The Church’s Prayer

Posted On March 20, 2017

The sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel records a historic moment in the story of Christian worship and devotion. It is here that Jesus gives His disciples the prayer that has come to be known as the “Lord’s Prayer.” Despite our familiarity with this title, it is a bit of a misnomer. The text is clear: our Lord gives this prayer to His people. It is the Lord’s Prayer because it is His to give, and that is precisely what He does. He gave it to His disciples then during His earthly ministry, and He gives it to His disciples now through His written Word. To put it another way, the Lord’s Prayer is the church’s prayer.

Tertullian Recognizing this, Christians throughout the ages have loved and revered the Lord’s Prayer, making it a hallmark of Christian worship in the church and in the home. The Didache, an early manual on Christian practice written within a few decades of Matthew’s Gospel, indicates that many early believers prayed this prayer three times a day. Tertullian, the early North African church father who gave us the word “Trinity” and first described the distinct parts of the Christian Scriptures as Old and New Testaments, suggested that whenever we pray we ought to say the Lord’s Prayer first “as the foundation of further desires,” to be followed by our own petitions in our own words. These early Christian leaders set an example for the church of intentional, regular, and meaningful use of the prayer Jesus taught His disciples to pray.

The witness of the church in history teaches us not only to use the Lord’s Prayer but also why it is so important. The great Italian theologian of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, called the Lord’s Prayer “the most perfect of prayers.” He said that by it Christ taught us what to desire in prayer and the right order in which to frame our desires: first, we ought to desire the glory of God’s name; second, the fulfillment of His will; third and finally, the meeting of our own daily physical and spiritual needs.

Nearly a thousand years earlier, another North African theologian, Augustine, wrote to Proba, a believing Roman noblewoman, that all the prayers of the Bible, notably the Psalms, are “comprised and summed up in the Lord’s Prayer.” Closer to our own time, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, agreed that the Lord’s Prayer “contains all we can reasonably or innocently pray for.” And in the last century, German pastor-scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it as the “essence” of biblical prayer. The Lord’s Prayer captures in summary all that the Christian individual and community ought to keep in prayer.

Tertullian may have put it best when in the early third century he said that the Lord’s Prayer matters because it “is truly the summary of the whole gospel.” This prayer—given by Christ, directed to the Father, and revealed to us by the Spirit—reminds us of the good news of what God has done and is doing “on earth as it is in heaven.” The work of Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection secures the benefits of this prayer for His people. We can pray for the glorification of God’s name, the success of His will, and the fulfillment of our needs—and have faith that they will be accomplished—only because of the gospel.

The kingdom of God was inaugurated in the first coming of Christ. While we wait for its final consummation in the glorious day of Christ’s return, we pray. And Christ has given His church a prayer for living in between—whether we use it as a pattern for our own prayers or allow its very words to shape our hearts’ deepest desires.

Eric Brandt is instructor of church history at Reformation Bible College.