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    The Lord's Prayer

    Introducing the Lord's Prayer

    by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1999)

    The Lord's prayer (Mat. 6:9-13) is part of a larger section of the Sermon on the Mount in which our Lord taught about worship and prayer (6:1-18). Jesus contrasted true prayer and worship with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Gentiles. It is important to remember this context for the Lord's prayer is Jesus' alternative to every form of false praying. It is also important to stress from the beginning that the Lord's prayer was obviously intended to be a daily prayer -- "give us this day our daily bread."

    On the one hand, we are reminded by the larger context that prayer is the very essence of worship, which may be said to be a sort of dialogue between God and the worshipers. We speak to God in singing and prayers and God speaks to us through the reading and teaching of His word. Learning to pray rightly, then, is, in part, learning how to rightly participate in worship.

    On the other hand, the daily petition for bread means that the Lord's prayer was designed to be a family prayer, for it is in the context of the family that we seek our daily bread. Perhaps we may say that the Lord's prayer suggests a connection between family prayer and formal worship, for the same pattern and principles for prayer govern them both. Though family worship and Sunday worship are not the same -- we do not baptize and take communion in family worship -- they share the same spirit of faith and prayer to God.

    Pray Not Like Hypocrites

    Jesus' frequent condemnation of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy has become unpopular with some scholars, but sincere Christians should not doubt His judgment. The Pharisees appeared to be good men but they were inwardly corrupt. When they prayed, for example, they stood on the street corners or in the synagogues and prayed long prayers. What is wrong with that? The hypocrisy is not found in the fact that they prayed publicly, nor is Jesus to be understood here as condemning public prayer, for both Jesus Himself and His disciples prayed publicly. The problem was that the Pharisees prayed to be seen of men (vs. 5, "for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.").

    In other words, the Pharisees used prayer not as a means of communicating with God, but as means of gaining the respect of men. Which means also that the Pharisees attempted to use God as a means for their own personal gain. This is the very essence of idolatrous religion which regards God as useful only so long and in so far as He does man's will or brings some benefit to man. By way of contrast, Biblical religion regards man as useful only in so far as he bears fruit for God. The Creator is above the creature.

    Now the Pharisees professed to believe in God as Creator and to be loyal to that faith in their worship, but Jesus accuses them of extreme hypocrisy: "How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?" (Jn. 5:44).

    They manifested a spirit precisely opposite that of true prayer, which seeks God Himself. In contrast to the pharisees, Jesus says go into your private room where there is none but God and yourself and there seek Him in prayer. Rather than attempting to use God for personal gain, seek God Himself, the Father in Heaven who sees in secret. Prayer is the expression of a personal relationship in which we may express our most private concerns and fears, together with thanksgiving, praise and adoration to the One who loves us with perfect Fatherly love.

    Pray Not Like Gentiles

    Gentiles who, unlike the Pharisees, do not even know the true God, approach God with vain repetition (vs. 7, "use not vain repetitions, as the heathen"). Anyone who has heard Buddhist prayer (or the repetitions of "Hail Mary") knows the kind of prayer Jesus is condemning here. True prayer is not an attempt to coerce god through magical formulas. He already knows what we need even before we ask Him (vs. 8). He is our Father who loves us. Magical chants do not charm Him into action. Repetition does not wake Him up or stir Him out of reluctance into action (cf. 1 Kn. 18:26 ff.).

    Again, Jesus contrasts the false approach to true prayer by pointing out that prayer should be offered to the Father in heaven (vs. 8, "for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of"). Prayer, in other words, is part of a living personal relationship between God and the believer. When He contrasts the false praying of the Pharisees and the Gentiles with true prayer, Jesus clearly has in mind private individual prayer (vs. 6, "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet"). In true prayer, then, the individual believer comes to God with faith in His Fatherly love and goodness, seeking a private and personal audience with Him with confidence that He cares about each one.

    After this manner

    What we know as the Lord's prayer begins with the words "after this manner therefore pray ye." Jesus is not merely telling His hearers to daily repeat the words that He gave them. Rather, Jesus is giving instruction about prayer that shows us a general pattern. He is setting down principles, not just giving us the words to say. Please do not misunderstand me here. I do not mean that we should not repeat these words. Certainly we should employ the Lord's prayer just as it is. But when we offer this prayer, we should self-consciously employ these words as a model that teaches us the true meaning of prayer.

    Jesus provides a basic pattern that is clear. The prayer divides into three parts: an introduction, a set of six petitions, and a conclusion. The introduction reminds us of who we are as well as the love and majesty of the God to whom we pray. The body of six petitions is divided into two parts of three petitions. The first three concern God; the last three concern man.


    Our Father who art in heaven

    Petitions, part one (concerning God):

    Hallowed be thy name.

    Thy kingdom come.

    Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

    Petitions, part two (concerning man):

    Give us this day our daily bread.

    And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

    And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:


    For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

    The order is, of course, profoundly significant. It teaches us not only to seek God and His kingdom first, but also that all that we seek for ourselves should be sought in reference to His kingdom.

    It is by praying this prayer daily at home and weekly in Church that Christians learn what it means to pray. But we also need to study this prayer and think about what it has to teach us. Perhaps the best commentary on this prayer may be found in the Westminster Larger Catechism beginning with question 185. I highly recommend that fathers and mothers study the Catechism for their own understanding and use it to help them teach their children the meaning of the Lord's prayer.

    When the repetition of the prayer is combined with teaching, both we and our children will learn to come to our heavenly Father with simple trust in His love, casting all our care upon the One who cares for us. Our prayer life will be personal and intimate without being disrespectful or improper. We will learn to live for His kingdom as we constantly seek it in prayer.

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