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The Life of Jesus - Series 4: Episode 12

The principles & practice of prayer

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 6:5-15

Prayer is a private communication with God as Father. Jesus gives the Lord's Prayer as a template - not a formula. God will reward these prayers.

Prayer is a private communication with God as Father. Jesus gives the Lord's Prayer as a template - not a formula. God will reward these prayers.


Hello and welcome to Episode 12 in Series 4, our series on the Sermon on the Mount. We're going to look today at 'the principles and practice of prayer' and we're going to look in Matthew 6: 5 to 15, which we'll read in a few moments.

Introduction and Recap

If you've been following the series, you'll be aware of the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has established himself in his public ministry in Galilee; he's gathered disciples; he's appointed the 12 Apostles on the same occasion - just before delivering the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in Matthew chapters 5 to 7 and also in Luke 6, so we do make reference to Luke 6, from time to time during the course of Series 4 and it's got some unique material that I've spoken of in different contexts. 

Matthew 5 had three essential components. First of all, talking about the right attitudes of disciples, which we call the Beatitudes. Then Jesus explained how he was going to reinterpret and fulfil the Law of Moses. There were six sections in Matthew 5, where he did just that, taking a text from the Old Testament, and also some other ethical sayings of the Jews, and he reinterpreted all these and applied them to Christian discipleship. Jesus profoundly believed that to follow him was a complete change of lifestyle. Everything changes when you follow Christ - your sexual ethics, your personal relationships, how you deal with your emotions, how you deal with your words, how you deal with people who oppose you, and major transformations take place within us. That's what's really being described in chapter 5.

In the last episode, we moved on from that because the first half of chapter 6, deals with three different topics that are very closely linked to each other. The first one is about giving to the poor and the needy, the second one we're dealing with today is about prayer, and the third one is about fasting. The reason that these three are closely linked together is that they are three major religious practices carried out by the Jews of Jesus' day, and largely carried out in public. This is very significant. One of the themes that we'll notice through these three sections, is the distinction between things that happen in public and things that happen in private. For the most part giving, prayer and fasting are private activities of the Christian disciple and spiritual disciplines for us.

We're going to talk about prayer. We know that prayer is a tremendously important subject for Christians. It occurs as a topic of Jesus' teaching on quite a number of occasions throughout the Gospels. We'll see the topic coming up again, and in this particular section, Jesus is going to introduce to us what we've come to know as the Lord's Prayer. That also comes up again because he reiterates this teaching to his disciples on a separate and later occasion, as recorded in Luke 11, where you see some similar teaching. The Lord's Prayer becomes a central part of this explanation of the principles and practices of personal prayer. We'll start by reading this passage all the way through. Matthew chapter 6: 5 - 15,

5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. But I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9“This, then, is how you should pray:“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us today our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ 14For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sin’.

Matthew 6:5-15, NIV
Jewish Public Prayer

I've had the privilege of visiting the land of Israel and the surrounding territories and countries, on a number of occasions. If you go today to the city of Jerusalem, you'll find two major Islamic mosques in the centre of the old city of Jerusalem on a raised part of ground in an area known as the Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temple used to be before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. - a topic we'll discuss later on. Next to that Temple Mount, and that compound with Islamic worship going on regularly, there is an extended wall on the side which is known as the Wailing Wall.

This is a place of Jewish prayer and worship. It's a place where the stones go back in time - hundreds and hundreds of years - and some are reputed to be part of the Temple construction. At the Wailing Wall, Jews gather to pray - Orthodox Jews, religious Jews - often dressed in their traditional dark religious clothing and often they will pray, carrying scrolls with a wooden pole and a scroll in which the Jewish scriptures are written. You might be familiar with the sight and you'll see this elsewhere where there are Jewish communities but notably you see this at the Wailing Wall. The Wailing Wall is primarily a place of prayer. Men and women are in separate areas and people pray out loud publicly, often very emotionally - with joy and singing, with lamentation and tears. Many prayers are posted on little bits of paper between the stones in the wall. This is public prayer - a modern Jewish style. It captures some of the elements that existed in the time of Jesus. The fact that prayer took place in public on the streets, in the synagogues, and in the Temple. The intensity, and the activity of praying were often judged as being honourable to that person. In other words you gained status, by your role in public prayer. This is what Jesus refers to when he talks about standing in the synagogues, the street corners, to be seen by others. Jesus is addressing this context where much prayer took place in public and the motivation seemed very often to be to gain the reputation of other people, who honoured you in a very religious society.

Jesus' Principles of Privacy and Faith

Jesus identifies two basic principles of prayer for his own disciples. The first one is that prayer is primarily a private activity. It's very noticeable that he says, ‘When you pray’ in verse 6, ‘go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen.’ So ‘go into your room and close the door’ is incredibly important. This is the complete opposite of the religious display of praying in public, which was commonplace in those days, and which is represented in the scenario that I described at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem today. Prayer is private primarily. Yes, there are times to pray together publicly - in church meetings, or in prayer meetings - nothing wrong with that. Jesus is addressing here primarily the individual, and the individual needs to pray privately.

A second principle is that prayer is also based on faith. It's based on asking God in a simple way, rather than speaking loudly and with many words, thinking that the volume, or the number of words, is going to make a difference as to whether God answers you. We see in verse 7, ‘Do not keep babbling like pagans for they think they'll be heard because of their many words.’ Jesus is contrasting the Jews who like public prayer, and pagans - people who follow the Roman and the Greek religions particularly - who had prayer which was full of long words and sentences and long prayers, in order to gain the attention of the gods. Jesus said, ‘You don't need to do that with your heavenly Father. You've got his attention already. What he wants is your focused attention, private prayer, and faith - trusting him, that he's actually listening and is actually interested in what you're going to say.’

The Lord's Prayer

The foundation for prayer here, is our relationship with our heavenly Father. You notice here that God is described as ‘Father’ a number of times in this passage. The Lord's Prayer starts with calling out to God as, ‘Our Father in heaven’. Jesus mentions the word Father 14 times in the Sermon on the Mount. This was a difficult concept for the Jews. They saw God as Father of their nation, in a general sense, but Christians see God as our Father, in a spiritual personal sense. We've been born into his family; we've been adopted as his children and so we can legitimately call out to God and pray ‘Our Father’.

That brings us now to the Lord's Prayer. I grew up with the Lord's Prayer. I was taught it by my parents as a child and we prayed it together at my bedside for a number of years. But it only really came alive to me when I was born again - filled with the Holy Spirit - and then I realised that this wonderful prayer was such a rich foundation for my prayer life. To this very day, I use the Lord's Prayer almost every single day in my personal devotions. I have a room in my home where I can go in and close the door, just like Jesus said in the earlier verses. I can sit down in my chair. I can get my Bible out and almost every day when I pray, one of the things I do is I go through the Lord's prayer slowly - phrase by phrase - thinking about what it means, praying some applications of each of these points. It is the basic framework for my prayer life, and it has been for decades in my life. I commend it to you.

You may well know this prayer extremely well, if you're experienced in Christian denominational worship or if you know the Bible, but let's look at it afresh as a resource for prayer for you as an individual, in your private prayers. 

We start with the statement, the calling on God ‘Our Father in heaven’ exulted in glory. It's great to think of God in heaven as the first thought as we come to pray. Here we are on earth but when we pray we are looking up to heaven and we see God the Father is in heaven. That means he is in power, he's in glory and he has the ability to intervene in our lives.

We pray, ‘Hallowed be your name.’ What does this expression mean? ‘Hallowed’ means to be considered holy, or honoured. But if we pray, ‘Hallowed be your name’ it's also a prayer about ourselves. It's almost like saying make me holy, make me someone who honours and respects you. It's also a bit like praying, 'make people believe' because God is honoured and respected when people believe in him. We want the name of God and his reputation to be enhanced through our lives and through our mission. ‘Hallowed be your name', our Father in heaven, let your name be holy, or honoured, or respected. Hallowed be your name - what a wonderful way to start praying. We're looking up to the heavens, we're seeing God there, and we're saying we want him glorified; we want him glorified in our lives, we want him glorified through other people, we want him glorified in the Church, we want him glorified in the world.

Then come two tremendously important prayers: ‘Your kingdom come’ is the first one. Notice here that we don't start praying about ourselves and our needs. That I've found to be a real key to a productive prayer life. We can always come to God with needs and sometimes we have to bring our needs to him as a matter of urgency but in general terms it's far better when praying to focus on him, and his purposes first, then our needs come a little later on, as we shall see. So we pray ‘Your kingdom come.’ Then we pray ‘Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ The first prayer ‘Your kingdom come’ is about what God does now and the second prayer ‘Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ is looking forward into the future, when so much of God's Kingdom is fulfilled on earth, through Jesus coming again, that earth and heaven are both equally obeying God.

Let's start with ‘Your kingdom come now,’ that means more people receiving Christ, as saviour and Lord; that means more signs of the Kingdom - more nations reached, more churches planted, more care for the poor, more demonstrated miraculous power in the Church. These are the sort of things that are implied when we pray ‘your kingdom come’. We can, of course, apply that to our family, to our community, to our local church. We can apply it to our whole country that we live in. We can apply it to the whole world. We cry out to God, ‘Your kingdom come’. That focuses us as followers of him; we're aligning ourselves in that prayer to say, I want to be an agent of the Kingdom; I want to contribute to your Kingdom coming by being obedient to the things that you call me to do. I believe personally that Word Online - a vision that's been given to me to fulfil - is my personal response to this prayer and God's command to me. I pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ and one of the ways God's Kingdom comes is through people knowing Jesus, knowing the Word, knowing about his life, and following him as his disciples.

‘Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ We know from Jesus' later teaching, for example Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13, from the teaching of Paul, and the teaching of the book of Revelation in particular, that Jesus is coming again. There's a Second Coming and we know that that Second Coming is going to be in power and glory, and will bring in the fullness of God's Kingdom. We're establishing his Kingdom now. We've got groups of people all over the world, churches following him but many, many millions of people not in the Kingdom. moving in the opposite direction. When Christ comes in the Second Coming, then his Kingdom becomes the dominant reality on the earth and we receive the answer to prayer, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ It won't happen until the day that Jesus comes again but we're preparing for that day, by everything we do in the intervening years. These are some pretty amazing prayers, aren't they?

We haven't said anything in our prayers about ourselves yet and about our needs. As I said a few moments ago, I think that's healthy, that's good; that aligns us in the right direction. I've found it incredibly healthy when I've got loads and loads of needs and problems, to come to God and to pray first: ‘Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ That makes me a worshipper; that makes me a disciple - to think about those things, and to keep a focus on. Then we can pray with confidence, having prayed for his Kingdom, we can pray, ‘Give us today our daily bread’. I think that's wonderful. God knows that we need money; we need food; we need water; we need clothing; we need the basic provisions of life; we need housing; and all these things are implied in this essential statement which is about food, about provision. ‘Give us today our daily bread’ The wonderful thing about God is that although he calls us to lay down our lives for him, to change, to be very self-controlled in all sorts of ways, that we've discussed in Matthew 5, and many ways that we'll discuss, as we carry along in future series. Even though all these things are true, we know that he loves us and he wants to provide our essential needs. If you come to this video, or you're listening to this perhaps on an audio, and you have fundamental material needs, can I encourage you to have real faith, to pray with me ‘Give us today our daily bread.’ Take that away, pray it with more earnestness and more faith, and you'll see God moving in your life to meet those needs.

Then there's another very important area of prayer that comes next, ‘and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ The ‘debts’ referred to here are primarily sins. Forgive us our sins. We have been fundamentally forgiven of sins at the time of coming to Christ. Everything beforehand forgiven, atonement price paid by Jesus on the cross. That is a fundamental truth of Christianity. But day by day, we do and say and think things that are against the will of God. They are sins. Every day as we come and pray, there will be things that we've done or said or thought that are wrong and we ask God's forgiveness. We want to turn away from them. We don't want to let them get a grip in our lives by leaving them there unchallenged and unchanged. Prayer cleanses away those sins that are threatening us because we repent of them, we identify them.

It also says here ‘as we have forgiven our debtors’. The implication is, we also have a responsibility as we're seeking God's forgiveness, to forgive other people who have done things wrong against us. That is a real experience of so many of us, so much of the time. It is a daily priority to forgive other people. It's a discipline of true discipleship and it's something to be done as quickly as possible. Verses 14 and 15 underline the significance of this.

‘For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’

Matthew 6:14-15, NIV

In other words it creates a spiritual blockage within us, if there is unforgiveness in us. It reduces the quality of our relationship with our heavenly Father and it makes it more problematical to ask him to answer our prayers specifically. This is not describing the basis of salvation. This is describing the day-to-day cleansing of sin that we need to commit ourselves to.

Finally, ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one’ . Here we have identified the satanic forces of darkness that exist, and are discussed and mentioned by Jesus on numerous occasions in the Gospels. Real spiritual forces, a real satanic overlord who came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, as recorded earlier on in Matthew  4, that we see just before the Sermon on the Mount. He tempted Jesus on other occasions. We acknowledge in our prayers, the reality of demonic forces and a spiritual battle that we are involved with. As we seek his Kingdom first, as we seek his forgiveness for our sins, as we seek provision from him through receiving our daily bread, as we forgive other people, then we are putting ourselves in a strong position to resist temptation and to overcome any challenges that may come from satanic forces which are against us. We should not fear them. We should respect that reality but draw on the power of the living God to overcome the threat of evil spiritual forces. There's more to be said on that topic later on, in other episodes and other series.


Some final reflections as we come to the end of this episode. This is incredibly important teaching. Maybe you're very familiar with it but I really do encourage you to go over this again. If this is new to you, because you're new to the Christian faith, I hope this is a revelation to you - our prayer is not a formality, it's not just a ritual; our prayer is part of a living relationship with our heavenly Father. It's simple to pray. Most prayers should be done privately, not seeking any human credit from anyone. We just pray to seek our Father in heaven. We need faith. We're encouraged to use the framework of the Lord's Prayer and I'm encouraging you, if you've not done this before, or you haven't done it for some time, use the Lord's Prayer as a framework for your prayer life. Take each phrase at a time, pray one phrase and stop, and reflect, and think about the implications, maybe adding a few other prayers on that theme. Then move to the next and then the next, and go through the Lord's Prayer quietly and steadily in your prayer life, and you will receive magnificent blessing from God as you do that.

Prayer is a discipline - to go into a room and shut the door means you have to choose a time and place to separate yourself from everything else that is going on around you. That's a discipline. Maybe that's something that you need to pick up more strongly in your life. Make sure that you're forgiving those who sinned against you. There will be people like that. It's a real issue. It's painful. Sometimes it's desperately painful. God gives us strength to forgive and as we forgive, we receive his blessing and our prayer life and our relationship with our heavenly Father is greatly strengthened. I hope you'll join me again, as we look at the question of fasting in our next episode. Thanks for being with us today.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How can unforgiveness stop God’s blessing?
  • Discipleship
    1. Using the suggestions made here, pray through each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How did the Jews pray at the time of Jesus? If prayer should be private, what about praying in public?
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