An oft-quoted and misinterpreted passage from the Gospel of John has caused much disappointment in the Christian community, while non-Christians believe they have finally found a flaw in Scripture. 

We ask God for things but do not receive them, so Jesus must be misleading us when he said, “if you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14), right?

Yet, Christians believe the Word of Christ because he is trustworthy. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. So, what did he mean when he made this promise?

Contextualizing the Promise

Jesus had told the disciples, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36). Then, in John 14, he started talking about how things would change.

Jesus taught the disciples to carry on sharing the good news about him, their Messiah after he was gone. He promised they would do even “greater things” than he did (John 14:12).

While this seems like an unbelievable promise, Piper points out that the greater thing is leading people to the truth about Christ. Disciples can become, in obedience to the name of Jesus, “instrument[s] of […] forgiveness on the basis of the finished work of Christ.”

Piper said, “All of us who believe in Jesus will carry on with his work, and in some wonderful way, do something greater than the works of Jesus, and as a means to that end will have access in prayer to Jesus today so that everything we need we can ask for and receive it” (Ibid.).

Whatever You Ask in My Name Meaning

John 14:14 can only be properly understood in light of what goes before. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Even Jesus’ own works reflect the glory of God and his obedience to the Father. “Arriving at our spiritual destiny is not a matter of seeking a goal on our own terms; it is a question of whether we know the Person who embodies ultimate Truth.”

What will one ask Jesus to do if he or she knows Jesus? This person will ask to be invited and equipped to do the works Christ did. Jesus made the name and person of God famous and his person accessible to Jews and Gentiles. Christians can do the same: bring the Good News to unbelievers and encourage fellow disciples.

“In my name:” believers can do all things through Christ by the power of his name alone. No other name is able to strike terror in the hearts of demons. No other name can heal and bring peace. “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

Whatever disciples wish to do for God, Christ’s very name lends it power. The name of Jesus also reminds us of what and whom we live for; the purpose, power, and Person behind a gospel-driven life.

Why a Greater Work?

But Jesus said that this work is greater. Ordinary people were never before permitted to promise forgiveness from God in this way, whether Jew or Gentile. 

Certainly not Gentiles. “This doesn’t mean that Jesus’s disciples are greater than he is. It does mean that their works are greater than his in this respect — that they are privileged to participate in the effects of Jesus’s completed work,” Don Carson tells us.

In John 14:14, Jesus had not yet fulfilled his earthly ministry by defeating sin, Satan, and death at the cross. Once his work was accomplished, the disciples would have access to the Holy Spirit and be able to point to the promise of the resurrected Christ, something which only those left behind could offer to those who sought peace with God.

Testing Jesus’ Request

Jesus did not say that “whatever you want, just ask and I will make sure you receive it.” He was not speaking about health, wealth, and happiness. His promise was conditional upon the disciples’ willingness to make requests in keeping with the glory and the will of God.

Try asking for something in Christ’s name and pondering, “Does this sound like something I can and should be asking God for? If not, why? And what if God says “no”? Another question to ask is “am I asking for God to be glorified or for me to be glorified?”

A prayer, which starts with “if I don’t…” could be a dangerous, manipulative prayer. “If I don’t get good enough grades to get into my first pick of colleges” or “if my dad dies from this cancer.” What if?

Is God still good? Has he reneged on his promises? Does one cease to believe because the faith does not provide the believer with desired results and a happy short-term outcome?

The theme of a self-glorifying request is “do this for me, Lord.” A God-glorifying prayer says, “Your will be done, Lord.”

Piper instructed his congregation that “everything we aim to accomplish as a church is impossible without God’s special, supernatural action” so that, in everything, the church does “he gets the glory.”

If one is trying to do something “greater” and asks for the Lord’s stamp of approval, God expects us to turn this around. Ask instead, “what is your will,” and then he will anoint that work.

Oswald Chambers wrote, “God is not concerned about our plans […]. If we say — ‘Thy will be done,’ we get the consolation of John 17, the consolation of knowing that our Father is working according to His own wisdom.”

God’s purpose in our lives is not to give us all that we want; this sort of God would be a malleable and insecure God — that is, no God at all. Almighty Lord, Creator of heaven and earth wants us to love and obey him because he is worthy.

Discipleship is not an exchange where a believer does a few good things, and God fulfills a few wishes. No. The Lord gives freedom from slavery to sin; he promised to provide a place in heaven with him for eternity, praising his name.

Christians obey him because he is worthy. Over time, the Lord continues to make his people more like his Son — “and we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Out of growing maturity in our faith, imitating Christ, we learn to discern what God wants us to ask for.

The Invitation and the Promise

“Whatever you ask in my name” — why would Christ say such a thing? He wanted his disciples and all those who would believe in him later to ask. This is an invitation.

Piper paraphrased Jesus as saying when, “You seek to carry on my work in the world, and as you seek to let your light shine, and live in love, and offer forgiveness of sins in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, ask me for whatever you need and I will give it to you” (Ibid.).

This is the work he was empowering the twelve to do: not the eye-catching and miraculous, but a personal work that is accessible to anyone because it is only done by his power, and the very name of Jesus is power.

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

For further reading:

What Does it Mean, ‘You Have Not Because You Ask Not’?

What Does it Mean to Ask, Seek, and Knock in Prayer?

Why Is it Better to Give Than to Receive?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Deagreez

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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