Understanding Mark 11:23
Mark 11:23 "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."
The faith movement is alive and well on planet earth. As Christian television continues to expand around the world, much of its content comes from these so called faith preachers. With Bibles in hand they preach a message of hope.. no, much better than that... certainty. There's nothing inherently wrong with that; for the promises of the Bible are certain of fulfillment. Unbelief is a sin and we should pursue true faith in God with all our hearts. In fact, without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). But these preachers often go way too far... perhaps not because of a lack of sincerity (though I can't read their hearts as God does), but because of the lack of sound exegesis. Here's the problem in a nutshell: DECEIVED PEOPLE DECEIVE PEOPLE.
We would be horrified to hear of a surgeon who had just 2 weeks of training operating on someone's brain. As vital as brain surgery is (in terms of salary, society pays brain surgeons many times what the average preacher receives), I believe the job of the preacher is far more important. Paul told Timothy, "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Tim. 4:16). Eternal souls hang in the balance, and great care and attention is needed to ensure that a teaching is sound, healthy and accurate. Unbiblical tradition and poor theology have severe consequences.
One of the key texts used by the faith preachers is Mark 11:23. For those caught up in this movement, and for those who simply want to understand what the verse really teaches, I commend to you the following short section from a longer series of articles by Vincent Cheung called "Faith to move mountains." I trust it will be a blessing. - Pastor John Samson
FAITH TO MOVE MOUNTAINS
by Vincent Cheung
In our time, there is a teaching that is popular in some charismatic sects. In fact, it is so prevalent that we can even call it a movement. Supposedly derived from Mark 11:23 and similar verses, it says that if a person believes, then whatever he says will happen, and the diligent application of this teaching could bring anyone health and wealth. Commentators are afraid to say anything that would encourage such a teaching. However, to illegitimately soften or spiritualize a biblical verse is a misguided way of solving the problem of abuse. Moreover, the verse does say that if a person believes, then whatever he says will happen. It is futile to counter abuse by denying what the verse clearly and literally means.
The proper way to counter abuse is not to change the meaning of the verse, but to criticize the false teaching where it truly deviates from Scripture. To illustrate, I will raise two points about the teaching in question. The first has to do with the nature of faith, and the second has to do with the source of faith, or how faith is generated. These two points do not cover all the erroneous ideas espoused by the teaching, but our present purpose is to arrive at a correct positive understanding of Mark 11, verse 23, nothing more.
First, this false teaching conceives of faith as a force that is powerful in itself. Sometimes it is less esoteric and amounts to a christianized version of the self-centered doctrine of "positive thinking." Its proponents are not always consistent in this, but when they do speak from such a perspective, they do not refer to faith as a person's belief and reliance on a proper object â€“ as in God, his promises, and so on â€“ but that belief itself is the power that produces the desired effects. Attacking this misconception of faith will at the same time check the abuse of verse 23.
Second, the false teaching appeals to Romans 10:17 ("faith comes by hearing") and asserts that faith is produced by hearing the words of Scripture over and over again. One way to do this is for a person to repeatedly speak some selected biblical verses to himself. For example, a sick person can say, "By his stripes, I am healed" (see 1 Peter 2:24) several hundred times a day. He might doubt the statement at first, but he will eventually become convinced that it is true, and then by the principle taught in Mark 11:23, physical healing will follow.
When they attempt to oppose this teaching, many people end up attacking Scripture itself. They would criticize the principle that a Christian can command things to happen by faith. But this principle is exactly what Jesus teaches. Adherents of the false teaching are right to complain that it is sheer unbelief to suggest that Jesus does not literally mean what he says in verse 23. All Christians should affirm that if we have faith, then we can command a mountain to move, and it will happen. Jesus demonstrated it on the fig tree, and then he said that we can do the same and even more, if we have faith. So unless we are willing to sacrifice the inspiration of Scripture due to unbelief, this principle is not subject to debate.
What is wrong with the false teaching is not their understanding of the principle, but in their understanding of faith. First, they erroneously conceive of faith as a force â€“ that the power resides in belief as such â€“ instead of understanding faith as the belief in divinely revealed propositions that require God's conscious exercise of his power to make good. Second, they falsely conceive of faith as something that they can produce within themselves by repeatedly listening to biblical propositions.
The first misunderstanding makes their definition of faith altogether non-Christian. This point alone is sufficient to refute their doctrine concerning Mark 11:23. But the second point is even more relevant to our main purpose, which is to attain a correct positive understanding of the verse. To review, Jesus teaches the principle, "if we have faith, then we can move mountains." Commentators have focused on qualifying the "we can move mountains" portion of the principle. But I suggest that we should focus on the "if we have faith" portion instead.
Here is the answer, then. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing the word of God. From this, the false teaching in question has inferred that faith always comes when a person hears the word of God. But the verse does not say any such thing.
In context, the verse is talking about the preaching of the gospel. As Paul writes, "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Romans 10:14). But nowhere is it suggested that everyone who hears the gospel will believe and thus be saved.
Salvation comes when a person believes the gospel, and a person can only believe the gospel when he finds out what the gospel is and what it says. Thus someone must go preach the gospel so that people might hear it. But the point is not that everyone who hears the gospel will become a Christian. Still less is Paul suggesting that the more a person hears, the more faith he is guaranteed to receive. The false teaching in question confuses how faith is usually facilitated or "delivered" (hearing) with what actually causes a person to believe what he hears.
So what causes a person to believe the word of God when he hears it? The Bible teaches that both faith and unbelief are controlled by God. It teaches in numerous places that a person refuses to believe because God actively works in his mind to harden his heart (John 12:39-40). So a person can hear the word of God everyday for half a century, but unless God sovereignly grants him faith to believe what he hears, he will remain in unbelief.
The kind of conviction that comes from nothing more than prolonged repetition could very well be the effect of brainwashing, for a lack of a better term. It is true that there can be a relationship between continuous exposure to the Bible and an increase of faith, but right now I am referring to mere repetition without the work of the Spirit. If the kind of faith that the Bible talks about can come this way, then the most effective form of evangelism would be to kidnap the unbelievers and lock them into a room where the Bible is played on loud speakers all day and all night. There would be no need for prayer, for persuasion, or for the Holy Spirit.
But again, the resulting conviction would be the result of mere brainwashing, and the profession of faith a mere parroting of what has been heard, similar to how an insane person might mindlessly mutter some of the phrases that he overhears or that are fed to him by others. There would be no genuine belief in the promises of God, but the conviction would serve only as the lifeless and thoughtless replacement to the person's previous beliefs that have now been forcibly short-circuited by the process. The person might feel convinced, but there can be no power and no salvation in this kind of "faith."
True faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8). In 1 Corinthians 12:9, Paul refers to the kind of faith that is a special manifestation of the Spirit. From its mention in 1 Corinthians 13:2 â€“ that is, in the context of spiritual manifestations â€“ we understand that it is this kind of faith that moves mountains. Just as faith to believe the gospel for salvation is sovereignly granted by God to whomever he chooses, this special manifestation of faith is also granted "just as he determines" (1 Corinthians 12:11).
This biblical understanding of faith returns the fulfillment of Mark 11:23 to the sovereign hand of God. In the process, it destroys the false teaching in question without compromising the principle taught by Jesus â€“ that if we have faith, we will have whatever we say. The difference is that whether we have faith, or whether we have this kind of faith, is entirely up to God. He might deliver it to us by means of his word, but hearing his word does not guarantee this kind or level of faith.
Our faith depends on the work of the Spirit, who applies the word of God to our hearts and convinces us of its truth, giving us confidence of its effect, power, and relevance. The above commentators would be relieved that I have provided a legitimate way to explain how what Jesus says would not happen. But I have also explained how it could happen â€“ it will happen when God grants the faith. So it remains for the commentators, or those who think like them, to assert that God will never grant this kind of faith. However, there is no biblical evidence for this, and if God would never grant this kind of faith even in principle, then this would render Jesus' statement pointless. Thus it appears that the suggestion, that God would never grant this kind of faith even in principle, once again comes from nothing other than unbelief.
To recapitulate, verse 23 teaches that if we have faith, we can even command a mountain to move, and it will happen. Whether we will have this kind of faith is up to God, and at any time, it is possible that he will grant this kind of faith. It is from this same perspective that we can derive a correct understanding of verse 24. In that verse, Jesus refers to "whatever you ask for in prayer."
Commentators again pile qualifications upon qualifications upon this, until they drown the verse deep into uncertainty and unbelief, making it practically useless for the readers. Of course any scriptural promise must be understood within the larger context of the Bible. However, this verse is clearly positive in intent, and should be expounded from a positive angle.
Larry Hurtado notes that Mark places great emphasis in calling Christians to follow Jesus' ministry, and we should understand this teaching about faith in such a context. He adds, "Here Mark presents Jesus as an example of faith, and his readers are not only to admire Jesus' faith but also to imitate it."
We should support this perspective, since it is true that the Bible stresses faith as something that glorifies God and furthers his purpose. However, it is possible to press too far even this legitimate point, since the Bible also describes faith's crucial role in drawing on God's resources for our own success and preservation. We must not hesitate to exercise faith in God to meet our personal needs, as if to say that God's resources are required for ministry but optional for our everyday living. A Christian should look to God for everything, even his daily bread (Matthew 6:11).
Perhaps it is best to acknowledge that faith in God can work for both our own benefit and for the advancement of his kingdom, and these two are seldom in conflict when we place the former within a broader concern for the latter. In other words, our faith for self-preservation and various benefits must be shaped by and subordinate to our concern for God's kingdom.
Another aspect of faith has to do with persistence. Throughout the Bible, faith is sometimes portrayed as a quality that performs single and instantaneous acts of greatness, but at other times it is portrayed as a persistent and stubborn conviction that produces consistent speech and action over long durations. One only needs to read through Hebrews 11 for examples of both facets of faith. It is through "faith and patience" that we inherit God's promises (Hebrews 6:12). This is an important reminder for all those who venture out in faith for the work of the kingdom. Our trust is in God's word, which never fails, and not in immediate or short-term results.
Then, verse 25 cautions us against an extreme individualism in our faith. We cannot love God and at the same time hate our brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot have faith toward God and at the same time harbor resentment toward others. Strong faith thrives in an environment where God's people live in love and harmony, but strife will suffocate it. As 1 Peter 3:7 says, "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers."
Jesus tells us that faith can move mountains. This is not a teaching for us to explain away or for us to drown under a thousand qualifications. Instead, it serves to confront our unbelief and encourage stronger faith in us. It enables us to attempt new things, attain greater heights, and stretch our imagination. We must not shun or deny this faith. We must covet it!
Lord, we believe, help our unbelief! Increase our faith, so that we may "encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble" (Isaiah 35:3, NASB). And if it pleases you, grant us a faith that can even uproot a mountain by a mere word of command. Lord, grant us this faith â€“ now in the form of an explosive power, now in the form of a persistent trust â€“ so that we may cast aside all obstacles and perform exploits in your name, for your glory and for the good of your people. Amen.