Ask Your Father in Heaven
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 the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
When you pause to consider that God is infinitely strong and can do all that he pleases, and that he is infinitely righteous so that he only does what is right, and that he is infinitely good so that everything he does is perfectly good, and that he is infinitely wise so that he always knows perfectly what is right and good, and that he is infinitely loving so that in all his strength and righteousness and goodness and wisdom he raises the eternal joy of his loved ones as high as it can be raised — when you pause to consider this, then the lavish invitations of this God to ask him for good things, with the promise that he will give them, is unimaginably wonderful.
The Tragedy of Prayerlessness
Which means that one of the great short-term tragedies in the church is how little inclination we have to pray. The greatest invitation in the world is extended to us, and incomprehensibly we regularly turn away to other things. It’s as though God sent us an invitation to the greatest banquet that ever was and we sent word back, “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it,” or, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I must go to examine them,” or, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come” (Luke 14:18-20).
A New Inclination to Pray
Well, that was then. But my prayer is that God would use this message and this word from Jesus in Matthew 7, and other influences in your life, to awaken a new compelling inclination to pray in 2007. I hope you will ask God to do that as we look at this text.
We will do it in two steps. First, we will look at eight encouragements to pray in Matthew 7:7-11. Second, we will try to answer the question of how we are to understand the promises that we will receive when we ask, and find when we seek, and have the door opened when we knock.
Eight Encouragements from Jesus to Pray
Six of these encouragements are explicit in this text and two are implicit. It seems clear to me that Jesus’ main purpose in these verses is to encourage us and motivate us to pray. He wants us to pray. How does he encourage us?
1. He Invites Us to Pray
Three times he invites us to pray — or, you could say, if you will hear it lovingly, three times he commands us to pray — to ask him for what we need. It’s the number of times that he invites us that gets our attention. Verses 7-8: “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 the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” The repetition is meant to say, “I mean this.” I want you to do this. Ask your Father for what you need. Seek your Father for the help you need. Knock on the door of your Father’s house so he will open and give you what you need. Ask, seek, knock. I invite you three times because I really want you to enjoy your Father’s help.
2. He Makes Promises to Us if We Pray
Even better and more amazing than the three invitations are the seven promises.
Verses 7-8: “Ask, and [#1] it will be given to you; seek, and [#2] you will find; knock, and [#3] it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks [#4] receives, and the one who seeks [#5] finds, and to the one who knocks [#6] it will be opened.” Then at the end of verse 11b (#7): “How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Seven promises. It will be given you. You will find. It will be opened to you. The asker receives. The seeker finds. The knocker gets an open door. Your Father will give you good things. Surely the point of this lavish array of promises is to say to us: Be encouraged to come. Pray to him. It is not in vain that you pray. God is not toying with you. He answers. He gives good things when you pray. Be encouraged. Pray often, pray regularly, pray confidently in 2007.
3. God Makes Himself Available at Different Levels
Jesus encourages us not only by the number of invitations and promises, but by the threefold variety of invitations. In other words, God stands ready to respond positively when you find him at different levels of accessibility.
Ask. Seek. Knock. If a child’s father is present, he asks him for what he needs. If a child’s father is somewhere in the house but not seen, he seeks his father for what he needs. If the child seeks and finds the father behind the closed door of his study, he knocks to get what he needs. The point seems to be that it doesn’t matter whether you find God immediately close at hand, almost touchable with his nearness, or hard to see and even with barriers between, he will hear, and he will give good things to you because you looked to him and not another.
4. Everyone Who Asks Receives
Jesus encourages us to pray by making it explicit that everyone who asks receives, not just some. Verse 8: “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” When he adds the word everyone in verse 8, he wants to overcome our timidity and hesitancy that somehow it will work for others but not for us. Of course, he is talking about the children of God here, not all human beings. If we will not have Jesus as our Savior and God as our Father, then these promises don’t apply to us.
John 1:12 says, “To all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” To become the child of God, we must receive the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who gives us the authority of adoption. That is who these promises are for.
For those who receive Jesus, everyone of them who asks receives good things from his Father. The point is that none of his children is excluded. All are welcome and urged to come. Martin Luther saw the way Jesus is motivating here:
He knows that we are timid and shy, that we feel unworthy and unfit to present our needs to God. . . . We think that God is so great and we are so tiny that we do not dare to pray. . . . That is why Christ wants to lure us away from such timid thoughts, to remove our doubts, and to have us go ahead confidently and boldly.” (The Sermon on the Mount, translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, Vol. 21 of Luther’s Works, [Concordia, 1956], p.234.)
5. We Are Coming to Our Father
We have implied it, now let’s say it explicitly with its own force: When we come to God through Jesus, we are coming to our Father. Verse 11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Father was not a throw away label for Jesus. It is one of the greatest of all truths. God is our Father. The implications is that he will never, never give us what is bad for us. Never. He is our Father.
6. Our Heavenly Father Is Better than Our Earthly Father
Then the Jesus encourages us to pray by showing us that our heavenly Father is better than our earthly father and will far more certainly give good things to us than they did. There is no evil in our heavenly Father like there is in our earthly father.
Verse 11 again: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
I am aware, and Jesus was even more aware, that our earthly fathers are sinful. This is why the Bible repeatedly draws attention not only to the similarity between earthly fathers and the heavenly Father, but also to the differences (e.g. Hebrews 12:9-11; Matthew 5:48).
So Jesus goes beyond the encouragement of merely saying that God is your Father, and says that God is always better than your earthly father, because all earthly fathers are evil and God is not. Jesus is very blunt and unflattering here. This is a clear instance of Jesus’ belief in the universal sinfulness of human beings. He assumes that his disciples are all evil — he doesn’t choose a softer word (like sinful, or weak). He simply says that his disciples are evil (ponēroi.).
Don’t ever limit your understanding of the Fatherhood of God to your experience of your own father. Rather, take heart that God has none of the sins or limitations or weaknesses or hang-ups of your father.
And the point Jesus makes is: Even fallen, sinful fathers usually have enough common grace to give good things to their children. There are terribly abusive fathers. But in most places in the world, fathers are jealous for the good of their children, even when they are unclear about what is good for them. But God is always better. In him there is no evil. Therefore, the argument is strong: If your earthly father gave you good things (or even if he didn’t!), how much more will your heavenly Father give good things — always good things to those who ask.
And there is something implicit here that underlines encouragement #4 above — the word everyone — “Everyone who asks receives.” If Jesus says to his disciples, “You are evil,” then the only people that can come to God in prayer are evil children of God. You are children of God. And you are evil. In other words, even after you are adopted by God into his family, sin remains in you. But Jesus says, everyone will receive — everyone of God’s evil children! We will see why in a moment.
7. We Can Trust God’s Goodness Because He Has Already Made Us His Children
Here is another implicit encouragement to pray: God will give us good things as his children because he has already given us the gift to become his children.
This insight came from St. Augustine: “For what would he not now give to sons when they ask, when he has already granted this very thing, namely, that they might be sons?” We have already seen that being a son of God is a gift we receive when we come to Jesus (John 1:12). Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 8:42, “If God were your Father, you would love me.” But God is not their Father. They reject Jesus. So, not all are the sons of God. But if God has freely made us sons, how much more will he give us what we need?
8. The Cross Is the Foundation of Prayer
Finally, implicit in these words is the cross of Christ as the foundation for all the answers to our prayer. The reason I say this is because he calls us evil and yet he says we are children of God. How can it be that evil people are adopted by an all holy God? How can we presume to be children, let alone ask and expect to receive, and seek and expect to find, and knock and expect to have the door opened?
Jesus gave the answer several times. In Matthew 20:28, he said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He gave his life to ransom us from the wrath of God and put us in the position of children who only receive good things. And in Matthew 26:28, he said at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Because of Christ’s blood, our sins are forgiven when we trust in him. This is why even though Jesus calls us evil, we can be the children of God and count on him to give us good things when we ask him.
The death of Jesus is the foundation for all the promises of God and all the answers to prayer that we ever get. This is why we say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of our prayers. Everything depends on him.
The summary so far is that Jesus really means to encourage us to pray. Why else talk like this about prayer if his goal for us in 2007 is not that we pray. So he gives us encouragement upon encouragement, at least eight of them.
One Final Question
One final question: How shall we understand these six promises in verses 7 and 8: “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 the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened”?
Does this mean that everything a child of God asks for he gets?
I think the context here is sufficient to answer this question. No, we do not get everything we ask for and we should not and we would not want to. The reason I say we should not is because we would in effect become God if God did everything we asked him to do. We should not be God. God should be God. And the reason I say that we would not want to get everything we asked is because we would then have to bear the burden of infinite wisdom which we do not have. We simply don’t know enough to infallibly decide how every decision will turn out and what the next events in our lives, let alone in history, should be.
But the reason I say that we do not get all we ask is because the text implies this. Jesus says in verses 9-10 that a good father will not give his child a stone if he asks for bread, and will not give him a serpent if he asks for a fish. This illustration prompts us to ask, “What if the child asks for a serpent?” Does the text answer whether the Father in heaven will give it? Yes, it does. In verse 11, Jesus draws out this truth from the illustrations: Therefore, how much more will your Father give good things to those who ask him.
He Gives Only Good Things
He gives good things. Only good things. He does not give serpents to children. Therefore, the text itself points away from the conclusion that Ask and you will receive means Ask and you will receive the very thing you ask for when you ask for it in the way you ask for it. It doesn’t say that. And it doesn’t mean that.
If we take the passage as a whole, it says that when we ask and seek and knock — when we pray as needy children looking away from our own resources to our trustworthy heavenly Father — he will hear and he will give us good things. Sometimes just what we asked. Sometimes just when we ask it. Sometimes just the way we desire. And other times he gives us something better, or at a time he knows is better, or in a way he knows is better.
And of course, this tests our faith. Because if we thought that something different were better, we would have asked for it in the first place. But we are not God. We are not infinitely strong, or infinitely righteous, or infinitely good, or infinitely wise, or infinitely loving. And therefore, it is a great mercy to us and to the world that we do not get all we ask.
Take Jesus at His Word
But if we take Jesus at his word, O how much blessing we forfeit because we do not ask and seek and knock — blessings for ourselves, our families, our church, our nation, our world.
So would you join me in a fresh new commitment to set aside time for prayer alone and in families and in groups in 2007. All the rest of this Prayer Week, with its special booklet prepared for you, is meant as extended application of this sermon.