The most beloved prayer in Christendom is The Lord’s Prayer. In the gospel of Matthew, it appears in the Sermon on the Mount.
Amidst a swelling throng of seekers, Jesus announced the principles of a new world order. Although the crowd was within earshot, Jesus’ words were primarily directed to twelve men, hand-picked for a global-shaping undertaking. But of all the things they heard that day, nothing was more mission-critical than what they learned about prayer.
Using half the bandwidth of the Apostle’s Creed, Jesus taught them how to call upon resources they would soon need:
This, then, is how you should pray:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.”
A reverent recitation of the Lord’s Prayer takes only about 30 seconds. But economy is part of its brilliance. In a mere span of 52 words, Jesus condensed an array of theological truths that have been the subjects of volumes of religious writings for 2000 years.
Each verse, each phrase, each word is rich in theological content. What’s more, the worship elements of praise, petition, confession, submission, and, implicitly, thanksgiving are all there in five sparing verses.
Jesus begins by revealing the true nature of our relationship with God. The use of “Father” signifies that the Subject and supplicant are family members. The use of “Our,” rather than “My,” signifies that the family is not closed, but open to others. Indeed, “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
God could have chosen a contractual relationship for us, like “partner,” making our status conditional on acceptable performance. But he didn’t. He adopted us as children in standing with our elder Brother: “If we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” The apostle John expressed it well, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
The privilege to call on God as “Father” is a gift deserving nothing less than unreserved thanksgiving.
Our Father is not the “old man in the sky,” or the God in our hearts (which can be easily reduced to the God “in my imagination”). No, he is the Father who dwells in heaven.
Contrary to popular folklore, heaven is not an Elysian paradise beyond the known universe. Rather, heaven is an ultra-dimensional realm that interlocks with the familiar gridlines of space and time — a hidden, interstitial dominion where God, ever-present everywhere, sustains creation and accomplishes his will.
Reflecting on the One in heaven who fills “everything in every way,” prompts a response of awe and praise.
Hallowed be your name
To “hallow” means to treat as sacred something that is rightfully distinguished from the common and ordinary.
In biblical times, a name revealed something significant about a person: their character and nature. God is also revealed through his name. Realizing that no word or phrase could exhaust his description, the biblical writers used numerous appellations.
God is introduced in Genesis as Elohim, the plural form of the Hebrew, El. In ancient cultures, El denoted the supreme deity. Its plural form, Elohim, evokes Godhead. El is often conjoined with qualifiers like shaddai and olam to convey God’s omnipotent and eternal nature.
The most common scriptural reference to God is Jehovah, derived from the tetragrammaton, YHWH, interpreted as, “I AM.” Jehovah relates to God’s redemptive role which culminated at the Cross. When combined with jireh, rapha, shalom and tsidkenu, Jehovah communicates God’s provision, healing, peace and righteousness.
Divine roles are also conveyed titularly in King, Lord, Master, Holy One, Counselor, Rock, Judge, and Most High. It doesn’t take long to realize that the sum of God is beyond our comprehension and description. That is why His Name, above all names, is to be hallowed in adoration and worship.
Your kingdom come
One of the gospel’s most repeated themes of the kingdom is its “nearness.” That is not to suggest in the prior age the kingdom had been remote or non-existent, but rather that the kingdom once invisible would become increasingly manifest through Emmanuel and his bride, the Church.
“Your kingdom come” is not a plea for God’s kingdom to descend from heaven; it is thanksgiving for its existential reality and submission to its expanding influence in our lives, in expectation of the day when its reign will penetrate every dimension of human experience, making all things new.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven
We have access to technological wonders that were unimaginable just decades ago: global positioning systems, iPhones, magnetic resonance imaging, and robotic surgery, to name just a few.
Yet, for all of our success in harnessing nature, we have failed to harness the one thing at the root of all of our troubles: the human heart. Only by submitting to Him who can give us a transplant, can His Word flow in us and through us, so that by us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, His plans for this earth will be fulfilled.
Praying “your will be done,” is praying that “your will be done through me.”
Give us today our daily bread
We may possess many things – food, clothes, cars, homes – but none is solely the result of our effort. Everything we have is directly or indirectly a gift of God who provides our “daily bread.” But this is not wholly, or even chiefly, about physical bread: “The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” By this Bread we are nourished, not only in the Eucharist but by feeding on His word through contemplative prayer, meditation, and worship.
Asking for our “daily bread” is an expression of faith in God as the source of food, physical, spiritual and mystical, necessary for the life of body, soul and spirit.
Forgive us our debts
Nothing is more debilitating than the pressing notion of a moral standard that we know, but wish we didn’t because of the guilt we feel for violating it. A person who knew all about the crushing weight of sin was King David. In a passage that is likely a self-disclosure after sending Uriah to his death, David writes,
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
It wasn’t until the prophet Nathan pointed a flood light to the king’s offense, that David acknowledged his guilt, confessed his sin, and experienced God’s peace.
“Forgive us our debts” is an act of contrition. Acknowledging our guilt before a righteousness God, we confess and repent of our sins, placing our faith in his grace and mercy. The result is peace that no psychotherapy or pharmaceutical can ever deliver.
As we also have forgiven our debtors
For the Christian, forgiveness is not an option. I am commanded to love others as Christ loved me. And since Christ loved me by forgiving me of my sins, I must forgive those who offend me, even up to “seventy times seven.”
Forgiveness does not mean that I must forget a wrong or extend unearned trust to the wrong-doer. It means that instead of demanding restitution, I must initiate reconciliation with others, as Jesus initiated reconciliation with me.
And lead us not into temptation
This is not to suggest that God would tempt us or lead us into a morally compromising circumstance. Scripture makes clear that Satan is the agent of temptation. Rather, this is a declaration of our inability to withstand the onslaught of Satan’s devices absent God’s help.
In recognition of our frailty, we trust God who “will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear” and “will provide a way out so that we can stand up under it.”
“Lead us not into temptation” is a petition that we will 1) desire “a way out,” 2) recognize the escape route that God provides, and 3) have the will, like Joseph fleeing from the arms of Potiphar’s wife, to take it without hesitation or reservation.
But deliver us from the evil one
Trusting that we have been delivered from the condemnation of sin through the Cross, and that God will deliver us one day from consequences of sin in a fallen world, we acknowledge that, in the between time, we need victory over the habit of sin in our lives with the help of the Holy Spirit.
This phrase expresses our dependence on God for that victory. It is He, Paul confidently professed, who “will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.” This is the work of the Triune God, by which we are being transformed from cadavers of corruption to beings glorious and imperishable.
With ingenious economy, our Lord established a memorable model for prayer. When we use it as an outline for worship, we incline ourselves for an encounter with the living God. As we meditate on each word and phrase, while engaging the body in a posture of humility, we experience God in mind, heart, soul and strength.