Queen Of The Experiences
And The Everest Of Ethics
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a teaching elder at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:7-12
I had rather stand against the cannons of the wicked than against the prayers of the righteous.
The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer fetched the angel.
William James once described prayer as “Intercourse with an Ideal Companion,” and the description has lingered on as a most beautiful delineation of the activity that characterizes the saints of God. Theology has been called “The Queen of the Sciences,” and if this is apt, then prayer could be called, “The Queen of Experiences.” And to these testimonies may be added that of the Apostle of Predestination, John Calvin on 1 Timothy 2:1-2 wrote, “The principal exercise which the children of God have is to pray; for in this way they give a TRUE PROOF OF THEIR FAITH.” And, whatever one may think of the strong predestination views of the great Geneva theologian, it is evident that they did not affect his views of the place of prayer in the believer’s life. In fact, the strong confidence in the sovereignty of God and His working in our world is the strongest incentive to prayer, for the simple reason that His sovereignty guarantees His ability to answer our petitions. The facts are, of course, that prayer is the very breath of the regenerate soul. And when the Lord wished to direct Ananias to the Apostle Paul after His encounter with him on the road to Damascus, He told Ananias that he could be identified in this way. “Behold, he prayeth” (Acts 9:11). Where there is life, there is breath; where there is spiritual life, there are spiritual breathings, for prayer is the speech of the soul to God.
It is, therefore, surprising to hear the testimony of a modern Presbyterian minister from a northern city concerning prayer. Not sure that he has time to both preach and pray, he wrote in Monday Morning, a magazine for United Presbyterian ministers, “Can a minister produce a weekly prayer as well as a weekly sermon and do a creative job with both? And are there not more important things we can do with our time?” With this attitude to prayer, it is not surprising to find that the pastor has solved his problem by turning over the pastoral prayer to the laymen of his congregation. Now there is nothing wrong with doing that and, in fact, a great deal that is good about it, but disinterest in prayer is hardly an acceptable motive for it.
Prayer is the only subject discussed twice in the Sermon on the Mount, and that may be a key to the value that the Lord Jesus placed upon it. Many years ago Andrew Murray wrote, “Jesus never taught His disciples how to preach, only how to pray. He did not speak much of what was needed to preach well, but much of praying well. To know how to speak to God is more than knowing how to speak to man. Not power with men, but power with God is the first thing. Jesus loves to teach us how to pray.”1 Perhaps one of the reasons that our young seminary graduates are sometimes lacking in effectiveness is that we instruct them in homiletics, but not in proseuchology!
No doubt the need of prayer is the reason that the Lord brings up the subject in the Sermon at two points. And it is certainly most appropriate in the present context. The entire sermon concerns the character of the life and ministry that the disciples of the kingdom should possess, and prayer should be an integral part of it. And, further, in the following context the subject of entrance into the kingdom will be brought up (cf. v. 14), and prayer is most appropriate in the light of that. And, finally, the immediate context, with its exhortation concerning criticism, censorious and sensible, suggests the subject of prayer, for who is sufficient for such careful discrimination in judgment? Prayer is the indispensable necessity for making biblical judgments.
The Exhortation To Prayer
The requests (7:7). As I have suggested above, the connection between the exhortation to prayer and the preceding context is probably suggested by the natural question that would come to an enlightened believer, “Where will I ever get the wisdom necessary to exercise judgment in a sensible and discriminating way?” The answer is, through prayer.
The exhortation is couched in the present tense in the case of each imperative, and that lays some stress on the need for importunity in prayer. And further, there is a rising scale of intensity in the verbs, “Ask, seek, KNOCK.”2 As Thomas Manton said, “if we don’t receive by asking, then let us seek; if we don’t receive by seeking, then let us knock.” The asking implies a sense of humility and a recognition of need. And one gains an inkling here of the reason for the divine institution of prayer as the means for the realization of spiritual and other blessings. Through it two great hindrances to the spiritual life are combated. First, arrogant self-confidence is attacked, that attitude that is really a kind of practical Pelagianism (a system of works religion is its results. And second, prayer combats lethargic passivity, a too common condition in the lives of believers, which often results in a false quietism. This command from the Lord that we continually be asking, seeking, and knocking effectively counterattacks these perils when it is obeyed. “You should, in Tertullian’s phrase, with a holy conspiracy, BESEIGE HEAVEN,” Manton also said.
All three of the commands presuppose faith, and emphasize again the fact that prayer is the work of a believer. And faith makes the prayers warm and fervent. Thomas Brooks commented, “Cold prayers always freeze before they reach heaven.” And cold prayers do not characterize biblical praying, but parrotting.
The present imperatives, with their stress on the continual activity of prayer, raise the question of the difference between vain repetition and importunity. There are two kinds of repetition, the repetition of importunity and the repetition of formality. The latter is vain repetition, and the Sermon on the Mount has already spoken on that point (cf. 6:7). But what is the repetition of importunity, and why is importunity a desirable thing? Well, in the first place, the verbs here do not necessarily mean asking for the same thing over and over, for the repetition may be simply the repetition of making prayer requests, that is, requests for different things. But, let us suppose that the meaning is that we are to make requests for the same things over and over. In what way can this be squared with the prohibition against “vain repetition”? Is the prescription of Trueblood the simple answer, “When the medicine fails, take more of it”?3 Hardly. The explanation of the need for importunate prayer must finally rest in what God’s delays in answering our prayers do for us. First of all, they are the seed of divine discipline (cf. Heb. 12:10). And, second, they deepen the channel of our spiritual life, the prayers lifting us constantly into a fruitful relationship with our Father. And, third, they afford occasion for rising above our experiences, our emotions, and physical trials into the heavenly sphere of faith, patience, and hope under His wings. Persistent prayer is pleasing to our great Triune God.
The results (7:7). “As to the promise that is fulfilled when the command is obeyed, in each instance the correspondence between command and promise is exact: hence, ask is followed by given; seek by find; and knock by opened,” Hendriksen points out.4 And then in verse eight the promises are strengthened by the use of the word “every one,” and expression that emphasizes the inclusiveness of the promises. There is a strong stress, then, on the certainty of an answer to the asking, seeking, and knocking of every sincere follower of the Lord. It is as if He has signed a blank check and turned it over to us to fill in. What an incentive this is to persistent prayer! And there is no better way to pray than to take His promises and return them to Him in the petitions, for prayer is most effective when it is the reversal of the promises, or God’s Word formed into an argument and directed back to God.
The Argumentation For Prayer
The Scriptural reason (7:8). The reason for prayer is simply that it is sure to be answered. The Lord’s words here are His expression of the same promise given by the Apostle John, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us” (1 John 5:14), or by Paul, “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). A godly man once said, “Remember, nothing lies outside the reach of prayer except that which lies outside the will of God.” And, of course, we are glad that He does not give us answers that lie outside His will, for that is best for us.
The logical reason (7:9-11). The reasoning here is very simple and pointed, teaching the lesson that our Heavenly Father is surely to be counted upon to be the equal of any earthly father. In fact, He will do more for us. If a son asks his father for bread, surely the father will not give him a stone, will he? Or, if the son asks for a fish, he surely will not be given a serpent, will he? We may, then, infer that, if evil men give good gifts to their children, a Heavenly Father, who is good, will most certainly give good things to those who ask Him. The argument hominen to ad Deum, or a minore has been called an argument for ad ad majus, from man to God or from the lessor to the Greater. Lacordaire said, “If you wish to know how the Almighty thinks of you, listen to the beating of your own heart, and add it to infinity.”5
What are the “good gifts” of verse eleven? Perhaps the answer lies in the petitions that belong to the Lord’s Prayer (cf. 6:9-13). They are the things that have to do with the supplying of all the disciples’ daily needs and ultimately the blessings of the Kingdom of God, all being grounded in the full and free forgiveness of our sins through the atoning work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of the things that characterized the Puritans, that godly band of Calvinistic servants of God of the seventeenth century, was the priority that they gave to secret communion with God in prayer. Speaking of this Iain Murray has pointed out that the Calvinistic Methodists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were also made of the same metal. “The surviving records of the lives of the Calvinistic Methodists, here in Wales, for a century, from Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland to John Elias and Henry Rees,” he writes, “are full of testimony to the place which prayer occupied in their lives. How far that race of men entered into the apostolic injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’! Richard Bennett in The Early Life of Howell Harris, says, ‘Prayer is interwoven with all his thoughts, and all his activities.’ Characteristic of the prayers recorded in Harris’ diary are the following: ‘Here I am with all that I possess at Thy feet. I will address Thee till my bones tire … Since Thou givest freely, I will not be content with an ordinary measure of grace. Make me as poor and as despised as Thou wilt; but give me spiritual wisdom, give me an unusual knowledge of Thyself.’”6 It is no wonder that God worked mightily by these praying men. “When we would have any great things to be accomplished, the best policy is, to work by an engine which the world sees nothing of,” said another Puritan, John Preston.
I find the use of the words; “stone” and “serpent,” very interesting. The fact that He used them would seem to indicate that we do think of Him as giving us these instead of the requests that we desire. Some years ago a friend of mine was having some family problems of a very serious nature. I had encouraged her to take her problems to the Lord for Him to give the solutions. She offered a specific petition to the Lord, and it became evident in the course of time that the Lord was not going to answer her prayer in the way that she desired. She told me that in the course of her further prayers to the Lord she made reference to the previous petition, adding with reference to His failure to answer as she wished, “I knew You wouldn’t do it!” I think that powerfully illustrates our lack of faith and rebellion in so many of our petitions. Our Father is a heavenly parent with all of the affection and care of an earthly parent, yet more!
There is another interesting theological insight in the eleventh verse. We hear much these days of the “dignity of man.” There is a sense in which this is a biblical doctrine, for we have been made in the image of God and, while the image of God in us has been marred and distorted, it has not been destroyed. There are remnants of the divine likeness left in man, but surely the stress of the Scripture is upon the marring, and not upon the remnants. Over and over again, the Word stresses bur sin, guilt, and condemnation. It is sometimes thought that the doctrine, however, is primarily a doctrine of Paul, and not of the Lord. And this is sometimes made the basis of a claim that, since it is Paul’s doctrine and not the Lord’s, we are somehow less liable to follow the teaching. We, of course, are just as responsible to obey the words of the apostles as the words of the Lord, for they all form part of the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. We cannot drive a wedge between the apostles’ words and the Lord’s. In this case, however, the little word “evil” clearly indicates that our Lord’s teaching on the sinfulness of man is in complete harmony with Paul’s. “If YE then, BEING EVIL” is a telling indictment of human nature, and brings Him into perfect harmony with Paul’s, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (cf. Rom. 3:10).
The Everest Of Ethics7
The culmination of the didactic portion of the Sermon on the Mount is found here. It has been called, “The Everest of Ethics,” and “The Golden Rule.” William Barclay has commented, “This is Very probably the most universally famous thing that Jesus ever said.”8
It is thought by many that this verse is the concluding verse of the sermon proper, the capstone of the discourse. It would then be opposed to 5:17-20, the opening theme verses. It would form a fitting climax, directing attention to the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and that is necessary for entrance into the kingdom. Since however, the “therefore” is not easily connected with the immediately preceding verses, it may be intended to summarize the entire sermon. At any rate, its lesson is clear.
The Golden Rule is to be contrasted with the negatives of the Jewish Rabbi Hillel, who said, “What is hateful to thee do not to anyone else,” and of Confucius, who said, “Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself.” It has often been pointed out that our Lord’s rule was a positive one, while Confucius’ is negative, but this distinction may be too rigorously pressed. It is true that the negative statements of Hillel and Confucius are simply statements about calculated prudence to avoid retaliation.9 There are also other differences. First, the non-Christian rules are viewed as ones which men are able to fulfill without divine enablement (cf. Rom. 7:24; 8:3-8; Phil. 2:12-13, etc.). Second, the non-Christian statements major on the relationship of man to man and overlook the more important responsibility of man to God. The one important thing in life is not the rendering of service to man; it is the love and service of God (cf. 22:37).
The last sentence gives the reason why the disciples are to do this commandment: It is the spirit of the Law and the Prophets. And with this comment we return to 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy THE LAW, or THE PROPHETS; I am not come to destroy, but to FULFIL.”
First, as one reads and re-reads the verses the importance of asking becomes prominent. Five times the word ask is used, and the multiplicity of its occurrence is an invitation to do just that, — ask. The spirit desired is that of Jacob who prayed,
“I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me” (cf. Gen. 32:26).
Second, the natural corollary follows. There is a great stress on the certainty of answers to prayer. Nine times an answer to prayer is stated or implied in the section. And we should not be surprised at the answer as Peter’s friends were (cf. Acts 12:1-19). We must learn to distinguish between delays and denials, remembering that delays are not necessarily denials. “Good prayers never come weeping home,” Joseph Hall said, “I am sure I shall receive, either what I ask for or what I should ask.” George Buttrick has told a story designed to stress the expectations of answers to prayers, “There is a cruel story of a bishop who resolved to practice what he had so often preached: he would speak to God in direct simplicity. He spoke. A Voice, gentle but holy, answered him, ‘Yes, what is it?’ The bishop was found dead on the chancel steps.”10
The one great, final, unanswerable argument for prayer is the prayer life of our Lord. Although earth’s divine and sovereign soul, HE PRAYED! May the Lord help us, who say that we abide in Him, to walk, even as He walked.
1 Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer (Westwood, 1953), p. 19.
2 Hendriksen, p. 361.
3 Elton Trueblood, A Place to Stand (New York, 1969), p. 83.
4 Hendriksen, p. 362.
5 Hunter, p. 85.
6 Iain Murray, “Prayer anr Revival,” The Banner of Truth, Issue 132 (September, 1974), p. 27.
7 Barclay, I, 276.
9 Hunter, p. 86.
10 George Arthur Buttrick, Prayer (New York and Nashville, 1942), p. 253.