Article of the Month
Herman C. Hanko
One of the main characteristics, if not the most important characteristic, of the citizens of the kingdom of Jesus Christ is that they pray. This lies in the nature of the case. The great blessing of citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is that the citizens live in covenant fellowship with their Father in heaven. And it is especially through prayer that these citizens, while on this earth, enter into this fellowship. It is by the power of God's grace alone that they walk as citizens of that kingdom in the midst of the world. But since that grace comes only from God, it is but natural that the child of God, deeply conscious of his dependence on the Most High, seeks that fountain of all grace in prayer.
It is therefore no wonder that the disciples came to Jesus with the request: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples” (v. 1). The Lord Himself spent much time in prayer. In fact, there were whole nights that the Lord would forget sleep and spend the quiet hours of a Galilean night in prayer to His Father. The disciples must have felt very keenly that if their Master Who was perfect was in need of prayer, how much were not they?
In answer to their request, the Lord gave to His disciples — and to the Church of all ages — the spiritual model of all true prayer: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name But along with this perfect prayer, the Lord also turned to a parable to teach those whom He loved throughout all time the true character of prayer.
The main idea of this parable is the absolute certainty of prayer's answer. This is evident from the Lord's own application: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (v. 9).
In teaching us that no prayer of the child of God would go unanswered, the Lord also encourages us to persevere in prayer. This encouragement we need. So often we forget to pray. Our prayers are, on the whole, few and far between. No doubt, when finally we arrive in glory, we will discover more clearly than we know now how few our prayers really were. Furthermore, so often when our prayers are not immediately answered, we become discouraged and stop praying. We need, then, the promise of the Lord that when we persevere in prayer the Lord will surely give us all that we ask.
Why We Must Pray
In some respects, this parable is somewhat strange. It soon becomes evident to any serious student of this passage of Scripture that the Lord does not mean to draw an absolute analogy between the elements of the parable and the reality of prayer. This is surely impossible. In fact, the key words of the parable are found in its application: “How much more. . . .” If certain things are true in earthly relationships, how much more are they not true in heavenly relationships. If, according to the parable, this is how a neighbor acts toward a friend, how much more is it not true that our heavenly Father is willing to answer the prayers of His elect children.
A man received a visitor in the hollow of the night. The visitor had come a long way and had entered the house of his friend hungry and weary from traveling. But the friend had nothing in the house to feed his guest. This was not really so strange in the East. The people there lived in a hot climate and had no means of refrigeration. The result was that in many cases people would buy sufficient only for the needs of the day at the beginning of the day, so that by night there was nothing left in the house to eat. In spite of this, when a friend came, even though it was night, he must be cared for and his needs supplied. He could not be put to bed hungry and could not be asked to wait till the morning for something to eat.
There was only one thing to do. The host went to his neighbor and knocked on his door to arouse him from sleep in order that he might obtain some bread. But the neighbor was not in any mood to get up in the hollow of the night and wake his family while searching for a light and for bread. And so he answered: “Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee.” This was a flat refusal that could not possibly be misunderstood.
But this did not discourage the host. He continued to pound on the door and lay before his neighbor his important needs. He would not be turned away. He persisted with vehemence and growing insistence. And, at last, when the neighbor's patience was exhausted, the neighbor came to the door to give the man what he asked. He did not do this because the man was his friend, but because the shamelessness of his persistence in knocking at such an hour.
There are several points in the parable which must be clearly defined. In the first place, it is evident that the man who came knocking at midnight came to ask for what he truly needed. He did not make a vain or silly request. He did not trouble his neighbor with nonessentials. He needed bread, for he was under the solemn obligation to feed the traveler who came into his home.
In the second place, the knocking friend did not ask for help for any other reason than his desire to care for the needs of the traveler who sought shelter and food beneath his roof. He had love for this traveler who came seeking his hospitality. It was not a carnal desire or a longing for personal gain that prompted him to seek the help of his neighbor; it was rather his deep reluctance to send the traveler whom he loved to bed hungry. He did not therefore disturb the rest and peace of his neighbor out of malice or bitterness. He was moved only by love.
In the third place, he came to his neighbor when he could obtain bread nowhere else. It was midnight. The stores and marketplaces were closed. And, while it was indeed true that his request would inconvenience his neighbor, he had nowhere else to go. It was necessary that his neighbor hear him and give him what he asked. All these elements must be applied to the relationship between God and His people which is expressed in prayer. Evidently Jesus means to convey to us the idea that the relationship between God and His people is a relationship of Father and son. This becomes clear from the words which are appended to this parable: “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” (vv. 11,12). The relation between God and His people is a Father-son relationship. And it is precisely this relationship which also explains the need for prayer.
God is the Father of His people; His people are His children. This truth is not rooted, as the modernists like to say, in the fact of creation. It is wrong to speak of a general fatherhood of God and a universal brotherhood of man. It is true that God created all men, and, creating them in His own image, He made them also His children. But they sinned against Him and fell away from the high estate in which they once lived. They denied God and their Father and refused to serve Him. They chose instead the devil as their guide and model. The result is that they now bear the image of their father the devil, whose works also they do. (See John 8:44.) On the contrary, the Father-son relationship which exists between God and His people is rooted in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and it is only through Him that the elect people of God are restored to sonship. Their sonship is rooted in the cross of Christ, through which God legally adopts them to be His sons and heirs. And this sonship is actually accomplished through the wonder of regeneration, by which the people of God are born again unto a new life through the resurrection life of Jesus Christ.
In this Father-son relationship, our heavenly Father loves us and assumes all responsibility for our care. And we, on the other hand, know that all that we need comes only from Him. We do not pray to our Father and bring Him our needs in order to tell Him what our needs are. Our Father in heaven knows what we have need of before we ask Him. (See Matt. 6:8.) Besides, He knows much better than we what our needs are, for He Himself has first of all created these needs.
For this same reason we do not come in prayer to the throne of grace in order to try to impose our will upon the will of our heavenly Father. This can never be done. We cannot change the will of God. His will is eternal and unchangeable. Our prayers do not change things with God. If this is the meaning of the motto “Prayer changes things,” it is a motto that ought never to be found on the lips of the child of God. Whatever we ask for in prayer and receive from our heavenly Father, He has already determined to give us through the way of prayer. We may be humbly thankful that this is the case. I would certainly never dare to pray again if I had any reason to suppose that my prayers would change the mind of the Almighty. This indeed would be a terrible thing. Our Father knows what is best for us. We never know, for we are little children.
The reason for prayer is something quite different. Because God is our Father and we are His children, God wants us to pray in order that we may ask Him for the things we need. He wants us to ask Him for these things because it is in this way that we learn to seek all things from His hand as a son seeks all things from the hand of his father. In this way we learn to trust in Him alone and to commit our way with contentment to the higher knowledge and wisdom of our heavenly Father. Prayer is the deepest expression of the relationship of Father and son which exists by grace between God and His people.
For What We Must Pray
The question remains: what is it for which we must ask?
Negatively speaking, we must not ask for earthly things such as material riches, prosperity, the worldly things that our carnal flesh so often craves. Jesus Himself emphasizes this when in verse 13 He says: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” This does not mean that we must not ask for our daily bread from God. The Lord Himself teaches us to do this. But we must be sure that we ask only for the needs of one day; and we must be sure that we ask only for bread, not butter on our bread. In the second place, we do not always know what we ought to ask for. There are many details of our earthly life and pilgrimage which our Father has hid from us. When we are sick we do not know whether it is the Lord's will to make us better again; or if He wills to make us better, just when health will be restored. When we walk down life's pathway we do not know what troubles, what problems we shall have to face from one moment to the next. There are any number of details which the Lord does not reveal. But in respect to all these things, we must pray, “Thy will be done.” Or, as James expresses it, we must learn to say: “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15). If we learn to pray, “Thy will be done,” our Father in heaven will also surely hear us and give us His answer to this petition. At the same time, it is also our calling to cast all our cares upon God (see I Peter 5:7), bring to Him all the things that trouble our deepest hearts, and pour out to Him our sorrows and griefs. But always this must be done in the humble submission to His will which He, Who is infinitely wiser than we, demands.
Positively, we need the Holy Spirit. This means that we need the spiritual blessings and spiritual strength which only the Holy Spirit can bring to us. All the blessings of salvation are earned for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. They are like a stream of salvation and grace which we need in our pilgrimage from here to glory. These blessings are applied to our hearts through the operation of the Holy Spirit within us. Specifically, this means that we need grace to enter into the kingdom of heaven each day through repentance and sorrow for sin. We need grace to walk within that kingdom fighting the good fight of faith against sin and temptation. We need grace to persevere in faithfulness in the midst of suffering, sorrow, distress, trouble, persecution, and in carrying all the heavy burdens which our Father is pleased to place on us. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit to represent God's cause and God's covenant in the midst of a world of sin and evil. We need the grace of the Spirit to seek God's kingdom and His righteousness; to bring up our children in the fear of His Name which is the beginning of all wisdom; to be faithful in searching His Word that we may study to show ourselves approved unto God. And each saint needs this grace according to his own unique calling in his place in the battle lines of faith, with the individual position and station and circumstances of life which the Father has given him. This is an essential need. This is basic to all our needs. This we have need of beyond anything else. It is this need of the Holy Spirit which brings us in prayer to the throne of grace.
The Need for Encouragement
To seek this need from our heavenly Father requires much encouragement. In the first place, this is true because sometimes we hardly dare to pray. So, no doubt, it was also in the parable. It was midnight when the traveler came to his friend's house. It was a tremendous inconvenience for this friend's neighbor to get up from his bed in the hollow of the night, unlock the door, wake his children with stumbling about, and get bread for him who knocked. It took a lot of courage based on the hope that his neighbor would respond in love for this man to come to his neighbor at such an hour asking bread.
It is also this way with our prayers. We are indeed children of God, but we are yet very wicked. We do not walk as children of our Father in heaven. Often we prefer to manifest ourselves in life as children of the world. We, as Peter did, deny our Lord. We often manifest love for the enemies of God and seek their approval. We daily forfeit all right to be blessed by our Father. We come home at night after a day of sinning, and we must seek the grace that we need from Him Whom we have denied. A thousand times we become undeserving and lose any claim to the blessings of our God. It therefore takes a great deal of courage to come to our Father and ask Him to bless us. This courage must be based on the fact that our Father loves us even when we sin because He has forgiven all our sins in the blood of the cross of His own Son.
In the second place, it seems many times as if our Father is not always ready to help us. This was especially true in the parable. The neighbor would not help. He told the man who knocked at his door to cease troubling him. The door was locked; he could not answer it. The children were sleeping; he did not want to waken them with his stumbling about. Not this time. The man at the door had better go home. It was impossible to help. He met his neighbor's demand with a flat refusal. And so the host had to continue to knock. He needed the bread desperately, and, since his neighbor would not permit himself to be inconvenienced, he continued to pound on the door until he prevailed upon his neighbor to help him.
This is often true in our prayers. It seems as if the door of heaven is closed to our prayers and our Father is not willing to help us. We pray for grace to fight against sin, but that grace does not come. We pray for the peace of forgiveness, but heaven is silent. Trouble disturbs our souls and we seek relief from distress, but our Father does not seem to hear our anxious cries. We pray for help in life's problems to find the solution to the difficult choices we must make, but light does not come from above and it seems as if we are told to wander in the darkness and seek our own way. It seems as if our Father in heaven says to us: “Do not trouble me. I cannot help you.” Even the Psalmist of Israel knew of this experience. He writes in Psalm 77: “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. . . . I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search. Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?” (vv. 2, 3, 6-9).
We may well ask the question why this happens. And the answer is not difficult to find. It is, in the first place, entirely possible that the reason lies in us. We may not ask in faith, but instead we perhaps ask doubting that we will receive that for which we ask. And he that doubteth is like the wave of the sea driven by the wind and tossed. (See James 1:6-8.) Or perhaps we are not sufficiently sincere in our request; and we wonder secretly whether we really desire strength for the battle, or whether we prefer the sins for which we are asking forgiveness. But our Father knows our hearts and knows what we really want.
But then again, we may ask from our heavenly Father in all sincerity and honesty, and yet our Father does not hear us. Why is this?
This was also the case in the parable. The man did not immediately receive what he wanted. But this did not prevent him from asking by a continual and insistent knocking on the door. It was at last because of the very shamelessness of the man — that he should come at that hour not only, but that he should continue to pound on the door after being refused — that finally the neighbor gave him the three loaves of bread. And so the Lord means to teach us: do not stop praying when you come to the throne of grace with your petitions, and when it seems as if you are not immediately heard. We have no right to throw up our hands in despair and discouragement as if our Father is not interested in hearing us at all. We must persevere in prayer. We must ask and seek and knock.
This is very important. The Lord tells us to ask. This means that we must come with all our petitions before the throne of grace. And when we come, we must come in the faith that we will be heard.
But if the Lord does not immediately hear us, we must seek. This is a stronger word than “ask” and implies more. By seeking, we put forth effort to be heard. We look for the reason why we have not been heard in ourselves first of all. Perhaps we will find the answer there. And if we do not find it there, we must continue to assail the throne of grace with prayers and supplications to gain what we desire.
And even then perhaps we are not heard. The apostle Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his flesh might be removed. He prayed three times before at last the Lord answered his prayer. And when the Lord answered his prayer He did not remove the thorn from his flesh, but told him: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:7-9).
So we must knock. If we find the door of heaven closed and it seems as if the Lord does not answer by giving us entrance into His sanctuary, we must continue to knock. We must persevere in knocking on the door of God's dwelling place. We must be like Jacob, who would not let the angel go until he blessed him. Because Jacob persevered, the Lord changed his name to Israel, for he had wrestled with God and had prevailed. (See Gen. 32:26,28.) The same thing was true of the Syrophoenician woman. She sought the Lord to heal her daughter. How easy it would have been for her to be discouraged and disappointed if she had ceased her pleading when the Lord seemingly rebuked her for her request. The Lord said to her in answer to her plea: “It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to the dogs.” This was a flat refusal. But the woman, by faith, persevered: “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table.” And her prayer was answered. We must persevere in prayer. We must ask. We must seek. We must knock.
The Certainty of Being Heard
The Lord assures us that in this way we will certainly be heard. If, after all this perseverance, we would have no guarantee that we would be heard, there would be no incentive to continue in prayer. But this is not the case. We have the certain promise of Christ that the Lord will answer us.
This certainty is first of all expressed in the contrast of the parable which Jesus makes by the words “how much more.” The man who had retired for the night did not want to answer his neighbor's knocking. He would surely not have come to the door if the man had retired after his first request. Even when finally he answered, he did not do this out of love. He saw that giving his neighbor bread was the only way to rid himself of the man. The man was going to disturb his whole night, probably wake his children, and keep knocking till he answered. “How much more will not your heavenly Father . . .
God is not at last overcome with our shamelessness. He loves us with an eternal love that is rooted in His own purpose to glorify Himself. He has promised to bless us through Jesus Christ. The proof is in the cross. How much more then shall not He give us His Holy Spirit?
It was a severe imposition on the goodwill of the neighbor to come at midnight asking bread. But how much more shall not our heavenly Father . . . We never impose on Him, for He Who watches over Israel never slumbers nor sleeps. (See Ps. 121:4.) Can God's people ever impose on the Most High? He delights in their prayers. They are a continual sacrifice before Him. How much more then will He not surely hear us when we pray!
The example Jesus appends to this parable makes this very strong. Even an earthly father gives his son bread and an egg and fish when he is asked for these things. But an earthly lather is evil. He does this only out of natural love. He does this imperfectly and insincerely. How much more your heavenly Father. . . . Will our Father in heaven mock us when we seek His Spirit from Him? Will He give us stones for bread, serpents for eggs, scorpions for fish? If an earthly father would not do this, how much more will not our heavenly Father give us all that we ask? He knows all our needs. He delights in us when we seek the throne of His grace to have these needs satisfied. He will surely give us all that we ask.
This answer to prayer is certain for several reasons. First of all, God will not ignore His own work. We do not and cannot pray of ourselves nor in our own strength. God brings us to Himself in prayer. Only when He inspires prayer within us can we also bow our heads to seek from Him the needs of our life. Our prayers are the fruit of His grace. Will He ignore His own work in us? This is impossible.
Second, Christ prays for us. Our eternal High Priest has entered into the Most Holy Place where God dwells. Christ prays continuously for us before the face of God. When we forget to pray, Christ prays for us. When we pray in sin, these prayers are perfected by our High Priest. When we ask for things we should not be asking for, our High Priest tells our Father not to give us these things; for they will harm us. Will our Father ever ignore the prayers of Christ His own Son?
Third, it is God's eternal will to hear us when we pray. He eternally determines to give us all that we need. We ask for the things which He has purposed to do. We pray for His cause, His kingdom, His covenant. These things He has determined to prosper and bless. Therefore He will surely hear us when we pray because He cannot deny Himself.
How great and marvelous this certainty is! Therefore indeed we may be sure that we shall be heard.
Ask. Ye shall receive. Seek. Ye shall surely find. Knock. It shall certainly be opened to you. This is God's own promise. There is no praying saint who goes unanswered. There is no seeking soul who will not find. There is no one who ever knocks at the door of God's sanctuary who will be turned away. Before God's throne we will surely find peace when our hearts are troubled, strength when life's burdens become heavy, grace for the rigors and trials of the day, wisdom to solve life's problems, faithfulness in the battle, courage to walk even through the valley of the shadow of death. Eternity will reveal that our heavenly Father heard all our prayers and answered them, even if it was in His own way and in His own time.
Herman Hanko was a minister of the Word of god in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America and Professor of Theology in the Theological School of those churches. Born in 1930, he lived close to the ministry all his life; for he was the son of a minister. He was educated in the Christian school system, graduated from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and had his ministerial training at the theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, from which he graduated in 1955.
From 1955 to 1965 he served in the pulpit ministry in Waker, Michigan and Doon, Iowa. Since 1965 he was a teacher of future minister, specializing in New Testament studies and Church History. Although he had written many articles, pamphlets and was a contributor in several books, the article from the book of which it is taken, The Mystery of the Kingdom, was the author's first full length book.
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