The Jesus Revolution
Matthew 6:5-18 God-first Prayer
This is the Jesus Revolution. We are working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, considered by many to be the highest ethical teaching in the world. But I’ve been saying that Jesus is not just giving a new ethic; He is calling us to a new relationship. “Follow me,” He calls, “and I will make you into a new and different person.” That new person is described here in the Sermon on the Mount; this is the kind of person—a Kingdom of God person—that Jesus makes us as we follow Him. Follow Jesus and He will change you.
Today, we are looking at Matthew 6:5-18; it is Jesus’ revolutionary teaching on prayer. The overall theme for this section is in Matthew 6:1, where Jesus says, “Don’t do your acts of righteousness to be seen by people.” He then uses three righteous acts as examples: giving to the poor (last week), and prayer and fasting (today). Here is the passage:
Matthew 6:5-18 “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 men. I tell you the truth, 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. 12Forgive 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 men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
16“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Jesus gives two negatives followed by a positive: don’t pray like this, don’t pray like that; pray this way. Let’s take a look.
1. When you pray, do not pray to be seen by people. 6:5-6, 16-18
First, Jesus says “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.” Don’t pray to be seen by men. Don’t pray so that people will think you are pious or spiritual. Prayer is talking to God, not people. It’s to please Him, not others. The issue here, just like in giving to the needy, is the audience. Who are you trying to impress—God or people? Whose approval are you trying to win?
Every devout Jew prayed three times a day, at 9 AM, noon and 3 PM. Wherever he was, he would stop, raise his hands to heaven, bow his head and pray. It was all too common for men to plan on being in some very public place at those times—places like the synagogue or street corners—where many people would be able to see them pray, and be impressed with their exceptional piety.
Christians can be guilty of the same thing, especially professional Christians like me.
ILL: When I was a senior in high school, I entered a preaching contest sponsored by our denomination. I made it through the preliminary stages of the competition, to the finals, which were held at a large banquet. I genuinely wanted my message to make a difference in people’s lives, not just be a speech in a contest, and I had privately prayed for that several times. So when my turn to speak finally arrived that night at the finals, I began by praying publicly, and asked the Lord to speak to us. When I got the judges’ evaluation sheets, one of them had written in large letters at the top: “Was the prayer for us or for God…I wonder.” That’s all he wrote; not an accusation, just a
question. But it shook me, and made me wonder. Why had I prayed? Was I trying to impress the audience or the judges? I think I was praying to God, but sometimes I don’t understand my own motives.
I’ve never forgotten that experience, and I’ve tried to make sure when I pray in public that I’m authentically talking to God, not just trying to impress people!
ILL: When I was in Bible college, a class called “Public Worship” was required for graduation. It was supposed to teach us how to lead church services; I’m afraid what it taught us was how to be stiff, formal, inauthentic and ineffective! One of our assignments was to write a pastoral prayer that would be read to God before the congregation. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing down a prayer; I sometimes do it during my devotions; it helps me think through what I really want to say to the Lord. So writing the prayer didn’t bother me. But getting graded on it did bother me, especially when I got a “C”! Imagine genuinely pouring your heart out to God and having someone grade it, and tell you that it was just OK, average, a “C” prayer! Of course, what my professor was grading was how my prayer would sound to people, not to God; but I didn’t write it for people, I wrote it for God! Aren’t you glad that God doesn’t grade our prayers based on how eloquent they are!
It is not just pastors who are guilty of praying for the wrong audience. Have you ever been afraid to pray out loud with others, not because of what God would think of your prayer, but because of what others would think? We’re all afraid of getting a C, or a D, or an F. “Wow, that was a really dumb prayer.”
ILL: How many of you sing the national anthem at sporting events? Why? We’re afraid someone will hear us, look at us, laugh at us.
ILL: When I was in high school, I invited my cousin to come to church and youth group with me. At youth group, we stood in a circle, held hands and prayed. As we went around the circle, each person prayed a very similar prayer: “Lord we thank you for this day, and blah, blah, blah.” My cousin was very nervous, but when it was his turn, he tried to pray. “Lord, you thank us for this day.” You could hear nervous laughter. He quickly shut down, embarrassed that he messed up his prayer.
How many of you can relate to that? Our fear of what others will think keeps us from praying, or singing the national anthem.
Jesus says, “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.”
Is Jesus prohibiting public prayer? I don’t think that Jesus so. Jesus prayed in public and with others, and such prayer is encouraged in other passages, such as Matthew 18. What Jesus is prohibiting is praying for the wrong audience; praying to impress people rather than God; being more concerned about how your words sound to people than how your heart looks to God. There is great power in praying together with other Christians, provided you are all talking with God, and not just making little speeches for each other. So this doesn’t prohibit group prayer, and I would encourage you to learn how to pray with others.
Husbands and wives: pray together.
Parents: pray with your kids.
Friends: include God in your conversations!
Life Groups: I hope you pray together regularly.
Praying together is powerful! Prayer is a conversation with God. When we pray together, we include God in our conversation. This week, as Laina and I were in the car together talking about different situations, we would simply include God in the conversation. We would pray about those situations, very naturally, just like God was in the car with us—because He was! When you pray with someone, all you have to remember is that you’re talking with God, not making a speech for your friends. Don’t do it to be seen by people.
Of course, prayer is not only done with others, but alone with God. Jesus tells us to go into our room alone and talk with God. Do you do that? Do you take some time each day when you get alone with God and talk honestly with Him? Do you regularly go into your room, close the door, and shut yourself in alone with God? When you get home, why not take a look at your schedule and make time each day to get alone with God and talk honestly with Him; it may be the most important and productive time you’ll spend all week!
One more thing: in verses 16-18, Jesus talks about fasting and says the same thing: don’t be like the hypocrites, who when they fast, disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. But when you fast, wash your face, comb your hair, put on your aftershave and a smile so that it won’t be obvious to people that you are fasting, but God, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
A few words about fasting: just like prayer, Jesus assumes we will fast: “when you pray…when you fast.” Fasting is voluntary abstinence from food in order to humble your self before God and to seek Him earnestly. I think fasting is a form of prayer; we abstain from food so we can pray. We use the time we would have been eating to pray, to seek God. Fasting is also a way to humble yourself before God—a few days without food reminds you how weak and small you really are.
In the Bible, people fasted for as little as part of one day (a meal or two), and as long as 40 days (don’t try this without help—you need to know what you’re doing!). I hate fasting! I love to eat! I would much rather feast than fast! I hate fasting, but I love the benefits of fasting, so I do it when I feel like I need to, or when God is calling me. If you have never fasted, I encourage you to study what the Bible says about it and give it a try; you’ll be surprised by some of the wonderful benefits of this widely neglected discipline.
So first, Jesus says when you pray, when you fast, don’t do it to be seen by people. Don’t do it for people’s applause; do it for God. Then Jesus goes on to give some revolutionary teaching about prayer.
2. When you pray, do not try to talk God into something. 6:7-8
Next, Jesus says “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, (piling up meaningless words and phrases); for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The hypocrites pray to be seen by men. The pagans pray to wrestle a favor from a reluctant God. They imagine God to be reluctant, tight-fisted with His blessings; so they plan on overwhelming him with words, wearing him out with verbiage. “If we just keep talking, He’ll give in eventually.” Does this sound familiar to anyone?
ILL: How many of you parents have seen this same mentality in your children? They ask you for something, and when you say “no” or “I’ll think about it”, they keep pestering you, hoping that you’ll eventually cave in. You’ll get so tired of them bugging you that you give in just to get them off your back!
That is how many people see God: as a reluctant deity who needs to be persuaded to part with some of His blessings.
But Jesus says that God knows what we need before we ask. He is not ignorant that He needs to be instructed, nor is He reluctant that He needs to be persuaded. He is a Father who loves us, knows our needs and wants to meet them. Someone said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance; it is laying hold of his willingness.” God knows, God cares, God is willing. Let those truths shape the way you pray!
Some people think that Jesus is forbidding any repetition in prayer. Ask just once, never more. I don’t think that’s the point. Jesus repeated Himself in the garden of Gethsemane where it says He said the same things over at least three times. It is not wrong to pray the same thing more than once; in fact, Jesus encouraged it! In Matthew 7, he says, “Keep on asking, keep on looking, keep on knocking.” In Luke 18, He tells the story of a poor widow who was persistent with a judge until she received justice. Jesus told the story “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” By the way, Jesus was contrasting that judge with God; the judge was reluctant and had to be pestered; God is not reluctant; Jesus said, “He will see that we get justice and quickly…He won’t keep putting us off.” I pray the same things over and over not to persuade God, but to discover His will so I can align with it, and to experience His peace.
Praying the same things is not forbidden here, but meaningless repetition is. The perfunctory repetition of a memorized prayer, such as grace over meals, or a mindless repetition of the Lord’s Prayer may qualify as meaningless repetition. Chanting some phrase over and over, in the hope that God may hear us, may qualify as meaningless repetition.
Don’t babble; don’t pile up meaningless phrases; don’t multiply words in an attempt to wear God down. Don’t try to talk God into something. Remember: God knows, God cares, and God is willing to help you.
3. This is how you should pray: the Lord’s Prayer as …
Don’t pray like the hypocrites or pagans. So how should we pray? Jesus gives us an example: “This is how you should pray”, and He gives us what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” as a model. It is a model in three ways.
A. A prayer to say. First, it is a prayer to say. This is the most prayed prayer in the world. It is almost universally familiar.
ILL: Two men were arguing, and one challenged the other, “I’ll bet you 5 bucks you don’t know the Lord’s Prayer.”
“Sure I do,” said the second man. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
The first man handed him 5 bucks: “I didn’t think you knew it.”
In Luke 11:2, Jesus introduces this prayer by saying, “When you pray, say…”. This is a prayer you can say. As I mentioned before, it is possible for it to become meaningless repetition, and Jesus certainly never intended it to be that. But there are many times when this simple prayer can be repeated very meaningfully.
How do children learn how to talk? By hearing the same words over and over, they finally learn what they mean and how to say them. That’s how I learned to pray.
ILL: When I was a brand new Christian, no one told me what to do; I figured it out by watching the Christians around me.
I knew Christians went to church, so I did that.
I saw Christians reading their Bibles, so I did that. I started in Genesis, and quickly got lost in the “begats” in chapter 5: Adam begat Seth, Seth begat Enosh, Enosh begat Kenan, and so on, and on, and on. I didn’t even know what a begat was or why so many people had one! When I got derailed by the genealogy, a friend suggested that I start in the New Testament instead of the Old. So I began in Matthew, the first book in the NT, and guess how it starts! Begats! “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob…I thought, “Wow, begatting is pretty important stuff!”…which is probably why I have 5 kids now! But once I got past the begats, I discovered that Matthew was the story of Jesus, which was just what I needed to know. I always encourage those who are new to this whole Christian thing to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; they will help you get to know Jesus better, which is the main thing.
I also knew that Christians prayed, so I tried praying. It was hard! I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I couldn’t pray 5 minutes; I couldn’t pray 1 minute. I listened to the leaders of our church when they prayed in church, and tried to imitate them; but they were so eloquent and flowery that I stumbled all over myself and sounded pretty stupid. But I found this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, here in Matthew 6, and it became the prayer I prayed. For the first few weeks of my Christian life, these were the words that I repeated each night on my knees by my bed. And slowly, I began to learn how to talk with God.
I still regularly return to the familiar words and cadence of this prayer; it is a prayer that Jesus gave to be prayed. This is a prayer you can say.
B. An example of prayer. But it is also an example of prayer. It shows us how to pray. Jesus says, “This is how you should pray.” Here are 3 important lessons about prayer that I learned from praying the Lord’s Prayer.
1. Prayer is simple. This is a prayer that a child can pray. It is profound but not complex. The sentences are short, the ideas are simple and clear and straightforward. Prayer is so simple that a child can do it. We often make it so complex that most adults find it intimidating. Why is prayer simple?
Prayer is simply a child talking to its Father. I hear it at home all the time. I haven’t had to spend hours teaching my kids how to talk to me; it is simple. They tell me what they want in very simple straightforward language.
ILL: For example, when the kids were young, one of them might ask us, “Can we go to pizza for dinner?” Pretty simple. He didn’t say “Oh great and glorious father and mother, you who brought me into the world and feed and clothe me, you who work all week to place the bread on our table, delicious bread I might add, O magnificent mother; I beseech you, might it be possible that you could take us to pizza tonight; not that I’m ungrateful for what you cook, masterful mother; but I long to play on the video games there, which would make me exceedingly happy…please, please, please!” How did they ask? “Can we go to pizza?”
When Michael was only 3, Laina and I were dropping him off at the babysitter while we went on our weekly lunch date. As he got in the car, he had a request: “Why don’t Dad and I go to the babysitter together, and Mom, you can go shop.” Makes sense! He had no problem coming up with this crazy request all on his own. I didn’t have to give him any lessons to do that!
That’s all prayer is: just a child talking to its Father. It’s simple. If you find it difficult and intimidating, you’ve made it something other than what Christ teaches here in the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is simple. Childlike.
2. Prayer is short. Second, prayer is short. One of the outstanding features of the Lord’s Prayer is its brevity. You can say the whole thing, speaking very deliberately, in less than 25 seconds! In contrast to the endless multiplying of words, Jesus says, “Pray this way…” and gives us a 25 second prayer! I’m not saying that it is wrong to pray a lengthy prayer, just that it is not required. Too many people secretly suspect that longer prayers are more effective with God. But such thinking comes from the mistaken notion of God as a reluctant regent, rather than as a generous and loving Father. To take an hour to say what could be said in 5 minutes is closer to paganism than to Christian faith. And it must bore God to tears!
ILL: One of the most effective prayers in the Bible is recorded in Matthew 14, which tells the story of Jesus walking on the water. Peter wanted to join him, and when Jesus invited him to, Peter slipped over the edge of the boat and to his amazement, began walking on the water. Wow! Imagine walking away from the boat on top of the water towards Jesus! But the wind was blowing and waves were splashing in Peter’s face, and suddenly he noticed how dangerous this was; he looked around at the waves and started to sink. That is when he prayed…it was one of those long prayers you’ve heard in church that went on and on. No way! Peter would have drowned before he finished that prayer. His whole prayer was “Lord, save me!” That’s about all he had time for! And what did Jesus do? He rebuked Peter of course: “Peter, that is not a proper prayer. Show a little class, dude!” No, it says “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” Peter’s short prayer worked just fine!
God doesn’t need to be convinced.
I pray lots of arrow prayers; short requests, often one sentence, that I shoot up to the Lord in the middle of whatever I’m doing. Often they’re like Peter’s prayer: “Help me, Lord”. Prayer doesn’t have to be long to be effective. Prayer is simple, short, and…
3. Prayer is natural. Third, prayer is natural. Jesus’ prayer has the rhythms of normal speech. So often, we have a special prayer vocabulary and a special prayer voice with special prayer inflections. We talk normally with each other, but our voice and vocabulary changes when we talk with God.
I certainly don’t care if you want to pray with King James English, and I don’t think that God cares if you do either. But the point is, you don’t have to! Jesus didn’t. And He didn’t teach His disciples to either. He taught them to talk to God naturally, just like you would talk to your father or your friend.
Millions of people are uncomfortable with prayer because they think they need to use a special language full of thees and thous and other suitably spiritual words, and they need to use a special holy tone of voice, something that sounds appropriately respectful and spiritual. Please dump those notions, for they don’t come from Jesus. His model prayer is simple, short and natural. Be yourself. Use your own vocabulary. Talk to God as you would anyone else whom you love and respect.
ILL: Once, I caught myself in the middle of a prayer sounding very spiritual and holy. I felt like the Lord was laughing, and was asking, “Yoohoo! Who are you trying to impress? Me? I know who you really are! No need to try to impress me.” I laughed out loud, and apologized to the Lord for my lack of authenticity!
Be yourself. You can’t fool God! Prayer is natural.
The Lord’s Prayer is an example of prayer, and shows us that prayer is simple, short and natural.
C. A pattern for prayer. Finally, the Lord’s prayer is a pattern for prayer: it tells us what to pray. The Lord’s Prayer can be used as an outline for prayer.
Prayer begins with worship: “our Father”. Then it focuses on God’s concerns. Notice that the first three requests all have to do with God: “your name, your kingdom, your will.” Prayer isn’t primarily placing orders at the heavenly catalog counter; it is getting marching orders from our king. It isn’t primarily telling God what we want, but finding out what He wants. It is God first, not me first. This kind of prayer seeks what God wants before we present what we want.
After we worship and put God first, then the next three requests have to do with our needs: physical (give us our daily bread), spiritual (forgive our sins), and moral (lead us not into temptation). All of life, all of our needs are represented in these requests, and teach us that all of life can be brought to God and laid before Him for His help. There is nothing too small for His love or too large for His power.
Try praying the Lord’s Prayer one phrase at a time. Take each phrase, think about it, apply it to your life, and pray it to the Lord. It will be one of the best prayer times you’ll ever have!
We’re going to pray. Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer together, and then I want you to pick out one idea or one phrase and pray about that.
Let’s continue praying: if you could ask God for only one thing what would it be? Ask Him for that.
We’re going to finish by praying together in groups of 2-4. We’re going to ask, “How can I pray for you?” You might want to share that one thing you just asked God for. Then pray for each other: keep it short, simple and natural. No holy language, no holy voices; just be yourself and include God in the conversation. When you’re done, you’re dismissed.