"The Potential Power of Our Prayers"
(Delivered Sunday, December 29, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James version.)
Each final Sunday of the year, I try to encourage our church family to grow in the coming new year in some particular area of our walk with Christ. Today, I'd like to offer the challenge that 2003 be the year we grow together in our confidence in the power of prayer. My hope is that our church is not only the church as a whole, but each individual believer in it, will be characterized over the next year by a renewed boldness in prayer; and that we will dare, during the months to come, to ask bigger things of God than we have ever asked before.
To help inspire that confidence, I'd like to point you to the teaching of our Savior on prayer as it's found in the eleventh chapter of Mark. It's a passage of scripture that I suspect most Christians would be hesitant to take at face value; because what Jesus promises in it is so amazing that it seems too good to be true.
In Mark's gospel, we read that Jesus gives this remarkable exhortation to His disciples:
"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 (Mark 11:22-24).
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When Jesus spoke these words, He was in Jerusalem; and He may have been pointing at the most prominent high-spot in that area, the Mount of Olives. I have never been there; but I understand that, from the highest vantage point of the Mount of Olives, you can look down upon the Dead Sea, which is the deepest impression on the surface of the earth. If this mountain were to be uprooted and cast into that sea, it would completely disappear under the water. Imagine your or my prayers having such power that they could command such a mountain to be removed and cast into such a sea!!
Several commentators and Bible teachers have been so overwhelmed by such a thought that they conclude Jesus' words simply can't be taken at face value. One commentator I read suggested that these words were meant only for the apostles, that only they could be thought of as having such power in prayer. But Jesus Himself applies what He says far beyond just the apostles. He says "whoever" prays can see such power demonstrated in "whatever" he or she asks. Another suggestion was that this promise should only be interpreted in a figurative way, that the prayer of faith can, for example, remove 'the mountain of our sin', and cast it into 'the sea of God's justifying grace'. But does that really do justice to Jesus' words? After all, He says that whoever says a thing and believes that those things he says will be done, if he believes, will indeed have them. What sense would there have been in Jesus saying such a thing unless He meant it to be taken literally?
Jesus must have anticipated that we'd think of this as too remarkable a promise to be true, because he underscores it all by saying, "Assuredly" (or "Truly", or "verily", or "I tell you the truth", as it's translated in other versions). Jesus goes out of His way, it seems, to assure us that He really means what He says.
This presents us then with a tremendous challenge of faith, doesn't it? If Jesus really means what He says here, then we either believe Him or we don't. Either one of two things are true: either the power of prayer is being ridiculously overrated in these words of Jesus, or the measure of our confidence in His words is way too small. I'm suggesting that later of the two is the true case of things; and I'm inviting that, this year, we accept the challenge of faith that Jesus' words present to us, both as a church and as individual believers. I'm inviting that we become a church with such confidence in the unlimited power of prayer that we pray and ask in a way that's as bold as Jesus' promise!
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Think with me about the context of these words. They were spoken by Jesus during His final week before going to the cross.
Scholars tell us that it was on the Sunday before Passover that He made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He entered into the temple area and looked around at all that was going on; but what He saw greatly angered Him. Here He was, the promised Messiah finally come into His temple, the living embodiment of that Passover meal; but what He found dishonored His Father's house. He saw the money changers with their tables set up in the temple to exchange Gentile coins for Jewish currency at a hefty profit. He saw those who made their living selling animals for sacrifice to all those who made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He watched them all as they bought and sold, and carried on so much commerce that the sacred temple looked and sounded less like a house of prayer and more like a typical eastern bazaar.
The Bible tells us that, at another time early in His ministry, Jesus saw people carrying on such activities in the temple and He immediately drove them out. But on this occasion, near the end of His ministry, He simply looked upon it all and left with His disciples to stay in the nearby town of Bethany. He was eventually going to take care of the matter; but I believe He waited, because He wanted to illustrate something His disciples first.
Mark tells us, "Now on the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it" (Mark 11:12-13a). Jesus had apparently not eaten before leaving Bethany; and went instead to this fig tree. It was in leaf at an unseasonable time; and so held out the promise of having some fruit. But Mark tells us, "When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs" (v. 13b).
This was a deceptive fig tree. It's leaves held out the promise of offering something good, even at a time when something good was unexpected; but when Jesus came to it, He found that its leafiness was all for show. It really offered nothing of the kind of fruit that should be expected of it; and so, it was useless as a tree.
It's not by accident, you see, that this happened during the events surrounding Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. It's woven into that story because it's an illustration of the frustration Jesus felt at finally presenting Himself to His people as their Messiah, but not finding from them what He desired. Their religiosity was like the fig tree, all leafy and showy; but without any real fruit. They were like the fig tree in another of His parables:
"A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?' But he answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. but if not, after that you can cut it down'" (Luke 13:6-9).
The promised Messiah had come and had preached to His people. He gave His people time to bring forth the fruit of repentance from sin and faith in Him. But when He finally presented Himself to them in the temple, three years after having cleansed it the first time, He found no repentance; no faithfulness; no fruit. Shortly afterwards, He would say,
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Matthew 23:37-39).
The barren fig tree, you see, was an illustration of our Savior's sad frustration at what He failed to find in His own people when He finally came to them. He found no fruit in them, just as He found none of the promised fruit upon that tree. Mark writes, "In response Jesus said to it, 'Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.' And His disciples heard it" (v. 14). And then, He went again into the temple and drove out the money changers and sellers of animals, and returned to Bethany in the evening.
That brings us, then, to early Tuesday morning, as He returned again to Jerusalem with His disciples. Mark tells us;
Now in the morning, as they passed by, the saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away" (vv. 20-21).
Apparently, according to Matthew's account of this story (Matthew 21:20-22), the process of withering began to occur immediately upon Jesus cursing it. And the withering of the tree progressed, and spread all the way throughout the tree. By the end of a twenty-four hour period, the tree was completely withered, all the way down to the roots. It had become as completely dead as it was worthless.
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And now, we discover that this fig tree, though barren of figs and withered to the roots, bears spiritual fruit for us today. Behind Peter's words, was an implied question. The question, as he looked upon the withered tree, was not, "Lord, why did this happen?" The reason why it happened was very obvious: it was because it was a deceptive tree that promised fruit but delivered nothing, and so Jesus cursed it. But the real question for Peter was, "Lord, how could this happen?" As Matthew has it, Peter says, "How did the fig tree wither away so soon?" (Matthew 21:20). And that's when Jesus uses this tree as an object lesson in the power of prayer: "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'" (Mark 11:22-24).
There's much here to encourage our confidence in the power of prayer. But first, it's of the utmost importance that we be clear on ...
1. THE DYNAMIC BEHIND PRAYER'S POTENTIAL POWER (v. 22).
The very first thing Jesus says is not, "Have faith in prayer." The power is not in prayer itself. Rather, He says, "Have faith in God." Prayer is an act in which we give expression to faith in God; and it's God, the object of our faith, and His power alone, that's the only real dynamic behind prayer's unlimited potential. It's because the almighty God is the one who moves His hand in response to our prayers that we can dare to believe our prayers can literally move mountains. The mere words of a prayer have power to do nothing; but as the Bible says, "with God nothing will be impossible" (Luke 1:37).
I believe we must take Jesus at His words in this passage, that the prayer of faith is literally as powerful as Jesus says it is; because He said this same sort of thing on other occasions. In another set of circumstances, Jesus' disciples were frustrated because they were unable to cast out a demon. They thought that the power to do so resided in themselves, perhaps in just saying the right words. But Jesus came along and immediately cast the demon out. When the disciples asked, "Why could we not cast it out?" Jesus said, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20). All of our words and all of our efforts will accomplish nothing apart from God's power; but with faith in God, we can see mountains moved.
On another occasion, the disciples asked the Lord, "Increase our faith." It seems that, at this time, they were thinking that the power was in merely "having faith"; and that all they needed was more "faith" to "have". But Jesus taught them that the size or quantity of faith was not the issue. He said, "If you have faith as a mustard seed [which is very tiny], you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you" (Luke 17:5). Faith, even "increased faith", will accomplish nothing unless it is faith "in God". But even the tiniest bit of faith in the power of the almighty God is enough to uproot trees and plant them in the sea; because the power resides in God, not in our faith.
So you see; the dynamic behind the power of prayer is not the mere utterance of "words" of prayer, nor is it in merely mixing prayer with "faith". The dynamic behind the power of prayer lies in an object of our faith that is completely separate and beyond ourselves, that is, God Himself. Our prayers have power only because He acts in response to them. That's why Jesus said first of all, "Have faith in God."
I believe that behind this expression "Have faith in God" is the implication that we must be submitted to God's will in our prayers. He, after all, is God, and we are not. Our prayers must not be viewed as a way to manipulate God and get Him were we want Him to be. Rather, our prayers must be an expression a submitted faith in Him, and understood as the way He gets us where He wants us to be! Even the Savior Himself set the pattern for us when He prayed to His Father, "... Nevertheless not what I will, but what You will" (Matthew 14:36).
I remember hearing about a zealous man who made this mistake in his prayers. He read in the Bible about how Ezekiel, in 1 Kings 18, challenged the priests of Baal; calling fire down from heaven as a witness to them all. Inspired by that story, this guy took it upon himself to publically and single-handedly challenge the Mormon church. He set a time when he would publically pray and call down the fire of God upon the then brand-new local Mormon temple. The young man failed to notice that Ezekiel did all the things he did at God's command (1 King 18:36); and so, of course, God felt no obligation to send down the fires of heaven as a result of his presumptuous prayer. He only succeeded in making a fool of himself.
The prayer of faith must be made in complete submission and obedience to God's will. As the apostle John wrote,
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him (1 John 5:14-15).
God will not perform silly stunts at our command, for our amusement and personal advancement. He will only act in consistency with His own expressed will and sovereign purpose. It seems to me that the mighty answers to prayer we read about in the Bible, and that we see in our own experience, are always prayers that are prayed in accordance to God's clearly expressed will.
This means, then, that if we want to see our prayers answered, we'd better study the Bible, learn to listen to the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit, and cultivate the discipline of submitting to God's will. If God were to clearly command you to tell a mountain, "Be removed and be cast into the sea", then you can confidently speak, duck, and get ready for the splash! It will then be an act of "faith in God"; and it will happen because He Himself commands it and does it. Jesus says, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you" (John 15:7).
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Faith in the almighty God, then, is the dynamic behind the powerful potential of prayer. And if those prayers meet the required condition, and are prayed in faith in God, please notice, next, ...
2. THE EXTENT OF PRAYER'S POTENTIAL POWER (v. 23).
First, notice that the unlimited potential of prayer is extended to any person who has submitted faith in God's almighty power. Jesus says, "whoever". The power of prayer doesn't depend the least bit on the power or resources of the person praying; but only and utterly on the power and resources of the God to whom we pray in holiness. The Bible tells us, "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit" (James 5:16-18).
Second, notice that the unlimited potential of prayer is extended to any circumstance in which we have submitted faith in God's almighty power. There is no circumstance, no trial, no situation in which prayer isn't the most effective resource we could draw upon. Jesus says this is true "whatever" we ask, even to the extent of commanding a mountain to be raised up and cast into the sea. God Himself says, "Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is there anything too hard for Me?" (Jeremiah 32:27). Certainly nothing we could ever encounter would be too hard for Him.
And finally, notice that the unlimited potential of prayer is extended to the full accomplishment of any outcome we could ask. Jesus says of the one who prays in submitted faith in God's power that "he will have whatever he says" (v. 23); and promises of whatever things you ask on those terms that "you will have them" (v. 24). No blessing will be denied to someone who has such submitted faith in God. "If God is for us," Paul asks, "who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:31-32).
Look, then, at what Jesus is telling us in this passage! The extent of prayer's potential power is as unlimited as God Himself! This means that we can, and should, be bold in our prayers and ask big things of such a big God in any situation we could encounter; because such prayers reveal that we believe Him to be who He says He is!
Do you suppose we grieve our Lord and Master far more than we realize, because we hesitate to ask in proportion to the invitation He gives us in this passage?
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Now all this being true, why then do we not see great things happen in our lives and in the life of our church? It's certainly not that prayer has any limits on God's end. The limitations are only on our end. This leads us, finally, to consider ...
3. THE HINDRANCES TO PRAYER'S POTENTIAL POWER (vv. 24-25).
What hinders prayers potential power? It may seem like a pretty obvious thing, but I would suggest that the first great hindrance is that we simply don't ask. Jesus says, "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them;" and this, of course, assumes that we pray.
If we took the potential power of prayer seriously, and honestly believed that Jesus meant what He said, then we'd pray absolutely everything in our lives. Our prayer meetings would be packed out. But the fact that we pray so rarely, or that we only pray as a last resort, betrays the fact that we don't believe it will work. And so, we don't bother to pray.
And yet, as Jesus Himself has taught us,
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matthew 7:7-11).
Someone might be hesitant to ask things of God out of fear that they might ask for the wrong thing; or because we might think our needs are too insignificant for God's attention. But we should never let such concerns keep us from asking. God is a good Father who delights to meet our needs, and who knows how to give good gifts to His children, even when they ask amiss. If we accidentally ask for a stone, for example, He knows what we really need is bread; or if we accidentally ask for a serpent [perish the thought!], He knows that what we really need is a fish.
Jesus has taught us to go ahead and pray directly and confidently to the Father in His own name; "for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God" (John 16:27). So let's not fail to experience prayers potential in our lives simply because we did not ask.
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Now of course, we can pray, and yet still see the potential power of prayer hindered in our lives. This is because another hindrance occurs when we pray without believing. Again, remember that Jesus says, "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them."
I remember hearing a story about a woman who read this passage and was skeptical that it could really be true. So she looked out the window, saw a mountain off in the distance, and prayed that it would be removed and cast into the sea. When she saw that nothing happened, she grumbled to herself, "See! I knew it wouldn't work." I'm pretty sure God didn't reveal to her that it was His will that the mountain be moved in the first place; but the point is still the same, she prayed but clearly did not believe her prayer would do any good. Why should a God who responds to faith in Him answer such a faithless prayer?
Assuming that a prayer is clearly in accordance with God's revealed will, Jesus says that when someone asks things of God, he or she will have whatever they ask if he or she "believes that those things he says will be done" (v. 23). In fact, He puts the matter in pretty remarkable terms. Some ancient texts have Jesus using the present tense of the verb to indicate a progressive action, "believe that you receive them" (v. 24, as it's translated in the New King James Version); that is, ask as if you are receiving the things you ask for even as you ask. Other ancient texts have Jesus using an aorist tense that expresses a timeless consequence of action, "believe that have received them" (as it's translated in the New American Standard Bible); that is, ask as if, from the perspective of heaven, you have already been granted what you ask. In either case, the key is to pray believing you have what you ask.
Put another way, the presence of a wavering doubt has a neutralizing effect on the potential power of our prayers. The apostle James, when addressing a specific context of prayer, put the matter this way;
But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:6-8).
Let's not let unbelief, then, rob us of the potential power of prayer. Let's not even be afraid to pray, as another man once prayed to Jesus, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).
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Jesus mentions a final hindrance to the power of prayer, we harbor unforgiveness. We find this in verse 25 (and I will also quote verse 26 as it's found in the New King James Version, though the most reliable of the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain it): "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" (Mark 11:25-26).
Sin in general always hinders our prayers. James says, "... You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:2-3). Ungodly motives or unrepentant sin is, without question, one of the greatest reasons most prayers that are prayed around the world go unanswered. But Jesus seems to point specifically to the sin of unforgiveness. Why is this?
I suspect that it's because "unforgiveness" presents a particular hindrance to the devoted Christian. It's the Christian man or woman who genuinely seeks to live a life of holiness, that would be the most likely to harbor resentment toward someone who failed to live up to this standard.
In giving us His wonderful pattern of prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). And I suspect He knew it was that one statement, above all the others, that would most raise a question in our minds, because it's the only one that He added a supplementary comment on: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (vv. 14-15; see also Matthew 18:35). Elsewhere, He taught,
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
We must be discerning about this. I don't believe this means that we must tolerate sin before our prayers can be answered. The model for our forgiveness toward one another is that of the Lord Jesus toward us. We are to be "bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do" (Col. 3:13). We forgive "even as Christ forgave ..." And the way that Christ forgives sin is when sin is confessed and repented of. We must not "forgive" sin which, in heard-heartedness and rebelliousness toward God, remains unrepented of; because plainly, Jesus does not forgive such sin. But if someone truly confesses their sin, and truly seeks to repent of it and be restored to us, then Jesus' forgiveness toward us obligates us to fully and whole-heartedly forgive them as well. We have no right to remain unforgiving toward those Jesus forgives. If we will not forgive them, then we are not forgiven either; and such sin in us causes God to refuse to answer our prayers.
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In these words of Jesus, then, we see the dynamic of prayerıs potential power, it's unlimited extent, and the things we need to do to keep it's potential from being hindered in our lives. There truly is no greater resource available to a human being on earth than prayer. And I'm proposing that we take full advantage of the resource Jesus is holding out to us in the coming year.
I suggest then that, as a church, we commit ourselves to asking big things of God in the coming year. I suggest that we pray together much, and pray together for much. I'm suggesting that, in our church and in our personal experiences, we allow God to remove from us the things that hinder the full potential of our prayers. I suggest we ask God to reveal to us the things in our lives and in our church that He wants done, the biggest mountains to cast away, the things that are so big only God could do them; and with faith in God, ask God for it. And may we do so for His glory.
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