Sermon preached on Matthew 6:5-15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/22/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“For Your Father Knows”
We continue today our sermon series in the Sermon on the Mount. At this point, we turn to focus on Jesus’ teaching on how to pray. It is clear that Jesus is speaking to the visible church, to the people of God. That is clear as he distinguishes between how we should pray, versus how hypocrites and the heathen pray. And so this passage speaks directly to us now as Christians, those who are in the visible church. Here he teaches us about what a Christians’ prayer should be like. And yet a very important truth for us comes from the fact that Jesus contrasts how we should pray from those other people, the heathen and the hypocrite. What a Christian’s prayer life should be like, is different than what it actually is. Your prayer life might instead be too much like the prayer life of the hypocrite or the heathen. And so Jesus shows that Christians need to be taught how to pray. That’s what Jesus is doing in this passage. He’s giving instruction on how not to pray, and how instead we ought to pray. This becomes instruction for us then today. Let us learn from Jesus today about how to pray.
Let’s start today’s study then by considering how not to pray, according to Jesus in this passage. Jesus gives two examples here of how not to pray. It’s as we mentioned — don’t pray like the hypocrite or like the heathen. Let’s look at the example of the hypocrite first. This is verse 5. Verse 5, “When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.” The problem with the hypocrite in his prayer life, is that he did his praying to be noticed. He wanted other people to see him. He was pretending to be so holy by making his prayer a public performance. Pride is at the root of this. We can want to exalt ourselves in the prayer when we pray like this.
Now yes, we talked about this last week. We noted how some like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day really sought such attention through their prayers. But as a follow up to this, I want us to realize how easy of a temptation this is. It would be too easy to say in your mind, “Well, I don’t broadcast my prayers like this, for the sake of being noticed. I don’t stand out on street corners praying. I don’t go into church and make some public spectacle of my prayers.” In other words, it would be too easy to look down on such hypocrites and not examine ourselves for a similar tendency. The reality is that this is a very real temptation still today. Yes, the form of how it comes out may be a little different. But it can come out nonetheless. Certainly, pastors and anyone else leading in public prayers need to be particularly on guard against this sinful motivation. We know from Scripture there are times quite appropriate for public prayer, and such prayers need to find a way to address Jesus’ concern here — that even in public prayer settings, you don’t pray your prayer to exalt yourself before men. We must watch out for our pride in our public prayers.
And yet it’s still not just pastors who have this issue today. There are many a prayer meetings where it is quite appropriate for Christians in general to gather and pray together. The temptation there is that we pray our prayers in that situation, very concerned with the beauty of our prayers, but for the wrong reason. Now, I don’t think a beautiful prayer is wrong, per se. I don’t think we should approach the almighty trying to be as sloppy and as coarse with our language as possible. And yet, if your concern is to make a beautiful prayer, so that you can be seen by men, then this is the same trap of the hypocrite in our passage. In the OPC, a likely common temptation is to want to make our prayers in a group sound very theologically rich and profound. But we need to examine our hearts. Are we trying to pray like that to exalt God and his glory, or because your concerned about how your prayer sounds like to others? Or in the exact same way, do you not pray at a prayer meeting, because you are concerned about what others will think about your prayer — that it’s not theologically beautiful and profound enough? That’s the opposite action, but the same problem at the heart. It makes our prayers into a pride thing — it makes our prayers about us, instead of about God.
The other example of how not to pray given in this passage is that of the heathen. This is verse 7. The word in the Greek for heathen is the same word that can be translated as Gentile. This refers to the pagan the nations that do not follow the one true God. They have their own pagan practices of prayer, but they are not to be followed either. The practice of these pagans that he draws our attention to here, is that of “vain repetitions”. What does he mean by “vain repetitions”?
Well, you could also translate that as babblings. The idea is that you are stammering with your words, mindlessly uttering some same words over and over again. You can think of Buddhist of Hindu mantras where they repeat a word, or sound, or phrase over and over again. Or think of in the Old Testament when in 1 Kings 18, the prophets of Baal are trying to get their false god to burn up their offering with fire. The prophets of Baal called upon their god, from morning, through noon, until the evening. They even cut themselves, trying to get their false god to answer. You get a sense that they were falling into the vain repetitions category here. Elijah taunted them during the time that maybe they just needed to keep it up to get their god’s attention. And yet this is the problem with the common pagan prayer practices. They think they either need to do something to inform their god of their plight, or to do something to sufficiently placate their god, in order for him to act. But this is not what Christian prayer is about.
At the heart of this, this kind of pagan thinking puts the efficacy of prayer in the wrong place. It tries to puts the efficacy on man. It says that if man can say the right set of words, in just the right way, or enough times, then the divine will answer. But that’s not the right focus. What will make our prayers effective is ultimately God. God’s the one who is powerful to answer. And it’s God as our Father who already knows our prayers, per 8. And it’s God as our Father who lovingly desires to answer our prayers for our good. So, the efficacy of our prayers is ultimately looking to God. This doesn’t disregard the important instrument of faith — surely James 5 teaches that, for example. Nor does it disregard that there is a right and wrong way to pray — this passage teaches that for sure. But we do need to reset out mindset about our approach to prayer. It’s not the pagan mindset that thinks we need to find a way to bind or control a possibly unwilling or uninterested God. It’s about facilitating a relationship with the God who has become our heavenly Father and who knows our needs better than us, and frankly cares about our spiritual well being more than us.
So then, these are two examples of how not to pray. Not let’s consider how Jesus says we should pray. Jesus’ teaching on how we should pray is put in contrast to the example of how not to pray. His first point of how to pray then is in verse 6 — pray in secret. The point here is not to lay down a hard and fast rule that would prevent any form of public prayer. From other Scripture, that must not be the point. But the point here about praying in secret has to do with where God is. That’s what verse 6 says. It says that the Father is in the secret place. What does that mean? Well it gets at the spiritual nature of God. God is invisible. He does not have a body like men. God in everywhere. God sees all things. You don’t have to go to a specific geographical place in order for God to see or hear you. But God sees and hears your private prayers done in secret, because even in the secret places, God is there.
Related to this then, our prayers should be issued in humility. That’s the opposite to the pride that wants to pray so as to be noticed. Rather, Scripture makes the point that in our prayers, we must come in humility before God. 1 Peter 5:6 says we are to humble ourselves before God so that at the proper time he would lift us up. That’s to be our posture and attitude as we come before our father in prayer: humbled that we are in such a wonderful relationship with God. Humbled that the almighty invites us to come to him with our requests.
The second main point of Jesus here about how we should pray is found in verses 9-13. Jesus says to pray in this manner, and then he gives us what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer. What is the Lord’s Prayer then? It’s a model of what our prayer should look like. To be clear, it’s not most specifically given as a fixed form of prayer. There’s no prohibition about using it as a fixed form of prayer either, but we do have to be on guard that we don’t fall into the temptation of just mindlessly uttering the Lord’s Prayer, as it is some magic spell or something. That would then fall under the same concern about the vain repetitions that we already talked about. And so what this prayer is, is an example of prayer not only which you could pray, but especially can model what prayer looks like. There is some praise and adoration here. There is acknowledgment of sin. And there are a number of specific requests, some material, many spiritual. We can study the Lord’s Prayer for helping to inform how we craft our own prayers.
And what I also love about the Lord’s prayer is it’s given in the context of verse 8 that says our father knows our needs even before we ask them. That tells us that our prayer life is to facilitate and express that relationship. Our prayers are as a needy child to his loving father. If God knows our needs, we might wonder why we are even to pray at all. And yet this is the answer. It’s not about communicating our needs to an uninformed God. Nor is it about trying to get the attention of an unconcerned God. It’s about God providing for a way for us to live out our newfound relationship with him: that father-child relationship. This is at the heart then of how we ought to pray. This is the attitude and perspective we are to bring in. It should affect even what we say in our prayers.
As we talk right now from this passage about how to pray, I thought it would be helpful to see an example. Jesus paints the picture of some bad examples. I want to give a positive example — one that helps us to better understand what Jesus is saying and what he is not saying. The example I will give then, in terms of prayer, is our Lord himself. What does our Lord’s prayer look like then? What does his prayer look like?
In some ways we see some very specific ways in which he very literally followed his instructions here. For example, Jesus is often seen going away in solitude to pray. In other words, we see a number of places in the gospels where he prayed in secret. He also follows his model of praying to God as his Father in a number of places. He of course could express that Father-Son relationship in a way particularly unique as the Only-Begotten Son of God. And we see some of the same content of his prayer given here elsewhere. Like in the Garden of Gethsemane, he presents his prayer request, but goes on to say, “Nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” That’s very similar to the third petition of the Lord’s prayer.
And yet, there are some aspects of Jesus’ prayer life that don’t explicitly follow everything he says here. For example, we see Jesus at times praying out loud publically, for others to hear. He did bring others into his prayer life. For example, when he went to see his beloved friend Lazarus who had died, he prayed publically in front of others. That’s John 11:41. And then in the next verse he continues the prayer to God saying this, “And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” In other words, Jesus acknowledges that he didn’t need to pray out loud in public in order for his prayer to be effective, but he actually did it to be heard by the humans around him. Is he breaking his own principle here that he taught in verses 5-6? Well, of course not. Not in the least. He didn’t pray there in front of everyone as a false pride thing. He prayed there so they could be brought into his prayer life and recognize that the raising of Lazarus was an answer to that prayer. He did it so that it would result in a strengthening of their faith. In other words, the real issue about praying publically has to do with our motivations and goals, as we said last week. Jesus had exactly the right motivations and goals when he prayed there publically.
We also remember how Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Three times he went and prayed essentially the same words, according to Matthew 26. Was this a violation of his principle here about vain repetitions? Well, surely not. He was not mindlessly uttering babble with wrong motivations. We are told instead that he was carefully watching and praying as he approached what would have surely been his hour of greatest temptation — to forgo the cross. And so he spent some concentrated time in prayer working through the same subject.
A last example of Jesus’ prayer: here he teaches in the prayer to pray, “Our Father.” Though Jesus commonly prayed in a way that directed his prayer to God as his “father”, he didn’t always address God that way. For example, on the cross, he cried out publically in prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Of course this expresses a profound truth in itself. Christ on the cross bore our sin and shame and became forsaken by the Father, for us. Because our Heavenly Father knew our greatest need. That need of our salvation, so the Father forsook the Son in our place, that we would be saved.
I hope it is clear why I gave some examples here of Jesus praying in ways that seem in some ways to deviate from what he taught here. I did this to bring out a truth we’ve seen at a number of points as we’ve studied the Sermon on the Mount. That a number of times in this sermon he focuses in on a very specific thing, but we have to realize that this is not the only thing the Bible has to say on that particular subject. And so we have to understand what Jesus is getting at in his teachings. What specific thing is he actually addressing. Other passages in Scripture can help bring clarity. So, for example, his concern in verses 5 and 6 is not that public or group prayer is wrong. It’s the spirit of praying in order to receive praise by men — that’s the real issue. Or Jesus’ teaching about vain repetitions is not against any repeated thing per se, or even persistently bringing the same requests — something Jesus elsewhere advocates. But it is against a certain pagan mentality that either treats prayers like a magic spell to utter, or that you have to get the attention of an uninvolved and unaware god.
And so these examples of Jesus help us to more fully understand Jesus’ broader teachings on prayer. There is a time for solitary prayer, and there is also a time for public and or group prayer. In all times, such prayer is to be to please God, and to serve him. This is true even though our public or group prayers might have some benefit to others. And in terms of the content of our prayer. We see a great example here with the Lord’s Prayer, but it’s not the only content to use. It just begins to get us started in formulating our prayers to God. There is a great freedom in how we craft our prayers. But they are to be based on truth. And we are to see that they do not put the emphasis on us to be answered — in what we say and do — but on God and his power. Prayer is but the instrument to express our faith in God to provide. We present our requests in faith using the means of prayer. What a gift to have this privilege of prayer. This prayer then is also the instrument to express our relationship with God as our Father, who loves us, and know us, and knows our needs, and wants to be the answer to our prayers.
So then brothers and sisters — and I can call you that because we have one Father — be encouraged. Be excited. God is our Father, if you belong to Christ Jesus. When someone becomes a Christian, they are turning and putting their faith and trust in Christ. They are believing and trusting in Christ as their Lord and Savior — and we are adopted at that point into the family of God. We then by grace have at our disposal an audience with God as our Father. Think about that — we can present requests to God not simply as the creator of all things, or as the judge of the living and the dead — he is those things too! But for us particularly, the gospel has transformed our relationship to God. He is more than that for all of us. And so though we need not every time explicitly call God our father in prayer, let us always call upon him in prayer as our Father. That is how we speak to him now, in the best sense of what that means.
And so we come in Christ to our Father in prayer. In other words, it’s because Christ and what he’s done that we are brought into a Father-Son relationship with God. So we come in such prayer, in Christ, in his name, making use of the benefits we have in him. And we also come through the Holy Spirit. Because as those who are in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit now within us. The Bible says this is the Spirit of Adoption that works within our souls a cry of “Abba, Father”. The Holy Spirit makes us yearn for God in prayer as our Heavenly Father. What grace upon grace to have this kind of relationship with God. And how exciting to see how it’s facilitated in such a Trinitarian way: We pray to the Father, in the Son, and by the Holy Spirit.
And so I hope you see how Jesus encourages and empowers our prayer life. If you think about it, this passage should really help you to see how really easy prayer is. Think about some of the roadblocks you might have previously had to your prayer life. You might have been worried about what others think of your prayers. Jesus says that’s not what it’s about. You might have been worried about not having enough to say. Jesus says it’s not about your many words. You might have been concerned that your prayer is not beautiful enough, or theologically rich enough — Jesus says that it’s about coming simply as a child to his loving father. Don’t make it about you. Make it about God. Be encouraged and empowered to pray. It’s not a performance. Simply express your faith and come to your loving Father. As you grow in your relationship with God, that will be what grows your prayer life. For example, as you get to know God better in his word, then that will genuinely flow into your prayers, when your prayers are about God, and not about impressing others around you. Or when you find God’s Word exposing some sin in your life, you’ll be naturally inclined to confess it during your prayer. Let the prayer be about God and about the wonderful Father-Child relationship that you have entered into by grace. Let’s go even now to our heavenly father. Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.