Message: The Radical Nature of Our Positivity | Scripture: Matthew 7:7-11 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Songs: The Everlasting Love of God | Ancient of Days | My Worth Is Not in What I Own | Every Step
If able, please stand with me as I read to you from Matthew 7:7-11. TWoL: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
I want to remind all of us of two fundamentally important things this morning before we get into our text. The first is that everything we’ve unpacked so far in this wonderful Sermon on the Mount is grounded upon that text in Matthew 5:17 where we’re told that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Law and Prophets—that he comes and personally satisfies that incredible tension in the Bible between God’s two great, yet seemingly contradictory, promises: that he must punish sin AND that he will save his people—people who are sinners. Christ solves the struggle in himself as the messianic redeemer of his people, and he cements that solution in his substitutionary death upon a cross.
The second thing I want to remind you of is the fact that because he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets—because he comes to accomplish what we could not—he is at liberty to call us to follow him, and the way he tells us to follow him is by possessing and exhibiting a greater righteousness—a righteousness that goes beyond the external, ostentatious, prideful work that the world thinks will save them. This greater righteousness doesn’t save us, rather it’s because we’ve been saved by the fulfiller of all Scripture that we can be righteous. Our good works aren’t grounded in our self-sufficiency or ability to save ourselves. Instead, they’re grounded in someone other than us. Greater righteousness is doing God’s will fueled by God’s happiness to save and separate us through Jesus.
Yet, since that incredible call for us to exemplify a greater righteousness, what is it that we’re confronted with over and over again? It’s that we still continue to fail. This is why most of Christ’s commands and explanations of the law to us are stated so negatively: Do not be angry. Do not lust. Do not divorce. Do not break your word. Do not retaliate. Do not give to be seen by others. Do not pray to be heard by others. Do not fast to be comforted by others. Do not store up treasures on earth. Do not be anxious about the things of the world. Do not judge with a sin-infested heart. Do not haphazardly offer holy things to unholy people. In other words, do not make your righteousness stubbornly and stupidly about yourself!
Christ focused on you so that you might turn your focus to others. Have you ever noticed that that there are really only three positive commands in all the Sermon on the Mount? Love your enemy, as your heavenly Father has loved you. Seek first the kingdom of God, and he will take care of your concerns. And, as we read in our text today, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” In other words, true righteousness isn’t only other-centred; it’s God-centred.
We’re to make it about God. We’re to go to him in our foolishness, stupidity, and stubbornness. We’re to go to him expectantly, knowing he will help us. We’re to go to him for every need and for all wisdom because only in doing so are we able to refrain from doing what we shouldn’t do and turn our eyes and our lives to do what we’re supposed to do.
Yet, Christ doesn’t merely tell us to find our righteousness by going to God, expectantly, for every need and wisdom, he also tells us how to go to him, and the first way we’re to have a righteousness that exceeds our sinful stupidity is by going to him knowing that he has commanded us to do so and that he enables us to bask in the promises that he gives us when we do so. So, then, that is our first point: Go, expectantly to God knowing his commands and basking in his promises.
1) Know the Commands, Bask in the Promises
I was once watching a sermon, and I forget the exact preacher who said it, but I remember he opened his sermon like this: there are no great men of God. There are no great men of prayer. There are only lowly, frail, faithless men of a great and merciful God who has granted them grace. Grace to ask of him. Grace to seek him. Grace to knock at his heavenly gates. We’re to remember this and be humbled by it. And that is precisely what Jesus wants us to recognize as we come to Matthew 7:7-11—that we are not the heroes of our stories, but rather, we often hinder ourselves from possessing that greatness and that mercy that God, himself, desires to freely give us.
The truth of the matter is, and I don’t mean to scold anyone here because this is true of myself just as much as it is likely true of you, but all of us are far too feeble in our praying—more feeble and neglectful of this task than we possibly care to think or imagine we are. We are far too easily distracted with our own capabilities and independence. We think too highly of ourselves. We consider our past successes as proof of our potential while quickly forgetting our past mistakes as proof of our necessary dependence.
And all this can be explained with a few questions: how often are we thinking of God as infinitely capable and strong? How often are we thinking of his incomparable holiness and righteousness? How deeply do we drink of his goodness? How humbly do we consider his immeasurable wisdom? How intoxicating do we find his inexhaustible love? How regularly do you consider and meditate on these things? If your answer is hardly, rarely, or sparingly, then I know you do not pray enough because when we hold the magnifying glass of God’s grandeur over our littleness, sinfulness, and our helplessness, there is no question that we would become more intuitively desperate and eager to pray.
It is because we think thoughts of ourselves before we think thoughts of God, if we think thoughts of God at all, that this long-term, pervading tragedy plagues the church! Jesus has just shown us how inadequate we are for the task: do not do this. Do not do that.
And yet, even as God himself in the incarnate second person of the Trinity is condemning us to our faces—making it blatantly obvious that we do exactly what he says, “don’t do,” our inclination isn’t to fall to our knees but to look further inward, to convince ourselves that we can do what he tells us not to do, and to go on doing exactly what we shouldn’t. In fact, even when we’re outwardly doing what we should, we’re very likely still doing it wrong because, like the Pharisees and scribes, we’re looking to the wrong motivations to do it—at ourselves, at our money, at our fear of man, at our pride of life, so-on, so-forth. It is as one pastor says it, “The greatest invitation in the world is extended to us, and incomprehensibly we regularly turn away to other things.”
But in our inability to do anything rightly, Jesus’ response to us isn’t continued condemnation. Even as he looks at us, and as we fall short of him, he gives us grace in the form of three commands. But listen to the nature of these commands because they aren’t the type of imperatives that come from an overlord or some heartless taskmaster. No, they come from someone who desires us not to miss out on the warmth of what is being offered to us: in your weakness and in your sin—though you are hopelessly angry, liars, cheats, braggarts, hoarders, and unforgivingly judgmental—though you are these things, you are invited, still, to ask, seek, knock. Where you were enslaved by requiring the impossible from yourself, lay that burden upon God who not only desires to carry it for you but has sent his own Son in order to do exactly that.
And notice with me both the creativity and the growing proximity of the commands. On the one hand, Jesus tells us to be creative and expansive in our praying—asking, and if you don’t receive, seeking, and if you don’t find, knocking—so that we might be able to do what he commands, disciple the people he’s placed in our lives, and point others to him. We can’t accomplish this task on our own—we judge where we shouldn’t judge, and because we’re blind, we offer holy things to dogs and pigs who can’t yet receive those things. But God uses three different imperatives—all in the present tense.
Why? Because he desires us to explore the extent of his generosity, to spare him no detail, to exercise the fullness of the creative wonder he gives us as we search his character, and he calls us—in the use of that present tense—to do it consistently and persistently. We’re not to stop asking. We’re not to stop seeking. We’re not to stop knocking. Until our hearts are conformed to his will, until we know he’s heard us, and until we know he’s answered us maybe not exactly how we expect but exactly in the way we need.
My oldest son, Micah, was really into hide and seek just a few months ago. But recently, whenever we play, and he can’t find me, instead of looking high and low, and instead of going into those darker places that are a little bit more frightful to him, he will stand in brightly lit open spaces and yell at the top of his lungs, “DADDY! WHERE ARE YOU?!” And if he can’t hear my answer, he will move to the next brightly lit spot, “DADDY! WHERE ARE YOU?!” Sometimes he’ll get really creative by whispering first and then in a loud burst scream it without any pause. But he’ll persist at it until out of the corner somewhere he hears a chuckle, or sometimes even an outright burst of laughter because I simply cannot contain myself. I want him to know where I am. I want him to know that I hear him, and I want him to run to me, arms wide open, and as he yells out, “I FOUND YOU!” I get the honour of grabbing him and bringing him into my embrace.
Is God not desirous to show himself to us even more fondly than this when we call out to him with all of our creative and hopeful means? In our singing, in our whispers, in our meditations of heart, in our corporate gathering—does God not desire to make himself known to us, to help us, and to enable us to say, “I found you,” and then to embrace us? I believe he does.
Yet, consider, on the other hand, the growing proximity and closeness of the commands. We aren’t only to ask expansively, persistently, and creatively, but as we ask in these ways, notice how we get closer and closer. First, we ask like one who desires to know the will of God, and when we’re not given it, we seek after it. The verb used literally is to search out or desire after. We search his heart. We desire after him to know his ways and to consider if our hearts are aligned with his. And as we search, we come to find the very thing that brings him pleasure and that he desires to give us. So, we knock because there we are, and there he is waiting behind the door to welcome us and to give us the fullness of himself.
And as we draw nearer and nearer to him, see what the text says. Six promises. Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock and it will be opened to you. Then, again, askers receive; seekers find, those who knock will have the door opened to them. Our praying, Jesus says, is not useless. In fact, what we’re being taught here is that we’re most useless when we aren’t praying—that a prayerless Christian is a powerless Christian—he is an angry Christian, a judgmental Christian, an anxious Christian, a selfish Christian. But the praying man or woman does so because God’s commands for us are always beneficial, and they are always beneficial because we make it about him and not ourselves. In him, we always find life. In him, we always receive grace.
This is the depth to which we aren’t only to heed the commands that Jesus gives us but also the extent to which we are to bask in the promises because when God speaks—as he has promised to speak—just like our prayers are not useless to him, his voice will never be useless to us. Yet we must ask, who is “us”? Who is it that God responds to, and the text says, “everyone,” but I hope you know it is a qualified everyone that means “all those of us who call him God, our Father,” and this brings us to our second point: Go to God, Expectantly, for Every Need and for All Wisdom by Sanctifying Your Expectations.
2) Sanctify Your Expectations
Verses 9-10 answer the question of why we ought to ask, seek, and knock, and the answer seems simple, doesn’t it? “Who among you is a man who when his son asks him for bread, will give a stone to him? Or, too, if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” The answer, of course, as to why we go to God asking, seeking, and knocking is because God is our Father who desires to give to us generously things that are good for us and not things that harm us. Only those who call God, Father, are privy not only to the opportunity to ask, seek, and knock, but to receive, find, and have the door opened to them. God is not opening his door to strangers and thieves. No, we’re told his keep is safe for his children.
Yet, you may ask in reading this text, as you should, why is life, then, so difficult? Why do trials come our way? Why do innocent people die? Why does God seem to abandon some of us in times of need—think of those who are martyred for their faith, or those who go into the mission field and starve to death. What of those children of God who sought bread, but had only stones, or asked for fish, but received venomous, life-ending snake bites?
And the best answer that I can come up with actually is from a sermon I heard recently on my vacation. It just so happened that that preacher was also preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, and that particular Sunday he preached on Matthew 6:25-34—the passage calling us not to be anxious. And perhaps you’ll remember in that passage an illustration about how the Father cares for the birds who cannot store up their food and are completely dependent upon their Creator to feed them.
Well, as this preacher was speaking about this part of the text, he pointed to a commentator named R.T. France, I’ve quoted him before, and the preacher read these words: “Does God really provide so bountifully for the birds which die or are killed in huge numbers every year often for lack of suitable food and many who face the challenge of extinction in our shrinking world? Even more so, how can we maintain the relevance of this teaching to humans—many of which are Christian disciples—who can’t obtain enough food and die in famine while the affluent part of the world lives in excess. It would be a grossly insensitive and blinkered expositor who would dare to suggest it was simply because they didn’t trust God enough.”
And here was that preacher’s conclusion after reading that portion of R.T. France’s commentary: “Like the birds, we get everything we need until our time here is done, and our work on this earth, in the eyes of God, is complete.” But the realization that we have to make as we come to texts like this isn’t to infer that God will give us anything that we want, any time that we want it, or any way that we want it. It’s not a promise or guarantee that life will be without hardship.
Rather, as we come to texts like ours, we must recognize that its context is to remind us that we’re incapable and useless—scrapping after only what is evil and harmful to us UNLESS God provides what is good for us—unless as a father, he enables us to do what is good for us to do, knowing full well that if he does not provide—if he does not enable us, we will simply go back to doing what we’re not supposed to do.
And dear brother and sister, this is the message of the cross, is it not? That we were once scrapping for stones and snakes—asking for worldly things, seeking the way of the devil, knocking on the door of hell—but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great, unmerited love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed—with his wounds we have been saved.
Let me put it one other way for you. When we pray, we do not simply do so as a result of the gospel. We are not only communing with our Father because we have believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour from sin and as our propitiator of God’s wrath. This is true—we can only pray if we believe in the gospel, but we have to know that when we pray we also display the gospel—we live out the gospel, we exemplify the truth that it contains for all those who witness us and hear us as we pray—as those who confess the gospel. As we depend upon God, we ask, seek, and knock for only that which God can give and promise us—all that, which started in the cross. And we can be assured that our prayers are not in vain because the promise has been fulfilled, the tension has been resolved, and greater righteousness has been made possible because of Jesus.
This passage is meant to build within us a sense of positive expectation. An expectation that God will do for us, in us, and with us what only God can do, but we are not to calibrate those expectations upon unsanctified, unrighteous, unholy thoughts—that because we are saved, we now have the right to presume that everything will go our way. No, God will provide us what we need until what we need is to go home and be with him, and dear Christian, the promise and implication of the entire Sermon on the Mount is that he will provide that too—not only to provide for your life here, but when the time comes, to provide you safe passage into everlasting life with him. So, go to God, expectantly—go to him, courageously, for every holy need and every sanctified wisdom knowing that like a Father, he will always love you enough to give you what is good.
3) Expect Good Things Beyond Your Own Goodness
This last point is quite connected with our second because of how our verses are arranged, in that verse 11 is a direct inference of verses 9 and 10, and it answers the question: to what extent in our praying ought we to expect good things from God? And the answer that we receive is that we should expect far greater things than what we are capable of giving to others. God doesn’t only give good things according to a goodness that we can evaluate.
Sure, we understand the ideal of a father loving and giving good things to his children, even if you grew up without an ideal father figure. Even as fallen, sinful creatures, we have sufficient wherewithal to see the joy in our children’s eyes—or in our friends’ eyes or in our parents’ eyes or in our brothers’ and sisters’ eyes—when they receive something that they know is good for them—that satisfies one of their longings.
But Jesus says even in all that understanding of goodness—a goodness that you have enough common grace to see and express with your own, sinful hands—your heavenly Father who is infinitely capable and strong, who is incomparably holy and righteous, who is immeasurable in his wisdom, who is inexhaustible in his love, and who is absolutely good—your Father in heaven is better than any father you have on earth.
This is the strongest argument that Jesus gives us as to why God is not only trustworthy to enable us to an exceeding righteousness but as to why we ought to be desperate and deeply distressed when we are not going to him for his enabling power—when we are out of step with him—when our hearts are not inclined to depending upon him. It is because there is no good in the world or in our lives unless God is a part of it, and we cannot receive, find, or see good things unless they are asked of, sought out from, and discovered in God.
And, church, this is meant to give us the greatest comfort because verse 11 starts with a dismal truth—that we are evil—children of God, yes, but evil ones. Yet even though we are evil, God still desires us to go to him, to ask, seek, and knock of him, and he responds not in evil—not in a way we deserve—but in a gracious way far exceeding what we deserve.
Consider it this way, sometimes we’ll do what we shouldn’t by asking for stones and snakes. But according to our passage, does God give those things to us? Will he give me what I should not receive, find, or discover? The answer is always going to be no. Why? Because in the goodness of God, he knows that his children shouldn’t receive everything they ask for. Sometimes it is better that we do not receive what we think we want, and because of his love for Christ, he will withhold it from us—a withholding that is, in itself, a good gift.
And we learn this in many Bible stories, but none more clearly than in the story of Hezekiah who you can read about in 2 Kings 20. There, we find the king on his deathbed, as he is dying from a severe sickness. And in that sickness, he turns his face to God, asks to be healed, and God grants him his request. Hezekiah is given fifteen extra years to live.
But what does he do in those 15 years? Not only does he give birth to a son named Manasseh during that time who will be one of the most wicked kings to ever rule in Judah, but he also goes in arrogant pride—thinking that he and his kingdom are invincible—and without consulting God, he exposes the riches of his house to the Babylonians—wealth that they will eventually take. In those fifteen years, Hezekiah undoes all the good he had previously done, and he dooms his kingdom.
And what we learn, as H. B. Charles Jr. says, from Hezekiah’s extra life is that “sometimes it’s just better to die than to receive what we think we need, or what we believe we want. Sometimes it is good for God to withhold from us what we do not see might corrupt us. Sometimes we have to be able to look back and say, ‘Thank you God for not giving me what I asked for.’”
What then is the difference between Hezekiah’s prayer and our prayers today? It is that instead of having a mediator and king who asked God to spare his own life and who, in being spared, willingly subjected his people to a future of exile and destruction, we have a Mediator-King who instead of exercising his right to be spared, and who could have boasted about his riches far beyond the riches of any earthly king, our King gave up his life so that his kingdom might not only live but so that they might become the righteousness of God, and receive the right to call him, “Abba, Father.”
This is the good and great privilege that we have—that we can expect, as those who are called the children of God—that we can go to him in prayer for every need and for all wisdom because of Jesus. Through him, you can have confidence that, even though you don’t deserve it, you shall receive every good thing that your loving, heavenly Father intends to give you, and you can know that it will always be good—that the kingdom he’s prepared for you will always stand because we have a Mediator-King, a Saviour, and a Friend who has not and shall never fail us.