Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

We all need a little encouragement from time to time. When someone is looking for a job, the anxiety level can be very high. If he or she has gone to a couple of interviews and come home empty, a positive word can lift the spirits: “You are so talented; I know someone will recognize it soon.” When we face a daunting task, it helps to know that someone thinks we are capable. And if we are ready for a task, it is a blessing that a capable friend is willing to help.

This kind of encouragement is just what we have in Matthew 7. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus bombards His disciples with uncompromising demands. The self-aware reader knows he cannot fulfill all of them. Jesus forbids anger and forbids lust. He commands that we keep our every word, that we give freely to those who would borrow. He prohibits worrying and forbids boasting. He says, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). He says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

The breadth and depth of this standard would lead us to despair, if Jesus did not pause to bring encouragement. Fortunately, Jesus does strengthen His disciples’ resolve at crucial moments in His message. He invites us to lay aside our fears. As He tells His disciples how to live, He also explains how they may reach toward his standards.

For example, in Matthew 6:19–24, Jesus tells His disciples how to think about wealth and how to use it. Then He adds crucial encouragement. If we seek first the Kingdom, the King will provide the food and shelter we need to live. Therefore, we need not be anxious about tomorrow, because God will take care of it (Matthew 6:25–34).

Then Jesus tells His disciples how to regard their neighbors (Matthew 7:1–6). There is a kind of neighbor whose lawless, feckless life invites criticism and judgment. His moral failings are obvious, but even His clothes and manners are an affront. But Jesus tells us to refrain from hasty judgment. Perhaps if we remove our own sins first, then we can help our neighbor with his.

But it is no easy thing to withhold judgment or to still a critical tongue. Beyond the negative effects on others, censorious people often fail to see how Jesus’ word speaks to their flaws. Jesus says we should apply the law to ourselves first, confessing to God our sin, our weakness, and our inability to reform ourselves. If we ask, He will listen and act. Hear the poetic balance and repetition in Jesus’ promise (Matt. 7:7–8):

Ask and it will be given to you;

seek and you will find;

knock and the door will be opened to you.

For everyone who asks receives;

he who seeks finds;

and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Furthermore, Jesus continues, the Father knows how to give good gifts, especially gifts of grace, to those who ask (Matthew 7:9–11). We need that grace, for discipleship is not easy. The road that Jesus traveled was hard, and when He asks us to follow Him, He bids us to take the hard road, too (7:13–14). Jesus’ road is hard and His standards are high—indeed, they are beyond us. But, as we saw, the same Jesus who delivered these laws also came to deliver those who do not and cannot keep His laws. He came to give commands and to redeem those who violate them.

Ask, Seek, and Knock

Jesus says simply, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” When Jesus says that “it will be given” and “the door will be opened,” he means that the Father will give us aid. He will open the door (Matthew 7:7).

Jesus draws our attention to the gifts that God gives in answer to prayer by mentioning them first and last in this passage. The first word is, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). The last word is, “Your Father in heaven [will] give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).

Further, Jesus wants us to ask, seek, and knock continually. This is not clear in English translations, but the original text uses present imperatives for “ask … seek … knock,” and that grammatical form in Greek signifies that an act should be performed continually. Scripture often encourages constant prayers for God’s blessing. The Lord says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.… You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13–14). Finally, James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

This teaching can be understood in two ways. We could put the accent on the one who asks and say, “Persist long enough and you will get what you desire.” This “beggar’s wisdom” suggests that our petitions can wear God out, so that He finally grants us whatever we want, even if He was initially disinclined to do so.

But Jesus places the emphasis on the God who hears, not on the man or woman who asks. He says that God loves His children and knows how to give them good gifts. If we ask, the Father will give what He knows we need. He says this three ways, and each seems to build on the other:

  • “Ask” is a general term. In context, it means “Ask God in prayer.”
  • “Seek” implies that we may not know exactly what we are looking for or precisely how to pray (Rom. 8:26). A child asks a mother who is close at hand, but when the mother is not visible, the child seeks her. When we seek God, we will find Him and discover what we should desire.
  • “Knock” implies that we seek something that is inaccessible to us. We have tried and failed to attain something, to open a door. We cannot, but God can and will open it, if it is right for us.

Jesus follows the threefold command with a threefold promise. We should ask, seek, and knock because “everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:8), for God will open it. Martin Luther explains that God “knows we are timid and shy, that we feel unworthy … to present our needs to God.… We think that God is so great and we are so tiny that we do not dare to pray.… That is why Christ wants to … remove our doubts, and to have us go ahead confidently and boldly.”

If we follow the pattern of Scripture, we will pray for God’s material provision and for his spiritual gifts, with an emphasis on the latter. It is tempting for pastors to pray about buildings and budgets, but it would be better for us to pray for the spiritual life of our churches. Christian leaders might pray for their local church like this: that those who seek Christ will find him here, that the weary and lonely will find a welcome and a home, and that if we grow we will still welcome and disciple people one by one. We should pray that all will grow in knowledge and in obedience to God, that all will engage the culture, and that every teacher, lawyer, and businessman or woman will strive to serve God and neighbor at work. When things go wrong in the church, we should pray that we will trust one another and think the best of each other, preferring to think that an offense is inadvertent, not malicious (cf. 1 Cor. 13:7). We can pray that we will not probe old wounds and pick at the scabs that cover cuts from long ago, so that God can heal us and dark days may recede. God hears such prayers. He knows how to give good gifts to his church.

Fathers on Earth and the Father in Heaven

Jesus wants to assure us that God hears us and will give us what is good. He begins by asking a couple of rhetorical questions about the way human fathers behave. “Which one of you,” he asks, “if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” (Matt. 7:9–10 ESV). Sadly, there are a few such parents, but Jesus is thinking of ordinary parents. In the Greek, it is clear that Jesus expects a negative reply. If a child asks for a loaf of bread, no father would say, “Here is something else that is earth-toned and round—a stone.” And if a child asks for a fish, no father would say, “Here, have something else with scales—a snake.”

Jesus then draws His conclusion, using a form of argument that He likes to use, called the lesser to the greater. It goes like this: if even sinful human fathers (the lesser) give good gifts to their children when asked, then the wise and good Lord (the greater) will certainly give good gifts to His children when asked (Matthew 7:11).

This simple argument contains vital lessons about people and about Jesus. First, when Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil …” (ESV), He teaches, as the whole Bible does, that all humans are sinful. We are members of a race of sinners. We are radically selfish, inclined to rebel against God and to do evil toward our fellow man. But Jesus says that even sinful people can do what is right. Their hearts may be dark, but parents still care tenderly for their children. Fathers do not typically mock their sons, nor do mothers betray their daughters. Some parents do abuse their children. Still, as sinful as fathers are, few play devilish tricks on their children. And as sinful as mothers are, few offer their children inedible food. If human parents, crippled by evil, still treat their children well, then God, who is good, will certainly give good gifts to his children.

This passage tells us something important about Jesus. We know that Jesus identifies with us in our weakness, but here we see that He does not identify with us in our sinfulness. Jesus does not say “we who are evil,” but “you who are evil.”

Further, Jesus does not say that God gives us all we ask for or all we want. Rather, He gives us “good gifts.” “Ask and it will be given” is not an absolute promise, as if God must give us whatever we ask. When we pray, we do not rub a magic lamp. What a burden it would be to know that we would receive everything we sought in prayer! The thought would paralyze the prayers of a sensitive Christian. Who would be wise enough to pray if God gave us whatever we asked for, whenever we asked?

Jesus knows the difference between wise and foolish requests. Almost all of us are now thankful that the Lord declined some request we once made. Sometimes, therefore, we receive less than we ask. On the other hand, He sometimes gives us more than we seek. Solomon, we recall, sought wisdom to rule well. This pleased the Lord, who said He would give Solomon “a wise and discerning heart.” Then, because Solomon craved wisdom rather than riches or long life, the Lord determined to give him the other blessings as well (1 Kings 3:5–15). He gave Solomon more than he asked.

In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord wants to give us His Kingdom and His righteousness. The Bible, incidentally, never shows anyone praying for happiness, never tells us to pray for happiness, and never promises that we will be happy. It does promise that God will make us holy. In Luke 11:13, Jesus says that the Father will “give the Holy Spirit” to those who ask. He grants what we need to grow in holiness, not necessarily to have a carefree life. Paul says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27).

We need this holiness. In Matthew 7:11, Jesus calmly assumes that we are “evil,” even though we can do good things. Evil parents “forget themselves” and give liberally to their children, for God drops into human hearts “a portion of his goodness.” But these good deeds do not remove our sinfulness. Therefore, when we pray, we should first seek forgiveness of sin and deliverance from evil. Of all God’s gifts, this is supreme: Jesus bore the punishment we deserve for our evil deeds. Then He offered to wrap us in His holiness, His good deeds, if we believe in Him. Then, when God looks upon us, He sees Christ’s righteousness, not our sin.

On the Duties of Parents

Since our passage describes the goodness of God the Father, we may consider what makes human parents good. After all, human parents should care for their children as God cares for His. The Bible assumes that parents give good gifts to their children, but we must define those gifts correctly. First, parents provide food (good healthy food, not just anything), clothing, and shelter for their children (1 Tim. 5:8; 6:8). Second, parents owe children an education, both academic and practical, that prepares them for a God-given vocation. Wise parents notice their child’s skills and interests and nurture them. We teach them to do the small chores and the larger jobs that let them discover where they excel. Third, parents should instruct their children in the Christian faith and Christian living. On the first two points, our culture largely agrees with Scripture, but in the latter sphere, it will substitute any soul-enriching experience—piano lessons, travel to Europe, inner-city service projects, a spot on the soccer team or the debate team—for specifically Christian instruction.

Even as the Father in Heaven brings us to spiritual maturity, so godly parents will offer their children every opportunity to attain spiritual maturity. They should read the Bible and pray with their children. At home, the principles of Christian faith and life should often be on our lips, as we tell our children about Jesus and His love. Moses told parents to talk about God’s laws throughout the day: “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:7).

Christian nurture also occurs within the Christian community. On the Lord’s Day, parents bring their children to Christian education designed for students and to worship designed for all ages. Wise parents collaborate with pastors and teachers. They help their children pay attention by quizzing them afterward: “What did you learn in Sunday school? What did you learn in church?” They know that most teachers offer excellent instruction, but that some present moralistic versions (or perversions) of the faith. Parents review sermons because reasonably bright children can surely grasp leading points of a sermon (linked, perhaps, to an illustration) by the age of ten.

Like the Father in Heaven, Christian parents also try to discern when they should and when they should not give their children what they ask. Prosperous parents are prone to pamper their children, indulging their desires simply because they can. Parents of ordinary means may be tempted simply to pick a similar family and match what they do. Lest loving parents become doting parents, we need to teach our children the benefits of work, stewardship, and patience. In our culture, parents confuse love with indulgence, and instant gratification with provision. Christian parents make God their model. As He bestows gifts on His children, He keeps material and spiritual gifts in perfect equilibrium.

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is widely cited and widely abused. An adult twist on the Golden Rule says, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” A child’s version says, “Do one to others before they do one to you.” But a proper understanding of the Golden Rule begins with its context. Matthew 7:1–11 lists various obligations of a disciple. With our brothers, we should offer help, not judgment. With God, we pray with confidence, knowing He will care for us. But the same verses also sum up Jesus’ teaching. After hearing all His exposition of the life of discipleship, Jesus says, apply it to yourself, not others. Take the log out of your own eye, instead of poking around in other people’s eyes (Matthew 7:1–6). Further, when we hear all the commands and feel overwhelmed, we must ask God for help (Matthew 7:7–11). If we should forget our duties to our neighbors, we can remember this summary: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

Jesus does not mean that we should do to others whatever they want. Two immoral people could use “Do unto others” as a rationale for indulging each other’s illicit desires. Jesus expects His disciples to want, for themselves and for others, what He wants for us.

Calvin thought that the Golden Rule is another way of saying that we should be just and fair toward all. So many quarrels occur because men “knowingly and willingly trample justice [toward others] under their feet,” while demanding perfect justice for themselves. Wars between nations and wars between individuals both begin this way. All of us can “explain minutely and ingeniously what ought to be done” for us. We should apply the same skill and wisdom to the needs of others.

Sadly, we can so fix our attention on our own needs and desires that we are hardly aware of the needs of others. The whole Bible sets the standard for what we owe others. But then, for our benefit, Jesus gives us summaries of the Law and the Prophets. So, to paraphrase slightly, Jesus says, “Do for others what your sense of justice would require others to do for you.” Later, he simply says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). But we are quick to think first of ourselves, and thus we fail to keep the standard. Consider, for example, the game that many families play after dinner, called “Who worked hardest today and so should be excused from household chores?”

We might wish we could do for others what we ask for ourselves, but we know we cannot keep it up. Once again, therefore, Jesus’ laws lead us to see our sin and our need for grace. We simply cannot keep His law. We cannot stop judging others for their failings. We cannot keep even the simplest summary of His teaching: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” What then shall we do? We return to the first word in our passage. We must ask God for mercy to forgive and ask Him to make us new.

Then, Jesus says, it will be given to us. The Lord will give us His mercy, the forgiveness of our sins. The same Jesus who laid down all these laws also gave His life for those who would break them. He will give us His Spirit, so that we might see our neighbor with more of the eyes of Jesus, the eyes of love, and might serve that neighbor and serve our Lord.