I love to use the Lord’s Prayer publicly and privately. It is a magnificent reminder of the immense joy and privilege of praying to our Father in heaven. Why is it so special? It’s priceless for three reasons:
1. IT COMES FROM THE LORD OF PRAYER
Jesus is the ideal prayer coach: as God he knows what kind of prayer God wants to answer; as God’s Son, he knows how God’s children should speak to their Father; as a human, he understands our needs. In addition to daily Jewish prayers, the gospels emphasise Jesus’ private prayers e.g. “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Indeed he’s in heaven praying for us now! The Lord’s Prayer isn’t exactly how Jesus would pray himself (he didn’t need forgiveness of sin) but all its themes appear in his other prayers, for these were his priorities. We’re learning to pray properly from our older brother who is the Lord of prayer.
2. IT IS A WONDERFULLY FLEXIBLE PRAYER
In Luke 11 Jesus taught it as words to use (though not as a mindless mantra) but in Matthew 6 it is a pattern for all kinds of prayer, each phrase being a heading for expansion. Jesus was speaking before his death and resurrection so he leaves the phrases undeveloped: we can enlarge them with New Testament teaching and our personal needs (the Puritans call it “branching”).
3. IT GIVES A GOSPEL SHAPE TO PRAYER
It’s a work of divine genius. A few simple words reveal the impact of the gospel upon our lives: for in Christ, God is our Father (the opening address), our Lord (the first 3 petitions) and our Saviour (the second 3 petitions). The Lord’s Prayer is simple enough for children at bedtime, but deep enough for a course of academic study, suitable for use with people dying in hospital, around the family tea-table and every week in church! Jesus teaches this prayer as part of the disciplined righteousness required of God’s children in his “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). But it does seems upside down to sinners: the first requests all concern God, “your name”, “your kingdom”, “your will”; only then do we ask for “our daily bread” “our debts” and “lead us” This reflects the Copernican revolution of saving faith: we now know we’re not the centre of the universe but God is. Christian prayer isn’t about getting God to obey us but about committing ourselves to God’s priorities. It has certainly given an activist like me a prayer life I wouldn’t otherwise have!
SPEAKING TO OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
We forget how stunning it is to call the living God “Our Father”. The Aramaic “Abba” means “Dad” (affectionate but respectful). No human religion or Jewish teacher ever dared to call God “Dad”. Jesus knew that the rocket engine that launches prayer isn’t technique but theology - not how to pray but who we pray to. Indeed, his opening address summarises the miracle of God’s grace in Christ and the whole basis of Christian prayer: when God the Son came from heaven in Jesus he came to swap places with us - to be punished in our place for our sins on the cross so we can be accepted as sons of God in his place to share in his privileges, “God sent his Son... that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4-5). Christians pray as beloved children of God. It is as if in Christ, we are inside the trinity of God – we don’t have to shout from distance but can whisper in our hearts. As his children, we enjoy the love of our Father, the indwelling of his Spirit, the care of his family, an inheritance in his kingdom and his constant attention to our prayers. As adopted children, we speak “in everything” to the Father in the name of the Son in the power of the Spirit. He is far more powerful than anyone we can call on our mobile phones! The great theme of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is living for our Father: and the special feature of Christian giving, praying and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18) is doing it for Dad. We pray, not for popular approval like “hypocrites”, but privately to please our heavenly Father; not babbling words to manipulate him like “pagans” but trusting our Father knows what we need.
Jesus tells us we can use the possessive pronoun “our”. God is not just “the Father”, but “our Father”. This reminds us that we are permanently adopted as his children - he has bound himself to be our Father forever. And this word is plural to remind us to pray for others in his family as well as ourselves. Nowhere in this prayer is there any “I” or “me”. (Jesus reserved the singular phrase, “my father” for his own unique relationship). We often feel powerless to help our brothers and sisters in need around the world. But our Father is with them and delights to help them when we pray. One Australian bishop told me he prays for me and Sian whenever he uses his kettle because it is like ours and reminds him of us – presumably he prays for different people when he opens his fridge or dishwasher!
We say “Father” to remember he loves us. Earthly dads often love us weakly or only when we interest them - our heavenly Father is different. Perhaps those of us who have never known our earthly fathers or have suffered under them, can find in our heavenly Father the loving dad we longed for, and may appreciate him more than others ever will.
In this sermon Jesus emphasises three magnificent aspects of the Father’s love:
HE DELIGHTS TO REWARD OUR GIVING, PRAYING AND FASTING: Three times Jesus says “...your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6: 4,6,18). Earthly fathers often fail to appreciate our efforts, but our heavenly Father never fails to appreciate us praying.
HE KNOWS ALL ABOUT US: “your Father knows what you need” (Matthew 6: 8,32). Where earthly fathers struggle to know what their kids really need and certainly cannot provide it all, our Father in heaven knows exactly how we tick and what we need even when we’re confused ourselves.
HE LOVES TO ANSWER OUR PRAYERS WITH GOOD GIFTS: “which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11). Even human dads love giving presents to their kids; God has organized an amazing treasure hunt for us ... finding the treasures promised in Scripture.
Jesus tells us to pray to our Father “in heaven” not because he is distant (for he’s everywhere), but to remind us that he dwells in heaven above. He’s unimaginably glorious and powerful so we must pray with reverence but also with confidence because he’s the perfect dad for sorting out tricky situations. Those who bully and hurt his children will one day answer to him. “Heaven” also reminds us of God’s holiness. As our world trembles at what rulers like Putin, Trump, Kim Jong Un and even Boris could bring upon us, it is comforting to pray to a Father who rules over them all.
In these six petitions we first submit to our Father as our Lord and then trust our Father to be our Saviour: All the petitions concern the future kingdom but have all begun happening since Christ’s coming.
SUBMITTING TO OUR FATHER AS OUR LORD
The first three petitions commit us to his glory, kingdom and will.
HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME: may your character be honoured by everyone. God’s names reveal marvellous aspects of his character e.g. “El” = he is sovereign; “El Elyon” = God is most high; “Elohim” = God is supreme; “Yahweh” = “I am who I am – free to be your redeemer”; “Yahweh Jirer” = the LORD provides; “Yahweh Shalom” = the LORD gives peace. All of these are summed up in the name above all names “Jeshua/Jesus” = God saves. At this name everyone, presidents, prophets and paupers alike, will one day bow. To hallow his name is to honour, respect and worship this LORD in reverent speech and respectful behaviour. We ask that we and all people will glorify him today.
YOUR KINGDOM COME: may your heavenly king Jesus extend your kingdom rule in us through his word and in unbelievers through his gospel, especially in my friends Gordy and Steve, and may he come soon to sort out this mess.
YOUR WILL BE DONE: may your plans, whether published in Scripture or known only to you, be fulfilled in our lives and throughout the world – so please look after my family and church and work today.
TRUSTING OUR FATHER TO BE OUR SAVIOUR
The second three petitions rely on our Father for all that we really need:
GIVE US TODAY OUR DAILY BREAD (PROVISION): here we recognise that God alone supplies our daily needs and that others need him too. With the background of “manna” provided for Israel in the desert, “our daily bread” includes our material needs: health, homes and jobs; our spiritual needs: the “living bread” of Christ crucified; and our eternal needs: life in the Sabbath rest of his heavenly Kingdom. We ask God to provide our daily needs so we can share with others, materially, spiritually and for eternity.
FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS (PARDON): here we confess and apologise for our sins, not because our pardon is ever in doubt but to restore our relationship with our heavenly Dad. And we renew our commitment to forgive others as soon as they repent in the smallest degree (as we have been forgiven by God). Only those impacted by forgiveness enough to forgive others may assume they are forgiven themselves. Forgiving others doesn’t earn our forgiveness but proves our forgiveness, and although our forgiveness of major hurts may be slow and periodic it must be real and so we ask for strength to forgive.
DELIVER US FROM EVIL (PROTECTION): here we ask for protection from both testing in suffering and temptation from Satan. The same challenge will be both God testing our faith in his word to strengthen it and Satan tempting us to believe his lies to weaken our faith. Although we realise that to become like Jesus we may will have to learn faithfulness in suffering, nevertheless, as Jesus asked to be spared the cross, so we ask our Father to lead us by his written word, and by his sovereign control of circumstances, in safety from evil.
So in using the Lord’s Prayer, let us submit to our Father as our Lord and trust in our Father as our Saviour. Let us be confident our dad in heaven is the best possible father: wise and patient, compassionate and generous. Most of our kids have left home but sometimes they drop in and just dump their stuff everywhere, empty the fridge, take over the remote, chatter loudly about trivia, and treat our home as if it belongs to them - I love it! How much more does our heavenly Father love it when we stop avoiding him and pop in for a pray! A few years ago I heard my 13 year-old son give my 8 year old son some shrewd financial advice. The younger lad was desperate to buy a new electronic game. Realising he didn’t have enough pocket money to buy it himself, the poor boy had collapsed in despair. His older brother then came up with a classic line that just about sums up their financial strategy for life, “Just ask Dad!” Soon my son was enjoying his new game. The Lord’s Prayer is the same. Our older brother, Jesus, is telling us from personal experience how to face life’s challenges. “Just ask Dad!” Or, to put it in his words, “this is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven”.
Richard Coekin is CEO of Co-Mission and Senior Pastor at Dundonald Church.