Sunday, April 29, 2018

On the Mount (28)

As I mentioned in a couple of recent posts, we cannot be 100% sure which of Jesus’ various references to God specifically as Father to those who believe in him came first chronologically. This is because not all the gospel writers present the events of the Lord’s life in the order they occurred. Some writers, as Luke often does, group them thematically.

In Mark, the first “your Father” doesn’t appear until chapter 11, in the context of forgiveness. In Luke it is chapter 6, and the statement, “your Father also is merciful.” In John, the expression “your Father” does not appear until after his resurrection*, when he says it to Mary Magdalene. Prior to that point, the Lord speaks exclusively of “my Father” or “the Father”.

If I had to guess, I’d go with Matthew.

Your Father”

Regardless of whether the reference in Matthew 5:16 came first historically, we can hardly miss the fact that it is the gospel of Matthew which opens our modern New Testaments. Matthew therefore heralds the good news of God’s intimate personal relationship with all those who place their trust in the person of his beloved Son.

If we question how important the concept of God’s fatherhood is, how much Matthew is determined to emphasize it, or how many of the believer’s blessings depend on it, we have only to note that expressions like “your Father” and “your heavenly Father” appear no less than 16 times in the Sermon on the Mount, whereas “my Father” appears only once, right at the end, where the Lord is distinguishing between those who are truly children of God and those who simply claim it.

It’s a veritable blizzard of family intimacy. If the Lord was not trying to make a point … well, let’s just concede that he was.

Ask Your Father, and Receive

I point this out because this next reference is the very last in the Sermon, and perhaps the most powerful affirmation of relationship to date:
“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!”
Now, I’m going to be taking the position that the Lord is talking specifically about the search for spiritual truth here, rather than speaking of “asking” the Father for things in some more general sense. If we stop to observe the context, this is, after all, the Lord’s subject: Don’t be casting your pearls of spiritual truth to the unregenerate. They are incapable of enjoying them (see last week’s post). We are not talking about asking for a Mercedes, seeking for a lovely wife, or knocking to make sure your next paycheque arrives, as much as we might all like to be able to do that. There are other places in God’s word that teach us to ask our Father for our daily needs (though perhaps the Mercedes does not really qualify). Rather, this is about understanding the things God would have us know.

A Familiar Theme

So in one sense there is nothing much new here for the Jewish saint. He has already been advised many times in scripture that you don’t find truth without first searching for it. God does not lavish his treasures on the indolent or uninterested.

David the psalmist says:
“Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.”
Truth comes to those who ask for it and wait for it. Or, as the Sons of Korah put it:
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
You don’t find truth unless you care deeply about it.

Or, if we need a historical example, there is always Solomon, who recognized his deficiencies as king and did exactly what the Lord is advising here:
Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?”
God’s commendation follows.

Confidence in Prayer

What IS new here to the Jewish audience is that the whole business of asking and receiving of wisdom from God is explicitly connected to God’s fatherhood; his individual, personal family care for those who believe in his Son. The whole process of learning and becoming equipped for life and service depends on it:
“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?”
God, the Lord Jesus tells us, is a FATHER. There is no possibility he will greet a genuine thirst for his spiritual treasures with indifference, any more than the believing fathers in the Lord’s audience would think of teasing or abusing their own children, or withholding from them knowledge they required for life and godliness.

If the Lord’s faithful Hebrew audience were assured they could have this confidence in prayer, how much more should we be able to internalize the truth of God’s fatherhood and make it a reality in our prayer lives today?

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*  This, of course, is not the first time the reader of John’s gospel encounters the concept of the fatherhood of God with respect to believers. John comes right out of the gate with “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” and this in only his twelfth verse. So while the idea is explicitly embedded in the text and critical to John’s narrative (see the story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 with its insistent “you must be born again”), the apostle does not record that the Lord Jesus used the term “your Father” until much later. The modern reader has a significant advantage over the first century Jew.

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