God’s Pattern for His Children Demands it
Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (7:9–11)
These verses continue to point to and illustrate the golden rule of verse 12. We are also to love others as we love ourselves because that is a part of God’s life pattern for His children and kingdom citizens. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1–2).
If we claim to be God’s children, God’s nature should be reflected in our lives, imperfect as they still are. Jesus here proceeds to show us something of what our heavenly Father’s love is like. First, He gives several illustrations from human family relationships by asking two rhetorical questions.
What man … among you, that is to say, what loving father, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? The obvious answer is no man, no loving father. The crudest of fathers would hardly deceive his own son by giving him a stone to eat that looked like bread. Even if the son discovered the deception before breaking a tooth, his heart would be broken by his father’s cruelty.
Or, Jesus continues, if the son shall ask for a fish, the father will not give him a snake, will he? The idea is not that the snake would be alive and poisonous, and therefore of physical danger to the son. The suggestion is of a snake that is cooked to look like ordinary meat and would, unlike the stone, meet the son’s physical need. But because they were among the unclean animals (Lev. 11:12), snakes were not to be eaten by Jews. A loving Jewish father would not deceive and defile his son into dishonoring the Word of God by tricking him into eating ceremonially unclean food. Our Lord is simply showing that it is not natural for a father to ignore either the physical or the spiritual needs of his son.
In the Luke account Jesus gives the added and more dramatic illustration of a scorpion being substituted for an egg (11:12). Certain Near East scorpions were quite large and resembled a bird’s egg when they curled up to sleep. In this instance, the deceit could cause great physical danger to the son, even an agonizing death.
If you then, being evil—as sinful human fathers—know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! Here is one of the many specific scriptural teachings of man’s fallen, evil nature. Jesus is not speaking of specific fathers who are especially cruel and wicked, but of human fathers in general, all of whom are sinful by nature.
Those who do not know the true God have no divine source to whom they can turn with assurance or trust. Most pagan gods are but larger than life images of the men who made and worship them. Greek mythology tells of Aurora, the goddess of dawn, who fell in love with Tithonus, a mortal youth. When Zeus, the king of gods, promised to grant her any gift she chose for her lover, she asked that Tithonus might live forever. But she had forgotten to ask that he also remain forever young. Therefore when Zeus granted the request, Tithonus was doomed to an eternity of perpetual aging (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite [5.218–38]). Such are the capricious ways of the gods men make.
But not so with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As in the previous chapter, Jesus uses the phrase much more to describe God’s love for His children (cf. 6:30). Our divine, loving, merciful, gracious Father who is in heaven has no limit on His treasure and no bounds to the goodness He is willing to bestow on His children who ask Him. The most naturally selfless relationship among human beings is that of parents with their children. We are more likely to sacrifice for our children, even to the point of giving up our lives, than for any other persons in the world. Yet the greatest human parental love cannot compare with God’s.
There is no limit to what our heavenly Father will give to us when we ask in obedience and according to His will. Again we get additional truth from the parallel passage in Luke, which tells us, “How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (11:13).
The truth Jesus proclaims here is that, if imperfect and sinful human fathers so willingly and freely give their children the basics of life, God will infinitely outdo them in measure and in benefit. That is why the children of God are “blessed … with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3) offered by “the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us (vv. 7–8). If we want God to treat us with loving generosity as His children, we should so treat others, because we are those who bear His likeness.
Our Gracious God
If a young man wants to ask his father for something, he will pattern his request on the nature and the temperament of his father. If the father is ill-tempered and stingy, the young man will ask for little. He will take care to present his need in the most winsome and unobjectionable manner. If the father is good-natured and generous, the child will present his need openly and with great confidence.
It is the same spiritually. If a man prays, he will pray in harmony with his view of the God to whom he is praying. If the gods are capricious, as the Greeks believed, then men will come warily and will be on their guard. If the god is vengeful, a man will be fearful. If God is gracious, as Jesus Christ declared the true God to be, then the one who believes in him can come boldly. And he will not fear to ask for good gifts of the One who is declared to be his Father.
It is this that gives the full measure of importance to the verses which form the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, for the verses contain the Lord’s declaration that God is indeed gracious to those who are his spiritual children. He declared, “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. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 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!” (Matt. 7:7–11). According to these words, God is not harsh, revengeful, or stingy. On the contrary, he is loving, gracious, and merciful; and he is anxious to give the very best gifts to his children.
This passage may be summarized by a few simple propositions. First, it applies only to those who are really God’s children.
This means, of course, that these verses (as well as all others in the Bible that refer to prayer) do not include everyone. They say, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Who are the “you’s” in this text? The answer is in the full context, for it is clear that they are only those who have God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, for their Father. The promises do not concern Buddhists. They do not concern Mohammedans. They do not concern nominal Protestants or nominal Roman Catholics. They are promises only for those in whose hearts God has performed the miracle of the new birth, so that while at one time they were without Christ, were aliens to Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world, they are now seen to be fellow citizens and members of God’s spiritual household (Eph. 2:12, 19).
Moreover, the promises of this section are additionally restricted to those who are obedient children. This is implied in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is seen more clearly in other passages. Take 1 John 3:22, for example. This verse says, “And receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.” Why does John say that his prayers are always being answered? It is because he is a member of God’s family, of course. But it is also more than that. John says that it is because he keeps God’s commandments and because he seeks to please him. The person who does that can be certain that his prayers will be heard and that all of them will be answered.
I know that someone will say, “But isn’t God the Father of all men? And doesn’t he hear all prayers?” The answer to that is, “No! He is not the Father of all men. And he does not hear the prayers of those who are not in his family.”
Do you know what the Lord Jesus Christ taught in the thirteenth chapter of Luke, verses 24–30? It is almost the exact counterpart of the text we are considering, and the point of Luke’s passage is that there can be no answer to those who are not in God’s family. Jesus had just taught that the only ones who would be saved were those who entered in by the narrow gate. He was referring to faith in himself. He added that many would seek to enter in by other means but would not be able to. He then uttered this great sentence, “Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ ” In both cases there is an asking. In both cases there is a knocking. But in Matthew it is the born-again child of God who is knocking and asking; in Luke it is the unbeliever.
If we are to exercise the spiritual discrimination and judgment that Christ was talking about in verse 6 (“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs”), then we must apply verses 7–11 to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ only. And we must read the verse this way: “Ask [you who are born again] and it will be given to you [who are born again]; seek [you who are born again] and you [who are born again] will find; knock [you who are born again] and the door will be opened to you [who are born again].”
The second obvious teaching of these verses is this: Even if we are Christians, we must ask for the things that God promises. This section of God’s Word contains the positive statement of the principle (“Ask and it will be given to you”). James 4:2 contains the negative statement (“You do not have, because you do not ask God”). But the teaching of both texts is identical. God delights to give good gifts to his children. Hence, if we do not receive them, the fault does not lie in God. It lies in our failure to ask things of him.
I believe that these texts contain the explanation of the weakness and irrelevance of much Christian living and of much contemporary Christianity. Every now and then a minister is asked by some Christian, “Why is it that I cannot seem to find victory in the Christian life? Why does the Bible seem difficult to understand? Why do I still seem in bondage to some besetting sin? Why am I such a poor witness? Why do the high principles of Christian conduct have such little effect on my job and on the affairs of my family?” The answer is that you do not ask God for these blessings. You do not have because you do not ask.
“Why is it,” many a minister is asking, “that I do not have the power of God in my teaching? Why is the Bible so dead? Why are there so few persons being converted? Why are there no leaders to expand and reinforce the ministry?” Again the answer is simply that you are not praying.
“Why are there so few outstanding candidates for the Christian ministry?” many Christian laymen are asking. “Why is the church so weak, the preaching so poor, our impact upon our society so ineffective, our goals so unrealized?” Again God answers, “You are neglecting your prayer life.” You do not have because you are not asking.
Don’t these words describe the churches as we know them today? Don’t they describe many of us personally? Dr. Reuben A. Torrey, who makes many of these points quite eloquently in his book The Power of Prayer, writes correctly, “We do not live in a praying age. We live in an age of hustle and bustle, of man’s efforts and man’s determination, of man’s confidence in himself and in his own power to achieve things, an age of human organization, and human machinery, and human push, and human scheming, and human achievement; which in the things of God means no real achievement at all.… What we need is not so much some new organization, some new wheel, but ‘the Spirit of the living creature in the wheels’ we already possess.”
What do we lack in our own lives and in the church generally? Is it wisdom to deal with this sophisticated and godly world, to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, to present the claims of Christ intelligibly and with success? If it is, then we should ask wisdom of God. James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
Do we lack suitable candidates for church office, for missions? Do we lack Sunday school teachers or church workers? If so, it is because we are not asking. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:37–38).
Moreover, isn’t it significant that these great remarks about prayer occur toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount after the long list of things that should characterize our lives as Christians? We read of purity of heart, and we lack it. We read of meekness, and we lack that. We lack integrity, love, trust in God, humility, discrimination, and all the other things Christ mentions. Isn’t it true that Jesus mentions prayer again precisely at this point just so that we may be encouraged to ask God for these things? Prayer has not changed. God has not changed. His ear is as quick to hear and his arm as strong to save as ever. Then, let us ask!
Torrey writes, “Prayer can do everything that God can do, and as God can do anything, prayer is omnipotent. No one can stand against the man who knows how to pray and who meets all the conditions of prevailing prayer and who really prays.” He adds that this is true because “the Lord God Omnipotent works for him and works through him.”
This brings us to our next point. Christ did not only say that we were to ask for God’s blessings; he also said that we were to go on asking.
In the Greek language, which lies behind our New Testament, there are two basic kinds of imperatives. There is the aorist imperative which is a command to do one particular thing at one specific point in time, and there is a present imperative which is a command not only to do that thing once but to go on doing it indefinitely. For example, if we were to say to a person driving a car, “Stop at that light,” stop would be an aorist imperative; it would refer to only one action. However, if one were then to say, “And don’t forget, always stop for the red lights,” in this sentence stop would be a present imperative; for it would refer to something to be done repeatedly. The imperatives in this section of Christ’s sermon—“ask,” “seek,” and “knock”—are present imperatives. Hence, they are a command to pray repeatedly, to persist in prayer. They are a command not to become discouraged.
I know that there is something about the idea of prevailing prayer that on the surface at least seems contrary to a Calvinistic way of thinking, but the conflict is only superficial. In two of Jesus’ parables there is the story of a person who prevailed in a request by means of perseverance. In Luke 11:5–10, there is the story of a man who lacked food to feed a guest who arrived at his home at midnight. He went to his neighbor. At first the neighbor did not want to be bothered, but at last he gave the things which were needed because of the man’s persistence. Jesus then repeated his teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” In Luke 18:1–8 Jesus told of a widow who gained justice from a dishonest judge through a similar course of action. He then added, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off” (v. 7). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Pray continually” (1 Thess. 5:17). He wrote to the Romans, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Rom. 15:30).
In all these texts the emphasis falls on the discipline of prayer and persistence. Persistence! That is the thing. We are to realize our need and then have persistence in seeking its fulfillment.
As we do this we are also to pray knowing that God sees our needs more than we do and is actually far ahead of us in fulfilling them. In fact, this is one ministry, perhaps one of the greatest ministries, of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26–27).
Do you see what this means? It means that God the Holy Spirit not only dwells within us, hearing what we say and then responding to it. He also takes an initiative in prayer, probing our hearts to see our greatest needs, and then interpreting our prayers in that light to God our heavenly Father. God loves us. He wants to help us. Thus, he searches us out to see what he can do for us.
When my sisters and I were very young I remember what great difficulty we had in our home to discover before Christmas or before my father’s birthday what we could do for him. I am sure he had obvious needs, but to us at the time it seemed as if he were the only man in the world who had everything. He liked to fish, but he seemed to have all the equipment he needed for fishing. He liked to hunt, but we could not help him there. We were always at great pains to discover some need that we could fulfill for him. If he would ever drop a hint of some need, we were then quite delighted if we could respond to the need and give him the thing he desired.
In exactly this way we are told that our gracious God and heavenly Father searches our hearts to see what we need, and then he delights to answer the need out of his inexhaustible storehouse of blessings.
Ask and It Will Be Given
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. (Matt. 7:7–8)
We all need a little encouragement from time to time. Someone once told me that a particularly demanding supervisor had written just two words on a report he had written: “Good work.” There was nothing more, simply “Good work,” but that comment made his week. When someone is looking for a job, the anxiety level can be very high. If he or she has gone to a couple of interviews and come home empty, a positive word can lift the spirits: “You are so talented; I know someone will recognize it soon.” When we face a daunting task, it helps to know that someone thinks we are capable. And if we are ready for a task, it is a blessing that a capable friend is willing to help.
This kind of encouragement is just what we have in Matthew 7. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus bombards his disciples with uncompromising demands. The self-aware reader knows he cannot fulfill all of them. Jesus forbids anger and forbids lust. He commands that we keep our every word, that we give freely to those who would borrow. He prohibits worrying and forbids boasting. He says, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). He says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).
The breadth and depth of this standard would lead us to despair, if Jesus did not pause to bring encouragement. Fortunately, Jesus does strengthen his disciples’ resolve at crucial moments in his message. He invites us to lay aside our fears. As he tells his disciples how to live, he also explains how they may reach toward his standards.
For example, in 6:19–24, Jesus tells his disciples how to think about wealth and how to use it. Then he adds crucial encouragement. If we seek first the kingdom, the King will provide the food and shelter we need to live. Therefore, we need not be anxious about tomorrow, because God will take care of it (6:25–34).
Then Jesus tells his disciples how to regard their neighbors (7:1–6). There is a kind of neighbor whose lawless, feckless life invites criticism and judgment. His moral failings are obvious, but even his clothes and manners are an affront. But Jesus tells us to refrain from hasty judgment. Perhaps if we remove our own sins first, then we can help our neighbor with his.
But it is no easy thing to withhold judgment or to still a critical tongue. Beyond the negative effects on others, censorious people often fail to see how Jesus’ word speaks to their flaws. Jesus says we should apply the law to ourselves first, confessing to God our sin, our weakness, and our inability to reform ourselves. If we ask, he will listen and act. Hear the poetic balance and repetition in Jesus’ promise (Matt. 7:7–8):
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.
Furthermore, Jesus continues, the Father knows how to give good gifts, especially gifts of grace, to those who ask (7:9–11). We need that grace, for discipleship is not easy. The road that Jesus traveled was hard, and when he asks us to follow him, he bids us to take the hard road, too (7:13–14). Jesus’ road is hard and his standards are high—indeed, they are beyond us. But, as we saw, the same Jesus who delivered these laws also came to deliver those who do not and cannot keep his laws. He came to give commands and to redeem those who violate them.
Ask, Seek, and Knock
Jesus says simply, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” When Jesus says that “it will be given” and “the door will be opened,” he means that the Father will give us aid. He will open the door (7:7).
Jesus draws our attention to the gifts that God gives in answer to prayer by mentioning them first and last in this passage. The first word is, “Ask and it will be given to you” (7:7). The last word is, “Your Father in heaven [will] give good gifts to those who ask him” (7:11).
Further, Jesus wants us to ask, seek, and knock continually. This is not clear in English translations, but the original text uses present imperatives for “ask … seek … knock,” and that grammatical form in Greek signifies that an act should be performed continually. Scripture often encourages constant prayers for God’s blessing. The Lord says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.… You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13–14). Finally, James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
This teaching can be understood in two ways. We could put the accent on the one who asks and say, “Persist long enough and you will get what you desire.” This “beggar’s wisdom” suggests that our petitions can wear God out, so that he finally grants us whatever we want, even if he was initially disinclined to do so.
But Jesus places the emphasis on the God who hears, not on the man or woman who asks. He says that God loves his children and knows how to give them good gifts. If we ask, the Father will give what he knows we need. He says this three ways, and each seems to build on the other:
- “Ask” is a general term. In context, it means “Ask God in prayer.”
- “Seek” implies that we may not know exactly what we are looking for or precisely how to pray (Rom. 8:26). A child asks a mother who is close at hand, but when the mother is not visible, the child seeks her. When we seek God, we will find him and discover what we should desire.
- “Knock” implies that we seek something that is inaccessible to us. We have tried and failed to attain something, to open a door. We cannot, but God can and will open it, if it is right for us.
Jesus follows the threefold command with a threefold promise. We should ask, seek, and knock because “everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:8), for God will open it. Martin Luther explains that God “knows we are timid and shy, that we feel unworthy … 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 … remove our doubts, and to have us go ahead confidently and boldly.”
If we follow the pattern of Scripture, we will pray for God’s material provision and for his spiritual gifts, with an emphasis on the latter. It is tempting for pastors to pray about buildings and budgets, but it would be better for us to pray for the spiritual life of our churches. Christian leaders might pray for their local church like this: that those who seek Christ will find him here, that the weary and lonely will find a welcome and a home, and that if we grow we will still welcome and disciple people one by one. We should pray that all will grow in knowledge and in obedience to God, that all will engage the culture, and that every teacher, lawyer, and businessman or woman will strive to serve God and neighbor at work. When things go wrong in the church, we should pray that we will trust one another and think the best of each other, preferring to think that an offense is inadvertent, not malicious (cf. 1 Cor. 13:7). We can pray that we will not probe old wounds and pick at the scabs that cover cuts from long ago, so that God can heal us and dark days may recede. God hears such prayers. He knows how to give good gifts to his church.
Fathers on Earth and the Father in Heaven
Jesus wants to assure us that God hears us and will give us what is good. He begins by asking a couple of rhetorical questions about the way human fathers behave. “Which one of you,” he asks, “if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” (Matt. 7:9–10 ESV). Sadly, there are a few such parents, but Jesus is thinking of ordinary parents. In the Greek, it is clear that Jesus expects a negative reply.4 If a child asks for a loaf of bread, no father would say, “Here is something else that is earth-toned and round—a stone.” And if a child asks for a fish, no father would say, “Here, have something else with scales—a snake.”
Jesus then draws his conclusion, using a form of argument that he likes to use, called the lesser to the greater. It goes like this: if even sinful human fathers (the lesser) give good gifts to their children when asked, then the wise and good Lord (the greater) will certainly give good gifts to his children when asked (7:11).
This simple argument contains vital lessons about people and about Jesus. First, when Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil …” (ESV), he assumes, as the whole Bible does, that all humans are sinful. We are members of a race of sinners. We are radically selfish, inclined to rebel against God and to do evil toward our fellow man. But Jesus says that even sinful people can do what is right. Their hearts may be dark, but parents still care tenderly for their children. Fathers do not typically mock their sons, nor do mothers betray their daughters. Some parents do abuse their children. Still, as sinful as fathers are, few play devilish tricks on their children. And as sinful as mothers are, few offer their children inedible food. If human parents, crippled by evil, still treat their children well, then God, who is good, will certainly give good gifts to his children.
This passage tells us something important about Jesus. We know that Jesus identifies with us in our weakness, but here we see that he does not identify with us in our sinfulness. Jesus does not say “we who are evil,” but “you who are evil.”
Further, Jesus does not say that God gives us all we ask for or all we want. Rather, he gives us “good gifts.” “Ask and it will be given” is not an absolute promise, as if God must give us whatever we ask. When we pray, we do not rub a magic lamp. What a burden it would be to know that we would receive everything we sought in prayer! The thought would paralyze the prayers of a sensitive Christian. Who would be wise enough to pray if God gave us whatever we asked for, whenever we asked?
Jesus knows the difference between wise and foolish requests. Almost all of us are now thankful that the Lord declined some request we once made. Sometimes, therefore, we receive less than we ask. One summer on a road trip, our family played the game “If you were a superhero, what super power would you choose?” Naturally enough, choices included the ability to fly or the capacity to move forward or backward in time. I chose the power to move at the speed of light. That fall, after a physics class, one of my children told me, “Dad, did you know that to accelerate to the speed of light, an object must also have infinite mass and infinite impulse force?” Infinite mass and impulse force sound impressive, but I doubt that I would actually want either one. My interest in moving at the speed of light was, therefore, misguided. I would not want everything my request entailed. So it is with our requests, which explains why the Lord sometimes denies our appeals.
On the other hand, he sometimes gives us more than we seek. Solomon, we recall, sought wisdom to rule well. This pleased the Lord, who said he would give Solomon “a wise and discerning heart.” Then, because Solomon craved wisdom rather than riches or long life, the Lord determined to give him the other blessings as well (1 Kings 3:5–15). He gave Solomon more than he asked.
In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord wants to give us his kingdom and his righteousness. The Bible, incidentally, never shows anyone praying for happiness, never tells us to pray for happiness, and never promises that we will be happy. It does promise that God will make us holy. In Luke 11:13, Jesus says that the Father will “give the Holy Spirit” to those who ask. He grants what we need to grow in holiness, not necessarily to have a carefree life. Paul says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27).
We need this holiness. In Matthew 7:11, Jesus calmly assumes that we are “evil,” even though we can do good things. Evil parents “forget themselves” and give liberally to their children, for God drops into human hearts “a portion of his goodness.” But these good deeds do not remove our sinfulness. Therefore, when we pray, we should first seek forgiveness of sin and deliverance from evil. Of all God’s gifts, this is supreme: Jesus bore the punishment we deserve for our evil deeds. Then he offered to wrap us in his holiness, his good deeds, if we believe in him. Then, when God looks upon us, he sees Christ’s righteousness, not our sin.
On the Duties of Parents
Since our passage describes the goodness of God the Father, we may consider what makes human parents good. After all, human parents should care for their children as God cares for his. The Bible assumes that parents give good gifts to their children, but we must define those gifts correctly. First, parents provide food (good healthy food, not just anything), clothing, and shelter for their children (1 Tim. 5:8; 6:8). Second, parents owe children an education, both academic and practical, that prepares them for a God-given vocation. Wise parents notice their child’s skills and interests and nurture them. We teach them to do the small chores and the larger jobs that let them discover where they excel. Third, parents should instruct their children in the Christian faith and Christian living. On the first two points, our culture largely agrees with Scripture, but in the latter sphere, it will substitute any soul-enriching experience—piano lessons, travel to Europe, inner-city service projects, a spot on the soccer team or the debate team—for specifically Christian instruction.
Even as the Father in heaven brings us to spiritual maturity, so godly parents will offer their children every opportunity to attain spiritual maturity. They should read the Bible and pray with their children. At home, the principles of Christian faith and life should often be on our lips, as we tell our children about Jesus and his love. Moses told parents to talk about God’s laws throughout the day: “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:7).
Christian nurture also occurs within the Christian community. On the Lord’s Day, parents bring their children to Christian education designed for students and to worship designed for all ages. Wise parents collaborate with pastors and teachers. They help their children pay attention by quizzing them afterward: “What did you learn in Sunday school? What did you learn in church?” They know that most teachers offer excellent instruction, but that some present moralistic versions (or perversions) of the faith. Parents review sermons because reasonably bright children can surely grasp leading points of a sermon (linked, perhaps, to an illustration) by the age of ten.
Like the Father in heaven, Christian parents also try to discern when they should and when they should not give their children what they ask. Prosperous parents are prone to pamper their children, indulging their desires simply because they can. Parents of ordinary means may be tempted simply to pick a similar family and match what they do. Lest loving parents become doting parents, we need to teach our children the benefits of work, stewardship, and patience. In our culture, parents confuse love with indulgence, and instant gratification with provision. Christian parents make God their model. As he bestows gifts on his children, he keeps material and spiritual gifts in perfect equilibrium.
The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule is widely cited and widely abused. An adult twist on the Golden Rule says, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” A child’s version says, “Do one to others before they do one to you.” But a proper understanding of the Golden Rule begins with its context. Matthew 7:1–11 lists various obligations of a disciple. With our brothers, we should offer help, not judgment. With God, we pray with confidence, knowing he will care for us. But the same verses also sum up Jesus’ teaching. After hearing all his exposition of the life of discipleship, Jesus says, apply it to yourself, not others. Take the log out of your own eye, instead of poking around in other people’s eyes (7:1–6). Further, when we hear all the commands and feel overwhelmed, we must ask God for help (7:7–11). If we should forget our duties to our neighbors, we can remember this summary: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (7:12).
Jesus does not mean that we should do to others whatever they want. Two immoral people could use “Do unto others” as a rationale for indulging each other’s illicit desires. Jesus expects his disciples to want, for themselves and for others, what he wants for us.
Calvin thought that the Golden Rule is another way of saying that we should be just and fair toward all. So many quarrels occur because men “knowingly and willingly trample justice [toward others] under their feet,” while demanding perfect justice for themselves. Wars between nations and wars between individuals both begin this way. All of us can “explain minutely and ingeniously what ought to be done” for us. We should apply the same skill and wisdom to the needs of others.
Sadly, we can so fix our attention on our own needs and desires that we are hardly aware of the needs of others. The whole Bible sets the standard for what we owe others. But then, for our benefit, Jesus gives us summaries of the Law and the Prophets. So, to paraphrase slightly, Jesus says, “Do for others what your sense of justice would require others to do for you.” Later, he simply says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). But we are quick to think first of ourselves, and thus we fail to keep the standard. Consider, for example, the game that many families play after dinner, called “Who worked hardest today and so should be excused from household chores?”
We might wish we could do for others what we ask for ourselves, but we know we cannot keep it up. We briefly tried an experimental form of discipline in our house. When one child caused serious harm to another, we made the offending child a “servant,” bound to obey the other for perhaps an hour to do whatever the “master” wished. In this way, the theory went, we would reduce the incidence of recklessly harmful behavior. But the experiment never worked. No one could keep up the relationship for more than a couple of minutes. I suspect that nearly all of us would fail if we had to play that game.
Once again, therefore, Jesus’ laws lead us to see our sin and our need for grace. We simply cannot keep his law. We cannot stop judging others for their failings. We cannot keep even the simplest summary of his teaching: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” What then shall we do? We return to the first word in our passage. We must ask God for mercy to forgive and ask him to make us new.
Then, Jesus says, it will be given to us. The Lord will give us his mercy, the forgiveness of our sins. The same Jesus who laid down all these laws also gave his life for those who would break them. He will give us his Spirit, so that we might see our neighbor with more of the eyes of Jesus, the eyes of love, and might serve that neighbor and serve our Lord.
11. Your Father will give good things. This is expressly mentioned by Christ, that believers may not give way to foolish and improper desires in prayer. We know how great influence, in this respect, is exerted by the excesses and presumption of our flesh. There is nothing which we do not allow ourselves to ask from God; and if he does not humour our folly, we exclaim against him. Christ therefore enjoins us to submit our desires to the will of God, that he may give us nothing more than he knows to be advantageous. We must not think that he takes no notice of us, when he does not answer our wishes: for he has a right to distinguish what we actually need. All our affections being blind, the rule of prayer must be sought from the word of God: for we are not competent judges of so weighty a matter. He who desires to approach God with the conviction that he will be heard, must learn to restrain his heart from asking any thing that is not agreeable to his will. “Ye ask, and receive not, (says James, 4:3,) because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.”
Instead of good things (ἀγαθὰ) in the last clause, Luke says the Holy Spirit. This does not exclude other benefits, but points out what we ought chiefly to ask: for we ought never to forget the exhortation, Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all other things shall be added to you, (Matth. 6:33.) It is the duty of the children of God, when they engage in prayer, to strip themselves of earthly affections, and to rise to meditation on the spiritual life. In this way, they will set little value on food and clothing, as compared to the earnest and pledge of their adoption, (Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:14:) and when God has given so valuable a treasure, he will not refuse smaller favours.
9–11 Another a fortiori argument (see comments at 6:25) is introduced. In Greek both v. 9 and v. 10 begin with ē (“or”), probably meaning “or to put the matter another way, which of you, etc.” No parent would deceive a child asking for bread or fish by giving him a similar-looking but inedible stone or a dangerous snake. The point at issue is not merely the parents’ willingness to give but their willingness to give good gifts—even though they themselves are evil. Jesus presupposes the sinfulness (v. 11) of human nature (himself exempted; “you,” he says, not “we”) but implicitly acknowledges this does not mean all human beings are as bad as they could be or utterly evil in all they do. people are evil; they are self-centered, not God-centered. This taints all they do. Nevertheless, they can give good gifts to their children. How much more, then, will the heavenly Father, who is pure goodness without alloy, give good gifts to those who ask?
Four observations will tie up some loose ends.
- Lachs (“Textual Observations,” 109–10) insists that the “concept that man is evil from birth, born in sin, and similar pronouncements, is a later theological development” and therefore proposes to emend the text of an alleged Semitic original. While it is true that rabbinic literature does not normally portray man as inherently evil, it is false to say that the idea arose only after Jesus, presumably with Paul (cf. Pss 14:1–3; 51; 53:1–3; Ecc 7:20). Jesus regularly assumes the sinfulness of humanity (cf. TDNT, 6:554–55). Therefore, the rabbinic parallels to vv. 7–11 are of limited value. They stress the analogy of the caring parent, but not on the supposition that the human parent is evil.
- The fatherhood-of-God language is reserved for God’s relationship with Jesus’ disciples (see comments at 5:45). The blessings promised as a result of these prayers are not the blessings of common grace (cf. 5:45) but of the kingdom. And though we must ask for them, it is not because God must be informed (6:8) but because this is the Father’s way of training his family.
- What is fundamentally at stake is a person’s picture of God. God must not be thought of as a reluctant stranger who can be cajoled or bullied into bestowing his gifts (6:7–8), as a malicious tyrant who takes vicious glee in the tricks he plays (7:9–10), or even as an indulgent grandfather who provides everything requested of him. He is the heavenly Father, the God of the kingdom, who graciously and willingly bestows the good gifts of the kingdom in answer to prayer. See Jayhoon Yang, “Ask, Seek and Knock? A Reconsideration of Matthew 7:7–12,” ExpTim 119 (2008): 170–75.
- On the “good gifts” as spiritual gifts (cf. Ro 3:8; 10:15; Heb 9:11; 10:1) and the parallel reference to the Holy Spirit (Lk 11:13), see Marshall, Gospel of Luke, 469–70.
7:7–11 / Earlier in the sermon (6:5–15) Matthew brought together a portion of Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer. Now he expands it by stressing how important it is for believers to be persistent in prayer. The present imperatives, “keep on asking,” “keep on seeking,” and “keep on knocking” (Williams) indicate that prayer is not a semi-passive ritual in which we occasionally share our concerns with God. In Luke, the narrative is immediately preceded by the story of the man awakened from sleep at midnight by an importunate neighbor who needs bread to feed a guest (Luke 11:5–8). Prayer requires stamina and persistence. It is those who keep on asking that receive and those who keep on seeking that find. God opens the door to those who keep on knocking. Divine delays do not indicate reluctance on God’s part. In the time of waiting we learn patience, and the intensity of our desire is put to the test. God, through Jeremiah, told the exiles in Babylon, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). It is those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” that are satisfied (Matt. 5:6).
Jesus now reasons that since earthly fathers who are less than perfect will not mock a child who asks for food, does it not follow that God will give good things to those who ask? Should his son ask for bread a father will not hand him a stone. Should he ask for a fish he will not be given a snake (the reference is to some eel-like fish without scales that, according to Lev. 11:12, was not to be eaten). Though you are evil (v. 11), says Jesus, you know how to provide your children with what is best for them. How much more will God, the heavenly Father, who is perfect in righteousness and love? Schweizer writes that “human maliciousness is here simply presupposed” and that this runs counter to the “widespread romantic belief that man is innately good and need only be left to himself with as few restrictions as possible for everything to improve” (pp. 173–74). Jesus is not making a theological statement about absolute human goodness but is drawing a comparison between parents’ natural acts of kindness toward their children and the perfection of God’s generosity toward those who seek his favor.
Our attitude to our heavenly Father (7–11)
It seems natural that Jesus should move on from our relationship with our fellow men to our relationship with our heavenly Father, the more so because our Christian duty of discrimination (not judging others, not casting pearls before pigs, and being helpful without being hypocritical) is much too difficult for us without divine grace.
This passage is not the first instruction on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has already warned us against pharisaic hypocrisy and pagan formalism, and has given us his own model prayer. Now, however, he actively encourages us to pray by giving us some very gracious promises. For ‘nothing is better adapted to excite us to prayer than a full conviction that we shall be heard’. Or again, ‘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.’2
Jesus seeks to imprint his promises on our mind and memory by the hammer-blows of repetition. First, his promises are attached to direct commands: Ask … seek … knock … (7). These may deliberately be in an ascending scale of urgency. Richard Glover suggests that a child, if his mother is near and visible, asks; if she is neither, he seeks; while if she is inaccessible in her room, he knocks.3 Be that as it may, all three verbs are present imperatives and indicate the persistence with which we should make our requests known to God. Secondly, the promises are expressed in universal statements: for every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened (8).
Thirdly, Jesus illustrates his promises by a homely parable (9–11). He envisages a situation with which all his hearers will have been daily familiar, namely a child coming to his father with a request. If he asks for bread, will he be given something which looks a bit like it but is in fact disastrously different, e.g. a stone instead of a loaf, or a snake instead of a fish? That is, if the child asks for something wholesome to eat (bread or fish), will he receive instead something unwholesome, either inedible (a stone) or positively harmful (a poisonous snake)? Of course not! Parents, even though they are evil, i.e. selfish by nature, still love their children and give them only good gifts. Notice that Jesus here assumes, even asserts, the inherent sinfulness of human nature. At the same time, he does not deny that bad men are capable of doing good. On the contrary, evil parents give good gifts to their children, for ‘God drops into their hearts a portion of his goodness’. What Jesus is saying is that even when they are doing good, following the noble instincts of parenthood and caring for their children, even then they do not escape the designation ‘evil’, for that is what human beings are.
So the force of the parable lies rather in a contrast than in a comparison between God and men. It is another a fortiori or ‘how much more’ argument: if human parents (although evil) know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will our heavenly Father (who is not evil but wholly good) give good things to those who ask him? (11). ‘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?’ There is no doubt that our prayers are transformed when we remember that the God we are coming to is ‘Abba, Father’, and infinitely good and kind.
Professor Jeremias has demonstrated the novelty of this teaching of Jesus. He writes that, with the help of his assistants, he has carefully examined ‘the prayer literature of ancient Judah—a large, rich literature, all too little explored’, but that ‘in no place in this immense literature is this invocation of God as Abba to be found … Abba was an everyday word, a homely family word. No Jew would have dared to address God in this manner. Jesus did it always … and authorizes his disciples to repeat the word Abba after him.’ What could be simpler than this concept of prayer? If we belong to Christ, God is our Father, we are his children, and prayer is coming to him with our requests. The trouble is that for many of us it seems too simple, even simplistic. In our sophistication we say we cannot believe it, and in any case it does not altogether tally with our experience. So we turn from Christ’s prayer-promises to our prayer-problems.
Confronted by the straightforward promises of Jesus, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find, people raise several objections which we need now to consider.
- Prayer is unseemly. ‘This encouragement to pray presents a false picture of God. It implies that he needs either to be told what we lack or to be bullied into giving it, whereas Jesus himself said earlier that our heavenly Father knows it and cares for us anyway. Besides, he surely cannot be bothered with our petty affairs. Why should we suppose that his gifts are dependent on our asking? Do human parents wait before supplying their children’s needs until they ask for them?’
To this we reply that the reason why God’s giving depends on our asking is neither because he is ignorant until we inform him nor because he is reluctant until we persuade him. The reason has to do with us, not with him; the question is not whether he is ready to give, but whether we are ready to receive. So in prayer we do not ‘prevail on’ God, but rather prevail on ourselves to submit to God. True, the language of ‘prevailing on God’ is often used in regard to prayer, but it is an accommodation to human weakness. Even when Jacob ‘prevailed on God’, what really happened is that God prevailed over him, bringing him to the point of surrender when he was able to receive the blessing which God had all the time been longing to give him.
The truth is that the heavenly Father never spoils his children. He does not shower us with gifts whether we want them or not, whether we are ready for them or not. Instead he waits until we recognize our need and turn to him in humility. This is why he says Ask, and it will be given you, and why James added, ‘You do not have because you do not ask.’ Prayer, then, is not ‘unseemly’; it is the very way God himself has chosen for us to express our conscious need of him and our humble dependence on him.
- Prayer is unnecessary. This second objection arises more from experience than from theology. Thoughtful Christians look round them and see lots of people getting on fine without prayer. Indeed they seem to receive without prayer the very same things that we receive with it. They get what they need by working for it, not by praying for it. The farmer gets a good crop by labour, not prayer. The mother gets her baby by medical skill, not prayer. The family balances its budget by the wage-earning of dad and perhaps others, not by prayer. ‘Surely,’ we may be tempted to say, ‘this proves that prayer doesn’t make an ounce of difference; it’s so much wasted breath.’
But wait a minute! In thinking about this question, we need to distinguish between the gifts of God as Creator and his gifts as Father, or between his creation-gifts and his redemption-gifts. It is perfectly true that he gives certain gifts (harvest, babies, food, life) whether people pray or not, whether they believe or not. He gives to all life and breath. He sends rain from heaven and fruitful seasons to all. He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good alike. He ‘visits’ a mother when she conceives and later gives birth. None of these gifts is dependent on whether people acknowledge their Creator or pray to him.
But God’s redemption-gifts are different. God does not bestow salvation on all alike, but ‘bestows his riches upon all who call on him. For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” ’ The same applies to post-salvation blessings, the ‘good things’ which Jesus says the Father gives his children. It is not material blessings that he is referring to here, but spiritual blessings—daily forgiveness, deliverance from evil, peace, the increase of faith, hope and love, in fact the indwelling work of ‘the Holy Spirit’ as the comprehensive blessing of God, which is how Luke renders ‘good things’.3 For these gifts we must certainly pray.
The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught earlier in the Sermon, brings together both kinds of gift, for ‘daily bread’ is a creation-gift, whereas ‘forgiveness’ and ‘deliverance’ are redemption-gifts. How is it, then, that they can be combined in the same prayer? Probably the answer is this. We pray for daily bread not because we fear we will starve otherwise (since millions get their daily bread without ever praying for it or saying grace before meals) but because we know that ultimately it comes from God and because as his children it is appropriate regularly to acknowledge our physical dependence on him. We pray for forgiveness and deliverance, however, because these gifts are given only in answer to prayer, and because without them we would be lost. So prayer is not unnecessary.
- Prayer is unproductive. The third problem is the obvious corollary to the second. People argue that prayer is unnecessary because God gives to many who do not ask, and that it is unproductive because he fails to give to many who do. ‘I prayed to pass an exam, but failed it. I prayed to be healed of an illness, and it got worse. I prayed for peace, but the world is filled with the noise of war. Prayer doesn’t work!’—This is the familiar problem of unanswered prayer.
The best way to approach this problem is to remember that the promises of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are not unconditional. A moment’s thought will convince us of this. It is absurd to suppose that the promise ‘Ask, and it shall be given you’ is an absolute pledge with no strings attached; that ‘Knock, and it will be opened to you’ is an ‘Open, Sesame’ to every closed door without exception; and that by the waving of a prayer wand any wish will be granted and every dream will come true. The idea is ridiculous. It would turn prayer into magic, the person who prays into a magician like Aladdin, and God into our servant who appears instantly to do our bidding like Aladdin’s genie every time we rub our little prayer lamp. In addition, this concept of prayer would place an impossible strain on every sensitive Christian if he knew that he was certain to get everything he asked. ‘If it were the case’, writes Alec Motyer, ‘that whatever we ask, God was pledged to give, then I for one would never pray again, because I would not have sufficient confidence in my own wisdom to ask God for anything; and I think if you consider it you will agree. It would impose an intolerable burden on frail human wisdom if by his prayer-promises God was pledged to give whatever we ask, when we ask it, and in exactly the terms we ask. How could we bear the burden?’
Perhaps we could put the matter in this way: being good, our heavenly Father gives only good gifts to his children; being wise as well, he knows which gifts are good and which are not. We have already heard Jesus say that human parents would never give a stone or snake to their children who ask for bread or fish. But what if the children (through ignorance or folly) were actually to ask for a stone or a snake? What then? Doubtless an extremely irresponsible parent might grant the child’s request, but the great majority of parents would be too wise and loving. Certainly our heavenly Father would never give us something harmful, even if we asked for it urgently and repeatedly, for the simple reason that he gives his children only ‘good gifts’. So then if we ask for good things, he grants them; if we ask for things which are not good (either not good in themselves, or not good for us or for others, directly or indirectly, immediately or ultimately) he denies them; and only he knows the difference. We can thank God that the granting of our needs is conditional—not only on our asking, seeking and knocking, but also on whether what we desire by asking, seeking and knocking is good. Thank God he answers prayer. Thank God he also sometimes denies our requests. ‘I thank God’, writes Dr Lloyd-Jones ‘that He is not prepared to do anything that I may chance to ask Him … I am profoundly grateful to God that He did not grant me certain things for which I asked, and that He shut certain doors in my face.’1
Prayer sounds very simple when Jesus teaches about it. Just Ask …, seek …, knock …, and in each case you will be answered. This is a deceptive simplicity, however; much lies behind it. First, prayer presupposes knowledge. Since God gives gifts only if they accord with his will, we have to take pains to discover his will—by Scripture meditation and by the exercise of a Christian mind schooled by Scripture meditation. Secondly, prayer presupposes faith. It is one thing to know God’s will; it is another to humble ourselves before him and express our confidence that he is able to cause his will to be done. Thirdly, prayer presupposes desire. We may know God’s will and believe he can perform it, and still not desire it. Prayer is the chief means God has ordained by which to express our deepest desires. This is the reason why the ‘ask—seek—knock’ commands are in the present imperative and in an ascending scale to challenge our perseverance.
Thus, before we ask, we must know what to ask for and whether it accords with God’s will; we must believe God can grant it; and we must genuinely want to receive. Then the gracious promises of Jesus will come true.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 444–446). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 235–240). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Doriani, D. M. (2008). Matthew & 2. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (Vol. 1, pp. 281–290). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 1, pp. 353–354). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 222–223). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (pp. 65–66). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (pp. 183–190). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.