Every once in a while I write one of these blogs in order to display the amount of depth someone can get out of the Bible when they create a habit of studying it. I reference no commentaries, theology books, Bible dictionaries, or the original languages. These materials are extremely helpful for biblical studies, but studying the Bible is much like exploring the ocean:
- There are tools that enable us to go to greater and greater depths (i.e. scuba tanks and wet suits).
- We will never have answers for all the mysteries (i.e. what exists in the deepest parts of the ocean). But we can know enough to get on with.
- Though there is much benefit in diving into the deep and mysterious waters, much of the beauty of the ocean is accessible with a snorkel.
Similarly, my time in seminary equipped me with tools to go deeper than most can in studying the word, but it would be a mistake to neglect meditation on scripture because you are not capable of as much depth as you would like. Such an error proves that one simply does not understand the beauty and value of what lies on or just below the surface of the scriptures. Regular and thoughtful meditation is the biblical studies equivalent to a snorkel and mask, and there is much to see with those tools.
Let’s see what we can discover with the simple tools of thoughtful and close reading of this well-known passage:
“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, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “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.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:5-15 ESV)
A quick glance tells us that this passage has three portions, which flow together. The first is simple and basic guidelines for prayer, the second is an example of how to pray, and the third is an explanation for a part of the prayer and its connection to Jesus’ Kingdom. Now that we have seen how the passage fits together and yet is divided into different purposes and ideas we can look at each portion in turn.
The first section, verses 5-8, might be understood as the “When You Pray” section as the phrase “when you pray” is repeated in three of the four verse, or at the beginning, middle, and end of the instruction. Let’s consider this first. Can we learn anything from the phrase “when you pray” and its repetition? At the least we can say that the phrase “when you pray” assumes the presence of prayer in our lives, otherwise the word “if” would be more appropriate. The repetition of the phrase emphasizes this as well. It also suggests something about the frequency of our prayer. More precisely it suggest that our prayer should be frequent.
Moving on we see that the first instruction is actually a prohibition, we are not to pray a certain way. We are not to pray as the hypocrites do. We should ask at this point “what do the hypocrites do?” We are told that they stand in the synagogues and at the street corners. At this point we might ask the question “why is this hypocritical?” That question is answered in the second half of the sentence, because hypocrites do these things that (the word “that” often denotes the purpose or motivation of actions) they might be seen by others. This prohibition then reveals something fairly obvious, but important enough to state explicitly—prayer is about our relationship with God. This is why those who stand in public places are classified as hypocrites, they take positions in public places with heavy traffic (the corner of the main street in the town, in the synagogue the religious, educational, and (often) economic center of the city) and stand-up to assure that they are seen. The goal of this is to deceive on-lookers about the hypocrites relationship to God. He wants others to see him as having a close and deep relationship with God, but he in fact does not. Prayer is about deepening our relationship with God, but he uses the externalities of prayer to gain favorable reputation with man. In contrast, the authentic and humble prayer is said in quiet and seclusion like a personal conversation, rather than public oration.
Similarly, the next instruction provides a coupling prohibition. We are not to pray as the Gentiles do when they heap up empty phrases. As with the hypocrites, the label the Gentiles is important for interpretation. Why would empty phrases be something Gentiles do? The first thought that comes to my mind is that Gentiles worshipped capricious and self-centered, pleasure-driven deities. As a result of their beliefs about the all too human character of their deities, pagan Gentiles believed that they could convince their gods to act through acts of great oration (much like classical Greeks sought to woe political favor with oratory skills). But the true God is not capricious, but rather a good and loving Father. He does not need to be moved to action by oration or be informed about your needs. He wants to give you what you need and he, indeed, knows what it is before you ask him. This tells us much about the character of God and the kind of relationship we ought to pursue with him.
We now approach our second section, but let’s pause for a second and back up because we skipped over something. Jesus tells us to “pray to your Father” and this is deeply important. We often teach our children to pray to Jesus, but here Jesus tells us to pray to our Father (not to himself or the Holy Spirit). I take this to be instructive that the majority of our prayers ought to be directed to the Father. Also, Jesus doesn’t say to my Father or to the Father, but to your Father. Consider how deeply relational this is. Jesus is instructing me to go before God clothed in the same relationship he has with God—how can this be? To answer that question well we would need to turn to Ephesians 1 and 2, but we will have to settle for accepting the Pauline term “in Christ” as a sufficient answer. In Christ I am made a son of God and he is made to be my Father.
With that now said, we move to the second portion of our text, the example prayer. Here we note that we are praying to the Father, and the first thing Jesus does is recognize him and his character. He prays to the Father and he prays that the Father is hallowed or holied. Holiness is the primary marker of divine character, consider the common angelic refrain that repeats “holy, holy, holy”. The Father is addressed, his character is acknowledged, and then Jesus prays that the Father act to bring about the establishment of his Kingdom and the fulfillment of his will on earth as it currently is present in Heaven. In other words, Jesus prays that the Father act to bring about Revelation 21.
Having prayed that God’s will be done, he asks that the daily bread of the Father be given to those who long for it and need it. At this point I want to make an observation about an easily overlooked aspect of this prayer. Consider the pronouns used in the prayer—our (x4), us (x4), and we—Jesus prays entirely in the first person plural. I believe that this indicates that prayer, while being personal and often individual, it is not individualistic. We are to pray as representatives and members of the church. We do not primarily pray for our individual needs, but rather for the world and for the church Jesus within the world. When understood this way, I think we might ask a question about the concept of daily bread. Let me be clear: I think daily bread literally refers to bread—food for sustenance and survival—but I do not think it is limited to literal bread. After all, would not the fulfillment of the previous request (the Kingdom coming and the will be…done-ing) be fulfilled in the provision of the bread of life to all the world? And do we not speak of the need for the gifts of Christ (the Spirit and the word) as being daily needed? Seen in the communal context of the first person plural I think it is fair to read this as both praying for physical and spiritual nourishment—bread from Heaven and the Bread of Heaven.
Moving on, Jesus instructs us to ask for forgiveness from our Father declaring that we have forgiven those whom have wronged us. This is the part of the prayer where we realize that this is an example not an actual prayer for it makes no sense for the sinless Son of God to seek forgiveness. But we must seek it and seek it with increasing frequency. In this prayer we also place a burden upon ourselves. We ask God to forgive “as we also have forgiven”. You have to be confident in your ability to forgive those who wrong you in order to pray that. Finally, we are instructed to ask our Father to lead us from temptation and deliver us from evil.
At this point, we enter the third segment as Jesus pivots back to verse twelve in order to expand upon it. Here Jesus links the willingness to forgive others to the willingness for God to forgive. The reason for this is clear to those who understand the gospel—our willingness to forgive flows from our understanding that we have been forgiven by our Father, and are continually being forgiven, to a degree and for an amount of actions that are unimaginable. We, who believe the gospel, believe that it was necessary for Jesus to die for our forgiveness to be possible. Knowing the greatness of God’s forgiveness for us, we ought to be driven to forgive others. An unwillingness to forgive displays a lack of understanding of the gravity of our sin.
Allow me to summarize and remind.
I opened no commentaries, dictionaries, theology books, or original language material. The only tools at my disposal were my ability to read thoughtfully and a good English translation (the ESV). I say that not to brag, but to encourage you that you can mine a good amount out of the scriptures with regular meditation on God’s word. Here is what we saw in this passage:
- Prayer is assumed to be part of our lives (we should pray).
- Prayer is assumed to be frequently present (we should pray often).
- Prayer is about our relationship with God (we should not pray out of a desire to be thought well of).
- Prayer is directed to our good and loving Father (we should not pray as if making a sales pitch).
- Prayer is undertaken as sons and daughters (we should pray honestly, honorably, and expectantly)
- Prayer recognizes God’s character (we should praise God when we pray).
- Prayer is concerned with God’s mission (we should pray for what is most important).
- Prayer is communal (we should pray for the needs of others, the church, and the world).
- Prayer assumes forgiveness (we should repent and forgive when we pray).
- Prayer is warfare (we should pray against Satan, our flesh, and the world)
One final thing. That prayer is frequent and prayers should not be wordy implies one final thing to observe. How long does it take to read the Lord’s prayer? We should feel no need to make our prayer time stretch on for hours. Occasions of extended prayer are good and beautiful, but most prayers are brief. I think the three keys are authentic, brief, and frequent.
Thanks for reading,