ONE WAY YOU KNOW that a work of art is a masterpiece is that you cannot exhaust it with observations. You can stare at it for hours and still miss important facets. And then each time you return to stare at it again you find new and wonderful aspects you never saw before, components that continue to reveal the true genius of its creator. At the center of the Sermon on the Mount (almost exactly the center, as there are 116 lines before and 114 after it) is a perfect masterpiece on prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—which is perfect in both structure and substance.
Structurally Jesus gives six petitions in two symmetrical parts. The first part, with its three petitions, focuses on God, and thus all the petitions contain the word “your” (referring to God)—“hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” “your will be done.” These are what we might call the divine petitions. The second part, with its three petitions, focuses on human needs, hence the “our” and “us” in each petition—“give us this day our daily bread,” "forgive us our debts,” and “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” These are the human petitions.
For the rest of this chapter, we will focus on the substance of this prayer, or some of the substance, for as I said, this masterpiece on prayer is inexhaustible in its genius.
Our Father in Heaven
We start with the divine petitions, the first of which we find in verse 9: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Here Jesus emphasizes that God and his glory ought to be first in our prayers. That is not to say that the “our” is lost, certainly not. It is important as well, for the word “our” shows that this is a corporate prayer. It reminds us that we are not praying alone. We are praying with and for each other.
Beyond this community solidarity, the “our” reveals to us the often over looked (or taken for granted) reality that God is ours—not, of course, in the sense that we own or possess him, but in the sense that we are in a relationship with him. The fact that we can call God “our Father” informs us that Jesus is bestowing upon us “something of his own priceless [relationship with] God." Throughout the Gospels Jesus talks about God being his “Father.” For the first and only time in the Gospels, here he speaks of his disciples as sharing in this fellowship. God is not only Jesus’ Father but also “our Father” (cp. Romans 8:15).
But lest we get too cozy and chummy with God as “our Father,” Jesus adds some balance with the phrase “in heaven.” While this phrase might merely “designate the difference from the earthly father,” it might also reflect something of God’s infinite greatness and righteous transcendence—i.e., that “our Father” is in some sense “in the heavens or the skies.” God is “in all the skies over every single creature on the planet.” Psalm 33:13-15 makes the point this way: “The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.” If this is the sense of the phrase “in heaven,” then the added point is that God (in Christ) may be as intimate as a father to us, but he still remains almighty. He is, God the Father Almighty. Therefore, when we approach him in prayer we ought to recognize that there is a great distance between him and us, a difference at least as vast as that between Heaven and earth.
Hallowed Be Your Name
This thought and precondition naturally moves us into the actual petition, which is, “Hallowed be your name.” That is, “May your name or reputation— who you are and what you have done—be thought of and acknowledged as holy.”
In the earliest known Christian book on prayer, Origen’s Treatise on Prayer, the author divides prayer into four parts: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. Adoration comes first, and that is precisely how Jesus starts. Jesus teaches us that we are to pray, first and foremost (what we so often don’t pray), that God’s name would be regarded by all people as holy.
Recently I learned of a church that for the purpose of reaching out to their community turned its “sanctuary” into a movie theater and its narthex into a box office. They offered free popcorn upon entrance, and I’m sure a brief candy-coated message before departure. What is taught here in this passage is a corrective to that. In the Bible what happened to people who came into the presence of God? They were struck with fear. They fell to the ground. They took off their shoes rather than putting them on the table. Even when a human encountered an angel we often find these same reactions. The purity of an angel was overpowering to them. But in our contemporary churches,
with their come-as-you-are and worship-as-you-want “praise” services, the hallowedness of God’s name is not a priority. With little or no regard for what honors God, we design church around the whims of man, and thus we are met with the oddity of a worship leader calling God’s people into God's presence with buttered popcorn in their mouths. What flippancy! What arrogance! What blasphemy!
Just because the distinction between holy and common space has been abolished in the death of Christ (thus it is okay to meet in the basement of a children’s museum, as my Ecclesia did, or a Roman catacomb, as some early Christians did), that does not mean we can approach God in private prayer in or in corporate worship with carelessness and with a carefree attitude. The end of Hebrews 12 talks about this. After explaining how we have come into a new covenant through Christ’s blood, the author does not then say, “Therefore let us offer to God causal and lighthearted worship because you know God is so like way cool.” Rather he writes, “Thus let us offer to God acceptable worship [which means that some worship is not acceptable], with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire”—completely holy (12:28, 29). He is holy, holy, holy, and we ought never to treat him otherwise.
A few years ago my wife and I attended “Shakespeare in the Park.” We saw, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged, which is a comically condensed version of all of Shakespeare’s plays. We noticed on the first page of the program a warning label. It said that this show contained “adult material.” We enquired as to the content of this adult material. To our satisfaction the director informed us that the label was mostly due to a spoof they were doing on one of Shakespeare’s early and extremely violent plays. Yet we quickly learned that the director’s sensibilities were different than our own, for as this play went on, what bothered us most was not the joking at senseless and excessive violence but the toying with God’s name. God’s name was mentioned in nearly every scene, never once with homage or in prayer. Their warning sticker should have read: “Warning: God’s name will be taken in vain. This play is thus not suitable for children or adults. This play is not suitable for anyone who hallows God’s name.”
God’s name is holy, and we are to regard him as holy when we come to pray, gather to worship, attend the theater, ballpark, or restaurant, watch TV, or talk in the shopping mall with our friends. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”—that is the first petition, the first and foremost of the divine petitions.
Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done
Look with me next at the second and third petitions, which I have grouped together because they naturally flow into one another. Look at verse 10: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Think of this petition in this way. God is in Heaven. While God is omnipresent, God dwells in some places in a certain, special way. Thus, his space, if you will, is up there in the unseen heavens, a place where perfect purity is observed, where his will is impeccably heeded. Our space is the earth—a place where impurity and immorality are everyday realities, where, in other words, God’s will (in the prescriptive sense) is not perfectly observed. But long ago God promised he would send a King who would establish a kingdom—a kingdom on earth in which righteousness would dwell. Matthew tells us that that King is Jesus. And when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, “the kingdom of heaven,” as he announced at the beginning of his ministry, was “at hand” (4:17). The day will come, so the prophets and apostles have foretold, when God’s space will become our space. And surprisingly this will happen in a way that is counterintuitive. In the book of Revelation the picture is this: we are not taken from earth to Heaven, but rather Heaven comes to earth; the holy city, the New Jerusalem, comes down from Heaven to earth. “God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last.” That picture of the new heavens and new earth is at the very heart of this petition. We are pleading with God to give us Jesus—“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)—that he as the King of kings would come again to reign supremely so that “[his] will" might conquer all once and for all.
In the fourth century the Emperor Julian (later known as Julian the Apostate) abandoned the Christian faith and sought to abolish Christianity, replacing it with the worship of the ancient gods of Rome and Greece. At the very height of his power, and as it looked as though the abolishment of Christianity could become a real possibility, he was mortally wounded in battle. “The historians tell how, when he lay bleeding to death, he took a handful of his blood and tossed it in the air, saying: ‘You have conquered, O man of Galilee!”’" Christ’s “conquering” of the Emperor Julian, as Julian viewed it, was but one small step away for the “man of Galilee” from the throne of Heaven and earth. For when Christ returns in glory he will have the heads of all evil rulers and all disobedient people under his foot. Then, finally and absolutely, the will of Heaven will become the way of earth.
So “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is an extraordinary thing to ask for. And its extraordinariness is why I think we don't ordinarily ask for it. Of all the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, this one is the hardest for most of us to pray. It is hard because we fail to understand it to its full implications, but also hard because we are so concerned with our selves and our little kingdoms. Further, we are concerned with our own name and reputation, more than with God’s name and reputation. But here Jesus corrects our self-centered prayers with his God-centered one, reminding us of what we ought to ask for first.
Give Us Our Daily Bread
From such lofty heights—the high heavens—Jesus next takes us down to earth and, almost oddly, to the amber waves of grain. He takes us from these grand spiritual concerns (about God’s name, kingdom, and will) to our everyday physical and spiritual concerns (our needs for ongoing food, forgiveness, and protection from evil).
The first of these human petitions is for daily bread—“Give us this day our daily bread” (v. 11). Some notable figures in church history (e.g., Augustine, Jerome, and Erasmus) rejected the plain interpretation that “bread” here means “bread” (or more broadly, provisions for our bodily health), and they spiritualized this petition to mean Communion bread or “the invisible bread of the Word of God.” Erasmus, for example, “reckons it impossible that, when we come into the presence of God, Christ should enjoin us to make mention of food.” Asking God for food is not spiritual enough, so he thought.
I’m not poking fun at these great men. I admire them. I read their works to learn and often emulate their otherworldly perspective. Much better than we often do, they lived in light of eternal values and realities. But here their interpretation is more otherworldly than Jesus, which is not the most spiritual place to be.
So while we are not to pray here for “our daily cake,” as one commentator humorously puts it, or “for riches [or] delicate living [or] costly raiment,” as another phrases it, we are to pray for bread, for daily provisions. I’ll put it this way: We are not to pray for our greeds but for our needs, for every physical and material need. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me only with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8, 9). That’s how Proverbs puts it. “Give us this day our daily bread” is how Jesus puts it. “Lord, give us what we need to live, so that we might live a life of gratitude toward you and generosity towards others.”
Forgive Us Our Debts
If we stopped here with this petition, we would miss what is even more necessary than bread for our bodies—salvation for our souls. For if we are not pardoned of our daily sins, then all the daily bread we have filled our bellies with throughout our whole lives only fattens us for the slaughter. So the next petition is most necessary: “forgive us our debts” (v. 12a). The sense of the petition is this: “Lord, we continually depend on you for all things—for daily food but also for daily forgiveness. So give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us this day our daily debts.” Or “trespasses,” if you prefer that word, or even “sins.” It is literally the word “sins” in Luke’s version of this prayer (Luke 11:4). That is the basic idea here in Matthew as well. We are asking God to forgive our sins.
Yet this concept of indebtedness or “debts,” which is the word Matthew uses, sheds some light on the nature of our sins. The idea is this: we owe God our complete obedience. When we fail to give our complete obedience, we become debtors, and God becomes our creditor. Now, when you think of how many times we have sinned against God, you will realize that we live “in the land of debts,” that “we are up to our ears” in debt.
You thought our national economy is bad. Our spiritual economy has been in a depression for thousands of years. Our debt is astronomical (see 18:24). We should all be embarrassed—red in the face because of how much we are in the red—personally and corporately!
For very reason I want you to recognize the apparent audacity of this petition to God to “forgive us our debts.” Think of it this way. Let’s say you owe the government $100,000 for school loans. You are well aware of the severity of the hole you are in financially. What we are asking God to do here is like you asking the government to cancel what is owed. If you have any personal pride or honor, it seems like a shameless thing to do. But that is precisely what Jesus calls us to do. We are to put aside our pride and ask our Father for what we need—our debt forgiven.
Here Jesus does not fill in the big picture. But he knows where this Gospel of Matthew is going to end. And he knows where he is going—the cross. Our past, present, and future indebtedness can be forgiven only because Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom”—a full payment (20:28). He paid our infinite debt through his death. Jesus paid the price. Jesus paid it all.
If Jesus paid it all, there would be nothing so profane as to accept forgiveness for our sins but to leave unpardoned the sins of others. That is why Jesus includes an important condition, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (v. 12b). Jesus assumes that if we are asking for divine forgiveness, we have already been in the business of forgiving the little debts of even our biggest debtors.
John Wesley was once approached by a man who was well known for his unbending nature. In a particularly prideful moment, this man boasted to Wesley, “I never forgive.” Wesley replied, “Then I hope, sir, you never sin.” That’s funny. But, of course, there is nothing funny about the forgiven being unforgiving.
Whenever I conduct interviews for baptism, I always ask, “Is there anyone in your life you have not forgiven?” This is just as important a question as asking, “Do you believe in the Trinity?” or “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?” or “Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?”
The Puritan Thomas Watson said, “A man can as well go to hell for not forgiving as for not believing.” That’s a strong but appropriate and memorable way of putting it, for that is what is taught later in 18:21-35 in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, but also here in 6:12b as well as in 6:14, 15, where Jesus reiterates this point (and this is the only petition he reemphasizes): “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.” You see, the forgiven must be forgiving—not forgiving in order to be justified before God but because we are justified before God. In Ephesians 4:32 Paul expresses it this way: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one other, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Lead Us Not... but Deliver Us
We need forgiveness of all past sins, but we also and finally need assistance in overcoming any and all future sins. This is why Jesus teaches us next to pray, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (v. 13).
The idea here is not, “Lord, please don’t bring us to the place of temptation,” or “don’t allow us to be tempted.” We know from 4:1 that God’s Spirit brought Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. So what is being asked here is rather, “Lord, don't let us succumb to temptation,” or “don’t abandon us to temptation.” Here we find a petition for utter dependence on God’s providence, protection, and power. It is a prayer of a weak person to a strong God.
In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs the story is told of the fate of two men under the reign of Bloody Mary. Both of these men were condemned to burn at the stake for their religious convictions. One of them boasted loudly to the other prisoners that he would be a “man” when he approached his doom, that he was so grounded in the gospel that he could not imagine denying Christ if and when he was given the opportunity. Even on the day of his execution, he spoke of his imminent death in the most pious terms, saying that he was like a bride made ready for the wedding day.
Next to this man was a man of another disposition. Although he too was determined not to deny Christ, he admitted that he was terribly fearful of fire. He shared that he had always been very sensitive to suffering, and he was in great dread that when that first flame came near his body, he would cry out and recant, thus denying his Lord. So he urged this other man to pray for him, and he spent his time weeping over his weakness and crying out to God for strength. Befuddled by this blubbering, the other man rebuked and chided him for being so cowardly.
When they came to the stake, he who had been so bold recanted at first sight of the fire and thus was released, never to return to Christ. The other man, the trembling one, whose prayer at that moment had been, “Father, lead me not into temptation,” stood firm as a rock, praising and magnifying God as he died a cruel but courageous death.
All of us must undergo various trials and temptations in order that God might test the authenticity of our faith. We are all tested as if by fire. So, our prayer should be that though tested, we are not consumed.
Temptation is one thing, but evil another. So Jesus teaches that we are to pray not only “lead us not into temptation,” but also “deliver us from evil” (v. 13). The word here for “deliver” can be rendered “snatch.” It is a most aggressive word. So here we are asking God, with his divine hand, to snatch us from evil. “Lord, grab us from the grip of the evil” is the sense of the prayer. The parallelism plays out as follows: Lead us not into temptation (i.e., lead us not into evil temptations), but deliver us from the evil.
That is how the Lord’s Prayer ends. It ends quite abruptly and seemingly oddly, with the word “evil” or “evil one.” This abrupt and seemingly odd ending was what likely prodded a scribe somewhere down the line to tack on a doxology, “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” It is a beautiful doxology, and the words are Biblical, for similar words are found in 1 Chronicles 29:11. However, such words are not found in the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Thus, the “evil” ending, if you will, is the original ending. And the purpose of that original ending may be to convey the grand contrast with the original opening. In Greek the first word of the Lord’s Prayer is “Father,” and the last words are “evil one.” The structural point then is something like: As children of Jesus’ Father, who live our daily lives between God and evil, we must recognize the warning here and therefore offer up in this last petition a real and "raw cry for help”—“Help me, Lord, to remain faithful to you.”
We are not spiritual superheroes, but we must be prayer warriors, warring for our very souls. So we don’t pray, “Bring on the temptations.” We don’t go looking for tests of strength. We realize, as Jesus said, that “sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (6:34), and may I add also “temptations” and “evils.” O Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
A Masterpiece on Prayer
Matthew 6:5-15 is a masterpiece on prayer. And although we have seen only part of its genius, hopefully it has been enough for us to appreciate that prayer. We should appreciate the genius of the prayer, but more importantly the greatness of Jesus, for there indeed was and is no one who spoke like this man, no one who lived like this man, no one who died like this man, and no one who lived again like this man. Can you say amen to that? Amen, indeed!
(R. Kent Hughes. and Douglas Sean O'Donnell., 2013; edited Carl Hinton., 2020)