[Original posted Sean McDowell here]
Not long ago I had the chance to preach at my home church on John 15:1-17, which is the well-known passage about the vine and the branches. The meaning of this passage is mostly straightforward and uncontroversial until you get to these words of Jesus:
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Is this a blanket prayer that God will give us whatever we wish? At first glance, it does seem to be saying this. Many preachers have drawn entire theologies from this passage alone.
As desirable as it might be to think that God is a genie who offers Christians whatever they want, it is critical we consider this passage in context. In other words, what was Jesus communicating to his original audience and what does this mean for us today?
Upon closer analysis (which involves reading the verses before and after), it is clear that this passage is about true disciples living in obedience to Christ, and as a result, bearing fruit. To “abide in Christ” is to keep His commandments.
With this in mind, consider a simple question: “If you are truly abiding in Christ, how will this affect what you pray for?”
Commentator Gerald Borchert says it well:
“That means that the model of Jesus in life and word must permeate the life and words of the disciple. When this happens, praying ceases to be selfish asking and becomes aligned with the will and purposes of God in Christ.”
In other words, when we are truly connected to the vine—Jesus—in mind, heart, and will, our desires will be transformed. Rather than praying selfishly, we will pray for God’s will to be done. When we abide in Christ, his wishes become our wishes.
This promise from Jesus is not for his followers to get whatever they wish. Rather, his desire is that we align our wills with what God wants. Jesus wants our prayers to be theocentric (God centered) rather than anthropocentric (man centered). This is clear in the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-10):
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be YOUR name. YOUR kingdom come, YOUR will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Notice how many times Jesus says “YOUR” in reference to God’s will? Our prayers are to begin by aligning ourselves with God’s will.
Here’s the bottom line: Jesus is not offering Christians a blanket promise to get whatever they ask for. Rather, his is commanding his disciples to abide in Him and to have His words abide in them. Then their prayers will be in line with the will of God, and as a result, will be fully answered.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
 Borchert, G. L. (2002). John 12–21 (Vol. 25B, p. 145). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.