Many things in life are learned either through example or instruction…or a combination of both. We watch and listen as others do something and then we try to imitate what they do, and we listen to instruction which hopefully will help us learn the fundamentals with greater understanding. This is likely how we learn to do various activities around the house (mowing the lawn, vacuuming, etc.) and how we talk and walk. This is true in regards to how we learn to pray, too. We learn to pray both by listening to people praying and also through explicitly being taught what prayer is and how we should do it. While this is a natural method of learning, it may not be the most effective as some of these examples may not always be good examples. In addition, the teaching that we receive about prayer may come more from the minds of humans than from what God has revealed in the Bible.
Interestingly enough, this sort of methodology of learning to pray is actually the way the Bible itself teaches. It is filled with examples of prayer that do not just record the content of prayer for historical purposes but offer us models of prayers that should guide us in terms of how we approach prayer and what we ask for. Over the years, I have loved and learned a lot from the prayers that Paul includes in the beginning of many of his letters, but we can also look at examples of prayers found in narrative portions of the Bible (and the Psalms) as models that God gave us.. The Bible also provides instruction on how to pray. The two parables in Luke 18 and Jesus’s instruction in John 15:16 to pray in his name are instances of guidelines being provided. In some ways, Jesus’s most famous teaching on prayer – what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer – combines these two strands of learning.
The Lord’s Prayer as Example and Instruction
Matthew and Luke record Jesus teaching his disciples a very similar prayer but in different settings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, including instructions on how they should perform these spiritual disciplines – not like the scribes and Pharisees (whom he calls hypocrites). The section on prayer, however, is longer than the others, as in the course of it Jesus tells them, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’” (Matthew 6:9-13).
The similar – but shorter – prayer that we find in Luke comes in a different context. In Luke 11 we read that the disciples of Jesus came to him after he was praying and asked him to teach them how to pray like John the Baptist had taught his disciples. Jesus responded by saying, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation’” (Luke 11:2-4). This prayer is shorter than the one found in Matthew in that it has a shorter description of God (Father vs. Our Father in heaven) and omits two statements (“your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and “deliver us from evil”).
The Lord’s Prayer as commonly recited follows the version in Matthew, with many adding a concluding statement (“For Thine is the Kingdom, and the glory, and the honor”) which is likely not found in the original text of the Gospels (though found in some later manuscripts) but serves as a fitting ending to the prayer offered.
As I have studied and pondered this prayer that Jesus taught his disciples (which many have noted Jesus himself could never have prayed since he never sinned against anyone!), I think it serves both as an example and an instruction of prayer. It certainly is an example of a prayer that one can offer (and many have over the years!) and may be the best example out there since it is untainted by the sin and misunderstanding that mark every follower of Christ until his return. But I also think that both contexts present it as more than just a rote prayer that one recites; it is illustrative of the way we should approach the act of prayer and the content found in our prayers. In particular, the preface (“Our Father in heaven”) helps us remember who we are addressing with our prayer, and the petitions (seven according to Martin Luther but six according to the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms) teach us what requests we can and should bring forth. Therefore, I echo the idea taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 187 that “The Lord’s prayer is not only for direction, as a pattern, according to which we are to make other prayers; but may also be used as a prayer, so that it be done with understanding, faith, reverence, and other graces necessary to the right performance of the duty of prayer.”
Learning from the Lord’s Prayer
In the coming weeks we’ll be journeying through the Lord’s Prayer at Faith Church in our sermon series called “Enter In” and we will also be walking through the prayer on this blog. It is my hope that deeper reflection on this well-known prayer will deepen our prayer lives, resulting in more intimacy with God Himself and also more fervent and effective prayers in our lives and churches.
Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.