The Lord’s prayer has a long history in the church; from liturgy to a format for our petitions to God, it has been a popular speaking point in Christian thought asking, just what was Jesus trying to teach us through this prayer? What would have stood out to people who heard it in their context, and what relevance or lessons does it have for us today? In five simple verses, Jesus’ words bring us back to the heart of prayer and relation to our God.
I think before we dive into the text of the Lord’s prayer, it is important to understand its context. Matthew puts the prayer in the sermon on the Mount just after he had spoken against how not to pray, whereas Luke puts the prayer in response to a disciple asking Jesus how to pray after they had seen him pray.
THE CONTEXT IN MATTHEW
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:7-13 ESV)
Firstly, Jesus was setting out to distinguish his approach to prayer from religious traditions or appearances of piety. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners… And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…” (Matt 6:5a, 7a) He was in many ways, I think, opposing what would have been ideas of the day from Pagan prayer, where a deity’s favour would have to be earned by flattery, titles, acts of sacrifice or repetitions. Instead, he was instituting an aspect of intimacy and simplicity that would have been revelatory to his day and ours. The very opening of the prayer breaks down the formal format of religious prayer, and its structure opposes loquacious pious recital to impress an audience or God.
Matthew’s version of the prayer, in the context which he records it in, seems to be addressing the manner in which prayer is approached – or rather the heart behind the person praying. He sandwiches it between two passages that deal with praying and fasting with the right motives, not to call attention to ourselves or fulfil a religious duty, but rather to know and foster a personal relationship with Our Father, God. This is why he speaks out about public prayer to call attention to oneself, and fasting to put on a show… these things are meant not for public acclaim but to cherish a personal relationship with God.
THE CONTEXT IN LUKE
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:1-4 ESV)
Secondly, in Luke’s account, of all the questions the disciples could have asked him we see the disciples asking Jesus how to pray after seeing Him pray. No doubt, there was something about the way that Jesus prayed that would have caused this question. Perhaps the disciples seeing him often stealing away to his secret place to pray, overhearing him, or seeing his passion in prayer to God, then seeing Him perform miracles—they undoubtedly would have made a connection that there was something different about Jesus and a power which seemed to come out of the way he prayed. In both contexts, Jesus’ prayer has challenged the mindset to which prayer is being approached.
The context that Luke puts the prayer in is right after a disciple sees Jesus pray and maybe wants to know how to pray as powerfully or intimately as him, and then followed up after by an example of persistence in prayer with the reassurance that God gives good gifts. I think what is being illustrated here in Luke’s account is the importance of the passionate pursuit of a prayer life, from which stems power and endurance in the Christian walk. Jesus is encouraging us to a life of persistent and passionate prayer in pursuit of Him – notice what he says is given to those who ask, knock and seek… it is not what we may think of – being some material blessing – Jesus is not saying that if we ask and harass him enough you’re going to get everything you ask for materially. What he is promising is, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (v13)
We get God. He is the reward to those who ask, knock and seek. This is why this passage, I believe, is teaching that prayer is more than just asking for stuff, it is a passionate pursuit of God himself. It is in this context now that we can truly understand then Matthew 6:33 – “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” We seek to know God first, with the assurance that He already knows what we need, and that He gives us good gifts, so we don’t worry about those things – they’re added unto us. Our primary concern in prayer is to seek to know God more – and even if we don’t get any stuff we ask for, we get God – and He is our treasure and reward.
“OUR FATHER, WHO ART IN HEAVEN”
Let’s start off with the first two words, “Our Father”. Πάτερ is the Greek word used for Father – which is the vocative form – identifying who is being addressed directly rather than just talking about Him, we are directly addressing God as Father – sometimes the simplest and most direct word, the Aramaic Abba (Mk 14:36). Abba is not, strictly speaking, “Daddy” – as there really didn’t exist that concept of daddy in their times as it does now in our modern Western culture… but it does suggest the family circle and was not normally used for God. Probably more close to what the culture of the time would have understood would be what we see today in traditional East Indian families, where the father is called “Baba-ji” – the “baba” is dad, but the “ji” is sir… it would be like saying, “Daddy-Sir”. There is a tension of closeness but respect also in addressing your Father. That closeness/endearment of addressing God in itself may have surprised Jews who heard Jesus call God “Abba”. But they certainly were taken aback when Jesus spoke of God as “my Father” in a way that implied he had a different relationship with God than other Israelites (Jn 5:17-18).”
This concept of us realizing God as Father is pivotal in our understanding of prayer; that when we approach Him, we do so as His kids coming to their Father, their Dad. Our understanding of a father can be either enhanced or hindered by our earthly experience, but kids with a good dad will grasp this instinctively. They call to their father, “dad?” and know that they will have his full and undivided attention and that he will care about what they have to say. But beyond this, he defines our Father as one who is perfect in Heaven, He is not like our earthly dads. This concept of the nearness of God as “Abba Father”, but also the recognition of His transcendence as the One “who is in Heaven” is a dynamic tension establishing both appropriate intimacy and reverence. He is God and already knows what we need—so we do not approach him as if we’re informing him of something new, or making Him do something, or impressing Him with lengthy wordage. We’re simply talking to dad. We approach Him, wanting to get to know our dad. This is the prayer that brings a smile to God’s face.
This concept would have brought prayer down from something the religious elite did, to a conversation that even the simplest of persons who had a dad could understand and relate to. Also, he said not only my Father but “our Father”. The statement establishes prayer as a community expression from the beginning. Even more amazingly, it brings us in with Jesus’ relationship to the Father, to share the relationship the Son has with God the Father! We are adopted into the sonship of God, with Jesus as our big brother – firstborn among many… Jesus says, OUR Father. It establishes our mindset as communal, of prayer as something to be done collectively and for the collective. Even for prayer in the secret place, that our mindset would be family-oriented on our other brothers and sisters who share “Our Father”. This would greatly change how we selfishly petition our Father.
In addressing God in prayer, we realize we are simply talking to our Dad, and as such; our speech should be plain, sincere, honest and heartfelt. We understand also that though He is near, He is also transcendent and worthy of fear and respect. Furthermore, we recognize that prayer is not something that is within total isolation – we are a family community in communion with our Heavenly Father. So, speak simply. Speak reverently. Speak communally.
“HALLOWED BE THY NAME”
The Greek – ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου – is difficult to translate accurately since it is in the third person singular aorist passive imperative, (yes that’s a mouthful!) and there is no exact English equivalent to express a passive imperative in the third person. The closest I may get is, “May Your Name be sanctified” or “Let Your Name be sanctified/hallowed”. We are used in English to see imperatives (commands) in the first and second person as commands, eg. “Go clean your room.” However, the third person imperative is quite different. It is a statement that something should exist, or an action should be taken – similar to a sort of longing for this action which should be in a very strong sense. The best we can do in English is say, “let there be” or “may it be”. The singular passive part of the tense shows that the action is being done to the subject, thus why it’s singular. So – God’s name is the singular passive subject that is being hallowed. The aorist tense refers to a single simple complete action – it presents an occurrence, in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside. It may be helpful to think of the aorist as taking a snapshot of the action.
So to put it all together, it is an exhortation expressing the strong longing for only God’s name to be sanctified or held as holy in a full or complete way. What is interesting is that although God’s Name is the subject of the verb receiving the “hallowing”, the exhortation is made to God. So though we hallow His Name ourselves, we are also thereby asking Him to be the ultimate ‘sanctifier’ of His own Name.
Luke’s account uses the imperfective aspect which may imply repetition, for example, his word for “give” – “δίδου” – which would be a continuing, day by day giving. So it would seem that the implication here is while we pray that God’s name is to be made holy perfectly one day, we are praying also that daily it would be kept holy as well. The implication of the passive voice in this phrase also begs the question, by whom is God’s name being hallowed – by God or by us? It would seem to me that the answer would be both. God is the primary and ultimate sanctifier of His own Name, and we ask Him to sanctify it in, through and among us here. Also that His Name would be hallowed among the nations and peoples who don’t know Him – so herein we find an aspect of an evangelistic outlook if God’s Name is to be truly held has Holy in all places through all peoples.
Our desire for God’s name to finally be perfectly shown Holy in the future is our longing, however we also continue day by day to seek to see it shown Holy now – in our own lives (sanctification), in the lives of our community (social justice) and in the lives of unbelievers (evangelism).
“THY KINGDOM COME”
These tensions of the aorist imperative are also seen and confirmed in the follow-up, “ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου” translated, “may Your Kingdom come”. Again there is the eschatological sense of the final arrival of the Kingdom in the end, but also with “come” being in the third person singular aorist-imperative active voice, it is also petitioning God to actively have His Kingdom come here one day as well as to us now. We pray for the coming of both the Kingdom of grace in the present and the culmination of the Kingdom of glory in the future on the Last Day. N.T. Wright says of this, “But there was, of course, still work to be done, redemption to be won. The present and the future did not cancel one another out, as in some unthinking scholarly constructions. Nor did “present” mean “a private religious experience” and “future” mean “a Star Wars-type apocalyptic scenario.”
What is a kingdom though? What are we praying for? It is the ruling and sovereign governing of a king over his subjects. We are speaking of Lordship. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we’re not only asking for it in our hearts and personal lives, but also that Jesus would be the LORD of all. Think about how a lot of people pray, they start off addressing God as Lord, meaning that they submit to His rule… and then proceed to tell Him what to do in the rest of their prayer! WHAT!? Or others who think that His Kingdom has no relevance to anything outside of the church and their personal piety. We ask for His Kingdom to come on earth – not just in the church and not just in our hearts in privatized religion.
What does Jesus liken the Kingdom of God unto? In Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19, Jesus compares it to the mustard seed. That it starts off as a small and humble seed, but then grows and becomes larger than all the other plants and becomes a blessing to its surroundings as the birds make their nest in it. Is this not how we as the Church usher in the Kingdom here? To grow and bless the people in our areas? In Matthew 13:44-46, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the hidden treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. In both these cases, when the man finds them, in his joy he sells all that he has to have it! God is that treasure and pearl, that when we find Him (or rather He finds us), IN OUR JOY we count everything a loss… The question I’d pose to us is, have we truly found that treasure that makes us so joyful that everything else is considered worthless dung by comparison? (Philippians 3:7 & 8)
We pray for God’s Kingdom to be established in our earnest hope for what lies ahead, but also in our submission to His Lordship in our lives today, that it would begin to grow and take over our areas to bless others and so that our joy would be full as all other things fade away in comparison to the glory revealed to us in Christ.
“THY WILL BE DONE, HERE ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”
“May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – there is a comparison happening here where we are petitioning God’s will to be done on earth as perfectly as it is done in Heaven. This speaks of an aspect of voluntary submission of our will to God’s will so as to remove opposition against the perfect operation of His will here. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” In praying, “Thy will be done” we are also including that while we make our petitions and plans if anything is in conflict with God’s perfect plan, He would bring all things together under Christ to carry out His will and not ours.
Jesus was challenging Pagan ideas of the day and even today, that prayer was somehow a bargaining table with God. The Pagan religions of his day believed that they would have to call upon the deity with the right name, offer the right sacrifice, offer the god flattering praise to butter the god up and recall times in the past when the god had helped them before so as to “prep” this deity for their requests. It was spiritual bribery of sorts… However, in Christianity—faith is not a commodity of trade and there is no exchange in the currency of grace. In this economy of mercy, we are utterly and totally bankrupt, so we have nothing to barter with! But God is rich in mercy and lovingkindness and it is for His Name’s Sake that He chooses to bless.
Therefore, our spiritual poverty is our best asset in prayer—to recognize with the hymn writer, “I am weak, but Thou art strong…” It is at the end of ourselves that we find God waiting there all along. Were it status, achievement, holiness or piety or any earned thing, we may be disqualified. But helplessness—anyone can start there, and thus opens up the altar to everyone from the lowliest to the highest. Our only claim is, “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the Cross I cling.” In prayer, we assume a posture of dependence. The purpose of prayer is not us seeking our own personal agendas; rather it is seeking God’s agenda—both for us personally and the Church collectively.
This is a great point of security for us, for many are worried about staying in God’s will for their lives. However, the fear of going amiss sometimes leads to inaction. But we see in scripture repeatedly, that God directs our steps. “The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and He delights in his way.” (Ps 37:23) and “The heart of man plans his way, but he LORD establishes his steps.” (Prov 16:9) Important to note here is the concept of being in motion, that we step out in faith according to our righteousness given in Christ and planning our way as best as we can with the wisdom God gives, and then God directs and guides us along the way. I think it is a true saying that God cannot direct a stationary vessel, and here in the Lord’s prayer, as we ask for His will to be done in our lives it is the same implication of desiring God’s sovereignty governing over us to direct our free will. There is great security and boldness to be found in this.
When you really sit down and think about it, especially in terms of evangelism and salvation – the great commission is two things to us: (and you may not like how I phrase this)
- It is a fool’s errand of sorts – in that, it is ultimately God who saves, who regenerates, opens blinded eyes, His Spirit who draws anyone near… really and truly, us evangelizing is not for His benefit as if He needed us to save anyone. We are in some ways, tasked with a fool’s errand – but in it, we get to come alongside as He does the work, and see His strength and power – and in doing so, we get to know Him more and are given all the more reasons to worship.
- It is a call to that which we cannot do. The Great Commission is in essence if we believe that it Salvation is God’s work and that we cannot convince someone into the Kingdom… that we have no power in ourselves to change hearts… that we are utterly helpless to save one who is perishing… it is an impossible task to which we are commissioned. But that’s the point!! It is to bring us back to our knees again in humble recognition that we need God to do the very thing He commanded us to do! We’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful. This cuts out every excuse of inadequacy to the task of answering the call of sharing the gospel. No one is too untrained, no one is too spiritually weak, no one is actually able to do it! It again brings us to the end of ourselves, and back to Him – with Whom all things are possible… even salvation.
Our prayer for God’s will to be done (which comes after the petition for His Kingdom reign – Lordship – to be established), is to remove any obstacles in our will or life hindering the perfect flow of His will in our life… also it is realizing and taking up our posture of utter and total poverty and dependence on God to do for us that which we cannot… and it is an entrusting of our future to God, as we step out in faith which gives us the security that God sovereignly will be faithful to direct our paths, and as we go out to do that which He commands us to do, He also will equip and enable us and do the work of sharing the Gospel.
“GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD”
It also implies a continuing dependence on God to supply our daily needs into the future as we are not asking for stockpiles in which to place our trust. For those of us who have been blessed financially, this can be a point of struggle, as it is so easy to put your trust in your bank account or success in material ways. I know I struggled with this for a long time. The solution? (and I’m not necessarily saying this to guilt anyone or speaking against being rich) For me, it has been to give until you need God to come through for you. Look at Jesus’ challenge to the rich young ruler—how much have we really “bet it all on God”?
For those who are rich, sometimes you may have to go further to put yourself in a position where you need to have faith in God to experience His provision. This is not to say that being rich is inherently evil, or that one cannot glorify and serve God truly with wealth. But, we must recognize the tendency for our self-sufficiency to obscure God’s sufficiency and our constant dependence. I think about the story in the Old Testament of God providing manna daily for the Israelites, they were commanded only to take what they needed for the day and that if they took more than that it would spoil. To me, this speaks of continuing recognition and dependence on God as the provider and positions us as the ones daily in need of His riches. That we are poor, and He is rich. We are weak, and He is strong. And in so doing, He is glorified; for His power is shown strong in our weakness.
When we pray for our needs and wants, we recognize that it is not so that we can put our trust in those things – but rather so that in supplying us with them – God might be glorified.
“AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION, BUT DELIVER US FROM THE EVIL ONE”
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” It is interesting that his prayer ends in the struggle we face. Augustine takes another approach, drawing a distinction between being tempted and being brought into temptation. “All men must be tempted; but to be brought into temptation is to be brought into the power and the control of temptation; it is to be not only subjected to temptation but to be subdued by temptation.” In any case, the text is clear on who the hero of this fight is and it certainly is not us. We are the ones begging for God’s deliverance and He is the one who will rescue us from sin. I cannot help but be drawn back to the cross here, where God’s victory over sin was both finally won for us as a completed work in eternity, and also empowering us in the present to overcome sin in the day-to-day. Maybe this is why it is so appropriate to end here, for as in all things, we fix our eyes on Jesus and are brought back to the wonderful Cross where we find forgiveness for the past, strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
It is interesting to me that this part is put at the end of the prayer, as many of us have been taught in church traditions that repentance and confession must come before petitions through our various ridiculous formulas we have for prayer sometimes (such as ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). I think this may turn some people’s worlds upside down a bit… and I’m not mocking it (ok, maybe slightly in jest) however, I’m not downplaying the importance of those things at all! But—God’s hearing of our prayers is not predicated on how holy our lives are before Him, or how pure we can keep ourselves… We’ll never be holy enough for that! It is not that we confess our sins so that God will hear us so we then can get what we ask of Him. Our holiness is not a ‘bargaining chip’ for God’s grace. Our right to approach the Throne in prayer is not based on any merit in us, but on the righteousness which was bestowed on us through Christ Jesus! So yes, confess and repent—but don’t think that it is by our holiness that we then somehow have the right to ask God things. I guess my problem with formulae for prayer in the broad sense (and I know that this whole article ironically has been an exercise in the exegesis of a ‘formula’ or sorts) is that it can make prayer less organic and honest in its rigidity and turn into a form of prayer-legalism.
We are always drawn back to the cross, and our struggle with sin should do exactly that as we run to God in prayer, both for confession of past sins and also pleading for strength and mercy to not fall into future sin. However remembering that our security of being able to freely call on the name of the Lord in prayer is not based on our own sanctity, but rather on Christ’s completed work and His righteousness counted to our credit… “Let us, therefore, come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
“FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN”
Originally I was not going to include this part of the prayer, since it is actually not present in the earliest manuscripts. It is suspected that it was a latter addition – probably because of the use of the Lord’s prayer in public/church liturgy. There’s nothing wrong with it, it is taken from 1 Chronicles 29:11… but I decided to put something in here about it because it is essentially a closing line of worship and ultimately, this is the purpose of this prayer and all things. God is most passionately and primarily for His own glory. This is the basis for all that He does, even in loving us, and answering prayer, etc… and it is because it is based in Himself, who never changes that we can find great security and comfort. God is for God because He is the ultimate good in the Universe – therefore, the best thing that He could be for is Himself. The best thing that He could possibly give is Himself. So in giving us prayer as access to get to know Him, He is giving us the best possible perfect gift He can give – Himself.
The Westminster Catechism says that “the chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” John Piper rephrases this, “I am most satisfied when God is most glorified in me.” These two truths cannot be separated, God is glorified in our taking pleasure in Him! Think about if you have someone who is only giving you begrudging lip-service; does that please you? In the same way, God is after our hearts – to be totally enthralled in Him; because in delighting in Him – it shows Him as delightful! And this brings Him glory…
For us, in seeking to glorify Him – the purpose to which we were created – we are fulfilled in our life’s meaning and thus we are made happy! Worship and glorifying God cannot take place without us taking joy and delight in the One being glorified.
Our primary goal in prayer, worship and in life, in general, should be to concern ourselves with making ourselves happy, not with stuff, but in the Lord. With that focus, our prayers are centred on what pleases God and will become more effectual and pleasurable as we get to know the One to Whom we cry out. At the root of every prayer should be a strong desire for our joy made complete in and through the glory of God.
In conclusion, I don’t see the Lord’s prayer as necessarily a formula for prayer or something we’re required to replicate every time. (Not that there is anything wrong with repeating the prayer or using it in liturgy) Jesus said, when you pray, pray LIKE this… He was giving an example of the heart and motives behind prayer rather than a formula to follow religiously. He was showing us the right manner and posture in which to approach discourse with our Heavenly Father. He was showing us ultimately, that prayer and the Christian life is about knowing God, and in knowing Him—we are changed, and our needs are supplied by the God who already knows and loves us, and gives good gifts to His kids.
I hope this has been insightful, but at the same time, I hope it doesn’t just become an intellectual journey for you in saying, “Oh that was really good”—but rather I hope we go and do… so go pray.
1. Fredrich, Joel D., The Lord’s Prayer: Exegesis of Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. 2010. No pages. Online: http://www.wlsessays.net/files/FredrichLordsPrayer.pdf
2. Longenecker, Richard N., Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, ed. R.L. Longenecker. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
3. Lewis, C.S., The Great Divorce, 1945
4. Barclay, William., Lord’s Prayer, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998
5. Twistedxtian, A Brief Exegetical Study of the Lord’s Prayer. Posted March 18, 2010. No pages. Online: http://mrstorage.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/a-brief-exegetical-study-of-the-lord%E2%80%99s-prayer/#_ftn25
6. Smyth, Herbert Weir., Greek Grammar, Benediction Classics, 2010