So does Christ, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, introduce the Lord’s Prayer. Ever since, the prayer that bears His name has been kept sacred by the centuries, been the cornerstone of Christian worship and instruction, and polished bright by the lips of millions. Given us by the Lord Himself, it is a perfect model of how to pray. No prayer is more beautiful; none is more comprehensive; none links the heart more intimately with God.
I. THE CONTEXT OF THE LORD’S PRAYER
St. Luke hints that it was the sight of Jesus at prayer that made one of His disciples ask for instruction as to how to set about it. “Jesus was at prayer. When He ceased, one of His disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us’” (Luke 11:1). The immediate reason behind the request was the example of Jesus Himself. That is suggestive. A prayerful life, with a character to match, is a better invitation to prayer than many exhortations.
Jesus knew that to learn how to pray, how to enter into the place of the Most High, was the most important lesson man could learn. Centuries before the rabbis stressed that importance in the saying, “He who prays surrounds himself with a wall that is stronger than iron.” So Jesus was quick to answer the request, and in so doing gave His inquirer the disciples’ prayer, which we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
II. THE TWO VERSIONS OF THE LORD’S PRAYER
The New Testament contains two versions of the prayer. Matthew gives us the longer text, comprising seven separate petitions, and his version has been used in Christian liturgy from the beginning (Matt 6:9–13). According to Luke’s version, Christ improvised the prayer in answer to a request from one of the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
III. THE PRACTICALITY OF THE PRAYER
What Jesus taught in this prayer is revolutionary. Its brevity, its warmth, its candor set it apart from the “vain repetitions” of heathen prayers, referred to by one author as a “substitution of self-hypnotism for prayer.” No wonder, then, that early Christians seized eagerly on it. Within a century after Christ’s death, it was a basic feature of the Christian service and all Christians were expected to recite it three times a day.
Tertullian said of this prayer, “How many doctrines are at once discharged in the use of the Lord’s Prayer! The honoring of God, in the Father, the testimony of faith, in the name; the offering of obedience in the will; the remembrance of hope, in the kingdom; the petition for life, in the bread; the confession of debts, in the prayer; the anxious care about temptation, in the call of defense.”
IV. THE EXCLUSIVITY OF THE LORD’S PRAYER
The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer only a disciple can pray; it is a prayer only one who is committed to Jesus Christ can take upon his lips with any meaning. In uttering the Lord’s Prayer, we profess to come before God:
- As children—“Our Father”
- As worshippers—“hallowed be Thy name”
- As subjects—“Thy kingdom come”
- As servants—“Thy will be done”
- As suppliants—“give us”
- As sinners—“forgive us”
- As vulnerable—“lead us not into temptation”
- As helpless in danger—“deliver us from evil”
- As fully trusting in His all sufficiency for time—“for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”
- As confiding abiding for eternity— “for ever”
- Amen—“so let it be”
V. THE STRUCTURE OF THE PRAYER
The Lord’s Prayer consists of seven petitions. Note the order: the first three petitions have to do with God and His glory. This means God is given His supreme place, and then—and only then—we turn to ourselves and our needs and desires; thus the second four petitions, according to Martin Luther, “contain the whole policy and economy of temporal and house government and all things necessary for this life.”1
William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew explains: “First, it asks for bread, for that which is necessary for the maintenance of life, and thereby brings the needs of the present to the throne of God. Second, it asks for forgiveness and thereby brings the past into the presence of God. Third, it asks for help in temptation and thereby commits all the future into the hands of God. In these three brief petitions, we are taught to lay the present, the past, and the future before the footstool of the grace of God.”2 To which I would add: the fourth petition is a request to “deliver us from evil,” which is the deep-seated root of all our woes. Barclay further suggests that “these petitions brings the whole of life to the presence of God: it is also a prayer which brings the whole of God to our lives. When we ask for bread to sustain our earthly lives, that request immediately directs our thoughts to God the Father, the Creator and the Sustainer of all life. When we ask for forgiveness, that request immediately directs our thoughts to God the Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer. When we ask for help for future temptation [and protection from the Evil One], that request immediately directs our thoughts to God the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Strengthener, the Illuminator, the Guide and Guardian of our way.”3
Is the Lord’s Prayer the best of all prayers? Christ never meant to impose it on the world as an exclusive formula, supplanting such intensely human gestures of the heart as prayers of thanksgiving and grace, prayers for friends in trouble, for recovery from illness, for a safe journey, for justice, for freedom, and for peace. Still, the Lord’s Prayer is the only prayer that Jesus taught, and divine inspiration gives it a status all its own. As a means of devotion, it covers all our major needs—the soul and the body. It is a prayer for all seasons, and it is not surprising that millions of believers recite it regularly. Not a minute passes but that the Lord’s Prayer, somewhere, is rising to heaven. Thus, all of Christendom lauds the Creator.
Finally, the Lord’s Prayer is a gift from God. It is the simplest form of communion with Christ: when we utter them we are one with Him; His thoughts become our thoughts, and we draw near to God through Him. It is also the simplest form of communion with our fellow men, in which we acknowledge that He is our common Father and that we are His children.
The Lord’s Prayer may be committed to memory quickly, but it is slowly learned by heart. To use it when it is most needed, to truly know what it means, to believe it, is hard.
Note: In the following issues of Elder’s Digest I will provide a sermon or prayer meeting series that will not only enhance your understanding of the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer but to incite you to kneel down and thoughtfully make this prayer your own.
1 Martin Luther, Table Talks, cccxxix.
2 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster & John Knox, 2001), 199.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.