A Christian’s First Prayer

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Matthew 7:7-12

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v.10     The comparisons make more sense if we remember the time and place.  The common round loaf of bread might be said to look something like a stone and a snake looked superficially like a fish, especially the eel-like catfish of the Sea of Galilee.  [France, 144]

v.11     The a fortiori argument – an argument from the less to the greater – is clear:  if a human father, sinful and selfish as all men are, will give his children what they ask for, especially the things they really need, how much more our perfect and infinitely loving heavenly Father?  All the emphasis in vv. 7-11 falls on the effectiveness of prayer.  It works.  God will not fail to respond to his children’s prayers.

By the way, notice how the Lord slips in “though you are evil,” as if it were the most obvious and incontestable fact in the world.  The solidarity of the human race in sin is taken for granted, as it should be.  [Morris, 171]

v.12     The remaining verses of the chapter, from v. 13, are a hortatory conclusion for the entire Sermon on the Mount.  They will not add further commandments or descriptions of the righteousness that Christ demands of his disciples.  Instead they will give reasons why it is so necessary to practice that righteousness and live a faithful Christian life.  So here in v. 12 we have the concluding statement for the entire ethical section of the sermon. The opening “therefore” – the NIV’s “so” – thus connects the verse to the paragraphs that precede it, not simply to the immediately previous verses. As we pointed out some sermons back, the reference to the Law and the Prophets here in v. 12 forms an inclusio with the reference to the Law and the Prophets in 5:17.  This is the end of the section of the sermon begun at 5:17 that deals with the particular character of Christian righteousness.  So verse 12 is not the conclusion of the “ask, seek, and knock,” section immediately before it, but of the entire sermon back to 5:17.

This summary commandment is, of course, what we call “the golden rule.”  In a nutshell this is the greater righteousness that Jesus expects of his disciples.  Later in the Gospel of Matthew the Lord will say that the command to love God: the command to love our neighbor as ourselves sum up the entire law of Moses.  In its negative form – “Do not do to others what you wouldn’t want to be done to you” – the golden rule is found in a wide variety of ancient writings, from Athenian philosophers to Jewish rabbis.  In that form, apparently, it was found in the teaching of Confucius.  Human beings, made in the image of God, and having the law of God written on their hearts, know that this is required of them.  Even in their moral corruption they pay homage to this rule of human life.  So today, for example, those who favor gay marriage argue that those who oppose it are not treating others as they would like to be treated themselves.  So far as we know, however, Jesus was the first to give it this positive form.  However, we must not forget that the golden rule is really only an elaboration of the commandment of Lev. 19:18:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The form is perhaps original to Jesus, the moral standard goes all the way back.  Unselfish love in action is the principle of Christian righteousness.  [France, 146]  Bishop Ryle says this about the golden rule:  “It settles a hundred difficult points, which in a world like this are continually arising between man and man; it prevents the necessity of laying down endless little rules for our conduct in specific cases, it sweeps the whole debatable ground with one mighty principle.”

Jesus has set a very high standard for our conduct in the preceding paragraphs of this great sermon.  We are to be as faithful to him in the secret places of our hearts as in our outward behavior; we are to love our enemies and respond to cruelty with kindness; we are to be generous to the needy without a thought to our own reputation, in fact doing all we can to avoid calling attention to our righteous acts, whatever they are; we are to deny the world and its pleasures to give all our service to God, content to let him distribute to us what measure of this world’s goods he thinks wise and right in our case; we are to practice a generous and not a critical judgment of others. Indeed, summing it all up here in v. 12, we are to treat everyone else all the time the way we would like to be treated ourselves.  Those who have sought to live this life know how punishingly difficult it is for vain, selfish and self-centered people such as we all are.

So the question comes naturally to our minds:  How are we to reach what seems to be this impossibly high standard?  How are we to become selfless, humble, sincere, and faithful people?  And a large part of that answer is prayer.  Which is to say that these are graces only God can give us and only God can work into our feeling, our thinking, and our living.  We must ask him for these things.  So earnest and persistent prayer takes its place beside the golden rule in the Christian life, not only as a means to an end, but as the righteousness itself, a life of active dependence upon the Lord, a life lived, and only lived, by trusting in him.  This righteous life to which we Christians have been called, this greater righteousness, is, finally, just the life of faith, faith working through love, and because it is faith, it is prayer, for prayer is the purest act of faith, prayer is faith thinking and faith speaking.

When taken out of its context in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s invitation to “ask…seek…and knock” is often understood by Christians in terms of their own earthly desires.  We want certain things for ourselves and so we take encouragement here to ask the Lord for them.  And there is nothing wrong with that, so long as we are asking for right things, things we can request of our Father in heaven with a clear conscience. We are told to make just such requests many times in the Bible.  But here, in the Sermon on the Mount, the asking, seeking, and knocking Jesus is talking about refers chiefly to our pursuit of moral goodness, that character and that living summed up in v. 12 with the famous “golden rule.”  That has been the subject all along in the Sermon and is the subject here as the conclusion in v. 12 makes clear.

Now, as we have said a number of our times in our study of the Sermon so far, it is addressed not to the unbeliever, but to the believer.  It is instruction in living for those who are already Christ’s disciples.  It is to Christians that the Lord says, “do to others what you would have them do to you.”  This is his law for our lives!  And we Christians are the ones who are to take this summons to heart, to ponder its meaning, and to face its implications for our daily living.  And what are those implications?

Well, the golden rule is a universal principle; it applies to every area of our lives.  “It will be a principle,” one commentator wrote, “which will dominate his life at home, in the factory, in the bus, in the office, in the street, in the train, at his games, everywhere.”  [Barclay in Morris, 172]  And, of course, the same could be said about every particular piece of the righteousness that Christ has been describing to us in his Sermon, for every part is simply a particular application of this golden rule.  It is a summary of everything the Lord has said to us about that greater righteousness that should characterize his disciples, especially as that righteousness concerns our treatment of others.  And, lest we forget, most of what the Lord has said about this greater righteousness concerns our treatment of others.  There is that, to be sure, that concerns our love of God directly and alone; but most of what he has said in this sermon concerns our love of our neighbor and our Christian brothers and sisters.

I said, the golden rule is a universal principle.  It is precisely its universal scope that defines the real burden of this demand to love others, to treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves.  We can all nod our heads in agreement with the principle; we can imagine that we are keeping this commandment in certain ways.  But the Lord gives it to us in a universal form that admits of no exceptions.  And, lest we try to find them, he has already said that we must treat even our worst enemies with this self-forgetful love.  Let me bring the matter home with illustrations, which are altogether easy to find.  I just went back in my mind over the past week and found more than I would have time to use in a sermon.

I was on the phone with a man who mentioned the difficulty they had had with their coach at a Christian school.  You can well imagine the difficulty.  It is one very common to Christian men nowadays.  It is common among all men, but we are talking about men who are disciples of Jesus Christ.  How many such men have carved out for themselves an exception to this rule, and exception to this summary of the Law and the Prophets for sports.  The yelling at referees and umpires we have learned to accept as “part of the game,” indeed, as a valued mark of competitive fire.  Why, American fans have come to feel it is a right they purchase with the ticket.  But, have you ever refereed a basketball game or umpired a baseball game and had players or fans criticizing your work and complaining about your decisions all through the game? Believe me, as one who has, that is not the way they would like to be treated. You are not treating them as you would like to be treated yourself.  It has nothing to do with sports or competition, but with human beings and still more with the law of God and the honor of Christ your Redeemer.  At that basketball game you are not behaving as a Christian, whether as a coach ranting at a ref, a player whining about a call, or a fan yelling your displeasure to whomever you are blaming for the sorry performance of your team or your children.  Do you remember when Lou Pinella, the Mariners’ manager, made a profession of faith in Christ several years ago.  He had been brought to it he said by the witness of his wife who had, apparently, become a Christian several years before.  When interviewed about it, Lou assured the press that his becoming a Christian would not mean that he wouldn’t have the occasional beer in the clubhouse after a game.  What a pathetic understanding most reporters and too many Christians have of how Christ changes one’s life!  But he then also said, if you remember, that it didn’t mean either that he would never yell at the umpire or kick dirt on him when it was necessary.  Well, perhaps Lou hadn’t yet had time to read the Sermon on the Mount, because that is precisely what it means.  It must mean that, unless, God forbid, we are willing to say that Christ can have our loyalty and our obedience most places but not on the ball field or in the gym, not, in other words, where it really matters for so many men.

That is a smaller, but by no means insignificant instance of how we set aside this rule and refuse to accept that our lives must be measured by it all the time and everywhere.  A far more sinister failure is often found at home.  I was asked to preach in Greensboro, N.C., where I was last Lord’s Day, on the subject of covenant children and the nurture of covenant children in the Christian home.  The pastor of the church where I preached is a staunch advocate of our doctrine in a part of the Reformed world where it is little understood and often spoken against.
One of the objections that one always hears to this doctrine, and, in particular, to that part of the doctrine that maintains a real connection between the faithfulness of parents in nurturing their children and the spiritual outcome in their children’s lives is that people supposedly know of cases where children were given a faithful upbringing by godly parents but some of those children, nevertheless, turned their backs on the faith and lived in their adulthood as unbelievers.  That objection came up in one of the after-meeting discussions, and the pastor told me a story about a family he had known in the church of his upbringing.  It was a Christian family, they had family worship at the table, their kids went to Christian school, but one of their sons was an out and out apostate.  And, naturally, he wondered how this could be.  Until my friend’s brother, who is also a PCA minister, once asked the other son of that family, the son who remained a Christian, about his unbelieving brother.  “Your brother came from a pious family; you had family worship; it was a loving home.  What could have happened to make your brother turn his back on Christ and the faith?”  And do you know what the Christian son said?  “It appeared to people that ours was a fine Christian family.  We were always in church.  We had family worship.  We went to Christian schools.  But, the fact is, my father was a jerk.  He spoke abusively to my mother and to all of us children.  He made the Christian faith a mockery in our home, something that seemed to us a complete hypocrisy.  People couldn’t see it from the outside, but my father was a jerk.  He didn’t love us or treat us kindly.”

How many times in Christian homes the disciples of Jesus Christ have utterly failed to demonstrate the greater righteousness Christ summons them to, failed to love humbly, sincerely, and self-forgetfully even their own wives and husbands, even their own children.

We can go on.  This golden rule is a principle so universal that it catches and exposes even the best of Christians, even the most devout.  There is no one, however earnest, however committed as a follower of Christ, who is not summoned by this rule to far higher things than ever he has reached so far.

When I travel from the west coast to the east coast, as I did last week, I always have trouble sleeping through the first night.  So I make provision.  I make sure that I have something to read in the wee hours when I am awake and can’t get to sleep.  In this case, I picked up a short biography of Jim Elliot, the missionary martyr, killed as you remember in early 1956 with four of his colleagues, by primitive and very secretive Ecuadorian Indians they were trying to reach with the gospel.

The biography reminded me of a part of the Elliot story I had forgotten.  Jim Elliot, even as a teenager, was an unusually zealous Christian.  He was committed to spending his life in the service of Christ, he had already accepted that he would need to live his life as a single man in order to make the greatest possible contribution to the Lord’s cause in the world well before many young Christians have thought a serious thought about what their commitment to Christ might mean, what sacrifices they might be asked to make for their Savior’s sake.

He went to Wheaton College in the 1940s already determined to be a missionary to some very difficult place in the world and to bring the gospel to some very hard-to-reach people.  But Jim Elliot’s zeal, white-hot as it was, tended to burn people more than warm them.  People who weren’t as zealous as he was, he tended to dismiss quite scornfully.  Fellows who were planning on marriage and a career were second-class Christians in his mind.  For most of his years as a Wheaton student he held himself aloof from the life of the student body because it wasn’t serious enough for him.  While he began to see the unwisdom of this in his last year at Wheaton, he still carried some of this spirit with him into his life after college.

One incident I still have a hard time believing, though I don’t doubt its truth for all of Elliot’s friends talked in amazement about it afterwards, occurred at the wedding of one of his best friends, indeed a man who would later die with him on the banks of that brown river in Ecuador.  After the service and the reception, Jim Elliot gathered a bunch of the newly-married couple’s friends and followed them up to the hotel room to hold a service of prayer and Bible reading!  What was the young couple to do?  Here was Jim Elliot reading the Bible in their hotel room on their wedding night, and reading and reading and reading.  And not just the isolated verse, but all six chapters of 1 Timothy – and then asking the assembled group for comments on what he had read.  And when no one spoke – for obvious reasons – he did, for an hour!  It was several hours before the wedding couple were able to get everyone to leave.

Now, let me tell you young people something.  Let me tell you this for myself and for your parents.  We would die very happily if we knew that those were the kind of sins you would commit in your life; that your problem would be an over-heated zeal for God’s Word and gospel and Christ’s service.  Don’t mistake me.  It was that same zeal that brought the good news to those benighted Indians in the jungles of Ecuador.  If it hadn’t been for Jim Elliot many of those people would not be Christians today, and many of them are!  So, don’t take what I am about to say to mean we would rather you live a comfortable, easy life, doing the bare minimum in this world of sin and death, doing only what is expected when your Redeemer told you to take up your cross and follow him.

Nevertheless, what was that wedding night but an abject failure to apply the golden rule.  The couple themselves were nonplussed at their friend’s insensitivity.  To do to others what we want others to do to us is the failure of martyr missionaries as well as the problem of Christian sports enthusiasts and Christian parents.  Let us all take heed again this morning to the wonderfully high standard that has been set for our lives by the one who bought and paid for those lives with his own blood.  Let us accept, each of us in his or her heart, what high purposes we have to live for, what great things we have been called to be and do, and what a striking difference there should be between our lives and the lives of those who are not seeking to live by the law of Christ.

And when once a man or woman, a boy or girl, is seized by that vision – of an otherworldly life, a different life, a far higher life of love given to Christ and to others in his name – when once a Christian realizes what a great thing he has been called to do with his life and his love, then, at that moment, he knows for a certainty how much time and how much effort he must put into his prayers to God.

For the fact is, no one will ever live this way – doing to others as he would have others do to him – in his own strength and by his own determination.  There is simply too much pride in us, too much self-love, too much laziness, too much indifference, too much worldly distraction.  No, if we are going to live as Christians ought to live, if we are going to live as Christ deserves that we should live, if we are going to live as we are going to want to have lived when we see the Lord Jesus face to face – and we will see him sooner than any of us thinks – then we are going to need his grace and help every…single…day and every moment of every single day.

This understanding of prayer, this confidence that we can get real help from God is what one scholar calls “beggar’s wisdom.”  [Jeremias in France, 144]  That is to say, those who are helpless and have nowhere else to turn and so turn to God, are the ones who really understand what Jesus is saying here.  Look, if you want to get rich, you may be able to without asking God for help.  There are a lot of rich people who never asked God once for help in making money.  If you want a big house or a nice car or a particular girlfriend or boyfriend; if you want to succeed at this or that, you may very well obtain what you desire without ever asking God for help.  Lot’s of people have got those things without once thinking about God.

But, I tell you now with complete confidence, no one, no one in the history of the world, not even Jesus Christ himself, ever got the life described in the Sermon on the Mount, ever got a heart controlled by the golden rule, without asking…seeking…and knocking.  The verbs are in the present tense which, in Greek, suggests continuous, repeated action.  No one ever got this holy and good life, this life that is such a blessing to other human beings and such a credit to God our Father, who did not ask God for it, and continue to ask God for more of it every day of his life.  That’s how important, essential prayer is to the life that Jesus has described in the Sermon on the Mount.  It can’t be done without it and it never has been done without it.

On the other hand, what Jesus is particularly emphatic about here is that those who really pray for these graces, those who come and continue to come, asking, seeking, and knocking, are always heard and are never turned away empty.

One very wise man said this about asking, seeking, and knocking on God’s door.  “One may be a truly industrious man, and yet poor in temporal things; but one cannot be a truly praying man, and yet poor in spiritual things.” [Broadus in Morris, 170]

There must be prayer.  That is the Lord’s first point.  But his second is that if there is prayer there will be this life of golden rule living.  As Calvin said in his comment on these verses, “nothing is better adapted to excite us to prayer than a full conviction that we shall be heard.”

And that is precisely what Jesus promises those who come to him to ask for grace to live the righteous life he has summoned all of his disciples to:  You shall be heard!