Now we're turning again in our Bibles to Matthew's gospel chapter 7, Matthew chapter 7, and beginning to read at verse 7. Again I stress, I hope I don't need to any more, but for any newcomers here today, these are the words of none other than our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Verse 7: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. 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? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets".
Let's bow our heads and humble our hearts momentarily before the Lord, and ask Him to really speak today through His word: Father, we thank Thee for the Spirit of God that was in Christ to inspire these words. We thank Thee, our Father, for their effectiveness in the life of the surrendered believer, as they receive with meekness the ingrafted word of God. Father, we pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be a word of power for each of us here today. Those of us who have been struggling many years with unanswered prayer, or seemingly unanswered prayer; those of us who seem not to ever break through in the realm of prayer, who do not understand it, who cannot make head nor tail of how and why and in what way God answers prayer. Father, we just seek Thy help, that all who are confused and bewildered may be put straight by the Spirit of God today, and that from this day there would be opened unto them an adventure of prayer in the life of the Spirit that they have not known hitherto. But Lord, I will not be able to do that, and so we pray that the Holy Spirit may come and minister, in Christ's name we pray, Amen.
In our last study, as we looked specifically at verses 7 and 8, we saw how in the realm of prayer generally there are three different types of Christian. The first type of Christian is the one who just doesn't pray at all - the one who knows perhaps that a Christian ought to pray, but doesn't lay much importance upon it, doesn't value it much, doesn't think that it does much, and therefore that equates to the absence of prayer within their life. The second group is a group of people who do believe in prayer and do pray, but they fumble at it, they stumble at prayer. In other words, they have what we could call a prayer life, but within their prayer life - whatever that consists of - they feel that all they know is failure and defeat, and a lack of answered prayer, and a lack of reality and vitality in what they call their prayer life. Then there is a third group, a very small group but yet a very real group, a group of people who do pray, do see answers to their prayer, do prove the promises and the precepts of God on their knees, and can declare the power - the supernatural power of God in prayer.
Now, I want to address the second group - because I cannot help the first group. If you don't want to pray, there's nothing I can do for you. You're missing out on the blessings, all of the blessings of the Christian life - and if you do not pray, or you do not store any value in prayer, you are the one who is losing out and I cannot do anything for you. If you're in the third group - and there are some individuals, men and women in this assembly, who I would say are in the third category - who are daily, every day in experience, proving God through prayer: claiming God's promises, seeing the answers to God's promises in their prayers - and praise the Lord for you, and I value you, and I value your prayers.
But whom I really feel sorry for are those in the second group who do pray, who do wrestle with God, who do seek God's face, but it seems to them that God is not answering my prayers! I have had experience, pastorally, in recent days of people who have come to me in tears telling me that God is not answering their prayers. This is a real problem, and it is very wrong for us to belittle it in any way or patronise these people. These people day by day, and Sunday after Sunday, and right throughout their life hear men and women preaching about how God always answers prayer - He always answers prayer! Now I'm not sure that's true, in fact I believe it's not true. I do not believe that God always answers prayer, but that's the way things seem to be in people's ears. They read books on prayer, they hear of great prayer warriors of the past whom God moved through, and those books - biographical books - are telling you and me that we ought to have the prayer lives that they had, and we ought to see the answers in prayer that they saw, but God doesn't seem to answer you! God doesn't seem to be that real to you!
Now if there's a need for anything in Christendom today, and especially in evangelicalism and conservative evangelicalism, it is the need for honesty and the need for realism! Where we are not trying to portray ourselves hypocritically as something that we are not, that if God is not answering our prayers that we are honest about it, and that we admit it, and we seek through the word of God to have Holy Spirit surgery upon our life - and our prayer life specifically - and have the problem answered. The fact of the matter is, for most of you including myself, there are times when prayer does not turn out the way that I would like it to. Am I speaking to you this morning?
There was once a man who was pursued by a roaring hungry lion. As that lion was sprinting after him, he felt the hot breath upon the back of his neck - and he knew that his time was short. So he fell on his knees and he prayed to God, and he cried out in desperation: 'Lord, make this lion a Christian!'. Of course, as he finished his prayer he turned round, and lo and behold the lion was on his knees praying! The lips were moving, and he thought: 'What a tremendous answer to prayer' - and he was so encouraged by God's supernatural power that he went over to the lion to join him in fellowship. As he was kneeling down he heard the lion praying: 'For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful'!
His prayer was not answered - it was answered, but it was not answered in the way that he wanted it to be. Now there are a number of reasons, and we covered them recently in our study, and I just want to recap over them. The first, it's not really the first but it's an obvious one: if you are not saved today don't be expecting God to answer your prayers. The only prayer that God wants to hear, I'm not saying He will not answer your prayers, but the only prayer that is your priority - number one on your list - is: 'Lord, be merciful unto me, a sinner'. If you want a prayer life you ought to start with that prayer. Then for those who are saved, the first reason can often be a lack of dependence on God. Verse 7 begins: 'Ask, and it shall be given unto you', and we've looked in recent weeks at how 'ask' is the prime evidence of absolute and total dependence upon God. If we're asking of another it is an indication that we need that other person and that we are putting all of our weight and dependence upon them. If you have a lack of dependence of God, you will not have your prayers answered. Second, if there is broken fellowship between you and God your prayers will not be answered - 'If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me'. One of the greatest reasons why people do not have a prayer life and their prayer is not answered, is because something has come between them and God, and that something is always sin. What is more important than getting something from God, is getting into fellowship with God.
Thirdly, there can be a lack of persistence in our prayers. Insistence, perseverance - and we saw that in verse 7 and verse 8, that ask, seek, and knock are all progressive. If you don't get when you ask, you maybe ask again; and if you still don't get then you start to seek; and after seeking, if you have not received, then you start to knock. Each one is a step nearer to God, seeking God - you remember the illustration I used about needing your neighbour, and calling over the garden fence: 'Can you help me?'. There's no answer, and you call again, and you still get no answer so you go round and look for him around the house and in the garden, and you don't find him so then you go to the door and you knock and you knock and you knock until he comes out, until he answers. There's a progression, each action: ask, seek, knock is an extra step further on than the previous one - it's an increasing eagerness and earnestness.
We looked into the original Greek language and we saw how the tense literally means this, we could translate it: 'Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking'. One of the reasons why believer's prayers are not answered is because they do not keep on asking, seeking, and knocking. Then fourthly, and this is what we want to deal with today, this perhaps is one of the most common: it is simply misunderstanding of prayer, and a misunderstanding of God. What do I mean? Well, when you ask the question: 'Why does God not hear me? I'm depending upon Him, God knows my dependence upon Him. I haven't broken fellowship, I've confessed all my sin as far as I know, and I've been praying for maybe 30 years about this thing. Why has God not answered me?'. The problem, probably, for you is perhaps a misunderstanding of who God is and of what prayer is meant to bring to you. One commentator I shared with you the last week, he calls these verses 'Verses that have deceptive simplicity' - not in any way that the Lord is deceiving, but in the verses there's a kind of vagueness if we take them on their own. You remember that I taught you in the last study that we're meant to take these verses in conjunction with the verses around them in the Sermon on the Mount - we're asking, seeking, knocking for the attributes that God has been preaching about through His Son, that ought to be in the life of the believer. We must take them in the context of all the other teaching, verses and chapters and portions and parables on prayer right throughout the whole Bible.
Maybe that's your misunderstanding, but my friend even if you do understand all that, it could be that you're still in the condition where you feel that God is not answering your prayers. One of the common reasons that the Lord is illustrating, I believe, here is a misunderstanding not simply of prayer, but a misunderstanding of the God of prayer. We looked at the works of prayer: asking, seeking, knocking - and that's our side, the asking part. But this week we're going to look at the Father's side, which is the giving part. Really verses 9 to 11 is our study today. Verses 9 and 10 tell us this: in nature all men, all animals and birds, are made so that in nature they instinctively provide the right kind of food for their children. Look at verse 9: '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?'. It's natural for animals, beasts, birds of the air, the fish of the sea to instinctively provide the right kind of food for their children. If you're familiar with Matthew's gospel you will note that the bread and the fish probably point forward to Matthew's gospel chapter 14, where the Lord feeds the 5000 with loaves of bread and with fish, and what the Lord is saying here is: 'The Lord provides exactly what men and women need, as He provided the manna from heaven in the wilderness for the children of Israel, as He provided the fish and the loaves for the 5000, God will always provide what His children need'.
Now what today is your picture of God? What is your caricature of God with regards to prayer? Do you see Him as a despot, like some judge sitting upon a throne who extracts malice and malicious sadistic glee from you squirming in your problems and perplexities, in your suffering, in your unanswered prayer? Do you see God up there with a clenched fist, and you have to take the crowbar of intercession and try to open it up so that the sweets of blessing come down to you on earth? Is that the way you see God? For if you see God like that, I would say to you today that that could be part of the problem that your prayers are not answered. What this passage is teaching us, above anything else, is what the Father's heart is toward His children - the way He thinks toward us, the way He works for us. The Lord is saying, listen: 'God always gives good things to His children'! Have you got that? God always gives good things to His children! There is a great storehouse in heaven, a vast repository more than sufficient for all our needs and all our requirements - and God always gives good things!
It's difficult, isn't it? You might be sitting here today saying: 'Well, God must have made a mistake with me somewhere along the way, because it wasn't a good thing I got - in fact, I didn't get anything I asked for. I've been praying and I still haven't got this and the good things that I want. It's only good things I want, my desires are His desires - it's that my family may be saved, it's that these problems of illness and sickness and mental problems and social problems and relational problems in my life should be done away with. That's all I'm looking!'. Let me give you three thoughts from this passage that I hope, and have been praying deeply, will help you today. The first is this: these verses tell us that God will always give you your basic needs - God will always give you your basic needs. Now the little quip that is very worn is: 'He gives us our needs and not our greeds' - and that is true. He will always give us what we need - the reason being that bread and fish are the basic staple diet of people in Palestinian days in which we're reading. God was giving them, He's saying: 'I give you what you need'.
In Luke chapter 11 where the Lord tells this story again, He talks of eggs - so He's speaking of bread, fish, and eggs: staples of diet. He is saying that He is able always to give us everyday needs that we have, and that is why in chapter 6 and in verse 11 what does He instruct us to pray? 'Give us this day our daily bread'. Whether it is physical needs or spiritual needs, listen child today: God always gives you your needs - always! The second thing: God always gives you good things, that's what this passage is teaching. God not only gives you your needs - your need might be the dentist, and I don't particularly like the dentist - but He always gives you good things. In other words, the antithesis is that there is no bad thing in stock in God's cupboards! He has never ever given a bad thing to any of His children. Everything He does by way of answering their prayers is always good: His giving is good. We struggle with this, it's so difficult - He withholds no good from us, and if He withholds anything from us He only withholds that which is bad, not that which is good. Now here is the reasoning - again it's this argument: 'If you do this, how much more does your heavenly Father', do you remember that argument? If you do this, how much more does your heavenly Father? He says to you: 'Right, you know how to give good gifts to your children. Look at you! You're a sinful, depraved, hell-deserving sinner, the wrath of God was abiding on you before conversion, and even before conversion you knew how to give good gifts to your children. You would give him bread if he asked you for bread, you wouldn't give him a stone, you would give him bread. If he asked you for fish, you wouldn't give him some kind of a water serpent - an eel - you would give him a fish. If he asked for an egg, you wouldn't give him a scorpion, you would give him an egg'. Do you see His reasoning?
Now watch: the bread in Palestine was like a flat stone, so there's a similarity here between the bread and the stone. In fact, that's why the devil in Matthew's gospel tempted the Lord to turn stones into bread - the stones looked like bread, and he was tempting Him using the eye-gate, what looked like bread to turn it to bread. The serpents here are water serpents as I've said, water snakes that fishermen used to find when they brought the catch in caught in amongst the nets - probably like what we know as an eel - but the point of it is this: an eel or a water snake was unclean in the ceremonial law, Leviticus 11. It had no gills, it had no fins, it was unclean. When you ask God for something that is holy, He's not going to give you something that is unclean. In Luke chapter 11 where He mentions an egg - now watch, this is a difficult one, how's he going to get the association between an egg and a scorpion? Well believe it or not, the scorpions in Palestine were of a light colour and they used to roll together into the shape of an egg! But they were dangerous, as you well know - and if you ask your father for an egg, he's not going to hand you...'There you go son, there's an egg'...a scorpion.
Now what is the Lord saying? Well people have interpreted this passage as meaning: 'Well, if you ask for an egg God will give you an egg. If you ask for bread, He'll give you bread. If you ask for a fish, He'll give you fish'. That is not what this passage teaches, it is not! What it does teach is that God's wisdom is greater than our wisdom. God's wisdom is always greater than our wisdom! There are things that we think in life are good, and there are things that we think are not good - we want the things that we think are good, and we don't want the things that we think are not good - but what this is teaching us is this: God is not just willing to give us things, but He is wise to give us the right thing! Do you see the difference? It's not some supernatural shopping list: 'Lord, I want a piece of bread' - bang, bread! Abracadabra! 'Lord, I want a fish' - bang, fish! That's not what this is, it's telling us that when we come to God, God is wise enough to tell us what we need and to give us what we need.
Am I doing exegetical somersaults today? I don't believe I am. The very fact is: you don't always get what you ask for, but God's word says you always get what you need. How many times have you heard of a person who has been praying to be healed, or for another to be healed, and they believed - they truly believed - that they would be healed? Some real giants of God, but they were almost plunged into atheism and agnosticism because it seemed that God had failed them. God had not failed them! They had misunderstood God's word! We in measure, Jesus says, know how to answer our children - 'we in measure', the emphasis is on us, not on the getting but on the giving. 'We in measure know how to give to our children, how much more does your heavenly Father know, in wisdom, how to give to you?'. A mother thinks that a dose of medicine is good for her child, and the child thinks otherwise and spits it all round her - but mother knows best, doesn't she? It's not just the giving of the thing, there's the opposite, many a young life has been absolutely wrecked because of the indulgence of their parents upon them - giving everything that they wanted to them! Yet, which of you wouldn't hold something back that would harm your child? The wisdom is with you, and the wisdom is with God! How much more is it with God if you've got it?
What am I saying? I'm saying this: you look into your past today, scan your biographical history with the Lord, and I think that you could praise the Lord more perhaps for some of His unanswered prayers than some that have been miraculously answered - I can say that. It's hard, perhaps, where you are today to say it, when you're looking for God to really come through for some reason - but what God's wanting you to do is to trust Him, that He is wise enough to give you what is good! I've been really touched in this week by two poems. I love poetry, but not all poetry, I like good poetry - good poetry is not good in a language sense, but that which touches the heart, to me that's good poetry. There is a poem by Ruth Harms-Calkin in a book entitled: 'Tell Me Again Lord, I Forget' - it's a good title for a book, we need to be reminded of a great deal of things. Listen to what she says, the poem is called: 'Thank You for Saying No', listen:
"Lord, day after day I've thanked You for saying 'Yes',
But when have I genuinely thanked You for saying 'No'?
Yet I shudder to think of the possible smears,
The cumulative blots on my life,
Had You not been sufficiently wise
To say an unalterable 'No'!
So thank You for saying 'No',
When my want list for things
Far exceeded my longing for You,
When I asked for a stone -
Foolishly certain that I asked for bread.
Thank You for saying 'No' -
To my petulant 'Just this time, Lord'.
Thank You for saying 'No' -
To senseless excuses, selfish motives, dangerous diversions.
Thank You for saying 'No' -
When the temptation that enticed me would have bound me beyond escape.
Thank You for saying 'No' -
When I asked You to leave me alone.
But above all, thank You for saying 'No',
When in anguish I asked:
'Lord, if you give all else may I keep this?'.
Lord, my awe increases
When I see the wisdom of Your divine 'No'".
I don't know whether you know this, but the mother of St. Augustine prayed with desperate earnestness that her son might be converted and that he might not go to Italy where he wanted to go to live his life of sin. The fact of the matter is, if you read his life story, she felt Italy would be the ruin of him, but in Italy he found Christ! God said 'No' - are you going to argue that in God saying 'No', that He wasn't giving something good to His child - of course He was! Things may come into our lives, and into your life specifically, and they're from the hand of God and it seems that it's not good - but you need to realise today that your heavenly Father never ever makes a mistake, and we quote it over and over again but we've got to say it again: 'We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose'. What we also need to realise is that in the Authorised Version that we love there are two words for 'good' in the Greek that are just translated 'good' in English, but they're different words. The first word means 'things that are intrinsically good' - they might not look good, but deep down they're for a good purpose. That's the first word, the second word means 'obvious good', it's in chapter 5:16: 'The people will praise the Lord for your good works'. Obviously good if you help an old lady across the road, that's good - but there may be things coming into your life that mean the first word, that are intrinsically good and God has meant them for good, but they can only be seen as evil. The first word is the word here: 'He will always give good things' - have you got it? That's the word: intrinsically good, they mightn't look good, they mightn't feel good, they mightn't seem good, but they are good!
He does not always give us what we ask, He always gives us something better! Do you believe that? Always something better! The second poem that blessed me was by an old confederate soldier in the American Civil War. Listen to this:
"I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
And I was made weak, that I may learn to humbly obey.
I asked God for health, that I may do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I may be happy.
And I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
And I was given life, that I might enjoy all things!"
"I got nothing I asked for - but everything I hoped for,
And I am, among all men, most richly blessed!"
And he got nothing he asked for! Thirdly, we don't have time to deal with it but He will always give you the things of the Spirit. In Luke chapter 11, in the parallel passage, he talks about how the Lord will give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him, and in fact what you need to realise is that every saint of God - if they're genuinely saved - has the Holy Spirit. Even the carnal Corinthians were told: 'The Holy Ghost is in you'. In the original language, in the Greek, there is no definite article. Our translation says: 'He will give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him', but in the Greek there is no 'the'. Whenever there is no 'the' in the Greek it usually speaks of the things of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the operations on our behalf of the Holy Spirit. It makes sense here, and the promise is that God will give us all that He knows we need, He will always give us good things whether they seem good or not, and thirdly He will always give us the things of the Holy Spirit. What that means in this context is simply this: we've been taught to love our enemies, love our neighbours, do good to them that curse us, and all these great commands that we've been thinking: 'How on earth can I keep them?' - here is the answer: the love God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost who is given unto us! You feel helpless at the end of this sermon - hallelujah! Come to God and ask, seek, and knock.
It is the case with many of us that we have not because we ask not, or we ask but we ask amiss that we may consume it upon our lusts. But there are people here and they have a great need, and they've prayed for that need for many a year - can I tell you today: Paul says, and he's always said it, but let me say it again: 'My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory'. Your need is great, but what you've got to see is your need in relation to other things - the other great things in that verse: 'My God', 'according to His riches'. I can't diminish your need, because your need is great, but your God is greater! His provision is greater, and if you come with the keys of prayer and ask, and seek, and knock, the heart of God will give you what you need! Can a woman forget her suckling child that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet God says: 'I will not forget thee'.
Maybe your prayer life is in tatters because you have misunderstood the God of prayer. No wonder John Newton said:
'Come, my soul, thy suit prepare:
Jesus loves to answer prayer;
He himself has bid thee pray,
Therefore will not say thee nay.
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much'.
Let us bow our heads before the God who knows all men's hearts, and knows how many answered prayers you've had in the last month. Maybe they have been answered, maybe you just didn't want the answer. What's it all about? It's all about this, I think this is the answer to every question perhaps in the Christian life that can come: 'All to Jesus I surrender'...
'Lord, I come to Thee for rest,
Take possession of my breast;
There Thy blood bought right maintain,
And without a rival reign'.
It means this: whatever comes from the hand of God, you take it from His hand as good things for you.
Father, we love Thee and we know that Thou dost love us. How could we ever doubt it when we hear the words of Thy Son, that Thou wilt always give good gifts? Maybe not what we want, perhaps not what seems good externally, but what the Great Physician in heaven knows is for our good. Lord, help us to cast everything upon Thee, for we know this day that Thou dost care for us. In the lovely name of the Saviour we ask Thee to help us live according to Thy word, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the twenty first tape in his 'Sermon On The Mount' series, titled "Encouragement To Pray - Part 2" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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