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The Lord's Prayer, Part 1

by Tim O'Hearn

In Matthew 6:9-13 we read what has been called "The Lord's Prayer," or by some "the model prayer." It may be the best known passage in the New Testament, and almost as well known as the 23rd Psalm. So much has been written or preached about this passage that one is not likely to add to the knowledge of it, but sometimes it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of things we may already know.

Prayer or Model?

Before analyzing the wording of the prayer itself, it is important to look at prayer in general. Most people who prefer to call this the model prayer do so because they object to prayers that are not spontaneous. They will sometimes point out that Jesus didn't say "pray this prayer," but "after this manner pray." Ignoring that the proper translation is simply, "pray thus" (which could easily mean pray these words), some say that he is saying to use the prayer merely as a model. This also ignores Luke's version (Lk 11:2), in which Jesus says, "When you pray, say…"

In fact, in Luke's account the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray, "as John taught his disciples." It was common at that time for a rabbi to teach his disciples a specific prayer or prayers, many of which have become the liturgy of Judaism to this day. The disciples are saying that John followed the usual procedure for a teacher, and asking Jesus to do the same. They are probably not saying that they don't know how to pray, for every Jew would have known many of the common blessings and prayers. They are probably asking for a new prayer, rather than saying that they don't know how to pray at all.

From before the time of Christ there were certain set prayers that all Jews prayed at given times of the day. Some of these are seen in the Passover seder, the order of the Passover service. That Jesus probably knew these prayers, and may even have repeated them himself, can be seen in the accounts of the establishment of the Lord's Supper.

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (Lk 22:17-20)

Luke's account shows that Jesus was following the seder because he blessed more than one cup. If he was doing so, he possibly followed it even to the point of saying the standardized blessings for wine and bread. This is not to say that he said them without meaning. The greatest rabbis of his time had said that anyone saying the blessings without understanding or meaning them was the same as not having said them at all. Even today, when an observant Jew recites the blessings and prayers the formality of them is seen as a means of focusing his thoughts on God, and may add his own personal prayers to the memorized/written ones.

It is possible that Jesus was giving just such a prayer to his disciples to focus their prayers. Whether it was to be prayed as given or not, it does serve as a model for what should be included in our own prayers.

Addressing God

The opening of the Lord's Prayer focuses, properly, on God. "Our father, who is in heaven, holy is your name." Even in this Jesus roughly follows the standard format for a Jewish blessing. A blessing, usually a short prayer on a given occasion or circumstance (a blessing comes before food, a prayer after the meal), generally starts with an address to God. Most blessings in the hundreds that are prescribed for the Jewish people begin with the same phrases: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who …". This is very similar to the way Jesus begins this prayer.

When we address a personal letter there are usually three elements in the address. There is the name, the street (location), and the city and state. In Jesus' prayer he also includes three elements in the address, the same three as in the standard blessing. He address the who and where and the status.

The who, of course is God. Unlike the more formal "O Lord our God," though, he personalizes God as "Our father." This is a radical shift. His disciples were used to praying to "the God of our father, Abraham." God was dissociated from them by a whole generation. Their father was Abraham. God was Abraham's God, and only by extension from that was he their God. Jesus, on the other hand, removes Abraham from the equation. God is now "our father" in place of Abraham. Even "our father, Abraham" was at least forty-two generations prior (Matt 1:17) But God is no longer far from us in time or in relationship. He is "our father," at once generationally and temporally immediate. God is not some grandfather in a long beard who lives somewhere three generation gaps away. He is "our father." We can go to him and know that he lives where we live; he is current with our affairs. We may not understand what a radical change this may have been for the disciples, but we can understand sometimes, even in our own lives, how easy it is to put God in another time or generation. Even we sometimes have difficulty praying to "our father" and believing it.

The street address of God is heaven. Even this may have contained a subtle shift in understanding. When one thinks of "King of the Universe," one almost necessarily thinks of God as in charge of the physical. God becomes the controller of physical things, and the bestower of physical blessings. And he is that. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeing God in this light. There is a difference, though, in seeing him as "in heaven." This puts God in his spiritual address. When we come before God it is sometimes important to understand that he is not just a "super President," but is also able to give us "all spiritual blessings" (Eph 1:3). It reminds us that there is a spiritual realm, and, one hopes, it reminds us that we are as much or more a part of that spiritual realm as of this physical one. By addressing God in heaven we acknowledge him as king of more than the universe—as king of both universes.

Of course, the danger in addressing God in heaven is that we place him only there. We think of the spiritual realm as being far away from us, and God as being separated from us by "the firmament" of Genesis 1:6-8. In reality we should be thinking of God as nearer if he is in heaven, rather than farther away from us. The physical world is always outside us. Our houses, our things, our world are external to us, and only become internal for a short time. But the spiritual realm, rather than being far from us or external to us, is within us. It is as close as our own soul, and God lives within us. The reality of God being in heaven is that "but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God." (Rom 8:26-27) God in heaven is as close as our own spirit, for if we are his children his spirit is within us (Eph 3:16-17).

God's status, the third aspect of his address, is expressed by the words blessed or hallowed (holy). This is an understanding on our part that even though we are made in God's image, we are not on a par with God. Some people own copies of the famous bust of Beethoven. None would imagine that the statuette was a full representation of the personality of "the master." So we also acknowledge that we are a poor imitation of God. Not poor in the sense of faulty, but in the sense of incomplete. We are in God's image, but we know that he is the substance of the shadow that is us. The only blessedness or holiness that we may obtain comes from God. "Ye shall be holy, for I am holy." (Lev 11:44-45)

In essence, addressing God as blessed or holy implies our lack of those qualities. By addressing God in this way we are bowing our heads to the ground at the foot of his throne. We have acknowledged him as our father, but also as a king. By blessing his name we come before him as the subjects of an earthly king come. Even a prince may be required to bow before his father, the king. So also we bow before our father, because his is also our king. We come, though, as the prince would come, not in fear but confidence, while still acknowledging the power and majesty of the king.

Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:19-22)

We come to God acknowledging our weakness, but with the confidence that he has granted us his holiness. We come not as peasants, but as the kindred of the prince, His son.

If the Lord wills, subsequent issues will continue to look at the Lord's Prayer. A letter is more than just the address and salutation. So is this prayer; and so should be all of our prayers.