The Lord’s Prayer—Part 1
By Peter Amsterdam
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In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about having the right attitude concerning prayer. He said that we should not pray for the purpose of being noticed by others, and for those who do so, that in itself will be their reward and they will receive no other. Jesus followed that by exhorting on how not to pray, and then showing the right way to pray by teaching His disciples what we now refer to as the Lord’s Prayer.
He explained the wrong type of prayer this way: “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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7–8).
He was teaching that the prayers of His followers should not be like those of the Roman and Greek gentiles, who would pray to their gods at length in the belief that wordy, flowery prayers were the way to be heard and get a response. Instead, Jesus taught that prayers should not consist of “many words,” of heaping up empty phrases, or as other translations render it: “don’t babble like idolaters; do not use vain or meaningless repetitions.”
The ancient pagans’ understanding of their gods led them to pray long and wordy prayers in the belief that long-winded prayers would show their sincerity, thus impressing the gods and encouraging them to answer. The gods were believed to be easily offended and unpredictable. Those who petitioned them in prayer could be anxious and fearful, feeling that it was important to pray long, ornate, and elaborate prayers in order to win the gods’ favor and convince them to respond positively.
Jesus’ teaching about prayer was based on a completely different understanding of who God is and what He is like. The Father is loving and merciful, “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17), and He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
He is benevolent, kind, just, and holy. Unlike the pagan gods, He does not have to be persuaded to do something by flattery or verbosity, neither can He be manipulated by cleverly worded prayers. Rather, as our Father, He knows our needs and delights in supplying them when He knows it’s best for us, like any loving parent does.
Jesus was pointing out, as He did throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount, that the motive, the intent of the heart in our giving, fasting, and prayer is paramount. He spoke against lengthy public prayers designed to impress others, both in the Sermon and elsewhere (Luke 20:46–47). Besides speaking against lengthy prayers, He also spoke against the idea that God can be maneuvered or stage-managed into granting requests by pompous prayers.
Jesus was focusing on the right motive for praying, as opposed to the technical means of prayer. He wasn’t forbidding long prayers; we read elsewhere in the Gospels that He “went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). He wasn’t teaching against being persistent in our prayers, a lesson He Himself taught in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8). Neither was He teaching that we could never repeat the same words in prayer, which He did in the Garden of Gethsemane right before He was arrested (Matthew 26:39–44).
When Jesus spoke earlier of the wrong motive for prayer, He spoke of the Pharisees making sure to arrange their schedules so they would be in a busy street or marketplace at the time of afternoon prayer so they could be observed praying. He then spoke of the right attitude regarding prayer—that it should be in secret, in the sense that people should shut themselves in with God, concentrating upon Him and their relationship to Him when they pray. He then pointed out the deficiencies of mechanical prayer—prayer that is the babbling of empty, meaningless repetition, which doesn’t come from the heart or from a place of communion with God.
Jesus didn’t end by telling us how not to pray, but He also taught us how to pray, by giving us the Lord’s Prayer. As we delve into its meaning, we find that besides being a prayer we can recite, it also lays out a number of principles which give us guidance in how to pray.
Jesus taught that one should not pray because one thinks that one’s prayers or formulas earn God’s favor, but as an expression of trust in the Father, who already knows one’s need and merely waits for His children to express their dependence on Him.
“Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31–32).
When we pray, we communicate with the One who is all-powerful, all-knowing, totally pure and holy, righteous, and full of glory—the most powerful being that exists. While He is all these things and so much more, He is also our Father, who loves us unconditionally and who, in His love, has made it possible for us to enter His presence through prayer. It is in prayer that we communicate with Him, that we show our faith that He is there, that we have confidence in Him, and are in a personal relationship with Him.
How to pray
After teaching His disciples that the proper motivation for prayer is communicating with God and entering into fellowship with Him, Jesus shared a prayer with His disciples (and us) which we can use in our time of communion with God. His prayer, commonly referred to as “the Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father,” is recorded within the Sermon on the Mount:
Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:9–13).
The Gospel of Luke also shows Jesus teaching this prayer to the disciples, under different circumstances:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation’” (Luke 11:1–4).
The fact that there are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer has generated a variety of opinions among Bible scholars as to which version came first and which is closest to what Jesus taught and whether Jesus meant it to be prayed exactly as He delivered it. Without going into the intricacies of the differences, we can assume that Jesus taught this prayer more than once, and that He may have presented slightly different versions. The differences between the two versions are minor and don’t cause them to contradict each other.
There are also differences of opinion as to whether Jesus was teaching His disciples to recite the prayer as He gave it, or if He was teaching what aspects should be included in our prayers in general. Scholars who feel that Jesus was teaching that this prayer should be prayed word for word base that understanding on Luke’s “when you pray, say…,” interpreting this to mean that the prayer should be recited using these specific words.
On this topic, Leon Morris wrote: “It is likely that when Jesus taught these words (in whichever form) he would have been content for them to be used in either way. Christian tradition has always found them to be suitable either for simple repetition or as a template for more extended prayer or a basis for thinking (and teaching) about prayer and its priorities.”1
I agree that the prayer can rightfully be recited word for word; it also can provide certain principles, which can be applied to prayer in general and be helpful in our personal prayers. Some may wonder if, in general, reciting written prayers is inferior to praying “personal” prayers. I believe that you can pray a written prayer and make the words your own, and it can be as heartfelt as any personalized prayer. What’s important is that, however one prays, the prayer comes from the heart.
It is generally understood that as the second-century church developed, the Lord’s Prayer had a special place in the weekly service, being prayed immediately before the sacrament of Communion. This part of the service was only for those who had been baptized and were believers. Because the privilege of praying the Lord’s Prayer was limited to the baptized members of the church, it was known as the “prayer of the believers.”
As one of the most holy treasures of the church, the Lord’s Prayer, together with the Lord’s Supper, was reserved for believers. It was a privilege to be allowed to pray it. The reverence and awe surrounding the Lord’s Prayer was a reality in the ancient church. The prayer has become more commonplace today, but learning more about its meaning may renew in us a greater appreciation of it.
Originally published June 2016. Adapted and republished April 2023. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.
1 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 143.