Matthew 6:5-15: The Practice of Prayer
Topic: Default Passage: Matthew 6:5–15
Matthew 6:5-15: The Practice of Prayer
This morning’s message will be based on Matthew 6:5-15. It says,
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, we know it’s your will that we be conformed to the image of your Son, Jesus. And we also know that the way that happens is by your Spirit and through your Word. So, please, Holy Spirit, take this passage and use it to accomplish your purposes within each one of us. Lead us to Christ and conform us to his image. And it’s in his name that we pray, amen.
This morning, we again find ourselves in Matthew chapter 6 for a third and final message on prayer as we begin this New Year. Two weeks ago, we learned about “The Power of Prayer.” Then, last week, we learned about “The Posture of Prayer.” And now, this week, we’ll be focusing on “The Practice of Prayer.” So, having first laid a biblical foundation for prayer and learned about the mentality we should have in prayer, we’re now ready to dive into some of the nuts and bolts of how to actually pray.
Because you could be thoroughly convinced that prayer is essential for the Christian life and have an overwhelming desire to pray, but all of that probably won’t get you very far unless you have at least a basic understanding of how to actually engage in prayer. Kind of like performing an oil change. You know, I might be convinced that changing the oil in my car is absolutely essential. I might also go out and purchase all the best oil-changing tools and dutifully set aside a generous amount of time to perform an oil change. But unless I know how to actually go about changing the oil and the specific steps I need to take in order to drain the old oil out and put in the correct amount of new oil, all of my convictions and excitement about oil changes aren’t going to do me much good. And it’s the same way with prayer. So, this morning, we’re going to be working our way through what’s commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus actually spells out how to engage in prayer.
But first, let’s look at the context. Before Jesus explains how to pray, he tells us how not to pray. In Matthew 6:5-6, he says, 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Now, we know that Jesus isn’t prohibiting all public prayer since there are several occasions recorded in the New Testament when Jesus himself prayed publicly. Rather, Jesus is warning his disciples about praying in order to be seen by others. You see, there were people back in ancient times—such as the Pharisees—who loved to pray these eloquent prayers out loud in the middle of crowded areas so that everyone would take notice of how spiritual they were. So, in case you thought virtue signaling is a recent phenomenon, it’s not. There was plenty of virtue signaling going on in the streets of Jerusalem during the first century. And Jesus is saying, “Don’t do that. Don’t pray in order to impress other people.”
He then continues in verses 7-8: 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Last week, we learned how the term “Gentiles” in the Bible usually refers to anyone who’s not a Jew. But, in this context, the term simply refers to those who are far from God and don’t have a biblical view of God and are essentially pagan in their spiritual orientation. And, as Jesus alludes to here, prayer in the pagan world was often characterized by mindless repetition and various magical incantations in which saying the right words and saying them as much as possible was what really mattered. It was all very mechanical rather than something that was from the heart. It was more about “saying prayers” than about truly praying.
Yet, Jesus tells us not to do that. Instead, we should pray from the heart. It’s not about how many words we say or, for that matter, how eloquently we’re able to say them. Instead, it’s about the heart. Neither volume nor eloquence mean anything if what we’re saying doesn’t come from our heart.
Then, after that issuing these warnings, Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer to illustrate the manner in which they should pray and the kinds of things they should focus on in their prayers. That’s the main idea of this larger passage. Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer to illustrate the manner in which they should pray and the kinds of things they should focus on in their prayers.
And when I say “the manner in which they should pray,” I’m mainly talking about the remarkable simplicity of this model prayer. In contrast to the lofty eloquence that would often mark the prayers of those who were praying to be seen, Jesus gives his disciples a prayer that’s notable, in part, for its simplicity. And that should be an encouragement for us. God isn’t looking for fancy religious language in our prayers. He just wants us to be real with him and to genuinely express what’s on our hearts and make our needs known to him even if we only employ the simplest of terms.
Yet, the main thing I believe we can glean from this model prayer is an understanding of the kinds of things we should focus on in our prayers. After an initial address to God, Jesus gives a total of six petitions. The first three are explicitly for God—focusing on his name, his Kingdom, and his will—while the final three are for us—asking for provision, forgiveness, and deliverance.
So, the prayer begins in the first part of verse 9 with an address to God: “Our Father in heaven.” Since we talked about this idea of God as Father extensively last week, I’m not going to elaborate on it very much today. If you didn’t catch the sermon last week, you can listen to it on our website. But I do think it’s worth emphasizing just how revolutionary this is. God isn’t some distant deity who’s far removed from our struggles and is too busy running the universe to care about our needs. No, he’s a Father who loves us more than we can ever imagine and delights in showing us his goodness and showering us with his blessings. Of course, we weren’t always able to approach God as Father. We had to be adopted into his family in and through Jesus. But now that we who are Christians have experienced that adoption, we can approach God as the tender and loving Father that he is.
Yet, even as we do that, let’s remember that “our Father” is also “in heaven,” Jesus says. And, as we observed last week, those twin truths have a wonderful way of balancing each other out. Whereas viewing God as “our Father” conveys the warm intimacy and love and care he has for us, understanding that he’s “in heaven” reminds us that he’s also the all-powerful Lord of the universe. He’s not some teddy bear who has a big heart but no power to actually do anything. No, he’s the one who sovereignly rules over all things from the throne of heaven—and yet, amazingly, is also lovingly attentive to our prayers. So, that’s how we should approach God—as our Father…in heaven.
Then, in the second part of verse 9, we find the first petition: “hallowed be your name.” Not only is this the first request of the prayer, it’s also the foundational request. It’s this desire for God’s name to be hallowed that serves as the driving force behind all subsequent requests. This is the very heartbeat of the entire prayer. For God’s name to be “hallowed” simply means that it’s “revered” or “exalted.” It’s a prayer for God to receive the glory he deserves.
And, actually, this is the ultimate reason why we even have prayer in the first place. As Jesus says in John 14:13, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” So, as we pray “hallowed be your name,” we’re aligning ourselves with God and adopting his purposes as our own. And, of course, it’s the Holy Spirit’s work within our hearts that causes us to long for this and to adopt this not only as the driving force behind our prayers but as the driving force behind our lives.
Then, the next petition we find in this model prayer is “Your kingdom come.” And, in order to understand this petition, we first have to understand that God’s “kingdom” is a major theme of the Gospel of Matthew and refers to the sovereign rule of God and the establishment of a realm in which everything is in accord with God’s desires. So, it’s not a place. Like, I can’t give you directions to the Kingdom of God. Rather, it’s a new reality, a new dynamic, that’s entering this world as God progressively restores everything to the way he originally intended it to be.
And there are two things you have to know about the Kingdom. In one sense, the Kingdom’s already here, but in another sense, it’s still to come in the future. This is what we call the “already, but not yet” aspect of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is “already,” but it’s also “not yet.” It’s kind of like when someone starts being a parent. I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child but I didn’t really feel like a parent yet. Now, in reality, I was legitimately a parent. There was a human being in existence that I helped conceive. But…I hadn’t met the child, I couldn’t play with the child, the child wasn’t costing me money yet. I remember during Father’s Day, when the pastor of the church we were members of gave an opportunity for all the fathers to stand up and receive applause during the worship service, I wasn’t sure whether to stand or not—because I was a father, but I hadn’t yet taken on any of the responsibilities of fatherhood that would make me deserving of honor. Also, we hadn’t yet announced the pregnancy, so I didn’t stand. That would have been a pretty cool way to announce it though, now that I think about it. So, I felt like I was in this weird period of time when my fatherhood was “already,” but there was also a sense in which it was “not yet.”
And that’s similar to the way it is with God’s Kingdom. There’s a sense in which God’s Kingdom was inaugurated, or started, during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Yet, we’re also still waiting for the final consummation or fullness of the Kingdom when Jesus comes again. When that happens, we won’t just have a foretaste of the Kingdom; we’ll have the whole thing.
So, back in our passage, when Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, “Your Kingdom come,” there are at least two distinct aspects of that. First, this is a prayer for God’s glorious rule to be strengthened and extended in this present world in a very visible way. More than anything, that involves the advance of the gospel so that more and more people put their trust in Jesus and embrace him as the Lord and King of their lives. So let me just ask those of you who are Christians, do you long for that? Is the desire for more people to embrace Jesus a cornerstone emphasis of your prayer life? Does it have a unique place in your prayers?
I really can’t think of anything that would be more important for you to pray for than specific individuals in your life who don’t yet know Jesus. A Christian consistently neglecting to pray for people to come to faith is kind of like a military general not making any effort during wartime to actually take ground from the enemy. If you’ll allow me to speak frankly, what the heck are you doing in your prayers if you’re not consistently praying for people to be saved? Then, in addition to that, “Your kingdom come” is also a request for Jesus to return soon in order to establish his Kingdom in its fullness.
And that naturally leads us to the third petition of this model prayer in the second part of verse 10: “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” There’s a lot of overlap between this petition and the one we just talked about. In many ways, God’s Kingdom is the expression and manifestation of his will. Yet, the will of God can be more broadly understood as anything and everything God desires, especially as seen in the Bible. It includes everything from reconciled relationships to our own spiritual growth to spiritual renewal in the church to justice in society…and everything in between. Everything you could possibly think of that would be pleasing to God is included in this prayer of “your will be done.”
This prayer also expresses surrender to God’s will even if we sometimes don’t understand it. It’s essentially saying, “God I want certain things, and I’m here praying for certain things, but at the end of the day, I surrender to whatever your will might be.” “Your will be done.”
Then, moving on to verse 11, we cross over from petitions relating primarily to God to petitions related primarily to us. Jesus instructs us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And that’s really a request not just for bread itself but for any and every need that we have, no matter how ordinary or mundane it might seem to be. We shouldn’t hesitate to pray for whatever practical things are necessary for us to live reasonably happy and healthy lives of service to God. So, when you hear your car making a funny noise, go ahead and pray that it wouldn’t be anything major. When you apply for a job, pray that God would help you to get that job. Remember that your Father loves you and therefore that nothing is too mundane for you to ask of him in prayer.
We then find a fifth petition in verse 12: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus is speaking here not of our literal financial debts but rather of our sins. The Bible’s clear that our sins separate us from God and keep him from hearing our prayers. As Isaiah says to the people of Judah in Isaiah 59:2, “[Y]our iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” So, in order to pray as God intends and have any expectation of him hearing our prayers, we desperately need his forgiveness. And that forgiveness is only possible through Jesus.
Jesus existed as God, yet he became a man so that he could rescue us from our sins. And the way he did that was by dying on the cross in our place. To borrow the financial terminology of verse 12, we owed an enormous debt to God’s justice because of our sins—a debt that was infinitely beyond our ability to repay. But, in his love, Jesus paid that debt on our behalf as he died on that cross. As the saying goes, Jesus paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay. Jesus then victoriously resurrected from the dead so that we also can share in his victory over sin and death. Yet, the Bible teaches that in order for us to experience that victory and receive the forgiveness Jesus offers, we have to put our trust in him and him alone as our all-sufficient Savior.
Then, after we do that and become Christians, we still need to ask God to “forgive us our debts,” as Jesus instructs us to pray, not because we need forgiveness in the same way a non-Christian needs forgiveness. Rather, the sense in which we need forgiveness is similar to the way children need to be forgiven when they’ve sinned against their parents. When one of my children sins against me, they don’t stop being my child, but the fellowship between us is broken. Similarly, when we sin against God as Christians, we haven’t stopped being his children or lost our salvation, but the personal fellowship between us and God has been broken and needs to be restored. And that’s the sense in which we pray, “forgive us our debts.” We’re not asking God to save us all over again but simply to restore the close fellowship between us and him that’s been hindered by our sin.
Then, the final petition of this model prayer is found in verse 13: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Now, we know from James 1:13 that God doesn’t directly tempt anyone in the sense of seeking to entice them to sin. So, the prayer we find here in Matthew 6 is best understood as a request for God to keep us from circumstances that will prove to be a temptation for us. And that prayer is coupled with a prayer for God to “deliver us from evil”—or “from the evil one,” depending on how you translate that. The point is that we need God’s protection.
So, those are some of the key things that we should focus on in our prayers. These six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are designed to draw our attention to six of the most critical things for us to pray for.
However, I’d also like to briefly share with you a couple of helpful methods for organizing your prayers. I think it’s possible to use the Lord’s Prayer itself as a template for organizing our prayers, but there are also two other well-known methods that many Christians have found helpful.
One of them is known as the ACTS Method—“A,” “C”, “T”, “S”—which is an acronym for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Basically, adoration is giving God praise and honor for who he is—marveling at his holiness and goodness and grace. Confession is owning up to the sin in our life and purposing in our heart to turn away from that sin. Thanksgiving is verbalizing our gratitude to God for what he’s done for us and given us. And, finally, supplication is asking God to do things and laying our needs and the needs of those around us at his feet.
And, in case you haven’t noticed, that’s the way I begin just about every Worship Gathering here at Redeeming Grace. In my prayer to begin the service, I employ the ACTS Method. And that’s no accident. My hope is that, as you hear me pray according to that method week after week, you’ll be equipped to pray in that way on your own and find yourself doing that in your own personal times with God. It’s kind of sneaky, I guess. I kind of feel like a parent sneaking in a bunch of vegetables into a dinner casserole or something.
Also, not only do I employ the ACTS Method at the beginning of the service, those of you who attend here regularly have probably noticed that I employ another method toward the end of the service—a method that’s designed to help us pray in response to specific passages of the Bible. And that method consists of rejoicing, repenting, and requesting. First, we rejoice in whatever the passage reveals to us about who God is and the ways in which he’s been so good to us. We then repent of whatever sins the passage brings to our minds—whatever ways we fall short of what God wants us to be. Then, finally, we request God’s help in living according to whatever we’ve read in that passage. Rejoice, repent, request.
So, let me encourage you, now that you have these tools, to set aside time every day for focused prayer. Figure out a good time and place to do it—preferably the same time and place every day—and just make it a habit.
And I’ll just share with you briefly what I try to do each day because I think there are a few ways in which my own routine can be instructive. As some of you know, I wake up kind of early at 3:30am every day, even on weekends. I then go downstairs, open up the fridge, grab my carton of iced coffee, and take a few swigs. Since I’m the only one in the house who drinks the iced coffee, I drink it right out of the carton…like a man. I then try to get out the door for a morning run by around 3:45. Then, after running a few miles, which is very refreshing in the winter time, I come back inside and take a few more swigs of the iced coffee.
By then, it’s usually around 4:30, and I do some personal Bible study and memorization, which I can describe another time. Then, after studying and memorizing Scripture for about 30 minutes, I do stretches recommended by my chiropractor for around 15 minutes until it’s around 5:15. Then, I take a few more swigs of the iced coffee and proceed to pray usually from around 5:15 to around 6:00. So, usually about 45 minutes. Once or twice a week, that prayer time might go long, and I might find myself praying for an hour or an hour and a half, but usually around 45 minutes. And I’m almost always walking around as I pray. I hardly ever pray sitting down.
And one key feature I want you to notice about that routine is all the things I do physically to wake myself up so I can be as alert as possible when I pray. Like many of you, probably, I often have a hard time not getting drowsy while I’m praying, especially in the morning. So, I engage in physical exercise and extensive stretching before I pray, I drink coffee, and I pace while I pray. All of those things are designed to help me be mentally alert while I’m praying.
Also, notice that I study and memorize the Bible first and then pray second. That’s because I find it very helpful to have all of those biblical truths rattling around in my mind as I engage in prayer. It’s kind of like the difference between a cold start and a warm start to prayer. Immersing myself in the Bible gets me spiritually warmed up to pray and often gives me direction in my prayers, especially if I’m praying according to the method of rejoicing, repenting, and requesting.
In addition, I’ve found that this whole routine also helps reduce distractions. Between the mental alertness and doing the Bible study first and also just praying early in the day before my mind is filled all of the concerns that the day will inevitably bring, I end up being less distracted that I’d otherwise be. Yet, make no mistake: I still struggle with being distracted. It’s incredible how many things will suddenly pop into your mind when you’re trying to pray. The only solution I know of for this, other than the general routine I’ve already described, is to simply follow the advice of the Puritans and “pray until you pray.” That’s what the Puritans often advised people to do. “Pray until you pray.”
You know, I’ve found that, I’ll often pray for as long as 20 or even 30 minutes before I really feel like I’m praying. For the first 20 or 30 minutes of my prayer times, I’m usually spending just as much energy battling distracting thoughts as I am engaging in actual prayer. During that period of time, I usually feel like I’m having to hack my way through some sort of dense jungle as I engage in prayer. Every step is a challenge. And sometimes, to be honest with you, I never get past that point and that’s all my prayer time is for the day.
But, many times, God shows up in very noticeable way. And after 20 or 30 minutes of battling distracting thoughts and struggling to pray, it’s like the doors of heaven swing wide open and I experience a glorious time of the sweetest communion with God, and it really feels like I’m actually praying. I don’t even need any iced coffee at that point. Instead, prayers for all sorts of things just seem to flow out of me and up to God. That, I believe, is what the Puritans meant when they said to “pray until you pray.”
Also, on the practical side of things, it may be helpful for you to know that I do pray through the church directory, usually for around 10 people per day. I pray for those 10 people one by one and mention not only their names but also anything else that comes to my mind to pray about for them. I also keep track of answered prayers using a simple Google Doc on my phone. And that Google Doc also has lists of various other things I pray for, such as my family and the people I’m trying to reach out to evangelistically and various things related to the church and the missionaries we support.
You also may be familiar with these prayer bookmarks that we sometimes pass out here at Redeeming Grace that suggest one subject for focused prayer for each day of the week. A stack of these is available on the Resource Table in the back if you’d like to pick one up after the service.
So, hopefully all of this has been helpful for you. Yet, I’d like to emphasize that the only way to really learn how to pray is to actually pray. It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike. You could spend hours in a classroom learning about bikes and the best bike-riding techniques. You could also have an expert instructor who brings in wonderful diagrams related to bike-riding. But, of course, that’s not really going to teach how to ride a bike, is it? It might be moderately helpful, but ultimately the only way to learn how to ride a bike is to actually get on a bike and start pedaling. That’s what you need to do with prayer. Most of you have now heard three messages on prayer, and you’ve had the opportunity to pick up two books about prayer. It’s now time to start praying.