Our Father in heaven
Matthew 6:9 ESV
We fittingly place our study of the Lord’s Prayer after our study of the Apostles’ Creed. The creed provides us with the foundational information for who God is, and knowledge of God is, of course, quite necessary for us to properly pray to Him. Having established, therefore, a basic understanding of the one true God, we now begin our study of prayer by focusing again upon the God to whom we pray.
The Lord’s Prayer begins with the plural first-person possessive pronoun our, which is quite significant. Typically, we think of prayer as being an individual experience with God, and yet Jesus gives us this prayer in the collective form. The Apostles’ Creed contains a similar oddity in that it uses I, whereas we might have expected a creedal statement of the church to instead read we. Yet the pronouns used are most certainly for our benefit. In the creed, the singular I reminds us that the beliefs of the church must also be my personal beliefs as a member of Christ’s church. In the prayer, the plural our reminds me that even when I pray alone to the Father, I am not an only child.
Indeed, from this first word, Jesus is teaching us to turn our attention away from self. Because our is in the first-person, I am by no means absent from the picture, but the focus is certainly not on me. By praying our we are reminded that we stand perpetually among the vast number of Jesus’ disciples. Too often our prayers can easily become overly fixated upon our personal emotions, desires, and requests, yet these should be tempered from becoming absolutes. When I kneel before God alone and utter the word our, we should immediately be reminded that we are never truly alone.
Jesus describes the God who hears our prayers with one title: Father. Since we are building here upon our study of the Apostles’ Creed, I will not repeat the doctrinal ground that we established there but rather build upon it. To reiterate briefly, God the Father is the first person of the Triune Godhead alongside Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. Together, they form one God, not three. And yet they are three persons, not one. While the Father, Son, and Spirit are each eternally, gloriously, and wholly God, they each perform distinct roles with unique responsibilities. We confess that the Father is the Creator, the one who designed and ordained the cosmos. Still, we know that the Son and the Spirit had active roles in creation. The Son is the eternal Word by whom the Father made all things (as such He is called by Peter in Acts 3:15 “the Author of life”), and the Spirit, who hovered over the waters, enacted the Father’s decrees. In such ways, the persons of the Trinity are distinct yet unified.
Jesus teaches us here to direct our prayers to God the Father. Are we also permitted to pray to the Son and to the Spirit? Since the Son and Spirit are God, the answer is yes. While the Bible does not describe any prayers prayed directly to the Holy Spirit, Stephen in Acts 7:59 prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” upon his martyrdom, and John concludes Revelation by praying, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20)! We can certainly, therefore, pray to Jesus and the Spirit, but still, Jesus teaches us that our default should be to petition the Father.
Why is this?
First, we must understand that praying to the Father does not exclude the Son or Spirit; rather, prayer is an act of the Trinity together. As we pray to the Father, we can only do so through the mediatorial work of Jesus, our great High Priest, while the Holy Spirit both empowers us to pray and causes us to desire prayer. Prayer simply cannot be achieved without the work of the Triune God, and we must never forget that our prayer to the Father is only enabled by the Son and the Spirit.
Second, praying to the Father is the fruit of the gospel. Consider the message of good news that we believe. The Father ordained and formed a beautiful world for us to dwell in as His image-bearers. He gave us dominion over the earth and all its plants and creatures as His stewards and for our enjoyment, as we also delighted in our fellowship with Him. Yet we defied Him by sinning, rebelling against His design and commands. The created order was thus fractured, and our communion with Him was severed. But Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived by the Spirit, entered our world as the second Adam. Living a sinless life, He willingly and undeservedly absorbed sin’s curse in our place and transferred His righteousness to our account. By this forgiveness of sin and imputation of righteousness, Jesus now brings us to the Father to be adopted as sons and daughters, to have our communion with Him restored. One day, we will dwell with the Triune God for all eternity in physical and sinless fellowship with Him, but that fellowship begins here and now. Prayer, our calling upon God, is one of the primary means by which we commune with God. We certainly hear God speak in His Word and experience His love for us while gathered with His saints, but equally true is that we communicate with God through prayer. In prayer, we have the ear of the Creator, and through the gospel, we know that He is our Father, who loves us and hears when we look to Him.
There is tremendous beauty in knowing God as our Father. Regardless of our experiences with earthly fathers, God is the archetype of fatherhood. He defines and is in Himself the very meaning of being a father. And His fatherhood is defined by love toward us. We have grace in Christ, fellowship in the Spirit, and love from the Father (2 Corinthians 13:14).
Such love is often displayed through discipline, but a loving father delights in disciplining his child. Don’t misunderstand me. No father delights in the rod of discipline, yet a father should take great joy in the privilege of shaping and instructing his children. Such discipline is not punishment. As our Father, God never punishes us for our sins since Jesus took that entirely upon Himself, but He certainly does discipline us, often by allowing us to feel the weight of our sins’ consequences. Thus, even as we lament to God, we know that our deepest trials are the actions of our loving Father to instruct, shape, and discipline us for our own good.
We can also rest in the Father’s love for us by knowing that He delights to hear our cries to Him. Some of the sweetest words to find my ears are when my toddler says, “Ayúdame, Papi” (Help me, Daddy). Her call to me as her father for help reminds me that 1) I alone have the privilege of being her father and 2) that she is still confident in my desire, as her father, to help her. Likewise, when we bring our petitions before our Father, we are affirming our belief in the gospel that has made us His children and that His disposition is to help us. In other words, praying to our Father declares our belief in God the Father. Prayer is proof of our belief. Packer explains well the dire importance of this:
If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new and better than the Old, everything that is distinctly Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God. (Knowing God, 201)
The fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ to rescue us from sin and reunite us to God begins with our prayer to God as our Father. We pray to the Father in the name of Christ by the power of the Spirit, knowing that He love for us is without end and always for our good.
Our Father communicates well to us the intimacy with God purchased for us by the blood of Christ, yet Jesus adds two more words onto this opening phrase: in heaven. Our prayers must not be marked by intimacy alone but also by reverence. We know, of course, that God is omnipresent and not limited to being in one location, but we pray to our Father in heaven as a reminder and declaration of His supremacy and sovereignty. Psalm 115:3 explicitly ties God’s heavenly dwelling with His almightiness by stating, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
God is indeed our loving Father who invites us to pray to Him that we may know Him more, yet we must never confuse intimacy and irreverence. Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 warns us to “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” Jesus affirms this truth in the verses leading to the Lord’s Prayer: “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. Pray then like this… (6:7-9).
In Christ, we approach God as our Father with bold faith, yet we must never approach Him foolishly. Empty phrases, regardless of how high we heap them up, are not prayer. Yet we can so easily deceive ourselves into thinking that our prayers are a means of doing something good for God. They can quickly become a sacrifice of fools, which we pray in order to maintain God’s favor upon us. Perhaps we subtly believe that we can sway God’s mind over time through many words. Such notions are antithetical to the gospel. Truly we are commanded to pray, but we pray out of joy that our favor with God comes definitively through Jesus Christ. Likewise, we are told to persevere in prayer, but we do not do so believing that we can by some formula bend God to our will. Prayer, instead, conforms us to God’s will. Through prayer, we are molded and transformed evermore into the image of Christ. In other words, God sanctifies us through prayer.
In the Songs of Ascents, we read one psalmist declare, “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens” (Psalm 123:1)! Similarly, when Jesus prayed, He “lifted up his eyes to heaven” (John 17:1). Prayer, whether we physically look up or not, fixes our gaze upon “he who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 134:3). And our heart will follow suit.
Proverbs 4:23 commands us to guard our heart, “for from it flow the springs of life.” Verses 24-27 then describe guarding our heart as putting away crooked and devious speech, keeping our feet walking down the path of wisdom, and holding our gaze steadily before us. In other words, what we say, where we go, and what we see will bear direct impact on how we are keeping and guarding our heart. If we would “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesian 5:1), we must then fix our eyes upon our Father, walk in His path, and keep His Word upon our lips. We rightly, therefore, call prayer a spiritual discipline. It is an exercise of faith that shapes us into the likeness of Jesus. Petitions form the primary purpose of prayer, as we will see in the following six that Christ teaches to us; however, we must also not forget that we pray to be transformed. We cannot speak to and gaze upon the Holy One without also growing in holiness ourselves. Neither will the Lord’s Prayer as we pray and meditate on it leave us unchanged.
As we pray our, we remember that stand among the communion of saints. As we pray Father, we remember that we are needy and rebellious children who need the loving and disciplined presence of our Father. As we pray in heaven, we remember that we are grace-infused dust and to dust, we will return, and yet Author of life left heaven to give us life everlasting with Him.
These are life-reorienting words.
May the Spirit continuously remake us as we pray to our Father in heaven.