At CrossPointe, we’re in the midst of our series Servant/Savior on the Gospel of Mark (if you’re in Orlando, join us!). This past Sunday we made it to the 12th chapter, and are going to finish up the book around Easter. Thanks to Fortress Press sending along a review copy, I’ve been able to read N. T. Wright’s Jesus and The Victory of God alongside our sermon series, which is proving exceptionally useful in illuminating the background to some harder to understand passages. This is particularly true for the passages from Mark 11 onward.
One such passage is Mark 11:12-33. This section includes Jesus cursing a fig tree (12-14), cleansing the temple (15-19), returning to the fig tree (20-25) and silencing the Pharisees when they questioned his authority (27-33). In the midst of these passages we find this quotation from Jesus:
Have faith in God. 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 (22-23).
Now, consider Joel Osteen’s thoughts in a message on specifically the latter verse:
There is incredible power released by God when we speak to our mountains. A mountain is a situation in your life that seems permanent and impossible. It may be a mountain in your marriage; you don’t see how you’ll stay together. A mountain in your finances; it doesn’t look like you’ll ever get out of debt or ever accomplish your dreams. Maybe it’s a mountain in your health. The experts have said that you’re never going to get well. It’s good to pray. It’s good to believe. It’s good to quote scriptures. But the mountains move when we speak to them in Jesus’ powerful name. Learn to say each day, “I speak favor over my finances. I speak health to my body. I speak peace into my family. I speak blessings into my future.”
Ignoring for a moment the voodoo element in this (“I can control reality with the right kind of incantation”), it seems mountain for Osteen is defined but what makes sense to our modern perspective of “mountains” in general (they’re obstacles). If you’re so inclined, you can watch the sermon for yourself, but you can get the gist of his angle though from the above quote. Osteen is not alone in using this verse like this to support some version of the idea that if you just have faith, you can move mountains (e. g. here, here, and here). The question however, is whether that does justice to what Jesus was saying, or is it yet another example of well-meaning Bible interpreters (being generous here) pulling a quote out of context to support a type of “prosperity gospel” or some kind of “name it, claim it” theology?
The short answer is, yes, that is exactly what this is, and if you’re biblically literate, you probably intuitively knew that. So, if that’s not what Jesus is talking about, what is he talking about?
To understand, as you might have guessed, we went to look more closely at the context. I’m going to have to abbreviate arguments in some of this and just punt to Wright’s book and more extensive commentaries that can read if you disagree. Particularly relevant are his passages from p. 405-428 and 490-495, which you ought to consult. In any case, let’s unpack the text.
Starting in v. 12, Jesus does what many prophets to Israel before him had done, and performed an enacted parable. He came to the fig tree (Israel) expecting to find fruit (righteousness) and did not, and so pronounced judgment upon it. If Israel would heed his call to repent and follow him, then they would not fall under the coming judgment. Instead, the Pharisees and many others clung to their own way of doing things, which revolved around the temple system.
This leads then to Jesus coming into the temple and cleansing it, which rather than having a purifying effect, would have halted the sacrificial system temporarily. In other words, Jesus put an end to the temple operation temporarily as a sign that if Israel did not repent and follow him, then the temple would be destroyed permanently. This of course explains why the chief priests and scribes began looking for a way to kill him. He a) took it upon himself to pronounce judgment on the temple system and put a temporary halt to it, which b) was implicitly claiming authority only Yahweh was supposed to have.
Then, the scene shifts back to the fig tree the next morning, which by this point has withered. Peter notices it, and draws Jesus’ attention to it, at which point Jesus says the quotation we have above from vv. 22-23. He then follows that proclamation with a promise about praying for forgiveness of sins against other people and their connection to forgiveness of sins against God.
Now, within this framework, it should already seem unnatural for Jesus to insert a bit of prosperity theology and promise that “having faith” would allow you to move mountains. Jesus is implying by his actions that the whole Jewish system of worship is about to be destroyed if they do not repent and follow him. In that light, his quotation is actually clarifying that idea further. Consider it again, this time with my parenthetical clarifiers:
Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain [on which the temple is currently standing], “Be taken up and thrown into the sea [which symbolizes destruction and ensuing chaos]” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.
In other words, if you have faith in God, even the temple system cannot stand in your way of truly following him in what he is doing through Jesus. The mountain, though formidable, would not stand in the way of Messiah building his true temple (this refers back to Zech 1-8, where a “mountain” stands in opposition to the work of Messiah). In that sense, this was a specific promise, given to specific people (the disciples) about what cannot stand in opposition to the coming kingdom of God. In history the promise was fulfilled, and sure enough the temple did not stand in opposition to the spread of the kingdom through the disciples’ divinely appointed mission.
Here’s how Wright summarizes it:
Whatever the “mountain” may have signified in Zechariah’s prophecy, it was clearly something that stood in the way of the building of the Temple. Thus, in Jesus’ riddle, (a) the present Temple is seen as in opposition to the true one, (b) the present Temple will be destroyed, to make way for the true one, and (c) Jesus is the true anointed one, who will bring out the top stone of the building and thus complete it. Once again, the Temple-action lays claim to royalty (p. 495).
Because of that, there is no direct application of that promise regarding mountains for believers today. At best, we could say this promise applies to religious systems interfering with the spread of the gospel, but it certainly has nothing to do with personal difficulties. It could, though obliquely, have to do with our own idols. Taken like that, here’s what Osteen should have said: