Following Christ and His Model for Prayer
Devoted to Prayer Seminar
Objectives for this hour:
- Identify prayer ruts to avoid.
- See a pattern and the profit of structured prayer.
There was, and still is, no better pray-er than Jesus. There was no more devoted pray-er than Jesus, who regularly spent entire nights in prayer to His Father. He was a man of prayer. “He would (often) withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). Therefore, it seems safe to say that whatever He says about prayer is the most important. No seminar on prayer would be thorough without considering His warnings and instructions in Matthew 6:5-15.
As we consider this section of Scripture, what are the points of these paragraphs (Matthew 6:5-8, 9-15), and how do they relate to the point of Jesus’ sermon in chapters 5-7? The instruction on prayer is in the middle of a sermon, preached at one time to one group of people. Some preachers have taken up to 12 sermons to cover just 6:9-15. But that paragraph is in a broader context from verse one to eighteen. We don’t want to forget what yard were in because the whole we’re digging gets too deep.
So what is His point in this sermon? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges a group of highly externally religious people that a relationship with God is a heart issue. Starting with the Beatitudes and ending with the sand-builder, Jesus repeats His point, “stop depending on yourselves and trust God from your heart.” He keeps confronting the self-righteous who were more interested in glorifying themselves than God.
That is the same point of Jesus’ instructions on almsgiving (6:2-4), prayer (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18). He begins the section in verse one, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in oder to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” The word “hypocrites” is one of the first to fall as we beat this section with observation sticks, repeated three times (verses 2, 5, 16) at the beginning of each issue. The hypocrites masked self-worship with actions that appeared to be God-worship.
When it comes to prayer, hypocritical prayers aren’t depending on God, they are trusting in themselves. Hypocritical prayers are more interested in showing off themselves, or perhaps getting something for themselves, than having intimacy with God.
Before we look at the actual verses, it seems to me that Jesus makes a few assumptions about prayer.
First, Jesus assumes that disciples pray. Notice the way Jesus talks about praying: “when you pray” (verse 5), “when you pray” (verse 6), and “when you pray” (verse 7). He is concerned with how we’re praying, not if we’re praying, because it should be that predictable.
Prayer to a disciple is like oxygen to the body. It is a natural and necessary process for life and health. Sometimes the process requires concentrated effort, as does taking a deep breath, but there are noticeable consequences when the rhythm is off, let alone if it stops. Try running a race while holding your breath. Try waging war with a plastic bag over your head. Both are impossible for long, and so is being a disciple without praying.
Second, Jesus assumes that hypocrites pray. This is the entire context. Hypocrites give (alms). Hypocrites fast. Hypocrites pray. (For that matter, even pagans pray, verse 7). The point I want to make is not that it’s better to pray wrong than not at all, but that if it’s wrong to pray wrong (as the hypocrites), it’s doubly wrong not to pray at all.
Third, Jesus assumes a reward is at stake. “Reward”, another candy from the piñata, is mentioned in verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16, and 17. It isn’t that disciples receive a reward and hypocrites don’t. Both receive a reward, but there are two totally different rewards. One is better, one is worse. One is from God, one is from men. And everyone gets what they want.
It’s necessary to wrestle with this. Everyone prays, or doesn’t pray, because they want something. Everyone who prays, no matter how they do it or why they do it, desires some time of recompense or result or reward. So again, what do you want? The reward we want shows in how we pray.
How NOT to Pray (Matthew 6:5-8)
The religionists were guilty of two prayer-faults: vain glory and vain repetitions. They had empty ambitions and used empty phrases to pursue them. Jesus warns against two wrong ways to twist prayer back on the self.
Don’t Pray for the Wrong Reward (vv. 5-6)
Religious hypocrites pray for the wrong reward. They want to be seen, and applauded, by men.
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)
Jesus would not any more be popular today than in the first century. He poked in fingers in all kinds of eyes. He used hyperbole (as in verse one, would men really have “blown trumpets” to show off their charity to the poor?) But Jesus goes for the throat of religious pride in order to choke it do death.
Hypocritical prayers love to…pray…that they may be seen by others. Just as the Pharisee in the Luke 18 parable, hypocrites are proud of their praying. They’re so proud they can’t always wait to get to the synagogue, so sometimes they stop at the street corners and give a community performance.
Hypocrites are more interested in showing off themselves rather than showing off God. They want a reputation and respect from others, so they position themselves and talk in ways to demonstrate themselves.
To challenge this performance praying, Jesus tells disciples to go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. The word room probably refers to an inner room, perhaps even closet or other storage place; a place with light traffic and low visibility. This is a private and presumably quiet place.
Exhibitionist praying (prayer to get attention for oneself) is often artful. For example, there is Mrs. Not-enough. She knows better than to pray on the street corner; she’s read this verse. But she always complains that there is not enough praying in the meetings and Bible study groups she attends. While that may be true, her criticisms serve to showcase the reason for her offense: she is a superior prayer.
There is also Mr. Backdoor, who prays in the presence of others to preach to them. He cares about men’s ears and not God’s in his praying. His requests don’t make it out the room.
And then Mr. Likes-to-be-alone. He draws attention to himself by standing on the street corner and proclaiming that he would never pray anywhere but his closet. Of course, he doesn’t like people anyway, and caters to his fleshly by being locked away in some secret place, desiring to “be seen” not being seen.
Jesus is not saying that the only proper place to pray is in a closet. As with His entire sermon, the point He’s making here has to do with the heart. Public praying is not inherently evil and private praying is not inherently righteous. Wherever you pray, what do you want? Esteem and praise and reward from men? Jesus’ explains that that reward is really not much of a reward after all.
Don’t Pray from the Wrong Reasoning (vv.7-8)
The efficacy of our prayer does not depend on the length of prayer or on a particular formula of prayer, meaning, prayer isn’t a production.
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)
Don’t pray based on the wrong rationale, and don’t be like the pagans who do. Hypocrites pray to the wrong audience. Pagans pray to the wrong audience and with the wrong hope. They think the method or technique makes the difference.
The words translated “empty phrases” (or “meaningless repetition” – NAS, “vain repetitions” – KJV) come from one Greek word, βατταλογήσητε, defined as “to speak much or extensively.” It may be onomatopoetic with the idea of “babbling” (NIV) with senseless, indistinct or incoherent sounds (We might say, “Blah, blah, blah.”). But even supposing that they were speaking real words, they “heaped up” those phrases. Apparently pagan gods thrive on such incantations and chants and mindless mantras.
God does not want or appreciate such. Jesus is not forbidding long prayers; He often prayed all night (cf. Luke 6:12). Jesus repeated Himself in prayer (Matthew 26:44). He told a parable to His disciples “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He provided a form of prayer for the disciples in the very next verses (Matthew 6:9-13). His point is that disciples should avoid meaningless, mindless prayers offered under the misconception that long, or formulaic, or ritualistic prayer makes God listen. Numerous examples of empty prayers surround us.
Maybe the most ironic and sad example of vain repetition is use of the Lord’s Prayer by Catholic and various other “high” churches. But it’s not the repeating of the words, or the number of repetitions that make the Lord’s prayer valuable.
That isn’t the only example. How about The Prayer of Jabez? This was a hugely popular book, marketed to evangelicals like nobody’s business. Consider this one aspect from page 16.
Recently I was in Dallas to teach on the Jabez blessing to an audience of 9,000. Later over lunch, a man said to me, “Bruce, I heard you preach the message of Jabez fifteen years ago, and I haven’t stopped praying it. The change has been so overwhelming I have just never stopped.”
Across the table, another friend agreed. He said he’d been praying Jabez’s little prayer for ten years with similar results. The man next to him, a heart surgeon from Indianapolis, said he’d been prying it for five.
I told them, “Friends, I’ve been praying Jabez for more than half my life!”
Wilkinson isn’t recommending praying like Jabez. He’s not suggesting that we incorporate similar types of requests. He urges us to recite the words of 1 Chronicles 4:10 as if it were a magic formula. Later in the book he sets forth a six-step, thirty-day program to make this recitation a habit. The first two steps are: 1) pray the Jabez prayer every morning, and keep a record of your daily prayer by marking off a calendar or chart you make especially for that purpose. 2) Write out the prayer and tape it in your bible, in your day-timer, or some other place where you’ll be reminded of your new vision (86). 1
There are numerous other prayer books (largely Catholic and Anglican) filled with hollow, pointless, prayers to be memorized and repeated. Even something such as The Valley of Vision could be used inappropriately if read like rubbing a rabbit’s foot.
We Protestants know how to prayer-babble too, and I don’t mean tongue-talkers. Our empty phrases are usually on the casual, impromptu, yet still mindless side. Here’s a few ways we do it.
Using God’s name as a punctuation mark can be vain repetition. We don’t speak to one another like this. We don’t address loved ones or authorities like this. We’re in danger of violating the 3rd commandment, taking the Lord’s name in vain, if we treat His name in a casual or “filler” way. That is disrespectful, even if unintentional.
Icing prayers with “for Your glory” can be vain repetition. Yes, we should pray that God help us glorify Himself. Yes, we pray for His glory to be seen. But adding this phrase doesn’t make our prayers good when we’re asking for everything earthly under the sun.
Flippantly finishing a prayer “in Jesus’ name” can be vain repetition. “In Jesus’ name” is not the decoder phrase that unlocks secret door of response. It is not gift wrapping that puts the bow on our package to God. It is more than a polite or expected salutation such as “sincerely” or “best wishes.” According to Jesus, it is possible to prophesy and cast out demons and perform miracles “in Jesus’ name” and be cast away from Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:22-23). The same is true with prayer.
Not a single New Testament recorded prayer ends with “in Jesus’ name.” The only time where prayer and “in His name” are found together is James 5:14, and even there it isn’t a tagline that guarantees safe arrival of the request in heaven.
Praying in Jesus’ name means we know we have no right to address the Father except through the Son. Praying in Jesus’ name means we want what He wants and we want to want what He wants. If we mindlessly repeat it or add it to whatever we want, we’re not magnifying His name at all.
The unstated belief behind the heaping up of these phrases is that we, the praying ones, make the difference. We don’t have, not because we didn’t ask per se, but that we didn’t ask the right way, or the right number of times, or with the right expressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s part of the reason why we should stop fretting about the form or duration of our prayers. It puts too much focus on the What or the How of our praying rather than the Who we’re praying too. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way, “We must get rid of this mathematical notion of prayer” (Matthew, 309).2
We don’t pray because the way we ask or the length of our asking or the number of repetitions coerce or force God’s hand. We pray, sometimes at length and sometimes repeating the same request, because it puts us in a better position of dependence. It’s the dependence He desires, and it’s the dependence that glorifies Him.
Thoughtless repetition of religious slogans or phrases is pagan, and is a way disciples ought not to pray.
How TO Pray (Matthew 6:9-15)
In December of 1994, I finished my semester exams a week early so I could go home and have back surgery. I recuperated for a month before heading back to school, forced to stay home and inside most of the time. A person can only watch so much television before getting sick of it, and thankfully, a friend of mine allowed me to borrow a tape series on the disciples’ prayer by John MacArthur. I was blown away. It was the first time I’d ever heard the Lord’s prayer exposited (in 12 messages). I laid on the floor in my huge back brace, stopping and rewinding the tapes every so often so I wouldn’t miss anything in my notes. I couldn’t recommend downloading those messages strongly enough. 3
Based on verse eight, Jesus intended His disciples to take this as a model prayer but not for them to memorize it and make it a mantra.
It is a prayer that emphasizes God’s position, His program, His provision, His pardon, and His protection.
He offers the disciples a basic outline, a skeleton, of prayer.
1. Invocation (v.9a)
An invocation is “the act of invoking or appealing to a higher power for assistance.” It is a call on God for help.
Our Father in Heaven,
The disciples’ invocation indicates that we are a privileged position. While it is a grace to us that we are able to call Him our Father, it is also appropriate to address Him as Lord, as King, as Master, as Redeemer. “Dear heavenly Father” can get sentimental and vapid. “Dear God” can be distant and may not be specific enough. That He is Father invites us to consider and make comparisons with our own fatherly desires and familial fellowship, but He is no less the other things. The point is, we need to think about how we address Him.
2. Calibration (vv.9b-10)
To calibrate manes to measure and adjust something to a standard. The sequence of the prayer outline, as well as our tendency to put self forward, suggest that this may be the most important part of prayer, wherein we recognize our position before His, and the priority of His program and plans over ours.
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
When we consider the eternal and universal scope of God’s work, when we remember that we’re part of His story, when we consider His supremacy and that He works to make much of Himself, though He does so through us, our attitude and appeals can’t help but be changed. Praying about whether we should buy a boat may not make it through the “Your kingdom come” filter. Praying to find lost keys, as acceptable as that request is, loses intensity in light of these global and eternal issues.
Prayer isn’t informing God. It is, however, informing ourselves while conscious of God’s presence.
3. Supplication (v.11)
Supplication is a humble appeal, it is asking someone who has power to grant the request.
Give us this day our daily bread,
Bread is a metonym, a word used to represent all physical necessities. Bread is a symbol of things necessary for physical life.
Daily emphasizes things that are necessary, not only as opposed to things that are luxuries (butter for our bread), but by explaining that anything beyond a day’s supply is a luxury (two loaves of bread).
Note that it is not wrong to ask for ourselves.
Note that it is not wrong to ask for physical things. They do come, but they come second (cf. Matthew 6:25, 33)
The plural us reminds us that food is not an individual thing. There are times in prayer when we’re spurred to think of others who God may provide for through us.
4. Confession (v.12)
I think we forget this element most of all. I devoted an entire snow retreat to the issue of repentance largely because it seemed to me that we, as church-goers, have largely forgotten about our daily need for forgiveness.
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
The Request for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the greatest need of the soul, from salvation until glorification.
The Condition for forgiveness. Bitterness and resentment towards others will hinder our prayers. We should not expect to build a healthy prayer life on a rotten foundation. Jesus comes back to forgiveness in verses 14-15 to emphasize the horizontal and vertical link.
5. Benediction (v.13)
A benediction is the “act of praying for divine protection.”
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
The essence of this request for divine protection comes out of confession. We know we are sinners, and we know that we will be tempted to sin again. We pray like this because we recognize that we live in a fallen world, that our flesh is strong, and that we need His help every moment. We pray because we feel prone to wander, and we know we can’t handle it all on our own.
As disciples, we should be just as concerned to seek His grace to keep us from future sins as much as we need His grace to forgive our past sin.
Arguments for prayer from observing Lord’s prayer/disciples’ prayer.
- An argument for learning prayer, for following an example. (cf. Luke 11:1, “Lord, teach us to pray.” “Pray then like this:”) Walking is both natural and learned. The disciples asked for help.
- An argument for structured prayer. Following a routine is not being stuck in a rut. Following a form is not the same thing as formalism. Following a list is not necessarily legalistic. Using a structure (such as the disciples’ prayer, or something such as A.C.T.S. can be a helpful skeleton, on which you can add flesh for warmth and movement.)
- An argument for theological prayer. Addressing God as “Father” is no small title. Asking for His kingdom to come is no parochial request. They may sound simple, but they are supernatural, global, and eternal.
- An argument for personal, daily prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” and the mention of bread period, means that corporate prayers from Lord’s day to Lord’s day are not sufficient.
As an aside, since we have days worth of food, we ought to ask forgiveness for our lack of gratitude. As an aside to that aside, the lack of thanksgiving in the Disciples’ prayer may show that using one form only might not be the full expression of all forms of prayer.
- Don’t be a prayer parrot.
- Try adding (at least a little) light structure to prayer times.
- Don’t show-off a superior prayer life.
- Don’t forget the skeleton.
- There’s also The Mantra of Jabez: A Christian Parody, a sad but helpful satire. ↩
- I also like how Doug Wilson put it, “Our trust in Christ is found in the heart of the prayer, and not in whether or not the footnotes of the prayer are doctrinally proper and according to Turabian.” ↩
- Free of charge, download the audio or read the transcripts for all 12 messages in MacArthur’s series on The Disciples’ Prayer. ↩