The last time we studied Matthew’s gospel together we reached that part of the Sermon on the Mount where the Lord was warning us not to do our acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them. An act of righteousness is any good deed which we perform as part of our service to God. And the Lord referred to three activities in particular to illustrate what he meant. He referred to giving to the needy; prayer; and fasting.
According to the Lord Jesus, hypocrites do these good things. So, they give to the needy. They pray. They fast. They do these good things. However, they do them for the wrong reason. Instead of doing these good things because they love the Lord and want to serve him, they do these good things because they love themselves and they want other people to admire them. They do these acts of righteousness for themselves. However, the Lord’s people must not be like the hypocrites. When we give, and when we pray and when we fast, we must not draw attention to ourselves and we mustn’t do these things because we want to be seen by others. We must do these good things out of a desire to serve our Heavenly Father and to do his will. And our Heavenly Father will see it and will reward us appropriately.
We skipped over verses 7 to 15 the last time, because, while they are about prayer, they don’t quite follow the same pattern as the other verses in the passage. And so, we skipped over them last time, but I said we’d come back to them today.
Verses 7 and 8
And so, in verse 7, the Lord tells us that when we pray, we mustn’t keep on babbling like the pagans. Notice once again that the Lord takes it for granted that his people will pray. So, when he referring to giving to the needy, he took it for granted that his people will give. And when he referring to fasting — which I explained last time is about humbling ourselves before the Lord to confess our sins and to seek his help — he took it for granted that his people will fast. And he also takes it for granted that his people will be a praying people, bringing their needs to their loving Heavenly Father. However, when we pray, we mustn’t babble like the pagans.
What does babbling like the pagans mean? The Lord goes on to explain that they think they will be heard because of their many words. So babbling like the pagans means praying long prayers. And it means saying the same thing over and over again. It means heaping up empty phrases, as the ESV puts it. One of the commentators says that pagan prayers were long and flowery, because the pagans believed that they needed to flatter the gods with many compliments in order to persuade them to hear and answer their prayers. So, they believed the gods were reluctant to answer their prayers; and they had to butter up the gods with lots of praise. Or perhaps they just needed to wear the gods down by using a lot of words.
In the Bible we have the example of the prophets of Baal in that contest with Elijah on Mount Carmel. Remember? The prophets of Baal were to call on Baal to send down fire on the altar. We’re told that they prayed from morning to noon. And we’re told that they shouted and they danced. Then they shouted louder and they cut themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, we’re told. And they continued in prayer until it was time for the evening sacrifice. So, they prayed from morning to evening. And, of course, Baal did not answer, because Baal was not real. And then, Elijah stepped forward and prayed a very simple and short prayer. And the Lord sent fire upon the altar which Elijah had prepared.
So, don’t be like the pagans, the Lord Jesus said. Don’t babble like the pagans with their long prayers and their empty phrases which they repeat over and over again in their effort to persuade the gods to hear them. Don’t be like them, he said, because your Father knows what you need before you ask him. The Lord Jesus refers to God as our Father. And since he’s our Father, who loves us, then he’s not reluctant to hear and answer us when we pray. When we come to him in prayer, we’re not coming to a distant god, who is indifferent to us. And we’re not coming to a judge, who is ready to condemn us. We’re coming to our Heavenly Father who invites us to come to him and to cast our cares upon him because he cares for us.
And our Father knows what we need before we ask him. Do you remember when we studied the attributes of God and we learned that God is omniscient? God knows all things perfectly and unchangeably and he doesn’t rely on us or anyone else for what he knows. So, he doesn’t need us to tell him something he doesn’t already know. And that means he knows all about you and your needs and your concerns and your worries. He knows what you need. And so, it’s not as if we need to use a lot of words to explain to him what we need. Or you know what it’s like when you order some food at a take-away or restaurant? And when the order comes, it’s wrong. You weren’t clear enough; or the person who took the order wasn’t paying enough attention. Well, there’s no chance of a miscommunication when we pray, because God knows exactly what we need even before we speak. And since he’s our loving Heavenly Father, he’s not reluctant to give us what we need. So, don’t babble like the pagans, because your Father knows what you need.
That’s not to say it’s wrong to pray for a long time or to repeat our prayers. After all, in Luke 6 we read of a time when the Lord prayed all night. And in Luke 18 he told a parable to show that we should pray and not give up. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord repeated the same brief prayer three times, asking God to take the cup of suffering from him. So, he prayed long prayers and he repeated the same prayers. That means it’s not wrong to pray long prayers or to pray the same thing over and over. What’s wrong is when we pray like this because we believe God is reluctant to hear and answer us and we need to wear him down by using lots of words; or we need to win him over by using lots of flattery. We’re not to try to wear God down. We’re not to try to flatter him. We’re to come to him as little children coming to their father to ask him for his help. And do you remember how Paul puts it in Romans 8? ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’
Verses 9 to 13
So, don’t babble like the pagans. How then should we pray? The Lord tells us in the following verses by giving us a model prayer which consists of an address to God, followed by three your-petitions, followed by three us-petitions. So, it’s addressed to our Father in heaven. And then there are the three your-petitions: hallowed be your name; your kingdom come; your will be done. Then, there are the three us-petitions: give us today our daily bread; forgive us our debts; lead us not into temptation.
Let’s consider these three parts briefly. Prayer is addressed to our Father in heaven. The word ‘our’ implies that, not only should we pray by ourselves, but we should pray together. And so, we pray together on Sundays when we gather together for worship and the minister leads the congregation in prayer. And we pray together on Wednesdays at this congregational prayer meeting. Believers are to pray together.
And God is our Father, because through faith in Christ we’ve been adopted into his family. God the Father has become our father and we have become his children. And therefore, he loves us and is willing to hear and answer our prayers. But since our Father is in heaven, we must remember to approach him with reverence. Just as children should honour their earthly parents, so we should we honour our Heavenly Father who rules and reigns in heaven over all.
When we pray for his name to be hallowed, we’re asking that he will enable us and all others to give him the honour he deserves. We’re asking him to enable people everywhere to know him and to acknowledge him as the one true and living God and to worship him and him alone.
When we pray for his kingdom to come, we’re asking that he will extend his kingdom throughout the world through the reading and preaching of his word; and that more and more men and women and children will be brought into it through faith in Christ; and that his kingdom will continue to grow until Christ the King comes again to overthrow his enemies once and for all and to bring his people into the new heavens and earth.
When we pray for his will to be done, we’re asking him to enable us and all others to know and to obey his revealed will more and more and to submit to his secret will more and more. When I say ‘his revealed will’, I’m referring to his laws which he has revealed to us in his word and which we’re to obey. When I say ‘his secret will’, I’m referring to his plans for us which he has not revealed and which we cannot know until they happen. We need his help to become more obedient. And we need his help to submit to his will for us, especially when his will for us includes trials; and we need his help to remember that nothing happens by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
So, the first three requests are to do with God and his glory. May his name be honoured. May his kingdom come. May his will be done. We’re to put God first in our prayers. But our God — who is concerned for the honour of his name, and for the advancement of his kingdom,. and for his will to be done — is also concerned about us. And so, in the Lord’s model prayer, he teaches us to ask our Heavenly Father for what we need. When he refers to our daily bread, he’s referring to whatever we need each day, including food and clothes and shelter and everything else. When he refers to our debts, he’s referring to what we owe to God. What do we owe to God? We owe him our full obedience. But since we haven’t obeyed him fully, then we are in debt to him and we need his forgiveness. And we need his protection every day, because Satan, the Evil One, comes at us with his wicked schemes to try to lead us away from the narrow path leading to life. This is what we need: daily food; daily forgiveness; daily protection. And we’re encouraged to turn to our Heavenly Father and to ask him for what we need.
Verses 14 and 15
That’s the model prayer. And the Lord adds a note at the end that if we forgive others when they sin against us, then our Heavenly Father will forgive us. But if we do not forgive others when they sin against us, then our Heavenly Father will not forgive us.
Now, the Lord is not referring here to our justification. That is, he’s not referring to that act of God’s free grace by which he pardons all our sins and we receive a new status before God as those who are no longer under condemnation but who are declared to be righteous in his sight. That’s an act of God’s grace which happens the moment we believe in Christ.
The Lord is not referring to that. He’s referring to the daily forgiveness which believers need from our Heavenly Father whenever we disobey him. Just as disobedient children need to ask their parents for forgiveness when they do wrong, so God’s disobedient people need to ask him for forgiveness when we do wrong. If we don’t, our loving Heavenly Father may have to discipline us for our good, just as our parents, who loved us, had to discipline us for our good.
And one of the things our Heavenly Father wants his children to do is for us to forgive those who sin against us. So, when someone who has offended us comes to us, confessing what they have done and asking for forgiveness, God’s people should give it. That’s God’s will for us. And to encourage us, he promises to forgive us whenever we do wrong.
It seems to me that this saying about forgiveness in verses 14 and 15 is the equivalent of what the Lord said in verses 4 and 6 and 18 where he said that God will reward those who give in secret and who pray in secret and who fast in secret. It’s not that they can ever earn a reward from God, because God does not owe us anything. But in order to encourage our obedience, he promises to reward us for it. And none of us can ever earn God’s forgiveness; and he doesn’t owe it to us. But in order to encourage us to forgive others, he promises to forgive us.
So, he’s not referring to our justification: that moment when we first trusted in Christ and when God pardoned all our sins forever and and accepted us and we were set free from condemnation forever. Instead he’s referring to how his believing children should behave and how God wants us to forgive one another. And to encourage us to forgive, he promises to forgive us.
And that means the church and the Christian home should be the most forgiving places in the world. While we go on living on the earth, we’ll offend one another, because we’re sinners. But because we love the Lord and want to do his will, we’ll always be ready to pardon those who sin against us.