Darrell W Johnson is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Regent College. This article is the first chapter from 57 Words That Changed The World, available from Regent Bookstore, www.regentbookstore.com.
Jesus is brilliant. Yes, Jesus is good, and kind, and merciful, and strong. But the more I get to know Jesus, the more I am impressed by our Lord's sheer brilliance.
Nowhere is his brilliance more manifest than in the gift of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray, the prayer that has come to be known as "The Lord's Prayer." A mere fifty-seven words in the original Greek of Matthew's gospel, it manages to gather up all of life and brings it before God.
Have you ever observed that the only thing the first disciples of Jesus are recorded to have asked Jesus to teach them is, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1)? There is no record of anyone asking Jesus to teach them to lead, or to counsel, or to heal, or to cast out demons, or to preach. They may have asked him, but there is no record of them doing so. Why? Perhaps it is because they could see that Jesus' leading, counselling, healing, casting out, preaching ministry emerged out of his relationship with his "Father." And they could see that the key to that relationship was prayer.
Jesus, after all, was always slipping away to pray (Luke 5:16).
"Lord, teach us to pray." I understand the disciples' request to mean more than, "Jesus, teach us some new spiritual techniques that will help us stay awake when we pray and make us feel that our prayers matter." I take their request to mean, "Jesus, will you teach us how to relate to the one you call 'Father' the way you do?"
So Jesus teaches his disciples — and us — to pray fifty-seven words that are brilliant in their simplicity. These fifty-seven words change the way we understand God, ourselves, and the world. Indeed, they are fifty-seven words that, when prayed with even a modicum of faith, end up changing the world. You might think that is an audacious claim, but it's the truth.
A Wonderful Gift
The Lord's Prayer is one of the most wonderful gifts Jesus has given us. It is such a wonderful gift for at least three reasons.
First, the gift frees us from a universal anxiety of the human heart. It frees us from the anxiety about whether or not we are praying in a way that pleases the Living God. I hear that anxiety again and again, in my own soul and in the questions that people ask me as their pastor: "Am I getting it right?"; "Is what I'm praying acceptable to the Holy God?"
In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Son of God, who has from all eternity lived in the heart of God the Father and comes from the heart of God the Father, tells us how to "get it right." "This, then, is how you should pray," he says (6:9), not implying that these are the only words to say, nor that this is the only order in which to say them, but rather offering us a model to help us enter into authentic communication with the Father. It is as though Jesus is saying in the Lord's Prayer, "here then is the kind of praying that pleases my Father; this is the kind of praying the Father loves to hear and loves to answer."
Second, the Lord's Prayer is a wonderful gift because in it Jesus reveals the heart of the Living God. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus reveals what makes God's heart tick. It is as though Jesus is saying, "these are the concerns on my Father's heart." Jesus is revealing his understanding of what God is on about in the world, what God the Father is up to in your life and in my life, and in our neighbour's life. On his heart is the hallowing of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the fulfilling of his good pleasure, providing for us so we can live a kingdom life, cancelling debts and reconciling us, protecting us from the attacks of Satan. There is only one place more revealing of the heart of God: John 17, where Jesus himself prays and we overhear him open his heart to his Father. As we pray the Lord's Prayer we are drawn deeper and deeper into the concerns of the Triune God.
Third, the Lord's Prayer is such a wonderful gift because in it Jesus grants us what the mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal called "the dignity of causality."1 When we pray, God is granting us the unspeakable privilege of partnering with him in fulfilling his purposes in the world. No prayer has given us that privilege more than the Lord's Prayer. As we pray the Prayer, we are joining the Living God in bringing about the realization of his heart's desire for the world.
This, by the way, is one of the major themes developed in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. In chapters 6 through 8 we see Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain, breaking the seven seals of the scroll of history. As he does so, one seal at a time, we discover the secret of history the scroll contains. In each seal-scene someone prays to someone. Then comes the seventh seal. John writes "And when he (the Lamb) opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour" (Rev. 8:1).
Silence? But does not the worship scene in Revelation 4 show that "day and night" the heavenly creatures sing "Holy, Holy, Holy"?
Yes, but then comes the seventh seal. The singing of "Holy, Holy, Holy," goes on day and night, and has gone on day and night since creation of the world. Then it stops, and there is silence for half an hour. Why the silence?
In John's vision an angel "who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer with the prayers of God's people on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the God's people, went up before God from the angel's hand" (8:3-4). And then all kinds of things begin to happen on the earth.
The point of this episode is that prayer, from the human side of things, moves history. The "movers and shakers" of history are those who pray. As the New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray (an expert on the book of Revelation) commented:
- The significance of the picture can hardly be overestimated. No one was more aware than John of the limitations to what individual men and women can do to change the course of history and to bring in the kingdom of heaven, particularly in the face of the cosmic forces against them and the transcendent character of the kingdom itself. . . . But we can pray to him who has almighty power, and it would seem that God has willed that the prayers of his people should be part of the process by which the kingdom comes. The interaction between the sovereignty of God and the prayers of the saints is part of the ultimate mystery of existence. Faith is called on to take both seriously.2
"The dignity of causality." When we pray the Lord's Prayer we participate in the transformation of the world.
The Scope Of The Prayer
First, we may observe the remarkable scope of the Prayer.3 It covers the whole of life. Jesus covers whatever it is we need to pray about. In these six short petitions he gathers up the whole of life.
The Lord's Prayer encompasses every dimension of our human existence. We are physical creatures so he teaches us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," and "your kingdom [of wholeness and health] come." We are relational creatures so he teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors." We are spiritual creatures so he teaches us to pray, "your name be hallowed," for we cannot live without knowing the name of him who made us, and "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
Furthermore, the Lord's Prayer encompasses all of time: past, present, future. Our greatest need as we look to the past is forgiveness, so he teaches us to pray, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Our greatest need as we look to the present is sustenance, so he teaches us to pray, "give us this day our daily bread." Our greatest need as we look to the future is guidance and protection from all that would threaten to undo us. So he teaches us to pray, "lead us not into temptation, but rescue us from the evil-one who seeks to destroy us."
Name any need, any concern, any longing, and it is covered by Jesus' Prayer. Nothing is left out. Nothing is too big. Nothing is too small. The German preacher and theologian Helmut Thielicke thus entitled his book, The Prayer that Spans the World. Commenting on the scope of the Lord's Prayer, Thielicke writes that it covers "the world of everyday trifles and universal history, the world with its hours of joy and bottomless anguish, the world of citizen and soldiers, the world of monotonous routine and sudden terrible catastrophe, the world of carefree children and … of problems that can shatter grown men."4
Throughout church history, pastors and theologians have spoken of the Lord's Prayer as "the sum of the Christian life." Everything we need to live the Christian life is embodied in the Prayer. It dawned on me a few years ago that the Lord's Prayer also gives us a very helpful outline for discipling one another into maturity in Christ. We first learn God's name, God's character, who God is, and what God is like. Then we begin to learn what his kingdom is all about, and how to live in it while living in the world. Then we begin to learn his will, his pleasures, his great purpose for his people and for the world, discovering how he wants us to cooperate with him as he fulfills his gracious plan. Then we learn to trust him for our bread, for our sustenance. We learn to take greater risks for him, as we can trust him more. Then we learn forgiveness; we begin to experience the grace and mercy of God that cancels all our debts, and which then frees us to extend mercy to others, even to our enemies. And then we begin to understand the nature of the spiritual battles in which humanity is caught; we learn how to stand against the onslaught of evil's temptations.
The scope of the Lord's Prayer is everything, every moment, every dimension of life. As the Czech scholar Jan Milic Lochman puts it, "the arc of the prayer spans the whole of cosmic reality with its heights and depth."5
The Flow Of The Prayer
Our Lord's Prayer can be divided into two halves: petitions one to three, and petitions four to six. The first half uses the pronoun your; the second half uses the pronoun us. Your name, your kingdom, your will. Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our debts. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us. Jesus is teaching us to first and foremost begin praying God's agenda, not ours.
When many of us pray, we begin with our needs: "Father, give me … ." There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but Jesus teaches us to begin, "Father, hallow your name, bring your kingdom, do your will." Why begin here? Because if we begin here, our agendas are then put into proper perspective. And, surprisingly, our needs do not then feel as "weighty." How often do we spend time praying only to emerge weary and overburdened? Could it be because we have not grasped what Jesus is telling us? If we begin with the Father's concerns, our concerns are put into his perspective.6 Indeed, the more we pray the first half of the Prayer, the more we discover that our greatest needs are in fact being addressed. We discover that our real need is to see the Father's agenda fulfilled.
The Centre Of The Prayer
We should also note the centre of Jesus' Prayer: the little clause "on earth as it is in heaven." The prepositional phrase goes with each of the first three petitions: your name be hallowed, on earth as it is in heaven; your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. It is possible that the clause also goes with each of the second three petitions: give us this day our daily bread, on earth as it is in heaven; forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, on earth as it is in heaven; lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil-one, on earth as it is in heaven.
The Lord's Prayer stands at the centre of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, in the collection of sayings where he describes what happens when the kingdom breaks in and takes hold of us. At the centre of the Sermon on the Mount, in the Lord's Prayer, is the central clause: "on earth as it is in heaven." It captures the passion of the living God to bring the reality of heaven on earth. It is, after all, one of the reasons he became one of us.
In heaven, right now, the Father's name is being hallowed, his kingdom is being actualized, and his will is being done. "0 Father, make it so on earth!" That is what Jesus is teaching us to pray. "0 Father, bring heaven down on earth right here!"
To pray the Lord's Prayer is to participate in heaven's invasion of the earth. To pray the Lord's Prayer is to participate in a revolution of huge proportions. "0 Father, your name is hallowed in heaven, hallow it on earth, in me, in my family, in this city. 0 Father, your kingdom has come in heaven; cause it to come on earth, in my house, in my neighbourhood, in this country. 0 Father, your will is done in heaven, make it be done on earth, in my workplace, in the workplaces in Vancouver and Seattle and Dallas and Mexico City and Tokyo and Baghdad and Calcutta and Nairobi. 0 Father, your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done on Main Street and Wall Street, as it is in heaven!" You can see then that to pray the Lord's Prayer is to engage in a cosmic act!
The Verbs Of The Prayer
We do well to pay attention to the verbs of the Lord's Prayer. Hallow, come, be done, give, forgive, lead not, and deliver. These are all powerful verbs, all in the imperative mood. (So are the others, except "lead not" which is in the subjunctive.)
What is the imperative mood? Here is how one grammarian puts it: "The imperative is the mood of command or entreaty — the mood of volition. It is the genius of the imperative to express the will to will." The grammar goes on to say, "Normally the imperative carried with it a very forcible tone of command. The ancient Greeks so regarded it, and hence never employed the imperative in communication with superiors."7
Surprisingly, the verbs of the Lord's Prayer, addressed to the Superior of superiors, are in the imperative. They are commands, not requests. Be hallowed! Be come! Be done! All in the command form. To pray the Lord's Prayer is to command — not to ask — but to command. Not that human beings are to order God around. Not at all! And yet, the verbs are in the imperative.
Now remember that it is Jesus himself who teaches us to do this. He is the one who put the verbs in the imperative. It is Jesus who is telling us to speak to the Father so boldly, so forcibly. He is the Son who knows the Father, who knows the Father's heart and mind. And he, the Son, the only-begotten Son, the Beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased, tells us to say, "Be hallowed! Your name — come! Your kingdom — be done! Your will."
This may strike you as somewhat audacious. Who are we to speak to God in such a manner? What helps is to further know that the verbs in the first three petitions are in the passive voice.8 "Be hallowed, come, be done." They are passive to introduce the note of reverence. It is too much to command and order the Father. The passive voice softens the tone. Instead of, "do it," it is "be done." It is not as "in your face." Yet even that is bold enough.
But the verbs are passive for a more fundamental reason. Only God can do what we are asking to have done. Only God can hallow his name. Only God can bring his kingdom. Only God can do his will. The prayer is not what many believers have over the years thought it to be: the prayer is not, "let us hallow your name." The prayer is not, "let us bring in your kingdom." The prayer is not "let us do your will." The prayer is "Father, you do it! You hallow your name on earth as it is in heaven. You bring your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. You make your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Do you see the difference? It changes the whole tone of the prayer. We are asking God to do what only God can do. We are "commanding" that God do what only God can do. We might be involved; indeed, we want to be involved in the process of the kingdom coming, for instance. But we are not the ones making it come. As D. Elton Trueblood put it, "We mistake the kingdom request greatly if we think we are the chief actors in the drama. We may be needed, but the fundamental work for which we pray is God's work."9 Professor Stendahl of Harvard University reminds us that the prayer "asks for the establishment of the kingdom of God, by God for us, not by us for God."10 "Father, you do it, for only you can do it. You bring heaven down to earth."
There is no doubt in my mind that the world is changed by standing up and preaching the Gospel. (That is why I have now given myself to teaching preaching at Regent College.) But the world is chiefly transformed by getting down on the knees and praying imperatives — "Do it, do it, do it." Or, more reverently, praying passive imperatives, "be done, be done, be done."
The Mechanics Of The Prayer
The Lord's Prayer works because of "Our Father who art in heaven." We often say, or hear said, "prayer works." That is only so because of the One to whom we pray works.
"Father." "In heaven." Both, not one without the other. "Father": the will to do what he is asked. "In heaven": the ability to do what he is asked.
As a young boy learning to pray, I did not like the clause "in heaven" because it seemed to suggest that God was "way up there," or "way out there." It made me feel I as if I had to start the prayer shouting, "Father, far, far, away … can you hear me?" But that is not at all what the clause would suggest to a Jew living in first-century Palestine. "In heaven" literally means "in the heavens," or "all around us."
In our culture we have come to think of heaven being "above us," but it also means "beneath us and alongside us." We are surrounded by the heavens.11 The heavens are the atmosphere in which we live. We live in a multi-dimensional universe. Heaven is one of those dimensions, very close at hand. Jesus is praying "Father in the heavens"; "Father all around us"; and "Father very close at hand."
The clause "in heaven" would also conjure up in the minds of first-century Jews the idea of God on his throne. Earlier in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we read these words, "But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all; either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool" (Matthew 5:34-35). "In heaven" means "on the throne." If this is not so, then we are wasting our breath praying the Lord's Prayer. Sure, it may be therapeutic to pray, but if the One to whom we pray is not on the throne, then we have no real hope that he can do what we ask him to do. At best he can say, "I am doing my best." Jesus is telling us that there is a throne — all around us — and someone is sitting on it. We can, therefore, dare to hope that when we pray something happens.
"Our Father." This, finally, is the reason praying the Lord's Prayer "works." On the throne of the universe is a Father. Yes, on the throne is a Creator, a mighty Creator. And yes, on the throne is a Sovereign Master, the Rock of Ages. But what Jesus emphasizes again and again is that on the throne is a Father — his Father. The Father he knows and loves and trusts.
"Father" is a problematic image for many people in our day, and not only for women. Many men also struggle with calling God "Father." The word "Father" is fraught with feelings of disappointment, pain, anger, in some cases, an awful sense of abandonment.
A number of years ago I was wrestling with this. I said to Jesus, "I like your prayer, but it would be so much more inviting for more people if you had taught us to pray the prayer to you. Where are you in this prayer?" And in my mind I heard John 14:9, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." I sensed Jesus saying to me, "The Father is just like me." The Father, God the Father, is just as good, just as gentle, just as kind, just as approachable, just as vulnerable, just as welcoming, just as generous as Jesus. Jesus' open arms are the open arms of his Father. Jesus' open heart is the open heart of his Father. It is the passion of Jesus to help us know his Father as he knows him, to love his Father as he loves him, to trust his Father as he trusts him.
The folks in the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery groups say, in step three, "we entrusted ourselves to God as we understood God." That troubled me for a long time until on a recent plane flight I was reading a book by business leader Harold Butts, Jr., who makes the simple observation that the "only way any of us ever prays to God is as we understand him."12 That is just the way it is. All of our understanding of God is shaped by our experience of earthly fathers and mothers. But Jesus comes to us, and calls us to follow him into his understanding of "Father." His goal is to correct our understanding of "Father"; to replace our misguided concepts associated with the word with his. And to make this happen, he breathes his Holy Spirit into our hearts, who enables us to cry out the way he does, "Abba, Father" (Romans 8:15-16; Galatians 4:4-7). Jesus brings us into his experience of the Father.
On the throne is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, because of what he has done in Jesus is our Father, too. "Who," says Jesus, "knows what you need before you ask him" (6:8). Good news! Why? Because we do not know what we need. We think we know. We think we see the whole picture. We think we recognize all the factors involved in our circumstances. We think we understand ourselves, our desires, our longings, our fears. We do not. But our Father does.13
Do you see what this does for us? It frees us from having to have everything figured out before and while we pray. It frees us from having to have the right words. "Just come," Jesus is saying, "say what is on your hearts the most honest way you can. The Father knows what you need."
"Thank God," wrote Helmut Thielicke, "that our prayer does not depend on our expressing the correct desires, that it does not depend on our making a correct 'diagnosis' of our needs and troubles and then presenting God with a properly phrased and clearly outlined prayer-proposition."14 The Father knows our needs beyond the expressed needs. He knows our needs contrary to the expressed needs.
The Father of Jesus, who by grace is our Father, knows we need bread, sustenance; and forgiveness, reconciliation; and guidance and protection. He knows we need to experience his name being hallowed, and his kingdom coming, and his will being done. It turns out that our greatest need is the Father himself.
The scope of the prayer is every moment, every issue. The flow of the prayer is your, your, your, us, us, us. The centre of the prayer is "on earth as it is in heaven." The verbs of the prayer are bold and forceful: "Be!" And the reason the prayer works? "Our Father in heaven." The Father Jesus knows, the Father Jesus loves, the Father Jesus trusts, is the Father who sits on the throne.
That is why praying the Lord's Prayer, and praying it with our whole lives, changes the world.
Practising The Prayer
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has suggested a helpful way to implement what we have learned so far: pray one line a day for the coming week. "The 'prayer of the day'" he says, "then becomes the lens through which you see the world."15 So on Sunday, pray "Our Father in heaven." On Monday pray, "Hallowed be your name, on earth as it is in heaven." All over the world believers will be asking God to make his name known and honoured. On Tuesday pray, "Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." Across the face of the globe we will be asking God to cause his kingdom to break in. And so on up to Saturday, when throughout our cities and towns we will be asking God to protect us and our fellow-citizens from the machinations of the evil-one. Each day of the week we can join the Father's Son and multitudes of his brothers and sisters in the cosmic act of bringing heaven down.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensees (Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer; New York: Penguin. 1966), 32.
- George R. Beasley-Murray The Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 151.
- I owe this to William Barclay, The Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer for Everyman (New York: Harper & Row, f 963).
- Helmut Thielicke, The Prayer that Spans the World (Trans. John W. Doberstein; London: James Clarke & Co., 1960), 14.
- Jan Milic Lochman, The Lord's Prayer (Trans. Geoffrey W Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 147.
- Ray Stedman, Jesus Teaches on Prayer (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1964).
- Dana and Mantley, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. (Toronto: MacMillan, 1927), 174,176.
- E Dale Bruner, The Christ Book: Matthew 1-12 (Waco, Texas: Word, 1987), 242.
- D. Elton Trueblood, The Lord's Prayers (New York: Harper &Row,1965), 52.
- Ibid., 52.
- For a helpful discussion of this see Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 66-82.
- Restoring the Soul of America (New York: Continuum, 1996), 7.
- "Father knows best" is the way E Dale Bruner put it in a lecture at Whitworth College, July 1997.
- Thielicke, The Prayer that Spans the World, 35.
- N. T. Wright, The Lord and his Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 9.