Jesus' Parables for Disciples
49. Ask, Seek, Knock in Your Praying (Luke 11:5-13)
William Holman Hunt, 'The Importunate Neighbor' (1895), oil on canvas, 36.4 x 51.7 cm., National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
"5 Then he said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him." 7 Then the one inside answers, "Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything." 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9 So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!'" (Luke 11:5-13, NIV)
I've experienced legendary "Southern hospitality," but even that is exceeded by Middle Eastern hospitality.
When I was a pastor in Southern California, we had a family in our congregation from Lebanon -- wonderful people and wonderful hosts. I learned much about Middle Eastern hospitality from them. When I would visit the family, they would invite me in and go to the kitchen to prepare for me some of their traditional thick, sweet coffee in a tiny cup. The wife would get special cookies to serve me, and then would pour the thick coffee. What was strange to me was that the refreshments were usually for me alone. They did not partake with me. Their hospitality was their way of honoring me as their guest. In the Middle East, hospitality is more than the courteous thing to do; it is an important obligation. To neglect hospitality to a guest is unthinkable. This is the background of Jesus' Parable of the Friend at Midnight (11:5-8).
"Then he said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him."'" (11:5-6)
Jesus was raised in a culture where hospitality was a high value. The Jewish people from Abraham on down honored their guests:
- Abraham prepared a meal for his three (angel) visitors (Genesis 18:3-8).
- Lot perceived his obligation towards his (angel) guests was even greater than his responsibility for the welfare of his own daughters (Genesis 19:2-8).
- Laban, Jethro, Manoah, Samuel, David, Barzillai, the Shunamite woman, and others offered hospitality.
With such a high value -- and no corner convenience stores -- you can imagine the acute sense of anxiety of the man whose friend arrives for a visit about midnight. He MUST feed his visitor. That he has no bread in his house is no excuse.
Jesus paints the picture in a few strokes and his listeners can place themselves in the same situation.
So the man goes to his neighbor's house and calls to his neighbor inside, probably waking him, and appeals to him as a friend. The Greek word used is philos, an adjective that means, "loved, dear, loving, kindly disposed, devoted" as well as a noun, as found in our verse, "friend."438 It is the way a person addresses one with whom he is on good terms.
Friendship is one of the important elements of this parable. Notice that the word "friend" is used four times in these few verses:
"Then he said to them, 'Suppose one of you has
a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, "Friend, lend
me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come
to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'
"Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs." (11:5-8)
Jesus point is this: As strong as the bond of friendship is, it isn't strong enough to get the man out of his bed in the middle of the night.
"Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'" (11:7)
The typical poor Israelite family lived in a one-room house. And in many poorer homes, the house also served as a part-time stable for the family's few sheep, goats, and chickens. All family members would sleep in the same room, sometimes on a raised platform, perhaps 18 inches higher than the floor of the rest of the house, so the family could eat and sleep without constant intrusions by their animals. Family members usually slept with their clothes on, covering themselves with the cloaks they had worn during the day. They would bed down side-by-side on straw mats rolled out at night.439
Getting a whole family to bed was a considerable undertaking, as parents know. Once children are asleep, parents want to keep them that way. Once the chickens were asleep, parents would want to keep them that way.
The door was locked, too. The Greek word is kleiō, "shut, lock, bar." Of structures, "close, lock."440 The poorest homes would have a bar across the door to prevent the leather-hinged wood door from opening. Some wealthier homes may have been equipped with a primitive wooden lock using two- or three-pegged keys that would allow a bar to be lifted from its socket from the outside.441
Since the door was locked, the friend couldn't just let himself in and get the bread he needed. The father would have to get up quietly from the sleeping area, find the bread in the food storage area, and cross the area where the animals were near the door, unlock the door, and give the bread to his neighbor. There would be no way to keep the household from waking up.
"I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs." (11:8)
As strong as his friendship with the man is, it isn't strong enough for him to wake up his whole family. But the man's "boldness" tips the scale in Jesus' parable. The Greek word is the noun anaideia, "persistence, impudence," literally, "shamelessness," from the verb anaideuomai, "be unabashed, bold," literally "shameless."442
The point of the parable, of course, is the importance of persistence, of never giving up. But Jesus' expression, "because of the man's shamelessness" is remarkable. The friend has no sense of decency of waiting until morning, of not disturbing his sleeping neighbor. He goes at midnight and knocks -- for some bread! And he shamelessly keeps on knocking until his neighbor gets up and shoves bread at him just to shut him up. Shamelessness! Brashness! Boldness! Chutzpah! That's what the parable illustrates.
By this time, Jesus' hearers are chuckling. The picture Jesus has painted has them imagining the man out the outside pounding, and the neighbor inside stumbling over children and chickens in order to get bread to the door as fast as he can. It is a humorous story. But now Jesus makes the point.
"So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." (11:9-10)
Jesus gives us three word pairs that have to do with prayer. The first is the action, the second is the result. The first word in each pair is in the Greek present tense that can carry the idea of "action in progress in present time," the "Progressive Present."443 Jesus' command here has the effect of saying, "Do this (and keep on doing it)." The second word in each pair is in the future tense, the expectation, the promise.
The Greek words used in Jesus' command are common. Greek aiteō means "ask, ask for, demand."444 In the case of a superior speaking to an inferior it can carry the idea "demand," as in an accounting. But here the idea is "ask for, petition." The promise is Greek didōmi, the common word for "give." "Ask and it will be given to you."
Greek zēteō means, "'seek, look for' in order to find." It can be used literally, as the woman seeking for a lost coin (Luke 15:8), or figuratively "try to obtain, desire to possess something ... strive for, aim (at), desire, wish."445 The corresponding result is expressed by Greek euriskō (from which Californians get their state Motto, "Eureka! -- I have found it"). It means literally "find, discover, come upon," and can also refer figuratively to "intellectual discovery based upon reflection, observation, examination, or investigation."446 "Seek and you will find."
The third pair of words express the figure of seeking by knocking on a door until it is opened, just like Jesus' parable of The Friend at Midnight. "Knock and the door will be opened to you."
Are these three word pairs each designed to express something different? Should we seek the distinctions between them? They seem to me to be a good example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism. Each reinforces the other in the ways we are encouraged to think of our seeking from God -- of petitions, of finding what eludes us, and of obtaining an audience with the person inside. We are to pray -- for each of these three are ways of talking about prayer -- without ceasing. We are to pray "shamelessly," if you will. In season and out of season, not flagging in our prayers until we receive the promise, or until God answers or directs us to pray differently.
Jesus teaches a similar lesson in the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8), where the parable is told "to show [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up." I don't know about you, but I need this lesson of persistent, faithful, unstopping petition until the answer is received.
Of course, God can tell us "No!" and sometimes does. The Apostle Paul had a "thorn in the flesh," some kind of affliction from Satan -- whether physical or mental or external opposition we do not know. Paul pleads with the Lord three times to take it away, but then receives the answer, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Paul accepts this answer, and now begins to glory in his weaknesses that Christ's power may rest on him.
After college, I was drafted into the US Army at the height of the Vietnam War, and, due to my degree in biology, was stationed at Fort Dietrich, Maryland, in a research laboratory. After a while, I remember getting excited about going to seminary. I sent for all sorts of seminary catalogs and would pore over their pages trying to figure out where I'd like to go. One day I distinctly remember the Lord saying to me something that I can only translate in the vernacular: "Cool it!" He didn't want me looking at seminary catalogs, so I put them away. It was as if the Lord was telling me to move on, not to linger here. Not to push it. A couple of years later, Jean and I found ourselves living one mile from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. We had moved there to accept a job at Cal Tech, but God had other plans for us that I hadn't even thought of. His answer to my seminary quest wasn't "No," but "Not now, not this way." He had his own way of leading me. And it was very good. I can't think of another seminary in the country that would have prepared me better for a cross-denominational ministry of Bible teaching. God knew. I didn't.
But how can we pray confidently, boldly, if God may have something else in mind for us? How can we know we are praying according to God's will? And if we don't know, how can we pray at all?
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, "Not my will but thine be done." Isn't that a safer kind of prayer? Instead of energetically praying for what we desire, believing God wants to give it to us, shouldn't we rather pray passively, "Do your will, not mine"?
Yes and no. Yes, we should always be seeking the Father's will, as the Lord's Prayer teaches us: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." But no, we are not to stop at praying for the Father's will; we are definitely to ask for our own needs, too -- "our daily bread." And to pray persistently until we receive an answer.
When Jesus prays in Gethsemane, he knows that it is the Father's will that he go to the cross, but he prays in order to find another way, if that is possible (Luke 22:39-46). He agonizes in prayer for some time seeking for another way besides the cross. Matthew tells us that he prays this prayer three times (Matthew 26:36-44). He knows the cross is what the Father has shown him. But he seeks some other way. Finally, the Father shows him no other way and he is content to say, "Yet not my will, but yours be done." And God sends angels to strengthen him as he follows the very difficult path the Father has directed him on.
Jesus' own prayer is earnest. He asks and seeks and knocks again and again. This isn't any wishy-washy "whatever you want" prayer that requires no intensity. Jesus is wholly involved in seeking. And in the end he finds the answer he seeks. There is no other way to redeem us except for him to die on the cross for our sins. He has asked and he has received. He has searched and he has found.
We are encouraged to ask boldly, knowing that we can trust God. The writer of Hebrews encourages us,
"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:16)
The word translated "confidence" (NIV) or "boldness" (KJV) is Greek parrēsia, "outspokenness, frankness, plainness" of speech that conceals nothing and passes over nothing. It can also carry the ideas of "courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness,' especially in the presence of persons of high rank."447
We aren't to pray with a whimper or a whine or a whisper. No. We are to come with a confident asking, seeking, knocking. God our Father desires to hear our petitions and we are entirely open with him. Prayer is not a time to hide what is going on inside us, but to share it openly -- warts and all -- with our Father, whom we know loves us and understands us and seeks good for us. We can trust him, even though we might misunderstand an issue, or ask for the wrong thing.
You may have heard the somewhat cynical saying, "Be careful what you ask for; you might just get it." But that idea isn't found in the Bible. It assumes that God may smugly give us what he knows isn't good for us, just to show that we are stupid. The fear that we aren't praying for the right things can paralyze us, and keep us from praying earnestly at all.
"Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (11:11-13)
Trust your Father to give you good gifts, even when you ask incompletely or perhaps wrongly. He is not peevish or petulant. He loves you.
Notice that in 11:13a Jesus characterizes us humans as "evil" (Greek ponēros). He doesn't assume the basic goodness of man, but the basic evil. Nevertheless, our Father does not return evil for evil, but good even when we might be praying selfishly.
Don't ever, ever fear to pray to your Father. You can trust him to do you good, and not evil. Jesus says so.
"... how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (11:13b)
Here Jesus uses the title "Father in heaven." But where we would expect Jesus to say that the Father gives good gifts to his children (as he does in Matthew 7:11), Jesus tells them that the Father will give them the Holy Spirit if they ask him. Wow! In the Old Testament, the gift of the Spirit was sparse and sporadic. The Spirit was upon Moses and Samuel, upon Saul and David and the prophets. And one time the Spirit came upon the Seventy Elders who were to assist Moses. Moses says wistfully on that occasion,
"I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!" (Numbers 11:29)
Moses' longing is answered in Jesus Christ who gives us his Spirit.
The Spirit is the Father's very best gift. It is the gift of himself to dwell with us and within us forever. How marvelous! Do you long for a full portion of the Holy Spirit? Jesus promises that your Father in heaven will give you the Holy Spirit if you ask him.
So don't be satisfied with where you are or what you have. Your Father is wealthy beyond all imagination. And he wants to meet your needs with abundance, "according to his glorious riches" (Philippians 4:19). So speak up, my disciple friend. Now is not the time to be shy in his presence. Now is the time to joyously and expectantly ask and seek and knock in prayer to your Father. Don't stop. Don't quit. Expect his best gifts to be yours.
Heavenly Father, how I have needed to hear this message myself. Some things I have just stopped praying about. I've gotten discouraged and lazy. Forgive me. And fill me afresh with a bold faith filled with visions of the possibilities you desire to create through my prayers. I pray for my fellow disciples also. Teach us to really pray and incorporate bold, faith-filled praying into our very lives. For the sake of your Kingdom! I pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." (Luke 11:9-10)
on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that
follow -- your choice.
- Where is the humor in Jesus' Parable of the Friend at Midnight? (11:5-8)
- Does the parable teach that God won't help us unless we insist? What's the essential lesson of this parable?
- There are three promises in 11:9-10 that are really one promise. What is this promise?
- How can fear of God's response keep us from praying boldly and persistently? How does Jesus answer this concern? (11:11-13)
- Why can the Holy Spirit be considered the Father's best gift? According to the Scripture, does the Father only give the Holy Spirit to certain Christians?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Philos, BAGD 861.
 Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, Harper's Encyclopedia of Bible Life (Third Revised Edition; Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 35-37.
 Kleiō, BAGD 434.
 William Sanford LaSor, "Locks and Keys," ISBE 3:149; Harper's Encyclopedia of Bible Life, p. 34.
 Anaideuomai, BAGD 54.
 Ernest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek (Third Edition; T & T Clark, 1898), p. 7. The present imperative can denote "something already existing is to continue." F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 1961), sec. 336, p. 172.
 Aiteō, BAGD 26.
 Zēteō, BAGD 338-339.
 Euriskō, BAGD 324-325.
 Parrēsia, BAGD 630-631.
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