Sermon on the Mount: Praying
When you pray, pray like this.
The sermon on the hill.
We have been studying the sermon on the mount (or the sermon on the hill as we have dubbed it) - Matthew chapters 5-7. These passages are part of the first public teaching of Jesus that Matthew records and they are filled with puzzles, tough sayings and statements that seem to be designed to make everyone listen, stop, and assess what was said and meant.
There are several ways (if not many) in which can you approach these teachings. They can be viewed through the following lenses:
- The fulfillment of the Law (how they connect with the OT)
- The function of the Messiah (how Jesus fulfills each of these)
- The foundation of future teachings (how Jesus expounds on these in later teaching)
For instance, in this morning’s passage on prayer, each part of the prayer will be mentioned later on in the gospels:
- Kingdom coming (Matt 12:28, Matt 26:29)
- Will be done (Matt 12:50, Matt 26:39,42)
- Daily bread (Matt 6:28, 6:33)
- Forgive (Matt 18:21-35)
- Temptation (Matt 18:7, 26:41)
- Deliver from Evil One (John 17:15)
PART of what makes the sermon on the hill so challenging to understand is that each teaching, taken a simple face value, can seem to contradict other scriptures. However, we know that God does not contradict himself, so when we come to these tough passages to interpret we have to ask more questions.
My hope this morning is that we will skim the surface of all three lenses as we focus on the topic of prayer.
The Disciples Prayer.
Chapter six is about HOW we practice our righteousness. That might sound odd to a western mindset, but if I phrase it, “How we live for God” or “how we live out our faith” - would either of those sound more familiar or comfortable?
To practice righteousness is to make an intentional effort and even habit of doing the things that God has asked us to do - the very things we were created for.
We were created to rule and reign with God over his creation, so the way we treat each other, such as the poor, will demonstrate if we are living the way God intends.
I think it is very significant that each section starts with, “when you...” because it shows not only that these are things that all God-followers should be doing, but also that the hearers were probably there because, like you and me, they genuinely wanted to do what pleased God! They WERE giving to the poor and they WERE praying and they WERE fasting.
In the course of our daily living for God, it is possible that we can do things and miss out on the meaning behind them or even distort things to make them into something they were never meant to be.
Matthew 6:5–15 ESV
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This morning’s passage is similar to the previous passages in that is starts with, “When you...” - and in this case it is “when you pray”.
There is never a question that the people of God would spend time praying to God. The question is not IF or WHEN but HOW and WHY.
That is where this passage differs from the others. It has TWO “and when you...” statements! Which means that there are two things Jesus wants to correct or explain regarding prayer.
Do not be like the hypocrites.
Matthew 6:5–6 CSB
5 “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Most times when Jesus refers to “hypocrites” he is referring to the religious leaders of his day. Not very flattering at all! Last week, David taught us that this phrase means one who speaks behind a mask.
Prayer, for instance, was never meant to be a public display of piety but just simple communication with our Creator-Father-God.
In this example Jesus is calling out the motives of the religious leaders. Though their prayers make them see spiritual, pious, or God-focused, in reality they are self-centered wanting the recognition and approval of others.
WARNING TO LEADERS: As church leaders we constantly have to check our motives! It can be very easy to do things out of a need to feel needed, appreciated, approved or applauded. While we ALL appreciate those things, the MOTIVE needs to be about pleasing God.
Jesus goes to talk about praying in secret and God, who hears in secret will reward you. Let’s be careful to keep a few things in view, like the rest of the sermon on the hill.
LIKE the giving section, those who pray in a way God desires can expect a reward. We do not pray to be rewarded, but God is saying that he blesses those who live the way he directs.
THOUGH Jesus says to pray in secret, and in doing such appears to condemn public prayer, we must be careful not to draw the wrong lesson from this passage.
Jesus is NOT condemning public prayer! How do I know?
the model prayer is in the plural (OUR Father). If he was giving a command to only pray in private it would have just been, “Father” - which is what we read when we read Jesus private prayers to God (for Lazarus, in the garden, etc).
The prophets in the OT, like Ezra and Samuel, gathered the entire nation together to pray. And God blessed those times of national prayer.
The book of acts has several examples of groups gathering for prayer (Acts 4 and Acts 12)
We have to keep in mind that on one level, these teachings are designed to confront our motives and our heart. WHY do we do what we do and WHOM are we really doing it for.
Do we pray so that others will thing we are “spiritual” or do we pray because we want to talk with our Dad?
That question helps us to understand the next part of the passage:
Don’t be like the Gentiles
Matthew 6:7–8 CSB
7 When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.
The Gentiles are that group that are not Jews. But in this case, it is also referring to people who do not know Yahweh as God so they pray to pagan gods. It was the custom of pagan nations to use many words in an effort to “appease” their gods, gain favor and get a response from their deity.
AGAIN, this is NOT a passage condemning long prayers!
Elijah prayed long that it would not rain and then again that it would rain
Jesus asked the disciples stay up all night and watch and pray with him before he was arrested
Solomon’s prayer in dedicating the temple was long AND eloquent, and God heard and was pleased.
When I read about babbling, it reminds me of the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Let’s read that together - i really LOVE this passage!
In 1 Kings 18 Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to a duel. He proposed they each offer a sacrifice their their god and to call out to their god to consume their sacrifice:
NOTE: I am reading this in the Lexham English Bible because it shows us the personal name of God. I think that is significant, especially in light of our Matthew passage.
1 Kings 18:24 LEB
24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh, and it shall be that the god who answers by fire, he is God.” Then all the people answered and said, “The word is good!”
They did - all morning and nothing happened. So Elijah told them to pray more and louder:
1 Kings 18:27–29 LEB
27 It happened at noon that Elijah mocked them and said, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god! Perhaps he is meditating, or is using the bathroom, or is on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must wake up!” 28 So they called out with a loud voice, and they cut themselves with swords and with spears as was their custom, until the blood poured out over them. 29 It happened as noon passed, they raged until the time of the evening offering, but there was no voice, there was no answer, and no one paid attention.
Eventually, Elijah calls the people to him, he rebuilds the altar with 12 stones, puts a trench around the altar, saturates the offering and wood with water 2 times and then he prays:
1 Kings 18:36–39 LEB
36 It happened at the offering of the evening oblation, Elijah the prophet went near, and he said, “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and that I have done all of these things by your words. 37 Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me; that this people may know that you, O Yahweh, are God and that you have turned their hearts back again.” 38 Then the fire of Yahweh fell, and it consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust; and the water which was in the trench it licked up! 39 When all the people saw, they fell on their faces and said, “Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God!”
EVEN if I speak that prayer slowly it takes less than 30 seconds.
What makes the God of the Bible different from other gods is that he is not DISTANT. Elijah jeered at the prophets of Baal saying that maybe their god was away, like on vacation; distant. Then he demonstrated that his God, whom he knew by name, was present and listening.
I believe Jesus is reminding his listeners that Yahweh is a relational God.
When we go back to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6, Jesus says that we can use very few words because God already knows what we need. He is, after all, our father; he is near. He is not only near but he knows what we need before we even ask! Jesus even takes this concept one step further and shows the closeness of God by referring to him as father.
When I speak to people I know well, I do not need to butter them up, change my vocabulary to be flowery. If I was talking to the deacons and started speaking in the Kings English, or Yoda for that matter, they would look at my like I am nuts! If I am talking to some foreign dignitary or high official person I have never met, I would be very careful how I speak or write to them. But if I am a good friend with that same person, or even their son, I might have a totally different tone and vocabulary that I use - much more relaxed and relational.
Jesus says that our prayers do not need to be long and full of useless mumbo-jumbo. And I have heard prayers like that. While God is THE most important being you could ever talk to, he is also our dad. Our prayers should reflect the relationship that we have with him - a personal and loving God. By doing such we reveal to others that we KNOW him and we also reveal to them what God truly desires - relationships with his creation.
Matthew 6:8 CSB
8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.
If God already know what we need before we ask, then why are we even expected to pray? There could be many possible explanations, but this is something I want YOU to meditate on to talk to God about ;)
Jesus has addressed MOTIVES and the METHODS of our prayers - both of which reveal our relationship with Yahweh.
Then, Jesus shares a prayer that shows what it could look like to pray in a way that pleases God. While many have called this a model prayer, I think that sells it short. It is not a model or formulaic prayer, it is a meditative prayer that is to be thought about over and over and connected to the other teachings about God throughout the scriptures (and especially the Old Testament).
I want to take a glimpse at each section of this prayer and offer some ways you might choose to meditate on it if you were a Jew listening on that hill. At the end I’ll share a summary of what I think is one way we can begin to digest what is being taught in this prayer.
Matthew 6:9 CSB
9 “Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy.
Father - THIS is a term of familiarity which probably felt uncomfortable to his listeners. It has an emphasis on relationship. This goes beyond Yahweh being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the father of all mankind from the beginning int he garden.
In Heaven - This is the throne of God. We were just told that he knows our needs, so this is not a statement of proximity or distance, but of authority.
You name be honored as holy - that God would be set apart from all other gods and beings of this world.
To pause here, and to think back on when Jesus started this message and stated that he came to complete the law, we could hyperlink back to the 10 commandments. I see Exodus 20:7 as a direct link to Matthew 6:9:
Exodus 20:7 CSB
7 Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses his name.
Matthew 6:10 CSB
10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This kingdom come passage is also a flashback to the Davidic promise of one sitting on the throne: the Messiah. It is asking for God to keep his promise to put his man on the throne so we can submit to his leadership.
To pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as in heaven is really to pray that his followers, you and me, will be obedient to carry out his will on this earth. That we will rule and reign with him in a faithful way that accomplishes HIS mission. What is that?
God’s Mission is Redemption!
2 Peter 3:9 NLT
9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.
Jesus presence on this earth was the ultimate example of this part of the prayer. He came to bring the kingdom by accomplishing the will of the Father on earth, just as it was in heaven where he left.
Matthew 6:11 CSB
11 Give us today our daily bread.
Give us this day our daily bread could make your mind flash back to a couple of things. It might make us think about the Sabbath commands:
Exodus 20:8–11 CSB
8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: 9 You are to labor six days and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. 11 For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.
WHY do we keep the Sabbath? One part of that is to recognize that it is God who provides for us. We can trust him. We take that break and do not work as a way to acknowledging that He is the ultimate provider of what we have and that we rely on Him.
It might take us back to the Wilderness wanderings. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, God made them collect food, daily, 6 days a week. This prayer could also hyperlink us to that very time as well. God provided when they trust and obey.
The goal is to acknowledge God as the provider and our dependence upon him. This proverb states it well:
Proverbs 30:8–9 CSB
8 Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me. Give me neither poverty nor wealth; feed me with the food I need. 9 Otherwise, I might have too much and deny you, saying, “Who is the Lord?” or I might have nothing and steal, profaning the name of my God.
Matthew 6:12 CSB
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
In the old testament this would certainly connect with the year of Jubilee! It was the 50th year or the year after seven sevens. It is the consummation of the year of sabbaths and it is an entire year where you had to trust God because the land was to get a rest. Slaves were set free, debts forgiven.
Deuteronomy 15:12–15 CSB
12 “If your fellow Hebrew, a man or woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, you must set him free in the seventh year. 13 When you set him free, do not send him away empty-handed. 14 Give generously to him from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. You are to give him whatever the Lord your God has blessed you with. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; that is why I am giving you this command today.
People often sold themselves to someone to pay a debt, and that debt was to be forgiven after seven years.
But this word is also translated as “sins” in some versions of our English Bible.
Matthew 6:12 NLT
12 and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
The NLT does that in Matthew. But even if you version does NOT use the word “sin” in the Matthew passage, when Luke records his version of this teaching he uses the word “sin” instead of “debt”:
Luke 11:4 CSB
4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone in debt to us. And do not bring us into temptation.”
Matthew uses the same Greek work for “debt” and “debtors” ὀφείλημα (opheilēma). Luke uses two different words for “sin” - one that we recognize for sin ἁμαρτία (hamartia) and the other is the same word for debtor ὀφείλημα (opheilēma) than Matthew used.
This idea of forgiving people who have sinned against us (debtors) takes the concept of the jubilee and applies it to our relationships.
We are to free them from any bondage to us.
We want THEM to come to us and make things right. If they do not, we still need to release them. If they do, we need to have closure to their indebtedness and release them.
There is a LOT to think through in this part! It is worth spending time reflecting on it. Jesus even reflected on it further when he said:
Matthew 6:14–15 CSB
14 “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.
REMINDER: Jesus is NOT claiming a magical formula. We do not gain forgiveness from God simply by forgiving others. That would mean that Jesus’ death was not necessary.
Jesus is reminding us that we are to be LIKE our Father - doing what HE does. Just as the father forgives us, we need to forgive others - whether a physical debt or a relational debt.
Matthew 6:13 CSB
13 And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
So a few things here. First of all, God does not tempt us!
James 1:13 CSB
13 No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God,” since God is not tempted by evil, and he himself doesn’t tempt anyone.
We are told that we are tempted by our own desires that wage war inside us (James 1:14). It seems to me that Jesus is praying that WHEN we are tempted we will not give in to that temptation.
My brain goes back to the ten commandments: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie - all of these are temptations we face and all of them were faced by Adam & Eve’s descendants after THEY gave in to temptation and chose to define good and bad on their own.
For me, this part of the prayer is the anti-fall prayer. It is a prayer to remind me that from the beginning we have been tempted to want to be God and define good and bad for ourselves. We should be praying that we will be delivered from such thinking.
This is prayer about living our righteousness - about living in such a way that we truly live up to the calling we were created for when made in the image of God. It is not a magic formula prayer and at the same time there is nothing wrong with quoting it and even making it part of our liturgy.
However, Jesus was not trying to tell us the words to say or the pattern to practice but the heart and motivation behind our prayers. Our prayers should be focused on God and demonstrate our submission to his greatness. Our concern should not be what others think of us or our prayers, but of what our Father thinks.
While I am sure I have many more years of study, and I may never truly grasp all of the meanings in this amazing section on prayer, I think there is one layer I am coming to grips with as I reconcile the prayer with the Law & Prophets:
Jesus is telling me that when I pray, I can talk confidently to my Father, without needing many words and without worrying about what others think, and when I do talk to him my prayer should remind me that:
- I need to trust God’s leadership (kingdom)
- I need to trust God’s direction (will)
- I need to trust God’s provision (daily bread)
- I need to trust God’s mission (forgiveness)
- I need to trust God’s wisdom (deliver from evil)
Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.