Asking and Receiving
This article examines New Testament passages addressing the topic of answered prayers based on the details of the original language. There are two details of the original language that are emphasized here. First, the tense of the verbs will be examined, since certain tenses may imply a repeated action. Second, the specific words used to convey the meaning of "whatever" will be examined.
About the tense of a verb, the following remarks could be made. In certain verb moods of the New Testament Greek, the present tense describes a continuing or repeated action. In the same moods, if an aorist (past tense in Greek) is used, the verb might not refer to a continued or repeated action. In the Word of God, the choice of words is very significant. Therefore, we could reason that when we see an aorist form of a verb in one of these moods, the meaning of the verb cannot be the same as when a present tense would be used, but rather the verb must refer to an action that is at least under certain circumstances not continuing or not repeated.
As for the words translated "whatever", there are typically two cases. In one case, the Greek word αν is used. It corresponds to the "ever" part of the English words "whatever", "whoever", and "whenever". In the other case, the Greek word εαν is used. Though this word means "if", certain phrases containing it are translated "whatever". A distinction between the usage of the Greek words αν and εαν can be made based on passages dealing with requests to the Father. Requests in the name of Jesus are requests made on his behalf, that is, requests of the Son to the Father. Therefore, requests in his name are always granted. Requests that are not in his name could be placed in two categories. First, there are requests that are not according to his plans. This does not mean that such requests might be bad in themselves or that they might not be desirable in certain ways to him, but just that they do not fit his plans. For example, the request of 2Co 12:8-9 was not granted. Second, there are requests that fit his plans that cannot be granted without certain preconditions being met, such as earnest prayer of his people (cf. Jms 4:2). Once the preconditions are met, such requests become requests in his name. The Scripture passages containing promises for requests made in the name of Jesus are Jn 14:13-14, Jn 15:16, and Jn 16:23. An important observation is that in all of them the word αν is used. In contrast, we find the word εαν in passages dealing with requests that are not said to be in the name of Jesus. Since the requests that are in the name of Jesus are always granted, we can understand that when the Greek word αν is used, "whatever" has its full meaning and has no exceptions. However, when εαν is used, there are additional conditions required for the fulfillment of the statement that is made, though these conditions might not be stated in the immediate context. Apart from these unstated additional conditions, the statement that is made does not have universal application. For example, Jn 15:7 uses the particle εαν and cannot be applied to requests that do not fit the plans of the Lord, such as in 2Co 12:8-9. Though the Lord did not say in Jn 15:7 that he referred only to requests that fit his plans, it seems obvious that this is an unstated condition of the promise of Jn 15:7. Understanding the Bible to be complete, the preconditions of a statement involving εαν can be found in the Bible. They can be found by interpreting the statement in the context of the entire Bible.
It should be noted here also that the word πας "every, all" admits exceptions. To see this, consider Mt 12:31 and 1Co 15:27. In both cases, following a statement involving the word πας, an exception is stated at the end of the verse. Since exceptions are possible, in statements involving the word πας, the meaning "every" or "all" should be applied to the maximum extent allowed by the Bible.
The remaining part of the article analyzes in detail a number of New Testament verses dealing with the topic of asking and receiving. Though the promises of the Lord cannot be applied to requests that are contrary to his will, the believer should consider that God's will is truly good (Ps 84:11, Mt 7:9-11). Though it is true that what one might consider to be good could actually be harmful, the believer should not conclude that something is not in God's will just because he does not receive it quickly. One should persevere in prayer. As we are reminded in Jms 4:2, "ye have not, because ye ask not". In the original language, the tense of the word translated "ask" in Jms 4:2 fits a repeated action. In other words, Jms 4:2 states that some do not have because they do not ask or do not keep on asking. The number of Bible verses that encourage the believer to ask is impressive. The implication is that the believer is severely limited if he does not ask.
(Mt 17:20)Darby ... verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say to this mountain, Be transported hence there, and it shall transport itself; and nothing shall be impossible to you.
Through faith, the believer has the privilege of participating in the works of the Lord. The Lord can use him even in those works that seem impossible with man, such as moving a mountain. Because nothing is impossible with the Lord, the Lord can do anything he wishes through a person of faith. The words "nothing shall be impossible to you" instruct the believer that he should not set a limit on the things that the Lord can do through him. He can move the mountains that the Lord wills to be moved. However, he cannot move a mountain unless the Lord wants it to be moved. The verse does not say that through faith one can do absolutely everything, even things that the Lord does not desire. Indeed, looking to the original text, the word "if" translates the Greek word εαν. Thus, the verse does not state all conditions required for the fulfillment of the conclusion. The fact that one has faith does not imply that the Lord wills him to move the mountain. There are other conditions, besides faith, that are not stated explicitly in this verse.
(Lk 17:6)ASV And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou rooted up, and be thou planted in the sea; and it would obey you.
Chronologically, Lk 17:6 took place after Mt 17:20, since the time of Mt 17:20 corresponds to Lk 9:38-42. In Greek, the received text of Lk 17:6 (and likely also the other Greek versions of this verse) implies that they did not have faith as a grain of mustard seed and that the Lord was speaking about what would have happened if they had that kind of faith (see this article). Thus, the verse could be translated "If it were the case that ye had faith ... , ye would have been saying unto this sycamine tree ... ". As seen also in Mt 17:20, the disciples were limited by their lack of faith. The Lord had already told them that in faith "nothing shall be impossible to you" (Mt 17:20). Without such faith, they were unable to carry out works similar in difficulty to having a tree uproot itself and plant itself into the sea. Lk 17:6 indicates that if they had faith, they would have been involved successfully in such works. However, taking in account also Mt 17:20, one could not conclude that every conceivable attempt to do such works would have been successful, but only those attempts that were consistent with the will of the Lord. Finally, since the imperfect tense of the verb translated "ye would say" indicates a continuous action, we could understand that the disciples would have persevered. In the face of opposition they would have insisted and persevered until they succeeded.
(Mk 11:23) For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.
The word "whosoever" translates the phrase ος αν. Since the αν particle is involved, we infer that there are no additional requirements, that is, the statement applies to anyone who fulfills the remaining part of the verse. The Greek word translated "doubt" is a compound verb διακρινω consisting of the preposition δια "on account of" and the verb κρινω "to judge". Since the verb "to judge" is not a verb of motion, it is natural to translate the preposition δια with the meaning "on account of". Thus, the verse refers to doubts that can arise on account of the request that is made. This would imply that a person who has other doubts that are not related to the request that is made, could still qualify to the promise stated in this verse. Note that the statement "let him ask in faith, nothing doubting"ASV of Jms 1:6 does not invalidate this conclusion. The same verb διακρινω appears in Jms 1:6 in the word translated "doubting". Therefore, "nothing doubting" is not about doubting absolutely nothing, but rather about doubting nothing on account of the request that is made. One should not abide on the doubts that may arise when he makes a request. Returning to Mk 11:23, let us note also that the Greek verb translated "doubt" implies reasoning. While reasoning may be involved when a person is not sure about something, ungodly reasoning is clearly present when a person leans on his own understanding instead of trusting the Lord with his whole heart. Now, we read " ... whosoever ... shall not doubt ... but shall believe ... ". Since we read both "shall not doubt" and "shall believe", we can infer that neither phrase is redundant. Therefore, we can state the following two conclusions: (a) the fact that one believes that he receives what he asks does not imply that he does not have doubts about it; (b) the fact that one does not doubt does not imply that he believes that he receives what he asks. Note that the statement (a) implies that a person can have at the same time both faith and doubts. We could illustrate statement (a) with the account of Gideon, such as in Jdg 7:9-15. While Gideon had faith and had acted by faith, he still had fears, as we can see in Jdg 7:10, 13. As for statement (b), we could reason that the absence of doubts does not imply faith, as follows. Recalling that "faith without works is dead" (Jms 2:26), the fact that one does not doubt something does not imply that his belief in that thing is strong. It may be that he does not doubt it because he does not think much about it. Thus, the fact that he does not doubt it, does not imply that he thinks about how to act in accordance with his belief in that thing. If he does not act in agreement with his belief, it is as if his belief is dead. Therefore, it would seem that the phrase "but shall believe" emphasizes that one should act in agreement with the fact that the Lord will grant the request. Thus, one fulfilling Mk 11:23 will not just say the words, but will also be willing to do whatever might be required by what he believes.
We read " ... and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass ... ". Since the person of Mk 11:23 has no doubts in his heart, he knows for sure that what he asks for is in God's will. Now, Greek editions of the New Testament based on Byzantine manuscripts (such as the Received Text) end Mk 11:23 with ο εαν ειπη "whatsoever he saith", where the Greek for "whatsoever" involves εαν instead of αν. This should not be surprising, for "whatsoever" cannot refer to absolutely everything, but only to things in the will of the Lord. This could also be explained as follows. It may be that a person fulfilling Mk 11:23 has realized what God's will is, though he did not understand fully its extent. Then, part of his request might not be in God's plan. Then, what he asks for will happen, excepting that part of his request that does not fit the plans of the Lord.
As for the tense of the verbs in Mk 11:23, excepting "say" in "I say" and "saith" in "which he saith", the tense of the verbs in Greek is the aorist. This indicates that a person fulfilling this verse does not have to keep asking. It might be sufficient to ask just once, since he asks for something that the Lord intends to carry out soon, once the request is made.
(Mk 11:24)MKJV Therefore I say to you, All things, whatever you ask, praying, believe that you shall receive them, and it will be to you.
The Greek word translated "All things" is παντα. It indicates everything, to the largest possible extent, but not absolutely everything. The Lord did not say that for absolutely everything that we ask we should believe that it will happen. There are exceptions, that is, requests that the Lord did not say that we should believe they will be granted. If something that one asks for is not an exception and he believes that he receives it, it will be granted. An example of an exception is the request of the apostle Paul to have his "thorn" in the flesh removed (2Co 12:7-9). Since this request was not in the will of the Lord, it could not be granted even if Paul believed that it will be granted. Therefore, this request was such an exception. Now, the Greek phrase translated "All things, whatever" can be found also in Mt 21:22. Based on Mt 21:22 we can infer that it refers to every request that is in the will of the Lord.
A believer might not know for sure whether a request is in the will of the Lord or not. Let us note that the Lord did not say in Mk 11:24 that one should believe he receives what he asks only if he is sure that he asks for something in God's will. If what a person asks is in God's will and he does not believe that he receives it, he does not qualify to the promise of Mk 11:24. Therefore, his reservation works against him. However, if what a believer asks is not in God's will, there is probably no loss if he believes that he receives it. This is because he will seek to conform his actions to the will of God. In this way the Lord will keep him on the right course. See also the comments on Mt 7:7-8 at the end of this article. Note also that the likelihood that a mature believer asks for the right things is high (Php 2:13). Now, a person who is unsure about the will of the Lord, though he may believe that his request will be granted, could have doubts about it. Let us note that Mk 11:24 does not say that one should believe without any doubts, but just that he should believe that he receives what he asks. Thus, the verse does not exclude one who has doubts that he receives what he asks, though he believes it. (As mentioned above, doubts do not exclude belief.) Now, since faith manifests itself through works, if one believes that God will answer, he will act accordingly. One might pray that the Lord would open his eyes to ways in which he could move forward in the direction of his request. However, if he comes to understand that something that he asks for does not fit the plans of the Lord, he can adjust his expectations accordingly.
The Greek word translated "ask" has the present tense. This indicates a repeated action. We infer that the verse addresses persistent requests. The one who asks should also keep believing that the Lord will answer, for the tense of the Greek word translated "believe" is also the present.
We find the word "Therefore" at the beginning of Mk 11:24. The Greek phrase translated "Therefore" is more literally rendered as "For this reason". We infer that what is stated in Mk 11:24 is necessary for the fulfillment of Mk 11:23. One might not be able to do Mk 11:23 if he does not do Mk 11:24 first. If he does Mk 11:24, then eventually comes a time when a request is about to be fulfilled. The fulfillment might come via Mk 11:23. However, one might not get to that point unless he perseveres in doing Mk 11:24.
(Mt 21:21) Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.
(Mt 21:22) And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
As in Mk 11:23, based on the tense of the verb translated "ye shall say" in Mt 21:21, we can infer that one might not have to say it twice. Moreover, the tense of the verb "ye shall ask" in Mt 21:22 indicates that one might not have to ask twice. The word "if" in "If ye have faith" translates the particle εαν. Thus, the verse does not say that faith and lack of doubts are the only things required in order to do that which has been done to the fig tree or to cast a mountain into the sea. Moreover, since the word "all" of Mt 21:22 corresponds to the Greek word παντα, the phrase "all things" does not include absolutely every request.
Comparing Mt 21:21-22 with Mk 11:23-24, note that Mt 21:21 does not mention explicitly what faith should be about. We could understand then that the verse speaks about faith in general, not just about faith that the Lord would grant a request. Then, lack of doubts should be taken in the same context, not in the sense of full confidence that what one asks will be granted. Therefore, based on this verse we can conclude that a person of faith who does not doubt will be able to do great works.
The conjunction "and" at the beginning of Mt 21:22 links Mt 21:22 to Mt 21:21. Without it, one could have interpreted Mt 21:22 independently of Mt 21:21. However, as written, Mt 21:22 has to be taken in the context of Mt 21:21. In other words, the precondition "if ye have faith, and doubt not" applies also to Mt 21:22. Now, because of the sinful nature, a person of faith does not walk at all times according to his faith, though generally he has an attitude of faith. Then, interpreting "If ye have faith" as referring to the general attitude of the believer, "believing" in Mt 21:22 would appear to refer to the attitude of the believer in prayer. In other words, when a person of faith prays in a manner consistent with his faith, he could qualify to the promise of Mt 21:22. Now, the promise does not say that the prayer requests will be answered right away.
Comparing Mt 21:21 and Mt 17:20, it would appear that each identifies one category of believers to which the promise applies. In Mt 21:21, the phrase "if ye have faith, and doubt not" indicates that the promise can be applied to those who have faith and do not doubt any part of it. Moreover, in Mt 17:20, the phrase "if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed" could be explained as follows. When a mustard seed is planted, a large plant comes into existance from a tiny seed (Mt 13:31-32, Mk 4:31-32, Lk 13:19). Faith is not likened to the plant that comes from the seed, but to the seed itself. When a person acts in faith, he allows the Lord to work through his faith. If a person has faith like a mustard seed, the outcome of faith will be far greater than the faith of the believer, just as the plant is far greater than the seed. The greatness of the outcome indicates that the believer does not hinder the work of the Lord through lack of faith. It might indicate also a believer who has the gift of faith mentioned in 1Co 12:9. The categories of believers described the phrases "if ye have faith, and doubt not" and "if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed" do not have to be identical. Some who have faith and do not doubt might not have faith as a grain of mustard seed because of lack of knowledge. A person is not "throughly furnished unto all good works" if he does not know well the Scripture (2Ti 3:16-17). Moreover, some who have faith as a grain of mustard seed could doubt some matters of the faith. To see this, note that 1Co 13 mentions the possibility that one might have faith to move mountains but lack love. Since love is a fundamental matter of the faith, any man of faith must be aware of it. However, one way or another, one could reason about the love commandment so as not to apply it. As indicated above, the verb translated "to doubt" includes also this kind of reasoning. Therefore, such a person does not fulfill the phrase "if ye have faith, and doubt not", though he might have faith "as a grain of mustard seed".
(Mt 18:19)Darby Again I say to you, that if two of you shall agree on the earth concerning any matter, whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father who is in the heavens.
In the verse above "whatsoever" translates a phrase involving the particle εαν. The word "if" corresponds also to a particle εαν, and the word "any" to πας. As previously mentioned, these indicate one or more unstated conditions necessary for the fulfillment of the statement that is made. This should not be surprising, since the Lord will not grant a petition contrary to his will even if two or more agree about it and request it. Now, the following verse Mt 18:20 shows one way in which Mt 18:19 could be fulfilled. As two or more meet in the name of the Lord, and as they follow the leading of the Lord, the Lord being present among them, they ask for something that fits his plans, and then the Lord fulfills it. The tense of the verb translated "ask" indicates that they might not have to ask more than once. However, this verse does not say that the request will be granted right away. Without question, this verse encourages believers to pray together.
(Jn 14:13) And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
(Jn 14:14) If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
The word "whatsoever" corresponds to the particle αν. It is understood here as denoting absolutely everything. If a person truly asks in the name of Jesus, whatever he asks is granted, since it is something that the Lord desires to be done. The tense of the verb "ask" in this passage indicates that the believer might not have to ask more than once. As for verse 14, its ending could be translated "I myself will do it". The word for "if" in verse 14 is εαν. Comparing Jn 14:13 and Jn 14:14, the point of Jn 14:14 would be that the Lord himself will do it. Since verse 13 already states that everything asked in the name of Jesus will be granted, verse 14 does not add an exception. Rather, the particle εαν indicates that there are cases in which the Lord does not do it in person, but by means of his angels.
(Jn 15:16) Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
The word "whatsoever" translates a phrase including the particle αν. Here, "whatsoever" is understood as referring to absolutely everything. Since the verse speaks about requests that are in the name of Jesus, these are always granted. The tense of the Greek verb translated "ask" indicates that one might not have to ask more than once. This is because the requests are truly in the name of Jesus.
(Jn 16:23) And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
The remarks made about Jn 15:16 and about the words "whatsoever" and "ask" apply also to the statement "Whatsoever ye shall ask ... " in this verse.
(Jn 15:7) If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
In order to interpret Jn 15:7 it is necessary first to determine the meaning of "ye abide in me" and "my words abide in you". In view of 1Jn 2:6, the statement "ye abide in me" refers to people who follow Christ. Since no one can be perfect, "abiding in Christ" is not about perfect obedience but about a true commitment to follow his ways. A person cannot be committed to follow what he does not know, so abiding in Christ is about following those things that Christ has revealed to that person. Not all people in this category are saved, for some can turn away from the Lord and perish (Jn 15:6, Lk 8:13). The statement that "my words abide in you" can be applied to those who have been saved and have attained to a certain degree of maturity (1Jn 2:14). Taken together, "ye abide in me" and "my words abide in you" imply saved and mature people who follow the Lord (they are not caught into some sin hindering them or keeping them from following the Lord). Returning to Jn 15:7, the tense of the Greek verb translated "will" in "what ye will" indicates persistent desires. Furthermore, the εαν particle is used for the word "If" of Jn 15:7 and also in the phrase translated "what ye will". This indicates the presence of one or more unstated conditions. Then, the verse could be interpreted as follows. If a person follows the Lord and is a mature believer, excepting certain circumstances excluded by the unstated conditions, it is true that if he asks for any persistent desire (assuming a desire that fits with the plans of the Lord), it will be granted. By examining the Bible, the believer could discern the will of the Lord so that he asks for what is right. As for the circumstances excluded by the unstated condition or conditions, we could recall the times of testing in which the Lord does not answer certain requests. Nonetheless, without question, the verse encourages the believer to pray for his persistent desires. Some desires are from the Lord (Php 2:13).
(1Jn 3:21) Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.
(1Jn 3:22) And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.
The particle εαν is the word translated "if". This would indicate that in addition to the self-condemnation that comes from one's own heart, there are also other things that can keep a person from being confident towards God. For example, we could reason that a person who does not know well the Lord or who lacks assurance of salvation (cf. 1Jn 5:13-15) might not be very confident towards God. Now, the particle εαν appears again in the phrase translated "whatsoever". Therefore, 1Jn 3:22 does not say that absolutely every request will be granted. Rather, it is also necessary that what one requests fits the plans of the Lord. The tense of the verb translated "ask" indicates repeated action. The use of the particle εαν and the tense of the verb translated "ask" in 1Jn 3:22 should not be surprising, since this verse does not indicate that it speaks about requests made in the name of the Lord. As in Jn 15:7, the promise is for saved people. This could be seen based on the statement "because we ... do those things that are pleasing in his sight" and verses such as Mt 7:21, 12:50, 1Jn 2:17, and Heb 11:6. The statement that "whatsoever we ask, we receive of him" is given as a benefit of having a state of mind in which "our heart condemn us not". If this is the case, the believer has confidence to approach God with various requests, and whatever he asks that fits the plans of the Lord (and there are a multitude of such things) he receives.
(1Jn 5:14) And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:
(1Jn 5:15) And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.
In both 1Jn 5:14 and 1Jn 5:15 the tense of the verb "ask" indicates perseverant requests. In 1Jn 5:14 the Greek word for "if" is the particle εαν, indicating that one or more unstated conditions are assumed. Now, if we adopt the interpretation that God hears a request when he visibly receives it in the presence of his heavenly audience (see the article The Assembly of Heaven), the use of the particle εαν would indicate that the Lord does not hear all petitions publicly, but he grants some of them without bringing them before his audience.
In 1Jn 5:15 the Greek word for "if" is the particle εαν, indicating that the statement assumes one or more additional conditions that are not stated explicitly. Based on the previous verse we could infer that the statement is about petitions that not only are heard but also are in accordance with his will. Indeed, the Lord could hear publicly a petition not in order to grant it but for some other purpose. Now, this verse applies to a person who knows that his prayers are heard. In view of this verse, if he asks according to the will of the Lord, whatever it may be that he asks for, he can have confidence that he receives it. This will allow him to be more focused and effective, as he acts in a manner consistent with the fact that the Lord will answer his request.
(Mt 7:7) Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
(Mt 7:8) For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Mt 7:7 is in the context of Jesus teaching his disciples (Mt 5:1-2). In this context, it applies to those who are disciples of the Lord. Now, Mt 7:8 applies the statement to a more general context, for we read "every one" instead of just "you". However, the word translated "every" in Mt 7:8 indicates possible exceptions. For example, when Saul inquired of the Lord in 1Sa 28:6, the Lord did not answer. Clearly, the promise does not apply for every kind of asking, seeking, and knocking. Saul did not seem to have any intent to repent and he did not persevere in his attempt to approach the Lord. Now, the tense of the verbs of Mt 7:7-8 suggests perseverance. The promise here is not that if one asks once he will receive, but that if he keeps asking he will receive. Perseverance in prayer has been taught by the Lord Jesus also in Lk 18:1. Now, if a disciple asks for something that is not in the plans of the Lord, then based on Mt 7:7 we could reason that he will not keep asking for it. Somehow he will stop praying for it. This might happen because he comes to understand that what he has asked for is not in the plans of the Lord.