In two different gospels, Jesus used similar verbiage to teach his disciples to pray.1 The two incidents are different enough that they appear to be distinct events, and if so, they are similar enough that it captures our attention to know that Jesus would go through this same lesson twice.
The lesson, recorded by both Matthew and Luke, has come to be commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer, but it might be more properly characterized as the believer’s prayer or the disciple’s prayer, since it is the Lord who taught it, but we who pray it and the disciples who asked for it.2
The Nature of the Request
In Luke’s account, the disciples were with Jesus as he was praying. They waited for him to complete his prayers, or to take a temporary break from them, before making their request, “Teach us to pray.” This is an entreaty that goes far beyond “Teach us to make a speech” or “Teach us to verbalize a canned recitation.”
In making this request of Jesus, the disciples are saying, “Please teach us how to speak to the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. How do we talk to the I AM? How do we use unclean lips to speak to the one who is high and holy, whose very name is holy?”
By this time, the disciples had been with Jesus long enough to recognize that, with him, prayer was a habit; a lifestyle. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus went to Mount Olivet to pray, and qualifies that by saying, “as was his custom.”3 The Christ-imitating man and woman will pray in such a way that people will say, “as is her custom” or “as is his custom.”
For years I ran the soundboard for the worship team during Sunday services and mid-week rehearsals. On those days, I arrived early to allow time for troubleshooting, just in case anything was not working properly. One Sunday morning I arrived about an hour before rehearsal was to begin, and found one of the elders from the church kneeling at the front of the auditorium in what was almost a fetal position, with an open Bible before him. He was softly singing his prayer to God. I quietly went about my business, trying not to disturb him as I prepared for the musicians to arrive.
Some might encounter a situation like I just described and think it strange or unusual, while at the same time admirable. But the interesting thing about this specific encounter is that I did not find it unusual at all, at least not for this man, because I know him to be a man devoted to a life of prayer. It is his custom to do such things. That has to be the way it was with the disciples and Jesus. They knew – “as was his custom” – and so they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
It is telling to me that Jesus modeled such a strong devotion to prayer. If ever there was a man who could walk through life successfully in the absence of fervent prayer, Jesus would be that man, yet he prayed so extensively that Luke says, “as was his custom.”
The depth of Jesus’ piety in prayer is an indictment of me, and of how poorly I understand the role and effect of prayer in the life of a man or a woman. If Immanuel, God with us, was devoted to prayer, it is the pinnacle of arrogance for me to believe I can survive without it to an even greater degree than that with which Jesus engaged it. Given the prominence of prayer in the life of Jesus, I find it significant that he did not voluntarily initiate this teaching with the disciples, but rather waited for them to ask to be taught.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin,4 seems also to have been a man of prayer. Prayer was significant enough in the life of John that Jesus’ disciples pointed to him as an example, and as the basis upon which they asked to be taught to pray, “just also as John taught his disciples.” John was the forerunner of the Messiah, preparing the way of the Lord.5 Jesus said John was the greatest of the prophets.6 Yet, in all of this, John was a man devoted to prayer.
Seeing Jesus, their master and teacher, as a man of prayer and seeing John the Baptist, a great prophet and proclaimer, as a man of prayer, one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Matthew Henry characterized the request in this way:
Lord, teach me what it is to pray; Lord, excite and quicken me to the duty; Lord, direct me what to pray for; Lord, give me praying graces, that I may serve God acceptably in prayer; Lord, teach me to pray in proper words; give me a mouth and wisdom in prayer, that I may speak as I ought; teach me what I shall say.7
The passive witness of Jesus’ deep dependence on prayer, and the benefit he drew from that life of prayer, was enough to compel the disciples to ask him to teach them about what he had that they did not. The Christ-follower is able to swallow enough pride to ask others to teach us what they know that we do not. Contrast this to the scribes and the Pharisees who would never dare to make such a request of Jesus. Seemingly, the only request they had of Jesus was their repeated honor-challenges, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?”
In Matthew’s account of the event, the text contains an emphatic “You” that seems intended to establish a contrast between how the heathen prays, and how a disciple prays.8 The heathen rambles on, ad-infinitum, indicating his belief that a long prayer is a holy prayer.9
We know the Pharisees were fond of praying in public as a show of their deep piety.10 “But you,” Jesus says, “you pray in this manner.” The prayer has been characterized as a contrast to the heathen prayer in that it was “designed, indeed, to show how much real prayer could be compressed into the fewest words.”11
Whether the prayer is a model, or is to be prayed literally, it is worthy of our study and consideration. The Christ-follower will strive to understand the depth of meaning in what Jesus taught, because to pray this prayer literally or to model another prayer after it, without understanding it, is to engage in the meaningless heathen babblings that Jesus denounced.
Beginning next week, we will do a deep dive into each of the elements in the prayer Jesus taught. Until then . . .
1. Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4
2. Luke 11:1
3. Luke 22:39
4. Luke 1:34-37
5. John 1:15-34
6. Matthew 11:9-11
7. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume. (p. 1860). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
8. Matthew 6:6
9. Matthew 6:7-9a
10. Barbieri, L. A., Jr. (1985). Matthew. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 32). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
11. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 25). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.