Jan 14, 2007

Jesus’ Authority

Mark 11:22–33

Is God obligated to give us whatever we want if we pray with enough faith? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in Mark's gospel to draw out the real meaning of a passage that is often misused today.


Let us turn our attention now to the Word of God as we find it in Mark 11:22–33. Please stand for the reading of the Word of God:

So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.

“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

Then they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him. And they said to Him, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—was it from heaven or from men? Answer Me.”

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’”—they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed. So they answered and said to Jesus, “We do not know.”

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

We are blessed to have for our hearing each Sabbath day the veritable Word of God from heaven, of which our Lord Himself said, “Thy Word, O God, is truth.” Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we give heed to Your Word, we pray that we may hear it in its fullness, that we so digest it and embrace it that we become doers of it and not hearers only. For we ask it in Jesus’ name and for His sake. Amen.

The Imperative of Faith

Last Sunday, we looked at the cursing of the fig tree and Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. We considered the parallel between the fig tree and the temple. On the outside, both claimed to be fruitful and productive, but in fact were barren—the fig tree of figs, the temple of godliness.

Immediately after the disciples saw that the fig tree had withered to its roots, Jesus responded to their questions, as we read in verse 22: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Have faith in God.’” This is an imperative, a command from our Lord to His disciples and, by extension, to us.

Let me comment at the outset: to put our trust in God is not a religious option that we choose in order to be spiritual or have some kind of personal relationship with Jesus. Trusting God is the obligation of every creature made in His image. It is a moral and ethical command as well as a spiritual duty, because not to trust God is to impugn the integrity of His Word, His promises, and His character.

By what possible justification could any creature of an eternal, omnipotent God have the audacity not to trust the Word of their Creator? So, Jesus casts this instruction in the form of a command, “Have faith”—that is, “Have trust.”

Two Explanations for Jesus’ Imperative

The next part is not so easy. I asked myself as I read this text: “Why did Jesus, at this point, after the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple, give this imperative, this command to His disciples? What’s the connection? Why did He say, ‘Have faith’?”

Perhaps the answer is found in what follows, when Jesus said, “For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.”

One possible reason for the connection is that the disciples were amazed at the power of Jesus to speak to a fig tree and then, because of His negative admonishment, the fig tree withered and died. Maybe they were saying to Jesus, “What kind of power is that?” Perhaps Jesus was saying: “It’s the power of faith. If you think it’s impressive that I can say to a fig tree that no one shall ever eat of it again, and it withered and died, let Me tell you that if you really have genuine faith, you could say to this mountain, ‘Be moved and cast into the middle of the sea,’ and it will happen.” Perhaps Jesus was trying to instruct His disciples at this point in the relationship between faith and power.

I will explore that in a moment, but there is another possibility to explain why Jesus gave this command to have faith immediately after the episodes of the tree and the temple: the problem with the fig tree and the temple was a problem of infidelity, of faithlessness. The temple, which was supposed to be God’s tabernacle, where people focused their faith and trust in Him, had become a den of thieves. It became a monument not to fidelity but to unbelief. In nature, the fig tree, which was to be obedient to its Creator to bear figs in season when it had the blossoms in their fullness, also failed in its faithfulness to its Creator.

It could be that the faithlessness of the tree and of the people in the temple provoked Jesus to this command. It may be something altogether that I have not thought about, but I believe it is one of these two things. I am not sure which, and we can wait until heaven to get the answer, but either one would have sound, biblical application to our lives today.

Faith to Move Mountains

Another potentially problematic aspect of this text is when Jesus said: “Whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”

Jesus said this as He departed from Jerusalem to go back toward the Mount of Olives. From that viewpoint, one could look out over the landscape and see the Herodian fortress built by King Herod the Great. Even to this day, the ruins are apparent in the landscape. In order for Herod to build that tremendous fortress and demonstrate his unprecedented building skills in the ancient world, he had his slaves dig out a hill and move the dirt from the hill to become the foundation and support structure for his fortress. In literal terms and in engineering terms, Herod the Great moved a mountain to build his fortress. So, the people were aware of Herod the Great’s prodigious feat, and Jesus made use of their knowledge, saying, “I say to you, you can say to that mountain, ‘Be cast into the sea,’ and if you believe it, it will happen.”

Jesus went on to say, “If you pray in a believing manner, whatever you pray for, you will have.” There is an entire theology permeating the Christian world that is based almost exclusively on this text. The Word of Faith movement teaches what we call “name it and claim it” and includes some form of faith healing. The movement says, “All you have to do to change the external world around you is believe it and claim it, and it will be so.”

It is not surprising to me that this kind of movement has emerged at a time in our culture when the New Age movement has permeated the secular world. One of the primary assumptions of the New Age movement is that by focusing our imagination, imaging properly, and projecting our images outwardly, we can change the world around us. Visualize world peace—that is all you must do. Focus on world peace, and we will get world peace. My favorite parody of that is the statement, “Visualize whirled peas,” and if you look at that long enough, you will see peas flying around in a circle.

The root of New Age thinking and many corresponding Christian religious movements is, at bottom, magic—abracadabra, mind over matter, we can change the world around ourselves. Supposedly, this text provides the biblical justification. Jesus said: “If you believe strongly enough, you can make mountains go into the sea. And whatever you believe, if you believe it truly, you will have it.” Something is wrong with this kind of thinking.

According to the Will of God

In the New Testament—not to mention the Old Testament teaching—Jesus and the Apostles give us a wealth of instruction about prayer, the power of prayer, and the importance of trusting God when we pray. Further, we learn about the One who listens to our prayer and about trusting Him for the answers to those prayers. So, any terse aphoristic statement like that which Jesus says in this text must be understood in the light of all the teaching on prayer and all the qualifications the New Testament gives about God’s listening to our prayers. If we lift this verse out of context and ignore the rest of the teaching of the New Testament, we start getting into the magical business of “name it and claim it.”

Another similar text is that if any two of you agree on any one thing, it shall be done for you. Let us test it: How many of us agree that we would like to see a cure for all kinds of cancer by tomorrow morning? What else would you like to fix? The truth is that the statement about any two people agreeing must be understood in light of what else the Bible teaches us about prayer, particularly that we are to pray according to the will of God. What does that mean? That means that we are not to pray for unethical gain.

A few years ago, I saw a man interviewed on a national talk show who had built a brothel in the desert in Nevada, and he gave his testimony on national television. He said, “When I started this enterprise, I dedicated it to God, and I said, ‘God, if you will prosper me in this illicit industry, I will give you 10 percent of my earnings.’” Do you think God is the One who made this a very successful enterprise? The only thing that was stranger than this man’s teaching was that he actually seemed to believe it. You do not ask God to prosper you in unethical endeavors. This is the problem we have.

Believing Prayer

What was Jesus saying about the relationship between faith and answer to prayer? Beloved, when we get on our knees and cry out to God, when we give Him the concerns of our heart, the first thing we can know for sure is that He hears it. The second thing we know for sure is that He answers it, and His answers are always perfect. Sometimes we have this idea that if He does not do what we ask Him to do, our prayers are not answered. But that is not true.

Jesus, agonizing, perspiring drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane, pleaded with the Father that the cup may pass from Him, and the Father answered Him, and the answer was, “No.” What was Jesus’ answer to the Father’s response? Jesus replied, “If You say, ‘No,’ to My request, I say, “Yes,” to what You want Me to do.” That is the prayer of faith. The prayer of faith is trusting God. It is not magic.

We also must understand that there are many promises given to us in Scripture, and when we pray with respect to those promises, it is our duty to pray believing that the answer will come. Let me give you an example.

Many years ago, a woman visited me when I was working in a church. She was driven by unfulfilled and unrelieved guilt feelings for a sin she had committed in the past. The woman said: “I’m paralyzed by this guilt. What can I do?” I responded: “The only possible cure I know for guilt is forgiveness. The only necessary condition I know for forgiveness is repentance. What you need to do is confess this sin to God, repent of it, and ask for His forgiveness.”

The woman became instantly irritated. She said, “I thought you were a theologian.” She was looking for some technical, academic, sophisticated answer to her moral dilemma, something that she could not expect to find from people in her prayer group. She said, “Don’t you realize that I’ve asked God fifty times to forgive me for this sin and I’m still overwhelmed by my guilt?”

I responded: “If you’ve prayed fifty times, it won’t hurt you to pray one more time. Only this time, I’d like you to pray for something different from that which you have been praying. I’d like you to ask God to forgive you for your arrogance.” She responded: “What? What do you mean arrogance? I’ve been the most contrite, penitent person that I know. I’ve humbly debased myself before God fifty times, begging Him for my forgiveness.”

I said: “Let’s back up for a second. What does God say?” I asked her to read the text: “‘If you confess your sin, God is faithful and just to forgive you of that sin and to cleanse you of all unrighteousness.’ Is that what God says?” She answered, “Yes.” And I said: “You have confessed your sin, but you don’t feel forgiven because you don’t believe that God spoke the truth. Maybe everybody else can get rid of their guilt by confession and repentance, but not you. You must go to the rack fifty times. You must pay for your sin, disregarding the atonement of your Savior. Don’t you see how wrong it is to think that you require something more than the forgiving grace of God?”

That is what I am talking about, praying in faith. If God says: “If you do A, I will do this; if you confess your sins, I will forgive you of your sins,” then you trust God, and you confess your sins. There is no reason for anybody to be going through life paralyzed by unrelieved guilt. Why not trade that guilt in for forgiveness? That is what the gospel is all about.

A Twig over an Abyss

I had an experience thirty years ago with a prosperous psychiatrist. He offered me a large sum of money if I would join his practice. He was serious.

I asked him: “Why in the world do you want me to work with you? I don’t know anything about psychiatry.” He said: “R.C., 90 percent of the patients that come to my practice are people dealing with unresolved guilt. They don’t need a psychiatrist. They need a priest. You understand forgiveness. You understand guilt. That’s why I need somebody like you in my practice.” Is that not incredible?

We are a nation of guilt-ridden people, and the cure that many preachers often put forward is: “You’re not guilty. Don’t worry about it.” That is the kind of thing that the false prophets taught in the Old Testament. Jeremiah said, “They heal the wounds of the daughter of Zion slightly.” That does not help. When you are guilty, denying your guilt will never relieve your soul. The only cure is forgiveness. The prayer of faith trusts the God of grace to forgive us of our sins when we ask Him.

I am a Protestant who knows what he is protesting. At the time of the Reformation, when Luther left the Roman Catholic Church, he did away with the sacrament of penance, but he did not get rid of the confessional. Why? He knew that the people needed somebody to say to them in the name of Jesus, “Te absolvo, you’re forgiven,” because our grasp of the grace of forgiveness is so weak.

“Trust God” is what Jesus said. One of my favorite illustrations comes from Jim Boice. He told the story of the explorer who fell off the side of a cliff, and it was two thousand feet to the bottom of the chasm. As he started to fall, he reached out and grabbed a slender twig coming out of the side of the mountain. He held onto it, and the roots were starting to pull free from the earth.

In his desperation, he screamed to heaven, saying, “Is there anybody up there who can help me?” Then a voice came from heaven: “Yes, I can help you. Trust Me. Let go of the branch.” The man looked down again into the abyss, looked back up to heaven, and said, “Is there anybody else up there?” I love that story because sometimes, dear friends, that is what Christian faith is. It means hanging on by your fingernails when everything seems to be against you, and the only One left to trust is our Creator and our Redeemer.

Forgiveness and Repentance

Verse 25: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

I hate to go over this quickly because I am going to say something that you may find completely outrageous. I do not believe that this text or any text in the New Testament teaches that it is our moral obligation to unilaterally forgive people who have sinned against us without their repentance.

If you look through the whole teaching of Scripture about confronting your brother if they have sinned against you, the structure of church discipline, and the right and privilege that Christians are given to seek restitution, it does not mean that if somebody harms you, you must say, “I forgive you, never mind, it’s okay.”

We may do that, but the point in this text is the analogy between our forgiving and God’s forgiving us. God does not forgive us unilaterally. God requires repentance. But when we repent, as I have just explained, He does forgive.

In this text, Jesus’ warning has a spirit of unforgiveness in view. When we repent and have been forgiven through the grace of God but then somebody injures or offends us, apologizes, and confesses their sin, something is wrong if we will not forgive it. If we hold a grudge or if we want vengeance even after that person has repented, that is what we can expect from God. If you look at the whole of Scripture’s teaching on forgiveness and repentance, Jesus is making the point that every Christian is to be standing ready at any moment to forgive any offense fully and finally, whether that offense is real or imagined, if the person who violated us repents.

The Authority of Christ

Let us move quickly on to the final part of this passage, where we see the scribes and elders attempt to trap Jesus. They came to Him, asking Him about authority: “By what authority do You do these things? Who gave You this authority?” This was a point of contention throughout Jesus’ ministry, as He regularly had to tell those around Him: “I speak nothing on My own authority. However, all authority on heaven and in earth has been given to Me.”

This is not just a question for first-century scribes and Pharisees. It is the supreme question the unbeliever faces. You may be in that position today. You may not yet have submitted your will to Christ. You have not yet bent the knee. You have not yet fallen on your face before Him and embraced Him as your Savior and your Lord because you doubt His authority.

You are thinking in your heart, “Who is Jesus to tell me what to do?” By what authority does He command me to repent of my sins and come to Him? He does that by the authority given to Him by God Himself.

The Pharisees and Sadducees tried to trap Him, and they said, “By what authority?” So, Jesus cleverly evaded their question, saying: “I’ll ask you a question. You answer Me, and then I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, let’s take that for example, was it from heaven or was it from men?”

As the text tells us, He trapped them right then, because if they said, “It was from heaven,” Jesus would say: “Yes, so why didn’t you believe him? Why didn’t you believe him when he testified of Me?” If they said, “Oh no, it was from men,” then they would be at the mercy of the crowds, because if anything was a given in Israel at this time, it was the widespread conviction that John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God.

So, how did the Pharisees and Sadducees answer that question? They lied. They said, “We don’t know.” Jesus could have said: “Yes, you do know. You know very well that he was a prophet.” Jesus did not say, “I don’t know where My authority comes.” He did not give them the same answer. He just said: “Neither will I tell you. Since you refuse to answer My question, I’m not going to answer yours.” That was the end of that discussion.

To tie it all together: faith, prayer, forgiveness, the authority of Christ. This is a summary of the Christian life.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.