Real Prayer VS. Cheap Religious Substitutes

In the previous section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), we saw that Jesus addressed six popular teachings that were contrary to the actual message of the Old Testament after committing verbally to remaining faithful to the Old Testament Scriptures. The major way in which the Old Testament was misused, according to Jesus’ sermon, was in support of religious legalism. We even saw how the popular teaching of the day exceeded what was written. Jesus brought the people back to what the Scriptures stated in context. In the present section of His sermon to His disciples and in view of the large group of people (6:1-7:6), we see Jesus address not only the legalistic teaching but also the legalistic tendencies of the religious community. After teaching from the Old Testament that faith was a gift and a condition of the heart and after exposing how the Law was being mistaught, Jesus begins to expose the absurdity of majority human worldview.

As we continue through this section of Jesus’ sermon, we will see the way in which Jesus evaluates our religion and our participation in church (or the equivalent thereof).  Right practice (orthopraxis) follows right teaching (orthodoxy). Spiritually healthy people or groups don’t merely have one or the other but strive for both. In the context of this sermon, Jesus didn’t compare Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, the Imperial Cult, and Eastern Religion- saying one was right and the others were wrong. Jesus got at real things and at the human heart. Let’s take a moment and not defend our own beliefs, churches, associations, denominations, or religions. Let us evaluate what is taught and what is practiced in our lives and in our churches the same way that Jesus does in this section of His sermon.

Matthew 6:5-15

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]’

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

Prayer of the hypocrites (v. 5)

We remember, as we begin this passage, that Jesus is dealing with legalistic religion and explaining that this legalistic religious practice is coming out of a misunderstanding or outright neglect of the Scriptures (either by tainting or hiding them). It makes sense that, after describing the popular legalistic teaching and practice of the day, Jesus would begin His explanation of a proper view of prayer by addressing legalistic prayer- that of the hypocrites.

First, Jesus instructs His disciples not to be like the hypocrites in their prayers. The mark of a hypocrite’s prayer is that the motivation behind the prayer is that he may be seen by people. As we discovered last week, legalism necessarily leads to this sort of motivation. In the same way that Jesus teaches in verse 2, Jesus also teaches that those who pray as the hypocrites do have received their reward in full- having no reward with their Father who is in heaven.

Last week when we looked at Matthew 7:21-23, we saw that the reward for God’s people is that they will enter the kingdom of heaven. That is eternal life, satisfaction, and rest. People obtain this reward by doing the will of the Father, which is explicitly not working, doing good or religious things, even in Christ’s name. It is explicitly being known by Christ. Legalism, then, actually makes people practitioners of lawlessness according to the Old Testament and to Christ. Throughout Jesus’ sermon, it is consistently and explicitly the case that practitioners of legalistic religion will have no reward with the Father and will have to depart from Jesus when that day comes. In the passage for today, we see that this is the first time Jesus has repeated this truth. Both times Jesus has said this, it has been with regard to some sort of legalistic religious practice.

Source of sincere prayer (v. 6)

Just as we saw in verses 3 and 4, for those who are truly in Christ, there is only one motivator for good works, that their Father will see. When Jesus says, “…your Father…” (“your” is plural here) the indication is that a communal relationship with the Father precedes the practicing of proper prayer (cf. Philippians 4:9).

Genuine, real prayer, then, comes as a result of one having a personal relationship with God the Father in Christ (v. 3-4, in the singular) and also necessarily belong and are engaged in the body of Christ (v. 6 in the plural). Genuine, real prayer with godly motivation comes as a result of relationship and being included in the whole body of Christ. It cannot precede that relationship or our proper involvement with the body In this text, it meant for Jesus’ disciples that they were sitting under the teaching of Scripture and knowing God more together. The same is true with any genuine, real conversation that we might have with anyone. Without there first being a relationship and without knowing the person more, it is really difficult to listen and talk with that person openly and on a deep level. This may be why so many people feel like their prayers bounce off the ceiling or like God isn’t listening. While God hears everything (He is omniscient and omnipresent), we cannot honestly and sincerely communicate with God unless there is already an established relationship and unless we are sincerely knowing God more. It is the way all communication works.

Since prayer is revealed, here by Christ, to be personal, the primary place for prayer is explicitly in private- between the person and God. This does not mean that there isn’t a place for corporate prayer or a place for prayer meetings. We see through the New Testament that the church is committed to corporate prayer (e.g. Acts 2:42). What it does mean is that prayer is primarily personal and secondarily something that is practiced as the body gathers- so long as our motivation is only the pleasure of the Father. The Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward His people in the same sense that is meant throughout the Sermon on the Mount and described above.

Prayer is the fruit, not the root (v. 7-8)

What Jesus teaches in verses 7 and 8 confirms what He teaches in verse 6 and what we have taken the time to exposit. God does not hear us based on our many words, but He already knows what we need.

Later in Jesus’ sermon to His disciples, He will confirm this again in verses 25-34, teaching that the Father takes care of His people and therefore we should not worry about food or drink or clothing. According to Jesus, then, prayer does not cause God to act. God cares about His children. God takes care of His children in exactly the way that accords with His will for the good of His children (c.f. Romans 8:28).

This means there is a sinful way for us to pray that seems to be very spiritual according to the ways of the world or the ways of legalistic religion. This happens when we confuse prayer as the root instead of the fruit. Prayer is not the root. We cannot say, “Man, I need to pray more if I want to be more spiritual,” “…if I want to have a better relationship with Jesus (or have a relationship with Jesus to begin with),” “…if I want God to do something for me,” or “…if we want God to grow our church and give us successful ministries.” This is a sinful way to treat prayer.

Instead, we see, in this text, that it is assumed that those who are children of the Father will pray. Prayer is a result of the relationship and of our investment in sitting under the healthy teaching of God’s word with other disciples. It is the fruit. This is the anthropology we see explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount (7:17-20). This means that the more we grow in our relationships with Jesus, the more we will pray naturally. It will be organic. The more we know God, the more we talk with Him because we want to.

Method of sincere prayer (v. 9-13)

In verse 9, Jesus says, “Pray, then, in this way…” This phrase precedes Christ’s instruction regarding the method of real prayer. When Jesus instructs His disciples to pray this way, He is doing so as an application of the theological truth in the preceding verses. After describing to His disciples what prayer is not and after teaching what prayer is, Jesus then applies this truth in the method of one’s prayer. So, we must understand verses 5-8 in context before we can really learn from this example prayer. Too often, the previous verses are skipped and the example prayer is taught as another form of legalism (which Jesus explicitly condemns in this sermon), as separated from the context of a personal relationship with the Father through Christ, or without understanding the proper “roots produces fruit” anthropology of the sermon. Let’s look together.

‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.

This is recognition and praise of who the Father is as described by Jesus. He does not depend on us; nor does He follow our instructions. He is above us. He is in heaven. He is holy. He is the one to be honored, not us.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.

In contrast to having our prayers answered because of our many words or by our will, proper prayer recognizes God’s sovereignty and seeks the will of God. Rather than inform God on what He should do, we seek the will of the Father who loves His children.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Instead of dictating to God what we think we need or want and trying to convince Him by using the correct words, this statement is a profession of trust in God’s providence. This profession is an allusion to God’s provision of daily bread to the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 16:1-7). God decided on the substance, the quantity, and the duration. The people were provided for by God’s will.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

The prayer goes beyond merely declaring trust in God’s provision concerning material needs. There is also a declaration of trust in God’s providence in forgiveness. We learn something about forgiveness. It is reciprocal. Notice, too, that in this example prayer, Jesus is instructing His disciples to request forgiveness with the assumption that their debtors have already been forgiven by them. It is the debtors who are forgiven, not the debts.

This confirms, again, Jesus’ teaching that root produces fruit and that prayer is fruit that is produced. Legalism would say that we must forgive others in order to be forgiven. Jesus, however, teaches that it is a relationship with the Father and participation in the body as a disciple that causes us to forgive. We begin to understand more about what John taught, in Matthew 3:8, when he stated that God’s people produce fruit that is consistent with repentance. We also learn that repentance is not found only at the beginning of our relationship with Christ (4:17), but continuously as we walk with Christ- sitting under His teaching. Jesus’ teaching changes and grows our understanding and this affects us, changing the way that we live (and the way that we pray). This truth helps us to understand verses 14-15.

And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]’

The word εισφερω literally means “to bring into or to lead into” and this is the only way this word can be translated literarily without changing the word entirely. This means that to word the text in such a way that we say, “do not let us fall,” instead of “do not lead” is to actually change the Bible’s words and fail to remain faithful to the way that God has presented Himself in His inspiration of the text.

This is another profession of faith in God’s providence. While God does not “tempt” anyone (James 1:13-15), the understanding is that God orders the steps of our lives and that nothing we go through or encounter is outside the scope of His all-encompassing providential care. Since prayer is the fruit and not the root, the Biblical understanding is that God is delivering His people, in whom He has produced repentance, from evil. Those who do not repent will be enticed by their own desires and will die in their sin (James 1:13-15).

“For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” is not present in the earliest and best manuscripts. This means that it is possible that this ending was not included in the autographs and was added later. This ending does not change the proper interpretation of this example prayer. In fact, it agrees with the overall movement of the text, especially concerning God’s sovereignty and providence. There are very few instances in which something was added to the text. In almost every letter, textual criticism has proven that current copies and translations are accurate to source. Where any differences were found, those differences, as in this case, were not significant. This is one reason we can trust that the Bible has not been altered over the course of human history.

The connection of forgiveness and prayer (v. 14-15)

Remember that prayer is the fruit. It is because of forgiveness that we pray like this, not because we pray like this we are able to achieve or give forgiveness. What is the truth of God’s forgiveness? Matthew explains by quoting Jesus’ teaching again in Matthew 18:35. Jesus, there, identifies a type of forgiveness that comes from the heart as a result of proper prayer that is a result of participation as a disciple in the body.

If we are unable to forgive others, it turns out that we don’t actually have a heart of repentance and that we are not actually disciples of Jesus. Since fruit reveals root, our aversion to forgiving others reveals that we will not be forgiven by God.

If, however, we are truly repentant after looking into the mirror of the Law and seeing our own desperate need for grace, we will not be able to hold grudges or condemn anyone. People who are forgiven much also forgive much.

Old Testament use

Jesus is still expositing and applying the Old Testament message we observed last week in Jeremiah 17:5-11. Jesus alluded to this passage in Matthew 6:1-4 and will continue to make specific applications through the end of this section of His sermon to His disciples.


    1. Why do you think it is so tempting for people to hold to a sinful and worldly view of prayer?
    2. How does the example prayer reflect God’s actual identity and the true heart of a Christian?
    3. How does a wrong view of who God is and what His Scriptures actually teach cause us to have a wrong or sinful view of prayer?

One comment

  • My brother,
    Is it time that we in in the church emulate the disciples and beg, “Lord teach us to pray”.
    Praying daily for you, your family,
    Jesus’ church in Sunsites and the entire world.
    God be with you,
    In his love,

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