by John Ellis
Several weeks into my new life as a follower of Jesus, something went wrong with my car’s brakes. Over the previous decade or so, I had changed the brake pads and rotors on cars many times. But whatever was wrong this time eluded my limited capabilities as a mechanic. I also didn’t have any money. I did have Matthew 17:20, though.
Matthew 17:20 is the famous and oft-quoted passage in which Jesus tells his disciples, “For truly, I say to you, 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.”
As a new Christian who couldn’t afford to get his car fixed, I concluded that Matthew 17:20 should be applied to the front end of my car. With all the faith that I could muster, I got on my knees and fervently prayed that God would repair my car. Before heading out the door to go to work, I prayed again, just to be sure.
As I readied my hand to turn the key in the ignition, I breathed another quick prayer and reminded myself that my faith was definitely larger than a mustard seed.
Coming to the first stop sign, I confidently hit the brakes and, lo and behold, the front end shimmied and the brakes did not hold. Pumping hard, I finally got the car to stop.
As my car slowly came to a halt in the middle of the intersection, I thought, “Well, sometimes God answers, ‘No.’” That, of course, raised the uncomfortable problem of how Matthew 17:20’s claim that all I needed was faith the size of a mustard seed and nothing would be impossible for me could be reconciled with the Sunday School platitude that sometimes God answers “No.”
At the time, my immature understanding of God was still ping-ponging between the view of God as a magic genie and that of a distant clockmaker who had wound the world up and then left everything and everyone in it to their own devices, with an instructional manual to help, of course. Unfortunately, many Christians are stuck in the same immature understanding of God.
Matthew 17:20 is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible. Sadly, much of the teaching as well as the understanding of the passage treats faith and prayer as if the person praying is a Lost Boy clapping for Tinker Bell – the harder you clap, the greater chance that she’ll come back to life. But that’s not what Jesus was trying to communicate to his disciples.
For starters, “moving a mountain was a common metaphor in Jewish literature for doing what was seemingly impossible.” Paul uses this colloquialism in 1 Corinthians 13:2 when he writes, “and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” In other words, if my great faith is disconnected from love, my great faith is basically worthless because it’s not being used to edify the Body of Christ for the glory of God.
In Matthew 17, Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples that they could literally move mountains if they only had enough faith. It’s nonsensical to think that they would want to do that anyway. He was using that well-known colloquialism to let his disciples know, “that what they need is not giant faith (tiny faith will do) but true faith – faith that, out of a deep, personal trust, expects God to work.” Interpretations that cast the verse as evidence for any sort of “name it, claim it” doctrine undermines the richness of what Jesus was teaching and turns the passage into man-centered magic.
However, there is a very similar passage in the Gospel of Mark that I find fascinating and that can just as easily be misinterpreted and misapplied. And, frankly, has been as misinterpreted and misapplied as the Matthew 17 passage.
Mark 11:23 finds Jesus standing with his disciples outside of Jerusalem. “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown 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.”
The background for Mark 11:23 is the cleansing of the Temple. After his Triumphal Entry, Jesus returned to Bethany to spend the night. The next morning, on the almost two mile walk back to Jerusalem, Jesus cursed the fig tree. That same day, he “cleansed the Temple.” That’s followed up by the “lesson from the Withered Fig Tree.”
That structure is referred to as a literary sandwich. So, in Mark 11, the bread is found in verses 12-14 (the cursing of the fig tree); the meat is found in verses 15-19 (the cleansing of the Temple); and the other piece of bread is found in verses 20-25 (the lesson from the withered fig tree). Mark uses this sandwich structure frequently in his gospel. The literary device serves to highlight the “meat.”
With an eye to that “Markian” literary sandwich, the main theme embedded in Mark 11:12-25 is that faith in Jesus is replacing the cultic works associated with the Temple religion. That means that a soteriology rooted in ethnic identity markers is being replaced by the One who came to bring salvation to God’s children from all tribes and tongues, all ethnicities. At the time of the cleansing, the Israelites had hijacked the Court of the Gentiles, effectively denying gentiles access to God. The imagery of Jesus clearing the Court of the Gentiles of Jews would have stung the Second Temple Jews who gloried and took hope in an ethnically based soteriology.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus butted heads with the religious leaders who had misunderstand the practice and function of the Old Covenant. The faith of Abraham had been replaced by an increasing litany of man-made rules and stipulations. And time and time again, God’s actual law was set aside in favor of the man-made rules. Among other instances, in Mark 7:11-13, Jesus confronts the Pharisees for teaching the commands of men as doctrines of God. In Matthew 15, quoting Isaiah, Jesus says of the Pharisees, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The cursed fig tree in Mark 11 is a metaphor for unfaithful Jews, Jerusalem, and the Temple.
This is the setting in which Jesus utters the oft misunderstand phrase about the mountain being thrown into the sea. Like Matthew 17 and 1 Corinthians 13, the surface level of the phrase is tied to the Jewish colloquialism of moving mountains. In Mark 11, the disciples marvel at the withering of the fig tree that Jesus cursed. In response, Jesus was directly confronting them with the need for faith in God the Father. Connecting that truth with the use of the fig tree as a metaphor for unfaithful Jews, Jerusalem, and the Temple, and Jesus was sharply reminding the disciples that the sovereign God of the universe is able to remove all obstacles to the salvation of His people and the spread of His Kingdom.
However, there is another level of interpretation that many fail to see when reading the text. Adding one more important contextual note to the setting, the Mount of Olives was in full view while Jesus was speaking to his disciples.
The concept of mountains moving, specifically the Mount of Olives moving, was not new to the Bible by the time Jesus told his disciples that, “whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown 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.” Below is a sampling of Bible verses that talk about mountains moving and disappearing.
Psalm 18:7 – “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry.”
Psalm 97:5 – “The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.”
Ezekiel 38:20 – “And all the people who are on the face of the earth shall quake at my presence. And the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground.”
Micah 1:3-4 – “For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains will melt under him, and the valleys will split open like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a steep place.”
Nahum 1:5 – “The mountains quake before him; the hills melt.”
Revelation 16:20 – “And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.”
Besides the motif of moving mountains, one of the things that all the passages above have in common is the theme of God’s judgment. Throughout Scriptures, the motif of moving mountains is directly connected to God’s judgment, specifically the coming Day of the Lord.
There is one other passage that continues the connection of moving mountains with the Day of the Lord and directly ties into the Mark 11 passage. Or, rather, Jesus’ words in Mark 11 tie into it, so to speak. Zechariah 14:4 says, “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the mountain shall move northward, and the other half southward. … (verse 5) Then the Lord my God will come, and the holy ones with him.”
The words of Zechariah hearken back to “the parting of the Red Sea during the exodus.” God’s future deliverance of His people was prefigured in the exodus out of Egypt by the nation of Israel. This pattern of God’s deliverance of His people is meant as a reassurance to the returned exiles that Zechariah was writing to. “Zechariah foresees the Lord coming to stand upon the Mount of Olives, that is, the hill to the east of Jerusalem that provides the best vantage point, creating in his presence a refuge for all who look to him in faith.” Zechariah is clear, the Day of the Lord will involve the moving of the Mount of Olives, the very mountain that Jesus was looking at when he stated that “whoever says to [the Mount of Olives], ‘Be taken up and thrown 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.”
God works in history to bring about the redemption of His people and finally and fully establish the eschatological Kingdom; this is seen in the first level of interpretation of Jesus’ words discussed above. God removes obstacles to His plan. Directly connected to that is the reality that the culmination of God’s work in history is the Day of the Lord.
History is moving somewhere. Standing in opposition to the belief of the ancient Greeks that history is cyclical and has no teleology (no end game and ultimate purpose), the Bible teaches that history has a divine purpose and will one day culminate in the Day of the Lord.
On that day, King Jesus will return to complete the victory over sin and death that he won for his people through his life of perfect obedience to the will of the Father, his death on the cross as the payment for the sins of his people, and his resurrection from the dead. That completed victory will usher in the new heaven and new earth – the new Eden and new Jerusalem. God’s people will then be glorified and will spend the rest of eternity in full fellowship with their Creator and their King. On the opposite side, though, those who have continued in their rebellion against God will be judged guilty and then be sentenced to eternal suffering in hell.
Throughout the Bible, the Day of the Lord is pictured as a violent upheaval of the world as sin and death are finally defeated and God’s good world is restored. And it’s pictured that way because that is what’s going to happen. In Mark 11, Jesus was reminding his disciples that on the final day when God is removing the remaining obstacles to His plan, the Mount of Olives will be split in two. Jesus’ work during his earthly ministry was directly connected to that coming Day of the Lord. This is one of the reasons why views of Jesus that cast him only in terms of love and compassion are incomplete.
The Apostle Paul encourages Timothy, “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.” Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ requires preaching how Jesus’ return is going to play out differently for Believers and unbelievers.
The Day of the Lord is connected to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and ignoring that reality or merely underplaying it is going to result in many more fig trees being withered. This should raise the question in all of us as to whether we are producing the fruit or not that comes from repenting of our sins and placing our faith in Jesus. You don’t want to be the fruitless fig tree when King Jesus returns.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Matthew 17:20, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1857.
 This was a BIG problem. For about a month, I never knew if my car was going to stop or not. Stepping on my brakes felt like stepping on a sponge. It turned out that something was wrong with the hydraulics. It’s only God’s grace that I didn’t die in a fiery auto-crash during that month.
 Michael J. Wilkins, “Notes on Matthew” in the ESV Study Bible ed. Thomas Schreiner (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1857.
 D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 392.
 Mark 11:23, ESV Study Bible, 1919.
 “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13).” “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise (Romans 9:7-8)” “Just as Abraham believed in God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:6-7).”
 Matthew 15:8-9, ESV Study Bible, 1852.
 Obviously, this passage is after the Mark passage, but the point stands.
 Richard D. Phillips, Zechariah (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 308.
 Phillips, Zechariah, 309.
 Mark 11:23, ESV Study Bible, 1919.
 2 Timothy 4:1-2, ESV Study Bible, 2342.