Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
July 4, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
How to Pray (Part 2)
After teaching His disciples that the proper motivation for prayer is communicating with God and entering into fellowship with Him, as well as advising them to avoid meaningless prayers full of vain repetitions, Jesus shared a prayer with His disciples (and us) which we can use in our time of communion with God.
His prayer, commonly referred to as “the Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father,” is recorded within the Sermon on the Mount:
Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”1
The Gospel of Luke also shows Jesus teaching this prayer to the disciples, under different circumstances:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’”2
Before delving into the meaning of the prayer, I thought it might be helpful to present some basic information which will help in understanding what Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer.
The different versions
The fact that there are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer has generated a variety of opinions among Bible scholars as to which version came first and which is closest to what Jesus taught and whether Jesus meant it to be prayed exactly as He delivered it. Without going into the intricacies of the differences, we can imagine that Jesus taught this prayer more than once, and that He may have presented different versions. The differences between the two versions are minor and don’t cause them to contradict each other.
Recite the prayer or use it as a pattern?
Before going through the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase, which we will begin in the next post, there are some initial background points which I would like to cover.
The first is whether Jesus meant for the prayer to be recited word for word, or if it was meant to be a pattern of how we should pray. Jesus prefaced the prayer with:
Pray then like this:
Or as translated in the NKJV:
In this manner, therefore, pray.
Or in the NIV:
This, then, is how to pray.3
The differences of opinion are whether Jesus was teaching His disciples to recite the prayer as He gave it, or if He was teaching what aspects should be included in our prayers in general. Scholars who feel that Jesus was teaching that this prayer should be prayed word for word base that understanding on Luke’s “when you pray, say…”4 interpreting this to mean that the prayer should be recited using these specific words.
Scot McKnight explains this position:
The disciples approach Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray, and they ask to be taught the way John taught his disciples to pray. But the next words clarify what they are requesting and make the request much more concrete. Jesus says to them, and now I translate more literally to bring out the nuances of the Greek text, “Whenever you pray, recite this.” Jesus’ words show that he is thinking they are asking for a set prayer—something very Jewish to do—and he gives them just that. Then he says they are to pray this prayer whenever they pray (perhaps only as a group but probably whenever any one of them prays). And the word “say” can be translated “recite.”
These verses, then, don’t teach so much “how” to pray but what to say whenever they pray. Jesus taps into the great Jewish prayer tradition of memorized prayer and gives a new template of prayer, but the kind of template that is recited over and over as a form of spiritual formation. We have the book of Psalms because these were prayers deemed worthy of recitation in public, and we have the Lord’s Prayer as another instance of recited prayer.5
A differing view is given by Leon Morris:
If [the Lord’s Prayer] was to be used as a pattern rather than as a rigid form, nothing is more probable than that it should vary somewhat on different occasions. “Like this” indicates that what follows is meant as a guide, a model, rather than a set form of words. This does not mean that the Lord’s Prayer may not usefully and meaningfully be used exactly as it is enunciated, but it points us to the truth that Jesus is giving us a model that may usefully be employed in fashioning other prayers.6
R. T. France wrote:
It is sometimes suggested that the introductory formulae in Matthew and Luke point to different conceptions of the nature of prayer. Luke’s “when you pray say” [indicates] a set form of words to be repeated, while Matthew’s “This, then, is how you should pray” suggests a pattern for right praying rather than a liturgical formula. But this is probably too artificial a distinction, and it is likely that when Jesus taught these words (in whichever form) he would have been content for them to be used in either way. Christian tradition has always found them to be suitable either for simple repetition or as a template for more extended prayer or a basis for thinking (and teaching) about prayer and its priorities.7
I agree that the prayer can fulfill a dual purpose. It can rightfully be recited word for word; it also can provide certain principles, which will be covered in the following articles and can be applied to prayer in general and be helpful in our personal prayers.
(Some may wonder if, in general, reciting written prayers is inferior to praying “personal” prayers. You can pray a written prayer and make the words your own, and it can be as heartfelt as any personalized prayer. There are some denominations which have books of prayers which are regularly prayed throughout the year. What’s important is that, however one prays, the prayer comes from the heart.)
A special gift8
It is generally understood that as the second-century church developed, the Lord’s Prayer had a special place in the weekly service, being prayed immediately before the sacrament of Communion. This part of the service was only for those who had been baptized and were believers. Those who were learning about Christianity were welcomed for the first part of the service, but when it was time for Communion they departed, leaving believers to pray the Lord’s Prayer and receive Communion. Those who were seeking to become baptized learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart and then joined in praying it for the first time at their first Communion, which took place right after their baptism. After that, they prayed it daily, and it was a token of their identification as Christians. Because the privilege of praying the Lord’s Prayer was limited to the baptized members of the church, it was known as the “prayer of the believers.”
As one of the most holy treasures of the church, the Lord’s Prayer, together with the Lord’s Supper, was reserved for believers. It was a privilege to be allowed to pray it. The reverence and awe surrounding the Lord’s Prayer was a reality in the ancient church. The prayer has become more commonplace today, but learning more about its meaning may renew in us a greater appreciation of it.
Similarity to Jewish prayer
The prayer Jesus taught His disciples has some similarities to the Jewish prayer the Amidah (otherwise known as the eighteen benedictions), which was regularly recited in Jesus’ day and continues to be recited by Jews today. Both prayers talk about the needs of the present and also mention the kingdom of God. They are both intended for individual as well as community prayer.9
The Amidah and other Jewish prayers were recited in classical Hebrew, which many Jews didn’t speak in Jesus’ day. Their mother tongue was Aramaic. Scriptures read in the synagogue at that time were read in Hebrew, and then repeated in Aramaic for the sake of comprehension. Author Kenneth Bailey points out that
The modern consensus among scholars is that the Lord’s Prayer begins with the Aramaic word abba [Father] and therefore we can assume that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the Aramaic of daily communication rather than in the classical Hebrew of written texts. The Aramaic-speaking Jew in the first century was accustomed to recite his prayers in Hebrew, not Aramaic.
He goes on to point out that Muslim worshipers today recite their traditional prayers in classical Arabic of the seventh century. Both Judaism and Islam have a sacred language, the “language of God,” and Christianity doesn’t. Jesus’ teaching the Lord’s Prayer in the common Aramaic language of the day showed that for Him, there was no sacred language.
When Jesus took the giant step of endorsing Aramaic as an acceptable language for prayer and worship, he opened the door for the New Testament to be written in Greek (not Hebrew) and then translated into other languages. It follows that if there is no sacred language, there is no sacred culture. All of this is a natural outgrowth of the incarnation. If the Word is translated from the divine to the human and becomes flesh, then the door is opened for that Word to again be translated into other cultures and languages … Believers are therefore able to break into God’s presence using the language of the heart.10
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus refers to God as Father; and in the Lord’s Prayer, He teaches His disciples to call God “Father.” To some people, calling God Father can be offensive, as they feel it supports the concepts of patriarchy and the subjugation of women, and they have called for the deletion of all reference to God as Father. In Charles Talbert’s book Reading the Sermon on the Mount, I found a good explanation for why God is called Father, parts of which I am quoting from and parts of which are summarized here.
There are two views of religious language in Christian churches today. The first is a relational view, the second a political view. The relational view assumes that religious speech arises out of an ongoing relationship between God’s people and God. It’s similar to speech used in human relationships. One can say things about their relationship with God which have similarities to the type of wording one would use in speaking about their relationship with another person; this is known as “confessional language.” For example, a Christian can speak of Jesus’ role in the relationship, such as “Jesus is my Lord” (similar to how in a human relationship one can say “Mary is my wife” or “George is my friend”). A Christian can also speak of him- or herself in terms of the relationship: “I am not the person I was before I met Christ. I have changed.” (As one could say the same of Mary, or George.) Likewise one can speak of the nature of the relationship between the two, “It is one in which God bestows grace and I respond to it.” This is confessional religious language. It confesses what the Christian understands to be the case about the role of Jesus in the relationship, what has happened as a result of the relationship, and about the nature of the relationship.
Understanding religious language as political assumes that religious language originates as a projection of the organization of human relationships on earth onto the canvas of heaven, and therefore any change in the human social order demands a corresponding change in the way one speaks of the heavenly world. In this view, if God is spoken of in masculine terms such as Father, this is considered a projection onto heaven of a patriarchal social system on the human level. It assumes that father-language for God is a reflection of the patriarchal world in which the Bible was written. It assumes that the Bible was written by men, therefore God is cast as male.
The relational view of religious language assumes that deity transcends sexuality, that God is neither male nor female. However, God is spoken of in Scripture in gendered terms. Sometimes He is spoken of in feminine terms:
I will cry out like a woman in labor…11 Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.12 As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you…13 Jesus said: How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…14
Whenever God is spoken of in feminine terms, it is always a simile, the comparison of two things. God is compared to a mother but is never named “Mother.”
At other times within Scripture, God is spoken of in masculine terms, again with simile:
The LORD goes out like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his zeal…15; as well as with metaphor/comparison: You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.16 O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.17
Jesus prayed Abba, Father.18 In the Bible, God is both compared to a male (simile) and addressed as Father (metaphor).
Why is it that in Scripture God is sometimes said to be like a mother, but isn’t called a mother, while God is both like a father and is called a father? There are two main reasons.
The first has to do with the understanding of who God is in relation to His creation. God who is all-powerful and above creation created all things from nothing, therefore is distinct from the universe. Some religions or belief systems look at this differently—they consider that God and creation are either the same thing or that creation is a part of God. Generally speaking, belief systems that see God as not being distinct from creation fall under the category of pantheism.
Beginning in Genesis and throughout the whole of Scripture, God is spoken of as existing above and independent of creation. If in Scripture God was called “Mother,” there could have been a misunderstanding regarding God’s transcendence. Calling the Creator “Mother” in ancient times would have been interpreted to mean that the creation was a birthing process, and therefore the universe and all that is in it would be part of God; which would mean that the universe is divine (pantheism), rather than being created by God (theism).
God revealed Himself to the writers of the Old Testament as being Spirit, thus not male or female. However, He referred to Himself metaphorically as a male, in order to maintain the “otherness” of God, and to avoid the perception that the world was “birthed” instead of created. This allows us to relate to Him as a personal Being without getting the wrong understanding of His relation to creation.
Another reason for calling God Father grows out of the practice of Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus not only spoke of God as Father,19 He also spoke to God as Father. He expressed His relationship with God using the concept of a loving Father, who cares for and deeply loves His children, and He invited His disciples to enter into a loving relationship with His Father. Jesus also made it clear that God is Spirit20 and is therefore genderless, but He conveyed His relationship to God using the concept of Father, He called God His Father, and He invited His disciples to call God Father as well. But this is a concept to convey God’s personhood, and not a gender statement. For those whose experience with their father makes it difficult to call God Father, there are other expressions that can be used to address God, such as Lord, God, Almighty One, Creator, etc.21
The last line of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew which reads For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.22 appears in some, but not all, English translations of the Bible. This phrase is a doxology which is not found in the earliest manuscripts, but appears to have been included in some manuscripts in the late second century.23 A doxology is a short expression of praise to God, which often appears at the end of a prayer in Scripture. It generally mentions who is being praised, followed by words of praise, and sometimes concludes with a time reference, such as “forever.” Some examples of doxologies from the New Testament are:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.24
To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.25
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.26
Because the Lord’s Prayer was used in worship services very early in Christianity, it is understood that the doxology “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen” was added as part of the prayer in later manuscripts. Some English translations include these words within the text, but put them in italics or brackets and include a footnote clarifying that they weren’t included in the earliest manuscript of Scripture. Other translations don’t include these words in the text, choosing instead to put them in a footnote with an explanation. While it seems likely that the doxology was most likely added later, when I pray the Lord’s prayer, I include it, as it is consistent with giving praise to God and is a wonderful ending to this beautiful prayer.
(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.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
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1 Matthew 6:9–13.
2 Luke 11:1–4.
3 Matthew 6:9.
4 Luke 11:2.
5 McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 174.
6 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 143.
7 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 241–242.
8 This point is taken from Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, 85.
9 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 94.
10 Ibid., 95.
11 Isaiah 42:14.
12 Isaiah 49:15.
13 Isaiah 66:13 NIV.
14 Luke 13:34.
15 Isaiah 42:13.
16 Isaiah 63:16.
17 Isaiah 64:8.
18 Mark 14:36.
19 Mark 13:32.
20 John 4:24.
21 Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount, 113–15.
22 Matthew 6:13 KJV.
23 Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 76.
24 Ephesians 3:20–21.
25 1 Timothy 1:17.
26 Revelation 1:5–6.