There are a bunch of passages in scripture that I used to ignore, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with them. I’m guessing that you’re possibly like me; you know that certain passages are there but you’ve never really tackled them satisfactorily. In a discussion I had with a noted prosperity preacher (who shall remain anonymous), one specific passage came up and I got thinking about how he twisted it. He seemed to be making a fairly simple observation, but it was a text that I knew I had never sorted through and now I was forced to deal with it.
The text was Matthew 17:20.
What does a person do with Jesus teaching on faith in Matthew 17:20?
“…if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
It seems to be suggesting something rather extreme.
Do you have faith?
Are you sure?
Can you move mountains, even metaphorically?
Is nothing be impossible for you? (and how is the statement “nothing will be impossible for you” a metaphor? For what?)
I mean, that’s pretty universal language, and “nothing will be impossible for you” is a promise, given without caveat (excluding the obviously impossible ones; like “becoming the fourth member of the Godhead”). The language in Matthew 17:20 is broad and incredibly far-reaching, and the previous verses are about casting out demons.
Many people do take Matthew 17:20 as a promise, and they take it at face value. The prosperity preacher certainly did, though he admittedly hadn’t ever done any earth moving. But, prosperity preachers ask (well, demand) God for money and they think that when God gives it, he’s keeping his promises. Now the folks who do that are horribly wrong, but if we’re being honest, there seems to be a certain understandable logic there, right?
What makes this more difficult is that this promise is repeated in the life of Jesus in Matthew 21:18-21:
“In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Now the situation with the fig tree is illustrative, sure (having to do with the rejection of Christ by the Pharisees…though the disciples didn’t “get it” at the time)…
…but look at Christ’s answer to their question of “how did you do that?”
Jesus doesn’t mix metaphors, and he doesn’t hold back.
He says, with certainty, that the reason the disciples couldn’t do what he did was because of their doubt. He also promises them, in no uncertain terms, that if they cease their doubting and “have faith”, they will be able to do what he did and far more. In fact, he promises them that they’ll receive whatever they ask for in prayer, on the sole condition of having faith.
Again, this leads to obvious questions.
Do you experience this in your life?
Does anyone get “whatever you ask in prayer?”
Is the sole reason you don’t get whatever you ask for because you doubt God’s promises or ability to provide it?
Sure sounds like Jesus might be saying that, right?
Now, there are three typical responses to these types of passages:
1. You take the passage in a woodenly literal way and boldly claim the promises you find therein (but then always turn the “mountain” into a metaphor).
2. You cautiously think the passage is somehow metaphorical…but you’re not exactly sure what it’s a metaphor for.
3. You ignore the “clear meaning” of the passage, try not to think about it and move on.
Those are all possible options, but I’d love to offer a fourth.
How about we try to figure out what the passage means?
Let’s make a few observations and try to narrow down our interpretive options:
A. The promise was made to the apostles and they experienced the reality of it.
The healed everyone who was brought to them (Acts 5:16, 8:17). They prayed that people would receive the promised Holy Spirit and that happened (Acts 8:15-18). They prayed that people would return from the dead and they did (Acts 9:40). The apostles saw the spread of Christianity go throughout the entire Roman empire in their lifetimes, with churches springing up all over. They had faith that Jesus would build his church (like he said he would) in the face of impossible odds, and Jesus did.
It’s also worth pointing out that the apostles didn’t pray for mountains to move into the see; they generally didn’t pray for “stuff” like we do. If you go through the New Testament, you see the apostles praying with far different priorities than most contemporary Christians. They prayer for things like understanding the truths of the gospel, growth in godliness, growth in perseverance under suffering, etc. (Rom. 1:8-12, 15:30-32; Eph. 1:15-21, 3:14-21; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-12). That is what they asked Jesus for, not some form of epic but meaningless landscaping.
B. The Apostle Paul clearly understood Jesus’ words as a figure of speech.
The concept is brought up again in 1 Corinthians 13:2 and in that passage Paul clearly understands it as a figure of speech. That seems fairly obvious since Paul never claimed to have any of the other blessings listed in 1 Cor 13:1-3 (i.e. he never claimed to “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” and he clearly hadn’t become a martyr already). Paul knew that Jesus had made a promise to give the apostles whatever they needed, but Jesus gave them something else too: a proper perception of their needs.
C. If Matthew 17:20 “means what it says,” in a woodenly literal way, then nobody has ever had any faith.
I mean, let’s be serious. Jesus didn’t say that it takes a huge amount of faith to move mountains. The requirement isn’t even a normal amount of faith. Jesus said “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed…” That’s a tiny amount of faith. The mustard seed was the tiniest commonly used seed in ancient Israel, so the illustration was obvious: with even the smallest portion of faith you can move mountains.
By that measure, you don’t have a shred of faith and neither does anyone else.
Understood properly, Jesus is definitely teaching his apostles that they have accesses to immeasurable power in their prayers, but prosperity preachers who think that power can be used to cultivate their finances pray like pagans. Pray according to the priorities of God as revealed in Scripture, and expect results; God will always glorify himself when you ask him too.
I hope this helps people who have wondered about this somewhat cryptic passage of scripture. When in doubt, read slow, think carefully and let the Bible help you isolate the probable options for understanding a difficult passage.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “let us pray!” Unger