“Praying Sincerely and Intelligently to the Father of Grace”
Kevin P. Larson, Grace Church of Columbia, Aug. 27, 2006
Last night, we watched and discussed Bruce Almighty, a quite hilarious comedy in which Jim Carrey gets the opportunity to be God for a few days. The movie is replete with problems but makes great points. It was great fodder for discussion. The director Tom Shadyac, who professes faith in Christ, was interviewed by a Christian magazine, The Voice Behind, about the movie. Who made the decision to have Bruce and his girlfriend Grace live together, they pushed? Others wondered why bad language had to be used. Wouldn’t this have been a fine movie without that, they reasoned?
You know, I have been going to church since I was a babe. And I go to church today. And I think one of the challenges of our church, and churchgoers in general, is to accept humanity as it is. We have people in churches acting out, because they don’t accept the whole human being. They deny that we are sexual human beings. Or, that we can be angry. I, as a filmmaker, am not going to deny that. I am going to embrace that. I think it’s important to embrace the whole of humanity, and to say we are imperfect. By the standards of most Christians today you could not read your Bible. I mean, the Bible is chalk full of some pretty racy stuff, folks. There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of sexual impropriety. There is violence—all kinds of things. It’s not about a moment. It’s about the entire journey. If the Bible had not ended where it ended, it would be a pretty downer of a book. It ends with redemption. So, if you take one sentence out of the Bible, like with violence or sex, and you just focus on that sentence, you would not want to go near the Bible. But, if you look at the Bible as a whole, it’s redemptive and beautiful and it’s God’s love story to mankind (Ransom Fellowship, 2006).
Brothers and sisters, I doubt that, if we wrote the Bible, we would include some of the racy characters there. Would we make Rahab the prostitute a hero? I’ll never forget debating with one woman about whether or not she was really a prostitute. Would we make David, with all of his rough edges, one of the chief characters of the Bible, a type of Christ—this man who watched Ancient Near Eastern pornography from his rooftop, had the power to actually get the woman and sleep with her, and then knocked off her husband to cover up what he had done? Is this how we would write the Bible?
Why would we not want Bruce to be a fornicator and a foulmouth? Why would we focus all our attention on that? It’s because we naturally want to be Pharisees. We want to focus on the sins of others, demonstrate how we are godly people, and go to bed feeling good about ourselves.
Bruce “Almighty” and Grace look like the real world. They sleep with each other before marriage. They throw around the “F-bomb.” So we criticize. And why we do this, I’ll argue, because we want to direct our attention to the fact that others sin, we don’t, and we’re ok, and they’re not. Those are sins, for sure, and they are serious. But so also are the larger problems, the greater sins we share with Bruce.
If we watched Bruce Almighty with sensitive eyes, we would see that Bruce looks just like us. He’s incredibly self-centered. He’s mad at God because things don’t go his way, and once he gets to be God, he makes the world revolve around him. See, by focusing on the cohabitating and cursing, we write ourselves out of the movie instead of making ourselves the main character. This is the way of the Pharisee. We see this in Matthew 5:17-48. There Jesus hit the Pharisees hard, showing those self-righteous jerks that they were twisting God’s law, enabling themselves to “keep it,” while condemning others. And He tells them they weren’t keeping God’s law at all.
Last week, New Yorker Ryan Leli, a huge Mets fan, decided he wanted to get closer to the players. The 18-year-old man forged an NBC press pass and wormed his way into the locker room before the start of a Mets-San Diego Padres baseball game. Apparently he tried to use the pass again for a Mets-Rockies game, and team officials got suspicious and called authorities. He was charged with “criminal possession of a forged instrument, falsifying business records, larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, criminal impersonation, and criminal trespass” (CBS News, 8/19/2006).
Luke began a new section last Sunday, Matthew 6:1-18. In this section, Jesus says that, not only are the Pharisees breaking all God’s commands, doing bad things, but they’re doing “good things” in bad ways, as well. On the outside, they were godly, loving people—sports reporters—but on the inside, they were wicked and hateful. They were imposters. Last week we looked at the giving of the Pharisees. This week we’ll look at their praying. Let us read Matthew 6:5-15.
ESV Matthew 6:5 "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. 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. 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. 9 Pray then like this: "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 this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 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.
I have made the point throughout our study of the Sermon on the Mount, leaning heavily on Tim Keller’s teaching, that Jesus is calling us to differentiate ourselves as Christians, from both Pharisees and pagans—from religious hypocrites and irreligious idolaters.
As we live and love here in beautiful Columbia, Missouri, we have to show unbelievers how we differ from the hypocrites they hate so much, while showing them how we differ also from them. We have to show how we differ from the stereotypes of Christians they might have, while also showing them that we’re not just like them—that we’re not just another way of “finding God” in a pluralistic culture. In other words, we need to show people the gospel.
Let’s turn to our text. We’ll look this morning at the praying of the Pharisee, the praying of the pagan, and, finally, the praying of the Christian.
First, let’s examine the prayer of Pharisees. Read with me again verses 5 and 6 of chapter 6.
ESV Matthew 6:5 "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. 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.
Luke pointed out last week the format of each of these sections on giving, praying, and fasting. Jesus warns His hearers not to perform the particular act like Pharisees, with a view to obtaining praise from others. He warns that doing so will only result in one reward—that attention and praise. He then explains the conduct of a Christian, promising the reward of the Father, instead of the passing applause of men.
What is Jesus not saying here? He’s not saying that the posture is the issue. He says, “For they love to stand and pray…” Jesus assumed people would sometimes stand to pray in places like Matthew 11:25 and Luke 18:11-13.
He also is not saying that the place is the issue. Jewish men would often stand, in front of the ark, in the meeting of the “synagogue,” as the passage says, and offer a prayer, much like people might pray in our gathering today. In addition, during the corporate fasts of Israel, often trumpets would sound, and this would indicate that one of the men should offer a prayer—perhaps right there on the “street corners.”
No, Jesus isn’t condemning all public prayers. If He was, the early church didn’t follow him well, as they prayed in public. He isn’t dealing with posture or place. He’s dealing with purpose. He is condemning prayer that is meant to be “seen by others.” He’s condemning showy, ostentatious prayer. Jesus says, if you’re trying to get man’s praise, then that’s all the reward you get. You’ll get the approval of human beings, in this lifetime, but it usually lasts far less than that. It usually lasts a minute or two, and then you need to go back to impressing them.
Jesus says, if your tendency is to be showy, deal with it radically. He said earlier that, if you struggle with lust, maim yourself. Here He says, “Go inside to an interior room, shut the door behind you, and pray to the God that is there as much as on the street corner.”
Are our prayers a means for us to be glorified by others or for us to bring glory to God? Do they help us find joy in God, or do they encourage joy in self? In other words, do they encourage worship, or do they facilitate idolatry? If they do the latter, we must act swiftly.
Christ teaches here that meeting God in that secret place, which again affirms the omnipresence of God—that He is everywhere at the same time—will result in great reward by Him. Not only will we receive an eternal reward of living on a new heavens and a new earth with Him, but we’ll experience the goodness of His presence right now—a temporal reward. Don’t show off with your prayers, Jesus says. Go for the reward that lasts.
This reminded me, of course, of one of my favorite comedies, Meet the Parents. Greg, if you remember, sits down at the dinner table with his girlfriend’s difficult folks, and is asked to offer the table blessing. You may remember these lines:
OK, Oh…Dear God. Thank You. You are such a good God to us; a kind and gentle, accommodating God. And we thank you, oh sweet, sweet Lord of Hosts for the smorgasbord you have so aptly lain at our table this day… and each day… by day… day by day. Oh, Dear Lord, three things we pray: To love Thee more dearly; To see Thee more clearly, to follow Thee more nearly day by day… by day. Amen.
His mother-in-law-to-be praised him for his great prayer, no matter if it was ripped from a song in Godspell and from the prayer of St Richard of Chichester before that. It got applause. This is the praying of the Pharisee. Pray so that people will see you and praise you.
How does this apply to us? When you’re asked to pray up front in our Gathering, or do something else like read Scripture or make an announcement or teach a lesson, do you do it so that you will shine or so God will?
Or let me take it the opposite direction. Are you thinking, “Man, am I glad that I have such a super prayer life!” or “I am so spiritual.” I am thankful that I don’t have that problem. In our last passage, Jesus said that, when you give, even in secret, you should “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In the same way, you should pray in such a way that you don’t become proud of yourself, either.
Or let me take it even further. Hypocrite, as Luke pointed out last week, is a term used in that era for a stage player. Actors in those days, however, didn’t act with their facial expressions; they wore masks. Perhaps when you are in a church setting, maybe here on Sunday, or at our Wednesday night Grace Groups, you put on a mask and look as spiritual as you can. Maybe you don’t let anyone see who you really are. Maybe you’re too proud. But the reward of looking good is temporary and shallow. And you rob not only God of glory, but also yourself of the joy of being authentic with others and being authentically loved by others.
Let us look at the praying of the pagan. Hear again verses 7 and 8.
Matthew 6:7 "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. 9 Pray then like this: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
What is Jesus again not saying? He’s not saying that prayers can’t sometimes be repetitive or long. Jesus, after all, prayed all night at times (Luke 6:12). In the garden of Gethsemane, the night He was betrayed, Matthew 26:44 says, “He went and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.” In addition, in Jesus’s famous words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do,” we know from the Greek verb tense that Jesus was likely repeating that over and over again. Jesus isn’t making an absolute prohibition of praying repetitively or long. In fact, in Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable of a widow that kept going and going and going to a judge, asking for mercy, in order to teach us “that we ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
What is Jesus saying? The Greek word translated “heap up empty phrases” is a puzzling term. It’s only used here, and most scholars have trouble knowing what it means. It’s battalogeo, which is more than likely an onomatopoeic word. What’s that, you might ask? We use words in English that get their name from how they sound. A good example of this is the word “buzz.” Another might be “moo.” It’s likely that Jesus is saying, “Don’t go ‘battala-battala-battala’ when you pray.” Jesus is addressing Jews here, saying, “You’re sounding like the Gentiles who babble.”
That’s how pagans pray. This reminds me of 1 Kings 18, when the prophet Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel. Those prophets cried and cut themselves and chanted, “O Baal, answer us” all day long. Elijah, however, responded with a simple, intelligible prayer. He said,
1 Kings 18:36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back."
God answered. In Acts 19:34, we see the people of Ephesus, in opposition to Paul and his friends, shouting to their favorite goddess. The verse says, “For about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”
Jesus says again, in verse 8, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” In other words, you don’t serve this weird, far-off God who lives who-knows-where who responds to chanting and babbling and quantity of words more than quality of them. You have a heavenly Father that needs zero words. He already knows. This again affirms God’s omniscience. He knows all things. But He particularly knows and deeply cares about the needs of His children.
You might ask then, “Why pray?” If God already knows, what’s the point? We don’t pray, just so you know, to inform God of anything. He knows it all. We don’t pray to persuade God. His will alone will be done. We rather pray to bring ourselves in line with God’s purposes. We pray to glorify God and increase our joy in God. We pray, as our prayers are part of the means God uses to do His purposes. Why tell God what we need? Because we need to hear what we need. We need to see what we think we need brought in line with what we really need. And God works in response to us telling Him what we need. So let us pray.
So how does this section apply to us? We can look at the culture around us and see obvious expressions of pagan praying. Transcendental meditation and its repeated, mindless repetition of a mantra in order to go deeper in divine consciousness is an obvious example. Everybody can picture somebody sitting with legs folded chanting, “Ummmmm.”
But looking within what might be called Christendom, the Catholic practice of the rosary certainly applies. If you’re unfamiliar with that, it involves using beads to repeat memorized prayers. This chanting, often given as penance by priests, sounds pretty pagan, as one goes through this ritual to appease God for his or her sins.
Looking inward, to evangelicalism, of which we’re a part, The Prayer of Jabez, a book by Bruce Wilkinson, has been an international bestseller. This book yanks 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 out of context and recommends it be prayed in almost mantra-like fashion for blessing. The prayer goes like this:
ESV 1 Chronicles 4:9 Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore him in pain." 10 Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!" And God granted what he asked.
Wilkinson states in the book:
I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you'll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit.
Now, don’t be too hard on yourself if this book is on your shelf; I once recommended it to people. I’m ashamed of that now. Praying this prayer repeatedly, like Wilkinson recommends, amounts to praying like a pagan.
We can also pray like a pagan when we chant the same prayer before we eat our supper, before we lie down to sleep, and in our devotional times. Sadly, we can even do this when praying our prayer in this passage’s immediate context—the Lord’s Prayer. We can say it so often and so repetitively that it has no meaning for us.
Some of you might be thinking right now, “Hey, we recite readings here as a congregation. What’s up with that? Aren’t we doing what Jesus says not to do?” Not necessarily. Of course, we can say things here in our Gatherings that don’t come from the heart, much less the head. We can just read things without it affecting us. Therefore, our whole meeting isn’t filled with such things.
But we can do things that are spontaneous or extemporaneous that violate Jesus’s words here, as well. I can get up here and say a prayer without prior preparation that is laden with Christianese and repetitive phrases that doesn’t connect with my head and heart, much less yours. We can babble endlessly with words displayed on the screen or not.
So what we might call “liturgical” elements are not necessarily bad. If we did nothing but them, and we did the same things each week, we might have a problem. But used in moderation, they can help us express ourselves in worship in deeper, more timeless ways that extemporaneous prayers simply can’t.
Why should we not pray in repetitive, thoughtless ways? It’s because we have a heavenly Father. He loves us and cares for us. He is good and kind. If we think about it, both types of prayers condemned here are rooted in distorted conceptions of God. The Pharisee has a false god that exists for personal exaltation. The pagan has a false god that responds to verbal manipulation. John Stott puts it this way:
It will be seen that the fundamental difference between various kinds of prayer is in the fundamentally different images of God which lie behind them. The tragic mistake of Pharisees and pagans, of hypocrites and heathen, is to be found in their false image of God. Indeed, neither is really thinking of God at all, for the hypocrite thinks only of himself while the heathen thinks of other things.
What sort of God is it who might be interested in such selfish and mindless prayers? Is God a commodity that we can use to boost our own status, or a computer that we can feed words into him mechanically? (Stott, 152).
Because we worship our Father in heaven, our prayers must be marked by sincerity and intelligence. He wants our hearts and our minds. And we must show this type of praying to a lost world. We must show the Columbian who, when he thinks of prayer sees the Pharisee praying for personal glory, that we pray to honor God. We must show him who, when he hears about prayer, sees pagan chanting and babbling, that we pray to a personal God who hears us and cares about our every need.
Let us now turn to the praying of the Christian. Here, in Matthew 6:9-15, we see the Lord’s Prayer, or what would better be called the “Disciples’ Prayer.” John 17 deserves the “Lord’s Prayer” title. This prayer is for His people, not Him. Let’s hear it again.
ESV Matthew 6:9 Pray then like this: "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 this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 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.
Now because of the way we have the sermons planned for this series, I’m going to have to be briefer in looking at this section than I’d like. But, as we go through these verses, I want us to think about how these prayers, if answered, might change us individually, our church corporately, and our city evangelistically. I also want us to see how each prayer accords with the gospel of grace that we treasure here.
Notice first, however, that Jesus says, “Pray then like this.” He gives us a model prayer, an outline for praying, a strategy for praying through life. In the parallel passage, however, in Luke 11:2, Jesus says, “When you pray, say…” and then gives us the Lord’s Prayer. Why is this important? Some emphasize this is a model, in reaction to mindless chanting of this prayer, but miss the fact that Jesus says also in Luke to say these words exactly. My point? We should use this as an approach to prayer. But we can also use it as a prayer we repeat, individually or corporately.
Let’s next look at the way the prayer begins. It reads, “Our Father in heaven.” Notice two things about this. First, it says “Our Father.” We live in a culture that is very individualistic, and this has gotten its foot in the door of the church.
Recently I was talking to a man who doesn’t go to church much. He’s very athletic, running and biking in competitions. I asked him about his church. He said he goes “when he can.” But he said, “I have Larry over there that I meet with every week. He’s my ‘personal trainer.’”
Biblically, God always works with a people, not a person—Israel then, the New Israel, the Church, right now. So we should pray together, not just as we gather here on Sundays, but also when we pray in private. We should pray as a person who is part of a people. We should not pray as an individual, in isolation.
Second, it says, “Our Father in heaven.” Now for us, calling God our Father sadly isn’t that big of a deal. But for the Jew, it was a huge deal. The Jew preferred to call God “Sovereign Lord” and lofty titles like that, all of which are good. But Jesus comes along here and teaches people to pray to a Father.
Don’t miss however, that the word “heaven” is there. The word isn’t referring so much as to His abode, but rather to His authority and sovereignty. Think of this—the Father, who is in heaven, the Sovereign Lord, is also our Father. No matter what your earthly Father was or is like, the one who made all and the one who rules over all is your Dad. This is amazing.
While Jews emphasized the majesty of God, however, the modern evangelical church tends to exalt our intimacy with God. Most of us have been raised in churches that paint God as some cosmic grandfather with a smile. For it to mean anything, this God who is our Father must also be the Ruler of the universe. Here at Grace Church we must emphasize both aspects and revel in both.
Let us turn to the six petitions in turn. First, in verse 9, Jesus prays, “Hallowed be Your name.” Biblically, a name represents who someone is. That’s why in the Old Testament, the Hebrew names for people have those cool meanings for them. This prayer isn’t just that God’s name be hallowed. It’s for God Himself, for who He is, what His name represents to be “hallowed.” Now “hallowed” may sound like Greek to you, but it is just the verbal form of holy. This prayer is that God would be holy.
Of course, we know that God is already holy. By praying this, we won’t make him more holy than He already is. This is a prayer that as individuals, as a church, and as a city, we would see God’s holiness and delight in it. Holiness refers to the fact that God is set apart in terms of majesty and purity from us. He is high and lifted up. He is good and right. This is a prayer that people would see Him and cry, “Holy!”
Seeing God as holy affects us, not God. It causes us to fall down, like Isaiah in chapter 6 of his prophecy and say, “Woe is me! For I am lost (Isaiah 6:1). We look at God and cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as Isaiah did. We see ourselves individually as broken, pleading for His holiness.
As God’s people, the church, we are called to “be holy as [He] is holy” (1 Peter 1:16). But this doesn’t come from making up legalistic rules that we keep that make us feel holy. It comes by us admitting that we’re a hodge-podge of broken sinners and by pleading with Him to make us like Him.
What our city doesn’t need to see is a bunch of self-righteous “holy” Pharisees, but rather people that have seen God’s holiness, have exulted in it, and have come to Him to be changed. But they must see how we’re different from them, also. We must ask and see God make us set-apart, as different from the culture.
We can pray for revival, but it starts with us. It begins with God showing us His holiness, working in us that holiness, and then changing the culture through us. Is this our prayer? The gospel is that we who stand before a holy God can be seen and made holy thanks to the holy life of Christ. May that begin in us and spread throughout our city!
Second, Matthew 6:10 states, “Your kingdom come.” We’ve discussed numerous times here at Grace Church the kingdom of God, but I’ll review. Biblically, the kingdom of God is spoken of in two senses. God rules over all things. He is the sovereign over the earth, ruling in providence. All things go exactly as He pleases. He is king.
However, the kingdom of God is spoken of in another sense in the Scriptures. Jesus came to bring a saving rule. When Jesus came saying, “The kingdom of God is here,” and the apostles preached “the kingdom of God,” they were speaking of Christ’s rule that began at His coming and would be consummated at the last day. So, we are a part of this saving reign of God. We have embraced Christ by repentance and faith. Not all submit to Him as king. But we do. Thanks be to God!
This is a prayer that this saving reign would spread. It is a prayer that it would be consummated. Because it will be consummated at Christ’s return, it is a prayer for that, as well. We pray as individuals that we would deepen our submission to the king, that our church would be a glorious expression of His kingdom, and that more and more of those around us would be drawn to us through Him and enter His saving reign.
As we interact here in Columbia, we can’t let the stereotype that we’re trying to set up a right-wing Christian kingdom continue. We can’t let “The District” see Pharisees. But we can’t also let them think we’re pagans like them. We can’t act and live like people that don’t have a king—that live however they want. The gospel is that we who have rejected the Lord’s kingship can be brought near to Him, can be made a part of His kingdom, through the victory of the Davidic King Jesus Christ. We must show them this gospel.
Third, Matthew 6:10 also states, “Your will be done.” As we discussed Wednesday night, sometimes the Bible speaks of God’s will that is always done. Ephesians 1:11 speaks of the God “who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” God’s will reigns. Nothing happens apart from His choosing.
But other times in the Bible, God’s will is spoken of as something that is not always done. In 1 Thessalonians 4:3, it reads, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Down the page, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, it says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Obviously, tons of people are sexually immoral all the time, and millions of people don’t thank God for anything. So God’s will is always done, and it’s not always done in another sense.
This prayer is not regarding God’s sovereign will, the first option, but rather God’s moral will. We pray and plead that God’s will would increasingly be done across the face of the earth. This must start with us. Will we do His will? And will we be people who dig deeply in the pages of Scripture to find it? Will we as a church seek and find and follow His will? If we do, God can use us to answer this prayer more broadly. He can use us to help our community desire, know, and do God’s will. They must see, however, that we’re different from them; we are not the center of our universe. But we’re not Pharisees either. They exist to have everything revolve around them and praise them, also. The gospel is the truth that we who were rebels and desired only our will, thanks to Christ Jesus that always did His Father’s will, can be changed into people that submit to Him alone.
And notice the language of the petition. It says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As Christ rules, as His will is done, in the heavens currently, and ultimately in the new heavens and the new earth—we pray for that scenario right now. We want a taste of heaven, a taste of the consummation right now. Is this our prayer?
Let’s turn to the fourth petition. Notice that here, and only here, is a change. The first three petitions deal with God and His glory, kingdom, and will. The second three petitions then turn to us. Aren’t we so backwards in this as a people? When we gather for prayer, our prayers sound more like the reports Amy would give her fellow nurses before she changed shifts at the hospital. We talk about our grandmother’s pacemaker and our credit card debt and the like. Jesus tells us to start with God and His name. Then and only then we can see our needs in proper light, in relation to Him. Only then can we see what are truly needs. Only then can we truly see the One who will meet those needs. If we get the cart before the horse, we don’t have a God that can really care for us.
Fourth, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We recite quite often the Lord’s Prayer with our son Hadley. The last several times he has looked at me with this puzzled look on his face and said, “Bread? Why bread?” I think he pictures God giving us nothing but a house-full of bread. I think Hadley hopes he can have a bit more variety in His diet. Jesus is, of course, using a term to refer to all of our needs—not just our food needs, but all our physical needs. He is teaching us to pray to God for those things.
We live in a very affluent culture. But the culture Jesus addressed knew their need for “daily bread.” They were primarily workers that were paid at the end of each day. They made enough to eat the next day. They lived “hand to mouth,” as the old expression goes. We can’t feel the force of what Jesus is saying, because we’re filthy rich compared to those days and to most of the world today.
I got a bit of a feel of this when I was in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The missionaries we worked with explained to us that different donors had come in and tried to help the Haitians set up their own businesses, but it was so counter-cultural that it never worked. They couldn’t conceive of taking profits from one day and buying materials with which to earn profits for the next day. So, if they had set up a sewing business, for example, there would invariably be no money to buy cloth the second day to use to sew more clothes and make money. You see, they were so used to living “day to day” that they couldn’t make the leap.
We can’t conceive of the opposite. We are so rich and fat that we scarcely feel need, and we therefore scarcely think of God meeting those needs. The word used here for “daily” has baffled scholars for years. It’s translated “daily,” but it could also refer to tomorrow’s needs. But somehow, in our culture, we must pray this prayer from the heart, understanding that everything we have today and will have tomorrow will come from God.
God, of course, uses means. God normally doesn’t throw manna and quail from heaven. He normally uses us as we work hard at our jobs and manage carefully those resources we earn. So this is no excuse not to work. God gives our “daily bread” through our work.
And this is bread, not caviar. Our prayer lists often amount to the prayer list of a TBN televangelist. We want Rolls-Royces and million dollar houses. We are called to pray for necessities, not luxuries. As Christians, we should even be resistant of luxuries, if we have means to buy them, so as not to grow numb to God’s provision and to grow deaf to the cries of the poor.
Individually, are we people that trust God to meet our needs and credit Him for doing so? Do we do this as a church? If we want our city to look to the heavens, and see a heavenly Father, and trust Him, not self, we must model this. We can’t look like fat, self-sufficient Pharisees. But we can’t blend in as greedy, “the end justifies the means” pagans, either. The gospel teaches the glorious truth that we have a Father who cares for us and showed us ultimately this truth by giving us His Son. As Romans 8:32 states, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will he not also graciously give us all things?”
Fifth, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Sins here are conceived of debts, not at all uncommon in the culture to which Jesus taught. Because we have sinned, we owe God something. We owe restitution. We owe payment.
Jesus tells us to regularly pray for forgiveness. We regularly lift our eyes to the Lord and ask Him to forgive us. I remember while living in Indiana a man who was trying to claim that he was now perfect and without sin. Why, then, would Jesus tell us to pray this prayer? He teaches us that, until the end of the age, we will always be sinners in need of forgiveness.
We are to pray for forgiveness, it says, “As we also have forgiven our debtors.” Does this teach that we are forgiven because we forgive others? Is this teaching a works-salvation? Verses 14-15 make it worse. They read:
ESV Matthew 6:14 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.
The idea isn’t that we earn forgiveness by forgiving. It argues that, if we’re not the type of people that forgive others, it demonstrates most clearly that we have never been forgiven. Salvation comes from repenting of our sin and trusting in God’s forgiveness. If we look at those that have wronged us and don’t forgive, something’s wrong.
It is indisputable evidence that we have never truly understood the depth of our sin and how much we have been forgiven. Jesus told a parable to explain this idea in Matthew 18:23-35. There a servant owes an enormous debt. He can’t pay it, so he pleads for the king for mercy. The king forgives the debt. But that same man then went out, grabbed someone who owed him pennies, and choked him until he paid up. The king then got wind of it, and he threw him into prison. Jesus interprets the parable by saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” If we have been forgiven, and we daily live in light of our need for forgiveness, we cannot help but forgive others.
Are you, Christian, cognizant of your sin and your daily need for forgiveness? Are we “poor in Spirit,” as a church, pleading with God as a people for His mercy? If we want people in “The District” to cry out for forgiveness, they must see people that are living in constant desperation for that forgiveness themselves. They can’t see Pharisees that stick their chests out and are proud. And they can’t see us as pagans like them, that have no understanding of sin, that do whatever they want. The gospel, of course, is that we can be forgiven thanks to the payment made by Christ on the cross that freed us from our debt.
Sixth, Jesus teaches us to pray, in verse 13, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” What can this possibly mean? The Greek word used there can be translated as “temptation” or as “trial.” We know, of course, that God won’t tempt us. James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” We also know, from the same book, that going through trials is good for us. James 1:2-3 states, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” So God won’t tempt us. God will test us. What can this mean?
D.A. Carson, I think gives the best explanation. He says this expression is litotes, which is a “figure of speech which expresses something by negating the contrary.” You say, “What?” Let me give you some examples. I remember being with some guys in college that would use the expression, “She’s not ugly.” That, of course, would be their way of saying that the girl was attractive. Or you might say, after leaving today, “That Luke—he’s not a bad singer.” Of course, that would be your way of saying that Luke is a good singer. John 6:37 uses a similar expression when it says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” That expression—“whoever comes to me I will never cast out”—is a litotes. Jesus’s point is that whoever comes He will embrace! And that is a great encouragement.
Here Jesus is teaching us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” which means, on the contrary, lead us into righteousness. Don’t send us that way. Send us the other way. So we shouldn’t get hung up on the word for “temptation.” This is our way of telling God to lead us away from temptation into godliness.
Jesus also teaches us to ask God to “deliver us from evil.” Again, “evil” could refer in this context to either the “evil one,” who is Satan, or evil in general. We will be tempted in this world, by the evil one. We will be tested in this world, amidst evil. Only God Himself can bring us deliverance from both. This is our prayer. We are dependent upon Him.
Believer, are you dependent upon God to take you down the right path and preserve your spiritual life? Church, are we actively choosing, by His grace, to forsake temptation and to resist evil? If we want those around us, here in beautiful downtown Columbia, to pursue righteousness and to forsake evil, it must start with us. But it must come from Him.
The gospel is that God doesn’t just save us by His grace, and then we proceed to fight Satan on our own. Rather, He delivers us from Satan by His grace. Paul prays in 2 Timothy 4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom.” God promises to do the same for us. Again, we can’t show Columbia a group of people that fight the Christian fight in their own flesh for their own glory. But we can’t show them people that don’t fight either. We must show them the gospel—that Christ saves us completely by grace.
That completes our six petitions. Notice, as John Stott points out, that they meet our every need. We see our material needs met—“our daily bread.” We ask for our spiritual needs to be met—“forgive us our debts.” We plead for our moral needs to be met—“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And they’re met by a glorious God in the gospel. Again, that comes first here. He is the one whose name must be “hallowed.” He, the glorious One whose “kingdom” will come and whose “will” shall be done—He is the one who meets our every need. You see the Trinity in the second half of this prayer. The Father of creation and providence provides our bread. The Son died that we might be forgiven. The Spirit preserves us from the attacks of evil. God loves us. He is good to us. We should rejoice.
To summarize, God wants our prayers to be sincere, over against the Pharisee. He wants our prayers to be intelligent, over against the pagan. We pray to a God that must be “hallowed,” not us, who builds His “kingdom,” not ours, who does His “will,” not yours or mine. He won’t stand for hypocrites. We also pray to a God that we can call “Father.” He knows all our needs, but commands us to ask Him in an intelligible way, for His glory and our good. He is not a computer or a slot machine. He won’t stand for babbling pagans.
Jesus begins by saying “when you pray.” He assumes we will. And He commands it in beginning the “Lord’s Prayer.” He says, “Pray then like this.” How is your prayer life? Are you dependent upon prayer? And, when you do, do you pray like a Christian? Jesus wants us to do just that. Surpass the Pharisee. Don’t be like the pagan. Pray like one who has a Father.
Several years ago, Britney Spears was on stage wowing the audience when either the song ended or the show ended and she went backstage. She was apparently angry with some of her stage hands and blew up at them, going on a lengthy, profanity-laced tirade. What she found out later was that her mic was still on backstage. And all her fans got to hear the real Britney in action.
However, I would argue, as a cultured, music lover, that not much was happening on the stage anyhow. To me, it’s nothing more than a bunch of drivel to a thumping backbeat.
Brothers and sisters, what’s going on behind the curtain with you? Does it match what happens onstage? Are you just seeking applause? And are you saying anything on stage anyhow? Or is it just babbling? Is it meaningless? Our Father in heaven cares. Beware how you pray.