Prayer and the Fatherhood of God

Prayer

"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!" (Matthew 7.7-11)

This passage, of course, includes the two verses (7 & 11) that provide our JPC verse(s) for 2020. It is a fundamental part of Jesus' teaching on prayer in his Sermon on the Mount. And we all need to take to heart this teaching, and then pray for our nations, our churches and ourselves. But what do we learn from this passage? At least five things.

First, prayer is a command of Jesus, and it is an emphatic command. For it is repeated three times, "ask", "seek", and "knock".

Secondly, Jesus presupposes there will be different levels at which people pray. John Piper, an American pastor, helpfully puts it like this:

"God stands ready to respond positively when you find him at different levels of accessibility. Ask, seek, knock – if a child's father is present, he asks him for what he needs. If a child's father is somewhere in the house but not seen, he seeks his father for what he needs. If the child seeks and finds the father behind the closed door of his study, he knocks to get what he needs. The point seems to be that it doesn't matter whether you find God immediately close at hand … or hard to see, and even with barriers between, he will hear."

Thirdly, there are promises that prayer will be answered and that, too, is emphasized by the threefold, "it will be given to you; … you will find; … it will be opened to you" (verse 7). And then verse 8 is a repeat of the three promises – so it is doubly emphatic.

Fourthly, "everyone who asks receives" (verse 8) not just some. No! It is everyone.

Fifthly, God will give us what is infinitely good. For if human fathers (on average) want to give their children good gifts, "how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"

Also note - the promise is only for "good things" to be given by our "Father who is in heaven". However, Jesus seems to imply that even earthly fathers, who are "evil", would not give a poisonous snake, if asked for by a young child. So "how much more" will our Father in heaven, who is infinitely wise and loving, sometimes not give exactly what we ask for. But if we trust and obey him, his goodness will ensure that the outcome to our prayers will always be for our good, even if it is not as, or when, expected.

The Fatherhood of God

But all prayer is to be to "our Father in heaven". Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples to pray first of all to "our Father":

"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name" (Matthew 6.9)

So how we need to understand the Fatherhood of God and then treat that name of "Father" as special. Jim Packer, in his classic book Knowing God, says, when asked for a simple answer to "what is a Christian?":

"the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God for his Father" (p 181).

However, Packer must not be misunderstood. He is not asserting everyone has God for their Father. Asserting the universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man was a feature of nineteenth-century ultra-liberal theologians. But the universal "Fatherhood of God" by creation is rarely alluded to in the Bible. Yes, it is suggested by Paul after quoting Greek authors to Greek intellectuals when in Athens (Acts 17.28-29):

"… for 'in him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring'. Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man."

So we can say that all men and women, as God's children by creation in his image (Genesis 1.27), must be respected. But by inherited sin, and in some measure, all of us can and do resist God's fatherhood and become what Jesus calls in the Parable of the Weeds, "sons of the evil one" (Matthew 13.38). All, therefore, need to be recreated or re-born. And the good news is that this can happen (John 1.11-12):

"He [Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."

And as we "receive Jesus" we are restored to that creation ideal. For our "new self … is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" (Colossians 3.10-11).

The Message of the New Testament

Therefore, the true Fatherhood of God is enjoyed by those who "receive Jesus" – who trust in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. That is why it can be argued that how well a person understands the New Testament and the Christian faith is measured by how much they think of themselves as God's child, and having God as their Father.

For, very importantly, Paul makes it clear that "adoption as God's sons"

was the purpose of Christ's coming into the world to save us (Galatians 4.4-7):

"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God."

That redemption was achieved by Jesus dying for our sins instead of us, resulting in God's forgiveness for our past and his acceptance for our future. But such "redeeming" (or justification) was "so that we might receive adoption as sons" (verse 5). All that is good news (or gospel).

The second piece of good news is that "because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (verse 6). That "adoption as sons", with the Holy Spirit's power, is a motive and means for Christian ethics as we seek to please our Father by keeping the family rules - God's moral law - which are for our good. And the Holy Spirit in "our hearts" is also a source of true assurance – "the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8.16).

And a third piece of good news is that with regard to material needs (including financial needs), understanding our "adoption as sons" will lead to confident faith and prayer, not anxiety and worry. For, "your heavenly Father knows that you need them all [every kind of need]" (Matthew 6.32-33).

Conclusion

All the above, of course, relates to our real identity and destiny. This, Jim Packer suggests, we need to affirm (for our good) by regularly reciting the following mantra as utterly and completely true:

"I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Saviour is my brother; every Christian is my brother too" (Knowing God, p 207).

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