“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. 22 "And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive."
This is obviously a very famous passage, used infamously by prosperity preachers, and the “name it and claim it” folks. In fact, do a quick internet search with this verse, and include the names of Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Leroy Thompson, Creflo Dollar, etc., and you’ll quickly discover what is often meant by “word of faith” theology.
This passage (esp. v.22), along with Mk. 11:23, and Jn. 14:13 are the “go to” passages for them.
Unfortunately, they destroy the verse by ripping it from its context; and use it in a very destructive way—and by that, I mean destruction of souls.
They perpetuate a false Gospel.
They twist Scriptures to the eternal destruction of many people. Ironically, they actually use this verse to perpetuate a false teaching that teaches the very opposite point of what the passage actually means.
So what does Matthew 21:21-22 mean?
First of all, this verse is tightly connected to that famous scene in which Jesus curses the fig tree. And so in order to rightly understand what the verse means, you have to understand first of all why Jesus curses the fig tree.
Second, in order to understand what Jesus is doing in cursing the fig tree, you also have to understand that the cursing of the fig tree is tightly connected to Jesus’ actions of cleansing the Temple.
It’s actually a very symbolic event, where Jesus is using the fig tree to demonstrate what He was about to do with the whole Judaic/Pharisaic religious system.
At this point, the whole system of religious Judaism is so corrupt, that Jesus is not at all interested in trying to reform it from within, but rather, He’s come to destroy the entire establishment.
In fact, this is why He was continually attacking the religious system, as well as, the leaders of that system.
The Scribes were the interpreters of the system, the Pharisees were the purveyors of the system. Jesus shows almost no grace to them, and makes them a consistent target, in which He intentionally confronts them, and agitates them, and traps them in their own words many times.
He has come to topple down the entire religion and bring down the whole system, starting with the leaders.
In light of that, here, in Matthew, He cleans out the temple, but then immediately curses the fig tree.
Again, this cursing was symbolic. A fig tree blossoms its flowers after it gives forth its fruit. Here, the tree had blossomed its flowers, but it didn’t yield any fruit.
It was a good parable for Jesus to symbolically demonstrate how the corrupt system of Judaism was a fruitless system. It was now apostate.
Just as this tree didn’t bear fruit and was cursed, Jesus was demonstrating that the fruitless religion of the Pharisees was about to be destroyed because it too no longer bore fruit.
In fact, in Mark’s account, he does something called an “intercalation.” He structures his record of this event in a very brilliant way.
So, he writes of Jesus cursing the fig tree, but then records Jesus immediately going to cleanse out the temple. He makes His whip. He calls them thieves. He overturns tables, etc. He’s making a very public scene to declare the evils of the nation at this point.
Then, after He cleanses out the temple, Mark then records Jesus revisiting the tree with His disciples, and they point out how the tree had become withered.
The structure of Mark’s writing is basically a sandwich (or an intercalation). You see the two encounters with the fig tree-- the first is the cursing, the second is showing how it withered. Then sandwiched in between is the cleansing of the Temple.
The point to understand, is that the fig tree episode is simply demonstrating Jesus’ perspective toward the corrupt religion of Judaism. It was now dead. It was fruitless and apostate. And so, the point of the fig tree is to say that He has officially pronounced His curse.
So in light of that, how do we understand v. 22?
Well Jesus curses the tree, but then we see His disciples marveling at His power to do this. It’s in response to their amazement, Jesus, then, utters these words:
Matt. 21:21-22 “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. 22 "And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive."
So, now, that we understand the context, we can better understand what Jesus means.
Essentially, this has everything to do with the disciples of Jesus carrying on the work of Jesus’ ministry.
So Jesus came to destroy the old system, but He was also building something new it it’s place, namely, the Church.
Not only were the disciples going to continue to confront the apostate system of Judaism long after Jesus ascended, but they would also be in the business of building the church—the new people of God.
In light of that, we can certainly conclude that this has nothing to do with health, wealth, and prosperity; nor does it have anything to do with seeing your own personal dreams for life, (or even for ministry) come true.
Rather, it’s all about faithfulness to building Christ’s true kingdom-- the Church.
In fact, you’ll hear stories perhaps of pastors praying over a piece of land to build a building, praying over a city to see revival, praying over this and that and trusting that God will bless it, but all they’re praying for is their own personal dreams to come true.
Now, it’s not like their prayers are necessarily wicked. This is not an incantation (or sure-fire technique) for God to answer something He hasn’t actually promised.
A big mistake that even non-health, wealth, and prosperity people will make with this verse, is assume that just because they have a desire, that it is somehow God’s desire as well. They think that if they pray enough, or have enough faith in that prayer, that God will bless their desire.
But this is not about praying harder.
It’s not about believing that God will fill your personal dreams and desires, or even a great vision for what you might do for the kingdom.
Rather, this is about understanding the true will of God, and then praying in accord to what He has already revealed.
How do you do that-- how do you understand His will?
Well the way you understand that is by understanding what He has already revealed in the Bible.
So the more mature and grounded that you are in the Scriptures, then the more you will understand His will is for His church.
Furthermore, as you begin to grow in Christ, then your desires will begin to line up (and begin to conform to) His revealed will in the Word.
If you don’t rightly understand the Word, you won’t rightly understand the will of God. And if you don’t rightly understand the will of God, then your prayers won’t be in line with what He has promised to answer.
In other words, the way to apply the principle of this verse to your life is very simple: It is learning to pray biblical prayers.
The Word of God is God’s Word, and so He can’t deny it. He is always faithful to His own Word, and will always bring about the promises of His Word.
So, if you simply pray the Word of God back to God, then you know that your prayer will always be answered.