Pray Then Like This (Matthew 6:1, 5-13)
Passage: Matthew 6:1–6:13
This morning, let me 'cut right to the chase'.
I have two things that I am hoping God will accomplish in your life over the next four weeks. Do you want to know what they are? The are both related to our main study passage this morning: Matthew 6:9-13. These verses contain THE PRAYER...the prayer traditionally known as “The Lord's Prayer”, not because Jesus prayed it, but because He gave it.
Here are the two goals for this month:
First, I am hoping and praying that, starting tomorrow morning, you will pray this very prayer every morning this month.
Second, or number two, I am hoping and praying that you will deepen in your understanding of this prayer so that each morning, your time in prayer will increasingly deepen, and God will in turn deepen you.
Does that make sense? These are two goals that provide direction for our study of “the prayer”.
Turn, if you haven't done so already, to Matthew 6:1, 5-13.
II. The Passage: “And When You Pray” (6:1, 5-13)
Listen to what Jesus tells us here about prayer:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And 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.8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.9 Pray then like this:“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts,as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
OK, before we go any further, let’s talk about the context of Jesus’ words on prayer. We are smack dab in the middle of a section of teaching traditionally called the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto on living in light of the Kingdom of God, that is, living as one who is God-ruled, and not self-ruled.
If we narrow our focus a bit, we discover that Jesus, in chapter 6, is tackling the influence of other teachers in regard to the three main acts of Jewish righteousness: almsgiving or charitable giving, prayer, and fasting.
Notice that Jesus does not do away with these Jewish customs. Instead, he seeks to move his disciples back to a God-focused, Kingdom-informed approach to each of these three topics.
But this morning we want to focus on prayer, so let’s look again at what Jesus tells us about the practice of prayer.
A. How Not to Pray: Our Tendencies (6:1, 5-8)
Notice that Jesus begins by teaching us about how NOT to pray. In verses 5 and 7, Jesus makes it clear that He is responding to, and warning his students about, some of the current thinking and fashionable practices concerning prayer.
Look at the first part of verse 5: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.
Jesus provides us here with what we could call our first “prayer pitfall”: praying ‘people-directed’ prayers.
As Jesus makes clear, many of the revered, religious teachers in the Jewish community wanted to be looked up to and praised as the holiest of holies. Even they explicitly directed their prayers to God, other people were their real concern. They wanted the respect of their peers and the common people who were supposed to bow before them.
And so they would stand in the synagogues, or even strut out to the street corners, and perform for their audience. And “perform” is the right word here. The word we translate as “hypocrites” is the Greek word for actor.
These so-called religious giants were not praying to God, they were performing for others.
Now you may not stand on the corner of Yuma and Watson or First Street and Monroe and offer up your prayers, but which of us has not been more concerned about how our prayers might sound to others than how they might sound to God? Which of us has not, at some point, wanted to impress others with our prayers or, at least, hope our prayers were acceptable to others.
We might make our prayers flowery. We might use our prayers to reveal how much we know. We might deliver sermons in our prayers. We might correct in our prayers. We might feign emotion. We might make our prayers extremely long or extremely short.
We might pray portions of Scripture. And we might do all of this just to be noticed, to be praised, to seem impressive…or because we care too much about the approval of others.
Here's what's clear: Our sinful tendency for human approval can often influence how we pray.
But look at how Jesus responds to this practice in v. 5: Truly, I say to you, [those who use prayer as a means of drawing attention to themselves], they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
By definition, prayer is communicating with God, not with others. When we forget this definition, prayer is no longer prayer; it is simply a poetry reading or a soliloquy.
But be careful. Jesus is not teaching us never to pray in public. The gospels record many instances of Jesus praying in public. For Jesus, the issue is not ultimately public versus private prayer, it is praying for attention from others versus praying for an audience of one. Jesus is reminding us to live for God’s approval, wanting nothing more than to please the One who sees in secret.
Even if we are in the middle of a crowded stadium, Jesus is teaching us that prayer should always “shut the door” to the influences below and look with blinders to the One above.
But Jesus give us another “prayer pitfall” in verse 7: “And 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.
Here we see Jesus warning his disciples about using prayer as a magic mantra.
You know what a mantra is right? It’s a phrase repeated over and over again in order to bring about some magical or supernatural outcome. That’s what Jesus is warning against here.
As you know, the non-Jewish people had their own gods and goddesses. Typically, their prayers contained long lists of different names for the god they sought to sway, names repeated over and over, because they believed that one of these names would prove to be the magic key that caught that god’s attention. They believed certain formulas were imbued with magical properties. If said enough times, they would prove effective in bringing the one praying his or her desires.
Obviously, Jesus knew His present disciples (and his future disciples) would have enough exposure to these pagan forms of prayer to be possibly influenced by them.
Now again, we don’t consciously think of our prayers as ‘magic mantras’, but we can, nevertheless, still fall into this same trap. Which of us has not prayed a prayer simply because we thought it was the right thing to do, that somehow God would bless us if we simply went through the motions? Which of us has not, at times, trusted more in the power of praying, in the power of the act, than in the power of God?
We may not be praying to gods or goddesses, but we too can see prayer, not as a means of speaking to God, but as a tool to manipulate God.
Here's the 'bottom line': Our sinful tendency for control can often influence how we pray.
But look at how Jesus counters this pagan practice in verse 8: Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Notice that Jesus does not simply say, “OK, don’t babble and, um...make your prayers succinct.” No, he responds to this pagan practice by pointing us back to the nature of God.
Jesus says, “There is a fundamental difference between the gods of the pagans and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God is not a genie that you have to coerce to get what you want. He is not a distant force you attempt to invoke through this or that ritual. No, he is a Father who knows perfectly what you need, even before you ask.”
In some sense, the root issue here is control. We can foolishly believe that ritual prayers and magical mantras are tools that allow us to control the divine, that allow us to get what we want, but Jesus is teaching us here that God is in control, and that prayer is an act of faith, a submissive gesture, not to the unknown, but to One we know knows us.
Now, I want you to notice something else here. Up to this point, Jesus has challenged his hearers on matters of the heart. Why are you praying? How do you view prayer? He has challenged the sinful, human tendencies of pride and control that can affect the way we pray. But look at where he goes in verse 9.
B. How to Pray: His Priorities (6:9-13)
Not only does Jesus instruct us about how not to pray, but he also instructs us about how to pray, or more specifically, about what to pray. The prayer that has been traditionally called the “Lord’s Prayer” is not in a separate section here.
It is an essential part of Jesus’ response to the prayers of the pagans. It is a simple prayer of submission for the disciples in contrast to the pagan’s long-winded prayer of manipulation.
As Jesus has made clear, our world, our Enemy, and our own sinful tendencies, are trying to influence our prayer life, and these forces are not simply attempting to influence our practice of prayer, but also the content of those prayers.
Think about it. Why would Jesus provide us with a prayer if he did not think that in some way, our typical prayers as human being were somehow lacking? Whether our prayers requests are focused on personal gain or our perspective is simply shortsighted, Jesus, as our prayer teacher, wants to elevate our vision.
But here’s a very important question: Jesus’ instructions about how we pray in verses 5 through 8 are fairly straightforward, but how do obey when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer?
Think about it for a minute. If you are a follower of Christ, how are you obeying Jesus when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer?
Look at verse 9: This, then, is how you should pray. Or if we look at the introduction to Luke’s version of this prayer, Jesus says: “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:2)
Is this supposed to be our only prayer at all times? If that’s how we are supposed to take it, the disciples didn’t seem to get it. Acts and the epistles record many other prayers offered up by the apostles, but not this one.
Maybe this is simply supposed to be just a loose model for prayer. Maybe Jesus is saying, “pray kind of like this”. But Jesus does say “pray this”! And if this is just a loose model, then are we to use it all the time, or just sometimes? How do we integrate other requests into this template? And isn’t there something essential in terms of the size of this prayer, its brevity in contrast to the babblings, the many words, of the pagans?
So again, what are we to make of this prayer? How should we obey Jesus’ instructions to pray this prayer?
I think our context can help us answer this question. As I already mentioned, Jesus gave us this prayer as part of his response to the prayer practices of the pagans. But this prayer is also given in the broader context of Jesus’ response to the hypocrisy of the Jewish teachers.
Additionally, we have to ask, what would Jesus’ original Jewish hearers have understood by his teaching about prayer. In Luke’s setting for the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches them this prayer as a response to their request: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” We have to ask, “What were these Jewish men expecting?” Surely these guys were taught to pray from childhood, just as Jesus had been.
I believe the answer to our question becomes clearer when we understood the practice of prayer for Jews in the first century. In Jesus’ day, every Jew was expected to pray three times a day. And this time of prayer was not simply about offering up one’s personal requests. No, there were, what we could call, liturgical prayers that were learned and offered up at the appropriate times. These prayers included the Shema, based on Deuteronomy 6:4, and the Shemoneh Esreh, or the “Eighteen Benedictions”.
And in addition to these standard prayers for the community, various rabbis were known to add their own compositions into the mix.
And this is most likely what Jesus was doing. Jesus was not overthrowing the customary prayer practices of his Jewish audience. Like John the Baptist, he was warning them about abuses and giving them a new prayer to add to their daily prayers, a prayer that reflected the hallmarks of his own teaching.
So for those listening to Jesus, obedience to his teaching here would have meant praying this prayer on a daily basis. But is this how we today are supposed to heed Jesus’ teaching?
Why wouldn’t it be? Yes, this prayer should be a model, but not simply a model.
Not long after Jesus and the apostles, an early church manual called the Didache, (probably written around 100 AD) instructs Christians to pray this prayer three times a day. The reformer Martin Luther prayed “the prayer” and taught his people to pray it on a daily basis.
This is the only prayer that Scripture explicitly calls the Church to prayer. It is the only prayer given to us by Jesus himself. The most natural way to take Jesus’ instruction is that he was calling his followers to pray this prayer on a daily basis. Notice the reference to “this day” and “daily” bread in verse 11.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But that sounds like a ritual”. YES! It is a ritual. That’s exactly what it is. Rituals are not bad things. Baptism is a ritual. Communion is a ritual. In fact, I know you practice certain rituals everyday. Do you think you should pray everyday? Read your Bible everyday? THOSE ARE RITUALS! Do you take a shower and brush your teeth? THOSE ARE RITUALS!
What we react against is mindless, rote repetition; we react against dead ritual.
But we know that any faith-habit can become merely an exercise. But the fact remains: I believe Jesus is calling us this morning to obey his teaching and pray this prayer, alongside our personal prayers, on a consistent basis.
Are you in sin if you do not pray this prayer? No, but let's talk about the “why” behind praying this prayer consistently. Think about what effect praying this prayer on a daily basis might have on the way you think, act, and speak.
The teacher and writer R.C. Sproul makes this statement: “Hearing [the Lord's Prayer] over and over again may lead us to mindless repetition, but it also may burn these words, and the underlying principles, into our minds. Repetition in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it's one of the most important ingredients of learning, because it's the rare person who masters a concept or a principle by hearing it once.”
I think that based on what we’ve seen about the effects of sin on our prayer life, based on how Jesus has warned us, I believe that we can say that on the sea of human tendencies, the Lord’s Prayer is meant to anchor us to God priorities.
The great German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias declared, “As a matter of fact, the Lord’s Prayer is the clearest and, in spite of its terseness [i.e. its conciseness], the most comprehensive summary of Jesus’ proclamation which we possess.”
That’s a huge statement. And if true, then this simple prayer is a doorway which we can pass through daily in order to be refreshed with the heart of God.
Every single day you and I are bombarded with the lies of this world. Every single day we are bombarded by our sinful human tendencies for self-glory and rebellion. Every single day we are tempted to believe that we know best. And all of this undoubtedly affects how we pray and what we pray...or whether we pray at all.
But if we make this prayer a daily expression of faith and submission to God, then I believe God will use it to shape us and keep us anchored to His heart.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Jesus has already warned us about magical mantras. Simply uttering this prayer is not going to do anything. But throught daily prayer and deepening prayer, God wants to work on our hearts.
Senator John McCain recounts a story of a fellow prisoner-of-war in Vietnam who gathered little bits of cloth and made an American flag that all his cellmates would salute and pledge allegiance to every night. When guards found that he had this flag inside his shirt, the Hanoi soldiers took him outside, beat him within an inch of his life, and threw him back into his cement cell, bloody and broken.
McCain said they cleaned him up as best they could, and then went to sleep. For some reason, McCain woke up in the middle of the night and here was this same prisoner, eyes all puffed up and bloodshot, sitting with a bamboo needle, starting all over again on another flag.
Why? Why would someone go through this just for a flag? Because the flag and the pledge of allegiance were anchors that helped keep these men fixed to the ideals they fought for.
In the midst of hostile territory, this flag was a link that kept them sane, that inspired hope, and that gave them the courage to continue on.
Jesus has given us a flag. Will you use it each day? Will it inspire you each day to living according to God’s priorities, and not simply your own tendencies?
V. A Post-Easter Perspective on The Prayer
In the coming weeks, we're going to take this prayer apart, piece by piece...and then put it all back together again. And we're going to do this as a means of accomplishing our second goal: to deepen our understanding of this prayer. And again, we want to deepen our understanding of this prayer so that when we pray it each day, we can unlock the power of each word and each idea. And as we do this, we trust God to use that power to change us...to conform us to His priorities.
Of course, Jesus knew when He gave His disciples this prayer that the depths of “the prayer” would only be understood and experienced beyond the cross and empty tomb. Good Friday and Easter did not change Christ's call to pray this prayer, but they did change how far we can go in experiencing this prayer.
It is the gospel that protects us from the danger of dead rituals; from the temptation of looking for formulas and focusing on our performance before God. So Christ crucified and Christ victorious over death, reconciliation to God by grace, through faith, assurance because of Jesus, all of these things help us in terms of right practice with “the prayer”, and right perspective as well.
We'll talk about that more in the weeks to come, but let's thank God for “so great a salvation”; for life through and life for and life with Jesus Christ. And let's ask Him to take seriously the words of Jesus: “pray then like this”.