Theology in 3D

Prayers The Lord Will Not Answer

Greg Stiekes | July 13, 2018
New Testament

The story in Mark 10:35–45 may not be regarded as a classic passage on prayer but it teaches something about the nature of bringing requests before the Lord.

James and John say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35). Well, that approach seems a little brash. Can you imagine going before the Lord in prayer and telling him, “I’m about to ask you for something; tell me you’ll say yes.” Nevertheless, Jesus had already instructed his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt 7:7). Jesus also promises, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do” (John 14:13). So, maybe James and John are not being so impulsive after all.

Yet Jesus, on this occasion, denies their request.

And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10:36–40)

Setting aside several questions such as the nature of Christ’s glorious kingdom and the relationship of the kingdom to suffering (note the “cup”; cf. Mark 14:38), Jesus refuses to affirm their request because he does not have the authority to grant it to them. He replies, in essence, “You’re asking the wrong person.”

Could the disciples have known beforehand that they were asking for an impossible request? I say yes, based on the fact that the disciples could have paid better attention to the implications of their own Scriptures.

Daniel 2:21 affirms, “He removes kings and sets up kings.” This reality establishes that God is the primary king-maker, a principle that is evident in the history of the very throne of David, the human ancestor of Jesus. God himself made Saul king (1 Sam 9:15–21), but tore the kingdom away from him and gave it to David (1 Sam 15:2816:12–15), and established his covenant with David (2 Samuel 7). God removed one king and set up another. Moreover, God extended the anointing of the kings for David’s throne perpetually (1 Chron 28:2–5; cf. Hag 2:23).

The point is, God the Father is the one who appoints government positions. God would be the one to place the Messiah on the throne (Psa 110:1Luke 1:32Phil 2:9–11; cf. Rom 13:1). And the disciples should have known that they were asking for something that was outside the scope of what they had a right to ask. Rather, however, Jesus must tell them they have no idea what they are asking for.

But there is another reason James and John’s request was inappropriate. Not only were they asking for something they had no rights to, they were also making a request in an effort to exalt themselves. We pick up on this second reason in the rest of the passage. It turns out that the other disciples were deeply offended that James and John would have the audacity to approach Jesus about this matter. In fact, the parallel passage, Matt 20:20–28 says that the mother of James and John was even there asking on behalf of her boys. Of all the nerve! Having your mom put pressure on Jesus to get him to promise government positions.

But Jesus says to his disciples,

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42b–45).

Jesus can see that the request of the two disciples and the resentment of the remaining ten is a result of their misunderstanding of how the world works for those who follow Christ. In the new realm represented by Christ, those who are great are not those who look down from an exalted position and rule, but those who look up from a humbled position and serve.

So the request of James and John serves to teach us something valuable about unanswered prayer. The Lord invites us to bring our requests to him because he desires to answer us and meet our needs (1 Pet 5:7). But he cannot and will not say yes to requests that are directly opposed to God’s divine purposes, or to those requests motivated by personal exaltation (cf. James 4:3). Therefore, when we pray our requests must come from a heart of humility combined with a biblical knowledge of the ways of our God. As we increase in both of these virtues we grow in our ability to pray in the will of God.

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