While on His way to the temple complex, where he would clear out the money changers and reprimand Israel’s spiritual leaders for their hypocrisy, Jesus came across a fig tree with leaves. Fig trees of the area would produce early fruit, then leaves, and then fig season would come in full swing. Since Jesus was hungry, He walked up to the leaved tree and expected to eat one of its early fruit. However the tree was barren, it did not produce any early fruit…and trees that did not produce early fruit were also known to not produce during the proper season, either. Due to the tree’s hypocrisy of being fully leafed, yet without fruit – Jesus cursed the tree:
Mark 11:14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples heard it.
After witnessing this scene, Jesus’ disciples watched Him strongly rebuke Israel’s leaders for their own hypocrisy. The similarity of these two events was not lost on the disciples. The next day, they went back to Jerusalem along the same path as they had the day before.
Mark 11:20-21 Early in the morning, as they were passing by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. Then Peter remembered and said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that You cursed is withered.”
Imagine what the disciples were thinking – If Jesus curses a plant for its hypocrisy, and the next day it is dead from the roots up…what will happen to Israel because of His rebuke to the priests and scribes the day before???
The first thing Jesus will reply with is a reassurance of where their faith belongs, in God and not in the appearance of spirituality. Jesus then speaks to them in hyperbole, in large unqualified examples used only to make a larger point. This wasn’t the only time Jesus spoke like this in His teaching. For example, He had previously warned his disciples:
Mark 9:43-45 And if your hand causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell…And if your foot causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell
Within the context of His teaching at that moment, the disciples understood the point Jesus was making – they didn’t seriously believe that Jesus was teaching them that there are eternal benefits to physical self-mutilation. In fact, this kind of exaggerated talk was quite common in Jesus’ day…and although not to the same extent, we use similar ridiculous phrases to express ideas, like “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “he bit off more than he could chew”. The point made by the saying isn’t found in the saying itself.
So let’s keep that in mind while we look at Jesus’ response to the disciples’ fears:
Mark 11:22-24 Jesus replied to them, “Have faith in God. I assure you: If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, all the things you pray and ask for – believe that you have received them, and you will have them.
Jesus isn’t giving His disciples a blank check to start rearranging the landscapes as they see fit. There is no mention in the rest of the New Testament of the disciples praying and then physically moving a mountain. Instead, they understood Jesus’ point – that as they placed their faith in God, they would see things accomplished that no man could do. The disciples spent the rest of their lives participating in God’s fantastic story of redemption, and they witnessed the supernatural removal of many obstacles along the way.
So what figurative “mountains” do you face? When praying about them, do we trust that God is bigger and greater than the obstacle in front of us? Believing that He can handle it is the first step toward seeing that mountain moved.