The Form and Function of the Lord's Prayer: A Pattern and Prayer for Any Occasion

This is the mss from a presentation I delivered to the combined church board of one of the churches I served as an intern at their yearly board retreat. It was a lot of fun to put together and I know that at least two or three of those present appreciated it. Maybe you will too.


(Matthew 6.9-13)

In approaching the Lord’s Prayer, we will divine our study broadly between the categories of Form and Function. However, we will begin by addressing a number of preliminary concerns. By “Form,” we mean to inquire as to questions relating to the significance of the Lord’s Prayer as a thing in and of itself, and by “Function,” we mean to reflect upon the place of the Lord’s Prayer in the Church, how it is to be used, applied, etc.


Before we turn to the form of the Lord’s Prayer and to our investigation of its significance as a thing in and of itself, we must first deal with a few preliminary questions. Since we have chosen Matthew’s account of the prayer, our first question must concern the relationship between the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Together with Mark, Matthew and Luke comprise what are called the Synoptic Gospels. These Gospels share a similar plot arc and very similar material, although they differ at many points. The general scholarly consensus is that Mark preceded Matthew and Luke. The latter two evangelists would then have used Mark as a guide in the writing of their own gospels. However, Matthew and Luke often share material that is not found in Mark. The Lord’s Prayer is one example of this material found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Thus, one suspects that Matthew and Luke are using a common source other than Mark as they write. We do not have this other common source, but scholars have named it the “Q” Document – short for Quelle, the German word for ‘source’ - and suppose it to contain all the materials that are shared between Matthew and Luke but are not found in Mark.

I am sure that you will also notice that the setting for the Lord’s Prayer is different in Matthew than in Luke. In the former, it is found as one piece in a series of Jesus’ teachings, while in Luke the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray, much like John the Baptist taught his disciples (Luke 11.1). This notion of a teacher instructing his disciples in how to pray developed in the Rabbinical Jewish tradition of the centuries following Christ, and it became of great import. What better way to find out what someone truly believes than to listen to them pray? In asking Jesus to teach them to pray, the disciples want people to be able to identify them as followers of Jesus, in other words, they want to pray like Jesus. In Luke, Jesus is happy to provide this instruction.

Our second preliminary issue concerns the traditional ending of the Lord’s Prayer. If you have a KJV, or are familiar with the form of the Lord’s Prayer recited in more liturgically minded churches, you will recognize the following phrase: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.” If you have the NIV or the TNIV, you will find this phrase in a footnote, and if you have an NASB you will find it in brackets. This is because the best scholarship has indicated that this phrase is to be considered a later insertion. The earlier and best manuscripts of the gospels do not include this phrase. It would seem that it was inserted at some point to round out the prayer, that is, to help it end on a high note and with the appropriate concluding ratification, “Amen.” These changes make the prayer more suited to liturgical recitation. While this could and should give us pause as far as our notions about modifying the biblical text is concerned, I have no problem with using the lengthened form for recitation. The Church throughout history, under the guidance of the Spirit, thought it a benefit to piety to conclude the prayer in this way, and I am happy to accept their authority.

Third in our preliminary excursion, I would like to point out what we find in verse 7 (Matthew 6.7). “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” The following verse reminds us that this babbling is not necessary because God already knows what we need. I would suggest that verse 7 has three things in the crosshair: first, repetition of the divine name; second, repetitions and variations on requests; third, general length. The first and third of these are of a piece. Both repetition of the divine name and general length of a prayer could be understood as ways that the one praying goes about getting God’s attention. We must remember that in pagan religion, knowing the name of the deity is what allows one to dial into the deity. The name is the deity’s phone-number, as it were. It gets and keeps the deity’s attention on you. Furthermore, praying at length might be seen as a way to impress the deity and convince the deity that you are worth answering. These two things are ruled out for Christians. Yes we know God’s name, but we need not struggle to keep God’s attention. God is our Father, as we see in the first petition of the Lord’s prayer in verse 9, and God is always ready to give attention to our prayers. The notion of repeating variations on requests would easily fit into this pattern of trying to impress the deity and keep the deity’s attention, but it moves further as well. At what point do we stop praying to God and start praying to ourselves in an attempt to talk ourselves into thinking everything will be all right, or that we will receive what we so desperately want? At what point do we begin to simply stir up our own emotions and try to make ourselves feel better?

Finally, the last of our preliminary concerns has to do with the emphasis of the Lord’s Prayer. For this we must turn to verses 14-15, which highlight the reciprocity between our forgiveness of those who wrong us, and God’s forgiveness of us. We find this also in the fifth petition of the prayer. In fact, since verse 15 simply restates in a negative way the assertion of verse 14, we really do have this notion present in the passage three times. Now, I do not want to over-explain this emphasis and thereby remove its potency. We must simply affirm, as this passage very clearly emphasizes, that in some sense our forgiveness is tied up with our willingness to forgive. This emphasis also touches on the issue of how to translate ovfeilh,mata (opheileimata) in verse 12. Is it “debts” or “trespasses” or “sins?” More precisely, this word means, “wrong, sin or guilt.” Verses 14 and 15 use paraptw,mata (paraptomata), which means “sin or wrongdoing.” Neither uses a`marti,a (hamartia), which is the standard word for “sin” in a strict sense. What I would like to impress upon you is the notion that the specific word used does not always, and in fact, seldom carries with it immense theological import. These words are something like synonyms; each meaning relatively the same thing, each having a different origin but a comparable use. In this case, I advocate translating verse 12 simply as “forgive us our sins.”


We have discussed some important preliminaries and now move on to a discussion of the Form of the Lord’s Prayer, that is, of the significance of the Lord’s Prayer in and of itself. To do this we will examine the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. I will be brief in this section, and I will be generally following John Calvin in his discussion of this passage in his Harmony of the Gospels, found in his collected commentaries. Calvin also discusses the Lord’s Prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. I have provided you with the former and I commend the latter to your further study. Calvin makes note that the petitions seem to be divided in the same manner as the Decalogue: they open with petitions referencing God, and they conclude with petitions referencing the human person’s life in society. Noting this reinforces what we have said concerning verse 7. We pray not primarily for our benefit, but because in so doing we return to God what is God’s due and bear witness to God’s power and glory.

The first petition is found in verse 9. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” I wish to here echo what Calvin has to say, and since he says it with far more eloquence than I can muster, I will quote him. “Whenever we engage in prayer, there are two things to be considered, both that we may have access to God, and that we may rely on Him with full and unshaken confidence: his fatherly love toward us, and his boundless power. Let us therefore entertain no doubt, that God is willing to receive us graciously, that he is ready to listen to our prayers, - in a word, that of Himself he is disposed to aid us.” What more exciting and profound truth is there to be found than that God, rather than looking upon us with wrath, looks upon us with grace and is ready and eager to help us? Thus, when we pray, we do address a fatherly God. However, though God is our father God is not our back-slapping buddy. We also see that God is in heaven, that is, God is profoundly and fundamentally separated from created things as being far above and beyond them, beyond us. Though we address a fatherly God, this God is still God, and is worthy of our respect and praise, our trepidation and our love. In recognition of this, the verse continues, we are to declare God to be holy. We are to “hallow” or to “sanctify” God. This is to recognize God’s perfections, God’s above-ness. This is the task of all creation, of the human being in general, and of the Christian in particular. Martin Luther makes much in his lectures on Galatians that faith in its most essential form is our human act of declaring God to be what God truly is.

Following in verse 10 are the second and third petitions, which are quite alike. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is apparent that what we have here is a sentence with two heads and only one tail. Our prayer is for both God’s kingdom and God’s will to exist here on earth like it exists in heaven. We will leave Calvin aside for the moment at this point to explore how Luther dealt with these two petitions in his Small Catechism. “Your Kingdom Come. Question: What is this? Answer: In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us…Your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Question: What is this? Answer: In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.” Luther here makes a fine distinction, namely, that what is the case and that what is apparent to us in our own lives may be two quite different things. God’s kingdom is come and God’s will is done. What we petition for is that we might see it, that we might observe it infuse our lives and the world around us, that we might be made a part of this coming and this doing.

As we take up the fourth petition we take up the petitions that deal with the human life in human society. The first of these petitions is found in verse 11. “Give us today our daily bread.” It should be noted that “bread” here should be taken to refer to all that is essential to our mortal survival. However, it does not refer simply to that which is essential to our survival, but it refers to all the good gifts of God’s creation. Luther goes so far as to include spouses, children, civil society, and money. Calvin makes the observation in his study that some people are well established in this life and do not question whether the necessities, or even the bounties of life will be available to them. For such people Calvin suggests that the purpose of this petition is to remind them that, regardless of how it may look from down here, even we who are affluent receive our bounty from the hand of God.

Petition five is next, and reads as follows in verse 12: “And forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” We have already touched upon this petition in our preliminary remarks, noting that, in conjunction with verses 14 and 15, it is the seat of the emphasis of the passage here in Matthew. Calvin sees this petition as that which is materially foundational for all the others, that is to say, he thinks that this petition must be in place before we can pray the other petitions. Another way of saying this is that our justification must be taken care of before we are able to truly praise God and recognize that our daily sustenance comes from God’s hand. Calvin takes the second phrase not as causal for the first, that is, it is not that we have to forgive those who sinned against us in order to be saved. Rather, he takes it in an exhortative manner, such that it is presented here with such gusto and in such close proximity to our own divine forgiveness in order to spur us on to acts of forgiveness. As Calvin puts it, “This condition is added, that no one may presume to approach God and ask forgiveness, who is not pure and free from all resentment. And yet the forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others.” Let us not lose sight either of the free nature of our forgiveness, or of this strong exhortation to practice forgiveness in our own relationships.

Finally, we reach the sixth petition in verse 13. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from…” from what? There are two ways to take “evil” here, either a simple noun denoting general evil-ness, or as a substantive referencing a particular evil, “the evil one.” Calvin sees very little difference in how one interprets this word, and I am more than a little inclined to follow him in this opinion. In any case, “evil” is that which is not good, and that which is against good, and therefore that which is against God. Calvin, taking his cue from Saint Augustine, renders the logic of this sentence as follows: “That we may not be led into temptation, deliver us from evil.” In this petition we recognize our continued weakness. There is no room for Christian triumphalism. All our problems with sin and evil are not solved when we become a Christian. If anything, these problems are intensified. Now more than ever we must pray that God would protect us from these pitfalls and dangers. Thus, the Lord’s Prayer closes with the admittance of our weakness and dependence upon God.


We have now completed our formal exploration of the Lord’s Prayer, that is, we have examined the significance of this prayer in and of itself. What now of the concerns of Function? How is this prayer to be appropriated into our individual lives and the life of the Church and this church? That is must be incorporated is self-evident. This prayer carries with it a dominical command, that is, it is something that our Lord commanded us to do. In Luke, Jesus commands, “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11.1). This is no suggestion – this is a command. We must pray this prayer. How are we to pray it?

(Pattern) Calvin is among a distinguished line of interpreters who have argued that the Lord’s Prayer is not something that is to be repeated ver batum. Rather, it presents us with a guide, a pattern if you will, that we are to follow in our own prayers. Thus Calvin, “the rule which he has given us for praying aright relates not to the words, but to the things themselves.” Christ’s intention was not to put words in our mouth, nor was it to take from us freedom to deviate even from this pattern. Rather, this pattern is given to “guide and restrain our wishes, that they might not go beyond those limits.” Christian freedom is stronger than legalism, and Calvin expects us to use that freedom in our prayers. However, freedom is not truly freedom if it is unrestrained. True freedom is being able to will the good without distraction. True freedom is fenced in, it is directed to its goal, it wears blinders. Thus, the Lord’s Prayer fences us in. It serves as our blinders. It assures us that we can and do pray to a God who looks upon us as a father looks upon a child. Furthermore, it tells us what we are to say to that God, and for what we are to ask. We can and must say and ask these things in different words, but it is these things which we can and must say and ask, not those other things.

(Prayer) But, is Calvin altogether right on this point? I do think that he is right, but is he altogether right? Is the Lord’s Prayer merely a pattern? Is it merely a guide? Or, is it also a prayer? Are these words also a command? I am inclined to think that they are. Perhaps a comparison is in order to strengthen the force of this argument. Take our celebration of Holy Communion for instance. How fitting that we should consider the Lord’s Supper in our consideration of the Lord’s Prayer. When we celebrate Communion, we quote from the biblical text, whether it be Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, or the words of one of the Gospels. And yet, I challenge you to produce for me a sentence of Scripture that commands that we use those words in language as clear as that which we have here in the Lord’s Prayer. Luke 11.1 – “When you pray, say…” Say what? This! When you pray, say these things, say these words, pray this prayer. And yet we resist! To paraphrase Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Can you not pray with me this handful of words?”

Listen now to “The Westminster Standards: The Larger Catechism,” question number 187: “How is the Lord’s Prayer to be used? Answer: The Lord’s Prayer is not only for direction, as a pattern according to which we are to make other prayers; but may be also used as a prayer so that it [that is, prayer] be done with understanding, faith, reverence, and other graces necessary to the right performance of the duty of prayer.” My own paraphrase of this would be something like, “Pray this prayer when you find yourself unsure or unable to pray another prayer.” Perhaps some of you can imagine nothing but stale, lifeless ritual when you envision a congregation or an individual reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps you have never been at a loss for words before Almighty God. Perhaps the tragedy and violence of this life has not overtaken you in such a way as to rob you of your prayers. Perhaps you have never been faced with shades of gray in a decision in this life, but have always seen clearly what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps you have never groaned before God. But, perhaps this is not the case. I ask you, have you ever groaned before God? Paul tells us in Romans 8.26 that sometimes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Yet, I challenge you today to pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. When you find that you do not know what to pray for, pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. When we come together as the body of Christ to face this world seemingly dominated by powers that refuse to bend the knee to God, pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray. When you pray, pray these words.

In nomine patri, et fili, et spiritu sancti, amen.


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