The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most commonly recited prayer both in public worship gatherings and also in the private life of Christians. This familiarity can result in us not always considering what the words mean. Not praying the prayer won’t help that (as Jesus taught his disciples to pray it). Instead, we should pause and ponder these words in greater depth so that we will have a better understanding of what it means.
When we start to examine the particular words of the Lord’s Prayer, we find that minor differences exist in the exact words prayed. Some of these differences are purely stylistic, like whether to use the traditional language of “who art” and “thy” or the forms of those words in contemporary English. Other differences in wording may have some significance in the meaning of the request itself, such as whether to ask for forgiveness of “debts,” “trespasses,” or “sins,” and whether to ask for deliverance from “evil” or “the evil one.” But one thing we should note is that those minor differences do not alter the overall structure of the prayer; it begins with the preface that reminds us of who we approach in prayer and then turns to various requests. We will look at the meaning of some of these petitions in the coming weeks, but this week I want us to reflect on the preface “Our Father in Heaven” to see what it tells us about prayer – specifically who we are praying to and how we should approach the act of prayer.
While “Father” is the second word in the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer, it seems good to focus on this word first for a couple of reasons. One is that it stands as the first word in the original Greek of Matthew 6:9 when Jesus teaches us this prayer. But perhaps more importantly, it is the main noun of this phrase – “our” and “in heaven” are phrases that describe this noun, the kind of Father that He is.
The idea of God as Father means that God is not “the man upstairs” or the “big guy in the sky,” but one who has an intimate relationship with us, who stands as our Father because of Jesus. While the people of Israel would refer to God as their Father, they would not address Him directly as Father like Jesus did when he referred to God as “Abba” (Mark 14:36). While some explain and render that word as “daddy,” I don’t think that is the best way to do so, as daddy can evoke images of a small child speaking; this is not a childish title but rather an intimate title. Thus, I like to think of it as “dad,” which is less formal than “father.” “Abba” and the word used in Matthew 6:9 for “Father” are linked in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, showing us that because of the Spirit we are adopted and have the honor of crying out to God as “father” or “dad.” This is a privilege of Christians; while people will talk about God being the “Father” of all, the New Testament states that those who believe in Jesus are children of God and thus have God as their Father. Jesus tells us that we have the privilege of having God as our Father, which means that He wants to hear us and help us (see Matthew 7:9-11). Prayer is not like coming to our boss to ask for time off work or a raise, nor is it not asking a powerful figure who does not know us for a favor or a break. It is approaching the one who stands as a loving Father to those who believe in Jesus. Even the best human father is imperfect, but God is perfect so that what He gives us is always what is best for us – He is a good Father. Is that how you approach prayer – coming to speak to your Father?
Something that we should not skip over is the fact that God is called “our” Father – not “my” Father. While we often think of prayer as a private, personal thing, this phrase reminds us that our relationship with God connects us with other people. In fact, when you look at the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, it is consistently in the plural – give us our daily bread, forgive us our debts, and lead us not into temptation. This means that our prayers should not just be focused upon our needs but on the needs of our community. We should continually pray these same things for our sisters and brothers in the faith, both those in our local settings but also throughout the world. I think this little phrase should cause us to ponder how much of our prayer life is focused on our personal needs and wants versus how much is being asked for the sake of others and for our Christian community. It also reminds us that one of the main things we should be doing when we gather with other Christians is praying. When you look at the Book of Acts, you see that Christians gather together and pray together (e.g. Acts 4:23-31, 6:1-6, 12:5, 12; 13:1-3, 14:23; 16:23; 20:36) because we are siblings crying out to our Father.
Whether you say “who art” or “who is” in heaven, the truth being expressed is the same: this Father we address is in heaven as opposed to here on the earth. The idea of God as Father shows how close He is to us, but the fact that He is “in heaven” reminds us of His distance, that He exists on another level, and does not have the limitations that are found among all humans. He is not our peer but rather transcends all the earth since the earth cannot contain Him (Acts 7:49; 17:24). Since He is in heaven, He is above the earth, not in terms of geography, but in terms of power and authority. He stands in heaven, but His activity does not stay there, as He rules over all things from there and thus reaches into every part of the earth and every part of our lives. This points to us having great reverence for our Father, and also separate confidence that not only would He like to act, but He can act and do amazing things.
When you add these phrases together, “Our Father in heaven,” this is what we are taught: we are to pray with and for others to our almighty and powerful God who deeply cares for us.
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