We all know the old adage:  if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.  But what about when the thing that looks too good to be true comes from someone we have every reason to trust explicitly, like Jesus?

In John 14:13-14, it is reported that Jesus said this:

“Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14) 

Sound too good to be true?  Have you had God say yes to everything you asked in Jesus’ name?  Probably not.  So does that mean that the promise was false or that Jesus was exaggerating? We can probably rule out those possibilities, since this is Jesus talking, but then what did he mean when he said “you can ask me anything in my name and I will do it”?

Well, the first thing to understand is that the phrase “in my name” is critically important to this promise.  In spite of the fact that we end pretty much all our prayers “in Jesus’ name”, this phrase is far more significant than most of us realize.

In the ancient world, to do anything “in the name” of someone was to do it as a representative of that person.  In effect, to do something “in the name” of someone else was to act on the behalf of that person, almost as though you were that person.  We see this reflected in Roman law:  if you harmed a tax collector or ambassador acting “in the name” of the emperor, you were subjected to the same punishment as if you had directly attacked the emperor himself.

So when Jesus said “if you ask for anything in my name”, he was saying, in effect, “if you ask for anything as my representative, acting on my behalf…”  Now, immediately, we can see that this entails a significant qualification:  if you ask for something that is not actually representing Jesus, he’s under no obligation to answer positively.  If you say “in the name of Jesus, make me the owner of a pornography company!”…well, he’s gonna say no.  Just adding “in Jesus’ name” to something you ask for doesn’t obligate God to answer, unless what you’re asking for is actually something that really represents Jesus and acts on his behalf.

What Jesus was saying was that there is no limit to the things he will do in and through you when what you are asking for is actually on his behalf.

Ok, so that’s why God is going to say no if you ask for a fleet of Ferrari’s “in Jesus name!”  But sometimes people ask for things that seem very likely to be things that would genuinely represent Jesus and the answer still seems to be no.  Why?

I think there are essentially four reasons why that happens:

1.  The person doing the asking isn’t actually a representative of Jesus. 

There are lots of people who claim to be Christians but have never committed their lives to Jesus by faith.  When such people ask for things – even good things – in the name of Jesus, God is under no obligation to respond.  This would be like a random American going to China and calling back to the White House to say “as your ambassador to China, I’d like access to the diplomat lounge at the airport.”  Since he’s not actually the ambassador, the U.S. has no obligation to grant such access.

2.  The person doing the asking is a believer, but they are living in persistent sin

The Bible is quite clear that un-confessed, un-repented sin gets in the way of our relationship with God (cf. Psa 66:18, Mark 11:25, 1Pe 3:7, et al.) and affects the way God responds to our prayers.  If asking for something “in Jesus’ name” means asking for it on Jesus’ behalf, it is easy to see why un-confessed, un-repented sin will cause God to say no.  How can we ask for anything that will represent Jesus and further his purposes in the world when our sin is actually doing the precise opposite of that?

3.  The person doing the asking is a believer, but isn’t actively living as a representative

If we sent someone to China to be our ambassador and they set up house and then never left it…if they just hung out in their house eating food and playing video games, never going to meetings or doing anything on the behalf of the U.S., would the White House keep honoring their requests for more salary, more supplies, etc.?  In the same way, Christians who are not actively seeking to represent Jesus in the world have no reason to think that he’s going to honor their requests.  Of course, it is also true that any Christian who is not actively seeking to represent Jesus in the world is very, very unlikely to be asking for anything that really represents Jesus properly!

4.  The thing we’re asking for may not really represent Jesus no matter how much it might seem to us to do so at the time. 

Sometimes a true Christian who is actively seeking to live a holy life and who is actively working to represent Jesus in the world asks for something that seems to represent Jesus…and is still told no.   Does this contradict Jesus’ promise that “anything you ask for in my name I will do”?  Not at all.  The issue is that sometimes what we ask for “in Jesus’ name” doesn’t further his purposes in the way we thought it would.  For instance, Paul says that he asked three times for a “thorn in the flesh”[1] to be taken away from him and yet God said, basically, no (2Co 12:7-8).  Now, I’m pretty confident that Paul was a believer.  I’m also confident that he was not living in persistent sin and that he was actively living as Jesus’ representative in the world, acting on His behalf.  So why did God say no?  The answer was that: 

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”    (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I suspect that Paul’s continued faithfulness in spite of this “thorn” served to bring God greater glory and to further His purposes both in Paul’s life and in the lives of the people Paul represented Jesus to.  In other words, removing the “thorn” was not what would represent Jesus best.  I also suspect that, had Paul known what God would do in and through him via this “thorn”, he wouldn’t even have asked for it to be removed.

In some ways, this promise from Jesus is like being handed a Platinum Diamond American Express card with no limit.  God says to us “with this card, you can do literally anything that will accomplish my purposes.  You can never swipe it and get an ‘unsufficient funds’ decline.  But, because you’re still not fully sanctified yet and because you have only the most elementary understanding of what will really represent me best, I’m going to be checking the charges for a while.  There’s no limit on the card, but there is a limit on what is really ‘in my name’ and it’s going to take you a while to figure that out. 

So, Jesus’ promise in John 14:13-14 is neither a false guarantee nor an exaggeration. It just has to properly understood in its original context.


[1] It is possible that this was a persistent disease like malaria, but it must be noted that Paul specifically identifies the malady as having Satanic roots when he described it as “a messenger of Satan” (2Co 12:7).