In this text Jesus takes a break from outlining the precepts of the Kingdom and encourages us to get help from the King to obey the King’s commands. He’s at a point in the sermon where He essentially says to His listeners, “If you’ve been paying attention you should realize by now that you stand no chance of living up to the standards I’ve laid out. But don’t be discouraged – I don’t expect you to do this on your own. Remember that I started by telling you to be poor in spirit – to realize that apart from Me you can do nothing. That’s why you need to go to your heavenly Father and ask for help. Ask for help to please Him. And you know what? He WANTS to help you. He WANTS you to ask. And after you ask, He wants you to ask again and never stop asking.”
This is really a continuation of Jesus’ teaching on prayer (Luke even adds it directly after the Model Prayer in Luke 11:5-13, and adds another element regarding persistence). What He says here goes right along with the first three petitions of the Model Prayer (6:9-13). Hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, all have to do with living Kingdom-centered lives. Jesus told us to start our prayer by asking for help in honoring the King and obeying His directives. Here he elaborates more fully on what that should look like.
How do we know that He refers to asking and seeking after righteousness instead of some other kind of pursuit? Verse 8 says that everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds, and everyone who knocks has it opened. He can’t mean that God promises to grant all requests. And He just told us at the end of Chapter 6 that we aren’t to worry about material needs, so it doesn’t seem to fit that He would now urge us to persist in asking God to meet them. He did say to ask for daily bread in prayer, but that again doesn’t go along with asking and seeking and knocking. What He told us to do instead of worrying about temporary needs is to seek God’s kingdom. And He said in the beatitudes that we should hunger and thirst after righteousness. So it seems logical that here He admonishes us to go to God for help in living righteously; for doing the very things that distinguish us as citizens of His kingdom. When we ask God for help to live in a way that honors Him, He answers. When we hunger and thirst after righteousness, we’re satisfied.
Ask, seek, knock all have to do with pursuing and searching. We ask to receive answers, we seek to find something, we knock to gain entrance and see inside. Jesus tells us that when the goal of our asking, seeking and knocking is to incorporate into our lives the virtues He has just laid out we will be successful. That means prayer in the deepest sense of the word. When we ask for our Father’s help in living out His precepts He will answer.
This goes right along with John’s words in I Jn 5:14-15. And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. John says that when we pray according to God’s will, He hears us and answers us. He says we can have confidence that this is true. What is God’s will? It’s everything Jesus has said so far in this sermon. It’s the Ten Commandments. It’s everything Jesus says in the gospels and the apostles write in their epistles. So that means prayers that ask to glorify God are answered ‘yes.’ Prayers that ask for lives that bring honor to God are answered ‘yes.’ Prayers that ask for help to obey, to bear fruit, to love God and others, to increase belief – all are answered ‘yes.’ Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. He loves to say ‘yes’ to those who ask Him for Himself.
Note that the commands in verse 7 are present tense. That means we can read this as keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Persist in the pursuit; don’t give up and never stop. And go right now. There seems to be a sense of urgency inherent in the instruction. Go to the throne and ask the King for help. Go this minute. Then go again. Keep going and keep going and keep going. You need help, so don’t ever stop asking.
Stop and consider what this means about God. If He admonishes us to come to Him and keep coming to Him, it means He WANTS a relationship with us! He doesn’t tell us to drop by anytime but then quietly hope we don’t take Him up on it. He says we can’t come enough! We CANNOT come too much. Our Father wants us to pursue Him so He can interact with us personally. We serve a personal God who wants us to know Him more and more, and wants us to spend every waking moment of our lives in His presence communing with Him. God says to us, “I love you, so love Me. I pursue you, so pursue Me. I want you, so want Me.” He isn’t just the God of the universe. He’s our loving Father who WANTS US.
Notice also that the instruction is effectively repeated three times. Jesus doesn’t say this as an aside or in an offhanded way. This isn’t a minor promise that we can overlook or downplay. Jesus wants to make it as clear as possible that we MUST go to God so we can live in a manner worthy of Him.
Something to note about persistently seeking God. We don’t persist because we have to somehow get His attention. Remember that Jesus just taught that we aren’t to pray with meaningless repetition like the Gentiles, and that God knows our requests before we make them (6:5-8). Jesus doesn’t mean that only repeated prayers succeed. We persist because we understand our weakness and continual need for His help. We can do nothing on our own because of our spiritual poverty, so we continually need His strength and guidance. And that will never change. Thus we never stop asking, seeking, knocking. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness aren’t filled just once – they continually hunger and are continually filled (Paul says he presses on toward the goal of the upward call of God not having obtained it yet – Phil 3:12-14). We will never reach a point where we “have it” – to the contrary, as we mature in the faith and know God and ourselves more and more, we understand our dependence on Him more and more and ask, seek, and knock more and more. [Spiritual maturity differs from physical/emotional maturity in this way. In our world, maturity equals independence. In God’s kingdom, the spiritually mature man has an ever-growing understanding and appreciation of his dependence.]
And it is notable that there isn’t a time element in this passage. God promises to answer but He doesn’t promise that it will be right away. That means we should pray until God answers. And since His answer will likely take the form of slowly conforming us to His image, we should never stop praying. It is not enough to begin to pray, nor to pray aright; nor is it enough to continue for a time to pray; but we must patiently, believingly continue in prayer until we obtain an answer; and further, we have not only to continue in prayer unto the end, but we have also to believe that God does hear us and will answer our prayers. Most frequently we fail in not continuing in prayer until the blessing is obtained, and in not expecting the blessing. (George Muller; quoted by Basil Miller, George Muller; 126)
Consider what verse 7 means in the negative:
If we DON’T ask it won’t be given.
If we DON’T seek we won’t find.
If we DON’T knock it won’t be opened.
If we think we can will ourselves to live out the Christian virtues we’re horribly wrong. The arrogance of our non-prayer lives is STAGGERING.
This verse pretty much leaves us without excuse, doesn’t it? EVERYONE who asks, seeks, and knocks, receives, finds, and has it opened. EVERYONE. Why do we live defeated lives when we have this promise at our disposal????
This also reassures us in the pursuit. We can persist in asking, seeking and knocking, armed with God’s promise that He will respond, and with the knowledge that we pray according to His will. When we pray for help in living out the very commands and priorities our Father gives us, He promises He WILL help.
If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples (Jn 15:7-8). God is glorified when we are fruitful, so we can ask for help in bearing fruit in Jesus’ name and the Father will answer.
Jesus’ teaching here means we can pray to be poor in spirit, to mourn over sin, to be meek, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, to be lights in the world, to obey the law, to be selfless in our relationships, to be free from lust, to be pure in our marriages, for integrity, to have no concern for our rights, to love our enemies, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, to seek only God’s approval for our righteous acts, to pray as we should (we can pray for help in prayer!), to lay up treasures in heaven, to seek God’s kingdom to the point where we have no thought for material needs, to not be judgmental, to understand our profound dependence on Him. We can even pray to hunger and thirst after righteousness (ask, seek, and knock for the ability to ask, seek, and knock)!!! ALL these prayers He promises to answer.
Now it’s prudent to pause for a moment and consider what form these answers could take. Suffering can bring glory to God. Poverty can bring glory to God. Sickness (ask the Apostle Paul) can bring glory to God. These are anything but prayers for health and wealth and happiness. Praying for God to make us more conformed to what He wants opens up for Him every area of our lives and enables Him to prune away what does not profit for eternity. The ‘yes’ prayers can be scary from a strictly human perspective.
The fear of the consequences, however, pales in comparison to the depth of the promise. We have God’s guarantee that He will answer sincere prayer offered up for the purpose of becoming what He wants us to be. We have help – guaranteed help. If our desire is honestly to become more useful for His kingdom and glorify Him with our lives – regardless of the cost – then He will grant our desire. If we want to be conformed to the image of His Son more than we want anything else in this life or world – He will honor that request. If we want Him and only Him, He is ours.
He is our FATHER. We have a Father in heaven who longs to give us good things. Like a good father He wants what is best for us and always responds to requests that pertain to our best. In Lk 11:13, Jesus defines what is good as the Holy Spirit – this incorporates everything required to live as He wants us to. His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (II Pet 1:3). Unlike an earthly father, however, our heavenly Father doesn’t have to figure out what is good and will NEVER make a mistake as to what He gives us.
No good parent wants his children to fail. No parent sets standards hoping his kids can’t live up to them. And any dad is eager to help his child succeed. The same is true to an even greater extent with our heavenly Father. What He’s outlined in this sermon He longs for us to uphold. He lovingly wants us to glorify Him through our lives because it’s why we were created and what is best for us. Thus He WANTS to help us in any way possible. “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” (Deut 5:29).
Notice that He also points out that a good father will NOT give bad things to his children. Our Father in heaven will not give us bad things even when we ask for them. These verses do not promise positive answers to ALL prayer – they promise positive answers to prayer offered in accordance with God’s will (Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart – Ps 37:4). Just as a father will not grant every request of his kids (because that would mean he’s not practicing the discretion that age and experience have given him and that his kids don’t have), so our Father in heaven won’t grant all of our requests (because that would mean He’s not practicing the discretion and perspective that eternal omniscience gives to Him and that we don’t have). A father who says ‘yes’ to everything his kids want abdicates his role and transfers ultimate authority and control to the kids. The kids must then carry the mantle of responsibility and must be very careful what they ask for because they’re sure to get it. Conversely, a child with a father willing to say ‘no’ is secure knowing the responsibility for his safety is not his alone. The same is true of our heavenly Father. We would be miserable if God granted all of our wishes like some cosmic genie and did not give us the benefit of His eternal perspective. How messed up would our lives be if He granted everything we wanted every time we asked? How messed up would the world be if everyone had their prayers answered affirmatively?
Sometimes life gets overwhelming, and we realize we could use a little help. So we pray for our health to get better, for our marriage to work out, for success in our work that has taken a turn for the worse. There is nothing wrong in praying for these things, but they are not what our salvation is about. Don’t expect Jesus to save us by teaching us to depend on the things we are afraid of losing! He loves us too much to let our health, marriage, or work become the savior of our lives. He will abandon every crusade that searches for salvation from anything or anyone other than God. So he delays, he watches as we race down dead-end streets, he lets our mission du jour crash and burn. To receive Jesus as Savior means recognizing him as our only help. Not our only help for getting what we want. But our only true help. (M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts; 124)
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. (Garth Brooks)
[Note the first phrase of verse 11 – If you then, being evil. Can you imagine a teacher saying this? This is an example of why Jesus’ speaking is so different from the scribes (7:28-29). He speaks with the authority of the Son of God. He doesn’t include Himself in this description; it describes His listeners only.]
So what this means, when we consider the text as a whole, is that we have a loving heavenly Father who promises to do whatever it takes to make us useful for His kingdom when we ask. And because He is our Father, He will do it in a way that is best for us even when we have a mistaken understanding of what that best is. This promise is the greatest news we could possibly hear as His children. It’s actually much better than if He simply said He’ll grant every request for everything. Because it means He will enable us to live in a manner worthy of Him. He will enable us to glorify Him and fulfill our created purpose and find contentment. He will enable us to store up treasures in heaven. And He will enable us to become more like our Savior. God loves us too much to give us anything less than His best or to allow us to settle for anything less. So He ultimately promises to give us Himself when we seek Him.
Knowing this, does it make sense to spend much time praying for temporal needs and problems? Jesus said to ask for our daily bread, so there’s nothing wrong with asking for practical help with daily issues. But remember that He put that petition fourth after three petitions that dovetail with this text. If we have the guarantee that prayers for righteousness are answered, shouldn’t we spend much of our time offering up those very prayers? If we know God answers prayers that make us more useful for eternity, why not spend the lion’s share of our prayer life asking to be more useful for eternity? And if we do this, won’t many of our other life problems and issues go away? Or at least appear in a different light?
And shouldn’t this promise – along with an understanding of our spiritual poverty – motivate us to pray more overall? If we KNOW that we’ll receive what we ask for, that we’ll find what we seek, that what we knock on will be opened, shouldn’t we want to ask, seek, and knock all the time? It seems logical that guaranteed success leads to action.
Another element to this text is what it means for intercessory prayer. It makes sense that the same promise of verse 8 that applies to us personally applies to others for whom we ask, seek and knock. I can pray for someone’s job or finances or health, and that’s all well and good. But if I pray for his meekness, his mercy, his forgiving spirit, his hunger and thirst for righteousness, and claim God’s promise that He WILL answer those prayers – isn’t that so much the better? If I can honestly tell someone that I’m going to take him with me to the throne of God and claim Matt 7:8 on his behalf, haven’t I shown love toward him in an amazing way? This is human intercession at its best.
I must also understand that if I need continual prayer, then so do those I pray for. If I get weak very quickly – so do they. And if I multiply that concept by everyone whose spiritual condition I should be praying for plus myself – I need to spend an ENORMOUS amount of time in prayer.
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5).
The kingdom of heaven requires poverty of spirit, purity of heart, truth, compassion, a nonretaliatory spirit, a life of integrity; and we lack all of these things. Then let us ask for them! Are you as holy, as meek, as truthful, as loving, as pure, as obedient to God as you would like to be? Then ask Him for grace that these virtues may multiply in your life! Such asking, when sincere and humble, is already a step of repentance and faith, for it is an acknowledgement that the virtues the kingdom requires you do not possess, and that these same virtues only God can give. Moreover, I suspect that this asking, seeking, and knocking has a total package as its proper object. It does not seek holiness but spurn obedience; it does not seek obedience but hedge when it comes to purity. It is a wholehearted pursuit of the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And this pursuit is stamped by stamina; it is a persistent asking, seeking, knocking. (DA Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; 117)