Day 35: What Jesus did and didn’t say about prayer

Matthew 6:1-18 (AD 28)

Here are five things Jesus was NOT saying in these verses:

  1. Jesus was NOT saying, when he recommended praying in private, that praying together as a local church is unnecessary. Jesus was addressing his disciples – a selection of believers, not a local church. In fact pretty much the first thing we see the early church doing, was praying (Acts 1:14, 2:42, 12:5). There’s much more to be said, another day, about the massive importance of prayer in church life, but suffice it to say Jesus isn’t diminishing that here…
  2. Jesus was NOT teaching the importance of reciting the Lord’s Prayer in church. For some people it’s almost, ‘well we’d better do it sometimes because I’m sure Jesus wanted THAT at least’ and we’d be letting him down if we didn’t. Personally I think we’d be daft not to do it sometimes because it reminds us of some of our highest priorities, but it’s not a law.
  3. Jesus was NOT providing an exhaustive list of what we should be praying for. Some say the plain meaning of the text is precisely that, but the New Testament is full of different prayers with different emphases (including from Jesus himself); i.e. it’s a guide, not a prescription.
  4. Verse 7 does NOT teach that all our prayers need only be one-liners. Prayer is part of a relationship and involves telling God what’s on our heart, begging him for the souls of our friends and family and confessing our sins. That takes time. You and I are scarcely capable of the kind of “babbling” Jesus was referring to, which could go on for literally hours.
  5. Jesus was NOT teaching that the Lord’s Prayer contains all we need to pray about, and there are examples of numerous other things being prayed for in both Testaments. Luke tells us that the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, and this was his response – it seems to particularly address the question of the way they should pray for themselves.

…and then here are five things Jesus WAS saying, that we might easily miss:

  1. Yes, God really does reward good behaviour. Not like we might give our dog a treat if they sit down when they’re told to, but there are relational rewards for our relational investments.
  2. Jesus is assuming that before we ask God for anything, that we have ALREADY forgiven those who have wronged us (v.12)
  3. We are to pray for things that we already know are going to happen (e.g. God’s will to be done, v.9)
  4. Fasting is an ordinary, expected part of Christian life (“when”, not ‘if’, v.16). God’s not prescriptive here as he is in the Old Testament but Jesus encourages temporary abstention from food as Paul encourages temporary abstention from sex: in order to make time for prayer.
  5. Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father, not to him or to the Holy Spirit. The Father is the decision-maker as Jesus repeatedly pointed out (e.g. some of his prayers are requests, at least one of which was denied; and “I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken” – John 12:49). For example, when we pray for a lost relative we are praying that God will commission Holy Spirit to convict that person of their sin and cause them to repent, because that’s Holy Spirit’s job at the discretion of the Father (ref John 16:7-11). [Personally, I don’t think we need to be dogmatic about this, e.g. I wouldn’t jump into someone asking Jesus to so something and say, “Hey no! That’s not his call!”, and I know some people feel like they’re addressing the whole Trinity when we pray. But this is how Jesus said to do it so it seems best, to me, if we do it this way.]

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