Monday, February 19, 2007

Bestowing Apostolic Power

Prayer is a complicated subject, made more so by those difficult words of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel, including:

13Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14)

If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full. (John 16:24)

Why are these words difficult? Because each of us has prayed for something that didn’t happen, or for something we didn’t receive. How then is that reconciled? Because Jesus’ words state quite plainly that whatever is asked in his name shall be given. No exception. No loop-hole. No quid pro quo.

The problem is that seemingly everyone attempts to explain these passages with exceptions, loop-holes, and whatever is the plural of quid pro quo.

One explanation really ticks me off is the “All prayer is always answered, but sometimes the answer is no!” explanation. Apart from being a pointless tautology, that is not what Jesus said. He did not say: “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you, except when I say no, but that still counts.” No, he said quite plainly: “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Period.

Another silly cop out is that it only applies if it is “in his will.” Again, Jesus makes no such qualifications. Besides, we are in agreement, or we should be, that God is sovereign. Everything that happens is always in his will. Adding “if it be in your will” to a prayer is a respectful display of humility—but hardly necessary. God could not grant a prayer that was outside of his will.

A slightly more subtle loop-hole is related to the qualifiers “in my name” or “abides in me.” This routinely becomes and escape clause that we provide for God, as if he needs our help. “Asking in my name” takes on a much grander meaning that the words merit—it becomes a righteousness test for the person praying. Anything not done with a proper heart becomes a prayer that was not really in his name. If the person make two requests and the first one is granted but not the second, then presumably the petitioner backslid mid-prayer, from asking in his name to asking out of his name.

This interpretation of why prayer is not always answered, because it really wasn’t asked “in his name” establishes a pecking order of Christians in a sense for which there is little or no scriptural support. It implies some Christians are good-enough Christians that their prayers are answered, just like Jesus promises, others are not—but that’s not Jesus’ fault, those prayers weren’t really “in his name” given the petitioner’s spiritual shortcomings.

I think this is wrong, yet it is the common explanation. I googled John 14:13 and the very first link that tried to explain the verse gave this usual bad explanation:
And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do. What man would dare to make such a promise? It will be noted, that in order to enjoy the fullness of these glorious promises we must, (1) Believe. They are limited thus in Joh[n] 14:12. Without faith it is impossible to please God. (2) We must ask in his name, or, in dependence upon the merit and intercession of Christ. (3) As shown elsewhere, we must come with a spirit of complete submission to the Father's will, feeling that his will is best, and saying in our hearts, Thy will be done (Mt 6:10 Lu 11:2). (boldface added)
No, no, no. Jesus said nothing of the sort. Jesus states plainly: ask anything, and it will be given.

What did he mean? I think it is quite simple: he meant ask anything, and it will be given. Just as he said.

The key is: he didn’t mean it for us.

The chapters of John from which these sayings of Jesus are drawn involve his instructions to the apostles. He is telling the apostles: “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) and “Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) Most Christians are never persecuted, but Jesus says they will persecute you. He was talking to the apostles, not to us. Likewise when Jesus warns: “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” (John 16:2) We aren’t being put out of the synagogue. And with notable exceptions, Christians were not, as a rule, throughout history, killed as part of some misguided attempt to please God.

It is quite clear when the verses about answered prayer are placed in the context of John chapters 14-16, that Jesus is making specific promises and instruction to the apostles. He is not saying: Hey David Heddle down there in the 21st century, if you pray in my name for your son’s autism to be cured it will happen, but only if you pray in my name, and so if it doesn’t happen you must not be praying in my name. No, this is what is happening here: Jesus is bestowing apostolic power. He is saying: Peter, if you ask for a demon to be cast out, it shall be done. John, if you pray for a lame man to be healed, it shall be done.

Later Paul has instruction for our prayer, and his model does not come with explicit promises that prayer will be fulfilled. He prays for journeys that don’t happen and for healing that doesn’t occur—with the understanding that prayer is, in part, where we tell God what we desire simply because He grants us the privilege of this intimate communication.

Confusion arises when we misunderstand Jesus instructions to the apostles, assuming that it applies to us. We should know, when we are forced to do great violence to the text to explain why prayer requests often are not met, that our interpretation is wrong. Jesus would never say ask anything, and it will be given unless that is exactly what he meant.

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