One of the greatest sins of Christians today is prayerlessness. Samuel said to the people of Israel in 1 Samuel 12:23, “God forbid that I should sin against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you.” In our text this morning, Jesus assumes that His followers will be people of prayer for He does not say “if”, but “when you pray” three times in verses 5-7. Paul told the Colossians to “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2) and the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Important preachers from the past and present agree about the importance of prayer. The 16th century German Reformer Martin Luther said, “As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.” (Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 64). Modern day expositor John MacArthur has written that “For Christians prayer is like breathing.” (Alone With God, 13). T. W. Hunt, author of several books on prayer, has bluntly stated both that “Prayerlessness is sin.” and “Prayerlessness is deadly.” (The Doctrine of Prayer, 92).
But our question this morning is what did Jesus say about prayer. After all, He’s the King and what He says is the authority. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus continues to emphasize the necessity of heart-righteousness for the citizens of His kingdom. This is a righteousness which exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because it goes beyond merely being outwardly obedient to having the proper inward motivations for what we do.
Here Jesus discusses the proper position for prayer, provides a reliable pattern for prayer, and includes an important postscript to prayer on the subject of forgiveness. Let’s read together what Jesus says to us about prayer.
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. (6) But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (7) And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (8) Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. (9) In this manner, therefore, pray: 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 forgive our debtors. (13) And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. (14) For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (15) But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:5-15
I. The Position of Prayer, vv. 5-6.
Jesus begins His authoritative teaching on prayer by contrasting the position of the hypocrite and the position of the genuine follower of Christ during prayer. This is more than just about location; it is about motivation, the attitude of one’s heart before God. It is not about the where, but the why of prayer. Nevertheless, Jesus speaks to His disciples in terms of location.
The hypocrites of the day loved to pray standing in the synagogues or on the corners of streets (classic illustration of this is in Luke 18:9-14). Their motivation for their location was clear: they wanted to be “seen by men.” Here we see that what we do is important, but why we do what we do is vital!
In verse 5 Jesus is undoubtedly referring to the practice of the Jews in His day who would pray the Eighteen Benedictions at 9 am, noon, and 3 pm each day. There is a reference to this in Acts 3:1 when Peter and John are said to go to the temple “at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour” which would correspond to 3 pm in our way of telling time. Jewish custom dictated that regardless of where you were or what you were doing during these times, you were to stop and pray toward the temple. This was a practice very similar to what Muslims practice when they pray toward Mecca at certain times during the day. But the problem which Jesus is denouncing here is that apparently some Jews would plan their entire day around being in some conspicuous place when these three times for prayer came. They planned on being where everyone could see them so they could be seen doing their religious duty by as many as possible. They were motivated by their desire to be seen by men (See Robert Mounce, Matthew, NIBC, 54-55). Jesus says, “Truly they have already received all the reward they will ever receive.” Just as with giving, if you’re motivated by others thinking well of you, that’s all you will receive.
In contrast to the practice of the hypocrites, Jesus calls upon His followers to go to the secret place to pray (v. 6). The word translated “room” or “closet” could refer to either a storeroom or bedroom. It usually referred to a place of privacy. Jesus says go to your place of privacy because God is in that secret place. You don’t have to be standing on a street corner or in a church for God to be able to see you. God can see you in your bedroom on your knees, and the God who sees in secret will reward you openly. What a powerful description is the title “your Father who sees in secret.” It strikes both terror and delight in our hearts. Terror because we often do things we shouldn’t do in secret. But delight because we know that those times spent with God which no one in this world knows anything about, God knows about it and will one day reward you openly.
II. The Pattern of Prayer, vv. 7-12.
Jesus’ famous teaching on prayer in verses 9-12 is given in contrast to what the heathen do as described by Jesus in verses 7 and 8. Whatever else our prayers are to be, they are not to be like the prayers of the heathen. These prayers are described as containing “vain repetitions”. There is much praying like this today which is repetitious. It is the idea that if we say the right words, the right way enough times loud enough, then surely God will be bound to answer our prayers. That is praying like a heathen. It is treating prayer as if it were a magical formula like “Hocus Pocus”, Abra Cadabra”, or even “Open sesame!”
We are not to pray like the heathen because, Jesus says, “your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” This clues us in on the problem of vain repetitions in prayer. As John Piper has said it makes God look unaware and uncaring about our problems (See A Godward Life, Book 2, 333-336). This could not be farther from the truth. He is our Father, so we know He cares. And He “knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”
Therefore Jesus proposes an alternative way of praying in verse 9-12. It is the prayer which we call the Lord’s Prayer, but it would be more properly called the Disciple’s Prayer for this is the prayer which Jesus taught His disciples to pray. Jesus is not telling them what to pray here, but how to pray, or the “manner” in which to pray. That this is not a mantra to be repeated mindlessly is evident from the context since Jesus just warned His disciples against the “vain repetitions” of the heathen. Jesus is instead teaching them an outline to guide them in their prayer by listing for them the kinds of things for which they should be praying. It is a prayer of seven petitions. I will not go into detail with them here, but this prayer begins with God and His kingdom and ends with God and His glory. And everything in between should be understood in light of God’s kingdom and His glory. In other words no prayer for daily bread, or forgiveness, or deliverance from temptation and evil should be prayed without a reference to God and His glory. God’s glory, kingdom and will are the atmosphere in which we make our daily requests. If God’s glory is not our ultimate end in our praying we have not prayed a Christian prayer! Of the seven petitions, the first three are characterized as referring to God’s nature and purposes. Does this pattern reflect your own personal prayers? Or, are your prayers mainly concerned about you and your kingdom? While we are not to mindlessly repeat this prayer, I think it is helpful to use this prayer as a mental outline of the kinds of things we should be praying for (according to the authority of our King).
III. The Postscript to Prayer, vv. 13-14.
But Jesus is not done with this teaching. He adds an important postscript to His teaching on prayer in verses 13 and 14. A postscript is the P.S. placed at the bottom of a letter which adds a note to the end of the letter after the signature. Sometimes these postscripts are trivial in our letters, but not this one. Jesus is adding an important word regarding the fifth petition in the above prayer. It is the petition regarding forgiveness. Jesus had said that we should pray for forgiveness of our debts (Luke’s version says “trespasses”) “as” we forgive our debtors. Obviously there is some link between the forgiveness that we wish to experience and the forgiveness which we show to others. Jesus explains further in verses 14 and 15.
Frankly, Jesus’ explanation does not make the text any easier. In fact, it is now much harder. Jesus says that if we forgive others, we will be forgiven by our heavenly Father. But if we fail to forgive others, we will not be forgiven. What does this mean? Well, it certainly means no less than to say that forgiving people are forgiven people and unforgiving people are unforgiven people. I believe that Jesus is saying that one who has truly experienced forgiveness has experienced such a work of God’s grace in his life that he or she will be a forgiving person. They will understand that they have been forgiven an infinite debt which they owed to a holy God, and therefore they will be willing to forgive the small debt in comparison which others owe them. But those who will not forgive others give evidence that they have not truly experienced the forgiveness which God gives. They have never come to understand their sinfulness and need of grace for if they had they would not be so reluctant to forgive the weaknesses of others.
I’ve recently been enjoying reading the newly released Reagan Diaries which are the edited personal daily entries of President Ronald Reagan which he maintained during his eight year presidency. One of the most interesting entries in Reagan’s diary is the one from March 30, 1981 (the day he was shot by would be assassin, John Hinckley):
Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breathe it seemed I was getting less & less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for Gods help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold. (12).
In some sense President Reagan understood that his ability to pray for himself was linked to his forgiveness of others. This is a link which Jesus clearly makes in our text today. Do you understand that link? Do you forgive others?