The Lord’s Prayer, Part 1

Matthew 6:9, “Our Father which art in heaven…”

John Calvin first published his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 in order to give the world an idea of what the Reformed faith was all about.  He organized the first part of his little book around expositions of the Ten Commandments (Law), the Apostle’s Creed (Faith), and the Lord’s Prayer (Prayer).  The last two chapters deal with the doctrine of the church.  But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that Calvin would choose to put the Lord’s Prayer front and center in a book that was meant to delineate what it meant to be a Reformed Christian?  Clearly, Calvin did so because he understood the vital importance of prayer.  And he also understood the primacy of the Lord’s Prayer when it came to getting a handle on how to pray.  

The church has always embraced the Lord’s Prayer as a model for prayer.  Surely this is how our Lord meant for the prayer to be taken.  It is not wrong to pray the Lord’s Prayer verbatim, but we should be careful lest we turn it into vain repetitions (ver. 7).  In fact, Paul wrote down many prayers for us in his epistles, and none of them are exactly like the Lord’s Prayer.  So it’s not meant for that purpose.  This prayer is not magical, as if it acted like some spiritual potion when it is uttered.  Rather, the prayer is a model.  It is meant to inform the priorities of prayer, as well as to give us encouragement to prayer.  The fact that the Son of God has given us a prayer is the best evidence that God wants his children to pray.  A loving parent would never even consider tormenting their son or daughter by giving them a sandwich and then telling them not to eat it.  A good parent does not give their children a gift and then tell them not to enjoy it.  Even so, God, with whom we are all evil in comparison, is a good and loving Father.  He does not give us the good gift of prayer without inviting and expecting us to use it.  “After this manner therefore pray ye:” this is a command to pray.  Here then, is not only a model for prayer, but an invitation to prayer, an invitation from God the Father himself.

As we begin to look at this prayer, we should perhaps devote a few words to an overview of the prayer itself.  This prayer is clearly divided up into two parts.  In verses 9-10, the prayer addresses God’s mission to glorify his name in the earth.  Thus, we are to pray that his name be worshiped among the nations, that his kingdom come to all men, and that his will done on earth as it is in heaven.  I really do believe this is a God-centered missionary prayer.  Prayer does not start with our needs, but with God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will.  When we pray this way, we are putting into practice our Lord’s admonition in 6:33, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God.”  It is so important to begin this way.  Because if we don’t, we are going to lose sight of what is most important, and we will become self-centered and self-absorbed.  We will use the gifts that God has given us which are meant to magnify his name in this world and spoil them on ourselves.  In other words, we can’t even pray rightly for our own needs, without seeing them in the context of our place in God’s larger purpose – the pursuit of his glory among the nations.  So it is right that we begin here.

Again, this does not mean that we have to start with these words every time we pray.  But what I think our Lord is telling us is that we need to see all our requests in the light of God’s priorities.  John Piper has said that prayer is not meant to be used as a domestic intercom, but rather as a wartime walkie-talkie.  And the way to be of a mindset that sees prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie is to constantly be reminding ourselves that the purpose of prayer is not to pad our life with comforts but to draw near to God and to enjoy him more and to draw others into the enjoyment of God.

However, seeking the kingdom of heaven does not make this world go away.  Every believer, no matter how saintly, is constantly exposed to pressing needs brought on by life in the here and now.  Our Lord does not teach us to neglect the present in light of the future; only to see the present in light of the future.  So he goes on in verses 11-13 to the disciple’s personal needs. 

But even among these requests, which are divided into three, two out of the three are prayers for the spiritual health of the believer (prayer for forgiving and being forgiven and a prayer for deliverance from temptation).  This does not minimize the fact that “give us this day our daily bread” is a comprehensive request that God meet our physical needs.  However, the focus in the Lord’s Prayer is that we be the kind of person who can join God in advancing his kingdom.  Our physical health is important, and we ought to take care of that and ask God to bless it, but our spiritual health is so much more important, and the priorities of the Lord’s Prayer demonstrate this.

I love how God’s sovereignty lies beneath each request.  As we shall see, the prayer really begins with an affirmation of God’s sovereignty, and then as we go on to pray for our needs, we are appealing to God’s sovereignty to do something for us.  It is an implicit affirmation that without him we are nothing, and that he is able to provide for our every need.  Thus, “our own needs, though demoted to second place, will yet be comprehensively committed to him (‘Give us . . . forgive us . . . deliver us’).”[1]  You don’t pray this way to a God who can only look on with pity but who cannot intervene.  We are praying to a God who is sovereign over the money we have in the bank and the food on our plates, who is sovereign over our own hearts, who is sovereign over this very evil world that seeks to overthrow our faith.  Last time as we looked at the previous verses, we noted that our Lord was at pains to emphasize that God knows and cares about our needs.  In this prayer, he is at pains to emphasize that God is able to meet our needs.

Finally, before we go on to consider the prayer in more detail, I think it should be pointed out that there is a community aspect to the Lord’s Prayer.  It is not, “My Father” but “our Father;” not “forgive me” but “forgive us,” and so on.  In the same way, when Paul prays for the Ephesian believers, he prays that they “may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18-19).  Thus, it is not right to pray only for our own personal needs, but we ought to look outside ourselves to pray for the needs of our spiritual family, for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  

So let’s look now at the opening words of the prayer: “Our Father which art in heaven.”  As the Puritan Thomas Manton put it, in these words our Lord describes God to us “partly from his goodness and mercy – Our Father; and partly from his greatness and majesty – which art in heaven.[2]  We shall consider these words from these two different but complementary aspects.

I. There is a sense in which God is the Father of every human being because he is the Creator.  In Malachi, we read these words: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10).  In this sense Adam is call the son of God (Luke 3:38).  However, when the Biblical authors refer to God as Father, they are not usually referring to him in this sense.  Rather, they are referring to a relationship that is not ours by virtue of creation, but one that is ours by virtue of adoption.

Why would we need to be adopted by God?  You don’t adopt your own children!  However, we all recognize that it is possible to denounce a stubborn and rebellious child.  These are extreme cases, to be sure, but sometimes they are necessary.  If the rebellion is so bad that it has brought the family name into disrepute and if it is so stubborn that there are no hopeful signs of repentance, then it might be time to disown that son or daughter.

In a similar way, mankind has been disowned by God because of sin.  And sin is really that bad.  We have brought God’s name into disrepute because of sin, and our sin is incorrigible.  It is no longer only creation that defines us; sin and Satan now rule men and women in rebellion against God.  We are by nature no longer in his family, and we are born, as Paul puts it, under the wrath of God, without hope, and without God in this world (Eph. 2:3, 12).  We are born, not the happy servants of God, but God-less, wanting to be masters of our own fate, and hostile to any law external to our own will.  We, who owe everything to God, for “in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28), we have rejected God, even sometimes while paying lip-service to him.  We are thankless for his gifts, ascribing them to our own abilities, while we live not for God’s glory but for our own.  We have slapped Almighty God in the face numerous times, saying “no” to him every time we sin.  And to top off the indignity, even though we have rejected God we still think he owes us a good life on earth and an easy entrance into heaven when we die.  Man in sin no longer sees God as King and himself God’s servant, but sees himself as King and God as his servant.

But here is the amazing thing.  God does not need us.  We are dust and ashes before him (Gen. 18:27).  God is perfectly happy in the fellowship of the Trinity.  And yet, God is willing to share his love with this fallen humanity.  Though sin has created a breach so definite between us and God that we can no longer be considered his children, he has made a way to bring us back.  That way is Christ, the eternal Son of God.  He made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21).  God punished sin in Christ, who bore it on the cross and made a full and complete atonement for it, so that if we are connected to Jesus Christ we are no longer considered Iiable to the just wrath of God.

But God has done more than that.  In Christ, he has not only made a way for us to be right with God, he has made a way for us to be reintroduced into the family of God.  The apostle John put it this way: “But as many as received him [Jesus], to them gave he power [the right] to become the sons of God, even to them which believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).  Of all the blessings which are ours through Christ, to be adopted into the family of God is the crowning privilege.

Think about what this means.  If you belong to Christ, then you are in the family of God.  And that means that God is no longer your enemy, he is your Father.  It means that you are an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ (cf Rom. 8:15-17).  It means that God loves you with the love a daddy has for his little daughter.  And such is his love for you that he will not allow anything to come between it and you.  You are his for keeps.  In Roman law, an adopted son could not be disinherited.  In some sense, an adopted son was in a stronger position than a natural born son.  Even so with God.  If you are an adopted son or daughter, there is no separating you from the love that God has for you.

Now think about what this means with respect to prayer.  There is a reason why Jesus told us to address God in prayer as Father.  I think one of the reasons he has done so is because when God brings us into his family, he not only puts on us the family name (adoption) he also puts in us the family likeness (regeneration), so that this is how we want to come to God.  This is how Paul puts it: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).

However, sometimes we need to be reminded that this is exactly our relationship with God.  He is our Father.  We are his children.  If you don’t believe that, you are not really going to draw near to God in prayer.  How could you?  He is the King of the universe!  To come to God any other way would be ridiculous.  It is only because he is our Father that we can have any confidence that our puny prayers will be heard.  Let me illustrate what I mean: My daughter loves to pick weeds for her mother.  And you know what?  Anyone else would not appreciate them.  But my wife loves it when our daughter does it because she knows that her daughter is doing it to please her mother.  Even so, your prayers may be made up of weeds, but if you are a son or daughter of God, then I can assure you that God will collect your weedy prayers and put them on display in heaven.  No vial of prayer broken over the feet of Christ is wasted.

Therefore, it is imperative that we are in the family of God.  It is the only way to true prayer.  And the only way to be in the family of God is through Christ.  John tells us that those who received him were given the right to become children of God.  Now here is the amazing thing.  You may think that you are too far gone to receive such an invitation.  But it is precisely the sinner to whom Christ calls: “Come unto me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).  So, with Jesus, with Paul, with John, I urge you to come to Christ, to look to Christ, to commit yourself to Christ (cf. Rom. 10:8-13)!  Those who truly do so are saved, adopted into the family of God, and heirs and eternal joy and glory.

II. But our Lord goes on to describe the Father with the words: “which art in heaven.”  Though it is so easy to just run over these words without thinking, they are full of meaning and importance for us.  (Here is an instance where we so often use the words of Scripture in prayer, as when we begin with “Heavenly Father…” without realizing just what we are saying.)  

Here’s what we must not do with these words: we must not think that they mean the Father is in heaven but not upon the earth.  They are certainly not intended to contradict the Scriptural teaching that God is omnipresent.  As Solomon put it in his prayer, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built?” (1 Kings 8:27).  Or David: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Ps. 139:7-8).  

What then is intended by this description?  In what sense is God the Father in heaven if he is present everywhere?  Here is what I think is meant: heaven is the place where God most fully manifests his glory to bless.[3]  It is in that sense that God is in heaven.  God is everywhere, but God is also invisible to human eyes, except where he manifests himself visibly in glory.  Nowhere is this more manifest than in heaven.  There have been glimpses of this on earth from time to time – as on Mount Sinai, or on the Mount of Transfiguration – but in heaven God’s glory is most fully and continually visibly revealed as it cannot be on earth in its present fallen state.

Thus, when we are directed to address God the Father as “in heaven,” our Lord is directing us to have our hearts and minds duly impressed with a sense of the greatness and majesty of God.  And you can see that this is the way the writers of Scripture intend us to take this phrase.  For example, Ps. 115:3, “But our God is in the heavens, he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.”  Or Ps. 2:1-4, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.  He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.”  Or 2 Chron. 20:6, “O LORD God of our fathers, art not thou God in heaven?  And rulest not thou over all the kingdoms of the heathen?  And in thine hand is there not power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee?”  Thus, I think John Stott is right when he comments, “The words ‘in the heavens’ denote not the place of his abode so much as the authority and power at his command as the creator and ruler of all things.  Thus he combines fatherly love with heavenly power, and what his love directs his power is able to perform.”[4]

Thus, when we address God as our Father, we are meant to have our hearts affected with our nearness to God and his concern for us and his love to us.  And when we go on to add, “which art in heaven,” we are meant to have our hearts affected with the transcendence of God and his power to help us.  His arm is not shortened that he cannot save.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 146.

[2] Thomas Manton, Manton’s Complete Works, Vol. 1, p. 40.

[3] I believe that this is the way Wayne Grudem puts it in his Systematic Theology.

[4] Stott, p. 146.


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