Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Serpents, Stones, and the Son of God

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
Good fathers don’t give bad gifts to their children. They only give their children good gifts, the best of gifts. And Jesus reasons with us to make His point. He’s been reasoning with us throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He wants us to think about how foolish our unbelief in the Father is.

If God feeds the birds, and you are of more value to Him than birds, then how is it possible that He won’t feed you (Matthew 6:26)? Answer: it’s not possible.

If God clothes the grass with splendor, and you are of more value to Him than grass, then how is it possible that He won’t clothe you even more gloriously (Matthew 6:28-30)? Answer: it’s not possible.

If evil fathers (yes, that’s you) give good gifts to their children, then how is it possible that the perfect Heavenly Father will give bad gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11)? Answer: it’s not possible. The Heavenly Father only gives the best gifts to His children!

But Jesus isn’t done making His point.

If a father is asked by his son for a piece of bread and subsequently responds by giving him a stone (Matthew 7:9), he would be the worst possible father. Similarly, if a father is asked by his son for a piece of fish and subsequently responds by giving him a serpent (Matthew 7:10), he would be the worst possible father. Even those fathers who Jesus describes as evil fathers would be outraged at such a gesture demonstrated by any father (Matthew 7:11). Wouldn’t you?

But pause with me for a moment. Have you ever considered why Jesus specifically uses the images of bread, stone, fish, and serpent? Were these just random objects that He is using simply for the sake of illustration?

I don’t think so.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Matthew 4:1-3
Now picture this scene. Jesus hasn’t eaten for at least forty days and forty nights. He’s hungry. If there’s anything that He would want His gracious Father to provide for Him, it’s a tasty meal of bread and fish. But what does He get instead? Remember, Jesus is in a dry wilderness. He’s almost certainly surrounded by what?


Serpents and stones.

Everywhere He looks.

When Jesus is teaching us about persistence in prayer, He doesn’t pull the images of bread, stone, fish, and serpent out of thin air. He’s drawing from His intense spiritual battle in the wilderness. He knows what it’s like to be tempted to doubt the goodness of the Father. He’s been there. If there ever was anyone in any situation who had a legitimate reason to doubt that the Father gives good gifts to His children, it was Jesus in the wilderness. When the Son of God was longing for bread and fish, it seemed as though the Father had given Him only serpents and stones.

His response? Faith.

The truth Jesus teaches us about the nature of the Father in the Sermon on the Mount is the same truth He was clinging to in the wilderness during His time of hunger and temptation: the Father only gives good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11).

Jesus not only teaches us but shows us by His example in the wilderness how to submit to the fatherhood of God.

So what’s the connection between the wilderness and this teaching on prayer? Well, Jesus was undoubtedly praying during His time of fasting in the wilderness. Fasting and prayer go hand in hand (Matthew 6:5-18).

But, more specifically, Jesus seems to make it clear that when we pray, God often isn’t going to answer us immediately (Matthew 7:7-8). Our asking is often going to have to turn into seeking. And seeking is is often going to have to turn into knocking. Going from asking to seeking involves adding an obstacle of distance. Going from seeking to knocking involves adding an obstacle of a door which is closed. Over time, the obstacles to prayer become bigger, not smaller.

And I think the point is this. Often when we pray for something specific over a period of time, our temptation is to abandon praying because it feels like we’re moving farther from rather than closer to our prayer being answered positively. Our temptation is to abandon praying because it feels like God has given us serpents and stones rather than fish and bread.

But in the midst of such temptations, the way we submit to the fatherhood of God like Jesus did is by continuing to ask, seek, and knock rather than to stop praying. And the reason we can continue to ask, seek, and knock with unflinching confidence when it feels like we’ve been given serpents and stones is because the story can’t end with serpents and stones. It’s impossible. The Father only gives good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11).

You don’t believe me? Look for yourself at the way the story ends when Jesus is in the wilderness:
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Matthew 4:11
In other words, this story ends with fish and bread for the Son of God, not serpents and stones.

And if you don’t stop praying, your fish and bread will come in due time as well.
It will come in the best time when it [comes] in God's time, neither too soon nor too late.
--Thomas Manton

No comments: