Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
August 9, 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 5)
This is the fifth in a series of articles about the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught His disciples how to pray.
Having looked at the first three petitions in which we pray for God to be reverenced, His kingdom to come, and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we now move on to the next three petitions. In transitioning to this next part of the prayer, two changes become evident. (1) The prayer turns from focusing on petitions related to the Father to focusing on human needs. This pattern—first prioritizing God, and second moving on to human needs—is also seen elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings.
“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”1 Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.2
(2) The prayer changes from the second person singular (your name, your kingdom, your will) to the first person plural (our bread, our debts, us). The person praying is praying to God, but the prayer doesn’t focus only on their individual needs, but also on the needs of other believers; the petition is for “our” bread, the forgiveness of “our” sins, and delivering “us” from evil. We pray as part of and on behalf of the whole community of those who believe in and depend on God.3
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.4
This fourth petition, Give us this day our daily bread, has presented some difficulty for scholars interpreting it. The Greek word epiousios, translated as “daily,” is only found in the Gospels, and not in any other ancient Greek literature. Since there is no other usage to compare it to, most attempts to translate it come from the Greek form of the word itself. This means that there are three main alternatives. (1) From the noun meaning “substance, being, essence”—meaning bread for subsistence, necessary for existence; (2) from the verb “to be”—meaning bread for the present (day), for today; (3) from the future tense of the verb “to come”—meaning bread for the coming (day), for the future.
There is no consensus on which is the exact intended meaning, and therefore there are different ways that this petition has been seen over the centuries. One is that this is a prayer for God to give us the future bread of the kingdom, the bread of salvation. Some of the early Church Fathers considered it to mean the Eucharist, or communion bread. Others translate it as “bread for today” as in “give us this day our daily bread,” while others consider it to mean give us tomorrow’s bread, or “give us day by day our daily bread.” Most contemporary commentators consider the bread for today or tomorrow’s bread the most likely accurate translation. Considering that in the latter part of this same chapter (Matthew 6) Jesus is teaching not to be anxious about the things of life, including food and clothes, but to look to God for His supply, it’s likely that this petition in the Lord’s Prayer has to do with the present needs of the body.
Give us this day our daily bread, as is stated in Matthew,5 and give us each day our daily bread,6 as it’s written in Luke, both convey the request for our Father to provide our physical needs—whatever is needed for the preservation of our lives. In petitioning Him for our needs, we are expressing our dependence on Him. In first-century Mediterranean life, workers were paid daily and only had enough to live on day by day. Today’s pay bought today’s food. Living in such insecure circumstances made the prayer very meaningful. God providing daily bread would have also reminded the Jewish people of God supplying manna when they were in the wilderness. When they first saw it, they wondered what it was. Moses told them: It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.7 He supplied enough each day for that day, and on the sixth day He supplied enough for two days, so that they didn’t need to gather on the Sabbath.8 God literally supplied their daily bread.
We acknowledge our dependence on our heavenly Father when we pray this prayer. We are expressing that we look to Him to supply our physical needs, and we ask Him to do so. We’re told to pray for our needs, not for luxuries or abundance. The Lord wants us to trust Him and depend on Him to supply our needs.
The fifth petition reads:
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Following the Lord’s Prayer, there is further emphasis placed on forgiveness within the Sermon on the Mount: For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.9
This brings up the question: If we are members of the kingdom of God through Jesus’ sacrificial death, does our not forgiving others mean that God rescinds our salvation and that our past sins are no longer forgiven? The short answer is no, but there is more to take into consideration.
It’s helpful to understand that when God instructed Moses to come up the mountain to receive the commandments, He gave some important information about Himself.
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”10
God revealed that He is inherently merciful, has persistent and unwavering love, and is forgiving. These attributes are part of God’s nature, intrinsic to who He is. Forgiveness is part of God’s God-ness. He forgives iniquity (perversity, depravity, heinousness, evil), transgression (committing acts which violate His commandments and moral teaching, rebellion), and sin (acts, thoughts, and behavior which go against what God has taught). God, by nature, forgives.
We see God’s mercy, generosity, and forgiveness portrayed in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23–35), when He told of a king who forgave his servant a debt of 10,000 talents. Roughly speaking, based on a day’s wage of one denarius per day, this amount would equal about 150,000 years of labor. Clearly, God’s capacity to forgive is unlimited. In the parable, the one who was forgiven such an astronomical debt afterward refused to forgive a debt owed to him of 100 denarii, which was equal to about 100 days of work. Sadly, this represents us when we are unwilling to forgive others.
The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew uses the words debts and debtors to portray sin, while Luke uses sins and indebtedness:
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.11
In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, the word khoba was used to express both debts and sins. Matthew’s debts and Luke’s sins both convey transgressions against God.
Kenneth Bailey explains:
Matthew’s word, “debts,” refers to unfulfilled obligations toward God and our fellow human beings; that is, those things we have left undone. We should have reached out in compassion to our neighbor but have failed to do so, and our love for God is incomplete. On the other side, disciples are faced with “those things we ought not to have done.”… Believers are caught between unfulfilled responsibilities and acts committed that are not in harmony with the will of God … the faithful need to remember that they are asking for forgiveness for failing to fulfill what God requires of them (debts) and for their failure to do the right thing when they did act (trespasses).12
Bailey’s observation reflects what are known as the sins of omission (things we should have done and didn’t),13 and the sins of commission (sin we commit in thought, word, or deed).
When Jesus told His disciples to pray forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors, He was speaking of our being forgiven of our sin. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, mentioned earlier, God had forgiven the debt of the servant. God’s forgiveness came first in the parable, but was withdrawn when the person who had been forgiven didn’t forgive another, showing that there is a connection between the two. Clearly the expectation was that the one who had been forgiven so great a debt would in turn become forgiving of others. While the different commentaries I used for research on this topic all use different words to explain this concept, they all made the same point: God has graciously and mercifully forgiven us for our sins through salvation. Therefore, we are to forgive others as an extension of God’s grace. Those who are forgiven forgive others. If we are unwilling to forgive others, then it should be questioned whether we have actually received His forgiveness ourselves.
Reconciliation—the ending of conflict and renewing of relationship—is the hallmark of Christianity, of the kingdom of God. God has reconciled the relationship between sinful humanity and Himself through Jesus. He has offered renewed relationship through His forgiveness. As members of His kingdom, we must also renew relationships with those who have sinned against us through forgiveness. We are to reflect God’s nature, which is inherently merciful and forgiving. This is part of being a Christian.
Forgiving someone for the hurt and damage they have caused us isn’t a statement that it was all right that they did it, or that it wasn’t wrong or hurtful. It was wrong, it was damaging, it was perhaps even cruel. When you forgive, you are not saying you were not wronged; you are pardoning someone for the offense. In doing this, you are reflecting God’s love, mercy, and grace. Forgiveness is a profound godly act. It reflects the understanding of the forgiveness of the “10,000 talents’ worth” or “150,000 years of labor worth” of forgiveness God has given us. All sins—whether sins of commission or omission, action, or thought—are trespasses, debts, sins that we commit against God. And we sin in some way every day. Yet, in His steadfast love and mercy, He forgives us.
As Christ’s followers, members of His kingdom, those who let him reign in our lives, we are called to forgive others as He has forgiven us. We pray: As You, Father, have forgiven our debts, we also forgive our debtors.
When we don’t confess and ask forgiveness for our sins, and/or are unwilling to forgive those who have sinned against us, we damage our relationship with God. We’re still His children, but we have moved ourselves away from Him relationally. In refusing to forgive others for their offenses against us, our sins aren’t forgiven and thus our relationship with the Father suffers damage.14
In suffering and dying on the cross, Jesus took the punishment for our sins. It cost Him dearly to bring about reconciliation between each of us and the Father. It’s not as if His sacrifice made our sins okay; rather, it meant He suffered in our place and took our punishment upon Himself. It was an act of pure love. God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), in mercy and love, suffered so that forgiveness could be given, which made reconciliation between humanity and God possible. We are called to follow God’s example, to forgive—even when we’ve been hurt and offended, even when it is costly to forgive.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.15
(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.
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1 Mark 12:28–31.
2 Matthew 6:33.
3 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 622.
4 Matthew 6:11–13.
5 Matthew 6:11.
6 Luke 11:3.
7 Exodus 16:15.
8 Exodus 16:13–26.
9 Matthew 6:14–15.
10 Exodus 34:5–7.
11 Luke 11:4.
12 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 125–26.
13 Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (James 4:17).
15 Ephesians 4:32.