At first glance, a reading of the words of Jesus in John 14-16 seems to suggest we can have whatever we ask of God. This appears to be in direct contradiction with the passage we looked at in the previous article on James 4:3. How can we say that God denies our requests, when over and over again Jesus says SIX times in just three chapters that we can get whatever we ask for? Let’s take a quick look at the verses in question:
John 14:12-14 (NKJV): 12 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. 13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.
John 15:7-8 (NKJV): 7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. 8 By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
John 15:16 (NKJV): 16 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.
John 16:23-24 (NKJV): 23 “And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
The confusion and misinterpretations regarding these passages is yet another example of the importance of context. The immediate context (setting) is very important as is the textual context. Jesus is days away from the cross and in a few short weeks, the disciples will be tasked with building and expanding the church from a local setting to the ends of the earth. This, without Jesus amongst them. Because Jesus knows that they will freak out, he sets them apart and we join them in his final lessons with the disciples prior to the cross (John 13-17). Part of what he wants them to understand is that the work he has begun will continue! He makes this very clear, “…the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do…”
What are these “greater works?” To answer that we must first highlight what works Jesus did that the disciples were guaranteed to supersede. What did Jesus come to do? Let me propose that Jesus DID NOT come to heal the lame, to walk on water, to raise the dead, or to turn water into wine. If that is what we think he came to do, then of course we are wondering why we are not doing greater things than these today. Jesus was very clear about what he came to do, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10, NKJV). That’s what Jesus came to do! Everything Jesus did centered around seeking and saving the lost. And his promise to the disciples was fulfilled in Peter’s very first sermon! Peter led more people to salvation in his first sermon, over 3,000 people, than Jesus did in his 3 ½ years of ministry. That is what these “greater works” would be. Jesus’ followers would lead millions upon millions of people to a saving faith.
What we have in these passages is Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray. Every time he repeated the idea of praying and receiving, he expanded upon the parameters that regulate such effective prayers. Specifically, I see six key principles that Jesus established so that his disciples, and all of us who continue the great commission, can be see our prayers answered. Let’s explore these key principles.
The first three key principles are from the John 14:12-14 passage.
Key Principle #1: FAITH (“he who believes in me”)
It is no secret that faith is necessary to unleash God’s power. Hebrews 11 says it well, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6, NKJV). It doesn’t have to be huge faith; a tiny amount will do. What makes faith effective is not the size of our faith but the object of our faith. Strobel includes a great analogy in The Case for Faith. In an analogy of ice skating on frozen lakes, he posits that thin ice won’t hold you up, no matter how much faith you have that it will. However, thick ice will hold you up, even if you have very little faith that it can. It’s not the amount of faith, but the object of it that makes all the difference. Requests that are made without faith will be denied.
Key Principle #2: IN JESUS’ NAME (“in my name”)
The authority that unleashes God’s power in response to our prayer is JESUS. We don’t ask in our name. Furthermore, I believe this phrase is more than just using a five-letter word to magically provoke a response. I believe using the name of Jesus means that what we ask for is what he has instructed us to ask for on his behalf. It’s as if I send my son to the corner store to buy me something specific. He would likely ask for it in my name because it’s for me that he is asking. Thus, what we pray for needs to correspond with what Jesus would have us pray for. Requests that don’t correspond to what Jesus would request will be denied.
Key Principle #3: FOR THE GLORY OF GOD (“that the Father may be glorified”)
Yet another important condition that must be met by our prayers: it must result in God being glorified. How is God glorified with what I’m asking for? What is it that brings glory to God? Those are key questions that Jesus develops further in the upcoming passages. Clearly, requests that do not bring glory to God will be denied.
When Jesus repeats the promise of answered prayers in chapter 15:7-8, he adds two more key principles.
Key Principle #4: WE MUST BE LIVING IN CHRIST (“If you abide in Me”)
This principle comes to us from within a beautiful analogy. Jesus is teaching the disciples important lessons about the nature of our relationship with him by means of the vine and its branches. What is clear is that unless we are connected to Jesus we cannot do anything. This analogy highlights our dependence on him. It highlights that our nutrition comes from him. It emphasizes how we must imitate him in all that we do. As Jesus himself affirms, apart from him the requests will be denied.
Key Principle #5: WE MUST BE GUIDED BY THE WORD OF GOD (“and My words abide in you”)
When God’s Word abides in us it affects the way we think. This principle is all about having the mind of Christ. If we have the mind of Christ, then everything we ask for will be in perfect correspondence with what Christ would ask for. Not only should we be imitating Christ in the way we live our lives as we saw in Key Principle #4, but we should also be imitating Christ in our thought life. This we do by filling our minds with God’s Word. It’s what Paul refers to as the renewing of our minds. If what we ask for is not guided by the Word of God, we will be denied.
It’s not difficult to see why such prayers are answered! The one presenting those requests desires nothing that Christ himself did not desire. Nevertheless, Jesus expands even further when he comes back to the topic again in 15:16.
Key Principle #6: TO ACCOMPLISH GOD’S PURPOSES (“I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain”)
This is perhaps the most practical of the principles. God has chosen us to carry out his purposes. The implications of this truth cannot be overstated. What is our mission? To carry out God’s purposes. What should be our motivation? To carry out God’s purposes. What is our responsibility? To carry out God’s purposes. What is Jesus’ role in our carrying out God’s purposes? Jesus provides us with the tools we need. Let me illustrate this.
Imagine I pull you aside, put you in a completely empty shop and ask you to build me a desk. I give you a detailed drawing of exactly what I want it to look like. Then I would proceed to instruct you that you are to ask me for whatever you need to complete the assignment. What would you request of me? Obviously, you would ask for the tools you need, the materials you need, work benches, etc. You would not ask me for a new bicycle, or a better car, or a bigger house, because none of those things are required to complete the task that you have been assigned.
This is analogous to what Jesus is teaching in these passages. What is God’s purpose for us? What has he assigned for us to do? This passages make is abundantly clear that God has a dual purpose for us. First, he wants us to “go and bear fruit.” In other words, he wants us to win the lost for Christ. He wants us to preach the gospel and lead as many people as possible to a saving knowledge of Jesus. That’s exactly what Paul said in Romans, “13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:13-14, NKJV). Second, he wants, “that your fruit should remain.” In other words, he wants us to do whatever it takes for those we lead to Jesus to stay and grow in Christ. That’s what is known as discipleship. Following this assignment, Jesus tells us to ask for whatever we need and he will provide it for us.
These passages are not meant as blank checks to satisfy all of our dreams and fantasies. These passages are meant to encourage believers that everything they need to carry out God’s purposes will be provided. All we have to do is ask. When we understand this, we see no contradiction with James’ passage. James is telling us that we don’t get what we ask for because we don’t need it to carry out God’s purposes for our lives, instead we are asking for that which will satisfy our own personal passions and desires. Therefore, it should not surprise us when the requests are denied!