Word of Faith and "Commanding"
Contextual Analysis of Matthew 21:21
One of the interesting yet potentially harmful features of the church's
use of Scripture is the confusion of personal interpretation with the
actual teaching of Scripture in light of the larger body of biblical
material or the traditions of the Faith. Throughout history people have
taken a single verse, read it in light of their own experiences or
needs, and then taught that private interpretation as the truth of
Scripture (see Devotional and Exegetical
Reading of Scripture).
There could be many examples of this, but one of the most prevalent
in modern American religious culture is the so-called "word of faith"
movement in which people assume that they can accomplish miracles by
simply having enough faith and speaking what they want to happen.
That idea can take various forms, but it has emerged in some circles
in the idea of "commanding," exerting control and power over physical
objects. It is grounded in the observation that Jesus told his disciples that
if they spoke to a mountain or a tree and commanded something of them
that the disciples would be obeyed. The assumption then is that Christians
today are able to
"command" physical things like mountains or trees, or even tumors, sources of
pain, or cancer, in the name of Jesus.
The principle biblical verse used to support the idea of Christians
"commanding" physical things is Matthew 21:21:
Matthew 21:21 Jesus answered them,
"Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you
do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this
mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. 21:22
Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
On the surface and taken out of context, this verse sounds like a blank
check for Christians. "Whatever" we want, if we just believe strongly
enough, we can accomplish by just speaking a word. There does not
seem to be any restrictions placed on this, since it says "whatever you
ask." Some prosperity gospel preachers like to combine this verse with
37:4 Take delight in the LORD, and he
will give you the desires of your heart. 37:5 Commit your way to the
LORD; trust in him, and he will act.
When these two passages are taken out of context and used together,
"whatever you ask" is then defined as "the desires of your heart." In
other words, whatever one's heart desires can be accomplished if we have
enough faith. This gives rise to the idea of a "word of faith" in which
Christians who truly believe can simply command things in Jesus' name
with the confidence that whatever they command will happen just as they
However, this is a classic example of failing to understand a biblical
text in its own context. That failure to hear the text on its
own terms leads not only to projecting our own human agenda onto
Scripture and calling it the truth of God, it violates the message of
other parts of Scripture that deal with God's power to endure hardship,
suffering, and even death. Also, it is contrary to common human
experience, a fact that John Wesley suggested ought at least to raise
questions about the validity of a theological idea.
First, we need to reject the idea that we can combine separate biblical
verses from different books, from different contexts, and from different
types of writing in order to make them address a single topic of our
choosing. We also must resist the temptation to group verses by what
topic we think they address without first understanding the context from
which they come and the main idea they are addressing within that
context. Each biblical passage must first be understood in its own
context for what it says within that context before we move to
Of course, some views of Scripture contend that all of the Bible can
simply be interchanged since it is all absolute and abstract truth
written by God himself unrelated to any historical or cultural context.
From that assumption, it follows that biblical verses can be added
together like letters of the alphabet to make up different messages
apart from what the verses themselves mean in context.
However, it seems obvious to most that while the Bible is certainly
true, that truth is incarnated within the historical and cultural milieu
of ancient Israel and first century Judaism. The very fact that the
original languages of Scripture are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek ought to
be a significant clue that the text is historically conditioned. That
means that the text has a historical and cultural context within which
it must be understood.
Since the text is not abstract truth unrelated to historical context,
then we must take seriously the human dimension of Scripture, including
how books are written to communicate a message. This suggests that
single texts must not only be understood within a historical
context, but also be understood in the literary context in which
they occur. That is, the meaning of a single text is related to the
meaning and message of the entire context of which it is a part (see
Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture and
Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narrative, as well as other
Issues in Interpreting Scripture).
So second, we need to understand Matthew 21:21-22 in the immediate
context of Matthew. The beginning of Chapter 21 in Matthew marks a major
turning point within the book. The Gospel of Matthew has narrated for us
the life and teachings of Jesus from his birth and early ministry in
Galilee (1-4), through his teaching discourses, parables, and healings
(5-16), to his final instructions to his disciples and to the community
(16-18), all the while presenting Jesus as the Messiah who would usher
in the Kingdom of God. The preceding two chapters (19-20) focus on Jesus
continuing teaching as he and the disciples leave Galilee and journey to
Judea, moving closer to Jerusalem and the crucifixion.
Chapter 21 begins what is known in Christian tradition as Passion Week,
the final week that culminates in Jesus' death. There are three events
that dominate this chapter: the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of
the temple, and the cursing of the fig tree. More than just historical
events, in Matthew these symbolic actions make important confessions
about the nature of the Kingdom of God about which Jesus has been
teaching throughout the book.
The entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11) proclaims Jesus as the long awaited
Messiah. However, at the same time, it radically redefines the role of
the Messiah. While first century Jews wanted a military leader to
overthrow Roman rule, Jesus' entering the city on a donkey claims the
throne of David, but without any of the trappings of a military leader.
The cleansing of the temple (21:12-17) is treated differently by each
gospel writer, even placed in a different time in Jesus' ministry in
John (see The Gospels and The Synoptic Problem).
But Matthew uses the incident to illustrate the inadequacy of the temple
system and the need for a reemphasis on the needs of people (v. 14).
It is in this context that the incident of the fig tree occurs
21:19 And seeing a fig tree by the
side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but
leaves. Then he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And
the fig tree withered at once. 21:20 When the disciples saw it, they
were amazed, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" 21:21 Jesus
answered them, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt,
not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you
say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be
done. 21:22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will
Many have puzzled over this incident, which seems to be out of
character for Jesus. However, if we remember that Old Testament prophets
often used symbolic actions to get their point across, we can easily
understand Jesus' action here to be similar.
Matthew specifically tells us that the fig tree had leaves but no
fruit. This is a type of tree that sets fruit before leaves, so the
presence of leaves should be a sign that the tree was producing fruit.
The barrenness of the tree when it would rightly be expected to have
fruit becomes the central feature of this incident. Isaiah had used a
similar story of a carefully tended vineyard that should have produced
good grapes but only produced worthless and inedible fruit as a parable
of judgment on Israel (Isaiah 5). Jeremiah used the example of a barren
tree that should have had fruit as a symbol for the failure of the
people (Jer 8:13). On the other hand, producing fruit was a frequent
symbol for trusting in God, as in Jeremiah 17:7-8:
17:7 Blessed are those who trust in
the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. 17:8 They shall be like a tree
planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear
when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought
it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
In this context of Matthew in which Jesus had proclaimed a different
kind of Kingdom and Messiah than that which the people expected, along
with the opposition of the Jewish leaders and the failure of the temple
and sacrificial system to produce a righteous people, this incident
becomes an acted parable of judgment against Israel and first century
Judaism. While the Jewish religious system looked good from the outside
and by all appearances was healthy ("leaves"), yet it produced no fruit.
Just as the corrupted temple that should have been a house of prayer had
perverted its purpose and needed to be cleansed, so now Jesus pronounces
judgment on barren Israel.
Jesus' curse produces an instant withering of the tree, a metaphorical
way to indicate the decline of the religious system of Judaism. The "no
longer" nature of the curse is a further indication that the coming of
Jesus would mark a shift in God's work with his people in the world. On
a larger scale, and from the perspective of Matthew writing his Gospel
around AD 80, this curse would be an indirect reference to the
destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70. In other words, the
early church saw in this acted parable, not just a spiritual curse, but
also a very real pronouncement of the end of temple Judaism.
The reaction of the disciples to the withering of the fig tree was
amazement and the question, "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" At
first reading, Jesus response does not seem to answer their question.
But if we try to understand Jesus' response as, indeed, a direct answer
to their question, it gives us a window into the meaning of verse 21.
21:21 Jesus answered them, "Truly I
tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what
has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be
lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. 21:22 Whatever you
ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
Initially, we need to make a couple of observations about this verse.
Obviously, the language here is that of hyperbole. But that hyperbole
had a specific function in first century culture. The idea of moving a
mountain was a common way of talking about doing seemingly impossible
things (Job 9:5, Matt 17:20, Cor 13:2, cf. Lk 17:6). It does not
necessarily refer to what we moderns might want to identify as
"miraculous," meaning some fantastic supernatural feat. It simply refers
to something that from a human perspective is impossible.
We also need to note that faith here is not some magical power that
human beings can exercise on their own. Here, faith is linked with "in
prayer." This does not mean that prayer becomes the activating key to
faith, but that faith must be submitted to God in prayer. The
implication is that it is finally God and his will that govern how
mountains are to be moved.
In this chapter of Matthew the central issue is the mission of the
people of God in the world. Israel had reduced that mission to a
physical earthly Kingdom with the expectation of a new King that would
restore the glory days of Solomon. As a result, religious practices and
temple worship had come to serve the national and selfish interests of
the people rather than serving God. In both the entry into Jerusalem and
the cleansing of the temple Jesus had challenged those expectations and
the religious practices that went with them. And he had pronounced
judgment on their failure to be God's people in meaningful ways.
And yet throughout Matthew Jesus had been constantly proclaiming a new
Kingdom, one that is not defined by external rituals and superficial
obedience, but one in which Torah is internalized, in which genuine care
for others and service to God characterize the life of God's people, and
in which the mission of God's people is to proclaim throughout the world
by word and action the grace of God. In Matthew, this new Kingdom has
erupted into history with Jesus' coming, and those who follow Him
comprise the new people of God (Paul deals with the same issue in a
different way in Romans 9-11, which should strongly caution Christians
against letting this degenerate into anti-Semitism).
So when Jesus answered the disciples that they should have faith and
not doubt, and that they would have power through that faith, we need to
hear Jesus talking about fulfilling their role as God's people in the
world as servants of the Kingdom that was dawning in Christ. That is,
the power of God on which they would draw by faith is not to fulfill
whatever they think they want or need, or to perform any miracles that
might occur to them to perform. That would be exactly the perversion
that Jesus had already condemned.
The issue is whether they can produce the "fruit" that Israel had not
produced. The power that is available to them in prayer is the power to
fulfill their mission as God's people, to be fruitful as God's people.
This is not just an "evangelistic" promise, but involves all of the
things that Jesus has taught so carefully in Matthew, things like
authentic ethics (ch 5), humility (ch 6), selfless service to others (ch
10), and the witness to Christ throughout the world (ch 24).
It might be helpful to note the following context of this verse as
well. The very next incident that Matthew recounts is conflict with
religious leaders over Jesus' authority (21:23-32). And yet, as the
disciples are given their final instructions about being God's people in
the world, Jesus declares, "All authority in heaven and on earth has
been given to me" (24:1). The contrast is sharply drawn between the
religious leaders who cannot answer the question of authority, a further
sign of a failed system, and the authority of Jesus and the Kingdom that
he had inaugurated.
The concluding parable of the vineyard (21:33-46) makes the same point
that the cursing of the fig tree had made. This parable is even more
directly related to Isaiah 5:1-7 as it illustrates the failure of those
entrusted with responsibility. Once again, the failure to produce fruit
according to valid expectations provides the metaphor for the new
Kingdom. This parable concludes with a specific application (v. 43):
21:43 Therefore I tell you, the
kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that
produces the fruits of the kingdom.
This provides the governing thought for this entire chapter of Matthew
21. Verses 21-22 must be read in light of this transition of the kingdom
from those who have failed to fulfill their responsibilities to those
who believe the new Kingdom has dawned in Jesus. At seeing the fig tree
wither, the disciples had asked Jesus, "How did the fig tree wither at
once?" That is, how can Israel so quickly fade as God's people? Jesus'
answer is that the new Kingdom of God has come in Jesus and in those who
have faith in Jesus and that Kingdom. Those who are able to "move
mountains" in fulfilling their calling as the people of God according to
Jesus' teaching throughout Matthew, will be able to produce the fruits
of the Kingdom. It is these fruits of the Kingdom, the giving of cups of
cold water in Jesus' name, making disciples of all peoples, living by
that internal Torah that is governed by love, that are the product of
mountain-moving faith. And that will quickly mark the "withering" of
The implication is that none of these things can be accomplished by
human effort; they are mountains that cannot be moved. Yet, by seeking
the presence of God in prayer and placing faith in God's revelation of
himself in Jesus who is the Christ, God's people who inhabit the new
Kingdom can move mountains, can do the impossible of being God's people
and producing the fruit of the Kingdom.
So, this verse is not justification for modern Christians to
command physical things. I think that risks the same kind of
self-centered fruitlessness that typified the failed religious system of
perverted first century Judaism in thinking that God's power is to serve our wants