During His earthly ministry, Jesus never quite commanded His disciples to pray. Instead, He did something much more striking: He modeled prayer. He showed His disciples that prayer was a necessity by frequently going away to be in conversation with His Father (e.g., Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18). And in His teaching, He simply assumed that prayer would be a part of their lives: “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:2, emphasis added). After Jesus ascended to heaven, prayer became one of the foundational practices to which the early Christians devoted themselves (Acts 2:42). They recognized that prayer was and is an essential part of following Christ—because like Him, disciples depend on the Father for everything they need.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? As one continues in obedient faith and identifies with Christ in His suffering and self-giving love, it will be necessary to look to God the Father in persistent prayer.
Because Jesus’ disciples knew that prayer was indispensable, they asked Jesus on one occasion to teach them to pray. Jesus responded by teaching them a pattern to follow in prayer, and He told them a parable to remind them of prayer’s importance and of God’s goodness. As we follow Jesus today, we can be enriched by the same answer He gave them.
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:1–4)
The Lord’s Prayer, as this model prayer is known, is recorded in full in Matthew 6:9–13 and in a more condensed form here in Luke 11. It is not only a prayer worth repeating verbatim—as we see in Luke 11:2—but also a framework on which to build our own prayers, as Matthew 6:9 implies: “Pray then like this” (emphasis added).
The first word of the prayer is key to our outlook, for in it we call God “Father.” This is a unique and special privilege of Christian faith. In Romans 8:14–16, Paul expresses the wonder of our birthright as Christians: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. … You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” To many around the world, God is simply someone “up there” in heaven and of no personal interest. But to us who are followers of Jesus Christ, God is our Father. And to our Father, Jesus encourages us to address five kinds of petition: two concerned with the cause of God and three concerned with our own needs.
Petitions for the Cause of God
The first activity of prayer is not in seeking something for ourselves but in giving something to God. Prayer begins with worship as we recognize that God is the source of our needs and the purpose of our lives. All that we ask for from God has as its ultimate end the glory of God.
The first of our Godward petitions is, as Jesus puts it, “Hallowed be your name.” In other words, we are to say, “Father, may Your name be honored.” In the first-century Near Eastern culture in which Jesus taught, to speak of God’s name was to speak of His very person and character. To pray this way, then, is to offer to God our reverence and awe, to refuse to offer insult to Him, and to long that others may hold God in the same high esteem. The follower of Jesus Christ will long for God to receive the glory that He deserves.
Prayer was and is an essential part of following Christ—because like Him, disciples depend on the Father for everything that they need.
And because it is absurd to enjoy the privilege of sonship without longing that others might come to share it also, we are to pray that all might share in this vision of God’s glory. So we also pray, “Your kingdom come”—that the kingly rule of God may begin now in the hearts of the men and women of this world, and that God might hasten the day that is still to come when His kingdom arrives in its fullness and Christ reigns over all in everlasting peace. The follower of Christ longs for God’s rule because that is when peace and healing will come to the world. Like the Old Testament saints whom the author of Hebrews holds up as examples, we ought to be “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
We will often find that we don’t feel reverence for God or longing for His kingdom. But that is all the more reason to turn to God in prayer, for God alone can turn us from our love for this world to a hope in the world to come. God alone can turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). We can pray, “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come,” in the spirit of the psalmist, who found that his disposition toward God waxed and waned but chose to worship anyway:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Ps. 42:11)
Petitions for Human Need
When we have recognized that God is both our source and our end, we can and ought to turn then to petitions for human needs.
First, we pray, “Give us each our daily bread,” asking God to meet our basic physical needs. There is great comfort in recognizing that God is a Father who cares about our well-being and provides us with what we need day to day (Matt. 6:31–33). And there is great wisdom in trusting God to meet the needs of the moment rather than seeking greedily after all of our desires (Prov. 30:7–9). Moreover, we ought to recognize that this prayer is not for the petitioner alone, but it is for “us each”; in other words, we should be concerned that our neighbors would have all that they need as well.
Next, we are to pray, “Forgive us our sins.” If we have embraced Christ through faith, then we can have confidence that God has wiped away the debt of sin that we held with Him and has credited to us Christ’s own righteousness. But as we follow Christ in obedience, we will find that sin still at times ensnares and confounds us. If we truly are in Christ, we are not in danger of losing our forgiveness—and yet it is imperative that we keep short accounts with God and live before Him with a clear conscience, repenting of specific sin as we become aware of it. And crucially, we must also “forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” If we find ourselves unwilling to forgive others, then we are out of step with Christ, who has forgiven us a far greater debt. (See, e.g., Matt. 18:21–35.)
Finally, we are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” We know that God does not tempt us to sin (James 1:13)—so to pray this way does not imply that He would do so. We also know that temptations will come—so we don’t pray this way expecting to be free of temptation. Instead, we are saying, “Do not allow me, Lord, to be led into the power of temptation, where I may be caused to do evil and fall.” It is a plea that the God who called us to obedience will empower us for obedience so that we can walk in step with Christ. It is a recognition that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Prayer begins with worship as we recognize that God is the source of our needs and the purpose of our lives.
As God gives to us our daily bread, forgives us of our wrongdoing, and empowers us to do right, He meets our physical and spiritual needs so that we may walk in obedience to Him, glorifying and enjoying Him as He created us to do.
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:5–10)
After Jesus offers a pattern of prayer for His the disciples to follow, He follows it up with a lesson about persistence in prayer, telling a parable about a man making a request of his neighbor.
The setting of this parable is a culture in which families baked their bread each morning and used it during the day. It was literally their “daily bread,” and chances were that by evening, there was little left. It would be necessary to bake a fresh supply in the morning—a system that works perfectly fine until a friend on a journey comes and knocks on the door at midnight. To help His disciples understand prayer’s urgency, Jesus asks them to put themselves in the position of such a host and consider how they might seek a neighbor’s help in feeding a guest when their own pantry is empty.
It is also important to grasp that in Jesus’ time, people did not live in five-bedroom houses. A whole family was likely to share a room, and perhaps even a single bed. It was no small thing, then, to climb out of bed and answer the door. It likely would mean waking up the whole household. And this is why Jesus asks His disciples to imagine a neighbor so resistant to lending a hand.
Ultimately, in the parable, it is not the friendship between a man and his neighbor that causes the neighbor to give up and share his bread. It is the man’s “impudence.” It is his shameless persistence—his absolute unwillingness to leave until he receives what he is asking for. And so Jesus teaches that persistence in prayer is necessary if our petitions are to be answered.
It is imperative that we keep short accounts with God and live before Him with a clear conscience, repenting of specific sin as we become aware of it.
This principle of persistence is expressed in a lifestyle of faithful prayer. We ought to be careful of too literal a reading of this parable, treating God as if He were like the unwilling neighbor rather than a Father who willingly gives. Jesus teaches elsewhere that we ought not to pray like those who “heap up empty phrases” and “think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). In fact, He offers the words of the Lord’s Prayer in direct contrast to such people. Our prayers may be simple, they may be short, and they may be direct because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). Nevertheless, we ought not to stop praying today because we have asked already yesterday.
What Jesus seems to be saying is this: if we really want what we’re asking for, we will keep asking, and we will trust that God is at work accomplishing His will. Persistence in prayer is an indication of the longing of our hearts, and it is an expression of faith. As one neighbor knocks all night on the other’s door, we are to live a lifestyle of continued prayer to God. And that is reflected, too, in the commands to “ask,” “seek,” and “knock.” In Greek, each of these verbs is in the present continuous tense. Jesus is not talking about a one-off asking, a one-off seeking, or a one-off knocking followed by an immediate answer. He’s saying, “Ask, and keep on. Knock, and keep on. Seek, and keep on.” He is teaching the principle of persistence in coming to God, day by day, to seek His glory and our needs.
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11–13)
Finally, by way of a comparison, Jesus reminds us of the character of the God to whom we pray. Jesus has already taught us to think of God as our Father. Now He draws a line between the activities of earthly fathers and that of our heavenly Father, arguing from the lesser to the greater. If even earthly fathers know how to give good gifts, He says, we would be foolish to think that our heavenly Father would withhold the best from His children.
The nature of the gift is important, too: the Father “give[s] the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” In other words, He enters into their lives, forgives their sins, turns their stony hearts into hearts of flesh, and empowers them to joyful obedience. These are the very gifts that Jesus has taught His disciples to ask for in the Lord’s Prayer. They are the gifts that we need and the gifts the Father delights to give—along with many other blessings.
The God who faithfully hears our prayers is not a capricious, far-removed being. He is the Father who, more than we can ever know, looks down on us as His children and says, “I love to give you that which your soul desires.” To follow Jesus is to look to God as our Father in this way, depending on Him to meet our needs. Through faithful prayer that seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), we can set our dependence on our Father, who delights to provide for us.
This article was adapted from the sermon “‘If Anyone Would Come after Me, He Must…’ Learn to Pray” by Alistair Begg.