If you were teaching a Sunday school class, or talking to your kids or grand-kids, or if someone just came up to you and said, “teach me how to pray” – how would you respond? What would you say?
Luke 11:1-2 says, “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 . . ..’” Then he gives them the Lord’s prayer.
Would you have said this to your imaginary inquisitor?? The disciples wanted to learn to pray and Jesus’ answer was to teach them the Lord’s prayer.
I think most of us want to learn to pray as well, so I want to spend some time teaching the Lord’s prayer because, as our text indicates, the Lord’s prayer teaches us how to pray. It doesn’t teach us everything about prayer for sure, but it gives us the foundation.
Today I want to begin this series by looking at the form of this prayer and then we’ll look at some basic lessons on praying that we learn from this prayer.
The form of the Lord’s prayer
There are two versions of the prayer of Jesus:
You can see they’re a bit different.
A second observation. There are three parts to this prayer (in both versions).
First there’s the address to God.
And then, there are two distinct sections of requests. Even without getting into the details of what these requests mean this is obvious based on the different pronouns used:
- The first section (the first two requests) uses “your” language (or second person singular pronouns) with reference to God. >These requests have to do with God’s concerns.
- The second section uses “we/us/our” language (or first person plural pronouns) with reference to us. >These requests have to do with our concerns and needs.
There are five requests in this prayer, as you can see below:
But, you might ask, what about the two extra phrases in Matthew’s version? Well, they’re simply parallels that occur at the end of the first and second sets of requests that say the same thing.
- To pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is the same as praying “your kingdom come.” They’re different ways of saying the same thing (synonymous parallelism).
- And also to pray “deliver us from the evil one” is the same as praying “lead us not into testing.” The evil one is the one who tests us.
So both versions of the prayer of Jesus have five petitions.
The petitions have the same meaning.
This, even though the 3rd and the 4th requests have some different wording:
- “each day” vs. “this day”
- “sins” vs. “debts”
- “for” vs. “as”,
- and “forgive” (present tense) vs. “have forgiven” (perfect tense)
Certainly there are differences of nuance, which we’ll look at when we get to them. But this really is one and the same prayer in both versions.
One final observation. The doxology at the end of Matthew is probably not original. Matthew 6:13 says, “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Most Bibles put this in the footnotes or in brackets because it’s not in the earliest Greek manuscripts.
Now, in Jewish practice it was customary to add an ending like this, so something like this was probably used. And I like to use this one from time to time because, even if not original, it’s a very ancient way of ending this prayer (The Didache).
Now let’s look at some basic –
Lessons about prayer from the Lord’s prayer
1. We learn about priorities in prayer. Notice God’s concerns come first, in the first set of requests. They come first because they’re the most important: the glory of God’s name and the coming of God’s Kingdom to this earth. Nothing’s more important than these things. Our needs come second, after God’s concerns.
As we look at this, I ask, “How many of us ever even get to God’s concerns in our prayers?” Our own needs are always right in front of us and therefore so pressing. But I want to challenge you on this. True, authentic prayer covers both our concerns and God’s concerns, with priority given to God concerns.
2. We learn what our most important requests are. These are –
- Bread – God’s provision of our material needs
- Forgiveness – God’s mercy for our failings
- Deliverance from testing or difficult situations that make us choose whether we’ll be faithful to God or not.
Jesus teaches us here what we should focus on. Although we certainly pray for other things, this keeps us focused on what we absolutely have to have.
3. We pray to God our “Father.” Not only does Jesus teach us this in the Lord’s prayer, in the examples we have of Jesus praying, he addresses God as Father in all but one (Matthew 11:25-26, Mark 14:36, Luke 23:34, 23:46, John 11:41-42, 12:28, 17:1ff), where he’s quoting Psalm 22:1 (Mark 15:34).
We can certainly use other addresses as we see in the rest of Scripture. But there’s something fundamental about God as our father. To address God as father is to acknowledge that God is both protector, provider and authority, and also one who loves us in close relationship.
But please note – God is not male! God is neither male nor female. It was in the pagan world that the gods had gender, either male or female. Scripturally, both male and female are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And there are also feminine metaphors for God in Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13; Jeremiah 31:20; Matthew 23:37). Let’s not be confused by the use of father language to think that God is a man. God is God.
4. It’s fine to use a set prayer, that is, something written out or memorized that helps you to pray.
In our tradition we think it isn’t real prayer unless it’s totally spontaneous and we’re suspicious of something that’s too formal. But in Jewish tradition this was common, and various teachers would give a set prayer to their disciples. Which is why the disciples asked for one. John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray with a set prayer and the twelve wanted this too from Jesus, which is what the Lord’s prayer is.
What I’ve learned is that you can use a set prayer – as a pattern – and still allow the Spirit to guide you, as you embellish it, extend it and apply it to your situation. In fact it’s my testimony to you that praying the prayer of Jesus – meaningfully, from the heart (not rote reading), can be a very powerful Spirit experience as the Spirit guides you through this prayer.
5. Prayer can be brief. A Jewish proverb says, “the prayers of the righteous are short.” Jesus said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” – Matthew 6:7.
Indeed, in Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer there are only 36 words in English (ESV; 38 in Greek). Not a lot! It takes about 30 seconds to pray it meaningfully (not just reading it). So we can’t say we don’t have time to pray!
As we see from this, petitionary prayer can be direct and to the point. That’s because there’s no correlation between the amount of words you use and the effectiveness of your prayers.
Now, there are other types of prayer that do require more time, for instance listening prayer. But with our requests to God, we don’t need to labor on and on unless we sense the Spirit leading us to do this. What’s important is our heart and the content of the request, not the length of the prayer or the amount of words.
6. Prayer is communal.That is, it’s to build community among us. Remember that in the second section of requests, the pronouns are all plurals – “our,” “we, ” or “us.” So even when we pray this as individuals we’re never just praying as an individual. We always have others in mind – our brothers and sisters in our local congregation and spread throughout the world.
This breaks us out of our individualist mindset – just me and God. It’s not, “Father give me this day the bread that I need.” It’s “give us this day our daily bread.” “Father, I need bread and my sisters and brothers need bread also.” Our prayers are both petitions for us and intercession for others at the same time. And because we pray this way we’re constantly reminded of our broader Christian community.