A Better Interpretation of Matthew 21:18-22
July 12, 2021 · C.E. Carter
And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:21-22)
I have often interpreted this verse to be an exposition of the power of faith, an interpretation which is better summarized in the Evangelical trope that “faith can move mountains”. I don’t think that’s right anymore.
The hermeneutical principle of “letting scripture interpret scripture” means that we should always approach interpreting a passage with great care to insure that our own presuppositions about the meaning of words and phrases doesn’t cloud the true meaning of the text. I have previously written this about Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, “you will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”, a verse which is often interpreted to mean the second coming of Christ, but which is actually a quotation from the book of Daniel referring to the ascension of Christ. The wrong interpretation stems from Dispensationalism, a system which promotes an interpretation that appears to be the plain and literal meaning of the passage which has been embedded into other aspects of Christian culture and language. American Evangelicals have sang and preached about our Lord’s “coming on the clouds” in this way for so long that we automatically associate it with the second coming, even though that is the furthest thing from its meaning according to Jesus and Daniel.
So too it is with this verse, a proof text for the phrase “faith can move mountains”. I always wondered why I would ever need to move a mountain as a Christian, much less why I would need to throw it into the sea. If you don’t believe that Jesus is talking about literal mountains, and that He is just being hyperbolic here, then you’ll likely take the view that the mountain he is referring to represents a trial or an adversity in life. That’s the usual Evangelical interpretation.
The issue with that is the use of a definite article when referring to what kinds of mountains can be moved in this way: this mountain in particular, not a mountain in general. Context is key to determine what “this mountain” is. The day before he said this, Christ had ridden into Jerusalem on His “triumphal entry”, announcing Himself to be the King of Jerusalem (Matthew 21:5), driving the moneychangers out of the temple and healing the blind and the lame. He spent the night in Bethany, and in the morning He was returning to Jerusalem again. Matthew records,
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!”” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21:18-19)
It is after this that the disciples inquire about the tree, and Jesus answers them,
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:20-22)
The mountain that Jesus is referring to is the mountain where he was when he said this: Jerusalem, built upon Mount Zion. Scripture often uses the language of trees and mountains to describe kingdoms. Two key examples of this come from the book of Daniel. In Daniel 2, Christ’s kingdom is described as a stone which is carved out of the mountain without hands, which smashes the kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, and then establishes itself on the earth in their place, becoming a “great mountain which grew to fill the whole earth”. Daniel 4 describes Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon as a great tree, and the nations of the world like birds that roost in its branches. Jesus borrows Daniel’s imagery to describe His Kingdom this way in Matthew 13; the kingdom of heaven will be like the kingdom of Babylon, but greater.
Here is my interpretation. Jesus comes to the fig tree, which is Jerusalem, and since He finds her not bearing fruit, she withers under His judgement. He uses this as a lesson for the disciples, that their prayers (“your kingdom come, your will be done”) will also be affectual in taking this mountain, Jerusalem, and casting it into the sea. What is the sea? It is all of the uncovenanted peoples, multitudes, and nations of the world; those who are opposed to Christ and His reign.
And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” (Revelation 17:15)
This is why there will be “no longer any sea” in the new heaven and earth. When the renewal of all things is consummate, and Christ has put all enemies under His feet, there will be no more peoples, multitudes, or nations who are opposed to His reign.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)
Jesus assures the disciples that this mountain Jerusalem, for her rejection of Him, would be cast into the sea; given over to the nations of the world for her harlotry. Just like how He pronounced judgement against the fig tree and it withered, so Jesus would go on to pronounce judgement against Jerusalem, enumerating many woes against her (Matthew 23) and describing the means by which both she and her temple would be destroyed within one generation (Matthew 24). And indeed, this is what happened; Jerusalem withered at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD, and the surviving Jews were cast among the nations of the world in a great diaspora that persists to this day, fulfilling every word of Jesus’s prophecy.