12. Prayer: Asking in Faith (Matthew 7:7-12)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (20:46) |

Carl Heinrich Bloch (Danish painter, 1834-1890), Come Unto Me, oil on canvas. Altarpiece.
Carl Heinrich Bloch (Danish painter, 1834-1890), "Come Unto Me," oil on canvas. Altarpiece.
Larger image.

7 "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (7:7-12)

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples against formal, hypocritical prayer, and gave them a model prayer to start them on their prayer journey. Now he takes the lesson a step further by teaching them to ask in faith. The teaching seems to be simple -- and at one level it is. Meditate with me on these words.

Jesus introduces three words that indicate desire that would be met: ask, seek, and knock.

Ask (7:7-8)

Ask seems to refer to simple petition, with the promise "it will be given to you." The verb is aiteō, "to ask for, with a claim on receipt of an answer, ask, ask for, demand."1 Many of our prayers are of this kind. Finding that parents are the key to getting many things, our children commonly ask for what they want: "Mom, can I have some cookies." Or "Dad, can I drive the car tonight?"

The answer, though, is not so simple. It could be, "Yes, I'll bring some to you on a plate." Or, "No, they'll spoil your dinner." Or, "Not now, but after you finish your math homework you can take a break and have three cookies -- no more."

Jesus illustrates this type of prayer in verses 9-11: "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?" The son asks for bread, and he is given bread.

But the answer is not always what we want to hear. No child wants to hear "No" or "Not now," even though those may be the only "good gift" options, and answering the child with the exact thing that he asked may prove to be not a "good gift" at all. Children have such narrow perspectives and frames of reference -- don't we!

But Jesus tells us to ask, expecting an answer. James amplifies this for us:

"You want something but don't get it.... You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:2-3)

One of the lessons Jesus is teaching us is to ask for the things we desire, rather than just trying to seize them on our own. One thing we eventually learn as children is that for some things the answer is always, "No." We learn not to ask any further. We also learn that in some areas if we ask, and conditions are right, we will receive. As we listen to our parents, we are educated in what to ask for and how to ask.

We don't learn these things by never asking. We learn by continuing to ask, and gradually learning our parents' mind, and asking according to what we perceive to be their mind. The Apostle John wrote,

"This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us -- whatever we ask -- we know that we have what we asked of him." (1 John 5:14-15)

We are told to ask.

Seek (7:7-8)

Alexandre Bida (French painter, 1823-1895), detail from Ask, and It Shall Be Given unto You, engraving, in Edward Eggleston, Christ in Art (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1874).
Alexandre Bida (French painter, 1823-1895), detail from "Ask, and It Shall Be Given unto You," engraving, in Edward Eggleston, Christ in Art (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1874).
Full image.

"Ask" indicates a petition. "Seek," however, indicates a search for something that is either lost or has not yet been found or discovered. The verb is zēteō, "try to find something, seek, look for," with the possible additional sense of "devote serious effort to realize one's desire or objective, strive for, aim (at), try to obtain, desire, wish (for)."2

"Seek, and you will find," Jesus says.

Just previously in the Sermon on the Mount, he had instructed his disciples, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (6:33). It is as if Jesus calls his disciples to a Quest for a kingdom and righteousness that are not immediately obvious.

One of the traditions at our house after church on Easter morning is for all the children -- and the Daddy -- to search for Easter baskets filled with candy that the Mommy has hidden. My children have bright eyes, I guess. Because they inevitably find theirs before I find mine. The children will spot mine. "Dad, why can't you see it. It's right in front of you." I look high and low, but it usually takes a clue, or the "You're-Getting-Warmer" Game for me to find it.

Seeking can be frustrating, but we must not give up. Jesus has told us to seek his kingdom and his righteousness. I also recall verses from the Prophets where God says,

"The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing." (Psalm 34:10)

"You will seek me and find me
when you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:13)

"Then I will go back to my place
until they admit their guilt.
And they will seek my face;
in their misery they will earnestly seek me." (Hosea 5:15)

"Seek me and live;
do not seek Bethel,
do not go to Gilgal,
do not journey to Beersheba....
Seek the Lord and live...." (Amos 5:4-6)

"Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the Lord.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:6-9)

The seeking process is a maturing process, a sifting process, and -- if we continue and don't give up -- becomes a single-minded Quest to know God. "Seek, and you will find." There is a promise here that if we will seek to know the Lord, and seek after his presence and blessing, we will find it. There is a looking that can be frustrating, but we are not to give up because we will find Him if we seek him with all our heart.

Knock (7:7-8)

The third command is "Knock,3 and the door will be opened to you." Basically, knocking is confined to closed doors, not open ones. You've faced closed doors in your life, ones you sought desperately to open or reopen. Some of them you have banged on again and again. But then you learn to try other doors to see which one God will open.

In the New Testament, an "open door" seems to denote an "opportunity":

"On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." (Acts 14:27)

"But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me." (1 Corinthians 16:8-9)

"Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me...." (2 Corinthians 2:12)

"And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains." (Colossians 4:3)

"Knock," says Jesus, "and the door will be opened to you." We are to continue to knock on doors until God opens to us the opportunity he has in mind.

Continuous Action (7:7)

Jesus' teaching in verse 7 is in the form of a command. Grammatically, this is known as the Imperative Mood. In Greek, commands can be given in two tenses: Aorist tense commands indicate an immediate and single action ("Shut the door!"). Present tense commands, on the other hand, carry the idea of continuous and habitual action ("Always shut the door!" or "Keep on shutting the door!"). Each of the commands in verse 7 are in present tense imperative, and therefore stress continued, persistent action. William Barclay translates verse 7:

"Keep on asking, and it will be given you;
Keep on seeking, and you will find;
Keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you."4

Q1. (Matthew 7:7-8) What do the words "ask," "seek," and "knock" have in common? What distinguishes them from each other? Does one word convey more intensity than another? What is the significance of the present, continuous, imperative tense of these verbs?
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Parables of Persistence (Luke 11:5-10 and 18:1-6)

It's pretty clear that this emphasis on continuous action in prayer is part of what Jesus intended, since in Luke's Gospel a parable of persistence immediately precedes his saying "Ask and it will be given to you."

In Luke 11:5-10 Jesus tells a humorous story of a man who is bedded down with his wife and children. They've finally settled down, stopped crying and talking, and are all asleep. His neighbor has a guest arrive at midnight and doesn't have anything to feed him. Hosts in the Middle East are required to serve guests when they arrive. It is a necessity. But this neighbor host was out of bread. So he went next door and began knocking on the door. The man inside tells him to go away. But because he continues to knock and won't give up, and the racket threatens to wake up his children, the man gets up, finds a loaf of bread, and gives him what he wants.

The neighbor's boldness (KJV "importunity") is highlighted. This word in Greek is anaideia, "a lack of sensitivity to what is proper, careless about the good opinion of others, shamelessness, impertinence, impudence, ignoring of convention."5

Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 18:1-6. A widow has been cheated out of her rights by a crooked judge, but she wouldn't quit. She keeps coming to him with her plea day after day, week after week. The judge is finally exhausted by it.

"... Because this widow keeps bothering me (literally, "causes me trouble"), I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'" (Luke 18:5)

The point of this parable, Luke tells us plainly, is "to show them that they should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1).

Jesus tells two parables, both with some humor. We are not to learn that God will only act if we harass him, or that he is unjust and will only give us what we ask if we pester him. The point is that we are to continue to pray and not give up.

There have been many times in Israel's history when conditions were bad. Where people were discouraged. Where they were ready to quit. But a prophet would come along who encouraged them to continue to seek God, and eventually the answer would come. In our lives, too, there are conditions that we want changed. Our instruction as Christians is to continue to pray, and not to give up. Ask! Seek! Knock!

Q2. (Matthew 7:7-8) Which lesson is taught in both the Parables of the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-10) and the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-6)? How do these relate to the commands in Matthew 7:7-8?
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Persistence and Faith

On occasion I have heard a teaching, a very spiritual teaching I am sure, that goes like this: "If you really have faith, all you have to do is ask once and then trust God. To ask again is a sign of unbelief, that God didn't hear you the first time." While this sounds very pious, it is diametrically opposed to Jesus' clear teaching. We are to ask, and to go on asking, until we receive. This is not a sign of unbelief, Jesus tells us, but of faith. Indeed, if we don't continue to ask, Jesus asks, "When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). Faith consists of asking until we get the answer, since we believe strongly that God will give us what we seek.

Faith in God's Goodness (7:9-11)

Coming back to our passage in the Sermon on the Mount, next Jesus tells another silly parable:

9 "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (7:9-11)

What do a bread and a stone have in common? They are both approximately the same shape. And a fish and a snake? They both have scales. Jesus is saying that we can trust God to give us good gifts, and not instead slip us something useless, or even dangerous. Like a good Father, we can trust him. Even normal parents -- "evil" in comparison to God -- give good gifts to their children, he argues. How much more God himself.

Why does Jesus say this?

Sometimes we are afraid to pray. We are afraid to pray for God's will for our lives in fear that God might send us to darkest Africa where there are bugs and mosquitoes. So we don't pray. We are afraid to pray for patience, because we've heard that when you ask for patience God will send all sorts of hardships upon you. And so on.

Sometimes we're afraid to pray because we really don't know how to pray. We don't know exactly what to pray for. What if I ask for the wrong thing, and God, literalist that he is, gives it to me? I am afraid.

Don't be afraid, Jesus says. Your fear is an impediment to your faith. Just ask your Father for what you want and trust him to answer wisely with what is good for you. Trust him. Trust him and ask in faith in his goodness.

Q3. (Matthew 7:9-11). What do these verses teach us about God's relationship to us? What do they teach about God's characteristic response toward us? How does this differ from a cynical view of God? Why is a positive understanding of God important to be able to pray with faith?
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The Golden Rule (7:12)

The passage concludes with the Golden Rule:

"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (7:12)

In other words, in light of God's goodness and faithfulness in giving good gifts to his children, so you too are to do good to others.

It has been called the Golden Rule, I suppose, since it is such a perfect guideline to show us how to act: We should treat others in the way we would like to be treated. Not in our sick self-destructiveness or dark moods that rationalize evil towards ourselves. But in the clear light of day, as children of a good and generous God, we are to treat others as we would like to be treated, "for this sums up the Law and the Prophets," Jesus concludes.

People have argued that the Golden Rule isn't unique to Jesus. Confucius said, "Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself." The Stoics had a very similar saying. In the Old Testament Apocrypha we read, "Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate."6 Rabbi Hillel in 20 BC said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary."7

But notice that each of these is in the negative, somehow limiting or prohibiting certain actions. Jesus' statement is in the positive, guiding and directing all our actions toward others. It is like the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself." It is not a negative limitation but a positive guideline, a high standard indeed.

Q4. (Matthew 7:12) In what way does the "Golden Rule" capsulize the message of the law and the prophets? This seems like a different "summary" of the law and the prophets than Jesus indicated in Matthew 22:37-39. How are they the same? How are they different?
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Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto, by Ralph F. Wilson
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto
is available in paperback and ebook formats
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches his disciples about trusting in God's goodness by continuing to ask, and then by living out that goodness towards those around us. What an uplifting, freeing teaching! And when Pentecost Sunday rolls around, it is good to recall that especially good gift the Father has given to us -- his Holy Spirit to dwell within us and empower us with the very life of God. Thank you.

Prayer

Father, help us to learn persistence in prayer, seriousness about our requests before you
-- and so obey Jesus in our prayers and our faith. Forgive us for wimpy, wispy prayers that we forget soon after praying them. Teach us to ask, to seek, to knock -- continually. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen

References

  1. Aiteō, BDAG 30.
  2. Zēteō, BDAG 428, 1a., perhaps 3a.
  3. Krouō, "to deliver a blow against something, strike, knock," in our literature only of knocking at a door. (BDAG 570).
  4. William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew (Daily Study Bible series; Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1958), vol. 1, p. 273.
  5. Anaideia, BDAG 63.
  6. Tobit 4:15 (NEB).
  7. Talmud, Shabbath 31a.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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