John 14:13-14 in Its Context
Over the past few weeks my posts have examined some commonly quoted and, at times, misunderstood Bible verses in their context to make sure we understand them properly. In most of these posts, the focus has been on the literary and/or historical context of the verse, looking at the verses around the verse at hand to see how it was originally being used and/or its setting within culture and history. The approach to the verses I am examining this week (John 14:13-14) is a bit different, seeking to demonstrate the importance of using Scripture to help us understand Scripture.
This principle of biblical interpretation stems from the principle of sola Scriptura (which means “Scripture alone”), which was emphasized in the Protestant Reformation. The root idea of this principle is that the Bible is our only rule for what we are to believe and how we are to live. This raises the question of how to read and understand the Bible, recognizing that not everything in the Bible is always easy to understand. The Reformers and those influenced by them (including our church) stress that we are to use other passages to help us understand difficult passages; some call this the idea that the more clear passages help us understand the less clear passages. Of course, this assumes that there is a consistency in the Bible, that it does not contradict itself but has one consistent voice because it all comes from the same author (God). This is how the Westminster Confession of Faith, a Reformed Confession written in England in the 17th century, summarizes this idea: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (Chapter 1, section 9).
With that preface, we can finally move to the passage itself, which is John 14:13-14: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” On first glance, this verse seems to make a promise that if we pray for anything “in the name of Jesus,” God will always give us what we ask for. This passage has been used by preachers to say that if you are sick and pray to God in the name of Jesus, He is guaranteed to heal you. It has also been used to say that if we want a new job, a promotion, a spouse, or anything else, so long as we ask for it in Jesus’s name, God will give it to us. Are those proper applications of what this passage is trying to teach us?
I mentioned that one thing we need to do is use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Well, this is not the only verse that seems to make this statement; a similar point is made in Luke 11:9-10: “And I tell you, 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.” Does that mean that the applications noted above are therefore, correct ones? In addition to looking at these verses, we also have to look at others. Do we always see people’s prayers being answered, and if they are not answered, is it because of the lack of faith or proper understanding of the individual? One clear case of an unfulfilled request that does not seem tied to an improper way of asking (or lack of repeated requests) is that of the Apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, he says: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” God does not grant his request because doing so would not ultimately be for Paul’s good. As shown here, God does not grant every request to his people if they just ask; God does not always heal.
Perhaps an even better example of requests not being answered is that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, happens after the Last Supper and before his crucifixion, which we read about in Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, and Luke 22:39-46. In Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, and Luke 22:42, Jesus prays that the Father would spare him from the suffering he is about to face on the cross. In Matthew 26:42 and 44 and Mark 14:39 and 41, we see Jesus pray this prayer two more times. Does God spare Him from the suffering? No. Is it because he lacks faith? Obviously not since this is Jesus. Is it because he didn’t pray in Jesus’s name? This is Jesus praying, so that would not seem to be the issue. It is because it is God’s plan for Him and for us, to save us from our sin. It is for our good and Jesus’s glory, but not necessarily for his comfort.
These are just two examples of prayers that are not answered in the way the people ask, so John 14:13-14 cannot be making a promise that no matter what we ask, God will give it to us if we ask the right way. If this verse is not a “money-back” guarantee that God will answer your prayers if you just ask him in the right way, what is this verse trying to teach us? These are words of comfort to Jesus’s disciples as he gets ready to depart from earth, showing that he is still working in their midst; just because Jesus is gone does not mean that we are on our own. It is a call not only for us to turn to him in prayer, but a reminder to ask “in My name.” That is not just saying “In Jesus’s name, amen” at the end of the prayer, but asking ultimately for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven -- it is about God’s glory. The focus of our prayers should ultimately be about God’s glory, not our comfort (and remember, the way that God was glorified was through the death of His Son!). When we are making requests that are just for our benefit, about what we want, and what we think would be best for us, God does not have to grant them just because we have asked for them. “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” is not a blanket statement of how can we get whatever we want, but rather a statement to tell us how we should approach prayer and our walk with God. May we look to Jesus, who opens the doors so we can pray to God and look for His kingdom to come, seeking His glory and not our own.
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