Before the Throne: Ask, Seek, Knock

Sermon by David Strain on November 21

Matthew 7:7-11

Next Lord’s Day, believe it or not, is the first Sunday of Advent. That came fast, didn’t it? The first Sunday in Advent. And we are going to join an ancient tradition of the church in reflecting on a number of the psalms that are used often to help Christians meditate on and reflect upon the meaning of Jesus’ first coming. That means that this morning we have come to the last sermon in our series looking at the teaching of Jesus in the gospels on the subject of prayer. So let me invite you please, if you would, to take your Bibles in hand or turn in one of the church Bibles, to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 7; Matthew chapter 7, page 812 in the church Bibles.

Jesus is preaching His famous Sermon on the Mount, which expounds the virtues and the values of life in His kingdom and under His lordship. It is a summary of the character of a Christian. And as we’ve seen, right at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount stands Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. And now in Matthew chapter 7, verses 7 through 11, before Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord returns once again to the vital subject of prayer. We’re going to look at the passage together under three broad headings. First of all, we will consider the theme of priorities in prayer. Priorities in prayer; really here looking at the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount to help us understand this part of Matthew 7. Priorities in prayer. Then persistence in prayer in verses 7 and 8. And then finally, the presuppositions of prayer in verses 9 through 11. Okay, so priorities, persistence, and the presuppositions of prayer.

Before we read the passage, let’s turn to the Lord and ask Him to help us to understand and embrace His teaching to us in the Scriptures. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we pray now for Your Spirit to come and open our ears, open our hearts, to receive the engrafted Word that we might be transformed into Your likeness by it and live for Your glory, for we ask this in Your name, amen.

Matthew’s gospel chapter 7, beginning at the seventh verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.

Priorities in Prayer

Unanswered prayer. Unanswered prayer is one of the most perplexing, even agonizing realities of the Christian life. Wouldn’t you agree? To be sure, sometimes our prayers can be routine and rather run of the mill, so that in all honesty we sometimes can scarcely tell whether they’ve been answered or not. But there are other times, aren’t there. These are the times when our cries to God are urgent and filled with need and weighed down with some great burden and we turn to God in our desperation and we cry out. But instead of the answer that we seek, it seems we receive the opposite. We’re not healed. That dysfunctional work relationship that’s been so toxic does not change, doesn’t improve. The crisis does not abate. There are very few things more disturbing to faith than the divine silence or the divine “No” in response to our cries. Haven’t you found that to be so? Perplexing. It can shake your confidence in God to its very foundations, to call out for His help and feel like He’s not listening.

And in moments like that it’s not hard to begin to doubt our faith, to question if God isn’t perhaps punishing us, or to wonder whether we can really trust His promises after all. So how do you deal with unanswered prayer? How should we respond to it? What does it mean? The teaching of Jesus in our passage, Matthew 7:7-11, helps to provide at least part of the Biblical answer to those questions. Before we give our attention to the text directly, the place to start isn’t actually with the teaching of verses 7 through 11 but with a broader context of the Sermon on the Mount in which we find these words embedded. You see it’s easy, and sadly all too common, to read Matthew 7:7-11 and to note the glorious promises that we find there – “Ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” – we see those amazing promises and we tear them from their context and we read them as isolated, absolute promises that whatever we ask for, no matter what we seek, when whatever it is for which we are knocking, God is therefore somehow now obligated to give us. But of course if that is your view, when He doesn’t do it, you really won’t know what to make of it. Will you? No wonder you have a crisis of faith if your faith expects God to do what He doesn’t in fact do.

But we’re not meant to read, obviously, we’re not meant to read verses 7 through 11 with their remarkable promises concerning our prayers without understanding the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. We need to ask first, as we frame our prayers in obedience to Matthew 7:7-11, “What are the great priorities that Jesus is teaching us to long for in this Sermon on the Mount?” These are the themes that ought to fill our prayers, to which these promises are affixed. So what are those themes? Well, they are poverty of spirit, mourning over sin, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, purity of spirit, peacemaking – Matthew 5:3-12. They are being a faithful witness – Matthew 5:13-16. Rejecting anger, 21 to 26. Rejecting lust, 27 to 30. Rejecting revenge, 36 to 42. It is giving to the poor, chapter 6 verses 2 through 4. It is seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness instead of worrying about what you will eat or drink or what you will wear, chapter 6, 25 to 34. It’s a refusal to indulge in self-righteous judgmentalism, chapter 7, 1 through 6, and instead to resolve to do to others what you would have them do to you, chapter 7, 12 through 14. Those are the priorities that Jesus wants us to pursue in life, and so ought naturally to burden our prayers.

And when you ask, “What should that look like? How should those priorities appear and be reflected in our prayer life?” we turn naturally to the Lord’s Prayer at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount and we see those same priorities in that same proportion and balance marvelously reflected there. Don’t we? The Lord’s Prayer translates the values of the Sermon on the Mount into requests before God’s throne. We’ve studied this in some detail and you remember that the prayer priorities that should occupy us according to the Lord’s Prayer often look very different to the instinctive cries of our hearts, burdened as they are far too often with the mundane and the worldly concerns that occupy our attention.

So what are – let me just remind you – what are the priorities of the Lord’s Prayer? Well not first our health crises or our relational dysfunction or our financial circumstances. Not first prayers for jobs or houses or clothes or friends, even though those are very often the great preoccupation of our hearts and minds, aren’t they? Look again at the Lord’s Prayer. What is to come first? “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The exaltation of the glory of God, the advancement of the kingdom of God, the accomplishment of the will of God – those are the first and the greatest priorities of faithful prayer. And then remember, certainly, there is always a place for the mundane, practical needs of every day. And so we pray, don’t we, “Give us today our daily bread.” Those concerns are not excluded. We do and we should pray for them. But then no sooner have we brought those practical concerns to God than Jesus teaches us to return to spiritual concerns – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

There is a marvelous correspondence, I hope you can see it, between the virtues of Christian discipleship taught throughout the Sermon on the Mount on the one hand, and the prayer priorities modeled for us in the Lord’s Prayer at the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount on the other hand. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for the things the Sermon on the Mount requires us to live out. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for the priorities the Sermon on the Mount teaches us to live out. So we need to be examining our own prayer habits. In light of all of that, just for a moment, let’s do that, shall we, and ask ourselves honestly, “Are my prayers little more than shopping lists of personal, practical needs, health concerns, family concerns? What place does the praise of the glory of God, the advancement of His kingdom in this place and around the world, the accomplishment of His will on earth as it is in heaven have in your prayer?” If we were to overhear your prayers and were asked to judge on the basis of what we have heard in them alone, whose kingdom would we conclude you are most passionately seeking? The Lord’s or your own?

There is, I think, a subtle form of the prosperity gospel that can creep into even thoroughgoing Presbyterian hearts so that we start to believe deep down that somehow God’s job is to keep me healthy and happy and prosperous. And if that’s what you think God’s job is, your prayers will be absorbed with those priorities as the great burden of your life. But then when God’s answers fail to correspond to your desires, your faith is prone to collapse into crisis. Isn’t it? But we’ve missed the basic teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, haven’t we, that it is to those who “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” in prayer that these remarkable promises in our passage are being made. It is to the prayer that asks and seeks and knocks for help from heaven to be poor in spirit, to mourn over sin, to hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is to prayer that asks and seeks and knocks for grace to love our enemies and to give to the poor and to lay up treasures in heaven. It is to prayer like that that reflects the priorities of a life conformed to the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount that these absolute and unqualified promises are made and will certainly be fulfilled.

So again, clearly it’s not wrong to pray about health or finance or family or any other lawful concern in your life. We must pray about them. We’re commanded to pray about them. But we need to recognize as we do that God in His sovereignty is free to give or to withhold the blessing for which we seek for His own glory and our eternal good as seems best to Him. We have no grounds in Scripture to believe that God must answer prayer for earthly, temporal blessings, although because He is a loving Father He is often pleased to do just that. But do you see, we do have grounds, right here in our text, Matthew 7:7-11, to expect that God will always answer prayer for the priorities of the Sermon on the Mount. He will make His children like His Son. He will work the beatitudes into our lives. He will give us the fruit of the Spirit. He will give us an appetite for holiness. He will give increasing victory over remaining sin. He will sanctify and sustain and satisfy your believing heart. He will. He’s promised to do it. He’ll always answer prayer for those things, always.

And listen, here’s the really crucial thing. Haven’t you found in your own experience that very often it’s only by saying, “No,” or, “Not yet,” to our cries for relief from physical or financial or relational burdens, it’s only in this way that He can say, “Yes” to our cries for holiness and growth in grace and the mortification of our besetting sins. Haven’t you found that to be true? Look, the truth is, the priorities that Jesus has established for prayer often go overlooked by us because our priorities get in the way. Isn’t that true? We’re stuck in the problem of James 4:2. You remember James 4:2 – “You do not have because you do not ask.” Problem number one. You’re not praying. You ought to pray. “You do not have because you do not ask.” Problem number two – “You ask and do not receive.” Why not? Unanswered prayer. What’s going on? I’m asking. “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly that you may spend it on your passions.” Who is the center of such prayer? It is not the glory of God, not the praise of the name of Christ, not the advancement of His kingdom. You’re the center of such prayer, and God will not be used by us that He might make much of us. He is to be adored by us that we might make much of Him.

So often we are driven to prayer because we want God to fix stuff, whereas God wants to make us like Christ. And sometimes the way He gets that done in our lives is to leave stuff broken that we want Him to fix. We want God to fix stuff. He wants to make us like Jesus. And sometimes the way He gets that done is to leave stuff broken in our lives that we’d really rather He would fix. We need to understand the priorities of prayer. Do you see how that changes everything? Before we assume that God is punishing us, or that He can’t be trusted, or that He has somehow abdicated His throne and abandoned His promises, let us be sure that the priorities of our prayer lives reflect the priorities that Jesus gives us in His Word.

Persistence in Prayer

Then secondly, look at verses 7 and 8 of Matthew chapter 7 and notice another part of the equation that we’ve got to grasp if we are to understand something of the dynamics and the mysteries of prayer. First, the priorities of prayer. Now, persistence in prayer. Persistence, perseverance. “Ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

Do you know the story of Robert the Bruce? The story of Robert the Bruce. At the close of the 13th century, Scotland was conquered by Edward I of England. There had been various national movements attempting to overthrow the yolk of the English dominance and every one of them had failed. None of them were successful. And when Robert the Bruce was declared King of Scotland, he too rose in opposition to the English claims and he too was defeated, over and over and over again. Eventually, his last defensible stronghold, the Castle at Kildrummy, had been captured. His own brother, Nigel, had been killed. His queen was imprisoned and he was left utterly alone and despondent. Bruce found himself in hiding on a small island, Rathlin, off the Irish coast. One night, lying there in his bed in a very miserable peasant hut as the wind howled through the leaky roof, the embattled king lay there looking up at the rafters and watched a spider attempt to swing from one beam to the next on a thin silken strand. Six times the spider tried to swing across the gap and six times the wind defeated him. But on the seventh attempt, the spider finally made it and was able to construct its web, all the howling wind notwithstanding. And Bruce, in that moment, resolved to persevere. He sat up and went back to Scotland and renewed his campaign against the English with determination. The Scottish clans from across the country rallied to his banner and at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the armies of Edward II, the son of the king who conquered Scotland, were driven out of the country, securing Scotland’s independence once again. Bruce learned from the spider’s fight with the howling wind about the power of perseverance.

Part of the proper response to apparently unanswered prayer is, to put it bluntly, not to quit. Don’t quit. That’s the lesson of the language Jesus is using in verses 7 and 8 – ask and seek and knock. I think we are meant to see escalating intensity and determined perseverance in prayer in that vocabulary. Ask, but don’t stop with asking. Go on to seeking, an energetic pursuit of God, seeking God until you find Him. And don’t stop with seeking. Knock, bang, loud and hard and long on the doors of heaven until they open! The grammar, the Greek grammar of those commands is worth noticing at this point. They are present tenses that indicate continuing, ongoing action. Ask and don’t stop asking. Seek and keep on seeking. Knock and knock and knock some more.

I’m not a fan, my wife will tell you, we often squabble about it – I’m not a fan of making personal business calls on the telephone. I don’t really know what it is about it, I just hate doing it. And so when we squabble and I draw the short straw, which happens quite a lot, and I have to make those calls – whether it’s to the lawn guy or to the school or to the gas company or whatever it is – I’m secretly hoping that no one picks up so that I can turn and say to my wife, “Well I tried, but what can you do? There’s nobody there! Maybe I’ll do it another time” and hope she doesn’t remember the other time!

Maybe the reason your prayers go unanswered is not because you are always asking for the wrong things, it’s not that your priorities are wrong, so much as it is that you gave up too quickly. You let the phone ring just a couple of times and then you hung up, assuming there was nobody home. We need to keep calling. Ask and seek and knock. God is glorified when we pray and keep on praying until He answers. Sometimes He delays His answers to teach us to trust Him and depend on Him and to walk by faith and not by sight to learn that He orders all things as seems good to Him and that His ways are better than our ways and that He knows what’s best. And if He is delaying, it’s because in His sovereign purpose it is for His glory and our good.

When Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer, the version of the Lord’s Prayer again in Luke chapter 11, He immediately followed it with a parable about a man who has an unexpected guest in the middle of the night. And so having nothing in the house for him, he goes to a neighbor and starts banging on the door and keeps on banging, pleading for bread. And Jesus says, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence, he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” And then He repeats the language of our text, Matthew 7, “I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Impudence in prayer is what Jesus is actually calling us to. Are you impudent in the way that you pray? It’s not a great translation, actually, of the original Greek word which really refers less to something inappropriate and unseemly as it does to a sort of persistent, urgent pleading, not taking “No” for an answer; a holy audacity. The King James Version uses the lovely Old English word, “importunity.” “Because of his importunity, he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” Are you an importunate prayer? Someone who pleads and pleads and does not stop and gives the throne of heaven no rest, as it were, with your pleading, asking and seeking and knocking? Learn to say with Jacob, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The Presuppositions of Prayer

The priorities of prayer. Are they reflected in your prayer life? Persistence in prayer. How about that? Have you let the phone ring only a couple of times and then hung up and assumed there was no one home? You need to keep calling. Then finally, the presuppositions of prayer. The presuppositions of prayer. Look at verses 9 through 11. “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The image isn’t just absurd; it’s actually cruel. The rustic peasant bread that Jesus is speaking about looked not unlike a round stone. The snakelike catfish often caught in the Sea of Galilee were not unlike serpents at first glance. It would not be hard, at least for a moment or two, to pass the one off as the other. But a rock of course, won’t satisfy hunger. A snake was an unclean animal; it wouldn’t be touched or eaten. It’s an appalling image and it’s meant to make even sinners who love their children recoil. We would never do that. What a cruel, tormenting trick to play. Even our evil hearts love their children and know to give them what will nourish and nurture them.

And now look at how Jesus makes His point. It’s a simple argument from the lesser to the greater. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?” What is the basic assumption, the presupposition, which ought always to undergird all our praying according to Jesus in this passage? Isn’t it simply that your Father loves you? He loves you better than any earthly parent ever could. His heart inclines to care for you. He loves to listen to your cries. Your Father is good and He gives good gifts to those who ask Him. He is not reluctant. He is not reserved. He is not tentative or uncertain. And He is not looking for you to find sufficiently impressive language to fill your prayers before He’ll listen. Your prayers, you know, do not prize open His clutching fists so that you can claw some small shred of comfort from His miserly grip. That’s not the picture. No, your Father loves you. He loves you. You are beloved! And His heart inclines to give you what you need.

How can you be sure? Yes, Jesus says it’s so, so it must be so, but is there more confirmation than that? Romans 8:31. Here’s how you can be sure. Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” How do you know, when the answer hasn’t come yet, that God’s heart still pulses with an eager willingness to meet you in your deepest need? Perhaps not always your felt need but certainly your deepest need – how do you know? Paul says you can know because of the cross. Because of the cross. He gave His own Son to the cross in love for you. The most precious thing He has to give. There’s nothing you can ask more precious than that. If He’s already given His most precious gift, don’t you understand how willing He is to give you whatever you really need, along with Him? The cross preaches the Father’s love. The cross is the pulpit of the Father’s love. And no one who looks long at the cross can long conclude the Father is indifferent to her needs.

So when answers seem to delay, here’s what you do. Step one – check your priorities. Maybe you have not because you ask amiss that you might spend it on your pleasures. Step two is to persevere. Ask and seek and knock. Keep calling. Pray and pray and pray some more and trust God to do all His holy will in all His holy timing. And step three – look long and hard at Calvary and see there the great presupposition that will provide a stable and enduring foundation for all your prayers that will help to fuel your persistence and your perseverance in praying. See there how much the Father loves you. May God help us all to see it and rest in it and to ask and to seek and to knock. Let us pray.

Father, forgive us for letting the phone ring a couple of times and then hanging up all too quickly. Forgive us for our lack of perseverance. Forgive us, too, for making worldly priorities more important to us than the priorities of Your kingdom. How we’d much rather be happy and healthy and prosperous than holy. O God, forgive our sin. Show us again as we come back once more, as it were, under the shadow of Calvary. Show us again the wonder of Your love, the marvel of it, that You should love wretched sinners like us so much that You would give Your Son to die for our pardon. And then seeing how beloved we are, begin to transform us. Start in our prayer lives, that our priorities might become Your own and that we might pray and pray and pray, ask and seek and knock, and give testimony to all who will listen that none of Your promises ever fail. For we ask this in Jesus’ holy name, amen.

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