After the Final Amen

Of all the petitions that Jesus taught His disciples to pray, the only one He clarified after the final amen, so to speak, was the request for forgiveness. There’s certainly more that Jesus could have said about the coming of His kingdom; that could have been really helpful for our eschatology. He could have said more about what things are like in heaven and how that would translate here on earth. Instead He followed up on forgiveness.

Not only is forgiveness comparative, the Father forgives as we forgive others, forgiveness is conditional. “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” (Matthew 6:14-15). The key word in verse 12 is as, the key word in the clarification is if.

We believe that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. We believe that salvation is through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation is not by obedience, including our obedience to forgive others. In fact, if we were actually justified by our forgiving then none of us could be forgiven. The psalmist asked, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” So also, If God should mark our resentment toward those who’ve sinned against us, who could stand?

There must be some way to understand this qualification without seeing it as a way of “practicing our righteousness before other people”; who has ever said, “No wonder God likes me so much, I always forgive”? Yet the condition in verses 14-15 is as easy to shake off as DNA, meaning, we can’t. There is a spiritual reality in place. Sons of the Father act like the Father. If we are not forgiving, what makes us think that we are sons of the Father of forgiveness? If we are not forgiving, what makes us think that He accepts hypocrites?

So, if you don’t or won’t or just can’t forgive, then why do you think you should be forgiven? If that’s the case then you don’t want forgiveness, you want acknowledgement from God that you don’t need it. But that is just what you can’t have.

The “Oh, no!” Conjunction

In the middle of the next petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a small word labeled by some Greek grammarians as the “Oh no!” conjunction. Actually the lexicons and syntax books call it a comparative conjunction, and this comparison cuts the conscience. Other names for this conjunction could be the “Conviction” conjunction, the “Are you serious?” conjunction, or the “Hypocrite’s Log-puller” conjunction.

The prayer Jesus teaches His disciples includes: “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). There are three key words: debts, forgive, and as.

Debt here is more than a financial obligation, it is a relational obligation caused by a wrong. These are debts caused by sin. We do not owe our heavenly Father any money. We owe Him thanks and obedience, but we failed to make all our payments. So we ask the Father to forgive us, to cancel the debt. We’re asking Him daily, just as we do for our bread, to remit the balance.

Even though Jesus hadn’t died yet at this point in His ministry, there is no hint that forgiveness from the Father was in question. Yet the Father is still watching for something.

“Forgive us … as we forgive.” Is it better to be forgiven as we forgive others or is it harder to forgive others as Jesus forgives us (see Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13)? Both seem impossible, the latter because Jesus forgives perfectly and the former because we keep records of wrongs against us perfectly.

The Father forgives us as we forgive:

  • our fussy spouses
  • our unthankful children
  • our overbearing parents
  • our annoying siblings
  • our passive aggressive neighbors

Did the disciples have any follow up on this? Perhaps they did, or Jesus anticipated that they would, since this is the only part of the prayer Jesus returns to when the prayer itself is finished (see verses 14-15). I’ll come back to those addenda next week, but the “Oh No” conjunction should be enough of a mirror to humble us in confession before the Father.

Right Out of the Oven

Halfway into Matthew’s rendering of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus provides the most temporal of all the requests: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Bread stands for food, the kind of physical sustenance a man survives on, provided he doesn’t have celiac disease. You’d think that the Great Physician would have taken that into account. Probably He did. Bread is good, gluten and all, though some don’t have the guts to enjoy it.

We are to ask God to provide us with food, with bodily nourishment. Fasting is appropriate, see verses 16-18, but all fasting all the time leads to no life in which to fast.

The food we pray for is “daily,” bread, a “for today” bread, and we ask for it “today.” Without electric refrigerators, added preservatives, and sufficient shelf-space, quotidian bread makes sense for a 1st century petition. But even more so it reminds us that our dependence on God should be fresh. Daily as in right out of the oven is something to want, not necessarily a sign of want.

It is easy to think that we don’t need to pray this part of the prayer because we have weeks’ worth of food in the house, or to run the other direction and think that we must put ourselves in a position to only have daily food. Apathy and taking food for granted is one problem, false guilt and ascetic legalism is another.

The point is that God gives food. He must make the sun shine and the rain fall and the seed sprout. He must make yeast rise in the loaf and hold delivery trucks down on the road. He also must make cows masticate grass into milk for us to churn into butter for our bread. No stage in the process happens apart from Him holding the world together. Praying for our daily bread is a way to stay dependent and thankful.

A Lot of Calvinistic Sun in the Sky

The third request of Jesus’ prayer takes a lot of faith. He taught us to ask our divine Father to set apart His name from every other name. Next we ask Him to establish His promised empire among us. Then we’re to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

I want to ask, how is this possible? And, what would it look like?

How many servants of Christ have prayed this prayer as sworn Arminians? Do we appreciate that when we make this petition—or any of them really—it assumes that the Father has both the prerogative and the power to make this happen? We pray that God will make God’s will prevail over man’s will. We’re not asking men to obey God’s will, we’re asking God to cause them to obey. That’s a lot of Calvinistic sun in the sky, even more than when we acknowledge that the Father knows what we need before we ask Him (verse 8).

If God answered this prayer—and it is His will for us to pray for His will to be done, so we should expect Him to answer—how would we know? What signs would we see? Well, how are things happening in heaven? We’re not asking for something different here, but that it would be here like it is there.

In heaven His Word is heard, His name is hallowed, His commands are obeyed. That obedience is total—not partial, happy—not sullen, immediate—not delayed, and quick—not slow. The angels don’t question His will or rebel against it. They don’t try to ignore or tweak or replace it.

As we pray for heavenly obedience to come down, let us pray that He cause us to obey on earth first.

Current Visibility

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray He started the pattern with requests that calibrate our perspective. The first thing we ask our Father in heaven to do is hallow His own name. May He create reverence for His holy glory deep in our hearts and wide among the nations.

The second and third requests are related to the hallowing of His name as well as to each other: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I want to focus for now on the kingdom appeal.

Sometimes we’re told by Bible people that our prayers should be “more spiritual.” I have mocked the request a young man made once for his grandmother’s neighbor’s printer before, not so much because I think it shouldn’t be prayed for but because that junior high student had to have needs closer to his heart. I recognize that later in Matthew 6, Jesus says “seek first the kingdom of God” and things like food and clothing “will be added to you.” I love Paul’s prayers for the saints that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.

These are spiritual but they are not unearthly requests. They are not requests that we hope to see fulfilled in heaven at some future day in the eschaton. Praying for His kingdom to come isn’t only for postmillennialists. Seek first the kingdom of God as God sends it to earth.

He is our Father. He is our holy God. He is our King. We’re His family, we’re His worshipers, we’re His subjects. When we ask that His kingdom come, we’re asking for His final victory but also for current visibility. As His kingdom comes we will be less stressed about food and clothes at this moment, we will not be collecting a catalog of the transgressions against us, we will give up trying to set up our own mini-kingdoms. This means we’re praying for our own obedience as a means to hallow His name in the present. There are characteristics of His kingdom that we want to see established here on earth, now not later. May His kingdom come.

Not to Make Us Stars

If we avoid pretentious hypocrisy and superstitious verbosity as Jesus warned His disciples, how should we pray? “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’” (Matthew 6:9).

We have already considered the collective nature of the prayer with a first person plural pronoun (always “our” and “us” in the prayer, never “I” or “me”). We also see that it is a family affair. We are siblings addressing our spiritual Father whose dwelling place transcends the earth.

The first desire that Jesus teaches us to express, the first request we should make, sets the tone for the following petitions and supplements the identification of who we’re praying to.

We ought to have the familiarity of a child approaching his father, and we must also have the humility of a worshipper addressing his God, because we are. Our God is known by his “name,” and this was a typical way for God’s people to abbreviate all of His great attributes. His name reminded them of steadfast love, might, righteousness, and glory. His name referred to His works of creation, judgment, and salvation. His name caused armies to stand and enemies to melt. His name must not be forgotten or used in vain, it must be esteemed.

The desire that drives our prayer is that the heavenly Father would “hallow” His name, that God the Lord would cause His name to be kept holy and that more would come to admire it as holy. From the start our prayer is focused away from our reputation; we are not asking Him to make us stars. He is holy, holy, holy, and we’re asking that He would make His name blaze for all to see it’s worth.

Verbal Forklifts Not Required

Jesus instructed the disciples about two things regarding prayer before He provided the pattern in Matthew 6. He first told them not to parade their über-righteousness before others in verses 5-6. There’s an inferior reward for pretense. In verses 7-8 Jesus provides a second warning and contrast.

“And 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.” (Matthew 6:7–8)

“Gentiles” refers to pagans, to those who hold other religious beliefs, not to the god-less. Everyone worships, whether or not they call the object of worship their “god.” These men are devoted to prayer and they distribute their prayers in bulk, the more noise the better. This is necessary because their gods are selfish, naturally inattentive to men, certainly not affectionate like a loving father. The gods are capricious, busy, and untrustworthy. They probably don’t even like you. But if you have a problem, and if no one else can help, maybe you can annoy a god to get off the dime by being a flibbertigibbet.

The contrast is not between bulk prayers and boutique prayers, between Costco prayers and craft prayers. The contrast is not between being long-winded and condensed, nor is it about content or presentation at all. It is about motivation. Pray like an intelligent Calvinist. Pray because God is all-knowing ahead of time, as in actually ahead of all time. We don’t need a forklift to dump a mass of prayers in God’s way to force Him to pay attention, we need to approach the Father who loves us.

Open Up the Spigot

Jesus warned about two ways of praying wrongly before providing a pattern of prayer for His disciples. I skipped these preparatory points in order to talk about “Our Father” when I was preaching about kids in worship. But these unsuitable practices are to be avoided.

Jesus said,

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5–6)

Don’t be a hypocrite, meaning, don’t be an actor who looks like he is depending on God in prayer who is actually just stepping to the front of a stage. Don’t pretend to honor God while actually just showing off. In prayer we want something from God, but hypocrites seek acclaim from men whether or not they think they’ll get an answer from God.

Two more observations. First, this is not a prohibition from praying in public, it is a prohibition against not depending on God and instead wanting to be seen by others. Jesus prayed alone and He prayed with others around, so it can’t be sin by definition. But it is easy for sinners to take a good thing and distort it for their own glory.

Second, the result of proper praying is not being seen by God and receiving answers to our prayers, at least not according to verse 8. Jesus said “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” There is reward that comes from God when we pray in faith, not in pretense or even based on our precision. It pleases the Father just to be asked. We’re too often concerned about managing where the drops of water will fall while He’s ready to open up the spigot.

Pater Noster

We started a series of exhortations about the Lord’s Prayer last week. Jesus assumes that men pray; even hypocrites and idolators pray. When we pray we should avoid pretense and superstition. I’ll probably come back to both of those preparatory instructions later.

But since the subject for my message last Lord’s Day was kids in worship, I want to point out the first part of Jesus’ pattern. “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven….”

The medieval church referred to Matthew 6:6-9 less as the Lord’s Prayer or the Disciples’ Prayer and more often as the Pater noster. In Greek the prayer begins, Pater hemon, which is Pater noster in Latin, and “Our Father” in English. This is not as much the prayer of a believer as it is a prayer of the church, or at least of the family. We are brothers and sisters who come together to our Father.

When we come to the time of confession in our corporate worship it’s appropriate to think about God, the Lord, the Almighty. He is our Creator, the one with whom we have to do. He is also the Lawmaker, the Judge, and He is perfect in holiness. And for us in the church, He is our honored Father. As the ultimate Father He doesn’t lower the standard, He holds His children to it in love and with discipline as necessary. He also restores His children to fellowship by forgiving them.

Our sin is a reflection on our Father’s name. Our sin has consequences on our family. But He is a faithful and merciful Father who sent His Son to bring many sons to glory. So we confess as children to our Father.

Those Who Don’t Pray

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addressed common ways that people often practice their righteousness before men: almsgiving, praying, and fasting. There is a way to do any or all of them that misses out on reward from our Father in heaven. After introducing the theme (Matthew 6:1), there are three subjects in four paragraphs, with prayer being the focus of two of them. If we associate prayer with fasting, which we should, then prayer gets a supermajority of attention.

Not only does prayer get Jesus’ attention, His warning and instruction about prayer is also based on a big assumption. Jesus makes a distinction between men who pray seeking reward from men and men who pray seeking reward from God. He does not mention those who don’t pray at all; that’s not an option. He assumes that we’re praying; even hypocrites and unbelieving Gentiles pray.

Hypocrites love to put on a prayer show for men. Gentiles need to pray a lot because their gods get busy and are not entirely reliable, so the more words the better chances of being heard. This performance is before a different audience but it’s still a show.

What does it say about us when we don’t pray at all, or at least in such a way that it could be assumed? It says we don’t understand righteousness, we don’t know the Father, and we don’t care about receiving a reward from Him. A prayer-less life won’t remain a secret, and it’s a sin we should confess.