Book Review: Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father

Hill, Wesley. The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 120 pp.; Hb.  $12.99  Link to Lexham Press

Like Ben Meyer’s The Apostles’ Creed, this new book in Lexham’s Christian Essentials series focuses on a well-known and beloved section of Scripture, the Lord’s Prayer. This series intends to cover foundational teachings and practices of the ancient church. Every generation has been nurtured by the practice of prayer, often using the model of the Lord’s Prayer.

Wesley Hill, The Lord's PrayerHill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He has previously published Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010) and Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans, 2015).

This short book is a series of meditations on each line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the introduction to the book, “Your Father in Secret,” Hill points out Jesus’s prayer in Matthew 6:5-8 was different than the prayers of the Jewish experts in the law as well as the overly theatrical prayers of the pagan Gentile world. Jesus’s prayer is a template a pattern to follow, a “model for approaching God with childlike confidence that he will hear” (4).

Hill divides the prayer into seven petitions, taking each of the phrases of the prayer in order. In most chapters he relates the petition to several Old Testament texts before setting the words in the overall biblical theology present in the New Testament. For example, when praying “our Father in heaven,” Hill begins with God as Father in Isaiah 64:8 and then relates this to Paul’s use of “abba father” in Galatians and Romans.

Hill’s meditations occasionally make use of classic writers from church history (Augustine, Calvin), modern theologians (Sarah Ruden, Rowan Williams), current events such as the Coptic martyrs beheaded in Libya in 2015, and occasionally pop culture.

Finally, Hill offers a brief coda, “Praying the Lord’s Prayer with Rembrandt.” He reflects on Henri Nouwen’s description of Rembrandt’s painting the Return of the Prodigal Son. In his own practice of prayer, Hill has come to relate each line of the Lord’s Prayer to the image of the son kneeling before the father to beg forgiveness and the compassion of the father as he reaches to embrace his son. By drawing parallels between the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as imagined by the Rembrandt painting, Hill suggests one will find themselves praying the Lord’s Prayer in a new way.

Each book in this series is an attractive 5×7 inch hardback book. However, the book is quite short. There are only slightly over 100 pages in the body of the book, but every chapter begins with three pages of illustration, so the actual page count is much lower. This makes for a quick reading, but perhaps the book could have been edited differently to allow for more space in each of the chapters.


NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Not Every Who Follows Jesus is a Real Disciple – Matthew 7:21-23

Jesus warned his followers to be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15-20). In 7:21-23 Jesus takes this warning a step further: not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord, Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven. For example, In Matthew 25:11 the five foolish women who were not prepared to wait a long time for the bridegroom call out to the groom “Lord, Lord” when they want to enter the wedding feast.

Hypocrite SelfieThe warning is clear. People are not “right with God” and true disciples of Jesus by acknowledging that God exists or that Jesus was a good teacher or even by trying to live the words of the Sermon on the Mount (those “Red Letters”). Some people will claim to follow Jesus and do miracles in his name, ye ton the great day of God’s wrath, they will be outside the Kingdom because they were never really followers of Jesus.

“On that day” refers to a judgment prior to entering the kingdom of heaven. John Nolland suggested the phrase “on that day’ (ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ) can be a fixed eschatological expression.” The Body of Christ is judged at the judgment seat of Christ prior to this general judgment, we do not need to worry about being sent away when the kingdom comes. However, the warning is still important, at the rapture many who were thought to be Christians will not be raised to new life.

These false disciples claim to have prophesied, done miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. If they were not true followers of Jesus, how did they do miracles in the name of Jesus? Lying signs and wonders are common in descriptions of the last days prior to the return of Jesus.

Jesus reverses the expectations of these reputed followers of Jesus: “I never knew you” (v. 23). Although they thought they were doing the very things that merited their inclusion in the kingdom, their deeds were actually fruitless.

This conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount is similar to the conclusion of the Olivet Discourse, the other “sermon on a mount” in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 25:31-46 many will stand before the throne of the Son of Man and find out they will not enter the kingdom of heaven, but will go to “eternal punishment” (25:46), where there is darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30). The Son of Man also says to the goats “depart from me” in Matthew 25:41. In this case the dismissal is to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  A similar phrase appears in Psalm 6:8 (LXX 6:9): “Depart from me, all you workers of evil” (ἀπόστητε ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ, πάντες οἱ ἐργαζόμενοι τὴν ἀνομίαν, LXX Ps 6:9).

The shocking moment for these false disciples is Jesus calling them “evil doers.” This is another phrase which turns up in the conclusion of a speech in Matthew. At the end of the Parables of the Kingdom the day of the Lord begins with God sending his angels to gather up all the causes of sin and law-breakers (τοὺς ποιοῦντας τὴν ἀνομίαν, 13:41), a similar phrase as Matthew 7:23 (οἱ ἐργαζόμενοι τὴν ἀνομίαν).

It is unlikely these false disciples were sinning as pagans, like a modern televangelist who preaches against the very sins he is committing. But their failure to uphold the whole law is shown in their treatment of the poor and needy.

The follower of Jesus must make a faith commitment, believing Jesus’s death on the cross pays for their sin and his resurrection gives them new life (2 Cor 5:17). This new life ought to natural grow and develop over time, there ought to be a maturing process similar to a child growing and developing normally. Jesus’s call to his disciples at the end of the Sermon is to “be what they are,” growing and developing fruit in their personal lives and living out their faith through concrete actions directed at people who are in genuine need.

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing – Matthew 7:15-20

Jesus describes false prophets as “ravenous wolves” (7:15). The metaphor of wolves attacking sheep is drawn from the Old Testament. Ezekiel 22:7 describes wolves attacking on the poor and needy. The verb in Ezekiel 22:27 (טרף) is the same word used Jacob used to describe the fate of his son Joseph, he has been “torn apart by wild animals” (Gen 37:33). But these dangerous wolves are disguised as sheep. A wolf disguised as a sheep is trying to look and act like his prey, to lull them into a sense of safety before attacking them.

Paul uses this same metaphor in Acts 20:29-31 when he warns the Ephesian elders of false teachers who will appear within the church seeking to distort the truth and draw disciples away. In this case, the sheep are the members of the church under the care of these elders.

Who are these ravenous wolves? Commentators have suggested virtually every Second Temple period group as the false prophets in Matthew 7:15-23: the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, Bar Kokhba, Simon Magus, Gnostics, representatives of Pauline Christianity, a degenerate form of Pauline Christianity, antinomians, and Jewish legalists (Nolland, Matthew, 335). Urlich Luz says “In my judgment the intensive Matthean redaction is understandable only if the struggle with false prophets is an actual problem in his community.” “The community obviously knows of whom the text is speaking.” (Matthew, 376).

These false teachers appear to be followers of Jesus, but they are not true disciples at all. Although Matthew will describe the Pharisees with similar language in 16:6 and 23:23, “one should not immediately think of Pharisees or Sadducees at 7:15” (Nolland, Matthew, 337). Since the previous unit described people on a wide-path trying to enter the kingdom through the wide gate, these false disciples are the disciples on the easy path (and therefore not really going to the kingdom of heaven at all!)

In the context of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, these ravenous wolves are the false teachers who appear to be real disciples of Jesus, work false miracles in order to claim to be empowered by God, but are in fact trying to devour the true disciples and draw them away from the truth.

Since these false disciples appear to be genuine followers of Jesus, the only way to recognize them is by their fruit (Matthew 7:16-20).  A tree bearing fruit is another common metaphor in the New Testament. It is probably based on Psalm 1, the righteous person is like a tree bearing good fruit. In the context of Matthew, the one who claims to be a disciple of Jesus but does not care for the poor is not a true disciple. Again, the parallel in Matthew 25 makes this point, the goats do not enter the kingdom because they did not care for the “least of these.”

What is remarkable here is the false prophet is also like a tree, but they bear bad fruit. This is a common metaphor in the Old Testament (Isa 3:10; Jer 17:10; Prov 1:31). In Matthew, there are a number of parables which describe the judgment prior to the Kingdom as a harvest, wheat goes into the barn and the weeds are burned on the fire (Matt 13:24-30). In that parable, the owner of the field specifically says the wheat and the weeds cannot be separated until the harvest.

The ravenous wolves think they are disciples of Jesus, but they have fooled themselves and others by disguising their true nature. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus said some people try to enter the kingdom of heaven via the broad path and through a wide gate. But this way does not lead to the kingdom, but rather to destruction.

To me, this is a chilling warning from Jesus. Not all those who claim to be flowers of Jesus are actually true disciples of Jesus. We know that not all of the disciples will remain until the end. Judas will betray Jesus and Peter will deny him, the rest of the disciples scatter when Jesus is arrested. Some in the crowds who hailed him as a king at the Triumphal Entry also shouted for him to be crucified only a few days later.

It seems to me this is instructive for those who look at the whole of the modern American Christianity and assume everyone who claims to be a Christian is a real disciple of Jesus. I am quite confident many who claim to be Christians are not bearing fruit expected from the true disciple, and there are many ravenous wolves disguised as sheep in the flock today.

Lead us Not into Temptation – Matthew 6:13

This line of the Lord’s Prayer does not mean, “Don’t let us be tempted.” but rather “do not let us yield to temptation.” Craig Blomberg draws attention to a similar saying in Mark 14:38, “pray that you do not come under temptation” (Blomberg, Matthew, 120). Temptation is a fact of being human and is unavoidable for the disciple of Jesus. For example, in James calls trials “tests of faith” and considers them occasions for joy because they produce steadfastness which leads to maturity (James 1:2-4). For James, the result of being steadfast in suffering is a “perfect” faith, one that is complete and lacking nothing. James is not teaching his readers they can achieve perfection since he is clear humans struggle. But he is also clear people can mature and overcome specific sins.

There is an important translation issue in this verse. First, the Greek word normally translated “evil” covers a wide semantic range, as does the Hebrew and Aramaic word which Jesus likely originally used. The word πονηρός (ponēros) can refer to something which is poor quality or physically unhealthy, but also to something which is degenerate and wicked. A person who has poor vision, for example, has “bad eyes.” This does not mean their eyes are morally degenerate, only that they do not function properly. So this could be translated “bad thing” or “evil thing.”

Second, the Greek phrase in Matthew 6:13 is ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ (apo tou ponērou) and can be translated either as “from evil” or “the evil one.” In the first case, the prayer is to be rescued from bad things which happen in this world, in the second case it is a prayer to be delivered from the power of the tempter himself. This would refer to Satan and the dark spiritual forces of this world.

Both observations are important decisions to make at the translation level since there is quite a difference between “rescue us from bad things happening to us” and “rescue is from the power of the devil.” Should the disciple of Jesus expect that God will rescue them from every bad thing that might happen to the in this life? This is highly unlikely since he has already warned his followers they will face persecution. The disciples are the poor ones who hunger and thirst, they are the ones who will be persecuted and falsely accused for all sorts of evil because of their stand for Jesus.

It seems better that this is a prayer to be rescued from the dark spiritual forces that are active in the world. Jesus prays in John 17:15 that God the Father would protect his disciples “from the evil one.” In Ephesians 6:10 Paul says the believer does not wrestle against flesh and blood, but rather against dark and sinister forces of evil. In 2 Thessalonians 3:3 Paul says “the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.”

In the context of Jesus’ ministry, the trials that the disciples faced were very real threats to their lives – they were going to be arrested and likely beaten by both their friends (the Jews of the Synagogues) and their enemies (the Romans, eventually). In Mark 14:38, Jesus is talking about a trail which might result in apostasy, a denial of faith. We might describe this as a “crisis of faith,” a difficulty which is so severe that the believer may be tempted to reject his faith, to deny the Lord and, in a sense, return to a state of unbelief.

There is a strong indication that Jesus believes his disciples will pass through the time of trial, and be restored after the resurrection. This is also found in contemporary Jewish literature as well, that the one who fears the Lord will be rescued in their time of trial. Sirach 33:1 says “No evil will befall the one who fears the Lord, but in trials such a one will be rescued again and again.”

The disciple of Jesus should expect trials and temptations. There is no way to avoid them. In fact, trials and temptations are an indication the true disciple of Jesus is living out their faith, they are coming to the attention of an evil society which seeks to suppress them.

If this is correct, there is a serious contrast with some strains of Christianity which teaches the real disciple of Jesus will always be happy and healthy, or that any trial in one’s life is the result of sin. This is not at all what Jesus or Paul taught! The disciple of Jesus will still struggle with a failing body, they will endure pain and death. The disciple of Christ will still face the economic disaster of a lost job through no fault of their own. They will still face the heartbreak of rebellious children or a faithless spouse. These are not punishments for sin, but the sort of things all people face because the world is a fallen place. It is a lie to tell people their lives will be perfect if they aspect Jesus as savior. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount the true follower can expect all sorts of hardships and will suffer persecution for their faith.

Forgive us Our Debts – Matthew 6:12

For the small time farmers and day laborers who listened to Jesus in Galilee, forgiveness of debt was a serious issue. Just like today, farmers often need to take loans in order to plant a crop; fishermen may have need to take a loan in order to finance new equipment. Even though the Law forbid charging interest on loans, this applied only to the Jews. If a Galilean worker owed money at interest, he may have been in debt to a Gentile landowner. A prayer for debt-relief would have been very attractive indeed!

However, debt is often associated with the debt of sin. Jesus’s followers are a movement characterized by forgiveness. Many experienced radical forgiveness from Jesus. Those who followed Jesus were reformed tax-collectors, prostitutes, outsiders, etc. (Luke 7:36-50). People who had experienced healing also represent a form of forgiven since there was an association of sin with major disease for some in the Second Temple period (Mark 2:1-12).

Cancellation of DebtIs Jesus saying “confess your sins to God and you will be forgiven”? Does this imply if you are not confessing your sins they will not be forgiven? First, Jesus is not talking about “how to get saved” here, so the confession of sin in Matthew 6:12 is a requirement for salvation. The original audience are the inner-circle disciples of Jesus, the very people he has chosen as his closest followers. The person praying a prayer of confession already has a relationship with God.

Second, if the person praying is already right with God, why must they confess their offenses? Confession of sin allows a person to recognize they are falling short of the glory of God and are still in need of God’s forgiveness.

Third, nothing in the Bible suggests the follower of Christ must confess every sin along with all of the gory details. The point is acknowledgement of God’s grace and mercy for our daily offenses.

Fourth, the person praying a prayer of confession is “in their closet.” This is not a public confession before the whole congregation. I recall a prayer meeting I was leading many years ago when a person began to publicly confess some rather specific sins during a prayer. In that case, the person was more gossipy about what they had done, looking for some sort of public affirmation they were “not all that bad.” The true disciple of Jesus should not draw attention to themselves even in their confession of sin!

I suggest that the true disciple of Jesus has a healthy understanding of sin and how it affects their relationship with God. This is not some sort of self-flagellation nor should confession of sin lead to extreme low self-esteem (“such a worm as I”). Healthy confession of sin reflects an honest and open relationship with God.

The second part of the line is important too: we are to forgive others. Jesus will return to the theme of forgiveness in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-44). The focus in that parable is on forgiving those who have wronged us even if they are unable to “pay their debt.” Forgiveness of others is based on the common Old Testament theme that God is the avenger. In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus reversed the popular view that one can hate their enemy and seek revenge when wronged. Rather than seeking revenge, Jesus says, pray for your enemy and allow God to avenge you.

Forgiveness was an important part of the Judaism of the first century. The Jewish people knew that they had to be forgiven by God, and that they too needed to forgive their neighbors of their offenses against them. Sirach 28:1-7 is remarkably similar to Jesus’s call to forgive others.

Sirach 28:1–2 (NRSV) The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. 2 Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.

If Jesus’ followers are forgiven, they too must be forgiving people. But this is much harder to do than say. Contemporary (western) culture tends to glorify revenge, but so did the Romans. The Bible, however, consistently describes God as the avenger of the weak. Forgiving people who have wronged you is difficult because we have to let go of a lot of pain, hurt, anger, most of which we really enjoy!

Most people are aware of some great act of forgiveness, perhaps a person deeply hurt forgives the criminal who wronged them. Sometimes it is easier for a Christian to forgive someone of a crime than to live out the ideal model of forgiveness described in the Sermon on the Mount by daily forgiving the little offenses against us.

The forgiveness Jesus describes in this line frees us from the chains of our debt. Most people know what it is like to be freed from a debt of money (paying off a loan, for example). If you owe a friend money, that debt can do serious damage to your relationship. By forgiving debts of offense against us, by accepting forgiveness when it is offered, we can be free from the weight of the debt. The true disciple of Jesus lives out the forgiveness they have received in their relationships with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thy Kingdom Come – Matthew 6:10

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?

Our Father in Heaven – Matthew 6:9

The pattern Jesus offers is traditionally called The Lord’s Prayer. Jesus does not commanded his disciples to repeat these words; rather he gives this as a pattern for prayer. The words are your own, but typically these are the sorts of things part of regular prayer. It cannot be emphasized enough: this is a pattern for prayer, not a list to be memorized and repeated. Nor is the Lord’s Prayer a complete “theology of prayer.” This pattern differs somewhat from the Psalms and it differs from other prayers of Jesus in the Gospels. Paul’s letters almost always begin with prayers which do not follow the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus is simply offering his disciples direction to avoid the babbling of the hypocrites (whether Pharisees or pagans).

The first line of the prayer focuses the prayer on God and God alone. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” To address God as father is both consistent with Jewish prayers of the first century and radical at the same time. There are many of examples of Jewish prayers which address God as father, although for the most part they are prayers which describe God as father of Israel, or the creator, “Father of All,” not a personal, yet divine “father” figure.

The basis for this in the prayer of Jesus is that Jesus creates a new family consisting of his disciples, a family which persists into the present age as well. Paul uses family language to describe our new relationship in faith, we are brothers and sisters to each other, we are co-heirs with Christ, sharing the same father who is in heaven (Romans 8).

For Paul, this means that regardless of our real family (or lack thereof), we have a new family which has bonds running deeper than a physical family. This is the radical element in Jesus’ prayer – the sovereign God of heaven can be addressed as father, we are within our rights to call him father, and it is something which we are expected to do.

This prayer is God-centered, beginning with worshiping God for who he is. Hallowed means “holy, revered” or perhaps even “blessed.” This is quite consistent with the Psalms which often “bless the name of God” and the Jewish expression after referring to God, “may his name be blessed.” This is a brief adoration of God and a statement that we revere his name – this can and ought to be expanded! A prayer intentionally focused on God will begin by worshiping God for who he is.

This is where good theology enhances prayer and worship. The more one studies the attributes of God, for example, the more one can worship God in prayer because of his holiness, his justice, or his mercy. What we learn in a class room or Bible study ought to inform our prayer life and our worship. I have occasionally joked about this, but I am quite serious about it here. It may not be the case that after lecturing on the arguments for God’s existence, I lead the class in worship, perhaps raising our hands in worship and reciting the ontological argument for God’s existence. But the more we come to know God, the more we are able to focus out prayer on who is actually is (as opposed to our immature mental image of who he is).

Unlike this clear focus on God in prayer, popular Christian prayers tend to pray focus on the needs of the person praying. Anyone who has gone to an evangelical “prayer meeting” can attest to the self-centeredness of the “prayer request time.” This is not wrong; Paul tells his readers to bring their requests to God (Phil 4:6-7).

The opening to the Lord’s Prayer focuses prayer on God’s will to be done in this world. For many Christians tagging “if it be your will” on to a prayer allows some wiggle room in case their prayer goes unanswered. But that is not Jesus’s point here. Since the prayer calls for God’s kingdom to come,

Does Jesus say we are to pray for God’s will as if it is the complete opposite of “our will”? It is possible to think that God’s will is for us to all be missionaries in Africa, and that to not be a missionary is somehow out of God’s will. This is absolutely not the case.

God’s will is for us to respond properly as his dearly loved children, with obedience and respect, to love him and to live out our lives as a dearly loved child of God. Jesus is the ultimate model of submission to the Father’s will. Even at the time of the crucifixion, he prayed “not my will but thine” (Matt 26:39). This prayer does not imply that Jesus will was to not die on the cross, and that he was grudgingly submitting to the will of the Father. The will of Jesus and the will of the Father are the exact same thing in this case.

If we are praying for the will of God to be done, then we will want to know what God’s will is and we commit ourselves to doing that will. Knowing and committing are really two different things, since knowing God’s will is fairly easy; doing God’s will is much more difficult. Beginning our prayer with a clear focus on who God is and what God’s will is a daily commitment (or re-commitment) to being what we are, children of God.

For some Christians, there is a serious problem using father terminology. It may appear patriarchal, implying Gods is a “big man in heaven” everyone must obey. Not everyone particularly likes their human father and in far too many cases the metaphor of “God as Father” evokes horrible images for people who have been hurt by their earthly father. How do we make this work in the modern world?

Praying Like The Pagans – Matthew 6:5-8

In my first semester of Bible college an older student stood up to prayer in a chapel and began by addressing God as Father, Lord, el-shaddai, Jehovah Jirah, and every other name of God he could think of from the Bible (or from the latest Amy Grant song). This went on for several minutes and became more and more awkward as this student oiled on the names of God and showed off their preaching skills in their public prayer. Looking back on this, I wondered if the student realized they were drawing attention to themselves by praying in this way. I imagine they were genuinely trying to worship God in the prayer and would have been horrified to find out people were distracted from real worship by his overly-flowery prayer.

This first kind of prayer common Jesus addresses is the long, flowery public prayer which draws attention to the person praying. For many people, Jewish and Greco-Roman prayers were ritualized. While it is impossible to know the exact wording in the first century, there are some remarkable parallels between these prayers and the prayer of Jesus in Matthew 6. Roman public prayers were read exactly as they were written, “if one syllable or one ritual gesture was performed incorrectly, the prayer might well be invalid” (Stambaugh and Balch, cited in Keener, Matthew, 213).

Benediction 6 Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned against You. Blot out and remove our transgressions from before Your sight, for Your mercies are manifold. You are praised, O Lord, who abundantly pardons.

Benediction 9 Bless, O Lord our God, this year for us, and let it be good in all the varieties of its produce. Hasten the year of our redemptive End. Grant dew and rain upon the face of the earth, and satiate the world out of the treasuries of Your goodness; and grant a blessing to the work of our hands. Exalted and hallowed be His great Name in the world which He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel, speedily and at a near time. And say, Amen. (From Petuchowski and Brocke, The Lord’s Prayer and Jewish Liturgy)

But the other extreme seems to also been a problem. For some (in Matthew, the Pharisees), long flowery prayers were common. Although we cannot know what they prayed, it is likely these hypocrites wanted to demonstrate how spiritual they really were. As with his comments on giving, Jesus uses hyperbole: the hypocrite loves to stand on the street corners or in the Synagogue to pray for all to see.

Not all Jewish prayers were like this. Rabbi Simeon advised caution in reciting the shema and in prayer. “Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer. And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine” (m.Abot 2.13).

Public prayerA second problem Jesus addresses is the “pagan babbling.” Jesus is directly attacking memorized prayers which are repeated over and over again in order to gain favor from a god. This kind of prayer was likewise condemned in Sirach 7:14, “Do not babble in the assembly of the elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray.”

Christians babble in their prayers as well. We waste lot of words, whether because we don’t know what to say or we run out of things to say. While it is good to thank God for everything, offering God a daily weather report is probably unnecessary Christians use certain words which have no meaning outside of a prayer. What does a Christian mean when they say “pray for this….” Are we asking God to pray for this, or are we abbreviating our prayer? Think about how many times some people say “just” and “really” during their prayers. Why do we close prayers with the quickly spoked word injesusnameamen? Is that a Latin word for, “open your eyes now”?

It is important to understand how the original Jewish audience would have understood Jesus’s words here. He is saying, when the Jewish person prays in public and focuses the attention on themselves, they are praying “like the pagans.” They might as well be pagan Roman priests reciting the prayers like a magic spell. This is shocking, and quite likely very insulting!

For Jesus, the solution for the problem of self-serving prayers is keep prayer private. Just as giving is a private spiritual discipline, prayer should be as well. Jesus says to go into your room, or closet, close the door, and pray in private. He recommends finding a hiding place, a small room where no one can hear you pray. If no one will hear your prayer there is no need to impress people. The problem is with the attitude behind the prayers. They want to be seen by men. Just as with giving, these people want everyone to know that they are praying and how spiritual their prayers are.

Yet there is often a need for public prayers. To lead a congregation in a corporate prayer is not necessarily a violation of the spirit of Jesus’s words here. But as is often the case in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the internal motivation for the public prayer that must be carefully examined.

  • If a politician participates in a “national day of prayer” and publicly leads a group in prayers for our country, are they genuinely praying, or do they need to be seem as a “Christian Person” by their constituency?
  • When a Christian sits down to a meal in public, why do they bow their head and offer a short prayer for their meal? Are they genuinely thankful, or is there a Christian peer pressure to at least appear to prayer for a meal?

How can a careful examination of our motives re-invigorate our prayers?

John 17 – Jesus’ Prayer and Apocalyptic

The introduction to Jesus’ prayer in John highlights the sovereignty of God. As such, the introduction interprets the coming death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in apocalyptic terms. While this prayer is far from the sort of thing we encounter in Daniel and Revelation in terms of vivid imagery, there are a number of theological ideas which resonate well with apocalyptic literature.

God has appointed the hour. Everything in John’s gospel (and the life of Jesus) has led up to the moment which is about to happen. The three years has been a lengthy prologue to the next 72 hours, the arrest, trial, execution and burial of Jesus and subsequent resurrection. An “appointed hour” is common in apocalyptic literature. God has set the times and seasons for certain things to occur, and they will certainly happen because God has appointed them to happen.

God has authority over all flesh. This is an allusion to God as the creator. God has authority of all of creation because he is the creator. But creation is in rebellion against God and has created enmity, God is therefore to be feared as a judge. Another classic element of apocalyptic literature is that God has created all things and the eschatological age will “un-create.” The death of Jesus therefore has cosmic significance, all of creation will be effected by what he is about to do on the Cross.

God has authority to give eternal life. God is the only one who can offer salvation to a lost creation. God is the only way to be saved out of the coming wrath of God, the alternative to eternal life is eternal death.

God has given the disciples to Jesus. Out of all of creation, God has chosen some to be the recipients of eternal life. In John, the disciples are the “inner circle” of that Salvation. All those who believe in Jesus as the savior are saved, but in this case only the disciples are said to be given to Jesus. In apocalyptic / eschatological texts a common theme is the salvation of a righteous remnant. Usually this remnant is small (the author’s own community), but there is usually an implicit invitation to join the righteous remnant and therefore be saved.

God has given his authority to the Son so that he might accomplish the work to which he was appointed. Like the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20, the Father’s authority is naturally transferred to the Son. The reason that God has given the Son his authority is so that he may render judgment, both for eternal life and eternal separation. This too has an eschatological aspect as well, Dan 7:14 describes something like a “son of man” coming before the ancient of days to receive authority to judge and rule.

While the introduction to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is far from the style of apocalyptic we find in Revelation or Daniel, it certainly shares something of the the apocalyptic worldview. With the events of Jesus arrest, trial, execution, burial, resurrection, and ascension, God will accomplish his purposes by breaking into history and providing salvation for some, judgment for others.