The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most famous portions of Scripture. It is known throughout the world, and can perhaps be counted along with Jn 3:16 as one of the handful of Biblical passages that non-Christians will recognize. It is also a very misunderstood passage. Some take it as a literal prayer that should be repeated verbatim periodically. This author, as a newly saved Christian, recited the Lord’s Prayer every night for several weeks, and felt closer to God as a result!
There are any numbers of ways to interpret the Sermon on the Mount. This paper takes the interim approach, which sees it as an ethic for believers before the inauguration of the kingdom. The original audience were Jews who expected Christ to establish His millennial reign, as He had been preaching (Mk 1:14-15). The fact that His kingdom was not inaugurated at that time does not negate the Sermon as a whole; it merely means it is still applicable to Christians today who still await the kingdom God promised Israel (2 Sam 7:16). “The sermon is primarily addressed to disciples exhorting them to a righteous life in view of the coming kingdom.”
It may more properly be termed “The Disciples’ Prayer!” If any prayer may be associated with Jesus Christ, surely it is John 17. It is not a literal prayer, but a model prayer. Christ teaches Christians how to pray, how to approach our Holy God and the proper heart attitude a believer must have before participating in the marvelous honor of intercessory prayer.
5 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.
Christ presupposes His disciples will pray. “And when you pray,” not “and if you pray.” This tells us that prayer is an assumed component of the Christian life. Matthew Henry’s observation is a pointed rebuke to all Christians who reject this vital element of worship; “You may as soon find a living man that does not breathe, as a living Christian that does not pray . . . If prayerless, then graceless.”
Prayer must be entered into with the right attitude. Christians seek to glorify their Father in heaven and never themselves (1 Cor 10:31). The triune Godhead planned and decreed everything in eternity past (Ps 139; Eph 1:11, 3:11), created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2), died for the sins of wicked men (Jn 3:16) and is at work convicting humanity of sin and His own righteousness even now (Jn 16:7-11). He alone is deserving of praise, honor and worship.
Prayer, and all worship in general, is an issue of the heart (Deut 10:16). “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him,” (Jn 4:23).
6 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.
Prayer is an intimate conversation, between the believer and his Lord. There is no place for ostentation here. It is a private worship where sinful men can bring their cares, worries and petitions before the Holy God who saved them from sin and darkness.
Christ was not literally instructing His disciples to find themselves a convenient closet. This author ministered to well-meaning teenagers who returned from a “mission’s institute” of questionable reputation and doctrine, where they were instructed to actually pray for hours in closets or darkened rooms!
The Greek for room, ταμεῖον, means chamber, closet or a place of retirement and privacy. It also means inner room. The word itself is used to denote a small storeroom attached to a Jewish house. The context here does not suggest Christ wanted His disciples to seek out unoccupied storerooms; it merely suggests privacy – the very opposite of ostentation. As one scholar explained, “it would have been the only room provided with a door, and at least one commentator observes that it had become almost a proverbial expression for a place where one could go and not be seen.”
It is not the location of the prayer offered; it is the heart of the humble petitioner who offers the prayer that Christ was concerned with. Believers have the privilege of working with God through intercessory prayer; it is shameful to come before Him with anything less than a humble and contrite spirit. Those who pray more often in public than in private before the Holy God are typically less interested in God’s approval than human praise. Frequently, prayers and petitions are offered in public worship services. There is nothing wrong with public prayer, (it is encouraged!), but when aspirations for flattery gain ascendency over a heart-felt petition before God a Christian is in trouble.
“All display should be avoided in devotion: He who addresses God must be wholly engrossed with thoughts of his own wants, and of Him whose grace he entreats. Such abstraction will convert the most public place into a ταμεῖον.” As John Phillips noted, “since God is omnipresent, we can transform any corner into a cathedral and pray.”
A Christian who prays for the vain glory and honor of men will receive little to no reward. God abhorred the sacrifices and offerings of sinful Israel, because their heart was absent (Isa 1:10-20). Even the Israelites’ prayers were in vain (Isa 1:15). God’s people are characterized by a circumcision of the heart (Deut 10:16; Rom 2:29). Christians who pray in this spirit will be rewarded according to His sovereign will. Those who seek the praise of men will not be. God’s people must keep their hearts set on Him (Pr 4:23), for “what will it avail us to have the good word of our fellow-servants, if our Master do not say, Well done?
7 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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
God knows His children’s struggles and needs, yet He granted His people the honor of working with Him anyway. Prayer does not become more efficacious with fancy phraseology or eloquent speech. Rote formalism and false piety are nothing more than unnecessary and “empty phrases.”
Blomberg suggests Christ is cautioning against endless repetitions of the same prayers; “God wants to give us good gifts; therefore, we need not badger him with our requests.” This is not the case. Rather than discouraging “excessive” prayer, Christ is discouraging the wrong approach to prayer – one characterized by false eloquence and flowery speech, as if God would be moved by such feeble piety.
The word for “empty phrases” or the more familiar “vain repetitions” is βαττολογεω, which means to babble. It also means to prattle, speak much, or use many words. Therefore, when Christ tells His followers to not “heap up empty phrases,” he is referring to vain and endless prayers – prattling done with the intent to be heard more. Again, this is a heart issue. “His point is that His disciples should avoid meaningless, repetitive prayers offered under the misconception that mere length will make prayers efficacious.” Prayer need not be a prescribed length, done in a prescribed place or be fashioned from prescribed words – it simply needs to be heartfelt and honest. With the right heart, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” (Jas 5:16b, KJV). There is no such thing as “excessive prayer” uttered in the correct spirit before God.
Reverence for God
9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Christ was not demanding a recitation of this prayer, but offered it as a model for prayer. The KJV (“After this manner therefore pray ye”) and NASB (“Pray, then, in this way”) seem to capture the force of this meaning more clearly than the ESV. Carson explained that Christ meant, “this is how [not what] you should pray.” The context itself demonstrates the prayer was never meant to be repeated literally, especially in light of Christ’s admonition against vain repetitions and empty phrases (Mt 6:7-8).
The first thing Christ teaches Christians is an awareness of who they are speaking to. Believers ought to speak honestly with God but always remember they are speaking to God. Prayers must never be offered with careless informality, as though He were merely a friend. At the same time, the privilege of knowing God and addressing Him as “Father” implies relationship, familiarity and trust. There is a fine line between a relationship with God through honest prayer, as a child to their heavenly Father, and the careless familiarity and contempt of presumptuous prayer. God is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Pr 18:24). “The phrase ‘in heaven; balances this intimacy with an affirmation of God’s sovereignty and majesty.”
God’s name will be hallowed in the end, when He receives all the worship due His name. Indeed, this entire model prayer forces Christians to put things into the proper perspective of the kingdom that is to come. “There can be no doubt that the first request looks to the time when all nations shall worship God in the millennial age.”
Submission to God
10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Our attitude in prayer, indeed in all things, must be humility and submissiveness to God. His kingdom will come. His will shall be done. Are Christians willing to see His will done? Are Christians keen to offer themselves as living sacrifices for His work (Rom 12:1)? Are believers trusting in the grace of God to train them to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ? (Titus 2:12-14). Do God’s children fully appreciate that their salvation was done with a specific purpose? “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” (Eph 2:10).
It is a privilege to be used of God in His unfolding plan for His kingdom. Christ was emphasizing the vital necessity of a submissive spirit, anchored on the foundational truth that God is sovereign. Prayer to Him simply must reflect this; “prayer is to include the request that His will be accomplished today on earth as it is being accomplished in heaven, that is, fully and willingly.”
This verse, like the last, is clearly eschatological. All God’s people struggle in this present, evil world all while waiting for their blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). Meanwhile, He is purifying believers for His own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).
“We make Christ but a titular Prince, if we call him King, and do not do his will: having prayed that he may rule us, we pray that we may in everything be ruled by him.” Prayers must reflect a humility and reverence for God’s program for the ages.
11 Give us this day our daily bread
Too often, requests for physical provision occupy an unbalanced proportion of a Christian’s prayer life. Christ’s model prayer contains but one small verse on this issue; He expands on this principle later in the chapter (Mt 6:25-34). John Phillips’ point here is especially illuminating;
Analysis of our own prayers will often reveal preoccupation with the material side of life; we pray mostly about how we are to be fed, where we are to live, what we are to wear, Aunt Suzy’s illness, Uncle Joe’s need for a better job. We should not stop praying for these topics. The Lord taught us to include them in our prayers; but material requests are to be kept in their right place and proportion.
Christ also teaches His children that all daily provisions are from God. It is easy to become complacent, comfortable and lazy in prayer. All blessings are from God. “It is a lesson easily forgotten when wealth multiples and absolute self-sufficiency is portrayed as a virtue.”
Imitators of God
12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
It is “natural,” in man’s fallen, sinful condition to harbor anger, bitterness and ill will towards others. However, Paul specifically called believers to shed the old way of life and put on the new self, created in the likeness of God.
But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:20-24).
So often, however, the exact opposite is true. How can men approach the Holy God, who forgave and continues to forgive the sins of His elect, while at the same time refusing to forgive others for real or perceived wrongs? Christians are called to be imitators of God (Eph 5:1). Christ commands Christians to have the right spirit when they pray. His words here act as a subtle rebuke to all believers, past, present and future. He presupposes His children will come before Him with a clear conscience, holding ill will toward nobody.
There are clear eschatological overtones here. “It is impossible for one to be in fellowship with God as long as he harbors ill will in his heart. The disciples were to be always spiritually prepared for the coming of the kingdom.” God’s standards for conduct have always been predicated on His holiness (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 1:16). The kingdom is not yet here, and Christians cannot somehow inaugurate the kingdom through a pattern of holy, righteous living. Rather, all believers are commanded to live holy lives as a witness for Him in this present age, while waiting patiently for Christ to return. Disciples must pattern the kingdom in their own individual lives as a light for the lost (Mt 5:14-16). This carries over to prayer life.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
If Christians are not talking with God, they will not stick with God! “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” (Gal 5:16). Men cannot stand against Satan alone; they need the help of the only One who resisted Satan’s temptations (Mk 1:12-13; Mt 4:1-11). He accomplished what Adam and Eve could not – He triumphed over Satan when tempted.
God cannot tempt anybody with evil (Jas 1:13); but He is sovereign over all. He sends false teachers, “who long ago were designated for this condemnation,” (Jude 4) to test believers. Moses also warned Israel that false teachers assess true love for God; “For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,” (Deut 13:3b). This touches on the distinction between God’s direct and indirect providence in working His will in believer’s lives.
“God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” (1 Cor 10:13). He will not allow Christians to be tempted above what they are able to bear. Trials bring about a positive change in character (Jas 1:2-4). Strength to endure these trials and grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ is possible only through Christ. Believers are commanded to pray for their walk with the Lord; for strength to resist the devil (Jas 4:7b), for courage to avoid temptation and perseverance to struggle daily – to discipline their bodies (1 Cor 9:24-27). Only by steadfast prayer can Christians overcome the temptations of Satan.
It is easy to forget this is a spiritual battle, not a physical one (Eph 6:12). In this context of dependence on God, Paul spoke movingly of his own struggles;
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (1 Cor 12:7-9).
God allowed this trial, this “thorn in the flesh,” to harass Paul so as to keep him humble (2 Cor 12:7a). It was a teaching tool, part of His purifying a peculiar people for Himself (Titus 2:14). God is magnified and exalted in His children’s weakness (2 Cor 12:9). As Thomas Constable noted, “[i]t refers not so much to solicitation to evil, as to trials that test the character.”
Christians are not alone; when they sin they have an advocate with God the Father (1 Jn 2:1). Believers are elect according to the foreknowledge of God, chosen from before the foundations of the world (1 Pet 1:2; Eph 1:4; Jn 6:65). They are saved by faith in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ in their stead (Jn 3:16) and convicted of sin and righteousness by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:8). The whole of the triune Godhead is active in every aspect of our lives; as John Frame observed, the Father plans, the Son executes and the Spirit applies.Taking refuge in this glorious truth, Christ teaches believers to not lean on their own understanding and power in this present world, but to lean on the everlasting arms of God instead. His model prayer teaches believers to reflect this reality in their own prayers to God – all too often it does not.
The Lord’s Prayer teaches Christians many things, each of them vital to a successful prayer life.
- It presupposes that believers will pray, as a practical component of the Christian life (Mt 6:5a).
- God does not honor or accept false prayer, characterized by hypocrisy and vain, empty repetitions in an attempt to impress God or men (Mt 6:5, 7-8).
- He desires heart-felt, authentic communication with His children (Mt 6:6).
- Christians must approach God with reverence in prayer (Mt 6:9).
- Christians must have a submissive spirit to God’s will in prayer (Mt 6:10).
- Physical provision should be a matter of prayer, but in due proportion. God has promised to take care of His children (Mt 6:11, 25-34).
- Christians must be imitators of God and forgive others, just as God forgave them.
- Christians must cultivate a dependence on God and pray for deliverance from evil, which is the only way to have victory over any sin.
In every respect, Christians are to pattern Christ’s kingdom on earth before an unbelieving world. I shall repeat something I mentioned earlier:
The kingdom is not yet here, and Christians cannot somehow inaugurate the kingdom through a pattern of holy, righteous living. Rather, all believers are commanded to live holy lives as a witness for Him in this present age, while waiting patiently for Christ to return. Disciples must pattern the kingdom in their own individual lives as a light for the lost (Mt 5:14-16). This carries over to prayer life.
Prayer is a critical, vital part of the victorious Christian life. Christ’s model prayer illustrates just how crucial proper prayer is for all believers; in past times, today and in the days to come until Christ establishes His kingdom.
Barbieri, Louis Jr. “Matthew,” vol. 2, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck. Wheaton: Victor, 1985.
Blomberg, Craig. “Matthew,” vol. 22, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
Carson, D.A. “Matthew,” vol. 8, The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985.
Constable, Thomas. Matthew.Dallas: Soniclight, 2013.
Frame, John. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.
Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Kittel, Gerhard, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.
Lange, John Peter and Philip Schaff. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew. Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2008.
Logos Bible Software. The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. OakHarbor: Logos Bible Software, 2011.
Mounce, William. Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Newman, Barclay Moon and Philip C. Stine. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1992.
Phillips, John. Exploring the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. OakHarbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
Toussaint, Stanley. Behold the King: A Study of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980.
. See Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1980), 85-94 for a comprehensive discussion on the various views of interpreting the Sermon on the Mount.
. Toussaint, Behold the King, 94.
. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), Mt 6:5–8.
. William Mounce, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1287-1288.
. The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, Logos Bible Software, 2011.
. Barclay Moon Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), 164.
. John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 123.
. John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 111.
. Henry, Commentary, Mt 6:5–8.
. Craig Blomberg, vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 118.
. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-), 597.
. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
. D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” vol. 8, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 166.
. Blomberg, Matthew, 119.
. Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1980), 108.
. Louis Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew,” vol. 2, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 32.
. Henry, Commentary, Mt 6:9–15.
. Phillips, Matthew, 114.
. Carson, Matthew, 172.
. Toussaint, Matthew, 111.
. See Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 356-362. Horton’s entire Chapter 7 on God’s providence is simply excellent.
 Thomas Constable, Matthew (Dallas, TX: Soniclight, 2013), 116.
. John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 694.