“Your Will Be Done, On Earth as it is in Heaven”
As with each of the other petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (or rather the disciples’ prayer), this third petition addresses themes that are much, much broader and deeper than I can address here. So as I’ve been doing, I want to highlight only a couple key things going on in this petition, especially as it relates to what is going on with similar language elsewhere in Matthew.
“On earth as it is in heaven” serves to qualify “Your will be done”, giving us a better idea of the character of God’s will and its accomplishment, so I’ll talk about “on earth as it is in heaven” first.
Heaven and Earth
Again, since I’ve been focusing on the language of this prayer, as we come to better understand what it means in large part by looking at its context in Matthew (always against the backdrop of the Old Testament, which I won’t get into explicitly at this point), I want to look briefly at a few passages in Matthew where ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’ are spoken of in relation to one another. There’s more to it than this, of course, but getting at the context and meaning of the setting for this phrase in this way does help to shed light on the petition as a whole (and the prayer as a whole).
To put it simply, Jesus often speaks of heaven and earth in terms of the end of this age, and the realities of the age to come. Those of you who’ve been following these studies will know how much and how often this keeps cropping up; these petitions are different, but they’re all part of the same prayer and (importantly) the same way we’re taught to pray. Over and over, we’re taught to pray in light of and with a focus on such ‘heavenly’ things, and to consider all our present circumstances and decisions in that light.
So Jesus first mentions earth and heaven together earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, in speaking of their ‘passing away': ‘For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished’ (5:18). He later uses the phrase again in speaking of the church and the kingdom of heaven (see my last post): ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (16:19). He repeats the same thing with regard to church discipline at 18:18, and adds this: ‘Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them’ (vv. 19-20). In speaking of his second coming, Jesus says,
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (24:30-31)
The next occurrence comes immediately afterward, and is very important for understanding what we’re talking about: ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’ (vv. 34-35). Although there are a lot of questions about what exactly ‘this generation’ and ‘all these things’ mean here, one thing that is clear is that Jesus wasn’t saying that everything that had to do with the end of the age was about to happen immediately (see vv. 36-44). But another thing that is clear is that in a very real sense these things that belong to the end of this age and the coming of the next age took place in the death and resurrection of Jesus. How do we know? Well, from the other half of this petition.
The will of God is done
This language which is steeped in the light of the end of the present age and the ushering in of the age to come, is employed by Jesus to explain the phrase, “Your will be done”. Although Jesus is here teaching us to pray for this from God as our heavenly Father, there came a time when he would pray this same prayer to his Father, under utterly different circumstances:
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go over there and pray’….Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will’….Again for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (26:36-42)
This last statement from Jesus is exactly the same in Greek as how he teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer in ch. 5. But what a difference between the two! Jesus’ prayer for his Father’s will to be done was answered, and his prayer for the cup of wrath to pass was not, so that our prayers to God will be answered and so the cup of wrath will never pass over to us. We may pray ‘your will be done’ with hope and confidence, because we know that Jesus prayed it with fear and trembling, on our behalf. We are shown mercy because he was not, and we have confidence because he took the cup, drank it to the dregs, to death and hell, and rose again the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection life of the age to come. Before and above everything else, this is what ‘Your will be done’ means for us. It means that Jesus accomplished all the will of God, in judgment and mercy, all on our behalf, and in so doing fulfilled and ushered in the life of the age to come where righteousness dwells — where we will dwell with him. The covenant between Father, Son and Spirit to redeem a people to everlasting life was accomplished in space and time in the curse that Jesus took on and bore and overcame. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the will of God was done on earth as it is in heaven.
The realities of the age to come, which are brought to light and ushered in at the Last Day, are present even now in the Spirit’s application of the redemptive work of Christ in and among his people, all those who will be gathered to heaven on the Last Day, as Jesus says in Matt 24. This heavenly reality is ‘breaking in’ in the church’s proclamation of the gospel and our confession of it, the gospel which seals our status in the age to come, depending on whether we embrace Christ in the gospel or deny him — depending on wether we’re loosed or bound on earth, so to speak. This gospel doesn’t operate according to the ways of the present evil age, and in that ‘foolishness’ lies so much of the glory of the wisdom of God, as Jesus says, again tying heaven and earth and the will of God together: ‘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’ (11:25-26).
In order to tie all these things together and to mention the last occurrence in Matthew of heaven and earth in conjunction, I have to end my exploration of this petition as I did the previous petition, and this is no accident:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (28:18-20)