As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 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 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. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
In this brief narrative, the fig tree that Jesus had previously cursed (11:12-14) is found to be withered, and Jesus uses it as a lesson to teach the disciples about faith. This incident follows Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, as well as the cleansing of the Temple, and is followed by the priests, scribes and elders questioning Jesus’ authority.
While this story and Jesus’ teaching about the ‘faith that moves mountains’ is a well-known one these days, the IVP Bible Background Dictionary indicates that this would have been a rather shocking statement for Jesus to make. There are some Jewish texts that speak of removing mountains as an infinitely long and virtually impossible task, something that is accomplished by only the most pious. Rabbis tended to apply this to mastering studies that seemed humanly impossible to master. That Jesus would say that one could move a mountain by faith would have been a very thought-provoking and stunning statement. However, this is not the only place in the Bible that speaks of mountains being moved or destroyed. Zechariah 4:6-7 says, “Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerub’babel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerub’babel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!'” But instead of having God’s Spirit move the mountain, Jesus says that if one has enough faith and does not doubt in his heart, the mountain will be moved. He then goes on to say that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe you have received it, and it will be yours.”
In his commentary on Mark, William Barclay points out that the incident with the fig tree is unusual for Jesus. How often does Jesus curse something? In particular, the author of Mark specifies that it wasn’t even the season for figs; so why does Jesus seem to be angry? Barclay suggests that this is an enacted parable for the disciples, demonstrating the condemnation of promise without fulfillment and profession without practice. He states that Jesus may have been trying to show the disciples the fate of Israel, who had failed to bear fruit. Cyril of Jerusalem agrees with this, pointing to the discussion in John 15 of how those who do not abide in the vine will not be fruitful and will be cut off and burnt in the fire. “Let us therefore bring forth worthy fruit” (Cyril of Jerusalem). Regarding the verses on the prayer of faith to move mountains, Barclay says that the passage gives three rules of prayer: it must be a prayer of faith, a prayer of expectation, and a prayer of charity. A prayer of faith means that we are willing to take our problems and difficulties to God, and that we are willing and ready to accept God’s guidance. Through this comes the power to conquer the difficulties of thought and action. A prayer of expectation means that we are confident in success; our prayer must never be a ritual without hope. Finally, it must be a prayer of charity, because “the prayer of a bitter man cannot penetrate the wall of his own bitterness.” If the ruling principle of a man’s heart is not love, there is a barrier between himself and God. In his homily On the Incomprehensibility of God, John Chrysostom says that prayer “has power to destroy whatever is at enmity with good. I speak not of the prayer of the lips, but of the prayer that ascends from the inmost recesses of the heart.” The prayer of faith produces fruit (i.e. results).
I think it’s important that we not understand this apart from Jesus’ other teachings on prayer. When he says “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours,” this is not an open invitation to begin asking God for anything that crosses our mind to ask. We are always to seek and pray the will of God and we are to claim his promises for us. If we ask for something “in Jesus’ name” (John 14:12-17), we are to pray for what is worthy of his name. In the same way, when we pray in faith, we are to pray what is worthy of faith – God’s will. If we pray without faith, without expectation, and without forgiveness, we will bear no fruit and have no result to our prayer. As Chrysostom said, this is not “the prayer which is cold and feeble and devoid of zeal. I speak of that which proceeds from a mind outstretched, the child of a contrite spirit, the offspring of a soul converted – this is the prayer which mounts to heaven.”