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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Article by David Hall

New Life in an Old Prayer?

May 7, 2015 •

Read Mt. 6:9

So having first told his disciples how NOT to pray, Jesus also told them what to do; and now he moves on to give them a model or perfect example for prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. The parallel in Luke 11 reports that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:2). His primer is found in these next verses.

Indubitably this has become the most popular (and sometimes the most mindlessly mimed) prayer of Christianity. Luther called the Lord’s Prayer the greatest martyr, because it is so tortured and abused. What he meant, of course, was that “it is so familiar that we are constantly tempted to pray it mechanically and thoughtlessly.” (Thielicke) The “Our Father” or “Paternoster” is probably the most familiar passage of scripture. J. C. Ryle commented: “Thousands who never read Bibles are familiar with it. It is often the first prayer that children learn. Yet it contains the germ of everything which the most advanced saint can desire. Happy would it be for the world if this prayer was as well known in the spirit as it is in the letter.”[1]

Called the “Lord’s Prayer” but technically it might better be the Disciples Prayer or the Lord’s Model Prayer, for it is not his own prayer. The Lord’s own prayer for himself occurs in John 17. In this passage we find a prayer that our Lord gave as a model. (Note: He does not say “recite” but pray “like”) Our practice may be a little overly ritualistic if we recited this prayer every Sunday. The word “like” signifies a great analogy, pattern, or example. So this prayer may not have its best use in rote repetition so much as a guide or outline for prayer.

Before we look at the individual clauses in this prayer, note a few brief general observations:

  • The disciples needed instruction and asked for it on how and what to pray. We should not create our own methods of prayer, but follow those used by Christ; we are too sinful to discover better ways.
  • The disciples asked for practical help in learning how to pray (Lk. 11:11). They realized their need of instruction. Jesus, then, responds by teaching on the place, the form, and the content (or words) of prayer. Apparently we need to be taught all of these things.

As astute observer will learn that prayer is not best if it is based on whim, emotion, or whenever we have nothing else to do. We need to learn how to pray; it is not, in other words, natural. We don’t know how to pray instinctively. We need Christ’s sanctifying grace even to pray as we ought.

a. First, just as human beings are not born good, neither do we have the equipment or leanings to pray well—apart from the Holy Spirit and his Word. Instead of being wired to pray correctly, we love darkness (Jn. 3:19, 20) and possess a natural aversion to God. We don’t love or seek God by nature (Rom 3:10). We refuse to honor or serve him (Rom 1:18ff). Even as redeemed people we are weighed down by a lethargy that extends down into the seedbed of our old nature. Our bodies drag us down, our habits lead us astray, our hearts deceive, and our minds wander—none of these help with prayer. At times, we even run from or rebel against God. Thus, we need tutelage in prayer.

b. Second, we are filled with idol-making. The human heart, Calvin said in a widely repeated quote, is a perpetual idol factory. Often we do not pray because we are forging an idol that comes between us and the true God. What might yours be?

We can “exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom 1:23, 25). The scope of human religion is also a history of idolatry. Apart from regeneration and sanctification, if left to follow our hearts, we will invariably get it wrong. Our Savior is kind and gentle enough to provide instruction in this art.

c. Third, how we pray and the right approach is important enough to God that he gave us a pattern for this activity. It must matter to him how we pray to him. While an untutored generation may tell itself that what’s really important is THAT we pray, no so much WHAT we pray, God actually takes prayer more seriously. Thankfully, his pattern is a divine guide.

Do you wish to know what might please God in prayer? Jesus issues some hints here in Matthew that we should absorb. Dr. Terry Johnson puts it well: “He’s not pleased with just any old concept of God which we might have. He’s not pleased with any prayers which we might offer. You might think that it ought not to matter to God, but it does. He is not pleased to receive any scraps of religious interest that we might offer to him. He requires that we think of him rightly, and that we approach him rightly. Consequently, we must be taught. We need instruction.”[2]

This prayer presupposes that the pray-er is a disciple. Strictly speaking, it is not for the non-Christian to pray. “It is immediately clear that not everyone is privileged to address God thus. That is the exclusive prerogative of those who are in Christ.”[3]

The first three petitions are passive imperatives in the third person. Behind that technicality it means that the focus is on God’s name, reign, and will being commanded to advance, but we are unable to bring it about. God alone brings/ushers in his name, reign and will. We do have a more active part (as indicated by 2nd person) in the petitions concerning our bread, debts, and temptation. Just carefully watch from the initial part of Jesus’ pattern this distinction in pronouns—”Your” opposed to “our.” That makes an enormous difference in prayer.

[1] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 52.

[2] Terry L. Johnson, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the Lectio Contnua Commentary on the New Testament (forthcoming; from unpublished mss.)

[3] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 246.


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