encouragement theology

What did Jesus say about Prayer?

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Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount …


It was late in 1944, during World War II, that the allied troops were pushing their way back through Europe toward Germany. Their efforts were delayed by winter storms, much to the anger of the commander, General George S. Patton. In one of his famous moments, the frustrated general summoned an army chaplain and ordered him to produce a prayer for good weather.

The chaplain finally wrote the prayer and it was distributed to the troops. The weather immediately cleared and Patton gave the chaplain a medal (see here for details).

In that story, General Patton’s brashness is almost comical. But if we look at ourselves, that is often what we think about prayer. We live our lives. We bow our heads in church, and perhaps before meals. But we don’t seriously consider prayer until life stops working and we need help from a higher power.

Lots of people talk about prayer. It has become ingrained in our culture. Even in the Christian church, the very word, “prayer” brings up a host of mental images:

  • The venerable older woman praying before her bedside
  • The pastor delivering a lengthy prayer before his Sunday sermon
  • A quick prayer before a family meal
  • The classic picture of Jesus praying in the garden (see here).

Even outside of Christianity, many world religions have incorporated prayer as part of their rites. There are the Buddhist prayer wheels, the Hindu mantras, the Muslim prayer beads, and the Jewish Wailing Wall. Even the Catholic Church has candles and the rosary.

It is still common to see someone in a movie or on television attempt to pray when they are really scared. We still occasionally see a popular athlete pray on the sidelines after a game. All of these images bring together some popular thoughts about prayer:

  • It matters most that you pray, not necessarily to whom you are praying.
  • Prayer is for the weak.
  • You pray as a last resort.
  • Those who pray in public are putting on a religious show.
  • You need to say a lot of prayers before God will listen to you.
  • Don’t expect any real answer from God.

How many of these thoughts about prayer are true? What does Jesus say about prayer?

Jesus spent time during His Sermon on the Mount to teach about prayer. He has been teaching about pious activity, and showing how hypocrites use good deeds as a way to get attention from others (see here).

But then it is almost as if He interrupts Himself. In the middle of talking about hypocrites, he teaches His disciples about prayer.

In Luke’s account, we see that Jesus’ words were preceded by a request from His disciples. They saw all that Jesus had done and they wanted to know, most of all, how to talk with God:

Luke 11:1
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus’ answer shows both the wrong way and the right way to pray.


The wrong way to pray

Jesus first shows two wrong ways to pray. God will not listen to you when you are praying like the hypocrites or like the heathen:


Not to get attention from others

Matthew 6:5-6
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The hypocrites approach prayer in the same way as they approach other acts of service and other acts of worship (see here). Their goal is to get praise from others for looking spiritual.

Note that Jesus is not saying to never pray in public. Jesus prayed in public himself on many occasions and even specifically prayed for the benefit of His listeners at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:41-42). What Jesus is condemning here is when you use prayer as a show to get others to praise you. When you pray, it is to be between you and God.


Not to work your way to God’s attention

Matthew 6:7-8
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The other wrong way to pray is to use prayer as some form of magic chant. This is discussed further here, 25 but when your prayers become a meaningless mantra, you are no longer talking to God. You are only going through the religious motions, hoping that God will honor your effort.

But God never promises to honor your flurry of religious effort. 22 Pray with the knowledge that God already knows what you need.


The right way to pray

Jesus then teaches one of the most famous prayers in history. This has traditionally been known as “The Lord’s Prayer”, although it is a prayer for the disciples. Jesus could not pray this prayer since it requests forgiveness for sins.

Unfortunately, many people have taken this passage as just another prayer to be repeated. To simply chant this prayer without any thought is to leave you as guilty as the heathen, with their empty phrases.

Instead, Jesus has given this as a model for how to pray. We do not need to use the same words, but Jesus here outlines the requests that we should make before the Almighty God:


Pray for God’s Glory

Matthew 6:9
Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.

Luke 11:2a
And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.

First, we pray for God’s glory. It is always important to start prayer with a focus on God and His greatness. Too often we are guilty of only coming with our requests, as if our prayers are only to submit a wish list to God.

“We tend to be so self-centered in our prayers that when we drop on our knees before God, we think only about ourselves and our troubles and perplexities.” – Martyn Lloyd-Jones 19

God is our father. He is not some impartial being, looking down from a great distance. This prayer is based on a relationship (John 1:12). 17 He cares about each one of us and wants us to be close to Him.

God is in heaven. He knows all about us, yet He transcends our problems here on earth.

And finally, we pray that His name, His very identity, be set apart and holy. The word “hallowed”, means “regarded as holy; venerated; sacred” (see here). God loves us, but He is not the “big guy upstairs”. We are to treat Him with utmost reverence and respect.

“This is an expression of worship and adoration on the part of those in acknowledged relationship with God.” – H.A. Ironside 2

Isaiah 40:21-23
Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness


Pray for God’s kingdom

Matthew 6:10a
Your kingdom come,
Luke 11:2b
Your kingdom come.

See here for a detailed explanation about the Kingdom of God. This request has a dual purpose:

Pray for God’s spiritual kingdom. Pray that His rule would advance and grow in the spiritual world, and that it would grow among those who believe in Him.

Prayer for God’s physical kingdom. Pray for the day to soon come when Jesus returns as a king, to rule over the entire earth.

“We can pray with the desire that God establish His perfect kingdom on earth, and we can also pray that God reign right now in our lives.” – Stephen Davey 17

“When we say, ‘Thy kingdom come’, we are saying to the Lord to take control and do what you want in my life or your own glory.” – John MacArthur 8

Revelation 12:10-11
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.


Pray for God’s will

Matthew 6:10b
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

God’s will is always done in heaven.

But on earth, God allows mankind to choose good and bad, and He allows Satan to wreak havoc. Not all men follow God’s will, and He allows them to choose — often to their own destruction.

This request is that God’s will — His desires — will come to pass here on earth.

“Up there no one seeks to circumvent the will of God. Here on earth self-will has caused untold misery.” – H.A. Ironside 2

“in Heaven the will of God is always being done perfectly. And it should be the desire of every true Christian that all on earth should do the same.” – Martyn Lloyd-Jones 20

2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.


Pray for our needs


Matthew 6:11
Give us this day our daily bread,

Luke 11:3
Give us each day our daily bread,

After our praise to God, it is appropriate that we bring our needs before Him. He has already said that He will give us what we need, so this request is to claim what He has already promised to us.

There are two important points to consider: First, this prayer is not for an endless supply, but for what we need for that day. This is our “daily bread” — what we need to get through today.

Secondly, this is not to satisfy our cravings but to fill our needs (James 4:2-3). God never promises to satiate our desires, but he does promise to meet our every need.

“It is the expression of dependence upon the living Father for every day’s necessities. We never are able to be sure of the morrow except as God provides for our needs.” – H.A. Ironside 2

“The God who is self existent, the great Jehovah, the God who is not dependent upon anybody, and who is from eternity to eternity, who exists in himself apart from all – this is the astounding thing, that because we are his children he likes us to come to him, and likes to hear us.” – Martyn Lloyd-Jones 21

Proverbs 30:8-9
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

Philippians 4:19
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.


Pray for our forgiveness

Matthew 6:12
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Luke 11:4a
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

Matthew 6:14-15
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

We are to pray for forgiveness from God. 24 Our relationship with Him is broken when we disobey Him, and we are to ask Him for forgiveness so that this relationship can be restored.

Likewise, we are to show this same level of forgiveness and restoration to others who offend us. Jesus told a parable about a servant who was heavily in debt (Matthew 18:21-35). The king forgave the servant’s great debt but then the same servant would not forgive a minor debt owed to him. The point to this parable is the same here: God will only restore our relationship with him when we are forgiving others.

It is important to note that Jesus is teaching this to His disciples. God has forgiven us our debt of sin and has given us eternal life! See Romans 5:1-11 and Ephesians 2:1-10. However, we still disobey God and have our relationship with Him broken. We need to continually come to Him for forgiveness when we disobey Him.

“If we refuse to forgive our erring brethren, God will not grant us that restorative forgiveness for which we plead when conscious of sin and failure.” – H.A. Ironside 2

Ephesians 4:32
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

1 John 1:8-10
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.


Pray for our safety

Matthew 6:13
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Luke 11:4b
And lead us not into temptation.”

Finally, we are to pray for our own safety. 23 God does not tempt us (James 1:12-15), but this request is that He keeps us out of a situation where we will fall to temptation. And when we are in a situation that we cannot handle, this prayer is that he will save us.

“In this petition we are asking God to guide us so that we will not get out of His will and get involved in a situation of temptation, or even in a situation of tempting God so that He must miraculously rescue us (Matthew 4:5-7).” – Warren Wiersbe 3

See also the link here for more details about temptation.

John 17:14-15
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.


Why should we pray?

At its core, prayer is simply talking with God. It is not an act of piety, nor is it some type of religious incantation. When we know Jesus Christ, we have a relationship with the God who created the universe! We are His children!

And that is why we pray. We get to talk to God!

We don’t pray to give God new information — He already knows everything!

We don’t pray to change God’s mind — He is totally sovereign! He is completely in charge!

We don’t pray to gain extra favor with God — He already completely loves and cares for us!

So why do we pray?

We pray to be strengthened by God. Our struggles here are real, and we need strength to fight against a real enemy in this world (Ephesians 6:10-20).

We pray to get God’s perspective. Like Job, we often get so caught up with life down here on earth that we forget how high and powerful our God really is (Job 42:1-6)!

We pray to bring our needs before God. He promises to replace our anxiety with His peace when we bring our needs to Him (Philippians 4:6-7).

We pray on behalf of our brothers and sisters. We are in the struggle beside them and we pray for God’s strength for their times of need (Daniel 9:3-19, see here).

We pray because God promised that when we pray, He will be glorified (John 14:3-4), we will bear fruit (John 15:16), and our joy will be full (John 16:23-34). See also here.

We pray, knowing that we will not get it all right, but also knowing also that the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf (Romans 8:26-28).

The preacher R.A. Torrey has given 10 reasons why we should pray:

  • “Because there is a devil and prayer is the God-appointed means of resisting him”
  • “Because prayer is God’s way for us to obtain what we need from Him”
  • “Because the apostles, whom God set forth to be a pattern for us, considered prayer to be the most important business of their lives”
  • “Because prayer occupied a prominent place and played a very important part in the earthly life of our Lord”
  • “Because prayer is the most important part of the present ministry of our Lord, since He is now interceding for us”
  • “Because prayer is the means God has appointed for our receiving mercy from Him and of obtaining grace to help in time of need”
  • “Because prayer is the means of obtaining the fullness of God’s joy”
  • “Because prayer with thanksgiving is the means of obtaining freedom from anxiety and, in anxiety’s place, that peace which passes understanding”
  • “Because prayer is the means by which we are to keep watchful and be alert at Christ’s return”
  • “Because prayer is used by God to promote our spiritual growth, bring power into our work, lead others to faith in Christ, and bring all other blessings to Christ’s church”

Source, “How to Pray”, by R.A. Torrey (see also here).

“Prayer is not for us to get what we want, prayer is to put the majesty of God on display.” – John MacArthur 6

Hebrews 5:7
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.


Previous Post: What did Jesus say about Good Deeds?


Notes / References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 6:1-18, pages 106-112

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 6, The Principles of the Kingdom, Part 2

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 6:1-18, Pages 21-23

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 11:1-4, Page 172-173

[5] John MacArthur, The Purpose of Prayer, Matthew 6:5, Nov 11, 1979

[6] John MacArthur, The Paternity of Prayer, Matthew 6:9, Nov 18, 1979

[7] John MacArthur, The Priority of Prayer, Matthew 6:9, Nov 25, 1979

[8] John MacArthur, The Program of Prayer, Matthew 6:10, Dec 2, 1979

[9] John MacArthur, The Plan of Prayer, Part 1, Matthew 6:10, Dec 9, 1979

[10] John MacArthur, The Plan of Prayer, Part 2, Matthew 6:10, Dec 16, 1979

[11] John MacArthur, The Provision of Prayer, Part 1, Matthew 6:11, Jan 13, 1980

[12] John MacArthur, The Provision of Prayer, Part 2, Matthew 6:11, Feb 3, 1980

[13] John MacArthur, The Pardon of Prayer, Part 1, Matthew 6:12, 14-15, Feb 10, 1980

[14] John MacArthur, The Pardon of Prayer, Part 2, Matthew 6:12, 14-15, Feb 17, 1980

[15] John MacArthur, The Pardon of Prayer, Part 3, Matthew 6:12, 14-15, Feb 24, 1980

[16] John MacArthur, The Protection of Prayer, Matthew 6:13, Mar 9, 1980

[17] Stephen Davey, Prayer – For All the Right Reasons, Matthew 6:7-10, 6/9/1991

[18] Stephen Davey, Just Ask!, Matthew 6:11-15, 6/16/1991

[19] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Volume 2, Chapter 4, ‘When Ye Pray’,Matthew 6:9, pages 321-331

[20] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Volume 2, Chapter 5, Prayer: Adoration,Matthew 6:9-10, pages 332-340

[21] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Volume 2, Chapter 6, Prayer: Petition,Matthew 6:11-15, pages 341-350

[22] There is a contrast between persistence in prayer vs. meaningless repetitions. Matthew 6:7 condemns “empty phrases”, when you repeat prayers over and over again without any meaning. Other passages encourage praying with persistence, including Luke 11:5-13 and Luke 18:1-8.

[23] Some translations include an ending to the prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” However, this ending is not in the older manuscripts and has been considered a later addition. While it contains great words of praise, we cannot expect that it was part of Jesus’ original words.

[24] Bible scholars have noted that Matthew and Luke use different words for sins in Matthew 6:12 and Luke 11:4. Matthew uses the word for “debts” (opheilēma, ὀφείλημα) while Luke uses the word for “sins” or “trespasses” (hamartia, ἁμαρτία). Both of these words are used in the New Testament to describe sin. The Jewish perspective of sin was that it was a debt that needed to be paid and so Matthew’s Jewish focus would have likely led to using this word. 13 While scholars have long debated the difference in these two words, it is important to remember that Jesus spoke in Aramaic. Therefore, all of the gospel writers, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, translated Jesus’ words into Greek.

[25] The original word in the Greek for “Gentiles” is ethnikos (ἐθνικός), which can be translated as “the heathen”, “the Gentiles” (as opposed to the Jews), or “the people of the world”. Most translations (including ESV here) translate this as “Gentiles”. But the context shows that this must be understood as those with no knowledge of God’s word, i.e. pagans or heathen. It cannot be simply about race as there were many believing Gentiles, including Luke (the writer of the books Luke and Acts).


4 replies on “What did Jesus say about Prayer?”

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