Let us pray.

The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) is one of the best known portions of the Sermon on the Mount. Many of us first learned it at our mothers’ knees, and prayed it every evening before we went to sleep. The Didache, a guide to early church practice, instructs believers to pray it three times a day. Faithful Catholics repeat it many times a day as a component of the Rosary.

In light of this widespread personal use of the prayer, I was surprised, when studying the prayer in its context, to realize that our Lord intends it first of all, not for private devotion, but for believers gathered together in corporate prayer. This insight warns us against two unhealthy tendencies in modern evangelical circles. One is a neglect to use the prayer at all. The other is an increasing neglect of gathering for corporate prayer.

The evidence for the corporate nature of the prayer takes three forms: the wording of the prayer itself, its relation to the broader context of Matt 6:2-18, and the internal structure of the prayer.

The first clue that this is a prayer to be prayed by groups of believers is in its pronouns. Over and over those who pray describe themselves in the plural. “Give us … our daily bread.” “Forgive us … as we forgive our debtors.” “Lead us not into temptation.” “Deliver us from evil.” There’s nothing wrong with each of us individually asking for these various facets of the Lord’s care, but the prayer that the Lord has given us encourages us to seek them together, and it’s a profitable meditation (though one that cannot detain us here) to contemplate the special implications of praying each of these as a group.

The second clue lies in the context of the prayer. Matt 6:2-18 has three main paragraphs: vv. 2-4 deal with charitable giving, vv. 5-15 with prayer, and vv. 16-18 with fasting. The first and last of these, and the first part of the prayer paragraph (vv. 5-6), have two characteristics that vv. 7-15, the Lord’s Prayer and its immediate context, do not share.

One shared characteristic is a very strong parallelism in structure. In each of these three short sections, we have an exhortation not to behave as the hypocrites do, a description of their behavior (which is always very public), the statement that they have their reward, an instruction about how we are to do the devotion in question (emphasizing that it should be “in secret”), and the promise that “thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” The Lord’s Prayer does not participate in this parallelism. The closest similarity is the contrast of our behavior with that of another group, but in vv. 7-15, this contrast is with “the heathen” rather than with “the hypocrites.”

The other shared characteristic of the three main paragraphs is the private, individual nature of the devotion. Throughout these paragraphs, the pronouns are all singular, marked in the KJV by the use of “thee” or “thou. The one exception is v. 16, “When ye fast ….” This section begins with one plural, but quickly shifts back to the singular, a transitional technique that is well documented elsewhere in Scripture [1]. In contrast with this pervasive emphasis on the privacy of our devotions in the three main paragraphs, vv. 7-15 consistently use plural pronouns, “ye” and “you.”

This second contrast reinforces the evidence from the pronouns in the Prayer itself. The overall theme of vv. 1-18 is that believers should conduct their devotional practices privately, individually, in secret. The hypocrites do them openly, seeking approval from other people, but God intends that each disciple should give, pray, and fast as a private transaction with him. Into the midst of this exhortation to individual, private devotion, the Lord inserts vv. 7-15, which insists that believers should also pray together. We might paraphrase the effect of this setting:

You must not give, pray, or fast publicly, seeking the praise of men. Instead, do these things privately, seeking only the attention of your heavenly Father. However, do not misunderstand this instruction. In the matter of prayer, you should also gather together with other disciples.

A later passage in Matthew, chapter 18, amplifies the Lord’s instruction on corporate prayer, promising special attention to the prayers of “two or three” who are “gathered together in my name” (Matt 18:19, 20). The context of the Lord’s Prayer prepares for that teaching by qualifying the Lord’s emphasis on private devotions with a specific exception and instruction for prayer. The point of vv. 5-6 remains: the Lord is not pleased with ostentatious prayer on the street corner, or even “in the synagogues.” But he very much wants his followers to gather together and come in agreement to “Our Father.”

A third clue to the corporate nature of the prayer lies in its internal structure, which turns on the linguistic distinction between statements and requests. The prayer begins with a statement, asserting that “our Father” is in heaven. It ends with another statement, declaring that “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” belong to him. In between are seven requests, three seeking God’s glory, and four addressing the needs of his followers.

At this point, readers of a translation other than the KJV may be confused that the closing statement is missing in their Bibles. In some editions, they will find it in a footnote, along a discussion of why the editors chose to omit it in the text. In my notes on Matt 6:1-18, I discuss the textual issues. The bottom line is that the majority of manuscripts (not just “some manuscripts,” as ESV misleadingly notes) contain this doxology, and there is evidence within the rest of the New Testament that it was known to, and used by, the believers in the apostolic churches. I accept it as part of the prayer as our Lord gave it.

These two framing statements make strong allusions to Old Testament passages that reinforce the corporate nature of the prayer. The claim that “our Father” is “in heaven” recalls Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8. He acknowledges that no earthly house can contain God (v. 27), but explains that he has built the temple as a focal point for his prayer, and the prayer of the nation Israel:

1Ki 8:30 hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place: and when thou hearest, forgive.

The rest of Solomon’s prayer has a very regular structure. He envisions various difficult situations in which Israel may find itself. In each case, he expects the people to come to this house, or at least to direct their attention toward it, in prayer, and in each case he asks the Lord, “hear thou in heaven” (vv. 30, 32, 34, 36, 39, 43, 45, 47). The central purpose of the temple is to stimulate prayer, and for that reason God calls it a “house of prayer” (Isa 56:7). Individual Israelites may pray anywhere, but God desires that his people come together into his temple to pray. It is a portal to his heavenly throne, a place on earth where people can corporately offer prayers that he will “hear in heaven.” When our Lord teaches us to come to “Our Father, which art in heaven,” he reminds us of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple.

The concluding statement of the prayer also recalls Israel’s temple. It is derived from David’s prayer when he commissions the building of the temple, in 1 Chr 29:11-12. That prayer includes recognition that “the power,” “the kingdom,” and “honor” (which the LXX translates δοξα “glory”) belong to God. These three divine prerogatives that form the basis of the closing doxology to the Lord’s Prayer.

It is striking that the Lord would frame the prayer he gives his disciples with these references to Israel’s temple. The early Jewish believers often meet in the temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1), but as the opposition of organized Judaism hardens, they find themselves increasingly threatened there (Acts 4, Acts 21). Our Lord anticipates this opposition in connection with the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24), and the theme of persecution is foundational to the Sermon on the Mount, in which he gives the prayer (Matt 6:10-12). The writer to the Hebrews reminds his Jewish-Christian believers that earthly sanctuaries are only “figures of the true” (Heb 9:24). They must urges them not to obscure their testimony to retain access to the temple, but to go “outside the camp” to the altar that only believers can access (13:10-13).

Against this background, the Lord teaches us to begin and end our prayer with echoes of David and Solomon. Each time we repeat these words, we are commissioning and dedicating God’s spiritual temple, his house of prayer. Paul makes this notion explicit in Eph 2:22. This temple consists of many living stones fitted together upon the Lord Jesus, the chief cornerstone. It is a corporate entity, not the domain of an isolated believer, and by marking the prayer in this way, the Lord indicates that it is for the use of the community.

It is not wrong for an individual to pray this prayer, but the wording of the prayer itself, its relation with its context, and the statements with which it is framed indicate that its primary purpose is as part of the church’s corporate ministry of prayer. This insight has two implications for modern evangelicals.

The first is that we should gather for prayer. Corporate prayer was one of the four characteristic activities of the early church (Acts 2:42), but in many modern gatherings it is relegated to a brief petition by the pastor in the Sunday morning service. Meetings specifically for prayer (such as the traditional midweek prayer gathering) have become more and more scarce. Our Lord wants us to gather for prayer—so much so that he interrupts his teaching on the privacy of our devotional activities to instruct us in praying together.

The second insight is that this prayer itself should be part of our gatherings. In Luke, when the Lord repeats his teaching of the prayer, we read, “When you pray, say …” (Luke 11:2). Yet the prayer has largely disappeared from evangelical life. Some people may fear that it may lead to a mindless liturgy, but if the Lord himself tells us to say it, his command should overrule such apprehensions. Some may hesitate over the apparent conflict between Matt 6:12, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” with Eph 4:32, “forgiv[e] one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” But there is clearly a difference between the unconditional forgiveness that brings salvation to an unbeliever, and the cleansing from accidental sin that believers need every day. The latter cleansing clearly is conditional:

1Jo 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This is a prayer for disciples, not for unbelievers, and Matt 6:12 should not cause us to hesitate any more than does 1 John 1:9.

Our Lord wants us to pray together. He promises special blessings to those who agree concerning what they ask (Matthew 18), and gives us a prayer especially designed to use together (Matt 6:9-13). Let us pray.

[1] H. V. D. Parunak. Transitional Techniques in the Bible. Journal of Biblical Literature, 102:525-548, 1983.

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