First published 20 February 2011
I’ve been sharing recently some thoughts arising out of study I did in some passages relating to prayer and faith in the New Testament. Last time I covered some verses from John’s gospel, where we looked at what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name”. I noted that this acts as a kind of precondition for proper prayer. The basic thrust is that we must pray with the same objectives and priorities as Jesus if we are to pray in His name. That involves living for Him, living by His words, bearing fruit, and ultimately aiming in everything for the glory of God.
I did say at one point last time that I would come back and talk about the specific context of the promises. Without noting the context it would be easy to get the impression that Jesus is promising to give us everything and anything we ask for in prayer, immediately and without exception – and so every Christian bloke (at least the English ones) would expect to be married to Cheryl Cole, and own three Ferraris, a private jet, a mansion in Barbados, a gold iPhone and a box at Stamford Bridge! Jesus says in John 14:13, “And I will do whatever you ask…”. One limitation on this is the next three words, as we have already seen, “…in my name”. The other limitation is in the context.
The immediately preceding verse leads us in the direction we need to look. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (14:12) What Jesus has been doing is the work of God the Father by speaking the words of the Father (v10), and performing miracles (v11).
But what are “greater things than these”? The passage does not say. However, back in John 5 Jesus talks in a similar way. “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no-one, but has entrusted judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father.” (John 5:20-23) Here it is clear that “greater things” refers to the granting of new life to souls that are “dead in transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
Greater than healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the physically dead, will be the work of saving souls. And Jesus’ followers are to be engaged in saving souls especially after He is resurrected and ascended into heaven, since we have now been given the Holy Spirit to help us. Of course, it is Jesus and not we who save souls. We pray for it and work for it, but Jesus says (14:14), “… I will do it.”
Hence when Jesus tells us that He will do “whatever you ask in my name, so that you may bring glory to the Father” (14:13), He means we are to ask for whatever we need in order to perform those great works of soul-saving. We are to ask for Him to do His soul-saving work in the lives of the people around us, using our words and our actions.
When we come to John 15:7 and 15:16 we find that the context is all about bearing fruit.
“… Ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (15:7-8)
“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.” (15:16)
More broadly Jesus is talking about the necessity of remaining in him in order to bear fruit. He uses the illustration of the vine and branches. The branches cannot bear fruit unless they remain part of the vine. And in the same way we cannot bear fruit unless we remain part of Christ. And if we do not remain in Christ, why should He grant our prayer requests? That’s why verses 7 and 16 are almost stating the same condition. Bearing fruit is only possible by remaining in Christ, and He will only grant our prayer requests if we remain in Him.
But that doesn’t quite answer the question. If we remain in Him, connected to Him, trusting in Him, bearing fruit (which I take to mean especially the holiness of our lives – Galatians 5:22), then Jesus said that he would give us whatever we wish. And yet there are Spirit-filled, fruit-bearing, Christians who fall sick in spite of praying for health, who are persecuted in spite of praying for peace.
And this is where we have to understand that the word “whatever” is one of those words that is almost always contextually limited. It sounds unlimited, but it rarely is. For example, if I went into a restaurant the waiter might say to me, “order whatever you want”. And I’d say, “I’ll have an Aston Martin DB7, please!” And the waiter would then make explicit what I should have understood before, “Actually, sir, I meant order whatever you want from the menu!” (Actually I wouldn’t have asked for the DB7, because I could not have paid for it… but you hopefully get my drift!)
So yet again, rather than carte blanche to get whatever riches and comforts we want, these verses are the encouragement we need to take up the challenge to be God-centred. Jesus tells us we are to be fruitful, we are to remain fully devoted to Him, God-centred, focussed on doing the work on God, glorifying Him. How can we do that? We are only human! We are full of sinful desires, temptations. We cannot change ourselves. We cannot enter the hearts of other people and change them. And yet we are asked to be soul-savers, to do greater works than Jesus Himself! The encouragement is that in that mission we can ask God for whatever we want – whatever we want to be more fruitful – and if we are in Christ He will always give us what we ask for.
The challenge, yet again, is to align ourselves with Christ’s priorities so that we can ask in His name.