Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Righteous Pray-er

When our kids were young we taught them a few different prayers by song. Each night we sat at the dinner table and would let one or the other choose which prayer we would sing. We did this for years and really had a good time with it. One of my favorite memories is when Susan started to harmonize near the end of one of the prayers and over the next couple of weeks, Nicole and Andrew did as well so we ended that particular prayer in four parts. It truly sounded good.

But did it mean anything? I am not saying it did not have meaning, but was it truly heard? A part of the meaning was us teaching our children to pray, but the words were repeated so many times, it is fair to consider whether they had any real impact for us. Were we singing for ourselves or were we singing for God?

Such is one of the scenarios Jesus mentioned in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount. In fact that is part of our topic for today. Before reading the rest of this post, tke a moment to read Matthew 6.5-8.

Last week, we looked at Jesus words about giving. His words about prayer are very similar. We are not to be hypocrites when we pray by bringing attention to ourselves. The focus of our prayers, just like our giving, is to honor God, not ourselves. But Jesus also goes further to show that long-winded and/or formulaic prayers are not helpful to gain God’s favor either. Today, we will briefly look at each of these truths and then review the model prayer.

The Topic – Prayer

Prayer is simply communicating with God. It is as easy as that, but most people get hung up on the idea of talking to God or the words that should be used when doing so. But God makes no distinction in how we talk to Him other than, per Jesus’ model prayer, we need to be reverent. That does not mean our word choices have to be extravagant – this is simply a conversation. But we must remember we are not merely speaking to anyone – we are speaking to the majestic Creator of the universe. He is our King and, as such, we should talk to Him in humility and honesty, while continuing to be ourselves. The problem that Jesus was addressing in this section concerns people who were not following these principles. The hypocrites prayed to gain attention for themselves, while the Gentiles prayed as if they could manipulate God. Let’s look at Jesus’ words to both to make sure we know how to avoid the same problems.

The Hypocrites

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about two men who go to the temple to pray (verses 9-14). One is a Pharisee who proclaims himself as righteous in the prayer. The other is a sinner who seeks mercy. Jesus says it is the sinner who has been made righteous. Personally, I believe many people disregard Jesus’ words in that parable as well as in Matthew 6 because we are not Pharisees. Futhermore, we somewhat naturally link the idea of hypocrites to Pharisees because of Jesus words in Matthew 23.

We know the Pharisees are a group of people we shouldn’t be like so we dismiss ourselves from them. But every time we lift ourselves above another we are acting like a Pharisee. In truth, a Pharisee was like a type of party like our modern Democrats and Republicans, although the Pharisees were a religious group. In Matthew 6, when Jesus speaks of the hypocrites, we immediately assume that Jesus is talking about the Pharisees, but they are only a part of the problem. The hypocrite to which Jesus refers is anyone – ANYONE – who prays without a focus on God.

First, Jesus says that the hypocrites like to be seen when they pray. The synagogue was certainly a place where public prayers were offered. Thus, to pray within the synagogue was normal and standing was the standard way to pray in that day (although kneeling and laying prostrate were common as well). But to bring attention to oneself while praying was the focus of Jesus statement. It is one thing to pray in public and quite another to pray to bring attention to yourself in any place. For instance, Jesus mentions the street corners. Notice He did not say on the street (which in Jerusalem and throughout Israel were usually quite narrow). Instead the hypocrite went to a busy intersection during one of the three prescribed times for daily prayers. The focus was on himself/herself not on praying to God.

Instead Jesus says to pray in an inner room. I don’t like the ESV here which says “your room.” Most of these people did not live in a house large enough to have a separate room. The inner room, like the KJV suggests, was likely a closet – perhaps a small storage closet where any additional food or cooking items were stored. The point is that we should seek to pray in private first and that will prepare us to pray in public. Please note that Jesus does not say we should not pray in public; He only cautions us to watch our attitude when doing so. (Consider, for instance, that Jesus said a blessing before feeding the 5000 – Matthew 14.19.)

The Gentiles

The next two verses provide a different warning about prayer. Jesus has just challenged the mentality of many Jews and now He lumps in the Gentiles. Please understand these Gentile prayers were not to the Almighty God – or, if they were meant to be, those praying had a very distorted view of God.

The practice of the Gentiles was to use long prayers supposing that quantity was more important than quality. Long prayers are fine as Luke records that Jesus prayed all night before selecting the twelve from among His followers. The problem was that the Gentiles would bargain, plead, and negotiate with God and often used incantations (such as a magic spell) to try to manipulate their gods to do something for them. The length of the prayers, and their empty phrases, which is translated as vain repetitions by the KJV, were the problem. As for the vain repetitions, the focus of the problem should be on the word vain more than on the word repetitions. It is ok to repeat prayers. After all, Matthew 26.44 says that Jesus prayed “the same words again” in the Garden of Gethsemane. But to pray words that don’t mean anything as we say them is vanity. And this is the irony of the prayer which follows in Matthew – the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer. We will come back to that prayer in a moment.

The Righteous

In Matthew 6, verses 6 and 8, Jesus gives us the proper idea for a Christian prayer. First, according to verse 6, we should seek to pray privately. Again, it is perfectly acceptable to pray publicly – even aloud, but a public prayer should be a reflection, even an overflow, of our private prayers. By praying privately, we must still focus on God, not ourselves, but without an audience around us it should be easier to do.

Secondly, we are to bring our requests to God with the understanding He already knows what we need. We do not need to elaborate our prayers, nor should they be a rote formula. They should simply be a genuine conversation with God. But if God already knows what we need, then why should we pray? The answer is that we pray to connect with God. We pray to let Him know what is important to us. As Luther was quoted as saying, “By our praying, we are instructing ourselves more than we are him.”

In order to help people focus their prayers, Jesus then gives us a model prayer. But before we go through that prayer, let me tell you the reward for proper prayer. Based upon Jesus words, we can consider a prayer to be proper if the focus is on God and we are intentional in praying. That is, we are not praying to bring focus to ourselves nor are we simply going through the motions and praying words without thinking. When we pray in such a manner, we are in our right place before God which means we are humble.

The Reward

If we are humble before God, then we can be considered poor in spirit, to which Jesus has promised the Kingdom of Heaven – the first of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.3). We are also showing ourselves to long for righteousness which Jesus says will bring about satisfaction (Matthew 5.6).

So, to help us pray correctly, Jesus gives us a model prayer.

The Disciples’ Prayer

We often call this prayer the Lord’s Prayer, but we have no record of Jesus praying it. In both Matthew and Luke the prayer is given as a model or form of prayer to those listening. In Luke, what Jesus shares is in specific response to a question from the disciples. Thus, the Disciples’ Prayer is likely a better name. The prayer in John 17 is likely a better choice for the title of the Lord’s Prayer.

Another reason to call it the Disciples’ Prayer is because it is for believers – that is, for the children of God. The first two words, “Our Father” make this abundantly clear yet people who want nothing to do with God will stand and say this prayer at a funeral or other such service because the words were ingrained at a young age. This prayer is meant for those who are God’s children – those who follow Him.

Finally, before we get into the specifics of the prayer, we must realize that it is a corporate prayer. The pronouns are “our” and “us” not “my” or “me.” That does not mean that the prayer cannot be prayed by an individual, but we should keep in mind that we are praying for all of us collectively.

The prayer has two main sections. It begins with a focus on God and then turns to focus on our needs (not wants). In the first four words, we have an interesting juxtaposition. By calling God, “Our Father,” we are declaring the intimacy we can have with God; however, by stating “in heaven” we declare the mighty nature of His being. Immediately afterwards follows our  proclaiming that His name is holy while also declaring an intention to make His name holy. God’s name is holy, but not everyone knows that. Thus, for His name to be known as holy we need to share the Gospel with others as well as live our lives in a way that shows that our words (hallowed by Your name) and our actions are as in sync as possible.

The next phrasing is the source of our series title. God’s will is done perfectly in heaven. We are declaring that we long for that to be true on earth as well. Certainly, only God has the power to make it happen on earth, but if we claim we want His will to be done here, we need to be the first ones to do it. The idea of making His name holy and doing His will should be in complete harmony in our lives. Jesus desires that those who have a kingdom mindset will adopt this approach so that earth does become more like heaven. Again, He has already declared the Kingdom of heaven to be at hand (Matthew 4.17), and the sermon He is preaching is to help people live according to that truth. Thus, the Kingdom is here already, but not yet in it fullness.

Then in verse 11, the focus switches to us and our practical needs, but remember this is a corporate prayer. Thus, when we pray for our daily bread, we are praying that all of us have enough bread. Bread by the way is not only food, but all of life’s basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter – all of which Jesus will address later in this sermon. Thus, if you have enough bread and a fellow believer does not, we are to share in order that all have enough.

Then, Jesus moves to the idea of forgiveness. Next week’s sermon will be about forgiveness as we look at this verse and then verses 14 and 15. But the words of Jesus leave little doubt – if we seek true forgiveness, then we need to truly forgive. Again, more on this idea next week.

The next verse has been discussed a number of times on Sunday evenings. I have shared that the Greek word (peirasmos) can mean either temptation or test. This has always been a natural explanation to me because the Bible says that God will not (cannot) tempt us (James 1.13). But in my study this week, I gained further clarity. The testing aspect is a possibility, but even if testing is the right word, the idea here is to let us stand firm during the trial or the test. In other words, we are asking that God not allow us to be put into a situation where we might fail to remain faithful to Him. But the second part of this verse covers the other side of the coin. If we do stray and find ourselves in trouble, we are asking God to deliver us from the evil to which we have yielded. In essence, this verse is saying – God keep us from getting ourselves into trouble, but if we find ourselves in peril, please rescue us.

The prayer is simple and straightforward, but it is very profound. But what is most interesting about the prayer is its placement in the text. Many millions of people can say the Lord’s Prayer without thinking, but most have no clue of the two verses before it or after. The two verses before the prayer warn of vain repetitions and the two after it expound on the idea of forgiveness. So consider this:
  • People repeat this prayer in the very manner Jesus says not to do.
  • People say forgive us as we forgive others but are not willing to forgive and, thus, are not forgiven.

However, the early church dealt with the same issues. For instance, one of the earliest Christian writings we have apart from the words that make up the New Testament are in a book called the Didache which was written in the late 1st Century. (didache means teaching). In the Didache, the people are instructed not to pray like the hypocrites, but instead to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times per day. Again, nothing is wrong with repeating the prayer, but if done in vain, it is pointless.

So, to keep from vain repetitions and self-promoting prayers, what should we do? Well, let us return to our guiding question for this series.

How Will Having a Knowledge of the Glory of the Lord Affect This Teaching?

I return to Jesus idea of a proper prayer. We are to pray with a focus on God (whether alone or in public) and be intentional in your prayer. You may use the same words, but think about what you are saying, and mean what you pray. If you become more consistent in doing both of these aspects, your prayers will be authentic and that is what God demands for a people that want to be known as righteous.


Again, the overriding theme of Jesus’ sermon is the idea of righteousness. He has taught us how to live and now shares the proper attitude behind that living. All of our actions should be focused on serving God whether that is giving or praying. As we focus on God we will begin to better reflect His love in all that we do.

So, with that said, our JOURNEY letter for today is: R – Revere

We only have hope in our living because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Because of His sacrifice He deserves to be worshipped, but He also deserves to be followed. He has given us directions for living and shown us how to do it Himself. If we want to be a follower of Christ, then we must also seek to be righteous in our living as well and that includes how we pray.

Based upon today’s message, how can we raise the bar and live on earth as it is in heaven?

NEXT LEVEL STEP(S): LEARN While the point of today’s lesson is to pray righteously, it will be beneficial for many to take inventory on where you are tempted to focus on yourself during times of prayer. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 do not preclude us from praying for ourselves, but it should prevent us from thinking about ourselves as we pray.

This week, as you pray, consider your prayer habits. Do the habits lead you closer to God or are they more focused on you? Make notes about this and determine to correct any issues so that your prayers will be considered righteous.

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