Growing in Faith (Part I)

“How did the fig tree wither at once?” Jesus responded, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith”
(Mt. 21:20-22; cf. 17:20; Mk. 11:20-24).


The Unique Emphasis of the Synoptic Gospels on Faith
    
One of the pronounced uses of faith in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is its association with and working of healings, exorcisms, and miracles. In the rest of the New Testament these extraordinary works of God are associated with spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit, rather than associated directly with the working of faith. Apart from the Synoptics faith is much more related to how one enters into salvation and how one lives as a follower of Jesus Christ. When we come to verses such as Matthew 21:20-22 and Mark 11:20-24 which suggest a sweeping promise that God will deliver anything we ask, if we ask with a doubtless faith, we have to ask, what exactly is this teaching us? The Synoptics make a specific emphasis about faith, and how it is essential for our interaction with God and He with us. What is Jesus teaching us in the Synoptics?

Balancing Our Understanding of Faith
     In our last study, Faith in the Gospels, we considered these verses with regard to how easily they can be and have been abused when they are not balanced by the rest of the NT’s teaching about faith. First, God does not yield His sovereignty to any kind of faith. He works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11), and if we ask anything according to His will He hears us (1 Jn. 5:14). Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above (Jas. 1:17; cf. Mt. 7:11), and these are the only kinds of gifts which God gives because He gives according to His good and perfect will.

     Second, we find that faith itself is a gift. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ was ascribed not as having come from Peter’s own personal assessment, but rather it was a heavenly gift. Jesus made the point by saying, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven (Mt. 16:17; cf. Jn. 1:12-13; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29). Faith, we are taught, is apportioned to us from God, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned (Rom. 12:3).

     Third, extraordinary events of healings and various miracles are ascribed to spiritual gifts. The Apostle recounts Jesus’ saying in Matthew 21:21 (and related verses) as illustrative of the spiritual gift of faith, if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains (1 Cor. 13:2). Paul further accounts healings to the gifts of healing and miracles to the gift of working of miracles (1 Cor. 12:9-10). These gifts are not the result of degrees of faith or any merit or human effort of any kind, but they are dispensed sovereignly by the Trinity, and this dispensing is especially the role of the Holy Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor. 12:4-7, 11, 18, 24).

     Last, we found that there are a number of promptings of miracles apart from doubtless faith. They were prompted by Jesus’ compassion (Mk. 1:40-41; Lk. 7:13). They were prompted to instruct about sin and the ways of God (Jn. 5:14; 9:1-7: 11:1, 40). They were prompted by Jesus’ mission to destroy the works of the devil (Mt. 12:22-29; Mk. 1:21-27; 5:6-13; 1 Jn. 3:8). They were prompted to instill saving faith (Jn. 20:30-31); and, most importantly, they were the evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Kingdom of God; and with the arrival of Jesus the powers of the Age to Come had arrived (Mt. 11:1-6; 12:28; Lk. 4:16-21; Acts 2:22-24, 36).

     Having underlined these features of faith, we have outlined an appropriate and necessary context for understanding Matthew 21:21-22 and Mark 11:20-24. This may appear to be a lot of preface before finally getting to what these verses do teach, but one must keep in mind that, both because of the temptation of forming doctrine from a casual reading of these verses, as well as, the long history of their abuse, it is necessary to state these balancing features before we can move to the intended meaning of these verses.

Matthew 21:21-22 and Mark 11:20-24
Jesus responded to His disciples,
“Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith”
(Mt. 21:20-22; cf. 17:20; Lk. 13:6-9; 17:6).

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” (Mk. 11:20-24).

     Immediate Situation
     Jesus has entered Jerusalem on Sunday in His Triumphant Entry. Mark tells us that Jesus briefly visited the Temple and then left Jerusalem and retired to Bethany for the night (11:11). On Monday morning returning to Jerusalem, as He passed a leafed-out fig tree (Mt. 21:19), being hungry, he searched for a fig,1 but finding it barren fruit He cursed it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” (21:19). Jesus went directly to the Temple and cleansed it, then He healed the blind and the lame at the Temple (21:12-14). Matthew implies that the fig tree withered immediately (21:19),2 while Mark records that they returned to Bethany on Monday night, and on Tuesday morning as they returned to Jerusalem, Peter noticed that the tree had withered (11:21). Matthew records that the disciples as a whole saw it,...marveled, saying, “how did the fig tree wither at once?” (21:20).

     Two Applications
     D. E. Nineham points out an important insight to both Matthew and Mark account commenting on Mark’s account of the cursing of the fig tree. “St. Mark appears to have seen two meanings in it.... “the fate of the fig tree symbolizing the fate that awaited Jerusalem and the Jewish people and religion. Like the fig tree with its leaves, the Jewish people made a fine show with their numerous ceremonies and outward observances, but when the Messiah came looking for the fruit of righteousness he found none, and the result was condemnation and destruction for Judaism, as it was for the tree.” Secondly, Mark “apparently understood it as an example of faith and prayer.”3 We will look at the first before the second.

          Jesus’ Symbolic Message
     The first application is implied and the immediate application of this event which is not directly addressed, but it is so obvious that it must be admitted. Having just cleansed the Temple and had a brief confrontation with the chief priests and the scribes over their denial of the children’s praise of Jesus as the Son of David or the Christ, Jesus curses the fig tree, which was used as an image or symbol for the nation of Israel (cf. Lk. 13:6-9; Hosea 9:10).4 Jesus in cursing the fig tree represents Himself as the Judge of God’s people. He is not deceived by their appearance of fruitfulness, even their extreme “showy” appearance, but He examines them, especially their leaders, finds them wanting, and judges them accordingly (cf. Jn. 15:6). This prophetic miracle of cursing is made all the more sobering as it is the only such miracle in Jesus’ ministry. This symbolism is reinforced by Jesus’ parables which follow (Tuesday is His Day of Teaching): Two Sons (Mt. 21:28-32), Tenants (21:33-46), and Wedding Feast (22:1-14). In each a similar message is targeted at the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees (cf. 23:1-36). At the heart of their fruitlessness is their rejection of Jesus as the Christ and King thus their faithlessness. As Tuesday draws to a close Jesus laments over Jerusalem as He prophetically sees and describes their destruction (Mt. 23:37-39; cf. Lk. 19:41-44). Broadus points out that this stood as a graphic warning to the Jews and their leaders; in fact, “it became a symbol and a warning to all who should ever hear the gospel.”5

     Application to Faith and Prayer
     The second application is to the disciples’ growth in faith and boldness in prayer. Jesus’ first response to the disciples’ question, “how did the fig tree wither at once?” (Mt. 21:20), addresses faith. His second saying takes faith to its obvious progressive expression and addresses prayer (v. 22). We will turn to this application in our next segment.

Endnotes
[1]John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Valley Forge: The Judson Press, 1886), 434: “Tristram says (‘Nat. Hist. of the Bible’) that in Palestine ‘The fruit appears before the leaves.’ ...Thomson (‘Land and Book’): ‘The fig often comes with, or even before, the leaves.’ Mark’s expression, ‘seeing a fig-tree afar off, having leaves, he came, ‘shows that the presence of leaves suggested the presence of fruit. ...Thomson says he has eaten very early figs on Lebanon in May, and that fruits are there a month later than in Jerusalem. So it was not impossible that in some warm nook of the Mount of Olives an exceptionally early variety might have figs at the beginning of April.”


[2]Ibid., 435: “And presently (Rev. Ver., immediately) the fig-tree withered away, does not necessarily mean that the withering was completed in a moment. And when Mark (11:20, Rev. Ver.) states that ‘in the morning they saw the fig-tree withered away from the roots,’ he indicates that the withering had previously occurred. So there is no contradiction.”

[3]D.E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark (Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc., 1969), 298-299.

[4]Cf. Jer. 8:13; Joel 1:7; Ezk. 17:14; Michah 7:1-6. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, “Fig, Fig Tree,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 283: “Jesus utilized the motif of the fig tree in similar fashion, warning of the danger of spiritual fruitlessness (Lk. 13:6-9), a condition which if uncorrected would spell disaster (Mt. 21:19-21). Jesus uses a barren but leafy fig tree to illustrate how Israel, typified in its leadership, had a showy religion that was of no value and was worthy of judgment because it bore no fruit in their lives (Mk. 11:12-21).”

[5]Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 435; cf. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990), 756-757; C.E.B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: Cambridge at the University Press, 1972), 360.

Growing in Faith (Part II)
The Gift of Faith
 

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Thursday, 20 July 2017

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