The Sermon On The Mount
It is often helpful to compare passages with each other, for the very variations in them are found to be complementary and supplementary to one another. Markedly is this the case in connection with the four Gospels. The passage which is now before us in Matthew 7 is found also in Luke 11. There the context is a different one, and it is instructive to ponder the same. Luke 11 opens with one of the disciples asking the Lord "Teach us to pray." This request is not made by a stranger but by one of His own followers, signifying that believers need to be Divinely taught this sacred art if they are to supplicate aright. This is a very humbling truth for the proud heart of man. Prayer, which is the simplest and most spontaneous exercise of a Christian's soul, is nevertheless an art which he is not by nature competent to perform. Nor can any human school qualify him for this holy task. None but the Lord can teach him-experimentally and effectually-how to obtain the ear of God and call down showers of blessing upon himself and others. Oh, that both writer and reader may be able to feel their deep need in this matter.
Nor let it be supposed that this request "Lord, teach us to pray" is suited only to the case of a babe in Christ. True it is a most appropriate and necessary petition for young believers to present, yet there is the less need of urging it upon them than there is upon some of their older brethren. Alas, how often added years are accompanied by increased pride and self-sufficiency. How many who have the gift of the gab, a ready flow of language, and are quick to memorize the expressions which others use in their devotions, would be hurt if you suggested that they had need to cry "Lord, teach us to pray." Yet such is the case: the oldest and most experienced saint has need to be shown the way of the Lord more perfectly: "If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know" (1 Cor. 8:2). Growth in grace is not evidenced by growth in haughtiness, but in increased humility. The most deeply taught believer is the one most conscious of his need of teaching: a large part of wisdom consists of consciousness of ignorance.
The Lord answered this request of His disciple by graciously furnishing a brief directory and pattern, which we like to think of as the family prayer. Then He appeared to anticipate the questions: Will God really answer us? What is the actual design of this holy exercise: is it only designed for our inward good or does it really bring down blessings from above? Does it end with the benefit it works in us or does it truly move the hand of God? The reply, though in the form of a parable, is expressed with great clearness and force. As importunity does most surely affect men, so earnestness and persistency are sure to gain an answer from God. It is not a vain thing to supplicate the mercy seat: our prayers are not lost on the air or expended merely upon ourselves. Asking is attended with receiving, seeking with finding, and knocking leads to opening. There is a connection established between Divine decree and believing prayer, between the requests that ascend from earth and the mercies which descend from heaven.
It seems strange that so many have missed the meaning of that plain parable in Luke 11. "And He said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth" (vv. 5-8).
Now there is something more taught us in that parable than the need for and value of perseverance in prayer, namely encouragement to be earnest therein. Let us analyze its details. Why was the one sought unto displeased at the request presented to him? Because it was made not by a close relative, but simply a friend. Because the supplicant was not asking on his own behalf, but for someone else. Because it was presented at a most inopportune and inconvenient hour. Because it concerned not an urgent and pressing need, but simply a matter of some bread. Who would think of knocking up someone at midnight in order to borrow food for another? Christ shows us the natural disposition of our selfish hearts under such circumstances: "Trouble me not ... I cannot rise and give thee"; yet because the request was repeated and the suppliant would not accept a refusal, for the sake of importunity and not that of friendship the petitioner gained his request.
Though the specific conclusion was not here formally drawn by Christ-as it is in verse 13-how blessed it is for faith to do so. The One whom the Christian supplicates is more than a "friend," namely his heavenly Father. So far from there being any reluctance in Him to supply the varied needs of His children, He "giveth liberally to all and upbraideth not" (Jas. 1:5). Nor can we come to Him at any inopportune season, for He "slumbereth not, neither is weary": at all times we may address the throne of grace. Moreover, it is our privilege to spread before Him our smallest needs. We would hesitate to ask a man of prominence and importance for a mere trifle, knowing he would be loath to be bothered therewith, but "in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known unto God" is the royal invitation issued to the saint. Nor is it only our own needs we are to be concerned with: those of our friends also we may beg the Lord to relieve: thereby we honour Him, acknowledging Him to be Ruler over all, the universal Supplier.
Then our Lord plainly declared, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened," which is precisely the same as our present portion in Matthew's Gospel. If the going to a mere friend, at an opportune time, asking for material bread for another, received a favorable answer, how much more will our heavenly Father, to whom there are no inconvenient seasons, grant spiritual succour to His own dear children! Here is the heart of God revealed as the ready and bounteous Giver, whose fullness cannot be exhausted and whose word to His people is "open thy mouth wide and I will fill it" (Ps. 81:10). A wide door is here opened to the whole family of God, possibilities of blessing which we can scarcely conceive, free leave to covet earnestly the best things. No matter how enlarged our expectations may be, they cannot exceed the bounty of the Lord. But does this mean that the Christian may ask for anything he pleases and that God stands pledged to grant the same? Are those absolute promises, without any qualification? No. First, they are limited by our own unbelief, by the meagerness of our faith, which we impose upon them. And second, they are restricted by God's benignity: the only guard He has placed upon those promises is that He will give us naught save that which is really for our "good" (v. 11). And how thankful we should be for this. In our ignorance and shortsightedness we often ask God for that which would be for our ill, but in His mercy God withholds it. Not so does He act with the wicked. Unbelieving Israel asked for flesh in the wilderness and God granted their request, "But while their meat was yet in their mouths, the wrath of God came upon them" (Psalm 78:30, 31). A later generation desired a king and he was given them "in His anger" (Hosea 13:11). So too the demons had their request granted that they might enter into the herd of swine (Matthew 8:31, 32).
It is most important that the above-noted qualification be kept in mind, for in some quarters the crudest ideas obtain on this subject. Taking Matthew 7:7, 8, at its face value, some have deduced the absurd principle that we may have anything we please from God for the mere asking, providing we ask in faith, and by "asking in faith" they signify only a working themselves up to a firm persuasion that they shall have their petitions granted. But that one word "give good things to them that ask Him" at once disposes of such fanaticism. To "ask in faith" requires that we lay hold of and plead before God one of His own promises: it is not an expectation that He will grant everything we may demand, but an assurance that He will bestow whatsoever He is pledged to give. "If we ask anything according to His will [not our will, but His, as it is revealed in Holy Writ], He heareth us" (1 John 5:14), and we only ask "according to His will" when we ask in faith for these things He knows will be for our good.
"Prayer is a simple, unfeigned, humble, ardent opening of the heart before God, wherein we ask things needful or give thanks for benefits received" (John Bradford, the martyr). And what is it which the Christian, every Christian, is most urgently and constantly in need of, without which it is impossible to improve or use aright all other benefits and privileges? Is it not Divine grace: renewing grace, enlightening grace, empowering grace, sanctifying grace? What is knowledge worth unless it be sanctified to us? What do talents amount to unless they be spiritually directed? And for this grace we are to "ask": ask from a felt sense of want, trustfully supplicating God for the supply thereof. For that grace we are to "seek": seek with care and diligence, as that which is missing and lacking, and which is felt to be of great value. For that grace we are to "knock": that is, ask and seek, with earnestness and constancy, pressing our suit with fervour and persistency, persevering notwithstanding delays, oppositions and disappointments. Continuing in prayer till our request be granted.
There is an "asking" which is mere formality and accomplishes nothing: if the suppliant himself is scarcely able to remember an sour afterwards that which he petitioned for, how can he expect to receive answers? If an experienced mother knows the difference between a child's asking for the mere sake of asking and making request out of a sense of urgent need, how infinitely less can we impose upon the Omniscient One. So also there is a "seeking" which is merely mechanical and obtains not: half-heartedness and slothfulness are not likely to be successful. We take very little pains in seeking for something we regard as a mere trifle, but when an object is valued highly and prized dearly then we hunt for it with real diligence. Yet something more than earnest asking and diligent seeking is required: "knocking" suggests an intensification of the one and a continuation of the other. If at first we don't succeed, then try, try again. What a word is that: "Ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence, And give Him no rest" (Isa. 62:6, 7)!
"Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance" (Eph. 6:18). The walls of Jericho did not fall down the first time they were encompassed, nor did the beloved apostle obtain comforting assurance from the Lord the first or the second time that he besought Him for the removal of the thorn in his flesh. So far from its being a wrong thing for a Christian to make repeated request for the same object, it is required of him that he be importunate. If it be inquired, Why does God require such importunity from His people? several answers may be given. First and negatively, it is not that we have to overcome any reluctance on God's side, for He is more ready to give than we are to seek blessings from Him, yea, to do for us far more exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. Still less is it because He would tantalize us: "therefore will the Lord wait, that He may be gracious" (Isa. 30:18).
Second, from the positive side, that we may give proof of our earnestness. When someone makes request of us for anything and we find that a single refusal is sufficient to get rid of him, we conclude he was not very eager for it. But suppose a business man arrives late at his office and his chief clerk announces that a stranger has sought an interview, that he could not put him off, that he has waited for hours determined to gain his quest; then it is clear that he is eager and intent. Such intensity and perseverance are pleasing unto the Lord: when a soul can say with Jacob, "I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me" (Gen. 32:26), success is sure. "Ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13).
Such importunity is required for the testing of our faith. An unbelieving heart is soon discouraged: either opposition from man or delay on the part of God, and the spirit of prayer is speedily quenched. Not so with the trusting one: faith reassures the soul, bidding it, "Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and He shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord" (Ps. 27:14). How the faith of the Canaanitish woman was tried. First, she cried, "Have mercy on me O Lord," and we are told, "He answered her not a word." Then His disciples interposed and besought Him to send her away. Next He said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But, nothing daunted, she renewed her petition, "Lord, help me": to which Christ replied, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs." Yet even that did not dismay her: having asked and sought, she continued knocking, begging for the "crumbs." "O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt" (Matthew 15:28) was the triumphant outcome.
Such importunity is necessary for the developing of our patience. How sadly impatient we are! How angry when our wills are crossed! What fearful rebellion lurks and works in our hearts! Truly we are "like a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke," fretful and resentful at every restriction placed upon the fulfillment of our desires. But patience must have her perfect work, and it is the trying of our faith which "worketh patience" (Jas. 1:3). Real faith is not destroyed by God's delay: it knows He waits to be gracious, and therefore its possessor is enabled to "both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord" (Lam. 3:26). When Elijah had prayed that the long drought should be ended, he bade his servant go and look for the first portent of the coming rain, and when he returned saying, "there is nothing," his master replied, "go again seven times" (1 Kings 18:43). Thus, by the proving of our earnestness, the testing of faith and the developing of patience, our souls are the better fitted to receive and can the more appreciate the Lord's answer when it is vouchsafed.
But it is not for himself only that the Christian is earnestly, diligently and persistently to seek Divine grace, but for his brethren also. That is one reason why we referred to the parallel passage in Luke 11, where these Divine promises are immediately prefaced by the parable of one seeking the loaves on behalf of a needy friend. The lesson should be too plain to miss: because he was unable personally to supply that need, even though it was midnight, he went out and supplicated another on his friend's behalf. Immediately following this Christ says: "Ask [on the behalf of your friend] and it shall be given you." Be just as earnest in asking, just as diligent in seeking, just as importunate in knocking for grace to be given unto your needy brethren and sisters in Christ as you are in seeking it for yourself. They are bought with the same precious blood, and are members of the same family, and thus they have pressing claims upon your affections; and their need of Divine grace-to cleanse, to illumine, to fructify and sanctify-is as real, as great, and as urgent, as yours.
Ah, is it not at this very point we fail so lamentably! Is not our praying far too self-centered? Is there any wonder it is so ineffectual? If I am so little concerned about the spiritual well-being of my brethren and sisters at large, need I be surprised that the Lord refuses me the grace which I seek for my own soul? God will not put a premium upon selfishness. "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints" (Eph. 6:18). Yes, not merely for myself and family, or for my own church and denomination, but for all the children of God which are scattered abroad. And this not in a mere general way, and only once a week, but as definitely and diligently, fervently and constantly, as I present my own personal needs before the throne of grace. This is one of the chief lessons inculcated by the prayer Christ taught His disciples: "When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven . . . give us . . . forgive us . . . deliver us"!
"We know that we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren" (1 John 3:14). And how can our love be better expressed than by making their case and cause our own case and cause before the mercy seat! "Epaphras . . . always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God" (Col. 4:12). Ah, if we had more like Epaphras Zion would not long remain in its present languishing condition! If each of God's people earnestly, trustfully and daily cried unto heaven on behalf of the whole household of faith, that feeble knees might be strengthened, backsliders reclaimed, graces quickened. fruitless branches purged, half-dead preachers revived, we should soon witness showers of blessing descending on the parched vineyard. God has not changed: His arm is not shortened: the promises of Matthew 7:7, 8, are as available to faith now as they were on the day of Pentecost. It is affections that have waned, the footstool of prayer which has been neglected. "Ye have not, because ye ask not."
Was there ever a time when prayer for the Church collectively and its members individually was more urgently needed than now? We need frequently to remind ourselves that the most striking deliverances wrought in the past for God's people are recorded chiefly as monuments of prevailing prayer. Such were the salvation of Israel at the Red Sea, wrought in response to the supplication of Moses (Ex. 14:15), the victory over Amalek at Rephidim (Ex. 17:12), the discomfiture of the Philistines in the days of Samuel-the "Ebenezer" then erected was less a monument of victory over powerful enemies than of the prophet's prevailing prayer (1 Sam. 7:5, 9, 12)-the overthrow of the Moabites and Ammonites in the days of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 20:1-13, 17, 22-24), the remarkable deliverance from Sennacherib king of Assyria (Isa. 37:15-20, 35, 37). Such examples of Jehovah's readiness to show Himself strong on the behalf of those who count upon His intervention are recorded for our encouragement. Then ask, seek, knock.