We are almost at the end of Pastor Greg’s 40 days of absence. When he returns he will be preaching through a few psalms, or so I have been told. So as I was thinking on what I would preach on for the last Sunday before he gets back, I thought that it might be beneficial to preach a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer. There are a few reasons for that. For one, it will introduce the subject of prayer as a topic before he preaches through a few psalms.
Another reason I thought it may be good to preach on this is that we pray the Lord’s Prayer, together, as a congregation every week. And that’s not accidental. That’s not just because we’re lazy or couldn’t think of anything else to put in there. No, that’s on purpose. So I thought it may be good to unpack the Lord’s Prayer a bit so that when we pray it together we can know a bit more of its meaning and significance.
More personally, I think I needed to preach a sermon on prayer. In fact, if Greg wasn’t preaching through some psalms when he gets back, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to preach a sermon on a passage of Scripture dealing with prayer. Prayer is just something that I would not say is my great strength. We’re all different as persons, and we all have different God-given strengths and gifts, and some of us are more spiritually mature than others, so I’m not sure how many of you will sympathize with this—but for me at least, I have often sensed the difficulty of prayer.
There are a number of different reasons that we might find prayer difficult. But I think one reason we can find it difficult is because it confronts us directly with the question: What do I want? It’s a pretty basic question, but how would you answer it? What do you want? What do you want for your life? What do you want for your family? City? Nation? World? What do you want?
As selfish and greedy as we can sometimes be, I think on some level we all realize that we’re not able to give a very satisfactory answer this question. We’ve all heard the fairy tales and stories where a man or woman is given three wishes from a Genie, or a monkey’s fist, or some other totem. They can wish for whatever they want, and it will be given them, up to three wishes. And then things go badly. Their wishes don’t get them what they hoped for. And they learn that they don’t really know what they want.
What do I want? That question is hard enough. But perhaps an even harder question is: What should I want?
But how can we pray if we do not know what we want, or what we should want? How can we pray if we do not know what we should ask for? Perhaps if God granted us our request, it would actually harm us.
Scripture itself knows something of the difficulty of prayer. The Apostle Paul writes, “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought” (Rom 8:26). And in the context of Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer we discover something intriguing. After Jesus finishes praying in a certain place, one of his disciples says to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). The disciple’s assumption is that Jesus would likely have a unique way or manner of praying that he ought to learn.
Now Jesus at this point could have pivoted and said, “John may have taught his disciples how to pray, but my disciples are beyond the need for that. My disciples don’t need forms and models and instructions for prayer.” But he didn’t. Instead Jesus replies, “When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” and so on.
So the Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer, given to us as a guide and charter for our prayers. But it is important that we do not misunderstand what Jesus is doing here. He is not prescribing this as the only valid form of prayer. If you look at the prayers of Scripture, in the Old Testament and in the New, you will see variety. There are common themes and patterns, to be sure, but there is not an identity of form.
The Lord’s Prayer does not itself contain all the various forms that we find in other Scriptural prayers. Instead, the Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer that shows us what we should be after in all of our prayers. As Calvin writes, “No man should ask for, expect, or demand, anything at all except what is included, by way of summary, in this prayer; and though the words may be utterly different, yet the sense ought not to vary.” All of our prayers should be shaped by what we see in this prayer. Our prayers can veer from this prayer in form, but not in substance. Our Lord has graciously revealed to us how we should pray, and what we should be praying for.
The Lord’s Prayer can be divided into 8 sections: the address, seven petitions (treating the last two together), and the conclusion. We will move through these in order. We will be using Matthew’s version of the prayer, found in Matthew 6:9–13.
Address: Our Father in Heaven
The prayer begins with the address: “Our Father in heaven.”
What may we learn from how Jesus teaches us to address God? In Matthew 6:7, Jesus warns us from praying like the heathen: “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” The Gentile pagans think that by their many repetitions they will win an audience with their god. Implicit in this heathen prayer practice is an erroneous view of God and an erroneous view of prayer.
- Erroneous view of God: The Greco-Romans recognized many gods, many of which functioned as patron deities, from whom they sought worldly goods and protection. These gods are capricious, ill-mannered, and unreliable—suspiciously like men, if you think about it.
- Erroneous view of prayer: The Greeks and Romans mainly viewed prayer as a means for health and wealth. They just want the gods’ attention so they can use them to get what they want.
The Lord’s Prayer confronts both of these errors. It corrects the Gentiles’ erroneous view of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer subordinates the desires for earthly goods and prosperity to something higher, as we will see. But Jesus corrects their erroneous view of God right off the bat in v. 8: “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him.” And then the first words in this prayer are, “Our Father.”
By calling God, “Our Father,” Jesus is showing us that God, the Creator of heaven and earth and Ruler of all things, is not to be addressed as one who has nothing to do with us, who has to be convinced to pay us the time of day. Nor do we pray to a generic deity, of whose character and good pleasure we can only guess. Unlike the altar Paul found in Athens, our prayers are not addressed “to the unknown God.”
We pray to our Father, who knows what we need before we ask. We come to him as his children. We come in assurance of his love and grace, which he has made known to us in his great acts of redemption. He is the one who elected Abraham and appeared to the Patriarchs; who delivered his people Israel from the bondage of Egypt and brought them into the land of promise. He is the one in the fullness of time sent his Son that we might receive adoption as sons. We come not to a generic deity or divine power or energy; we come to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of Moses. The God of David. The God and Father of Jesus Christ.
Where is he? “In heaven,” Jesus continues. Heaven is his dwelling place. Though he fills heaven and earth and is, as theologians tell us, omnipresent, he makes his presence known in particular places in a special manner, and heaven is the place where he does this with constancy. There he dwells in unapproachable light, surrounded by myriads of angelic host. With the spirits of the righteous made perfect. With Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Lord, seated at his right hand. Invisible in his essence, but made known through visible signs of his presence.
This gives us a sense of reverence and awe. In a sense, it shuts our mouths. Ecclesiastes 5:2 says: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few.”
In prayer we are addressing the holy one, the high and lofty one, who inhabits eternity. There is no room here for frivolity or trifling. We don’t stick our hands in our pockets, whistle, and leisurely stroll before his throne. When he manifests his presence to human beings, his own people, and even his own most godly and holy prophets and apostles, fall down before him, paralyzed as it were by his presence. You and I would do the same, I guarantee it. And were it not for his word of grace, there we would lie forever, not daring to get up. But this heavenly One, this supreme Ruler is our Father. As Christians, that is where we begin. He is the God of all grace through his Son, and so we are encouraged to dare even to come before him in prayer.
Notice as well the first-person plural: our Father. The Christian faith is not merely individual. It is individually appropriated, but it is communally shared. To be a Christian is to be a member of the body of Christ, the church. We pray together, and as we do this we learn how to better pray on our own. And really, we never really pray on our own, as Martin Luther says: “Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain.” Even as individuals, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. So as we move through these petitions, recognize that you are not praying these as a lone individual for yourself, but you are praying this among and with the people of God, not just for yourself, but for the whole church.
Petition 1: Hallowed be your name.
So we come to the first petition: “Hallowed be your name.” Hallowed is an old word. We really don’t use it anymore outside of the Lord’s Prayer. But this is the same word that is more often translated in the NT as “to sanctify,” or to set something apart as holy. So when we ask that God’s name be hallowed, we are asking that God’s name would be treated as holy, that he would be revered, honored, and feared.
God’s name in Scripture is something that denotes God’s reputation and character. God is in fact given many names in Scripture. In the NT he reveals his name as preeminently Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Finally, due to the incarnation of the Son, he reveals his name as Jesus.
So when we ask that God’s name be hallowed, we are asking that God be revered and set apart as holy in accordance with how he has revealed himself. God’s name is hallowed when he is honored in accordance with his Word.
This petition doesn’t say who is actually doing this hallowing. “Hallowed be your name”—by whom? Who should revere it? In the absence of the qualifier it is best to take this in a generic sense. Experientially, this revering starts with us. It would be great hypocrisy to ask that God’s name be hallowed by others if we are not willing to do it ourselves. As Christians, we bear the name of Christ. We were baptized in his name, we receive his Word and sacrament. We must receive these rightly, and bear his name well, with a true and living faith which sets apart his name as holy.
In this prayer we are also asking that unbelievers would be granted faith and repentance and would turn to God, putting away their pride and blasphemy and malice. We pray that all men everywhere, the whole world, the whole creation would recognize the name of God as holy.
Petition 2: Your kingdom come.
“The kingdom” here refers to God’s promised redemptive rule and reign through his Messiah. This kingdom was foretold in the Old Testament. Hear what Daniel says by the Holy Spirit in Daniel 7:13–14:
I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed.
John the Baptist proclaims that people should repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Jesus announces the same thing, and goes so far as to say that the kingdom has come in his ministry: “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). The kingdom of heaven which Jesus brings is established in his first coming and continues to grow and fill the whole earth until his second coming. It is planted the smallest of mustard seeds, but it grows up greater than all the other herbs and becomes a tree that the birds of heaven make their nests in. It is a little leaven hidden in meal, which works its way through the whole lump. It is a stone that grows into a mountain that fills the whole earth.
When we pray that God’s kingdom come, we are praying that the gospel would advance, that the church would persevere in faithfulness and be protected from outward assaults and inward schisms and heresies, and that all nations would be made Christ’s disciples, baptized in the Triune name and taught to obey all of Jesus’ commandments. We pray to the Lord for this because salvation is in his hands, to dispense at his will. Christ himself says: “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18).
In praying this, however, you cannot leave yourself out of it. You cannot pray for God’s kingdom to come and grow and spread if you are unwilling to play your part in that. So this is also a prayer that God would give us the boldness and wisdom to share our faith with others, to spread the knowledge of Christ; to let our good deeds shine before men that they may give glory to our Father in heaven; to promote the purity, health, and growth of the church; and to support missionaries who take the good news of the kingdom to those who have no access to it.
Petition 3: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We can talk about the will of God in two ways. Sometimes by God’s will we mean his sovereign will according to which he wills absolutely everything that happens, whether good or bad. Other times by God’s will we speak of his revealed will revealed in his express commandments given to man.
So which is it? When we pray “your will be done,” are we asking that God’s sovereign plan should happen, or are we asking that God’s commands should be obeyed? I think it is both, on some level. We desire that God’s revealed will should be obeyed, that all should follow his instructions and submit themselves to his commands, and we also desire that God’s hidden will should be enacted, that God should do as seems best to him in our lives and in this world.
There is a world of difference between a prayer that has at its heart, “Thy will be done,” and a prayer that has, “My will be done.” It is not wrong to ask God for things. It is not wrong to bring our requests to the Lord. But fundamentally, at bottom, our deepest desire should be that God’s will should be done, even if it is contrary to ours.
Jesus himself models this for us in Gethsemane, when he prays in deep distress and turmoil of soul, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,” and later on he says, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from me unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matt 26:39, 42).
When it comes right down to it, this is the hardest part of prayer. If we pray in accordance with Scripture, it will make us face ourselves. No longer can we make our desires and feelings and thoughts ultimate, but before God and in his presence, all is made subordinate to him. This does not come natural to us. By nature, we are at enmity with God, our minds are not subject to God’s law, and cannot be (Rom 8:7). The world, the flesh, and the devil have us in their grasp and power. So we need to implore God to pour out his Spirit on us and others, to change our hearts and grant that our will would be subordinated to his.
Intermission: Difference between the first three petitions and the last four petitions
That finishes the first three petitions. I want to just note here about how these petitions are divided. The first three seems to fit together in one unit. It begins with heaven, and then moves to earth. Indeed, one might say it is about bringing heaven to earth.
The first three petitions is the big picture, the grand-scale. It does not begin with man and his needs, but God and his glory. As Christians, we have a loving and gracious Father in heaven, and his name, kingdom, and will are coming down to earth and will one day flood the world as the waters cover the sea. And we pray that it would come more and more, that his kingdom would grow and flourish, and that he would use us to that end. That’s the big picture, that’s what orients us, that’s where we begin.
The last four petitions form a second half of sorts, and this is where it gets into man and his needs. It takes us to the realm of the everyday, the daily grind. We move from asking for God to be praised, honored, and obeyed at all times in all places to asking for daily food and provisions, for forgiveness of our continued sins, and for deliverance from temptation and evil.
Petition 4: Give us this day our daily bread.
The fourth petition is “Give us this day our daily bread.” The transition here is stark. It gets very earthy very quick. “Give us bread.” The rest of the prayer could be read in a more “spiritual” fashion, but this petition brings the whole realm of food and drink and clothing and shelter and earthly goods into it. In doing so, Christ teaches that the things of earth are not bad or evil. It is not wrong to ask God for them.
But notice also that he is not asking for bread for a week, or bread for a month, or a year, or for a million dollars, or to win the lottery. This is a modest request. We ask God to give us the food that we need today, the provisions we need to care for ourselves and our family. This is not to elevate a minimalist mentality, as though we must always opt for the cheapest option possible whenever buying something. But it does chastise our tendency to idolize material goods. It is a modest request, not asking for too much, nor for too little. We see the same request voiced by the sage in Proverbs:
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny you,
And say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God. (Prov 30:8–9)
Ask for daily bread, ask that God would provide for what you and your family each day. And if he deigns to give you more than that, so that you have an abundance, rejoice that he has done far above all that you ask or think. Seek first his kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.
But again, remember that this is a communal prayer. You are praying not just for yourself and your family, but for the church of Christ as well. Therefore this prayer means that we should pray for one another’s temporal needs, that their financial needs would be provided for, that they would have adequate health. It also means being ready and willing to assist one another.
Petition 5: And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Notice how this prayer comes right after the prayer for “daily bread.” Right along with daily bread, we also need daily forgiveness. We do not go a single day without needing forgiveness. We sin both in what wrong things we do, and in the good things that we do not do. We are in constant need of God’s continual grace and forgiveness, and so it is fitting to ask him for it.
Why do we ask God to forgive us if he already has forgiven us? If we sin do we revert back to an unforgiven state, with God as a wrathful judge? No, that’s not how we should think of it. Jesus instead is speaking here of a Fatherly forgiveness. It is the kind of forgiveness that we might say a parent extends to their child when they have been disobedient and apologize for it. When we sin against our Father as believers and confess that to him and ask him to forgive us, he does forgive us—not that he is restoring to us our status of justification or judicial forgiveness, as though we’d lost it, but because he is restoring fellowship and nearness of relationship. Another way of putting it is: this once-for-all forgiveness that occurs when we first are regenerated and trust in Christ is re-experienced and felt again by us throughout our lives, and especially when we confess our sins to God.
Surprisingly, Jesus does not stop there. He says: “Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Wow. Can you pray like that? “Forgive me in the same way that I forgive others.” Brothers and sisters, beware the sin of bitterness. Beware the sin of returning evil for evil, of wanting to hurt people who hurt you. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves,” Paul says (Rom 12:19). Don’t think that because you haven’t killed someone that you don’t have a vengeance-problem. You can avenge yourself with a look. You can avenge yourself with the rolling of an eye, the tone of your voice, the words that you say, the words that you don’t say.
How serious is holding a grudge? How serious is harboring ill-will? Jesus tells us how serious it is in Matt 6:13–14: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
If you are a Christian, then it is the height of hypocrisy and arrogance to hold a grudge or hold onto bitterness toward someone who has wrong you. Why? How much have you wronged God? How seriously have you sinned against God? The wages of sin is death, eternal condemnation and torment in hell. No one has wronged you as seriously as you have wronged God. Your sin against God is more grave and more serious than others’ sins against you. And God forgave you. If you truly grasped the grace of God and the knowledge of his love extended toward you in Christ, you would not be holding onto a grudge or bitterness or ill-will toward another for how they may have wronged you.
So if you have a heart of unforgiveness toward someone, you must repent of this before you will have assurance of your own forgiveness from God. If God has forgiven you, who are you not to forgive others? But if you in good conscience do not harbor bitterness or ill-will toward another, then our Lord here offers you comfort. You may draw assurance from this that your sins are forgiven.
Petitions 6–7: And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
The final two petitions may be treated together: “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
The word for “temptation” at its root basically means trial. This is important to note because in a trial, God can mean one thing, while Satan can mean another. God intends trials in the lives of believers to test their faith and to show their genuineness. Satan intends through these same trials to entice Christians to sin and unbelief.
Jesus is hear commanding us to pray that God would not lead us into trials which Satan would use to tempt us to sin and unbelief, but rather that we would be delivered from such Satanic temptations.
As one theologian notes, Jesus himself was led into temptation, but was delivered from the evil one. Matthew 4:1 says “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he withstood three Satanic temptations. Jesus is instructing us to pray that God would not lead us into such trials which would give Satan opportunity for temptation, but rather that we would be delivered from such Satanic assaults on our faith.
We must pray for ourselves and our church and our church leaders that God would not lead us into temptations and trials, but preserve us from the assaults of Satan. That he would keep our doctrine and teaching pure, our worship well-ordered, our love and fellowship genuine, and faith unshakeable. The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil—in your heart and in your relationships and in this world.
Conclusion: For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Finally, we come to the conclusion: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” This ending is missing in the earliest manuscripts, though there is some fairly early attestation to it and the vast majority of our later manuscripts include it. Certainly no major doctrine hinges on whether or not this was originally part of the Lord’s Prayer. I will treat it here as though it is authentic, but know that this is debatable.
This bookends the prayer and refers back to the first three petitions: “Yours is the kingdom” matches “your kingdom come,” “the power/authority” matches “your will be done,” and “the glory” matches “hallowed be your name.”
This doxology grounds the whole prayer in the glory and kingdom of God. We do not ask him on the basis of our worthiness or goodness, but we ask these things of him for the sake of his name and praise. This gives us great confidence that he will certainly hear and answer our prayers, which is also what Amen means. Amen is an expression of faith that God hears with favor to our prayers.
That concludes our exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. I want to make a few observations by way of application to our prayer lives.
As I said before, the Lord’s Prayer is not presenting us with the only true and valid form of prayer. What we are after is having prayers that are shaped and oriented by the Lord’s Prayer, preeminently, and also by the other prayers in Scripture. What’s the best way that we can obtain that end?
Here I think it’s helpful to note some different ways that one can pray that are worth thinking about.
- Reading or reciting a prayer word-for-word. This is what we do in this service with the Lord’s Prayer. We say it, out loud, word-for-word. Some other prayers in our service are also pre-written, and they are recited. This is one way of praying.
- Prayer by paraphrase. This means following a pre-written prayer—such as you find in Scripture, a church liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, the Valley of Vision, etc.—but stopping and restating it in other words as you go along, expanding on it. Martin Luther advocated for this very strongly in his letter called “A Simple Way to Pray.” He argues in favor of this method, and demonstrates it by praying by paraphrase through the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed.
- Extemporaneous prayers. These are totally off-the-cuff prayers. In the course of your prayer, you may quote a few Bible verses or do some paraphrasing, but you aren’t consciously working through a prayer of Scripture. It’s free-form, flow-of-thought.
Now I would argue that all three ways of praying are valid and useful. I actually think that ideally all three of these should be a part of a Christian’s prayer life to some extent.
Some are uncomfortable with set prayers. They think that prayer should be unplanned and spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness. The authentic is identified as that which is spontaneous. So praying any set prayer, whether found in the Bible or in a church liturgy, is viewed as fake, inauthentic, and unfeeling.
But this is an overreaction. Many prayers in Scripture evidence themselves to be to pre-planned and carefully thought out in advance. In many of the psalms this is evident, especially those that are in a poetic structure such as an acrostic like Psalm 119, where the first letter of each line successively goes through the Hebrew alphabet. You see the same thing in the book of Lamentations.
Another thing is, if you tried to pray an utterly unique prayer every time you pray, you will find this impossible. Inevitably you will find yourself resorting back to certain well-worn phrases or verses. We are creatures of habit; as much as we may like to deny it, we like regularity. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel everyday. We like rhythms. So it is in prayer.
Set prayers can be useful and beneficial to us. If they are prayed with genuineness and attentiveness, we will find that our extemporaneous, off-the-cuff prayers are the better enriched. It is good that we do them here as part of our liturgy.
But there is a danger here as well. The temptation with using set-prayers is that we would be merely mouthing the words without meditating upon them in our hearts and minds. Then we’d just be mouthing them like a parrot. It must be done from the heart. It must be done with an engaged and understanding mind. Don’t just say your prayers; pray your prayers.
We began by noting the difficulty of prayer. Because we are fallen, we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, nor do we desire it. The Lord’s Prayer is a remedy to this problem. It shows us what the substance of all of our prayers should be, even if our prayers will have a different form or leave out certain elements at times. Martin Luther says of the Lord’s Prayer: “In these seven petitions are found all our anxieties, needs, and perils, which we ought to bring to God. They are great petitions, indeed, but God, who wills to do great things, is greater.”
In view of God’s gracious provision of models for prayer in his Word, we should be eager to pour out our souls to him. He is our Maker and Redeemer. He is our Father who set his love on us from everlasting. He is the Father who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us. How could we not call upon him? To praise him for who he is, to thank him for what he has done, to confess to him our sins and failures, to bring our anxieties and troubles and complaints, and to petition him to preserve and uphold us and establish his kingdom and will and name on earth? He invites us to come, and he commands us to come. And it is all for our benefit.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt 7:7–11).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Calvin, Institutes III.XX.49.
Martin Luther, “A Simple Way to Pray”
Martin Luther, “Sermons on the Catechism,” 227.