The Sermon On The Mount
"Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?"
Every Christian will grant that prayer is a bounden duty, that it is obligatory upon us to own our dependence upon the Giver of all good and perfect gifts, to seek from Him those things which we are in need of both temporally and spiritually, to acknowledge the Lord's goodness and lovingkindness and render thanks for His manifold mercies. To fail at such a point is inexcusable, making us like unto those who live as though there were no God, rendering not unto Him that which is His undoubted due. Prayerlessness is not to be looked upon as an innocent infirmity, but as a sin of the deepest dye, which is to be penitently confessed. Christians will also grant that prayer is a precious privilege, for by this ordinance they may obtain an audience with the Majesty on high, delight themselves in the Lord, commune with the Beloved of their souls, unburden their hearts before Him and prove Him to be "a very present help in trouble." Alas, that we prize this privilege so little and treat it so lightly.
Though it be free a lowed that prayer is a bounden duty and a precious privilege, yet the fact remains that many professing Christians are woefully slack in performing that duty and in availing themselves of that privilege. Why is this? Let them not add to the sill of prayerlessness the wickedness of seeking to throw the blame upon God, by saying that He has withheld from them the spirit of prayer, that He refuses them liberty of approach unto Him. That were to add insult to injury. We make an evil use of it when we appeal to God's sovereignty in order to excuse ourselves from discharging our responsibilities. If we are not enjoying the light of God's countenance it is because our sins have come in between as a thick cloud (Isa. 59:2). If we are not receiving good things at His hands, it is because our iniquities have withheld them (Jer. 5:24). If our hearts are cold and prayerless it is because we have grieved the Holy Spirit. The fault is wholly ours, and we must honestly own it.
Among the things that hinder a free and regular approach unto the throne of grace we may mention the workings of pride. Pride begets a spirit of independence and self-sufficiency. It goes against the natural grain to take our place in the dust and come before God as empty-handed beggars. True we did so at the beginning of our Christian experience, for then we had been emptied of self and brought to look entirely outside of self for deliverance. But alas, increased years are rarely accompanied by increased humility. As we become better versed in the letter of Holy Writ and more acquainted with the mysteries of our faith, a sense of self-sufficiency is apt to possess us. "Knowledge puffeth up," and the more puffed up we are the less our sense of need and the more formal and infrequent our seeking after Divine grace.
A spirit of sloth is paralyzing to the prayer life. The soul loves its ease as well as the body, that is why we are exhorted to "watch unto prayer" (1 Pet. 4:7). And how forceful that word from the pen of such a one! It was at that very point Peter had first failed. The Lord had bidden him to "watch and pray"; instead, he went to sleep. Prayer is likened unto "striving" (Rom. 15:30) "labouring fervently" (Col. 4:12) and "wrestling" (Eph. 6:12, 18), and such exertions are not possible when lethargy has overcome us. The power of unbelief quenches the spirit of prayer. Unbelief raises objections, is occupied with difficulties, and leaves God entirely out of its considerations. Only where faith is in healthy operation can we expect any success in this holy exercise. But flirting with the world, yielding to the lusts of the flesh or heeding the lies of Satan stifles the breath of faith, and then the soul is left to gasp in the foul atmosphere of unbelief.
Now in that section of the Sermon on the Mount which we are here considering, our Lord sets before His disciples one inducement after another to stimulate them unto prayer. First, He gives them a gracious invitation: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (v. 7). Second, He assures them of an answer, by giving them a sure promise: "For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (v. 8). Third, He draws an infallible inference from the Fatherhood of God: "Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will be give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?" (vv. 9-11).
In order to get the full force of Christ's conclusion let us observe its premise: "If ye then, being evil." First of all, observe how that brief sentence expresses the Divine estimate of fallen mankind. How those words abase the pride of man, affirming as they do the depravity and corruption of human nature. Philosophers and poets, preachers and politicians may prate all they please about the dignity and divinity of man, the nobility and grandeur of human nature, but they fly in the face of this solemn and inerrant verdict of the Son of God. Christ was not deceived by the fair profession and religious pretensions of those He met with, for when "many believed in His name when they saw the miracles which He did," yet, "Jesus did not commit Himself unto them . . . for He knew what was in man" (John 2:23-25). This "if ye then, being evil" is yet more solemn and striking when we note that our Lord said it not to those who were open enemies, but unto His own disciples (see Luke 11:1, 2, 9, 13)-by nature they were polluted.
"If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children." Notwithstanding the fact that you not only do that which is evil but are yourselves evil-the fountain itself, from whence all actions issue, being poisoned-yet you are kind to your offspring. Parental love, by the wise and gracious arrangement of God, is one of the most powerful of all the active principles of the human heart and mind. No parent worthy of the name would refuse to supply the genuine needs of his little ones when he had it in his power to do so. He would neither turn a deaf ear to their cries nor mock them by bestowing what was useless and noxious instead of that which was requisite and beneficial for them. No, despite the ruin which the Fall has entailed, men and women still respond to the instincts of affection when they perceive that their offspring are in need, and use their best judgment to relieve the same; certainly those who are regenerate do so.
In what follows Christ drew a conclusion from this filial relationship: "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?" It is an argument deduced from the less to the greater, a species of reasoning frequently met with in the Scriptures. "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him" (Ps. 103:13). "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will not I forget thee" (Isa. 49:15). "I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him" (Mal. 3:17). If godly parents respond to cries of need from their bairns (children), what may we expect from Him who is supremely excellent and kindly disposed unto His children? In knowledge, in wisdom, in benevolence, in power, in resources, our heavenly Father infinitely surpasses all earthly parents, and therefore we may petition Him with the fullest assurance that He will supply all our need. What conclusive reasoning is this! What persuasive appeal is here!
But let us attend next to the connection between this gracious and grand encouragement to seekers after Divine grace and that which immediately precedes. As we sought to point out in our last, there is a gradation or progressive development here in our Lord's teaching on prayer-especially is this observable in Luke 11. First. there is the invitation (v. 7), and then a reassuring promise (v. 8). And now Christ disposes of an objection-a most foolish and wicked one, yet one which is nevertheless raised by some. A grave doubt is apt to arise in the distressed mind. True, God hears the petitions of His people, and as a general rule makes responses of mercy to them; but I am such an unworthy one, is He not therefore likely to be displeased at my prayers and so answer me in wrath instead of love? Certainly I should deserve it: if confessing my vileness, God should judge me out of my own mouth and condemn me, what could I do? Ah, if we are afraid that God will give us something evil when we have asked Him for that which is good, then we are "evil" indeed.
A sense of sinfulness and the workings of unbelief cause you to fear that if you ask something good at the hands of God He will mock you with something evil, that instead of being gracious He will send you something in righteous judgment. Does the reader deem this far-fetched and suppose we are describing a very extreme and exceptional case? Then we ask, Have you never prayed about a certain matter, prayed earnestly, and the sequel has been that instead of things being improved they grew worse, instead of relief being granted difficulties increased and the pressure became more acute, until you were afraid to pray any further for such a thing? Have you begged God again and again to make you more patient, and the sequel has been such that it appeared the Lord had mocked you by taking away what little you had ?If such has not been your experience, we can assure you that not a few know something like unto it.
"Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?" (vv. 9, 10). Here is our Lord's refutation of such an objection. He bids us ponder the conduct of earthly parents. Does a godly father deliberately mock his son when a reasonable request is made of him? Of course not. Then is that son afraid to come to his parent and acquaint him with his need? No, he is assured that his parent is the very one above all others who has his interests most at heart and is more likely than anyone else to minister unto him. He has confidence in his father's goodness; he trusts in his love, and therefore he hesitates not to apply unto him. True, in his ignorance the child may ask for something which is harmful, and then it is the wisdom and love of his parent which withholds it; but if he asks for that which is needful and beneficial, he will not receive that which is injurious in lieu of it.
The spiritual application is obvious. As the child trusts his parent, so must you your heavenly Father. "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?" As high as God is above us, so high is the certainty that He will not fail His beloved children. But to be more specific. You have perhaps been earnestly beseeching God for guidance, to lead you in a plain path, to make His way plain before your face. The result has been most discouraging. Difficulties have increased, you seem more hedged in than ever, you are now at your wits' end to know what to do. Well, do not judge God harshly and conclude He has given you a stone instead of bread! Your present lot is from the Lord, your circumstances are ordered by Him who is too wise to err and too loving to be unkind. As Spurgeon says, "It may seem hard perhaps; but may it not be the crust of the bread for all that? Believe it to be so, but never suspect you are being treated ungenerously by your Father."
Yet it appears to us that it is not so much of temporal mercies and providential blessings as of spiritual things our passage treats. We would therefore suggest that the "bread" stands for vital and indispensable graces, and the "fish" for comforting ones. Bread is the staff of life, and the graces of repentance and faith are necessary unto salvation. Here is a soul that has prayed definitely and sincerely for repentance. But he reads that Judas repented, yet perished nevertheless. He hears some faithful servant of God draw the line between legal bondage and evangelical repentance, between the sorrow of the world and "godly sorrow which worketh repentance" (2 Cor. 7:10), and he is deeply concerned, wondering whether he has so renounced sin, so detested it, so loathed it from the very bottom of his heart, as to warrant him concluding that he has indeed been granted "repentance unto life" (Acts 11:15). He therefore applies to the throne of grace crying, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."
So far so good; but now let us take the sequel. That individual becomes better acquainted with the plague of his own heart and in the light of God discovers corruption within such as he was not conscious of before. Nay, indwelling sin now asserts itself with increasing power and iniquities prevail. He seeks deliverance, but it comes not, for the flesh remains unchanged to the end. He confesses his sins to God, but so frequently that it appears to become mechanical. It seems that his heart is as hard as a stone and he is ready to believe that he was deceived, that after all he is a stranger to genuine repentance. Here, then, is the remedy for such a case. Where did you seek repentance? At the throne of grace, you answer. From whom, we ask; from some creature? No, you reply, from God. Then has He mocked you? If you sought simply, definitely, sincerely, from a sense of need, has He given you a stone? Perish the thought. It is Satan who seeks to persuade you that God has suffered you to be deluded. Believe not his lie.
Take the grace of faith. We begged God for saving faith in His Son and believed that He answered us. We renounced all our own doings and trusted in the Lord Jesus. We saw Him in the glass of the Gospel dying, the just for the unjust, and we cast ourselves on His atoning sacrifice as the alone ground of our acceptance with God. But at times the question is raised in our minds, Is mine true saving faith or would it not be presumptuous for me to affirm that in Christ I am pardoned? There is an historical faith: is mine no better than that? I read that "the devils also believe" (Jas. 2:19): may not my faith be of that sort? Do I have the genuine grace of faith or am I only deluding myself? Come back to this touchstone, my friend: where did you seek your faith? Did you ask your heavenly Father to give it you? Have you not said to Him, If my faith be worthless, graciously work in me the faith of Thine elect? Then dare you conclude that instead of imparting faith by the Spirit's operation He has put into your heart a carnal presumption and allowed you to be deluded? Even a godly human parent would not act thus: how much less so the heavenly Father!
Take the grace of personal piety. You have longed for more holiness. You have asked God for more purity of heart. You have sought earnestly for a closer conformity to the image of His Son. You have knocked again and again at the throne of grace, beseeching that you might be sanctified wholly in spirit and soul and body. Great now is your dismay, for you find yourself more sinful than ever, indwelling corruption is increasingly active, and evil thoughts continually harass you. Even so, once more we must bring you back to this: for what did you ask? where did you seek this blessing? If from some pretended priests and mediators, such as the poor papists have recourse to, you would indeed be deceived and disappointed. But if you sought from the great High Priest, the alone Mediator between God and men, it is impossible that He should have palmed off on you something which is evil. He has granted your request, though you perceive it not: the holier He makes you, the more dissatisfied you will be with yourself; the purer your heart, the more sensitive to the foulness which invades it.
Take the grace of hope. This is a virtue which stays the heart in seasons of distress, enabling the soul to look forward with firm expectation to better things in the future. "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it" (Rom. 8:24, 25): the fulfillment of the promise is not yet visible, but hope causes us to wait confidently for the same. It was the grace of hope which moved Job to say, "When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (23:10). The furnace might be 'hot, its flames most unpleasant to the flesh, the dross might sizzle (as when he cursed the day of his birth), but he had no doubt of the ultimate outcome. Ah, says the reader, I dare not cherish such an assurance: it would be presumptuous of me to do so! What, presumption to expect your heavenly Father to answer your prayers? Presumption to expect Him to make good His promise: "He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it" (Phil. 1:6)? Oh, insult Him not with such mock humility, but trust Him to act like a Father unto you.
It is to be observed that in Luke 11 a third thing is mentioned: "Or if he shall ask for an egg [something which only the wealthy ate in those days], will he offer him a scorpion?" (v. 12). This seems to carry the thought beyond asking for necessary or even comforting graces, even for what we might term spiritual luxuries, as faith grows and becomes bolder in seeking the highest enjoyments and enrichments of the Spirit. The application is not difficult. The mature Christian covets earnestly the best gifts. He begs that he may he drawn closer to Christ and enjoy more intimate communion with Him. And what form does the answer take? More persecution from the world, more opposition from friends, more unkind treatment from brethren, which stirs up the flesh and casts down the soul. Ah, but do not your heavenly Father the injustice of concluding He has given you a scorpion instead of an egg: malign not His character thus! Rather charge yourself with ignorance and folly because you fail to realize that communion with Christ in this life consists largely in "the fellowship of His sufferings" (Phil. 3:10), which is the highest honour grace confers on His followers.
In closing let us point out that if we are to enter into the comfort and assurance of our passage faith must lay firm hold of the fatherly character and relation of God. So long as we view Him only as the stern Judge or as the most high Sovereign, we may expect little liberty of approach or assurance of answers. There must be a childlike confidence in His fatherly goodness and love, a believing He will give good things unto the members of His dear family. There must be a reliance upon His sufficiency. An earthly parent may "know how to give good gifts unto his children," but straitened circumstances often prevent him carrying out his desires. Not so our heavenly Father: He not only "knoweth how," but actually gives unto His children. Then doubt Him not and cease supposing He has substituted something worthless for genuine grace.