The Power of Faith

Dr. Brian Allison

Is the day of miracles over? Is it possible in our day for faith to go to heaven, as it were, and secure the power of God for the performance of the extraordinary? If the Holy Spirit did not stop working after 100 AD, then what is He doing today, and how do we know He is working today? Matthew 21:18-22 reads, "Now in the morning, when He [Jesus] returned to the city, He became hungry. And seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it, and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, 'No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.' And at once the fig tree withered. And seeing this, the disciples marveled, saying, 'How did the fig tree wither at once?' And Jesus answered and said to them, 'Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, "Be taken up and cast into the sea," it shall happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.'"

Jesus had a need

The setting of this extraordinary event is the passion week of Christ, just prior to His crucifixion – "Now in the morning, when He [Jesus] returned to the city [from Bethany], He became hungry" (v. 18). Our Saviour expresses a very legitimate need, as one who was fully human. Maybe our Lord had missed breakfast. Accordingly, on His way to Jerusalem, He became hungry; and a fig tree appeared inviting. We read, "And seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it" (v. 19a). It would seem that our Lord had the expectation of finding figs on it, probably early or premature figs, because in Mark's account we read that it was not the time of year for figs (Mk. 11:13b). Apparently, in the Spring early figs quickly sprout, along with the leaves, and then they would immediately die; and in the Fall the mature figs would grow. Participating in this culture, Jesus, of course, knew when figs would sprout; and yet we read that He approached this tree to see if perhaps He would find anything on it" (Mk. 11:13b). Yet, regardless of Jesus' own understanding, He approached this fig tree with a legitimate need "and found nothing on it except leaves only" (21:19b).

The fig tree cursed

In finding the fig tree fruitless, "[Jesus] said to it, 'No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you'" (v. 19c). Now, at first reading, this reaction appears out of character for our Lord. Did Jesus 'lose His cool'? Was He having a temper tantrum? Is this a self-centred reaction because immediate gratification was not experienced? Certainly not. Our Lord did not 'blow a casket'. He was not having a temper tantrum. This behaviour was not a self-centred reaction. Most likely, Jesus would not have cursed the fig tree if the disciples had not been there. As we move through this account, we can safely say that the Lord cursed the fig tree with the disciples in view because He had something to teach them. Jesus, no doubt, was using this occasion to present an object lesson to the disciples from which He would present a teaching principle.

Jesus no sooner uttered the word, "[Cursed be you] no longer shall there ever be any fruit from you," then "at once the fig tree withered" (v. 19c). What would have been your reaction at this sight? Probably the same as that of the disciples – amazement. Jesus was not simply entertaining. He was not giving an ostentatious display of His power in order to elicit plaudits. He was not bent on feeding His own ego. No, our Lord, by nature, was meek and humble; and He had a spiritual goal in view here. This uttered word had a spiritual design. In securing the disciples' undivided attention, Jesus would communicate profound and far-reaching teaching which would significantly inform them in the future as they were to carry on ministry in His absence.

The power of faith

We read, "The disciples marveled, saying, 'How did the fig tree wither at once?'" (v. 20). It defied the laws of physics, it defied the laws of horticulture; things just do not normally happen this way. Christ no sooner spoke the word, and it was done. It baffles human logic. We cannot comprehend it. Science cannot explain it. Having given the object lesson, Jesus proceeded to give the principle. He proceeded to make application. We read in verse 21, "And Jesus answered and said to them, 'Truly [that is a significant term; the Lord, in effect, is saying, 'Pay close attention to this, because what I am saying is the truth'; not that the Lord had to use this kind of language, but He punctuated the point – 'truly', 'most definitely', 'certainly', 'there is no question about it'] I say to you, if you have faith..." Do you see what is implied here? Sometimes we do not often acknowledge this, but Jesus was a man of faith. The miracles performed by Jesus were through the agency of the Spirit. He had the Spirit without measure (Jn. 3:34b). However, He witnessed and experienced the display of the Spirit's power through faith. In the mystery of the incarnation, the Son of God veiled His glory; and the miracles that He performed on the earth were not due to His divine nature, but by faith in the power of God through the presence of the Spirit. Jesus lived by faith, He ministered by faith, and He died in faith. He was a man of faith. Accordingly, when Jesus spoke that word to the fig tree – that word of command was a word of faith. Jesus believed at that very moment in time that what He said would come true because He believed God for it. Hence, He said, in effect, to the disciples, "What I did through faith, you also will be able to do through faith." Someone may respond, "Well, this teaching was just for the apostles; they were to have strong faith." No, we are all to have this faith. All Christians must live by faith. We move from faith to faith (Rm. 1:17); and Jesus is saying, "As I have lived in faith, and walked by faith, and do the works of God by faith, so all believers can do the exact same thing." Now, the ideal situation for the believer is that he or she be strong in faith. Thus, we read, for example, that men like Stephen and Barnabas were full of faith (Acts 6:5; 11:24).

And so our Lord says here in verse 21, "Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt [faith is the absence of doubt], you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree ["You will not only do what I just did"], but even if you say to this mountain [perhaps Mount Olivet], 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' it shall happen." You may say, "Well, how much faith do I need?" Answer: Any amount of real faith. Matthew 17:19,20 reads, "Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, 'Why could we not cast it [demon] out?' [Why couldn't we perform this miracle? Why couldn't we heal him?] And He said to them, '[Your problem is faith] Because of the littleness [absence?] of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.'" Is Jesus a liar? Do you believe what He says here?

This teaching of Jesus is really an indictment against most of us because Jesus said that all that we need is faith the size of a mustard seed and we would be able to do the impossible. Do you see why this is an indictment? We are not accomplishing many impossible things for God; and what is that saying? Let's be honest – we are not walking in faith. We give intellectual assent to the truth. We embrace the doctrines of the evangelical Church, but we are not actually walking in faith. For if we were, then we would be doing exploits for God; we would be doing the miraculous – the impossible – for God. This kind of faith is not necessarily a special charismatic gift. I am talking about the kind of faith which all Christians should be evidencing (even though God is the source of it and we are wholly dependent upon Him).

Praying in faith

Jesus implies the context in which we are to evidence this faith – "And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive" (v. 22). It is while praying that we should express faith. Prayer is the context of expressing the power of faith, as we come in the spirit of humility and dependency. And faith is the condition for answered prayer. There cannot be any doubt. If we ask in faith, Jesus has promised that we shall receive that for which we have asked. Accordingly, if we do not receive, then we can conclude that we do not have real faith. It is interesting how the parallel passage in Mark 11 reads, "And Jesus answered saying to them, 'Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, "Be taken up and cast into the sea," and does not doubt in his heart [because that is where the truth of the matter is revealed], but believes that what he says is going to happen, it shall be granted him. Therefore I say to you [here is the conclusion], all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them [not going to receive them, it is a done deal, it is a past tense in the original Greek], and they shall be granted you. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions'" (vv. 22-24). Faith allows one to receive something before he or she actually possesses it. Are you praying in faith? How many times have we prayed unbelievingly? We do it all the time. If we didn't, then, of course, we would see answers to our prayers. We should also remember that it is also in the context of prayer that faith comes to life.

Faith secures the power of God. God, for instance, actually heals someone, but He is pleased to heal in response to faith, that is, God is pleased to honour the faith, and work in accordance with it. We are dealing with a mystery – we have to believe, but God has to help us to believe; and where those two dynamics actually intersect or converge, only God knows. In this connection, Philippians 2:12, 13 reads, "So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." God has to give faith, but we have the responsibility to express it. We must 'work out' our faith, but God is the One who must 'work in' this faith.

Praying according to God's will

The teaching that we will only receive that for which we pray according to God's will does not negate, nor contradict, the fact that if we pray in faith we shall receive that for which we ask. These two truths go hand in hand. If we pray according to His will, we will, at the same time, have (i.e., be given) the faith in accordance with His willing. So, if you are really praying in faith, you will be praying according to His will, for God would only give the faith (which actually secures the answer) when He has determined to act in a certain way. Often when we tag the statement, 'if it be Your will', on the end of our prayers, we are trying to cover ourselves so that we do not experience a crisis of faith. Such language really is often an expression of unbelief. We use such language because we fear praying presumptuously. But God wants us to approach Him boldly.

Here is the problem: We say, "Well, aren't we to pray according to His will?" Often we make that emphasis the priority – "I wonder what God's will is because I really want to pray according to His will." That should not be the priority – trying to figure out what God's will is. The priority should be seeking Him in prayer with faith; and in that seeking in prayer, He will reveal His will by strengthening and directing our faith. If we really have faith for something (and real faith always receives the answer) then that for which we ask must then be His will, for only God's will is accomplished. We should not sit back and first try to figure out God's will. Whether God answers the prayer or not is His prerogative; but we should stop trying to see things from God's perspective and to figure out what He is going to do before we pray. If you are genuinely seeking God, He will reveal Himself.

Asking God for faith

Now, what happens if we find ourselves in a state of unbelief (which is where most of us live)? What recourse do we have? We need to come to God in prayer and ask Him for faith. We are to seek God, saying, "Lord, if this is what Your Word teaches about faith, then give me this kind of faith." God is the dispenser of faith. Romans 12:3 reads, "For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith." So, God is the source of faith. He apportions the faith. He dispenses it according to His good pleasure. It may be (for reasons known only to Himself) that God is pleased only to give us a little faith. That is His prerogative.

Do not draw the conclusion that, "Well, I cannot accomplish much, for God has apportioned only a little faith." Remember, He is a giving God and you have to come seeking, and knocking, and asking; and He may be pleased to give you more faith. We do not have, because we do not ask (Jas. 4:2b). Luke 11:9,10 reads, "And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it shall be opened." What a glorious promise, what an assurance, what a confidence! In verse 11-13 of Luke 11, Jesus gives a homely illustration to buttress our confidence and to spur us on in order that we may lay hold on that for which Christ has laid hold on us – "Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?" It is by the Spirit that we receive the gift of faith, for it is by the Spirit that we have any, and every, expression of the grace of God. And so we are to come to prayer, wholly dependent upon God; and we need to say, "Heavenly Father, give me this faith. I believe You want to give it to me. I believe you are willing to give it to me. I certainly believe that You are able to give it to me. At present, I do not have strong faith, for instance, to pray in such a way that someone will be healed of cancer, but I know that you are able to do it, and willing to do it. Give to my heart, heavenly Father, that which You offer, and then let me see Your power in response to that faith." Are you asking for faith?

Of course, God may not give the faith desired (for reasons known only to Himself). Accordingly, if we are praying for a miracle, if we are praying for someone to be healed, and it does not happen, we should not feel guilty. If we seek God for faith – faith to secure His power – and God does not vouchsafe it, then we should not feel defeated. He determines what measure of faith we will or will not have; and our responsibility is to seek Him for it, but there is no guarantee that He will give it. Notwithstanding, we may arrive at the point in our growing fellowship with God that, like Jesus, we receive all for which we ask. That is perfect faith; and the deeper the fellowship with God, the stronger will be the faith. Fellowship and faith grow proportionately. When we are in perfect tune with His will, we will know how to pray much more effectively.

You can have the faith that moves mountains. You can have the faith to call down the power of God, even to change the spiritual state of a soul. Real faith secures the power of God. We are not setting our sights high enough. We have become content with mediocrity; but I would spur you on to something greater. God wants His people to move mountains through faith because in doing that, He is glorified. When was the last time you moved a mountain – the mountain of cancer, the mountain of one entrenched in sin, the mountain of unbelief, the mountain of someone who just has a very stubborn will, and will not change, etc.? God wants us to be mountain-moving people. Anything short of this, and we are missing out on God's best. Most Christians have become used to, and content with, less than God's best. What do you want God to do? How is your faith?