Prayer As Jesus Taught

Sunday afternoon I found myself under duress from a bad stomach bug, it meant I would be spending the next day off work, it turned into two, as the bug was pretty bad. It was as good a time as any to take a closer look at The Lord’s Prayer. I couldn’t remember the reference for the passage so I asked my wife, Elizabeth, “Where is The Lord’s Prayer found?” She replied, “Ask David [our son], he will know. They have been learning about it in Sunday School.” I asked David which passage The Lord’s Prayer was in and, to help him understand what I meant, Elizabeth said to him, “Where does it come from: Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” David replied, “Luke”. I started to look in Luke when David clarified his answer a few seconds later by saying, “Luke’s mum”. Elizabeth replied in a questioning voice, “Luke’s mum?” David replied, “It came from Luke’s mum.” Then we realised that Luke’s mother was the Sunday School teacher!

 

By chance David actually was correct, The Lord’s Prayer does appear in Luke, however the longer and more commonly known version is found in Matthew and reads as follows:

 

Matthew 6:9-13 [[1]]

 

9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation,[[2]] but deliver us from the evil one.[[3]]’”

 

This passage is well known amongst both Christians and non-Christians, and is probably one of the most well known passages of scripture, alongside passages such as John 3:16 and John 11:35. Matthew 6:9-13 tends to be called The Lord’s Prayer and is sometimes referred to as the Our Father or the Pater Noster, depending on denominational preference.

 

These names for the prayer though are perhaps slightly misleading for the passage is not about a prayer belonging to Jesus or to his heavenly Father. Instead this prayer is an example, given by Jesus to his disciples. It was intended to show them how they could talk to their own true Father and, in so doing, pray effectively. Jesus intended for his disciples to take ownership of this method of praying, and in turn to teach this methodology of prayer to those they led. This process would be repeated and eventually passed down to us in the present day so that we also could gain guidance from it in how to talk to God in prayer.

 

As an example of the correct way to pray it can be encouraging and useful practise to use this prayer in its original form occasionally, however, I do not believe that Jesus intended it to be the only prayer we pray. Neither did he intend for us to assume that it is the only effective prayer we can bring before the Father. Instead it is a single example of the correct form, methodology and attitude we should seek to present when we pray, which, in turn, leads us to expect that God is listening, capable and willing to respond to us.

 

As I mentioned above there is a shorter form of the prayer found in the book of Luke chapter 11, however I will base my discussion here on the longer, and presumably therefore more complete, version presented to us in the book of Matthew. [[4]] It is interesting to consider though that the differences between Matthew and Luke’s recording of the prayer may show us that the exact rote form of the prayer is not as important as the methodology and attitudes taught through it.

 

Jesus begins his prayer in verse 9 by recognising the authority of God the Father:

 

9b…Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

 

When we pray we name the person we are praying to, we come before our heavenly Father knowing both who he is, and that, because of who he is, we are assured that he is inclined to listen to us. In fact he not only is inclined to listen to us but also to bless us and to bring good things into our lives. [[5]] It is important though that we do not take for granted this ability to come before the King of Kings, so, Jesus shows us here that we should acknowledge the power, strength and sacredness of our God by hallowing (honouring as holy and sacred) his name. We revere God’s name because he is the source of our being. [[6]] Without God the Father there would not only be no life for us, there would also be no Son of God to save us and bring us into the fullness of life that we have been blessed with receiving through the Son’s sacrifice. One additional thing has happened since Jesus taught his disciples this prayer: Christ, through his own death and resurrection, has conquered Satan. [[7]] This means that now, as well as praying to our heavenly Father, we can also pray to Jesus, who, now that he has ascended to be with the Father, intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. [[8]]

 

In verse 10 Christ declares his knowledge that the kingdom of heaven is coming. Satan, who was often referred to as the ruler of this world, was going to be defeated in the death of Jesus and the door opened for the kingdom of heaven to be accessible to all who believe in Christ, his birth, death and resurrection. The kingdom of God is an end to which all Christian’s look forward, the promise though has already been fulfilled through Christ’s atoning sacrifice and no evil force can change that. [[9]] Christ in verse 10 was praying before he had conquered Satan and he says to his Father:

 

10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Jesus goes on here in this verse to acknowledge that it is God’s will that needs to be done, just as it already is in heaven where there is no sin or barrier to interrupt it. [[10]] This statement is something of a sacrifice for the person praying; it is saying to God that his (God’s) will is more important than that of the person talking, or making a request, to God. There is an element of trust in letting go of what we want or would like to see happen and in holding onto the knowledge that God can work everything together for the good of those who love him. [[11]] This is a particularly difficult prayer to pray in times of suffering. In fact Jesus himself struggled with this later on in the Garden of Gethsemane. [[12]] Even though he was facing pain, torture, death and a descent into hell itself Jesus still chose to surrender himself to the will to God. To putting God’s will first, despite what he saw in front of him. It is because of that surrender that we owe our lives to Christ. As Christians then it is not just a calling to put God’s will first, but an honour to walk in the shoes of our Lord and Saviour who surrendered all so we might be rejoined with God the Father.

 

The meaning of the phrase your kingdom come has a different emphasis now, following Jesus’s victory over Satan, then when Christ originally prayed it. Now a believer’s prayer for the kingdom of heaven to come generally refers to us being in some way reunited to God. Whether it is through the second coming of Christ or through being ushered into God’s presence following our earthly death. This is different from Christ praying before hand for the work that accomplished this to happen. We now are in a situation of certainty that it has happened and that, if we have chosen Christ, we are the inheritors of God’s grace and that when we pass on from this mortal earth we will be rejoined with the Father in glory.

 

In verse 11 Jesus demonstrates the grace we have to come before God the Father and ask for his provision of our needs by saying:

 

11 Give us today our daily bread.

 

In verses 25 to 34 of the same chapter Jesus goes on to emphasize to his listeners that they can rely on God to answer this prayer for their daily needs, like food and clothing, and that this is something they do not need to be worried about.

 

Continuing his prayer, in verse 12, Jesus asks God to:

 

12 … forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

 

The wording in this verse is interesting, most major versions of the Bible translate the key words as “debt” and “debtor” respectively, however when this phrase was included in The Book of Common Prayer it was originally printed, “… forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” This has since been revised to include (along with the original) the revised form, which says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” The question then arises for the reader: is Jesus, in this verse, showing us that we should regularly ask God for the forgiveness of personal sins and, in addition to this, are we to actively forgive others of their sins (offences) against us as well?

 

To answer this question we have two supplementary passages that help us to put the translator’s choice of wording into perspective. First Jesus continues immediately after finishing the prayer to say:

 

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

 

The second passage that can assist us in our understanding of Jesus’ meaning here is the parallel verse found in Luke’s version of the prayer, which, is translated in the New International Version as:

 

4a … forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.[[13]]

 

While the King James Version translates this verse as:

 

4a … forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.

 

So it appears that Jesus is in fact showing us that we should ask God’s forgiveness regularly and that we should maintain an attitude of forgiveness towards those who have done wrong against us. The fact that we have received God’s salvation does not make us perfect. We are assisted in following God by the leading of his Holy Spirit with whom we are invited to enter into relationship building, but we remain human and subject to the weaknesses of the human condition. [[14]] The devil continues to actively tempt us and we both consciously and unconsciously continue to sin and do things that we need to ask God forgiveness for. It is not that these post-salvation sins stop us getting to heaven, but that they place a barrier between our present relationship with both the Spirit of God and with other people. Recognizing this Jesus taught us to pray regularly for God to forgive us of these sins. This is prayer of humility, acknowledging our imperfect nature as people living in a fallen world.

 

This recognition of our own fallible natures leads onto the realization that we need to forgive others of their misdeeds, particularly when those misdeeds affect us or are even aimed at us. This is what it means to forgive those who sin against us, doing this avoids us become both bitter and self-righteous in our attitude to others, not just the people who have offended us.

 

The King James Version of Luke’s text also highlights another important aspect of the text; the text of Luke uses two different words for sin in verse 4. The first time sin is mentioned in the verse (forgive us our sins,) it literally means sin, however in the second instance (for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us) the original Greek word means to be in debt, and so from this can be extended to mean sin. However, in Matthew the first word for sin is not used at all and both words in the sentence come from the root word for debt. Hence while we can confidently say Jesus is referring to sin here, we cannot exclude the possibility that he is also talking about debts and our attitude to those who owe us something in payment for a debt.

 

Now I have heard that people use this verse as an excuse not to pay back money they owe, but I am sure that is not at all what Jesus meant. I believe he is talking instead about our attitude towards those who owe us something. In the movie The Godfather Don Corleone is granting wishes to people on his daughters wedding day, but he is telling them that there will come a time when he will call on them to do a service for him in return. Don Corleone uses the debts people owe him as a means of power over them and he chooses when and how people pay him back to suit his own circumstances. What Jesus is saying here is the opposite of Don Corleone’s attitude to debtor. Jesus is saying that we should not use debts as a way of controlling those who have borrow from us, instead we should treat them as if they do not owe us anything. Our loan to another should have no effect on our relationship with the borrower, just as God does not hold over us the fact that we owe our lives, our all, to him.

 

The last words of Jesus’s prayer acknowledge the dangers we face from both temptations and from the devil but also express confidence in God’s ability to keep us from them.

 

13 And lead us not into temptation,[[15]] but deliver us from the evil one.[[16]]

 

Jesus knows that the devil is jealous of what the believer has and that in his jealousy Satan makes efforts to pull Christians away from the path of life and wisdom, in response Jesus teaches us to pray that God will not allow this happen. In fact he asks directly that God doesn’t lead us into temptation and that God actively delivers us from evil. This may seem strange at first and we find ourselves wondering if God would do this, however, in Matthew 4 verse 1 we see that this is exactly what had happened to Jesus sometime before him praying this prayer. It was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In order for Jesus to overcome the devil he had to face him and make a choice between what the devil was offering and what God had already given Jesus. From his own experience Jesus knew that there would be times when believers, in their humanness would face temptation and they would be reliant on the word of God to help them through. Even this part of Jesus’ prayer though, was subject to the earlier phrase, “… your will be done …”

 

As Christians we need to be humble enough to submit ourselves to God’s protection. We can be part of overcoming the devil through our relationship with Christ; we have authority over all the powers of evil through God’s covering over our lives. [[17]] On our own though, we don’t have any power against the devil and so we pray that God himself will deliver us from the evil one. Author Dutch Sheets speaks about the reality of the devil and his campaign against believers, “I must warn you, it is a common tactic of the enemy to dissuade Christians from watching for him by accusing them of a wrong emphasis.” He explains this further by saying, “Certainly we are not to become infatuated with Satan, but a good soldier is a well-informed soldier concerning his enemy.” [[18]]

 

Prayer is a subject Jesus taught in a very specific way, he gave us this example and he went on to clarify and explain much of what he said regarding prayer. Prayer is just as important and relevant to us today as it was to Jesus and his disciples when he taught them. Prayer allows us to form a closer relationship with our God, it provides an opportunity for us to petition God for our needs and refocus our priorities on the building of the kingdom of heaven. It helps us to be at peace with God and his creation while considering our relationships with others. Prayer then is many things to many people, but for all people it is something Jesus desires us to take ownership of so that God the Father can bless us through it.

 

References

 

Alexander, D. & Alexander, P. (Eds.), (1984). The Lion Handbook to the Bible. Herts, England: Lion Publishing.

 

Barker, K. (Ed.), (1995). The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

 

Brand,  C., Draper, C., & England, A. (Eds). (2003) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Reference.

 

Cullmann, O. (1995). Prayer in the New Testament. (John Bowden, Trans.). London: SCM Press Ltd. (Original work published 1994).

 

Davis, J.D. (1977). Davis Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

 

Goodrick, E. W., & Kohlenberger, J. R. (2012). The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

 

Sheets, D. (2000). Watchman Prayer: Keeping the Enemy Out While Protecting Your Family, Home and Community. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

 

Thompson, F.C. (Ed.), (1988). The Thomson Chain-Reference Bible: Fifth Improved Edition. Indiana, USA: B. B. Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc.

 

Zondervan. (2010, November 1). Updated NIV Bible Text. Retrieved from http://www.biblica.com

[1] All scripture references are taken from the New International Version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated. Luke 11:9-13
[2] The word translated as “temptation” can also be translated as “testing”.
[3] The phrase translated as “from the evil one” can also be translated simply as “from evil”.
[4] Later texts also include a doxology.
[5] In Luke 11:9-13 Jesus tells us how the sending of the Holy Spirit was itself the result of God wanting to bless us and bring good things into our lives.
[6] Acts 17:28
[7] Hebrews 2:14-15, Colossians 2:15
[8] Romans 8:34
[9] Romans 8:28-39
[10] Revelation 21:22-27
[11] Romans 8:28
[12] Luke 22:39-44, Matthew 26:36-39, Mark 14:32-36
[13] The phrase translated as, “who sins against us” can be translated as, “who are indebted to us.”
[14] Paul outlines this inner tension in Romans 7 and 8.
[15] The word translated as “temptation” can also be translated as “testing”.
[16] The phrase translated as “from the evil one” can also be translated simply as “from evil”.
[17] Romans 8:37-39
[18] Sheets, D. (2000). Watchman Prayer: Keeping the Enemy Out While Protecting Your Family, Home and Community. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

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