The Lord’s Prayer #1: Our Father in Heaven

In the summer of 2020 during our first COVID lockdown I preached a series on The Lord’s Prayer. Over the next several days I am going to post slightly edited versions of the those messages here.

Therefore, you should pray like this:

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.

Matthew 6:9-13

When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir.

Galatians 4:4-7

We all know The Lord’s Prayer. Many church traditions repeat it weekly in their liturgy. I had it memorized at a very young age, and it was a part of my bedtime prayers. Maybe that was true for you too.Winfield Bevins, in his book Creed, writes this: “Despite how well known this prayer is, few people grasp the meaning.” And this is true. Sometimes when you learn something by rote, it’s easy not to think about what you’re saying. So we can know The Lord’s Prayer without necessarily knowing what it means. Bevins continues: “It is Jesus’ definitive teaching on prayer. It is an outline by which we can shape our own personal prayer life and learn how to pray according to his will.”

In other words, Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples (or us) that we must always repeat these exact words. Rather, they show us the manner in which we should pray. In fact this is the consensus throughout church history, whether we’re talking about early church fathers like Augustine, medieval theologians like Aquinas, or Reformers like Luther and Calvin: The Lord’s Prayer is the model prayer. Renowned 20th century theologian Karl Barth put it this way: “Be content with possessing in the Lord’s Prayer a model, but let your prayer arise from the freedom of the heart.” So I want to look at the Lord’s Prayer to see what we can learn about prayer.

There are two version of The Lord’s Prayer in the Bible, one in Matthew and one in Luke. And in both versions we see that Jesus is teaching his disciples about prayer. In Luke’s Gospel, it’s because his disciples ask to be taught. But since Matthew’s is the most common and is the one we know from Sunday school and church liturgy, we’re going to go line by line through this version of The Lord’s Prayer, which is actually located in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

In this post we’re going to look at the first line of The Lord’s Prayer: Our Father in heaven. This is the part of the prayer called the invocation. It tells us who is being addressed in the prayer. Who is this God being called upon? So, the first thing I want us to think about it this: What does it mean to call God “Father”?

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way. Calling God “Father” has nothing to do with gender. I know this is a common criticism people make. Usually it has to do with the criticism that Christianity is patriarchal. But when using this name or title, Christians are not saying God is male. God is neither male nor female. I also understand that there are people who have had some profoundly negative and hurtful experiences with their fathers. I actually have too. All I can say is that this is not a reason to abandon Jesus’ teaching. I would actually say that coming to see God as our Father can correct our wrong ideas of God and heal any deep wounds inflicted by earthly fathers.

Because here’s the thing: we shouldn’t try and understand what it means to call God “Father” through our experience of earthly fathers; rather, earthly fathers are called to reflect our heavenly Father. John Bishop, in his book, God Distorted: How Your Earthly Father Affects Your Perception of God and Why It Matters, puts it this way, “God is not a bigger version of your earthly father.” I would highly recommend this book.

God is called Father in the OT. In Isaiah 64:8, it says: O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. In this passage and in several others, God is portrayed as the Father of the nation of Israel. Israel is God’s son. In other words, God is the one who created Israel. He brought Israel into existence.

Now, it’s true that this is not the most common way of referring to God in the OT. It’s when we come to Jesus and the NT that “Father” becomes the most common way of referring to God. “Father” is the name or title for God given to us by Jesus. And it’s how Jesus taught his disciples to address God. And Jesus teaches us this because this is how he refers to God.

In his wonderful book The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father, Wesley Hill notes that “If you were to tally how many times Jesus uses that name for God, the total would reach approximately 65 by the time you finished the Gospel of Luke and over 170 by the time you reached the end of the Gospel of John.” Hill also points out that “Jesus claims on several occasions in the Gospels to enjoy an unprecedented intimacy with God.” Father is a relationship word, and by teaching us to pray our Father in heaven Jesus is inviting us to enjoy this same relationship. In fact, we can’t understand what it means to call God “Father” apart from Jesus.

We also read from Galatians 4:4—7 where Paul says God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba, Father!” That Aramaic word—Abba—doesn’t only mean “Father.” It a more intimate term of address, much like “Daddy” or “Papa.” Have you ever prayed to God this way? Praying to God as our Father means being able to have the same kind of intimacy with God as Jesus did. It means we can have the closest of relationships with the one who is the source of our existence.

So what comes to mind when you think of God as Father? How would you describe your relationship with God? How would you like your relationship with God to change?

Now, the next thing is this: The Lord’s Prayer is not only about you and God. It’s easy to skip over, but the very first word of the prayer is not my but our. Jesus teaches us to pray our Father not my Father. Praying as Jesus taught us is a way of remembering that we are always a part of a larger spiritual family. We have a lot of brothers and sisters! One simple way of thinking about this is that when we pray we shouldn’t only pray for ourselves but for others too.

And because the first line of The Lord’s Prayer has us coming to God as Father—indeed, as Abba—then our prayer should be that those who are part of our spiritual family also enjoy this intimacy with God. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us a lot of things about prayer. But it definitely begins with praying for the spiritual lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Are they close to God? Are they struggling to pray?

I think these opening words to The Lord’s Prayer are a challenge because it’s asking us to have the kind of relationships with other Christians where we’re close enough to be able to pray for their spiritual needs. So often when Christians pray for one another, the focus is on physical health or that they would be able to get through a hard situation. Not that we shouldn’t pray for these things, but I think that these kinds of prayers are about external matters.

We need to know how our Christian friends and fellow church members are struggling spiritually. But this means that pray involves not only intimacy with God, but intimacy with other believers. And even beyond that, we can also keep in mind those we know who do not yet call God “Father.” We can pray on their behalf too. We can ask God to speak to their hearts. We can pray that they would become aware of their need for God.

When you pray for others, what do you usually ask of God? Are you usually aware of how people in your church are doing spiritually? Why or why not? What does it mean to be a part of a spiritual family?

Like me, you’ve probably heard someone say that we’re all children of God. And this sounds great, doesn’t it? And I understand what people mean when they say it. If God is the Creator, then he created each of us. But we have to remember that The Lord’s Prayer is given by Jesus to his disciples. The next thing I want us to think about is this: Who gets to call God “Father”?

This is why we need our passage from Galatians 4. Let’s read it again: God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” I want us to think about what this says about who calls God “Father.” Because there’s a connection here between God sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts and calling God “Father.” There’s a very similar verse in Romans 8:15 where Paul says that you [speaking of believers] received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!”

In other words, those who cry to God as Abba, Father are those who have been redeemed through Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit, referred to here as the Spirit of adoption and the Spirit of his [the Father’s] Son. Those with the privilege of having this intimate, prayerful relationship with God that enables us to cry out to him as Abba are those who have become adopted sons and daughters. And we become adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father by coming to faith in Christ. We’re not born into this family; we are brought into it.

Put simply: Praying to God as Father means we’ve been adopted as sons and daughters through our faith in Jesus the Son. It’s through having come to Christ in faith that we can address God as Father. What’s most profound about this is seeing how this completely changes our status in relationship with God. As adopted sons and daughters, we now have all the same rights and privileges as Jesus the Son. We also see how Christian prayer is thoroughly and profoundly Trinitarian. Prayer to God as our Father begins with faith in the person and work of Jesus the Son and is made possible through the indwelling presence and the power of the Spirit.

And while every human being is a child of God insofar as God has indeed created each one of us, only those who have come to faith in the person of Jesus and therefore received the Spirit can have the intimate relationship with God as Abba, a relationship characterized most deeply in our prayer.

For those of us who do have this relationship with God, this should give us encouragement and confidence and assurance in our prayers. We can be as confident that God hears our prayers as we can about our salvation in Christ; because the latter secures the former. And here’s the thing, too: all sons and daughters of God are adopted sons and daughters. None of us is more privileged than anyone else in this family. We are all equal.

However, if you do not have faith in Christ, you are not in the same position to have an intimate, trusting relationship with the very God who made you, who loves you, and who seeks to bless you. But you can. You can by asking for faith in Jesus, by asking God to transform your heart. And if somewhere deep down you want to have a relationship of profound trust and closeness with God, then I encourage you to seek him. I encourage you to open yourself up to the person of Jesus. Only through Jesus can anyone come to God as Father. Jesus himself said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

How do you feel knowing that you are (or can be) an adopted son or daughter of God the Father? What do you think keeps people from seeking to have this kind of relationship with God?

David Timms, in his book Living the Lord’s Prayer, says that in this prayer “We also encounter a prayer that does not seek to get God’s attention but to give our attention to Him.” That’s a powerful idea. And we see this in the very first line of The Lord’s Prayer. We will also see how it’s true throughout the prayer.

So: Praying to God as our Father means being able to have the same kind of intimacy with God as Jesus did. Praying as Jesus taught us is a way of remembering that we are always a part of a larger spiritual family. Praying to God as Father means we’ve been adopted as sons and daughters through our faith in Jesus the Son. How might this change the way you’ve been praying? Does this encourage you in your relationship with God? What does it mean that faith in Jesus makes it possible for someone to pray The Lord’s Prayer?

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