harbored in their hearts were about to be crushed into the ash heap of history. The Jesus movement in which they played a central role was about to careen into a wall and to explode into a thousand broken pieces.
The wave they had been riding had peaked on Sunday during the Triumphal Entry, and then again on Monday during the Cleansing of the Temple. But Jesus knew only too well on that Tuesday AM that by Thursday PM that same storm surge would dash them into the jagged rocks of reality.
So to bolster their soon-to-be faltering faith (and ours), Jesus made them (and us) this glorious promise: “Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
The only problem with that promise? As many of us have come to experience during own crises of faith, It. Doesn’t. Always. Work.
If it did, none of our loved ones would ever die. (Who of us hasn’t prayed for God, in faith believing – to invoke Jesus’ formula – to heal someone near and dear to us, only to watch them whither away to nothing?)
Our kids would never disappoint us, if that promise worked. (What parent hasn’t prayed diligently for their children, in faith believing, Amen, only to stand by and watch helplessly and at times hopelessly as one or more of our kids go sideways?)
If that promise did indeed work, we would always get the jobs we want, have the perfect marriages for which we pray, have enough money at end of each month.
Fact is, myriads of books been written and purchased and read about that promise. Countless sermons been preached and listened to and heeded. All to affirm the fact that if we pray in faith believing and do not doubt, we will receive whatever things we ask. We CAN move mountains by our prayers, we are told. The mountain of sickness, the mountain of debt, the mountain of broken relationships, the mountain of wayward children.
Over the years, I’ve heard it all, read it all, a thousand times. To the point where I’m sick of hearing it. Because it just doesn’t work… Or does it?
Let’s begin by reading Jesus’ promise in context:
Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.
20 And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?”
21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done.22 And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:18-22)
Now, Jesus did give every author, Bible teacher, preacher, small group leader, parent, mentor, etc. an out. But it’s a very uncomfortable out. Three outs, actually:
“If you have faith… and do not doubt… (if) you ask in prayer, believing”
So, with this understanding, if you pray and you do not receive what you had prayed for, our natural conclusion is that some combination of our faith, doubt and/or belief must be lacking, right?
God didn’t fail because God can’t fail. So, you failed.
Talk about a guilt trip!
All that to say, we must be missing something. There must be something in Jesus’ promise that the Disciples understood that we simply are not understanding.
Let’s look at the context.
When: Jesus spoke these words on Tuesday of what we know as His “Passion Week” – the day after He cleansed the temple and wiping out the crooked business that the corrupt religious leaders and underhanded merchants were profiting from in God’s house of prayer.
Where: This road that Jesus and His Disciples were walking on is the road between Jerusalem and Bethany, with the Mount of Olives situated between the two cities. As we have seen before, whenever Jesus came to Jerusalem, he actually stayed with his friends in the nearby town of Bethany, most notably Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. So, He would typically teach until the evening in Jerusalem, then walk back to Bethany, and walk back to Jerusalem in the morning.
What: If the branches of a palm tree was Israel’s national flag – and it was, as they waved them and laid them down before Jesus’ Triumphant Entry on Palm Sunday – then the fig tree was their national symbol. Just as we have our stars and stripes as our flag and the bald eagle as our national symbol.
Why the fig tree? Because of the sweetness of its succulent fruit, because of the life-giving properties of figs, and because of the protective shade provided by the leaves of the fig tree, not to mention the abundance of fig trees throughout the land of Israel.
This symbol can be viewed either positively or negatively, depending on the spiritual condition of Israel’s people.
As an example of the positive, the prophet Hosea put it this way:
The Lord says, “O Israel, when I first found you,
it was like finding fresh grapes in the desert.
When I saw your ancestors,
it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. (Hosea 9:10)
However, in the very next line, we read the negative, because in Hosea’s time (not unlike in Jesus’ time), Israel’s religious leaders had sold out God, the Torah and the Temple:
But then they deserted me for Baal-peor,
giving themselves to that shameful idol.
Soon they became vile,
as vile as the god they worshiped. (Hosea 9:10)
1 Kings 4:25 describes the fig tree as one of the key components of good living for God’s people under Solomon’s rule:
During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree. (1 Kings 4:25)
Even Israel’s enemies understood the importance of the fig tree to the Israelites, as we read the Assyrian king deceptively taunting them in Isaiah 36:16,
“Don’t listen to Hezekiah! These are the terms the king of Assyria is offering: Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well.”
The prophet Joel writes about how connected the status of the nation’s fig trees and the spiritual health of the nation were in his day:
Weep like a bride dressed in black,
mourning the death of her husband.
9 For there is no grain or wine
to offer at the Temple of the Lord…
12 The grapevines have dried up,
and the fig trees have withered.
The pomegranate trees, palm trees, and apple trees—
all the fruit trees—have dried up.
And the people’s joy has dried up with them. (Joel 1:8-12)
Joel was saying that the once fruitful nation of Israel bore no physical, edible fruit, nor did they produce neither any joy nor other spiritual fruit at all. Her branches were naked and stripped bare.
This was not unlike the religious condition of Israel in Jesus day, seeing that the religious leaders were a mere 72 hours away from handing their Messiah over to the Romans to be crucified.
Now, normally, the first, early fruit of the fig trees (as Hosea wrote about) would have appeared in February, before the leaves appeared in April. When Jesus cursed this particular fig tree, it was in April (the time of Passover), so there should have been an abundance of fruit on the tree.
Jesus saw in this tree an object lesson.
So, when Jesus said the words, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again” His Disciples understood Jesus’ greater meaning and marveled. Jesus just declared that the nation would bare no more fruit!
The Disciples had every reason to despair.
Which is why Jesus comforted them and told them: Don’t despair. Don’t give up. Trust Me in spite of how things may appear. I am firmly in control.
But, He said these things to them in a language that painted a picture that they would understand, though you and I in the 21st century may not.
You see, when Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” He was not writing a “blank check” for all those who pray to Him.
This entire promise hinges on two very telling words: THIS mountain.
Jesus is not referring to our mountains of debt, relationships, marriage, sorrow, jobs, sickness or calamity.
When you go to Matthew’s original Hebrew text, Jesus was not speaking abstractly or metaphorically at all. Therefore, He wasn’t referring to your and my metaphoric mountains that stand between us and our happiness.
Jesus was actually talking about one specific mountain. He was most likely actually pointing to a single particular mountain as He spoke these words.
There are some authors and expositors who assume that perhaps Jesus was referring to the Mount of Olives. But this makes little sense, being that the Mount of Olives is not a stand-alone mountain. It’s actually a mountain range that blends into another mountain range, Mount Scopus.
So, which mountain was Jesus referring to?
This brings us back to the road between Bethany and Jerusalem. From that road, there is one, and only one, mountain that is visible.
Mount Herodium, located a mere seven miles from Jerusalem and four miles from Bethlehem – casting its shadow over the entire region – dominated the skyline. It’s impossible to miss it or ignore it, even today. This mountain came to symbolize everything that the Jews of Jesus’ day hated about their Roman occupiers.
It was named after Herod the Great – the butcher of Bethlehem’s babies. In fact, of all of his many fortresses and palaces (and there were A LOT), this was the only one Herod actually named after himself.
Though, ironically, Mount Herodium doesn’t get a whole lot of press. Tour groups rarely ever go there, and even those who do go there do not include it as one of their great highlights, even though it towered over the region like a foreboding prison guard monitoring everyone’s every move. It was huge, lavish, expansive, and equally as oppressive. It was meant to be not only Herod’s signature palace and fortress, but also his personal mausoleum.
So, when Jesus told His Disciples that with enough faith, they could move this mountain, He was indeed speaking prophetically, in that Herod’s palace is in rubble. The Roman Empire is gone. Yet there are millions upon millions of people worldwide who are considered citizens of Jesus’ kingdom!
Jesus’ point was this: In the short term, we will lose. But, in the long term, we will win!
Within three days, Jesus would be killed. In about 40 years, Israel would be wiped off the map. But in the long term, God’s plans will not be frustrated, will not fail, but will succeed and we will win!
In 1948 – nearly 1,900 years after it was wiped off the map by the Romans – the nation of Israel rose from the dead. It is a thriving country today, in the 21st century. It is once again a lighthouse to the nation, where God is very much alive and working through the lives of His people.
Reading Jesus’ promise to His disciples in Matthew 21 is like hearing Him speak to us today: Listen, by all outward appearances it may look like they win and we lose. But you’ve got to trust Me. I am bigger and infinitely more powerful than any candidate on their best day. And in the end, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton will win. In the end, I will win!
And when Jesus wins, we win!!
So, as you go from day to day and are ever tempted to doubt this, simply Google today’s images of Mount Herodium, and gaze upon a now silent, totally abandoned pile of man-moved dirt. It will then become even more evident who wins.
God wins. And we will be triumphant with Him!