“Whatever You Ask in Prayer”: A Christ-Centered Re-Reading of a Commonly Misused Verse

rob-bye-103200-unsplash“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
— Matthew 21:22 —

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer,
believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
— Mark 11:24 —

In my high school year book, my senior quote was from Jesus: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Young in my faith but zealous, I was learning how to follow Christ and this verse seemed to be an appropriate way to express my devotion. Not to mention, it marked something of my eighteen-year-old theology: If I put my mind to it, Jesus could do anything.

In subsequent years, I’ve seen that my introduction to Christ came through various shades of moralistic, therapeutic deism with splashes of the Bible mixed in. I believed in God, the Bible, the historical death and resurrection, and my need for salvation, but I really didn’t understand the logic of the gospel—even though I believed in Christ crucified.

I believe God, in his unspeakable kindness, used a psychologically-slanted message of salvation to create in me a simple trust in Jesus. In a way that only a sovereign God could design, he planted the truth of Christ’s preciousness in my heart, even if it would take some time to see the darker lines of the gospel—namely God’s absolute holiness, my absolute need for atonement, and that faith included a dying to self and living for his glory (in a word, repentance is part of saving faith).

For me, college served as a crash course in theology, where the doctrines of grace began to redraw my earlier understanding of Christ and salvation. But before college, I believed Christ came to save me from hell and to help me fulfill my life’s purposes. After all I had found verses that said as much—Matthew 21:22 and Mark 11:24 being prime examples.

So, in my misguided zeal, I quoted Mark 11:24, a verse that I think many people misunderstand.

What is Jesus saying?

If Jesus is not saying in Matthew 21:22 that he has come to answer all our wish-prayers, what is he saying? One common answer is found in the ESV Study Bible:

Jesus’ response must have surprised the disciples. (What does faith have to do with the cursing of the fig tree?) His point is that they should trust God to remove whatever hinders them from bearing fruit for God. Moving a mountain was a metaphor in Jewish literature for doing what was seemingly impossible (Isa. 40:4; 49:11; 54:10; cf. Matt. 21:21–22). Those who believe in God can have confidence that he will accomplish even the impossible, according to his sovereign will.

In this explanation, Matthew 21:22/Mark 11:24 are explained as a principle of prayer: If you pray in earnest for God’s will, he will clear any obstacle in your path. The mountain is a metaphor Jesus is using to say, there is nothing too big for God. “Throwing a mountain into the sea . . . is no more than a hyperbolic example of a miracle.”[1] Have confidence in him, therefore, and he will do more than you ask or think.

Certainly, these principles have biblical warrant. God delights to do the impossible—consider the virgin birth when it is said of God, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). God can do more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), and our prayers should not be hindered by our sight.

But I wonder: What makes this reading of Matthew 24 different from my (soft) prosperity reading of the text? Isn’t the difference a only matter of degree—the former involves knowing something about God’s will when we pray, the latter is more quick to see God as giving us the desires of our heart (another verse taken out of context, Psalm 37:4). To be sure, there is a difference between the two, but I believe both readings are too abstract, too far removed from what Jesus meant in his historical context. 

Which Mountain? Which Sea?

 o begin to understand Jesus’ meaning, we must determine what mountain is in view. For in fact, Jesus speaks of a specific mountain, “this mountain” (τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ), he does not speak of a mountain in general.

To determine which mountain, geography (not to mention topography) is important. Matthew 21:1 indicates that Jesus came to the Mount of Olives the previous day. Likewise, verse 18 says that he was returning to the city from Bethany (Mark 11:12). His statement about the mountain and the sea came as he approached the temple from the East (see v. 23). Anyone familiar with the landscape of Jerusalem knows that the temple mount, which stands across from the Mount of Olives, is the chief geographical (not to mention theological) landmark standing before Jesus as he spoke. In this way, “this mountain” is most naturally understood as the temple mount.[2]

At the same time, it has been observed that the Dead Sea is visible from the Mount of Olives (William Lane, Mark, 410). Carson (Matthew, 446) rejects the view of the mountain being thrown into the sea, because Zechariah 14:4 speaks of God splitting the Mount of Olives, not throwing the mountain into the sea. But if we put this one verse aside, we still have mountains of evidence to see Jesus’ speaking of a particular mountain, not just using mountain as a metaphor.

Why a Mountain into the Sea?

In the Old Testament mountains symbolized power, government, or authority (see Jer 51:24-25; Daniel 2:35, 44-45; cf. Revelation 17:9). They were not simply “metaphors” for impossibilities. They were symbols of national power; they were also symbolic for movements in redemptive history. So for instance, in the book of Isaiah we find a handful of times when a mountain or mountains are used to describe God’s redemptive power. So for instance consider three passages in Isaiah.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:4)

And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up. (Isaiah 49:11)

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

In order, we can make a few observations on these verses:

Isaiah 40:4 — In the context of a new exodus (40:1–11), where the people are brought back from exile to the presence of God, the mountain of the Lord (v. 9) will tower over the mountains (powers) of the earth (=Zechariah 14:10-11)

Isaiah 49:11–  The context is the eschatological in-gathering of the nations, when the servant establishes the new covenant (v. 9); the mountains (kingdoms) of the world will be put down; the mountain of the Lord will be raised up.

Isaiah 54:10 — In a chapter replete with covenantal imagery; the mountains and hills are not abstract impossibilities; they represent the nations and powers that stand against God.

In each of these instances, we see how mountains are symbolic of some earthly power. It is not symbolic for the difficulties God and his people face in salvation. So too in Matthew and Mark, the mountain is not an abstract problem; it was a concrete mountain. Mark 11:23 speaks of this mountain (cf. Matthew 17:20). The mountain in Jerusalem symbolized the power and rule of Israel (cf. Psalm 68:15–16), and it is this mountain where God dwelt with his people.

This reading of Jesus’ words may be confirmed by his cursing of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18–19; Mark 11:12–14). Jesus’ words about the mountain being thrown into the sea stand adjacent to the cursing of the fig tree. Both geographically (at or near Bethphage) and literarily (in Matthew and Mark), Jesus’ statement about the mountain come on the heels of Jesus explanation regarding the fig tree.

In that episode, the fig tree symbolizes Israel. And when he curses it, he compares its judgment to the impending judgment that is coming on his fruitless nation. As James Edwards comments, “The prophets had often used the fig tree as a symbol of judgment (Isa 34:4; Jer 29:17; Hos 2:12; 9:10; Joel 1:7; Mic 7:1).”[3] In the same context, the cleansing of the temple mutually interprets the cursing of the fig tree. In this way, we should read Jesus’ statement about the mountain in light of God’s coming judgment on the temple, as also symbolized by the fig tree.

Indeed, if Jesus came to Israel to put down the old order and establish a new—i.e., if his death destroys the old covenant (symbolized in the temple mount) and creates a new covenant with its new spiritual temple, it is most reasonable to see Jesus’ statement about the mountain as foreshadowing the coming collapse of the temple mount (and all that it symbolized in Israel). This judgment would put an end the corrupt system of sacrifice in Jerusalem, and begin to fulfill the promise of God’s mountain growing into all the earth (Daniel 2:44–45).

A Faithful Prayer

If this reading is correct, the point Jesus is making is not that amazing faith will empower you to throw down any obstacle in your path. Rather, those who have faith in God will see the temple mountain throw down and another established. To put it in the terms of another teaching on prayer:

Our father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The command to have faith, therefore, is a command to trust that Jesus Christ will do what he said: “On this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16 is another mountainous promise. Just as the Old Testament prophets foretold, a new temple mount is coming (cf. Ezekiel 40–47). Jesus is the cornerstone of that mountain; his disciples are the foundation and all who trust in his gospel will be added to the temple that is building and growing throughout the earth (Ephesians 2:19–22).[4]

Jesus’ instructions on prayer in Matthew 6 and Matthew 21 teach his disciples to pray for his kingdom to come. Just as the temple mount was established when David and Solomon came to power, now in Christ a new David and a better Solomon has come to establish a new mountain where all the nations will dwell. Because the unbelieving Jews stood against Jesus Christ—as would be proven in his crucifixion—the old mountain must be thrown down. This is exactly what happened in his crucifixion as the temple veil was torn. And it would continue when Titus and his Roman soldiers razed the temple mount.

Practically speaking, Jesus command does not teach his disciples to pray for whatever they want, or that God will answer our prayers if we just have enough faith. It teaches us to pray for his kingdom to come, his temple to be built, and his mountain to rise above the rest. While many evangelical commentators do not take this view, it is far more sensitive to the mountainous descriptions of Scripture. It protects us from misusing Jesus’ words, and it impels us to see his kingdom established on the earth as it is in heaven.

In truth, this reading secures our faith in Christ and in his coming kingdom. It promotes in us God-confidence more than self-confidence, and it leads us to pray for his glory and not our own. In this way, it ensures that the things we pray for fit with his global schemes and not our own personal agendas. In this way, Jesus words are powerfully motivating for prayer, and for prayer that puts him first.

For more on this subject, see the careful exegesis of this passage by my friend Nicholas Piotrowski, “Whatever You Ask” for the Missionary Purposes of the Eschatological Temple,SBJT 21.1 (2017): 97–121.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1] D.A. Carson, Matthew in EBC, 8:446.

[2] However, this is not the only interpretation. James Edwards comments, “The symbol of a mountain may have been suggested by the horizon to the south of Jerusalem that is dominated by a peak in the shape of a volcano, which comes into view as one reaches the crest of the Mount of Olives from the village of Bethany. This peak is actually the fortress of Herodian, one of many citadels built by Herod the Great for refuge in case of war or rebellion. Herod had literally removed an adjacent hill, the base of which is still visible today, in order to surround the citadel of Herodian with a rounded earthwork.” The Gospel according to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 347.

Likewise, Leon Morris suggests the mountain as being the Mount of Olives itself. He denies the literalistic meaning of Jesus words and prefers a symbolic reading: “There is no record of any disciple ever moving a literal, physical mountain; for that matter, Jesus himself is not said ever to have done such a pointless thing. But throughout the history of the Christian church mountainous difficulties have often been removed when people have prayed in faith.” The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 532.

[3] Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, 340.

[4] So Nicholas Piotrowski, “Whatever You Ask” for the Missionary Purposes of the Eschatological Temple,SBJT 21.1 (2017): 104.

Photo by Rob Bye on Unsplash

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