Musings on John 16

My wife and I suffer from a bit of the same Biblical interpretation issues at times –we still let the old teachings we had sat under for so many years to influence our thinking on a passage. It isn’t as though we try to do this. On the contrary, we try our best to let the scriptures speak their own truth. But we aren’t always successful.

One recent example of this is in John 16. Actually, there are two examples in this chapter, but I’ll leave the other example for another post. The example today comes from verse 23.

In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.

That’s quite the bold statement that Jesus made. My wife asked so poignantly, anything we ask in his name, the Father will give?

My mind immediately went to Joe, one of my favorite people in the FE church I grew up in (I still think a lot of him). Joe would tell me to trust the passage. It says anything, so it means anything.

Me: Anything? ANYthing?
Joe: Trust the passage.

Joe also told someone once that no Christian should ever die of cancer. I’m not sure how he arrived at that position, but I remember it caused a bit of a stir when he said this during a Sunday School class… and a widow was present, who had recently lost her husband to cancer (I doubt Joe had intended this stupid comment the way it was obviously going to be taken). I suspect he had simply been too influenced by Pat Robertson (Joe did like to watch the 700 Club) to notice that he was grossly misinterpreting passages like John 16:23.

So what does one do, when one prays to God in Jesus’ name, and the request is not granted? In practice, I’ve seen this play out in three ways.

  1. Blame the person praying for not believing that they’d receive what they asked for, based on the passages in James about having a double-mind.
  2. Blame the person praying for attaching Jesus’ name to a prayer that is contrary to God’s will.
  3. Suggest that God declined the request because he has something better in mind.

That’s kind of convenient, isn’t it? Preachers and Bible “teachers” can move in and proclaim that the people in their care can request any fantastic thing  from God that their mind can conjure, and when the request is not granted, they usually blame the one offering the prayer, and offer no recognition of the role that Adam’s curse has played in even putting us in the position where we’ve had a need to pray in the first place! –“I know you prayed that God would not allow your bread-winning husband to be taken in death, but don’t worry! These years of pain and suffering you’re about to have are part of God’s grand plan for your betterment!”

How deflating!

So, the more Biblically-literate folks speaking on this passage will tend to focus more on #2. It’s the natural place to go, I think. If verse 23 is true, then it should simply be a matter of discovering what is the will of God. Perhaps a clue is in the chapter?

“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”

Hmm… nope, not there.

Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’?

….no

When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.

I guess maybe that’s support for case #3? Seems like a bit of a stretch… Maybe there’s some clue in v 23 and 24

In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

It was at this point that I had the urge to smack my forehead, after I read the Concordia commentary. Read the Lord’s words I’ve quoted here. Jesus isn’t endowing the disciples with name-it-claim-it theologies. He’s giving them something much more important: Jesus is offering his own name and status for intercession. Until this time, the disciples had never done this! They had never asked anything of the Father in Jesus’ name, because he had not yet been their intercessor.

And now he is. Now he sits at the right hand of the Father, and with that seat of honor comes a listening ear from the Father.

We read the passage and focus on the “anything in my name.” Instead, Jesus spoke the passage as “anything in my name.” That is, we have been granted the permission and ability to request of the Father as though it is Jesus himself doing the asking. The point of the passage isn’t the bounty we can achieve by praying, it’s that Jesus has given us his very own guarantee –one that belongs only to him–, his own standing with the Father, to ensure our requests are met. To phrase this a different way, the Father had conferred a special love and adoration to the Son, one that should allow him to receive anything the Son asked for… and the Son has given this to us! “Go ahead, ask my Father! Tell him I said it’s OK!”

Well, that’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? What should one pray for? The FE’s aren’t entirely wrong on this –one should only ask what can be rightly asked in God’s name.

Long ago, I worked at a job that had me travel pretty often. To make travel easier on me, they issued me a company credit card. Anything I purchased with that card, I had purchased in the company’s name. The merchants would give me whatever I had wanted, in full faith that the bill would be paid because I was making the payment in the company’s name… and then expense time came around, and I had to make an account of all of the things that I had purchased in the company’s name. No small item escaped their view! I had to show receipts for all of it, and only approved expenses were covered, even though the transaction was already complete. I’d have to pay for any non-approved transaction.

Simply adding “in Jesus’ name!!” to the end of a prayer does not, in fact, mean that the prayer is in Jesus’ name. It’s probably dangerous, as often as we say that phrase so frivolously. Imagine approaching God and saying “I want a Corvette” or “You are to heal me –in your Son’s name!” and Jesus looks to his Father and says “I didn’t OK that one. This guy will need to stand on his own.”

And so, we’re left to try to determine what is properly prayed in Jesus’ name. We sit and think, “if only he had told us…”

And hopefully we remember Jesus’ words.

Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.”

Luther explains each petition in his Small Catechism.

7 Petitions. All of them, from Jesus’ own mouth. All of them, rightly prayed, in Jesus’ name. Each of them, we may boldly ask of the Father, with the good-faith backing of Jesus, “Yes, Father. I ask this for them. Hear their prayers.”

From this fountain of guidance from Jesus, we may ask anything that conforms to the overflowing generosity in these petitions. The exact words need not be used, but rather the petitions (though it’s tough to argue that I can improve on Jesus’ words!).

That’s a great deal.

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