The Lord's Prayer
By Bruce L. Gerig

The Lord's Prayer is the most beloved and oft repeated prayer in the Bible. Throughout Christian history, it has held a special place of honor, both in church liturgy and devotional practice. Thomas Aquinas (13th cent.) called it "the perfect prayer" and James Thirtle (1916) "the pearl of prayers" – yet as Gregory of Nyssa (4th cent.) noted, it does not "yield a meaning that can easily be understood at first sight."1 In fact, when you read it thoughtfully, many questions arise. For example, what is the significance of "Father" here, applied to God? What does "Hallowed be thy name" mean, since God is already perfectly holy? If "bread" has a larger meaning, what is it? Why do we ask forgiveness for our "debts," instead of "sins" – and what about this unsettling part that God forgive us as we forgive others? Did God ever lead anybody into "temptation"? Should we omit the final doxology, which scholars say was added later to Jesus' prayer? And how do we explain two different versions of the prayer, in Matt 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4? Is one more genuine (from Jesus' lips) than the other?

Luke's shorter version may be the more original while Matthew's version has a more liturgical sound to it; yet we cannot rule out the possibility that Jesus gave different versions on different occasions.2 Matthew's version (given to the crowd) appears more to echo language and themes in Jewish prayer texts,3 while Luke's version (given to his disciples in private) appears more crisp and practical.4 Yet Jesus, out preaching every day, surely must have repeated much of what he said many times, with variation, not only to reach new faces in the crowd but to impress his teachings on his disciples' memories.5 In Matthew, the setting is the Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5-7), given to a very large audience (4:25, 5:1). Jesus precedes the prayer with an emphasis on offering sincere, simple prayers to God in secret, in contrast to the showy, self-promoting prayers that Jewish leaders gave in public (Matt 6:5-8). He is not prohibiting public praying here, if one focuses on God as the single audience; nor are written prayers "less spiritual," if they come from the heart.6 In Matt 7:7-11, Jesus also encourages his followers to pray expectantly to God, who wants to "give good gifts" to them. In Luke, Jesus is alone with the Twelve (11:1), when one of the them (all of whom must have noticed how frequently Jesus went off to pray alone and the serenity that this gave him7) asked him to give his disciples a distinctive prayer, a common Jewish practice.8 After the prayer in Luke, Jesus emphasizes perseverance in prayer and receiving the Holy Spirit, the divine Distributor of all of God's gifts (11:5-13).9

Although "The Lord's Prayer" has been called this from earliest times (3rd cent.), it has also been commonly called the "Our Father" (Latin Pater Noster).10 Some, pointing out that Jesus would never have had to ask his Father for forgiveness of sin, have suggested other titles, such as "The Disciples' Prayer" (Barclay), "The Pattern Prayer" (Trueblood), or "The Learner's Prayer" (Roberts),11 all worthy. Yet, Philip Ryken argues that this could be considered the Lord's prayer as well, for "when Jesus died on the cross, was he not asking the Father – at least with his actions, if not his words – to forgive us our debts [taking our sins upon himself]?" At the same time, he forgave those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). He customarily called God "Father" in prayer (John 17), prayed "not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42), looked to the Father to supply his daily needs (Matt 8:20) and gave thanks before breaking bread (Matt 14:19, 26:26), and from the beginning knew what it was like to be tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13).12

The Lord's Prayer consists of two parts, the first half directed toward God and his glory, and the second half directed toward ourselves and our needs.13 Three "Thou" petitions call for God's reverence, kingdom and will to be extended on earth; then three "us" petitions request sustenance, forgiveness, and protection from the power of evil.14 Matthew's version is introduced with "After this manner therefore pray ye:" (6:9, KJV), while Luke's version is introduced with "When ye pray, say," (11:2a, KJV) – suggesting that the Lord's Prayer was meant both to be used as a model and to be prayed verbatim – as long as the latter does not become "meaningless words," that Jesus warned against in Matt 6:7 (GNB). The Lord's Prayer encompasses the past, present and future, since Jesus called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who sought God's will) "prophets in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:28, NRSV); he also told his listeners that "the kingdom of God is among you/within you" (Luke 17:21, NRSV/GNB); and he here advises his disciples to pray, "Your kingdom come" in all its fullness (Matt 6:10, NRSV).15 The Trinity is also stamped here, "bread" reminding us of God the Creator and Sustainer of all life, "forgive" recalling the Son's magnificent sacrifice, and "temptation" looking to the Holy Spirit's help as Guardian of our way.16

One important aspect of the prayer that is not obvious in translation is the use of the aorist tense in the Greek for nearly all of the verbs, which was reserved for a once-and-for-all event, in contrast to the present tense, which focused on a state of affairs that continues.17 The latter (instead of the aorist) appears in "Give us … bread" in Luke, and "as we forgive" in both Matthew and Luke, stressing the ongoing need for both. The omission of "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" from Luke also weakens the eschatological (End-Time) emphasis there,18 turning more to the present. Still, the prevailing use of the aorist tense shows that the Lord clearly had his eye on the final Divine goal, expressing a yearning for the day when God's glory, reign and will shall be fully revealed on earth as in heaven. The "us" petitions also look to the future, anticipating the culmination of God's salvation history, when the redeemed will share in the heavenly banquet, find final forgiveness at the last judgment, and, some coming through the terrible testing of the great tribulation, witness Christ's final victory over Satan.19 All this brings to mind the cry, Maran-atha! ("Our Lord, come!") in 1 Cor 16:22. Although the End is known, as Origen (3rd cent.) noted, God's Kingdom is already here (in our hearts), and God is at work today.20 We are called to be part of what God is doing (if we are willing). All of God's provision, forgiveness and power are offered to us!

THE ADDRESS: "Our Father which art in heaven," (Matt 6:9b, KJV); "Father," (Luke 11:2a, NRSV). The best authorities suggest that Luke originally read simply "Father," omitting the last part in Matthew, although included in the KJV. – The phrase "Abba, Father [Greek pater]" in Jesus' Gethsemane prayer (Mark 14:36, and cf. Gal 4:6 and Rom 8:15-16) carries over the actual term that Jesus used in Aramaic, the everyday language in which he taught and preached, related to but still different from Hebrew. Joachim Jeremias noted that abba derived from ab, like "dada, daddy" from "dad" in English.21 However, other scholars strongly rejected the idea that Jesus ever used baby-talk to address God. Instead, most favored "My Father"22 – although this still only suggests a familial, not necessarily an intimate, relationship. Therefore, "Dear Father," which Jeremias also suggested, is preferred (cf. also Boff and Phillips).23 Abba recalls Jesus' stress on having faith in God "like a little child" (Matt 18:1-4, Luke 18:15-17).24 God is rarely referred to as Father in the OT (15 times), and then always in a national sense referring to Israel (or to some group within it, or to the king). In the Lord's Prayer, however, Jesus invites his disciples to view God in a personal sense, to "share in his [special] intimate relationship with God," even though the familiar term Abba would have sounded disrespectful and inconceivable to the Jews, who shunned saying God's name aloud.25 Yet, here is a Father God who cares for his children, who has a heart that is sensitive to our problems, whose eye is always upon our sufferings, and whose ear is always open to our cries. We are not a digit or particle lost in the infinity of space, but someone enveloped in the caring love of God.26

The use of a male title to address God has troubled some, who suggest using instead “Father/Mother God" or "Our Parent who is in heaven."27 Certainly a feminine and motherly side of God is portrayed in Scripture (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 131:1-2; Hosea 11:3-4; Isa 46:3-4, 49:15, 66:13),28 although Ayo suggests that the term "parent" lacks the emotional depth of a caring "mother" or "father." In reality, our "Father" has no body or sex or gender. Although Jesus used "Father" here, he often broke the patriarchal mold.29 Throughout his ministry, Jesus fully accepted women, treating them with dignity and compassion, teaching them (theology) along with men, being sensitive to their needs, and giving them the honor of first witnessing to his resurrection.30 "Our" in Matt 6:9b reminds us that this prayer establishes not only a vertical relationship with the Father but a horizontal bond with others in the Christian praying community.31 Here we are reminded that Christians should be praying together and always one for another.32 In a sense, Jesus is the "only begotten Son" of God (John 3:16, KJV) and in another sense all human beings are "his offspring" (Acts 17:28, KJV); yet in the most common Biblical sense only those who are "born again" (NIV) or "born from above" (NRSV) are God's children (John 3:3). Yet we should not be quick to judge, since Jesus welcomes any seeking person (John 6:37).33

"Hallowed be thy name." (Matt 6:9c, and also Luke 11:2b, KJV). This petition has been translated into more modern language as, May your name "be held holy" (JB), "be revered" (Williams), or "be honoured" (Phillips). – The Greek verb hagiazo ("to hallow," Strong #37) can mean either "to make holy" or "to venerate," but since God is already perfectly holy, the latter must be the sense here – in other words, May God be worshipped, revered, and loved.34 God's holiness – his uniqueness, separateness, and moral perfection – is strikingly seen in Isaiah's vision and call (Isa 6:1-8),35 where the seraphim surrounding the Almighty cover their faces and cry out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts…" and Isaiah responds, "Woe is me! I am lost…" (NRSV) Yet, God graciously cleanses Isaiah's sin. This petition along with "in heaven" in the preceding address remind us that although Jesus invited his followers to enjoy a close, personal relationship with his "Father," we must not misconstrue this – for God is still the transcendent Almighty, the infinite Most High, the Other of indescribable glory and light.36 Between the infinite holiness and the infinite tenderness of the Father, there will always be an abiding tension.37 He is far more wonderful than we can ever imagine!38 This close, personal, loving, caring Friend39 is no mere "ground of being" nor a tyrant or ogre;40 also, he should not be thought of as a cosmic Santa Claus (simply to ask and get things from)41 or a Befuddled Grandpa (who misses most of what goes on). He is not a human illusion nor a projection of desire – but the great YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah = "He Who Is, the Creator-Redeemer”),42 who has revealed himself in Scripture and who named himself to Moses at the flaming bush (Exod 3:10,13-14).

Yahweh is revealed to us in many other wonderful names, as well, including: Yahweh Elyon ("The Lord most high), Yahweh Jireh ("The Lord will provide"), Yahweh Shalom ("The Lord my peace"), Yahweh Ro'eh ("The Lord my shepherd"), Elohim (lit. the plural of "gods," but meaning "God of majesty, containing the fullness of deity"), El Shaddai ("Almighty God"), Eben ("[my] Rock), Metsudah ("[my] Fortress"), and so on. In ancient Hebrew, a name was not just used to call someone, but it stood for the nature, character and personality of that person. When the psalmist prayed, "those who know your name put their trust in you" (Ps 9:10, NRSV), he was declaring that those who know the nature and character of God will gladly trust him.43 As Cyprian (ca. 250) noted, this is really a prayer that "His name may be hallowed [glorified] in us [italics added]."44 To call upon the name of God is to involve his power and claim his promises.45 This petition echoes both the First Commandment, that we are to worship our Redeemer God exclusively,46 and the Third Commandment, that forbids taking the Lord's name in vain (Peterson: "in curses or silly banter," Exod 20:7). Instead, this petition prays "that the glory of God may shine in the world, and may be duly acknowledged" (Calvin, 1563)47 and that "through us all may glorify thee" (Chrysostom, ca. 400).48

"Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven." (Matt 6:10, KJV); "Your kingdom come." (Luke 11:2c, NRSV). Although the KJV has Luke following Matthew here, 14 of 18 translations surveyed omitted the second half as not part of Luke's original text. – The psalmist looked forward to when "the Lord [would be] a great king over all the earth" (Ps 47:2, NRSV). But the kingdom even now is advancing! As C.S. Lewis described it, "the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage."49 Christ has already won the war, but we are sandwiched in between D-day (Christ's first coming) and V-day (His second coming). History is hurtling toward a glorious and climactic end when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord.50 This is no "pie in the sky" or "utopian hope" but one day God will join the divine and human realms.51 As Augustine (ca. 400) explained, "Thy kingdom come" prays that the light of the Gospel might be "manifested … to those who are ignorant of it."52 Luther (16th cent.) noted, "God's name is holy in itself [and] the kingdom of God comes of itself [and] the good and gracious will of God is done without our prayer" – so what are we asked to pray for here? Simply, that these things (God's glory, rule and will) may also be shown in us and done by us.53 Although the Creator is sovereign, this does not mean that every disaster (destruction, sickness, or death) is an "act of God" – although God does allow evil to continue in this fallen world for his higher purposes (including to teach us to trust him, to hate evil, and to discover his goodness in many unexpected ways).54

As Barclay notes, the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer follow each other without any conjunction ("and") and so appear as a "parallelism," in which three statements repeat, amplify or explain each other,55 then ending with "[also] on earth." So the ending relates not just to the last petition, but to all three.56 Matt 6:9c-10 reads literally, "let be sanctified your name, let come your kingdom, let be done your will, as in heaven, also on the earth."57 Peterson puts it in contemporary English as: "Reveal who you are. / Set the world right; / Do what's best – as above, so below." Some pray "Your will be done" with defeated resignation or bitter resentment, as if they see God as their enemy or capricious. Yet others pray this petition gladly and willingly, no matter what that will may be, for they are sure of two things: God's wisdom and God's love. God is the expert in life, who knows everything; and no one can look at the cross and doubt the love of God.58 God's goodness is simply beyond our comprehension and measure. If we don't see how we can do God's will, Robert Smith reminds us that even the power to perform God's will is a gift sought here.59 And what is God's will? Cyprian explained, by showing humility in attitude, steadfastness in faith, modesty in words, justice in deeds, mercy in works – and by keeping peace with other Christians and loving God with all of one's heart.60

"Give us this day our daily bread." (Matt 6:11, KJV); "Give us day by day our daily bread." (Luke 11:3, KJV). – In ancient Palestine, bread was the primary food present at every meal;61 and also it served as a "symbol of the full range of physical necessities: food, clothing, shelter, and the fundamental conditions for getting them, namely, health and job and peace."62 Daily bread was important to many laborers in Jesus’ day who were paid (or not paid) by the day.63 Yet, how do we square this petition with Jesus' words, "do not worry about your life, what you will eat or … put on. … But seek first the kingdom God and His righteousness (GNB: 'what he requires'], and all these things shall be added to you." (Matt 6:25,33, NKJV)? First, our bread reminds us that we should pray daily for all believers (and others) who struggle daily to find food.64 Second, although we may enjoy abundance, this reminds us to thank God as our Provider and always to look to him, knowing how quickly life can change.65

Although this petition seems simple, in fact many interpretations have arisen, related to two questions: What is the meaning of epiousios (KJV: "daily bread")? And what is the meaning of "bread"?66 Epiousios (Strong, #1966) appears in the NT only here in the Lord's Prayer (in both versions), and external evidence for the word's meaning is unclear. This compound word appears to join the prefix epi with either ienai ("to come, go") or einai ("to be"). Ienai would convey the meaning of "for tomorrow" – and this recalls he epiousa ("the next day"), used repeatedly in Acts (7:26, 16:11, etc.) This would make sense if one was praying at Jewish sundown, when the next day began. However, if epiousios relates to einai, then the meaning would be "for today" or, in a more general sense, "sufficient, necessary." The latter meaning, eliminating the redundancy of having both "day" and "daily" in the same request, seems preferrable67 – although in English translations, epiousios is usually translated (75%) as "daily bread" and less often (25%) with the idea of "bread we need." Epi ("upon," #1909) may imply something "superimposed" or it may be an empty prefix, adding nothing to the word's meaning.68 In fact, early church fathers often saw here a "supersubstantial" (supernatural) bread, referring to spiritual food from the Lord's table (John 6:48-58; Luke 22:19).69 Others saw an allusion to daily fellowship with Christ, our "Bread of Life" (John 6:32-35) and to studying the word of God, our spiritual food (Matt 4:4).70 Still, when we look at the Lord's Prayer in context, every clue points to Jesus' speaking about physical bread (Matt 6:25,31; 7:9ff; Luke 11:5-9),71 although the context shows that food, drink, and clothing are all included in the father's "good gifts" (Matt 7:25,33; 7:11). By extension, then, this may be taken to refer to "all our material needs" (Trueblood)72 or "all our physical needs" (Heidelberg Catechism)73 or "Everything required to satisfy our bodily needs," including food and clothing, a home and money, a good spouse and faithful rulers, peace and health, true friends and faithful neighbors, and the like (Luther).74

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." (Matt 6:12, KJV); "And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive everyone that is indebted to us." (Luke 11:4a, KJV) Peterson reads, "Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others." – In Aramaic, hoba usually referred to a monetary "debt," but it could also mean "sin" or "transgression." When the time came to translate Jesus' words into Greek, Matthew translated hoba with opheilema (Strong, #3783), which means "debt" in Greek, but rarely "sin." Luke, on the other hand, switched over to a key Greek word meaning "sin" (hamartia = "missing the mark," #266) although "indebted" that follows shows that hoba was the original word used here.75 Jesus may have chosen the concept of "debts" purposely, which is broader than just a reference to wrongs done. In fact, all of the words "debts," "transgressions," "trespasses," and "sins" found in English translations of Matt 6:12,14-15 and Luke 11:4 refer to what we owe God and have failed to render, including things committed and omitted76 – opportunities passed by to do good and to serve God. We ask God continually to keep forgiving us over and over for our faults and failings, and yet we have no patience and forgiveness for others? This petition turns out to be a marvelous instrument of self-examination, bringing us to a place of true humility.77 Can any believer ever say, "I will never forgive" or "I can't forget" what another has said or done, and pray this prayer, if he or she realizes what is really being asked for here?

When we forgive another, (as Jesus did) we take the debt, cost, and hurt of another on ourselves and we release that person from any further obligation. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35), the servant whose master forgave a $2 billion debt but who then turned right around and harshly punished another man who owed him only $500 showed that he understood neither the severity of own failure nor the generosity of the forgiveness he had received.78 Jesus' other parables about forgiveness79 reinforce its importance, as well as his formula of 70x7 (or 77 times, either translation meaning "not to keep count at all," Matt 18:22).80 Yet, our Lord did not add this second part to give us a guilt trip; rather, as Chrysostom noted, it is an unexpected bonus, so that on all sides, taking every occasion, we are "casting out what is brutish in thee, and quenching wrath," so that we are joined once again in harmony to other members of the Body of Christ (and to others).81 Think how much inner anguish is generated by the grudges and grievances we carry, instead of enjoying fully the "love, joy, [and] peace" of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). The present tense of "forgiving" (instead of the aorist) shows us that the giving of forgiveness and resultant finding of inner peace should be a regular, ongoing commitment and blessing! Barclay points out three things that are necessary for forgiveness: (1) we must learn to understand why others do what they do; (2) we must learn to forget, as well; and (3) we must learn to love more – although many times we will still need to ask the Lord to help remove our bad feelings.82


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