What does the Lord’s prayer mean?

Many Christians, especially Evangelicals, avoid using fixed forms and customs. Still, almost all Christians, even Evangelicals, pray the Lord’s Prayer regularly. It’s a standard prayer. Some pray it even daily. It’s therefore obviously important to understand what this prayer is about and how it is constructed. What can be learned about it from the Bible (NKJV)?

By Marco van Putten

The ‘Our Father’ is mentioned twice in the Bible (Mt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4). However, these two deviate from each other. The context in which they are given differs also. In Mathew 6 it is part of a long list of instructions from the Lord Jesus for His disciples, in which, from verse 5 onwards, He goes into the subject of prayer. This is remarkable since in the whole Bible there is not much prescribed about prayer. In Luke it is the Lord Jesus Who teaches this prayer when His disciples ask about it (Lk 11:1). He mentions in it that it is important to ask God what they need in their prayers, since He hears and acts on prayer (Lk 11:5-13). With this given He makes clear that the standard prayer ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is however not meant to be the only prayer. It was intended as basis so that they knew what they needed to pray themselves about. As a reference. This is in line with the instruction He gave in Matthew 7:7-12. Maybe He meant to say that the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ could be used as introduction to their own personal prayers. Later, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is understood as a holy ecclesial prayer, of which the praying of it was made a fixed part in a service. That is nonsense. From both the context in which it was given and its content the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ clearly was first of all meant as a personal prayer (Mt 6:6).

‘[Our] Father [in heaven!]’
The prayer opens by concentrating on God, the Father. In important manuscripts of Luke this standard prayer opens only with the word ‘Father’. This seems original. The word combination ‘Our Father’ is, beside it being mentioned in the NT, nowhere to be found in the Bible with the exception of the book Isaiah (63:16; 64:8). This makes the case to open standard prayers with ‘Father’ instead of ‘Our Father’ even more stronger. Also the context of Matthew supports that, since in the preceding words the Lord Jesus only addresses God as ‘Father’.

If the opening words ‘Our Father’ are however original then the individual believers expresses with it that they see themselves part of the people of God. Although it seems historically more accurate to understand that people only as the nation of Israel.
Also the words ‘in Heaven’ are not found in important manuscripts of Luke. When these are however original then the Lord Jesus emphasizes with it that something in not as it suppose to be. God doesn’t want to be in Heaven, but on ‘earth’, as becomes clear in het next segments of this prayer.

‘Hallowed be Your Name’
These words are not to be understood as expressing a hope or a wish, but these are meant as remembrance of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:7). These words articulate the desire to do God’s will in thoughts and deeds. Seemingly this is often not the case. It is remarkable that this prayer opens with these words. It marks the rest of this prayer.

God’s Name Itself cannot however be hollowed, since that Name is unknown. God made Himself known by His deeds in past and present and will do that in His promises about the future. Who God is, His Personality, Character and Will represent His Name. Prayer of believers towards God is a way of regarding Him most holy.

‘Your Kingdom come’
When God’s Kingdom had come then this would make this part of the prayer redundant. But these words point to the fact the something is not as it should be. God’s Kingdom is not on earth, thus Creation is in great disarray and therefore also the life of believers. As long as God’s Kingdom has not materialized in the physical Creation they suffer and live in a sort of exile.
Pay attention that it doesn’t say: ‘Please take us up into Heaven’. The one who prays asks God to come down to him and to change the current world order. These words implicitly denounce the current world order. It is important that the Lord Jesus teaches His disciples this prayer, since He did not bring about this Kingdom (Acts 1:6-7). Believers pray this sentence already for two millennia and still God’s Kingdom has not come.

[‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’]
This part of the prayer seems to go further into the words ‘Hallowed be Your Name’. Only now the prayer is much more specific and explicit. But then these words are also repeating something which is basically already said. Therefore it is not surprising that in important manuscripts of Luke this part of the prayer is missing. This makes it even more less likely that these words were originally part of the Lord’s Prayer. God’s will represents the totality of His commandments, rules and teachings (Gn 26:5). It is remarkable that these words claim that in heaven God’s will is done. In the sense of the prayer it means that: a. This is not a given on ‘earth’ (Jh 7:49); b. The believer wants ‘earth’ and heaven to become synchronized on this point. This confirms the words ‘Your Kingdom come’, and repeat these words also. Again, this proves that these words are less likely to have been part of the original prayer.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’
The preceding parts of the prayer were Theo-centric (putting God central). From this point onwards three parts of the prayer are about the believer which asks God to take care of His people. Matthew and Luke differ between ‘this day’ and ‘each day’. The words ‘this day’ applies the prayer directly relevant for the present day, but does limit it actually to the Morning Prayer. The words ‘each day’ in Luke makes the prayer more general and appropriate for every moment.
This part of the prayer (and the next) is not to be prayed on Sjabbat (Ex 16:29).
The word ‘bread’ must also be understood as ‘food’ in general and all other things necessary to sustain body and life.
Its remarkable, but also important, that the Lord Jesus commands believers to live on the ‘earth’. This part of the prayer implicitly rejects suicide. It emphasis endurance in (spiritual) struggles, problems and suffering.

‘And forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’
The Greek word ‘kai – and’ links this sentence with the previous. The believer thus makes God aware of other needs. The need for redemption is ‘above’ the need for bread/food. In Matthew the Greek word ‘ofeilema – guilt’ is used and in Luke the word ‘hamartia – sin’ is used. Churches often follow Matthew, but ‘guilt’ is surely interpretative. It eases the differences in the Lord’s Prayer and avoids using the confrontational word ‘sin’.

The main sentence is about the relation of the believer with God. If the believer would ask God to forgive sins, that this part of the prayer would rather mention a specific sin or guilt. But the Lord’s Prayer is meant as a general prayer. So, this part of the prayer suggests the New Covenant relationship between God and His people in which sin can’t exist. Because sin endangers that Covenant relationship. The second part of this sentence (the subordinate clause) reconfirms the first part (the main clause), since the believer does to others that what is asked of God in the main clause. Would God thus not do likewise to the believer (Mt 6:14-15)? Again, the Lukan version ‘And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us’ is better than the less clear words ‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ used in Matthew.

Also, the subordinate clause confirms the previous part of the prayer ‘Hallowed be Your Name’. The question is thus whether the Greek word ‘ofeilema’ in the subordinate clause shouldn’t be understood as ‘sin’. Why in both Matthew and Luke the word is translated as ‘debt’ can have its explanation in the fact that crimes are only sins in a religious sense. But it is however not a given that every ‘neighbor’ is a believer and has accepted the Covenant of God. Since the Lord Jesus, as Prophet, knew that most neighbors (still) weren’t member of God’s people, their crimes can only be reckoned with as ‘debts’.

‘And do not lead us into temptation [, but deliver us from the evil one]’
Again the Greek word ‘kai – and’ links this sentence with the previous one. The believer asks God not to allow that the people of God will fall into temptation. Something that is ‘above’ the importance of forgiveness of sin. It is even connected with the question of priority one gives to God (Ex 20:3).

The translation of the Greek words ‘eis-enegkis’ as ‘lead’ assumes that it is God Who leads into temptation. Therefore, some think that this means that God tests the believer, but when one succumbs to temptation then this only leads to sin of which only satan profits. That can never be what God wants. The Greek words literally mean ‘enter into’. That is something that the believer does or runs into. But this doesn’t come from God. This sentence thus makes clear that reborn believers are not free of temptations. They should, however, immediately recognize them and radically reject them. Thus is the way believers comply with the prayer ‘Hallowed be Your Name’.

The second part of this sentence is not found in important manuscripts of Luke. It is also a rather strange subordinate clause. It states that believers still have to be redeemed from satan. As if the Lord Jesus didn’t already do that! Unless, of course, the Greek word ‘poneros’ is interpreted as general, impersonal evil, like it is interpreted in many churches. But that is wrong. Not only is the concept ‘evil’ in the Bible almost always linked with the spiritual world, but in this sentence specifically the Greek words ‘hrusai himas apo – deliver/redeem us of’ precede the word ‘evil’. That can only be the case when evil has its own will and a personality. Impersonal ‘evil’ is a philosophical (rational) concept.

[‘For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen]’
This sentence is missing in important manuscripts of Luke and seems also to repeat or add to the preceding. It seems a nonsensical correction made by the church. The word ‘For’ links specifically back to the subordinate clause of the previous sentence and places it thereby outside the characteristic of the Lord’s Prayer in being a general prayer. This seems to suggest that believers in later times have struggled with it the original end of the Lord’s Prayer. Namely, the statement in the previous main sentence that believers can be seduced. This, by the way, proves that the Greek word ‘poneros’ in the previous sentence was not interpreted as impersonal evil, but as referring to satan.

That this last sentence of the Lord’s Prayer originally was never part of what the Lord Jesus thought becomes clear from its content. To state that the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom demises a previous sentence in the Prayer that asks for God’s Kingdom to come. That implied that this Kingdom has not yet become reality on ‘earth’. That it still has to come. That this Kingdom is God’s Kingdom adds nothing useful for the current reality on ‘earth’ since it hasn’t come yet.
That ‘the power and the glory forever’ are God’s is also only so in a spiritual sense and rather problematic when believers previously still have to pray to God not to end up in temptation, but need deliverance from satan. God’s eternal power is then presented as if believers again and again need to pray for it to redeem them from satan. This sentence can then be interpreted as mocking God. Then the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus is not once-and-for-all, but has to be effectuated again and again (as is the case in the tradition churches, like the Roman-catholic Eucharist).
In the Bible the Hebrew word ‘amen’ is nowhere used to end a prayer, but to confirm the preceding words or to support these. Nowadays a note of exclamation has replaced the word ‘Amen’, but in ancient times this was not used. That ‘amen’ is used at the end of this sentence seems to indicate that this sentence was added later by the church. Since ‘Amen’ is only used by the church to end prayers (liturgical meaning).