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

July 12, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

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

How to Pray (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of articles about the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught His disciples how to pray (and how not to pray).

Jesus taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer:

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

After the opening address, Our Father in heaven, six petitions follow. The first three pertain to God directly—His name, His kingdom, and His will. These are followed by another three which have to do with us directly—our physical needs, sins, and temptations.

In upcoming articles we will cover each of the petitions in detail. We touched on the concept of God as Father, but not as male, in the previous article. We’ll now look more closely at our relating to God as our Father, as per the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father in heaven.

The word Jesus used in prayer when addressing His Father was the Aramaic word Abba, which meant Father. It is understandable that Jesus, as the unique Son of God, would call His Father Abba, but the remarkable thing is that He taught those who believe in Him to address God as Abba as well.

Within His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts an emphasis on “your Father” by using the phrase eleven times (as a comparison, He used this wording in the Gospels only four other times after the Sermon, and none before).2 From the Sermon onward, Jesus would also frequently speak of God as His own Father in a way which seems to exclude others from that special relationship. As the unique Son of God, the Word of God who became flesh,3 Jesus’ relationship to the Father is different from ours. This is seen earlier in Matthew, at Jesus’ baptism, when God said This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,4 as well as when He was tempted by the devil, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”5 It is most clearly expressed in the first recorded prayer of Jesus in Matthew, when Jesus prayed:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.6

While Jesus is the unique Son of God, we too become children of God through belief in Him. The early church understood that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, believers were members of the family of God and therefore could call God their Father, Abba.

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!7

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father! The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.8

Praying “our Father” implies a sense of intimacy, that we are addressing one who loves us and cares for us. This mode of address was different from the common form of prayer used by the heathen religions of the Gentiles. Prayer isn’t meant to be a complicated formal manner of addressing an unpredictable entity, as it was understood by the Romans and Greeks of Jesus’ day, but rather is communication from the heart. The prayer Jesus taught was short and unpretentious, a simple address by those who know that they depend on their Father for their daily needs, who need their sins forgiven, and also need His protection and care.

By beginning the prayer with “our Father in heaven,” Jesus brings out not only the father/child relationship, but also reminds us that the one we address as Father is at the same time supremely great, for He is in heaven and we are not. There is a balance here, as we address God intimately while also being aware of His might and infinite greatness. He is God almighty, the all-powerful Creator of everything that exists. He is also our loving “Abba,” and we are His children who have confidence in and depend on Him.

Speaking of God as “our Father in heaven” sets Him above earthly fathers, as He is perfect—and no earthly father is. While Jesus taught that we should understand the relationship we have with God as being similar to the relationship one has with a loving father, we are also to remember that He is our “Father in heaven,” and not human and prone to faults like our fathers on earth.

Those who believe in and receive Jesus can call God their Father. To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.9 Of course, God is the Creator of all things and all people and has given life to everyone, and in that context, everyone is part of “God’s offspring,”10 but that is not the way the New Testament writers use the father-son imagery with respect to God and His children.11 In Scripture there is a distinction between those who believe in and thus belong to God, and those who don’t. We can see this in the prayer Jesus prayed the night before His crucifixion: I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.12 It’s also conveyed in the first epistle of John: See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.13 The relationship with God as Father has to do with those who believe in Jesus. It is a gift of God and a great privilege to address God as “our Father.”

As far as a pattern for prayer, we learn from the opening of the Lord’s Prayer to begin our prayers by putting our focus on our Father in heaven, who is a personal Being with whom we are in relationship. We enter into His presence, we praise and worship Him. We come before Him with the understanding that our relationship with Him is as that of a child with a loving parent. He loves us, knows our needs, wants to take care of us, and wants the best for us. Because of our relationship with our Father in heaven, we trust Him, count on Him, and know that He has our best interests at heart. This is a foundational understanding of Christian 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.

General Bibliography

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

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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.

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

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1 This is how the ESV translates this prayer. Most of us recite it in the traditional form, which is how it’s basically translated in the KJV: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts [trespasses], as we forgive our debtors [those who trespass against us]. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen (Matthew 6:9–13 KJV).

2 In the Sermon: Matthew 5:16, 44–45, 48; 6:1, 4, 8, 9, 14, 18, 26; 7:11. After the Sermon: Matthew 10:20, 29; 13:43; 23:9.

3 See John 1:1–14.

4 Matthew 3:17.

5 Matthew 4:3, 6.

6 Matthew 11:25–27.

7 Galatians 4:4–6.

8 Romans 8:15–16.

9 John 1:12.

10 Acts 17:28–29.

11 Carson, Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 68.

12 John 17:9.

13 1 John 3:1.