Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount

June 21, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

How to Pray (Part 1)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about having the right attitude concerning prayer. He said that we should not pray for the purpose of being noticed by others, and for those who do so, that in itself will be their reward and they will receive no other. Jesus followed that by exhorting on how not to pray, and then showing the right way to pray by teaching His disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

He explained the wrong type of prayer this way:

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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.1

He was teaching that the prayers of His followers should not be like those of the Roman and Greek gentiles, who would pray to their gods at length in the belief that wordy, flowery prayers were the way to be heard and get a response. As one author wrote:

Some pagans thought that if they named all their gods, and addressed their petitions to each of them, and then repeated themselves a few times, they would have a better chance of receiving an answer.2Another scholar adds: Pagans also reminded a deity of favors owed, seeking an answer on contractual grounds, as many ancient texts attest and historians often remark.3

Instead, Jesus taught that prayers should not consist of “many words,” of heaping up empty phrases, or as other translations render it: don’t babble like idolaters;4 do not use vain repetitions;5 do not use meaningless repetition;6 do not keep on babbling.7

Kenneth Bailey, in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, included an example of the kind of wordiness and excessive flattery one might have heard in ancient Greek and Roman prayers. This was taken from an 1891 letter written by a Persian scholar who was giving a gift to a Christian missionary scholar:

A souvenir to the esteemed spiritual physician and religious philosopher, his Excellency, the only and most learned who has no second in his age, Dr... As a souvenir presented to his loftiness and goodness and to him that is above titles, who is a propagator of knowledge and the founder of perfections, and a possessor of high qualities and owner of praiseworthy character, the pole of the firmament of virtues and the pivot of the circle of sciences, the author of splendid works and firm foundations, who is well versed in the understanding of the inner realities of the soul and horizons, who deserves that his name be written with light upon the eyes of the people rather than with gold on paper, at Beirut, in the month of Rabia, in the year 1891, by the most humble8 

The ancient pagans’ understanding of their gods led them to pray long and wordy prayers in the belief that long-winded prayers would show their sincerity, thus impressing the gods and encouraging them to answer. The gods were believed to be easily offended and given to making sudden and unexpected changes. Because the gods were unpredictable, those who petitioned them in prayer could be anxious and fearful, feeling that it was important to pray long, ornate, and elaborate prayers in order to win the gods’ favor and convince them to respond positively. 

Jesus’ teaching about prayer was based on a completely different understanding of who God is and what He is like. The Father is loving and merciful:

You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.9 For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.10

He is benevolent, kind, just, and holy. Unlike the pagan gods, He does not have to be persuaded to do something by flattery or verbosity, neither can He be manipulated by cleverly worded prayers. Rather, as our Father, He knows our needs and delights in supplying them when He knows it’s best for us, like any loving parent does.

Jesus was pointing out, as He did throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount, that the motive, the intent of the heart in our giving, fasting, and prayer is paramount. He spoke against lengthy public prayers designed to impress others, both in the Sermon and elsewhere.

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows houses and for a pretense make long prayers.11

Besides speaking against lengthy prayers, He also spoke against the idea that God can be maneuvered or stage-managed into granting requests by pompous prayers.

Jesus was focusing on the right motive for praying, as opposed to the technical means of prayer. He wasn’t forbidding long prayers; we read elsewhere in the Gospels that He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.12He wasn’t teaching against being persistent in our prayers, a lesson He Himself taught in the parable of the unjust judge.13 Neither was He teaching that we could never repeat the same words in prayer, which He did in the Garden of Gethsemane right before He was arrested:

Going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.  Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.  So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.14

Earlier, Jesus spoke of the wrong motive for prayer, speaking of the Pharisees making sure to arrange their schedules so they would be in a busy street or marketplace at the time of afternoon prayer so they could be observed praying. He then spoke of the right attitude regarding prayer—that it should be in secret, in the sense that people should shut themselves in with God, concentrating upon Him and their relationship to Him when they pray.15 He then pointed out the deficiencies of mechanical prayer—prayer that is the babbling of empty, meaningless repetition, which doesn’t come from the heart or from a place of communion with God. As we’ll look at in upcoming articles, He didn’t end by telling us how not to pray, but He also taught us how to pray, by giving us the Lord’s Prayer. As we delve into its meaning, we find that besides being a prayer we can recite, it also lays out a number of principles which give us guidance in how to pray.

Jesus was teaching that one should not pray because one thinks that one’s prayers or formulas earn God’s favor, but as an expression of trust in the Father, who already knows one’s need and merely waits for His children to express their dependence on Him.16

Do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.17

Jesus lays some groundwork here for what He is soon to teach about believers’ priorities and having a deeper understanding of the Father’s care and concern for us.

When we pray, we communicate with the One who is all-powerful, all-knowing, totally pure and holy, righteous, and full of glory—the most powerful being that exists. While He is all these things and so much more, He is also our Father, who loves us unconditionally and who, in His love, has made it possible for us to enter His presence through prayer. It is in prayer that we communicate with Him, that we show our faith that He is there, that we have confidence in Him, and are in a personal relationship with Him. Prayer is a key element of our fellowship with God, and understanding the way God wants us to pray is vital to that relationship. From this point onwards in the Sermon, Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, which we will cover in the following articles.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:19:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:5124:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:2716:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 18:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

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Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Witherington III, Ben. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Matthew 6:7–8.

2 Carson, Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 64.

3 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 211.

4 CSB.


6 NAS.

7 NIV.

8 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 93.

9 Nehemiah 9:17.

10 Matthew 5:45.

11 Luke 20:46–47.

12 Luke 6:12.

14 Matthew 26:39, 42, 44.

15 Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 321.

16 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 213.

17 Matthew 6:31–32.