A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:7-11 A Christian’s relationships: Our attitude to our heavenly Father.
It seems natural that Jesus should move on from our relationship with our fellow men to our relationship with our heavenly Father, the more so because our Christian duty of discrimination (not judging others, not casting pearls before pigs, and being helpful without being hypocritical) is much too difficult for us without divine grace.
a. The promises Jesus makes.
This passage is not the first instruction on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has already warned us against pharisaic hypocrisy and pagan formalism, and has given us his own model prayer. Now, however, he actively encourages us to pray by giving us some very gracious promises. For ‘nothing is better adapted to excite us to prayer than a full conviction that we shall be heard’ . Or again, ‘He knows that we are timid and shy, that we feel unworthy and unfit to present our needs to God… We think that God is so great and we are so tiny that we do not dare to pray … That is why Christ wants to lure us away from such timid thoughts, to remove our doubts, and to have us go ahead confidently and boldly.’
Jesus seeks to imprint his promises on our mind and memory by the hammer blows of repetition. First, his promises are attached to direct commands: *Ask…seek …knock …*(7). These may deliberately be in an ascending scale of urgency. Richard Glover suggests that a child, if his mother is near and visible, asks: if she is neither, he seeks; while if she is inaccessible in her room, he knocks. Be that as it may, all three verbs are present imperatives and indicate the persistence with which we should make our requests known to God. Secondly, the promises are expressed in universal statements: *for every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened* (8).
Thirdly, Jesus illustrates his promises by a homely parable (9-11). He envisages a situation with which all his hearers will have been daily familiar, namely a child coming to his father with a request. If he asks for bread, will he be given something which looks a bit like it but is in fact disastrously different, e.g. a stone instead of a loaf, or a snake instead of a fish? That is, if the child asks for something wholesome to eat (bread or fish), will he receive instead something unwholesome, either inedible (a stone) or positively harmful (a poisonous snake)? Of course not! Parents even though they are *evil*, i.e. selfish by nature, still love their children and give them only *good gifts*. Notice that Jesus here assumes, even asserts, the inherent sinfulness of human nature. At the same time, he does not deny that bad men are capable of doing good. On the contrary, *evil* parents give *good* gifts to their children, for ‘God drops into their hearts a portion of his goodness’. What Jesus is saying is that even when they are doing good, following the noble instincts of parenthood and caring for their children, even then they do not escape the designation ‘evil’, for that is what human beings are.
So the force of the parable lies rather in a contrast rather than in a comparison between God and men. It is another *a fortiori* or ‘how much more’ argument: if human parents (although evil) know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will our heavenly Father (who is not evil but wholly good) *give good things to those who ask him* (11). ‘For what would he not now give to his sons when they ask, when he has already granted this very thing, namely, that they might be sons?’. There is no doubt that our prayers are transformed when we remember that the God we are coming to is ‘Abba, Father’, and definitely good and kind.
Professor Jeremias has demonstrated the novelty of this teaching of Jesus. He writes that, with the help of his assistants, he has carefully examined ‘the prayer literature of ancient Judah – a large, rich literature, all too little explored’, but that ‘in no place in this immense literature is this invocation of God as *Abba* to be found … *Abba* was an everyday word, a homely familiar word. No Jew would have dared to address God in this manner. Jesus did it always …and authorizes his disciples to repeat the word *Abba* after him’. What could be simpler than this concept of prayer? If we belong to Christ, God is our Father, we are his children, and prayer is coming to him with our requests. The trouble is that for many of us it seems too simple, even simplistic. In our sophistication we say we cannot believe it, and in any case it does not altogether tally with our experience. So we turn from Christ’s prayer-promises to our prayer-
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:7-11 A Christian’s relationships: Our attitude to our heavenly Father (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.