And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.[Matthew 21:22]
Believing faith is pretty much a universal teaching among Christian churches. But the idea of faith that is taught in a lot of churches is acceptance of Christ. It is believing that Jesus came, died, and rose again. It is believing that he has the power to give us our salvation.
It needs to be noted that when we talk about believing and faith that the Greek word “pistis” can be translated either believing or faith. A way to look at it is as faith being the noun representing the amount of believing whereas “believe” is the verb which shows this power in action.
In many evangelical churches, pastors teach that miracles happen today, and that the greatest miracle is the new birth that happens when a person accepts Christ, and becomes a new creature in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. That truly is an awesome and wonderful manifestation of power of God.
But when it comes to miraculous believing in other areas, many churches fallback on a less positive stance. Some churches take the route of cessation doctrine which says that the miracles in the Bible were limited to the times of the Bible, and were just there to reinforce how great that particular time was. Other churches de-emphasize miraculous works in the physical world by emphasizing that wondrous miracle of the new birth as mentioned above. They will completely change the subject if you talk about the kind of miracle like a miraculous healing or even where a mountain is cast into the sea, perhaps even calling them insignificant compared to the miracle of the new birth. From there they will just keep the subject changed to the new birth, thereby totally eliminating in any discussion of miraculous believing in the physical realm.
In fact, as is noted in the article on the Word of Faith movement, many Christians are skeptical of claims of miraculous believing, decrying the Word of Faith movement as heretical. Implicit in this is then that physical miracles like miraculous healings or even mountains being cast into the sea are not normative nor are they part of Orthodox Christian teaching. I am by no means arguing that all the elements of the Word of Faith movement are valid. But it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This article focuses just on that element of believing faith allows for things like miraculous healings, mountains being cast into the sea, and walking on water. Other word of faith issues like wealth and health for everyone at all times are out of the scope of this article.
Now, before we get much further, it must be said that there are other verses in Scripture that show the limits of believing. There is a previous article that talks about how Jesus was limited from doing great things because of the believing of the community, and his family. Then there is an often quoted verse in the book of James (James 4:3) that says that people’s prayers are not answered because they ask amiss. An example of that would be an immature believer seeing that he can ask and believe to receive so he asks for a very expensive car. The problem is that he is immature and the car would be more of an obstacle than a help because he would be more focused on the riches of this world then the riches of the spiritual world if he were to get this rich thing
Finally, there is another principle involved that talks about the limits of believing. Paul, the apostle, was a powerful believer who manifested the power of God, and performed miracles:
And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: insomuch that unto the sick were carried away from his body handkerchiefs or aprons, and the evil spirits went out.(Acts 19:11-12)
We have this testimony from the book of Acts about the powerful believing that Paul manifested. So we would expect that when Paul prayed, what he believed for he would receive. However we see from Paul’s own writings that was not always the case:
Indeed, it is not profitable for me to boast. For I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ fourteen years before (whether in the body, I do not know; or outside of the body, I do not know; God knows)such a one was caught up to the third Heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or outside of the body, I do not know; God knows), that he was caught up into Paradise and heard unspeakable words, which it is not allowed for a man to utter. I will glory of such a one, yet I will not boast on my behalf, except in my weaknesses. For if I desire to boast, I shall not be foolish. For I will speak the truth. But I spare, lest anyone should think of me as being beyond what he sees me, or hears of me; and by the surpassing revelations, lest I be made haughty, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be made haughty. For this thing I besought the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. And He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may overshadow me.Therefore I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am powerful.[2 Corinthians 12:1-10]
This is just an amazing piece of writing. Paul starts off by writing about how he received visions and revelations. After all, Paul’s life is an example of miraculous ministry. He was personally witnessed to by Jesus, who talked to him through a beam of light on the road to Damascus. Then, having to completely reverse his life from being the worst kind of persecutor of Christians to being a leader for Christ, he received amazing visions and revelations. But as these verses tell us, in the midst of this, it says he was given “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan” to buffet or strike against him.
Notice that the verses say there was a reason why this thorn in the flesh was given; it was so that Paul would not get proud or haughty. So we see that there was absolutely a godly purpose in this event, even though it was vexing to Paul.
So, what did Paul do? He prayed that this thorn in the flesh would be removed.
Now, as we have said, Paul’s life is an example of believing faith, and we would expect that what he prayed for, believing, he would receive. So, did the Lord remove the thorn in the flesh? No, he did not.
These verses illustrate the sovereignty of God in matters of faith. It is very easy to think that it would certainly be God’s will to have an obstacle removed, to have some messenger of Satan taken out of the way of our lives. But these verses clearly say that it was not. Furthermore, they say that there was a purpose why this was set up. They say that, as we have seen, this was set up so that Paul would not get overly proud, and furthermore, so that the power of God in Paul’s life could be perfected further. The answer to Paul’s prayer was,”no”. It is also remarkable that an explanation was given. So while Paul did not get the answer to his prayer that he wanted, he did get an answer, and he was humble enough to heed the answer and learn by the experience.
This demonstrates that the verse above, “and whatsoever he shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive” is not always that simple. It demonstrates that God’s sovereign will, which is so often beyond our human understanding, is at all times the overriding factor.
Now having said all of the above about what the different church churches teach about believing, and about all the limits of believing that we find in the Bible, we still must acknowledge that one thing that Jesus taught emphatically was believing, and not just the kind of believing where you accept that bumblebees fly because you have seen that phenomena. Jesus taught miraculous believing. There is an incredible story in the gospel of Matthew (there is also a record of it in the Gospel of Mark). Jesus sets the stage with an incredible demonstration of believing faith:
Now in the morning as he returned to the city, he hungered. And seeing a fig tree by the way side, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only; and he saith unto it, Let there be no fruit from thee henceforward forever. And immediately the fig tree withered away. [Matthew 21:18-19]
Jesus is demonstrating the power of believing. Jesus’ actions are quick and confident. He simply says to the tree that there’ll be no fruit on it ever again. The tree died right then and there.
And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How did the fig tree immediately wither away? [Matthew 21:20-22]
Notice of the disciples marveled that the tree died immediately. It wasn’t just that the tree died, but how fast it withered up.
And Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do what is done to the fig tree, but even if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou taken up and cast into the sea, it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer,believing, ye shall receive.[Matthew 21:21-22]
When the disciples asked about how fast the tree withered up, Jesus responded with teaching about miraculous power, and not just the power to get other people born again, but the power to physically change the world.
There is another element to the story. This is near the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and Jesus knew it. He’d been moving and teaching in different places for a while, and in a way this was the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on believing. After all that Jesus had done with them, he taught them one more time about believing. There is a tree that is not producing fruit. He told the tree that the tree is done with. The tree shriveled up immediately. Anyone that knows how trees die knows that it takes a while for that to happen normally. This was clearly Jesus demonstrating the power of believing.
So, even having stated above that there are limits, it is denying the words of Christ to say that Jesus didn’t teach about the power to perform miracles. In fact, Jesus set the bar high. No matter what you may think of the modern day Word of Faith preachers, there is no doubt that Jesus promoted being a miraculous believer, one who believes and demonstrates the power in miraculous ways. Jesus laid out the conditions for the miraculous in these verses. So, sure we can talk about things of that will work against believing like the community believing against you, or asking amiss. But there is no disputing that Jesus promoted miraculous believing.
Jesus’ teaching on miraculous believing is scattered throughout the Gospels. Look at the record of Jesus walking on water. This miracle happened much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Let’s set the stage by talking about what the disciples were doing:
And straightway he constrained the disciples to enter into the boat, and to go before him unto the other side, till he should send the multitudes away. [Matt 14:22]
Now let’s talk about what Jesus was doing:
And after he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into the mountain apart to pray: and when even was come, he was there alone.[Matt 14:23]
Now that the stage is set let’s look at what happens next:
But the boat was now in the midst of the sea, distressed by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night he came unto them, walking upon the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a ghost; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.(Matthew 14:24-27)
So we have the scenario in front of us. Jesus sends his disciples to go across a lake while he goes to pray. Jesus prays for a while, and then goes to meet up with his disciples. The disciples on the other hand, are not having such an easy time. They’re still in the middle of the lake, fighting choppy waters and contrary winds. Jesus demonstrates the power to overcome the physical world by not only being not buffeted by the waves, but by walking on them. Jesus’ message is simple, don’t be afraid, be cheerful.
This is utterly amazing to the disciples, because when they first saw him, they thought he was a ghost. Peter is the one who responds:
And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the waters. And he said, Come. And Peter went down from the boat, and walked upon the waters to come to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and took hold of him, and saith unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were gone up into the boat, the wind ceased. And they that were in the boat worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.(Matthew 14:28-33)
When I think of this gospel story, I don’t think that I am as amazed that Jesus walked on the water as I am that Peter did. After all Jesus is God’s only begotten son. But Peter had more human frailties that I can relate to. Jesus responds to Peter by telling him he can come out onto the waves with him. Impetuous Peter jumps out of the boat and starts to walk on the water towards Jesus. But then, all of a sudden, he realizes the impossibility of what he’s doing, with the wind whipping around him, and starts to lose it, sinking in the water and crying to the Lord for help. Jesus quickly grabs him and helps him, and together they walk on the water back into the boat. Again, I say, together they walked on the water. Absolutely amazing!
This record is also one of those records where people are rebuked for their lack of believing. “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” Jesus didn’t say, “that’s okay.” He didn’t say, “Don’t worry about it. It happens to everyone.” He told Peter he had too little faith, and asked him why he doubted! Now before we go overboard here, it must be noted that he also didn’t call him “stupid”, or a “jerk”. He just chided him because he was weak in believing.
When they got back into the boat, the wind stopped. What I first think, when I read that the wind stopped, is that God could have stopped the wind at any time. This story illustrates to me how God chooses not to do away with the obstacle, but to empower people to overcome the obstacle. In this world in walking with God we are often faced with physical challenges; floods, hurricanes, storms, winds, hills, illnesses, broken bones, engines that fail, tires that fail, planes that are late. This teaching is clearly a teaching that the believer overcomes these obstacles with believing. That’s what believers do!
Jesus is teaching in these examples that great believing is the norm for believers, and anything less is weak.
We see in the record above that Peter was chided because he doubted. This is a theme in the Gospels. Look at this record in the Gospel of Mark:
And on that day, when even was come, he saith unto them, Let us go over unto the other side. And leaving the multitude, they take him with them, even as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him. And there ariseth a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling. And he himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion: and they awake him, and say unto him, Teacher, carest thou not that we perish? And he awoke,and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye fearful? Have ye not yet faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another,Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?(Mark 4:35-41)
Here again we have another example where Jesus demonstrates believing. Jesus and the disciples are out on a boat. A storm arises, the boat lurches one way then another. The water splashing into the boat is threatening to sink it. The disciples cry out in fear. Jesus’ response is quick and powerful. He tells the wind to stop and the sea to calm down. They do. The verse says “there was a great calm”.
Then Jesus says to the fearful disciples, “why are you afraid? Don’t you have believing faith yet?”. Here Jesus is rebuking the disciples because they do not yet have that strength of believing that he is leading them with and showing them. But the last verse says that they still didn’t get it, and the response was “who is this guy that commands the wind and the sea?”.
Jesus Rebukes All That Lack Believing Faith: Faithless Generations
And Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? bring him hither to me.(Matthew 17:17)
It’s easy to get into the mindset that miracles are just for apostles, or people in the Bible like Moses and Elijah. In the records above it was Jesus’ trainees that were rebuked. So it’s easy to see why some people think only Jesus’ special trainees get that kind of power. But Jesus didn’t just rebuke his disciples. Jesus rebuked all unbelief by anyone. In the verse above Jesus rebukes “the generation”. We all know what a generation is. For example, my generation is called the baby boomer generation, and it refers to all those people born in the years following World War II for about 20 years. Generations refer to all those people born within a certain period of time. When Jesus is rebuking people above for their lack of faith, he’s not just rebuking the leaders, the trainees, the disciples; he is rebuking everyone that lacks faith. Let’s look at the record that’s the context for the above verse:
And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a man, kneeling to him, saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is epileptic, and suffereth grievously; for oft-times he falleth into the fire, and off-times into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. And Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked him; and the demon went out of him: and the boy was cured from that hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast it out? And he saith unto them, Because of your little faith: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:14-20)
Here we have in this quote another reference to mountain moving. Mountain moving is Jesus’ example for great faith. In this section a man comes to Jesus on behalf of his epileptic son. The man reports to Jesus that his disciples could not help his son. Jesus’ response shows that he was frustrated when he saw unbelief. In this case, he lamented how the generation of people that he was ministering to lacked faith. Jesus then healed the boy. The disciples came and asked why they couldn’t help the boy. Jesus’ response was another rebuke to their weak faith. When he says that “if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say unto this mountain, be removed to yonder place, and it shall be removed, and nothing shall be impossible you”, he is telling them that they don’t even have the faith of a grain of mustard seed yet.
In other places Jesus talks about how faith can grow, and start like the size of the tiny mustard seed and grow into a huge plant. In this example, Jesus is telling them that they haven’t got that much faith yet. But it is also a message of hope, because all it takes is a grain of mustard seed size faith to grow to the point of huge works of faith.
And when he was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth in the house sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And he saith unto him, I will come and heal him. And the centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. And when Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven: but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast forth into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And the servant was healed in that hour. (Matthew 8:5-13)
These verses are both praise for those who do believe and an indictment against those who don’t. The centurion is like a modern-day Captain. He commands a group of 100 soldiers. As a commander he understands authority. He understands that if the commander-in-chief gives someone authority to do something than they can do it. He understood that Jesus had the power and authority to heal. Jesus marvels that this man understands this better than the Israelites to whom he is called because he tells Jesus, “no, you don’t have to come, I am not worthy that you should come to me. But I know that if you just say the word it will be done.” (Paraphrased) Jesus is just ecstatic to find believing faith like this. So he praises the man for his great faith at the same time lamenting that there will be many Israelite leaders who will not be rewarded because they lacked faith.
I’ve asked friends, neighbors, and other believers in various churches that I have attended over the years about their take on the topic of Jesus’ miracles, and the believing that it takes to have that in your life. Some people have said that they believe that the power is available, they just don’t know how to tap into it. Others have taken the position that that kind of power is available only to special men and women, like Jesus and the apostles in the first century, or a scattered few great believers over the centuries since. A small number point to the ministries of modern day evangelists and healers, and say that not only is the power available but there are people in our day and time that are taking advantage of it. A few relate stories of great power that they have seen at one time or another in their lives.
In my own humble opinion I would have to say that the overriding position of the church and church members to the miraculous power that we are talking about in this article is one of skepticism. Skepticism is another word for unbelief. Just like there are various stages of believing faith, small faith like a mustard seed, great faith that can move mountains, and so forth, there are stages of unbelief. There is outright rejection, portraying the stories as myths told by well-meaning but ignorant men millennia ago. Another kind of unbelief is just a “I really just don’t know about that” kind of unsureness. My own opinion is that a great number in the church have the “I just don’t know about that” kind of unbelief.
There are numerous reasons for this unbelief. As this website points out, the sheer number of possible positions on all the disputed doctrines makes it hard to lock onto this or that Bible teaching and unabashedly stand behind it. There is a parade of stories in the media and in the rumor mill about ministries that are fake. Network news shows will from time to time put on pieces about fake faith healers who scam followers out of their hard-earned monies. There are stories of people being arrested for not getting medical treatment when their children are sick and some have died because they were “relying on faith” (A practice I don’t espouse, just like we use a car or a horse instead of believing to be miraculously transported we should use whatever earthly tools we can before seeking some miraculous manifestation of power. Remember the example of Paul’s thorn , just because we think it is right doesn’t mean God will say yes. When someone’s life is at stake, it’s foolish to try to be a spiritual hero.)
There are various denominations that teach cessation doctrine that says that miracles ended with the apostles or shortly thereafter. Some of these teachers will teach that since miracles ended thousands of years ago anything that is done now must be from the devil via some false prophet.
Yet the point of this article is that when you look at the words of Jesus, it becomes clear that he is:
- teaching that divine power is available
- rebuking his disciples when they don’t display great believing faith
- rebuking generations for not displaying that great believing faith (we are a generation)
- praising anyone, even people who are not among the chosen people, for their great faith when he sees it
- performing the miraculous in front of people as a demonstration
- leading others, for example, Peter on the water, to manifest that great believing faith
So what are we to do if we are not at the point of this great believing faith? There is a gospel record that addresses this very point:
And one of the multitude answered him, Teacher, I brought unto thee my son, who hath a dumb spirit; and wheresoever it taketh him, it dasheth him down: and he foameth, and grindeth his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast it out; and they were not able. And he answereth them and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? bring him unto me. And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him grievously; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. And he asked his father, How long time is it since this hath come unto him? And he said, From a child. And oft-times it hath cast him both into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us. And Jesus said unto him, If thou canst! All things are possible to him that believeth. Straightway the father of the child cried out, and said, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. And when Jesus saw that a multitude came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I command thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And having cried out, and torn him much, he came out: and the boy became as one dead; insomuch that the more part said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and raised him up; and he arose. And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, How is it that we could not cast it out? And he said unto them, This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer.
Here we have the story of a desperate father. His son is having uncontrollable fits of a kind that are seen in movies like The Exorcist. As a father, and as a grandfather, I can’t imagine the torment that this desperate father is going through seeing his beloved child so afflicted. The father takes his afflicted child to the disciples for help, but alas, they can’t help him. The agonized parent lovingly pursues help by going directly to Jesus Christ. Jesus asks the man if he believes. After all, this is the day when Jesus is walking on the earth. There are miracles happening on a regular basis with many witnesses. Belief in miracles is growing. But the man is a brutally honest. He cries out, “I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!”
I think that there are a lot of us who are in the same state as this man was. We live in a community, and environment where not believing, but skepticism rules. It’s an environment where there are 40,000 different Christian theologies which makes things confusing and is an impediment to believing itself. It’s a environment where evolutionary scientists laugh at and mock believers, and where school systems do likewise.
Jesus helped that man. That man’s faith increased to the point where he saw his son delivered. Part of the message in this passage is that Jesus can help our faith to grow to see the miraculous.
There is another message in this passage, if we are to trust the text. That is, when the disciples asked him why they couldn’t help the boy, Jesus responded that this kind of demonic affliction could only come out by prayer.
One of the things that we see in the Bible is that Jesus regularly went alone to pray. And when he was done praying miracles happened. The message there is that believing requires the focus of prayer. When Jesus walked on the water, and led Peter to do the same, it was after a night of prayer.
So, yes, we live in the age of grace where we are not to be condemned. Yes, we have challenges and obstacles in our lives that we have not been able to overcome. We may not have ever seen any or much miraculous power being demonstrated. That doesn’t change what the gospel says here. The Good News is that there is miraculous power available.
Before you can ever do something you have to be able to say, “I can see that.” “I can do that.” If we don’t, we are the ones that are stopping us. Its our unbelief that is in our way. Again, the gospel says that Jesus can help that.
Jesus’ teaching on miracles is both an inspiration and a rebuke to anybody who doesn’t demonstrate the believing that Jesus talks about. It is easy to think that we’re all great believers, because we’ve achieved certain goals in life. Perhaps we’ve done well in business, or in ministry. Perhaps we built businesses or large churches and funded missionaries on the other side of the world. Perhaps we’ve helped the poor, prayed for the sick, and and visited the jailed. Jesus’ disciples did those things, and he still rebuked them when they didn’t believe.
Different churches teach different things about believing. Some teach that miracles were only for the time of Jesus and the apostles. Others teach that miracles and powerful demonstrations of believing are possible, but change the emphasis to the miracle that happens when someone accepts Christ and is born-again. There is an element of believers who take the stance that miracles are only for great leaders: apostles, prophets, disciples taught by Jesus.
This article looked at the limits of believing. Jesus couldn’t do many great things around his countrymen or family because of their unbelief. There are people who don’t receive things because they ask amiss. We looked at the thorn in the flesh of Paul and saw that it is God’s sovereign will that determines the best answer to our prayers.
Jesus teaches that the generation of people he was sent to were lacking in faith. Jesus praised all who believed greatly, and rebuked all that didn’t, not just the disciples, or his apostles. His message of believing faith is to us.
Jesus also taught to give hope. Jesus taught that faith is like a seed of mustard: even a small amount of believing can grow to perform great works of faith. We have the example of the man that was desperate for his son to be helped, and cried out for the Lord to help his unbelief. And we see in that very same record that the Lord helped his belief and the miraculous happened in that man’s life.
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