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Word of Faith and "Commanding"
Contextual Analysis of Matthew 21:21

Dennis Bratcher

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 Psalm 37:4-5:

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 desire.

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 contemporary application.

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 (21:19-22).

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 receive." 

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 unproductive Israel.

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 and needs.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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