As the Prayer of Prayers begins, it doesn’t begin with any kind of petition but with an opening address.
We ought to expect such things. No one in his or her right mind would come into the presence of or greet the President of the United States glibly or casually. No, we would be respectful, polite, courteous, maybe even reverential. If we do this with earthly rulers, how much more should this be the case with God who rules over all? How much more should this be the case with the King of kings? There is difficulty in this. Martin Lloyd-Jones comments on this difficulty saying, “We are but human, and we are pressed by the urgency of our position, the cares, the anxieties, the troubles, the anguish of mind, the bleeding heart, whatever it is. And we are so full of this that, like children, we start speaking at once. But if you want to make contact with God, and if you want to feel His everlasting arms about you, put your hand upon your mouth for a moment…and remind yourself of what you are about to do.” Lloyd-Jones goes on to speak of Daniel’s prayers when he was vexed about knowing the interpretation of a dream, Jeremiah’s prayers when he was vexed with the state of God’s people, Jesus’ own prayer in John 17, and the prayers of Paul afterwards. None of these began with what vexed them, they all began with an invocation to God. The more we remember what we’re doing in prayer and who we’re speaking to in prayer, the less likely we are to jump into prayer quickly with a rapid fire of requests. That there is an opening address before any petition teaches us much about how prayer ought to begin. See the words with which appropriate prayer begins. “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven…’”
I want to unfold four realities in this opening address with one aim – to see how Christians ought to begin with God in prayer.
Pray Like This
Notice the beginning of v9? “Pray then like this…” What does this mean? Does this mean we’re to recite these words? Does this mean we’re to pray in this manner? Or does this mean when you pray it is these matters that must make up our whole prayer life? These questions are clear enough in and of themselves, but the answers have been very different from one person to the next. The more liturgically minded believers recite these words in their exact form very often personally and corporately in worship. The less liturgically minded believers may go years without ever uttering this prayer personally or hearing this prayer uttered corporately. Why such recitation on the one hand and avoidance on the other? I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think either quite gets the point of Jesus here.
Rather than turning this prayer into a rote recitation that feels formal or cold and rather than avoiding this prayer all together for fear of sounding catholic or liturgical, I believe Jesus would have us catch the spirit of this prayer. Meaning that, these things (and perhaps these things in this order), are the matters that ought to be taking up our prayer life. We can choose to recite them sure, but we must not believe that the mere mindless recitation of them has any power; as if ten ‘Our Father’s’ will give us any spiritual benefit. We also can choose to never say these exact words, as long as the content of this prayer fills out the content of our own words in prayer. There is freedom here to be employed and enjoyed. But in this freedom we must be sure to anchor ourselves to the text itself, so that it in an organic manner these things naturally flow forth in our prayer. So we should see the Lord’s Prayer as guardrails which direct and guide us into prayer that is pleasing to God. In this regard John Calvin comments, “God has given us a form in which…everything which is lawful to wish, everything which is conducive to our interest, everything which is necessary to demand. From His goodness in this respect we derive the great comfort of knowing, that as we ask almost in His words, we ask nothing that is absurd, or foreign, or unseasonable, nothing (in short) that is disagreeable to Him.”
It is true that there is something very personal about prayer. It’s an intimate moment, where we converse with God, where we linger with God quietly over His Word, where we bare our hearts, where we express our deepest longings, joys, sorrows, and desires. Prayer is intensely personal, so much so that most people feel some level of angst about praying in public. Yet, see how the Lord’s Prayer begins – “Our” not “My.” That “Our” is the first word in this prayer shows us that though prayer is truly private and personal, it is also truly communal and corporate. “When we pray we do not pray alone even if we are alone” (David VanDrunen). We do not pray to a God who has saved us alone, or even to a God who has saved many individuals throughout history. No, we pray to the God who has saved, is saving, and will save a people for Himself from every tribe, language, and tongue. The Church past, present, and future is the community we’re saved into, and in all appropriate prayer has a communal element to it. Be sure to note that the communal element I am speaking of here is the blood bought covenant people, the Church. I am not speaking of some kind of universal brotherhood of mankind underneath a universal fatherhood of God that we’re a part of. No, though God has created all mankind, only His children that He has chosen, pursued, adopted, and saved are free to call Him ‘Father.’
A number of places within Scripture remind us of this. John 1:11-12 says, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God…” Galatians 3:23-26 says, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” One chapter later Paul expands on this in Galatians 4:4-7 saying, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
This is a Christmas time reality, that the Son of God was sent at the fullness of the times. Born like us, so that we would become like Him, and once we believe in Him we receive adoption as sons, are given His Spirit, given to heart and new desire to cry out to God as Father, and gain an inheritance. In Ephesians Paul brings the sovereignty of God into adoption when he says in 1:5, “In love He (God) predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” Lastly one of the highest moments in 1 John is when John exclaims in 3:1 saying, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
Think of like this. In regeneration God awakens us, in justification God legally declares us to be righteous, and in adoption God brings us into His family. Adoption comes after these things because it is the result of all that has come before. Because of this we can say it is in truth an apex in the order of our salvation. But do not confuse these doctrines. Regeneration is all about birth, that though we were born sinners God gave us a new birth and made us alive. Justification is all about declaring us to be righteous when we’re not. Regeneration grants us new life and justification clothes us in an alien righteousness. The glory of the doctrine of adoption is that once we’ve been made alive by God and declared righteous by Him He then brings us into a family we’re not naturally born into. So when, through faith, we receive and rest on Jesus Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel, God then receives us, brings us into the number of His children, and gives us all the rights, blessings, and privileges belonging to the sons of God. Now because of Christ, in prayer we do not meet a God angry at us, but a God who welcomes us as His own children.
“Our Father” is an appropriate address to begin prayer with, for in the very phrase itself is hidden all kinds of gospel beauty to behold.
As good as these things are, see that the opening address doesn’t end here. “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven…”
Why address God as the God who is in heaven? Isn’t something like that obvious? Well no, not always with how people go around defining God these days and perhaps in Jesus’ day too. So I think there are two reasons why the opening address ends with this little phrase “…in heaven…” First, it reminds us God is above all things. And second, it reminds us God is in control of all things. Or in other words, what kind of Father do we have? We don’t just have a Father who is a smiley benevolent fellow, we have a Father in heaven, sovereign and ruling over all things. This is the kind of Father we have. How wonderful for us to know this! That God is over and in control of all things in existence, able and powerful to do something about the things weighing on us, this is the God we come to in prayer.
Let’s wrap this up in a sentence or two.
Prayer isn’t to be jumped into obnoxiously, but reverently and respectfully, the way we would enter the President’s Oval Office. And we do not immediately start rattling off all those things pressing on us, we remember who we’re speaking to, God the Father, who is above all things, in control of all things, and through Christ and the Spirit adopted us as His children.