First published 9 February 2011
I’ve been sharing recently what I learned when I did a study in passages relating to prayer and faith. In particular, you’ll remember if you’ve been keeping up with me from the beginning of this series, I wanted to investigate thoroughly passages in the New Testament that appear to give some warrant for believing that we should expect to receive everything that we ask for in prayer.
I’ve been wondering all along whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew when I presume to write about these things. I’ve read and dipped into some great books and articles in doing this study, written by theologians with greater insight and knowledge than I am likely to attain to this side of glory. That’s why I’m careful to say that I’m sharing my thoughts, rather than teaching with any kind of authority. This is especially so when dealing with passages in John’s gospel, which I have found to be one of the most difficult books of the Bible to get to grips with.
And it’s to John’s gospel that I wanted, with the Lord’s help, to turn to here. The relevant verses are all within Jesus’ last conversation with His disciples on the evening before His crucifixion. This is given to us in chapters 13 to 17 of John’s gospel. It is well worthwhile reading the entire passage on your own, before you read any further, to get a feel for the themes Jesus covers.
The verses I will home in on are the following:
“And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” (John 15:7)
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (John 15:16)
“I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (John 16:23-24)
Conditions for answered prayer
I think, if I’m honest, my initial problem with these verses was that I focussed too heavily on the words “whatever you ask” or “whatever you wish”. I got a bit carried away! “Whatever I want! Great!”
However, when you read carefully you pick up not only that the context is quite specific (which I will touch on later), but that each of these promises is conditional. So we ought to pay attention to the conditions in order to pray in a way that the Lord will response positively to.
The one that crops up most often is “in my name” (14:13; 14:14; 15:16; 16:23). (The other conditions we see in these passages are saying similar things. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask…” (John 15:7) “… go and bear fruit… Then the Father will give you whatever you ask.” (John 15:16)) So what does it mean to pray “in Jesus’ name”?
Well, it hopefully goes without saying that simply ending a prayer with, “in Jesus’ name, Amen,” does not necessarily qualify. It’s not a magic formula. Through history, we have come to use those words in our prayers really as a self-checking device: Can I really ask for what I have just said and then say it is in Jesus’ name?
As a starting point I think we simply have to compare what it means to act or make requests in the name of someone in general. In formal situations we may think of someone like an ambassador. An ambassador goes in the name of their King or government to communicate with the government of another country. They may communicate and make requests freely, but only within the bounds set by the policies of their own government or King. Whatever they say within those bounds is treated as if it were direct communication or requests from the ambassador’s King or government. Or think of having legal representation in court. Your lawyer speaks in your name, and speaks freely, but may only speak in line with your instructions beforehand. Whatever they say in your name (i.e. in accordance with your instructions) is treated as being from you.
So when Jesus says that we can approach God the Father in His name, He means that we are free to communicate with God directly and ask for things that are in keeping with His own words and actions, based on our faith and union with Him. In fact, the whole point is that because of our relationship with Jesus, we can go directly to the Father and make requests. See John 16:26-27, “In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” We don’t pray to Jesus, so that He can mediate our requests and pass them on to God on our behalf. Jesus has mended that broken relationship, so that we can approach God directly. And we do that in Jesus’ name, according to our love for Him, our faith in Him and in obedience to Him; more than that: according to His love, obedience and sacrifice for us.
Praying in Jesus’ name is at heart praying on the basis of what Jesus has done. When we appear before God the Father with our requests and claim that we come “in Jesus’ name”, we are saying fundamentally that our permission to come before God and present requests rests in Jesus’ name. And Jesus’ name cannot be separated from what He did on the cross, and in the resurrection. The writer to the Hebrews says exactly this when he says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16) Jesus’ sacrifice is the reason we can come to God. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) He took our sin onto Himself and dealt with it, suffering its penalty, so that we could be counted righteous and be accepted as God’s children. And only God’s children, those who are in Christ, can approach God confidently in prayer.
So when we pray “in Jesus’ name” we should not be presumptuous, but humble, knowing that it is only by the death and sacrifice, and victory, of Jesus, when He laid down His life for us, and rose from the dead, that we are able to pray. Does it make sense to come before God and ask for things with selfish motives on the basis of Jesus suffering the wrath of God for our sins? For example, should we say, “Lord, in Jesus’ name – because Jesus suffered and died – please give us an easy life?” Doesn’t the fact that we are only given the privilege of prayer through Jesus’ death and resurrection force us to align the purpose of our praying with the purpose of His death and resurrection – namely so that His people might be “to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:12).
But further, if we are to pray in the name of Jesus we should only pray for things that Jesus would approve of, and in a way that He would ask.
And what kind of things are those things that Jesus would approve of? What are His priorities? That we “bear fruit” (15:8,16), that we testify about Christ (15:26), that we love each other (15:12), that we remain obedient (15:10). Ultimately, Jesus’ priority was to glorify His Father, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” (17:1) And He wants us to join Him, sharing in that glory. “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” (17:24)
So we should challenge ourselves when we pray. Are we praying in Jesus’ name? Do we want what Jesus wants? If we pray for whatever we want, is it displaying Jesus’ priorities? The real question is not whether God will give us whatever we want, but whether we want the things that our Saviour wants. If we want to be like Jesus, we should pray for that, and God will grant our request. If we want to love others, to have wisdom, to be humble, to have the right priorities, to seek first the kingdom of God, to be righteous, to be holy, to glorify the God who alone is worthy of glory, honour and praise; if we want those things, then we should ask for them, and God will grant our requests.
If we are primarily concerned to bear fruit to the glory of God, if we live our lives in line with Jesus’ teaching, His words remaining in us, then we will ask for things that show those priorities.
In that context, prayers for success in business, freedom from problems, even healing of sickness, are all less important than we think. If we want to pray in Jesus’ name we should say, “if healing me will glorify you most, then I pray for healing. If success in business will glorify you most, then I pray for success…”
And that’s where we learn to pray as Jesus did in the garden before He died. “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it possible, may this cup [the plan that involved his death and suffering on the cross] be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray about every little thing that concerns us, from the job interview, the argument with the girlfriend or safety for the 100-mile trip, to the agony of losing a close relative or suffering persecution. But I think if we want to pray “in Jesus’ name” we should always ask ourselves why we are praying as we do. How will getting what we ask for bring glory to God? And is His glory what we ultimately want?
And within these limitations, Jesus says that He “will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” (John 14:13)
There are other things to say from these passages in John, but they will have to wait until next time.