Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom and rule to come in this world and for his will to be done in this world. This part of the prayer acknowledges the world is not as God intended it to be but also that God will do something in the future to extend his rule to this fallen world. As Craig Keener says, this is a “prayer for the desperate . . .for the broken to whom Jesus promises the blessings of the kingdom (5:3-12)” (Keener, Matthew, 220). The first disciples were desperate because they lived in a word which did not appear to be ruled by God at all. Their world was dominated by the Roman Empire, ruled by men who claimed to be divine saviors of the word.
The first disciples who heard this prayer would have understood something quite real in the prayer for God’s kingdom to come. As biblically literate Jews living under Roman rule, they really did look forward to God’s breaking into history. They passionately looked forward to God rescuing his people from the hands of Gentiles and ending the long exile of Israel.
Although we cannot know for sure, it is likely that many of the followers of Jesus, especially those who acknowledged him as the Messiah, knew the prophecies from Daniel 7 which describe a coming “son of man” who will be given authority to rule by God himself. So the first disciples knew exactly what kind of kingdom they were hoping for. They may have prayed something like this every time they paid taxes to the Roman Empire!
There was a “tension” between the belief of a future ultimate vindication, and the present vindication enjoyed because of Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus has conquered the ultimate enemies, sin and death; but he has yet to judge the world. He already rules, but he does not yet fully rule (the classic “already/not yet catchphrase). The disciples cannot they cannot bring God’s kingdom into existence by their own efforts, as Donald Hagner says, “yet they are to reflect the good news of its inauguration in and through Jesus” (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 148).
For Christians living some 2000 years after Jesus, there is still a future aspect of this prayer. Jesus is going to come back at some point in the future at set things right. Jesus will judge righteously and vindicate his people and punish those who have flaunted his Law. Just as Christians in the first century closed prayer with maranatha, “Come Lord” (2 Cor 16:22b, Rev 22:20), so too should we have a clear expectation for the soon return of Jesus to judge this world. Although there are a range of views on how this return will happen, this belief in the return of Jesus was at the very core of early Christianity.
But this prayer is not entirely future. When Jesus rose from the dead, he did indeed begin to rule as king. When we pray for God’s will to be done we do so because Jesus rose from the dead and is reigning in our hearts right now.
If we are praying like Jesus, then we are praying that God’s rule will be established on earth. While this may take the future hope of the second coming, it must also be active in the present: We must live our lives as submissive to God’s rule here and now. The radicalness of this prayer is that Jesus prayer for God to replace the kingdoms of this world with his ultimate kingdom.
How can we incorporate our hope for the future into our prayer life? This may involve pray for the government God as set over us. But is this a “prayer for their salvation”? Or are we to pray they be replaced by people we like better? If prayer is to be God-focused, how do we orient our prayer for the future towards God and his will?