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“Our Father in Heaven” and the Six Petitions of the Lord’s Prayer

14 April, 2008

BThis post is a follow up to the one immediately below, so you may want to read that one first if you haven’t already.

The Address: ‘Our Father in heaven’

The opening words of the Lord’s Prayer are an invocation or a calling upon the one to whom the prayer is directed, like the sending address in an email. This prayer is addressed by the disciples to ‘our Father in heaven’. Calling God ‘Father’ was not unheard of for Jews, but it wasn’t a common way to call upon God in prayer. There are important passages in the OT which talk about God as a father to Israel as his son, but the most straightforward and immediate contextual reference for calling God Father is Jesus’ own designation as the Son, esp. ‘Son of God’ (1:1; 1:21-25; 2:15; 3:17; 4:3, 6, 8:29, etc.), and self-reference as ‘Son’, esp. ‘Son of Man’ (8:20; 10:23; 11:19, 27; 12:8, 32, etc.). And as we’ve already talked about, it is the disciples who are privileged to call God their Father; as followers of Jesus, the Son of David and Abraham, the Son of God and Son of Man, they’re now children of God because of him (see 3:9). So the disciples are addressing ‘God’ (and all that means in light of the OT), and are taught to address their God as ‘Father’, since they are his children, as disciples of Jesus the Son.

More explicitly, the meaning of the disciples’ calling upon God as ‘our Father in heaven’ is rooted in Matthew’s use of heavenly Father language, first in 5:16, when the disciples are taught to do good deeds so as to bring ‘glory to their Father who is in heaven’. This is important in light of the context of the Lord’s Prayer we just talked about, where the hypocrites also do good deeds before others, but so they will get the glory rather than God. Most immediately this language is found in the last section of ch. 5 (vv. 43ff.), where Jesus speaks of the disciples’ need to show love especially toward their ‘enemies’ in order to display the character of ‘sons’ of ‘their Father who is in heaven’ (v. 45). After all, there is nothing particularly virtuous about loving people who love you back (v. 46, 47); but the disciples’ heavenly Father is the kind of God who cares for and loves even those who are ‘evil’ and ‘unjust’ in return (v. 45). And those who are sons (i.e. heirs) of God reflect the character of their Father (see v. 48).

The Six Petitions: Questions for Reflection

The character and content of the petitions, then, are intertwined with and flow out of the character and content of the invocation-it’s hard to know what to say and how to say it if you don’t know who you’re talking to.

The first three petitions are directed toward the heavenly Father and his purposes being accomplished, so that he will be glorified. The second three petitions deal with the disciples’ asking for what they need from their heavenly Father, so they will be provided for physically and spiritually.

Since there’s way more to say about the Lord’s Prayer than we have time for, and since these petitions are paradigmatic statements, as we’ve talked about, I want us to focus as much as we can on the language of these petitions as the rest of Matthew’s gospel sheds light on their meaning. We’re going to do what the author meant for us to do, and dig into the words and the phrasing and unpack the ‘theme’ in each petition.

1. ‘Hallowed be your name’

This seems to be a quote or at least close allusion to Is 29:22-24, since the language is exactly the same (v. 23; cf. Ezek 36:16-32). What does ‘hallowed’ or ‘made holy’ likely mean in the 1st petition?

In light of these passages, what is the significance of the Father’s ‘name’ (cf. 5:19)?

2. ‘Your kingdom come’

Matthew uses the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ 32 times, apart from this Prayer, and references ‘the kingdom’ in general 55 times total. For simplicity’s sake, we can talk about all this material under two very closely related definitions of the kingdom of heaven:

  • 1) The gospel of Jesus and his work (cf. 4:17, 23; 10:40; 11:25-30; 12:25-28; 13:19; 16:28 )
  • 2) The people of God and the age to come (cf. 8:11; 9:35-38; 11:11f.; 16:13ff.)

Most of the references to the kingdom are impossible to put under either category exclusively, but see esp. the parables of the kingdom in ch. 13.

Again, briefly, we may look at the basic character of the kingdom via (the perhaps unlikely candidate of) the genealogy in Matt 1. The genealogy is a royal one-Jesus is the ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of David’. His work is characterised by fulfilment of the promises to David that his Son would sit on the throne forever (2 Sam). But this Messiah-King is also called ‘Son of Abraham’-he is simultaneously the fulfilment of the promises to Abraham that in Abraham’s seed all the nations will be blessed.

These three titles mutually condition and define one another. Thus the character of the kingdom is wrapped up with the character of the good news of the work of the King who establishes it. It is not a Jewish military kingdom but a broad redemptive and eschatological kingdom. For the broad redemptive aspect, in addition to the obvious reference to the promised seed of Abraham, we see the curious inclusion in the genealogy of four Gentile women, of less than pristine reputation, who nevertheless are in the purposes of God employed in bringing about the coming of the one who then in turn brings redemption for sinners like them – both Jews and Gentiles – in one heavenly kingdom. It is eschatological, again in addition to the fulfilment and ‘finalising’ thrust of the everlasting Son of David and divine Messiah titles, simply because the genealogy stops here. There is no one else: with two carefully composed sets of 14 generations, the line of descent is complete. This is Matthew’s signal that, for him, the redeeming Messiah-King has come in Jesus.

3. ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’

For contexts where ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’ are spoken of in conjunction, see 5:18, 11:25, 16:19; 18:18, 19; 24:30, 35; 28:18. What is the general thrust of these passages?

‘Your will be done’-Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane for his Father’s will to be done in the upcoming events of his trial and crucifixion rather than his own (Matt 26:42) is an exact repetition of the words Jesus uses here (as also Luke 21:42). What does this signal to us?

4. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’

This petition is a plea for continued sustenance from their Father, which may be interpreted in one of three ways:

  • 1) Daily provision of our needs by God-see 6:34; 14:17ff.; 15:33ff.; cf. Prov 30:7-9
  • 2) The nourishing word of the gospel of Christ-see 4:3-4; 15:26-28; 26:26
  • 3) Both of these together; there is a double meaning-see 7:7-11; 16:5-12

Which is it?

5. ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’

The phrases in this petition are not common; what may the 5th petition mean in light of ch. 18:21-35?

How may the concluding statement of the prayer subsection (6:14-15) shed light on the meaning of this petition?

6. ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’

The usage of poneros in Matthew is frequent and varied, translated ‘evil’, ‘the evil one’, ‘bad’, ‘sick’ etc., depending on the context. Should we translate ‘evil’ or ‘the evil one’ here (cf. 4:1, 3; 13:19; 16:1f.; 19:3f.; 22:18, 35; 26:41)? The context for this prayer, because of the mention of temptation, is clearly the temptation of Jesus which he has just overcome in order to enter into his ministry of proclamation of the coming kingdom (ch. 4). The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness ‘to be tempted’ by the ‘devil’ (v. 1), who is then named ‘the tempter’ (v. 3). In ch. 16, the religious leaders asked for a sign from Jesus in order to ‘tempt’ or ‘test’ him-he rebukes them like he rebuked the devil earlier (vv. 1-4). A similar thing happens in 19:3f. Again they plot to ruin Jesus in ch. 22, and this time Jesus calls them out: ‘Why do you tempt me, you hypocrites?’ (v. 18). A final time a lawyer asks him a question to tempt or test him in 22:35f., and Jesus turns the question back on the religious leaders. After that they did not test him anymore (v. 46), and he enters into a bitter and extended attack on their religious hypocrisy.

Finally, regarding ‘lead us not into temptation’, this exact phrase occurs again at 26:41 in Gethsemane, this time with the apostles, where the ‘tempter’ is one’s own weak sinfulness striving against the Spirit (cf. the 3rd petition).

In Matthew, ‘evil’ in the sense of moral evil is inseparably connected with the one he names the devil, the tempter, the evil one, as well as everyone and everything that displays the same attributes: rejecting Jesus, his claims and his work, his Spirit, his kingdom, and thus his Father.

Conclusion

As we wrap up, I want to leave this exploration of the Lord’s Prayer with two brief comments:

1) Sanders is right about the universal applicability of this prayer regarding appropriateness for all circumstances, but I think he’s wrong about the universal applicability of this prayer regarding its appropriateness for all people. Sanders remarks that ‘If all that Jesus had done had been to create such words, he would have made no enemies’; it was all the other more exclusive and controversial and self-exalting claims Jesus made that were such a stumbling block. I hope we’ve seen rather that to understand this prayer is to understand Jesus as saying something different than ‘the universal Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man’. The words of this prayer are pleasant and peaceful, but they have to do with the rest of Matthew’s account of Jesus and his words and deeds as well, things that did in fact make him disciples as well as enemies.

2) I hope we’ve seen the value in unpacking and exploring the text of Matthew. The Lord’s Prayer is the most famous bit of the Bible, and it’s so easy to glide over it and assume it’s wearing its heart on its sleeve. I hope this has helped you grasp the Lord’s Prayer better (and perhaps Matthew and even Jesus better), and I hope this has been a helpful example of how worthwhile it is to delve into the text to understand what is going on here and why.

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