It is said that Martin Luther habitually spent three hours in prayer every day. Today, alas, even in circles where one would expect a concern for prayer, that may be thought excessive, in practice if not as an ideal.
How could we fit that into our busy lives? To most Christians today this is alien territory. People generally know little of prayer. Of course, we have biblical examples to encourage us in prayer. Take Daniel. We are told that three times a day he ‘knelt down on his knees — and prayed and gave thanks before his God as his custom was since early days’ (Daniel 6:10).
But above all we have the example of the Lord Jesus. So taken were the disciples with his praying that they ask him: ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1). We cannot escape it: the atmosphere of the believing soul is an atmosphere of prayer.
No doubt people find it strange in a ‘scientific’ world. But one thing the Bible makes clear is that there is communication with our Creator. Isaac Newton, the great scientific genius of the 18th century, declared: ‘I can take my telescope and look millions of miles into space; but I can go away to my room, and in prayer get nearer to God and heaven than I can when assisted by all the telescopes on earth’.
Given by the Lord
There is much teaching in the Bible about prayer. When we think of the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ on the subject, we inevitably turn to what is usually called the Lord’s prayer.
We have two passages which give us slightly different forms of this prayer, one in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:9-13, and the other in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 11:2-4, on a different occasion.
This prayer has been described as the ‘Lord’s prayer’, no doubt because it was given by the Lord. But there is a sense in which it might just as well be described as the ‘Disciples’ prayer’ because it was given for their help and use.
In Matthew 6 the form of the prayer is given in the context of teaching on spiritual duties. In Luke 11 it is given in the context of a question about how to pray. In both instances the prayer is almost identical, the exception being the fifth petition in which Matthew reads ‘forgive us our debts’ and Luke has ‘forgive us our sins (trespasses, AV)’.
There is another difference, though: in Luke, Jesus responds to the disciples’ question by saying, ‘When you pray, say…’ That is, he is inviting them to use the words he is about to give them.
But in the Sermon on the Mount he says, ‘In this manner, therefore, pray….’ In this case he is explaining how they are to pray. We can conclude that this is a model prayer, and although the words themselves may be used, it is not the essence of the teaching that they should be used (remember that he warns against ‘vain repetitions’; Matthew 6:7).
For renewed hearts
The Lord’s prayer is a brief prayer. It takes about half a minute to repeat. For all that, it is quite comprehensive. It has a preface, six petitions, and a conclusion. The prayer is simple, yet profound. There is no fancy phraseology. It is a wonderful and concise introduction to praying.
We should not, however, miss the point that it is a disciple’s prayer. It is a prayer that is only really meaningful for a heart renewed by the grace of God. We are reminded that true prayer is a thing of the heart.
It is clear that the first thing addressed in the prayer is this: how are we to approach God? The answer is clear; we must approach him in these terms: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’ (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2).
Approaching a Father
The night before he died, Thomas Chalmers walked in the garden behind his house in Edinburgh and was overheard by one of the family saying in low but earnest tones: ‘O Father, my heavenly Father…’
It is highly significant that Jesus encourages his followers to address God as ‘Father’. The Father is, of course, the first person of the Trinity. Jesus ‘revealed’ the Father and made him known (Matthew 11:27).
And he invites his followers to come to him as their Father. This speaks of privilege. God the Creator, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, is one to whom followers of the Lord relate as their Father.
He is not, to them, remote or impersonal. A little later, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the same picture of God as a Father to his people (Matthew 7:9-11). Within a human family the children bear a special relation to their father. So it is in the family of God.
Only those truly renewed by the Spirit of God can properly call God ‘Father’. When a person is converted to Christ that person becomes a child of God. To them Jesus is Lord, and the first person in the Godhead is their ‘Father in heaven’. It is a term of attachment and endearment.
An exalted position
However, although we are encouraged to approach God with this term of endearment, we are also to be conscious of his majesty. For he is ‘Our Father in heaven’. This speaks of his sovereignty. He is above all and over all.
By adding the words ‘in heaven’, Jesus is encouraging the people of God to maintain a reverence towards the Father. We must never lose sight of the mighty transcendence of our God.
We remember that heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain him (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 2:6; 6:18). We may say, therefore, that there is to be ease in approaching him (as Father), but a deep reverence as we recognise his majesty (our Father in heaven).
An honoured name
We move from the manner of our approach to God in prayer, to the first petition proper: ‘Hallowed be your name’. What is the first concern in prayer?
Surely it is to recognise just who he is whom we approach. What is implicit in the first phrase of the prayer, is now made explicit. We bring ourselves low before the Lord God.
We honour his name. His name, of course, speaks of his character. In the Old Testament there are many names applied to God. They all express aspects of his nature and actions. He is ‘Almighty God’, the ‘Everlasting God’, the Lord of Hosts, the Lord who will provide, the Lord our Banner, the Lord our Shepherd, the Lord our Righteousness, and so on.
‘Hallowed be your name’. To ‘hallow’ something is to consider it holy, to revere it in the highest sense. We are to acknowledge God as holy and separate from us. He is high above us.
But how do we ‘hallow’ his name? We ‘hallow’ our God when we give him the honour due to him as our Creator. We hallow him when we hold him in awe as Almighty God.
We hallow him when we adore and respect him, and are submissive to his word in our hearts and lives. We hallow him when we worship him in Spirit and in truth.
We hallow him when we bear witness among men to his greatness and majesty. Above all, we hallow him when we honour his Son: ‘for he who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him’ (John 5:23).
Too deep for words
Christian faith is the faith of sons and daughters of God. In their dependence upon him they will come to him as their Father in heaven. Martin Luther appreciated this form of address. He said: ‘[Father] is indeed a very short word, but it includes everything. Not the lips but the feelings are speaking here, as though one were to say: “Even though I am surrounded by anxieties and seem to be deserted and banished from your presence, nevertheless I am a child of God on account of Christ; I am beloved on account of the Beloved”.
‘Therefore the term Father, when spoken meaningfully in the heart, is an eloquence [that] the most eloquent … in the world cannot attain. For this is a matter that is expressed, not in words but in sighs, which are not articulated in all the words of all the orators; for they are too deep for words’.
What a privilege! The people of God can approach his throne and call the God of glory ‘Our Father’. He knows our needs. He provides. He is a God of all grace.
Let us come humbly yet expectantly, submissively yet boldly (Hebrews 4:16). It is for his people to have an unbounded love and zeal for the honour of his glorious name.