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Connections between the Bible and prayer: the context of the Lord’s Prayer

Friday September 14 2018

Connections between the Bible and prayer: the context of the Lord’s Prayer

Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and some of the other writers of the New Testament give instructions about prayer, and for the next couple of blog posts I want to write about those instructions. Today I focus on the Lord’s Prayer. So much has been written about the prayer itself, so I’m going to let others help us understand the words of the prayer. I’m interested in the context of the prayer in Matthew and Luke, and what those two very different contexts might teach us about prayer.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew give us a long speech by Jesus that we call the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord’s Prayer comes right in the middle of the speech.

The Sermon on the Mount occurs very early in Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 4 of Matthew, we read of Jesus’ temptation right after his baptism, the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, the calling of the first four disciples (Peter, Andrew, James and John), and a brief paragraph about Jesus’ healing and preaching. Then the Sermon on the Mount begins.

Jesus begins with the Beatitudes, then he talks about salt and light, the law and the prophets, anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love for enemies, almsgiving. Matthew 6:5-15 covers prayer, with the Lord’s Prayer taking up verses 9-13.

The Lord’s Prayer is followed by instructions about fasting, treasures, the sound eye, and ten other topics. From the variety of topics that surround the instructions on prayer, I assume that Jesus is indicating that the life of prayer should be part of obeying God in everyday life, just like all those other topics. Following Jesus impacts every aspect of life.

In the prayer section of the Sermon on the Mount, in verses 5 to 8 before the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives two negative examples that we are to avoid: the “hypocrites” who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” and the “Gentiles” who “heap up empty phrases.” Instead, we are to pray in secret and to pray simply.

After the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus notes that if we forgive others, God will forgive us. Sadly he says that the opposite is also true.

Frankly, it’s easier to zero in on the Lord’s Prayer itself rather than Jesus’ words that come before and after the prayer, which raise so many questions. Should we never pray out loud with others? That can’t be true because we have examples of Jesus himself praying out loud in the presence of others (John 17) and examples from Acts where the believers pray together. Can we never pray complicated prayers? And what about those instances when we are working on forgiving someone, but can’t quite get there? Will God not forgive us?

If I were to paraphrase the instructions surrounding the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, I might say something like: “Watch yourself. Watch to see if you are praying to impress others. Watch to see if you are falling into the temptation of thinking that lofty and eloquent words make a prayer better. Do your very best to forgive others. All of these things matter to God. And, based on instructions about prayer elsewhere in the Bible, if you can’t quite do what Jesus has recommended here, bring that to God in prayer.”

In contrast to Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:1-13 comes in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. Chapter 10 ends with the Mary and Martha story, a lovely reminder about the value of simply sitting with Jesus. At the beginning of chapter 11, Luke records that Jesus was praying, and afterwards the disciples ask him to teach them to pray.

In response to this request, Jesus launches right into the Lord’s Prayer, a slightly shorter version than in Matthew 6. After giving the words to the prayer, Jesus tells a story about persistence, then gives the well-known words about asking, searching and knocking, and concludes with another story about parents giving their children good gifts. Jesus ends these words on prayer like this: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Just like in Matthew, these instructions that follow the Lord’s Prayer raise huge questions. What about the times we persevere in prayer, but receive no answer? What about the times we ask, search and knock in prayer, but God remains silent?

I take comfort in two things. Jesus talks about God’s many good gifts as he concludes these challenging paragraphs. Secondly, the Apostle Paul experienced a thorn in the flesh that he prayed about many times, and God did not remove it (see 2 Corinthians 12:6-10). We cannot use unanswered prayer to indicate that we have failed in our prayers in some way. God has given each of us many good gifts. Yes, perseverance matters, but it is not a guarantee of God’s answer to our prayers in just the way we want things to be.

Given how deep but straightforward the Lord’s Prayer is, maybe it’s good that Jesus’ words before and after the prayer raise a lot of questions. Prayer is an ongoing challenge as well as a comfort, blessing, and joy.

(Next week: the Apostle Paul’s instructions about prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts in this series:

          Connections between the Bible and prayer
          The character of God and prayer

My new book came out last month, and I am hoping my blog readers will let the pastoral care people in your churches know about it. Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century



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