The Promise of an Answer (7–8)
Jesus has just spoken in 7:1–6 of two truths. First, He wants His disciples to practice the absence of condemnation, freedom from a judging spirit that censures others in an air of being superior. Second, at the same time He desires balance. They should keep clear of a gullible spirit that will fall for anything and slide into error. So it is wise to activate the art of discrimination in giving His word to those who will receive it and holding back in cases where people stubbornly view the message with contempt.
The latter category includes people with values similar to dogs and hogs. To cast valuable things of God’s Word before certain people is as doomed to savage rejection as throwing holy things in the path of dogs or tossing pearls to swine. Vicious dogs drool for meat and hogs crave grain; finding that the precious things are not what they want, they only trample what is so valuable as if it is dirt. Incensed at not being given what they like, they may turn from what they reject to rip those who did not please them.
Jesus advises disciples to have a discrimination to deal wisely with those who hold precious truth in vehement disdain. It is a waste of time to keep trying to cater to their appetites; those who give the Word will perceptively turn to those they come to see are open to receive the message.
The assurance of receiving that for which one asks can be relevant to 7:1–6 and to the sermon’s context as a whole. How fitting to ask for God-given help in keeping oneself free from an attitude of judgmental hatefulness. And how suitable to ask for God’s wisdom in discriminating between who is open to the “pearls” and who is fiercely antagonistic. A disciple also could ask for a spirit that reflects any of the beatitudes in Matt. 5:3–12, for help to live as salt and light to attract others to God (5:16), for grace to live out the righteousness at the heart of the law (5:20), etc. Asking would be relevant for having the right attitude as regards anger, the adulterous eye, divorce, almsgiving, fasting, anxiety about daily needs, and such things.
Some deny that “ask” relates to prayer; rather they generalize it into asking other people for what is fitting, just as one should do for others (7:12). But a reference meant particularly for asking in prayer, prayer to God, has the most support. (1) Jesus uses immediate illustrations pointing to prayer—the father’s wish to meet a son’s needs, a good picture of the Father in heaven as Jesus shows (v. 11). God the Father gives good to those who ask Him! (2) Luke 11:9–13 uses the same “ask … seek … knock” motif in an unequivocal prayer emphasis. He opens this scenario with a disciple’s request. “Lord, teach us to pray …” (v. 1), then he gives the prayer Jesus taught His disciples (vv. 2–4), next a parable of a man who finally met a neighbor’s request, an illustration, in part, of the heavenly Father’s giving as in vv. 9–13.
But there is more that shows prayer in Matt. 7. (3) The word “receive” is often used for the beneficiary getting things in prayer (Matt. 21:22; John 16:24); (4) the word “ask” often appears for asking in prayer (Matt. 6:8; John 14:13–14; 15:7; 16:23).
Assuming that the asking is in prayer, the use of three different words for prayer raises a question. Are these three words for saying the same thing, or do the three make different emphases in what prayer is to be? A build-up of vividness lies in the three.
To “ask” is simply to request as in a petition or intercession. To “seek” is reasonably wider than strictly in words of prayer, referring to the entire effort in searching for God’s response to prayer. It can embrace diligent seeking of light that bears on a matter of prayer, poring over God’s Word to ascertain His will. Some refer to this as “Scripture praying.” And the seeking can carry on in urging the specific matter before the Lord in prayer words. To “seek” appears to express a quest in prayer with intensity as well.
To “ask” or “knock” also can be with intensity. In knocking, the person praying is emphatic about wanting to summon God to respond. One can visualize a supplicant waiting at a door, rapping to reach the ear of one inside who will open the door, and show his presence.
The idea of “seek” is used in the Bible for a great number of spiritual quests: to seek the Lord, His strength, seek His face (1 Chr. 1:10, 11); seek His help (2 Chr. 20:4); seek a safe journey from Him (Ezra 8:21); seek the one matter of dwelling in His house to behold His beauty (Ps. 27:4); seek peace (Ps. 34:14); seek refuge under God’s protection (Ps. 91:4); seek His Word (Ps. 119:155); seek justice (Isa. 1:17); seek good (Amos 5:14); seek humility (Zeph. 2:3); seek glory, honor, immortality, eternal life (Rom. 2:7); seek to abound to edify others (1 Cor. 14:12).
Seek is also used when one seeks the things that are Christ’s (Phil. 2:21), the spiritual profit of other believers (Phil. 4:17), the things above (Col. 3:1), a heavenly country (Heb. 11:14) or the heavenly city (13:14).
In all of these, prayer could have a vital, permeating role.
The encouragement Jesus gives to prayer is in three stages also. To ask is to receive; to seek is to find; to knock is to have a door opened. Receiving stresses gaining a gift; finding focuses on a discovery, as coming upon a bonanza of gold; having a door opened looks at a welcome, or hospitality as when a host extends cordiality to a guest. This word “knock” (krouo) in the New Testament always is used for knocking on a door or gate to summon a person. It appears for believers knocking in prayer before God, God being the host who opens the door into His presence (Matt. 7:7, 8; Lk. 11:9, 10); unbelievers trying to overcome their former rejection by knocking, but too late, to gain admission into Christ’s kingdom (Lk. 13:25); Christ knocking at the door of believers’ lives when he returns and finds them alertly waiting (Lk. 12:36); Peter knocking to let praying believers know God had set him free from prison (Acts 12:13, 16); and Christ knocking at the heart door of professing believers, giving them opportunity of having fellowship with Him (Rev. 3:20).
Even if the last two words can at times express prayer more widely or intensely than “ask,” in subsequent verses the one word “ask” can represent all three (Matt. 7:9–11; so Lk. 11:11–13), as in Matt. 6:8 and 21:22.
G. Bertram limits the knocking in Matt. 7 to coming for salvation (Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, ed. G. Kittel, III, 955). The context gives some credence to this, speaking later of the “gate” into salvation (Matt. 7:13–14) and entering the kingdom (7:21). Still, illustrations close by show a wider meaning——loaf and fish as a father’s gifts to meet temporal needs; God giving what is good, even the Spirit (Lk. 11:13). In Matthew’s context, the idea is as broad as 6:31–32 where “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things,” things that can stir anxiety, such as what a person will eat, drink or wear (vv. 25, 31). Matthew also presents Jesus’ words on prayer entailing a wider sweep than just salvation (6:6–7, 9–15; 9:38; 21:22; 26:41).
The present tenses in “Ask … seek … knock” express a continual need. And while they show that the prayer is to be continuing, the encouragement for expecting an answer is the Father’s goodness beyond all human fathers. Matt. 7 and Luke 11 both emphasize this inducement to pray.
The Pictures of an Answer (7:9–10)
These are a human father giving what his son asks—the good and not some substitute that turns the scene bitter. The examples show this: giving a loaf that is requested, not a stone, and giving a fish, not a snake. In both, the gifts are good and they bless, in contrast to the bad that disappoints. A stone would cause pain and anguish due to dismay and its danger if a child bit into it. A snake would bring fear, not fulfillment, and distrust that recoils due to the father’s cruel trick.
The Point in the Answer (7:11)
Jesus teaches a lesson by the analogy. Usual human fathers show favor (what is good), not fault. The heavenly Father answers prayer with a display of His favor (“what is good to those who ask Him”), not what is frustrating. The point is to encourage people to pray expecting good. This is based on God being much more aroused to offer what is good than human fathers are.
Principles of prayer are numerous here. First, God wants to answer prayer with a gift, a discovery, and even His hospitality out of His own home. Second, pray continually and expecting God to give what is good. Third, God gives the promise to “everyone” (v. , apparently everyone who has the genuine righteousness the sermon emphasizes (5:20), a true child of God (v. 11).
Fourth, prayer receiving such encouragement from what God is like can relate to matters in verses leading into these prayer verses. But it also can touch any need the sermon, or life, can suggest (cf. Matt. 21:22, “all things you ask … believing, you shall receive”). This is in the spirit of passages explaining that the asking be in accord with God’s will (John 15:7; 1 John 5:14–15). Fifth, God is always the host and provider. Thanksgiving is due Him who wants to make certain that the askers receive, the seekers find, the knockers experience His cordial welcome at an opened door.