Our theme for this series of essays is Empowered Discipleship. We began by studying several biblical models of discipleship: Zachariah, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist and the earliest disciples of Jesus, as well as Jesus himself.
We learned that those people shared certain characteristics in common. They were righteous before God, and obeyed his commandments. They were faithful to the duty to which God called them. They were expectant, forward-looking people, who had real faith in God. They were persistent in their praying. The Holy Spirit was upon them. And in the cases of Anna and Jesus, fasting specifically was mentioned in connection with their prayers.
In our previous essay, we surveyed biblical teachings about fasting and concluded that it is a powerful spiritual discipline that can help us to be a stronger soldier in the spiritual wars of our day. And I challenged those of you who have not fasted with any regularity to experiment with fasting and prayer. Now in this essay I want us to return to Jesus’ Galilean ministry and study some of his teachings on prayer in order to complete our study.
Time does not allow us to study it all. So I have selected a couple of key passages. In this essay we will study Jesus’ teachings on prayer in his Sermon on the Mount. And in the next essay we will study his two parables on persistence in prayer.
Jesus began a new section of the Sermon at Matthew chapter six, verse one; and that is where we want to go. Please turn to Matthew 6:1. In chapter five Jesus had been teaching the disciples about a new interpretation of the law. But at 6:1 he shifted to the subject of how the disciples should practice their piety. He stated the general principle with which he was concerned in verse one: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Next follows three verses on the subject of giving alms. The gist of the teaching on alms was that we are not to parade our giving publicly so that other people will praise us for our generosity. Then Jesus began to teach about prayer.
The teaching about prayer begins in a manner quite similar to that of alms. “But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth. They have received their reward in full. When you pray, go into your room. Close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
This is a crucial element in the matter of prayer. The principle is that the bulk of our prayer is to be private, before God, rather than public before men, because we are to seek God’s approval, rather than the approval of human beings.
Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had become hypocritical with their praying, because they did it primarily in public for the very self-serving purpose Jesus condemned. They wanted people to notice how “spiritual” they were. That certainly was an easy thing to do in Jesus’ day, because pious Jews all said ritual prayers at 9:00 a.m., noon, and 3:00 p.m. And it was easy to arrange to be on a busy street corner at the time of prayer, and to do the prayers with great ostentation, so that every one would notice.
Stanley Jones, the great missionary to India, provides a couple of classic illustrations of this in Hindu culture. He tells of observing an Indian holy man who would stand immovable all day, paying no attention to the things going on around him. But he always chose a prominent corner on which to stand. He tells of another holy man who sat on a bed of spikes and was contemptuous in his indifference to everyone around him. But his bed of spikes was at a busy crossroads where multitudes surged—and saw!
But Jesus taught that piety, including prayer, is primarily a private matter. It is a matter between God and us, not between other humans and us. Therefore as a general rule, it is to be practiced in secret, and we are to let God do the rewarding.
Now Jesus’ point was not that it is wrong to pray in public. His point was that it is wrong to pray in public if we have not prayed in private. If we pray only in public, our motive is hypocritical; and we are in big, spiritual trouble.
Then in verses 7-8 Jesus gave some further instruction about prayer: “And when you pray do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” This is interesting. It indicates that verbosity is not the key to a successful prayer life. Jesus already had condemned hypocrisy in prayer, because hypocrisy diverts the glory from God. Now he condemns verbosity in prayer, because verbosity depersonalizes it.
The extreme example of depersonalized prayer would be Buddhist prayer wheels. Buddhists often write out their prayers and then attach them to a wheel of some sort that constantly turns, in the wind, or in a stream of water. And they believe that their prayer is uttered every time the wheel turns. Of course genuine Christian prayer is not like that. It is not mechanical. Christian prayer is relational. It is an intelligent conversation with a real person.
Next, in verses 9-15, Jesus gave the disciples a model prayer, often called the “Lord’s Prayer.” “Pray like this,” he said. Since this was given as a model of how to pray, there is no teaching of Jesus that is more important. I will not record the verses here, because you likely already know them by heart. If not, you can look them up in a Bible.
For many of us, this prayer is best known as a ritual that is prayed by the entire congregation every Sunday. I have said The Lord’s Prayer hundreds and hundreds of times that way. And there is nothing wrong with that use of the prayer. It provides a powerful corporate reminder of our relationship with our heavenly Father.
But the truth is the Lord did not give this prayer to the Church for ritual use. As we see here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave the prayer to the disciples as a model of how to pray. In other words, what we have here is a pattern to follow that expresses the most important matters about which to pray.
As we look at the prayer, we note that it addresses God as “Father.” And then it contains six petitions that neatly divide into two sections of three each. The address, “Our Father,” is more significant than it looks on the surface. To address God as “Father” is a common practice for us; but for the Jews of the first century, that was something they never did. They thought of themselves as servants of God, not children of God. They believed it was the nation, Israel, that was God’s child (Is. 63:16). Thus the idea that God is a Father with whom we can have a personal relationship was a new concept that Jesus introduced.
And the fact that the prayer begins “Our Father,” rather than “My Father” is significant. This is a healthy reminder that we are part of God’s family, and that this is a family prayer. Therefore we must not pray for anything that would harm another member of the family.
Next, notice that the first three petitions concentrate on God and are characterized by the pronoun “your:” “hallowed be your name; your kingdom come; your will be done.” This is extremely important. Jesus said that our first concern in prayer is to treat God as holy, to reverence him as one apart, one who is different, one who is absolutely holy.
Then we are to concern ourselves with God’s lordship, his rule, and his will. In other words Christian prayer is to focus on God, to be God-centered. We are to concern ourselves with what God wants to accomplish. Thus true prayer, as opposed to self-centered prayer, gets us into the flow of what God wants to do on the earth. Self-centered prayer seeks to get God into the flow of what we want to happen on the earth.
That is so important. Let me repeat it. There is God-centered prayer and self-centered prayer. God-centered prayer seeks to get us into the flow of what God wants to accomplish, whereas self-centered prayer seeks to get God into the flow of what we want to accomplish.
What are your prayers like? Are you following Jesus’ model? Are your prayers God–centered, or self-centered? Are they concerned with what God wants, or with what you want?
That point being made, Jesus did encourage prayer for our own needs. In Jesus’ model prayer, the second set of three petitions turned to our needs, characterized by the pronoun “us.” But notice the type of needs Jesus suggested. “Give us … our daily bread; … forgive us our debts [in Luke’s version our sins], and … deliver us from the evil one.”
The first type of need Jesus suggested we should pray for is daily bread. Thus our material needs are important. But a couple of things should be noted. Daily bread is hardly “the American dream” of a high salaried job, a beautiful home, and a luxury car. Bread represents the necessities of life. Bread is the daily staple we need for survival. Thus we are to pray for our material necessities.
The second area for which Jesus suggests prayer is forgiveness, which represents our spiritual needs. But the really important thing to notice here is that our forgiveness depends on our willingness to forgive: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” This was so important to Jesus; it is the one petition in the prayer that he chose to underline verbally. In the two verses following the prayer Jesus said: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
This is a scary truth, because I have heard many Christians freely admit that they hate someone. As you know, Jesus taught that we are to love even our enemies. To some people this seems impossible. For example it seems impossible to those who have been mistreated by others in ways that are almost beyond comprehension: those who were abused physically or sexually as children, those who were suddenly and violently raped, and those who suffered through the Holocaust.
Forgiveness of people who have done such things to us is not possible in our own strength. It is possible only by God’s grace. But it is possible. Indeed, Jesus says it is necessary for our own forgiveness. However do not expect to have warm fuzzy feelings for these enemies. Forgiveness is an act of the will. The love of God will cleanse us of the pus of bitterness and hatred. But that does not mean we will feel warm fuzzies.
Jesus not only suggested that we pray for our material and spiritual needs. He also told us to pray for moral needs: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil [or the evil one].” Each of us is tempted to sin by the evil one. God never tempts us to sin. But God does occasionally test people, as he tested Abraham. In Genesis 22 God sent Abraham up Mount Moriah with a command to sacrifice Isaac as a test of Abraham’s faith and devotion. Abraham passed that test. And perhaps Jesus is suggesting here that we pray that we will be up to the test, should God decide to test us. But one thing is certain. Every temptation to sin from the evil one becomes a test of our faith; and we must pray for deliverance from any temptation we cannot handle.
To summarize, first, the bulk of our praying should be done in private, so that the Lord will be the one who rewards us rather than other people. Second, we must not be hypocritical with our prayers by seeking reward from human beings, because it diverts glory from God. Third, we must not be unduly verbose in our prayers, because it detracts from the conversational nature of proper prayer and depersonalizes the process. Fourth, as we saw in the Lord’s model prayer, God and God’s desires are to be at the forefront of our prayers rather than our desires. We are to hold up his name as holy, pray for his rule, and pray for his will to come to come to pass. In other words we are to seek to get into the flow of what he is doing rather than try to get him into the flow of what we want to happen. Finally, we are to pray for our material, spiritual, and moral needs; that is, for daily bread, for forgiveness, and for deliverance from evil.