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Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

How blessed is the communion and fellowship between the citizens of the kingdom of heaven and their Father who is in heaven! Such fellowship is a wonder, for it partakes of the heavenly. These citizens live upon the earth and are surrounded by the things of the earth. They know their own sinfulness. Nevertheless they enjoy intimate fellowship and communion with the all-glorious, everlasting God. They merely turn the thoughts of their heart toward the heavenly, calling upon the name of God. Straightway they are ushered into the presence of the fatherly majesty of God.

The nature of this communion and fellowship is well described by this word “prayer.” Deep in their hearts, the citizens understand their entire dependence upon their blessed, all glorious Father in heaven. They know His abiding love for them. To Him, therefore, they turn their hearts, giving expression to every need of their life. From Him they seek all things—from the honor of His name, to their daily bread. In that way of seeking, they receive.

Such fellowship and communion is simply assumed to be the present practice of the citizens of that kingdom. No commandment to pray is given in these verses. Instead we find the phrase over and over, “When ye pray….” We may rightly say the exercise of prayer is the very breath and life of heaven’s citizens.

Prayer is raised up in the form of words, whether spoken or raised only in the heart. Using the good gift of language, the citizen of the kingdom formulates his needs into words and sends them heavenward, to his Father. Those words, whether expressed from the heart only or poured out with the lips, the Father receives. He inclines His ear and answers, pouring out blessings upon His people.

The Abuses Prohibited

 

As with all the gifts of God, there is always abuse and the potential of abuse. The children of God, when they pray, must guard against every abuse of this marvelous gift. In this passage the King of heaven’s kingdom issues two distinct warnings against this abuse.

The first warning is against praying “to be seen of men” (v. 5). This abuse of prayer is the same as that of almsgiving in the preceding verses: to be seen of men. Against it is pronounced the very same judgment: they have their reward. Further, Christ deems “hypocrites” those who pray to be seen of men. Their hypocrisy is found in two things. First, their practice is antithetical to what lies in their hearts. Second, their words speak of great humility. They might speak even of their own wretchedness and the depravity of men. They might speak of the sovereign majesty of Almighty God. Their words would be a powerful demonstration to men of their own deep humility. All who heard would be convinced that here is a humble man. But his heart is of a different frame. His heart searches for his own glory. He wishes for men to talk about him, not about God.

Note well: This hypocrite, praying in the synagogue and on the corners of the streets, is not found out or discovered. His appearance and behavior suggest piety. His prayer is a religious activity, formally correct. What makes him a hypocrite is found in his heart. He prays out of a desire to be pleasing to men. His goal is to bring praise of him out of their mouths.

How blasphemous this is before the living God, who searches and knows the heart! The words are proper and fitting to the majesty and glory of God. With every word, phrase, tone, and gesture, the prayer rings with sincerity and truth. Yet what is heard from that mouth is contrary to what lies in the heart. At bottom there is no sincerity, only detestable hypocrisy. No reward shall he receive of God!

How surprising these words of condemnation must have been to Jesus’ audience. The public practitioners of this holy art were no doubt many. They could daily be found on the street corners and in the synagogues. The people must have loved to be around, to hear them pray. Their prayers were grammatically correct. The pronunciation, enunciation, the accent, rhythm, and inflection were nearly perfect. The emotions and sentiments expressed carried along every hearer to the very throne of God! They were heard by men, and of men they were approved. But that was all.

Be not ye like unto them.

The second form of abuse is given in verse 7, the use of “vain repetitions.” These words refer to the repeating of the same phrases over and over again. Or they may indicate the words of an established, formal prayer repeated over and over. This abuse of prayer our Lord attributes first to the heathen. In their worship of idols, the heathen had their own liturgy and litany. They addressed prayers, composed of certain words, to their idol gods. Over and over they would pray, with the hope of a favorable audience with these vain idols. They spoke much, hoping to be heard.

These vain repetitions show the vanity not only of these words but also of the gods to whom these words were addressed. These gods were no gods at all. They were without any power to grant the petitions men brought to them. Their worshipers’ many words and “much speaking” demonstrated that truth. We might think of Elijah’s words to the prophets of Baal: “Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked” (I Kings 18:27). They do not trust these gods. Therefore they pursue them with many words.

The prayers of the children of the kingdom must not be such. They worship the true and living God. He is sovereign. “Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” Three things must here be observed. First, God is their Father. He desires to load His children with blessings and benefits. Second, He knows the needs of His children. Prayer cannot be a means of enlightening His ignorance. Third, the very thoughts that give rise to the words of prayer are also the gifts of the Father to His dear children. “For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether” (Ps. 139:4).

The very form of the prayers of God’s children must reflect His sovereignty. He is mighty to grant their requests and petitions. How blessed, therefore, to bring these words before His fatherly majesty. No petition brought before God is vain. No need, therefore, for repetition.

Another reason lies behind this second abuse of the gift of prayer. This reason, while found among the heathen, presently grows in popularity among Christians. By their much speaking, the heathen attempt to wrest the will of their idol gods to their own purpose. They will this, they will that. Should they express their will enough to their idols, they might perhaps turn their gods’ will to grant that request. The will of men overcomes the will of the idol god! No wonder these repetitions fall under the condemnation of vanity. Should a god’s will be overcome by the will of man, that god is unworthy of the name. That god himself (or herself) is very vanity.

Let it not so be with the children of the kingdom. Let them not think that they should change the mind or will of their Father by their much speaking. Let them not adopt the ways of the heathen! Let them not say, “my will be done,” even by their vain repetitions.Let the children of the kingdom say, “Thy will be done.” Let them rest quietly in the divine wisdom and will.

Be not ye like unto them.

The Lord’s Prayer

The way being cleared of these two errors, praying to be seen of men and the offering of vain repetitions, our Lord gives us the proper manner of prayer. “After this manner pray ye.”

The words that follow make impossible the abuses mentioned before. This is not a prayer that gains the admiration of the audience, whether in the synagogue or on the corners of the streets. It does not border on the poetic or inspirational. It does not rouse the imagination to new heights of sublimity. While it does speak of the kingdom and glory of God, it also speaks of daily bread and the forgiveness of sins. It is a prayer for the closet, behind the shut door.

Neither is this a prayer that is long and drawn out. It progresses from start to finish, and is completed by the word “Amen.” In no wise can any part of this prayer fall under the condemnation of vain repetition. It is unlike the prayers of the heathen, who think they shall be heard for their much speaking.

We enter not here into the contents, meaning, or significance of the petitions of this prayer. There is much here, as is attested by the many writings and meditations on this brief, familiar prayer. It is worthy of so much that has been written. But here we will keep the emphasis on its brevity and simplicity.

After this manner therefore pray ye.

One of these petitions is given an outstanding place in this passage. Our Lord gives a brief word concerning the fifth petition of the prayer He has taught us: And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. In this short prayer, there is this one petition that demands something of the petitioner. Before he may seek God’s forgiveness of his debts, he must first forgive those in debt to him. Having done so, he is clear to seek forgiveness from his heavenly father.

Reconciliation with God is found in the way of reconciliation with men. Peace with God is enjoyed by means of peace with men. Note well, the assumption is that there are men that owe the child of God. Against him they have sinned. The question here is whether the child of God has a living and practical knowledge of the grace of God. That knowledge he demonstrates when he forgives those indebted to him. Living in the light of that grace, he is welcome before the throne of God. He is assured that his prayer for forgiveness is heard by his heavenly Father. His debt is surely cleared away.

Our Lord’s commentary on this petition is significant. The words of verses fourteen and fifteen show its importance. If there is one thing the petitioner needs, it is the knowledge that his heavenly Father does not deal with him according to his sins. Were his sins held against him, he would be assured only that neither he nor any of his petitions would be received by God. Without forgiveness he must only be cast out of the kingdom and into outer darkness. As his sins are forgiven by God, in the way of his forgiveness of men, he knows that God does indeed receive him before the throne of His holiness, all his other petitions are answered in grace.

With the words of this commentary, our Teacher in prayer leads us also to Himself. We understand our own frailty and sinfulness. We cannot possibly keep this requirement in our own power. We cannot possibly keep it perfectly. Were it a condition, so that we must perfectly fulfill it before we might pray for our own forgiveness, we would never dare come before our heavenly Father with any petition. We know our tendency to bear grudges. We may freely forgive, but we do not even know all the debts men owe to us. Nor must we undertake a thorough search, to keep an accurate count. But we do know the grace of God within us: we do resolve to forgive those who sin against us. Through grace, we receive grace, even the pardon of all our guilt. Through grace, we and all our petitions are received by our gracious, heavenly Father.

The only ground of our prayer is this Teacher of prayer. As He has taught us, so let us pray. Let us pray in His name and for His sake. Only then are we received before the throne of God, to receive His blessed reward.

After this manner pray ye.

Questions for Meditation and Further Study:

1.Is all public prayer to be condemned? What about form prayers, such as those in the form for the Administration of Baptism and for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper?

2.What are some present-day examples of prayer under the first prohibition of Christ—to be seen of men? How can we, when occasion requires public prayer, guard against this abuse?

3.Are formal prayers good for our children to learn?

4.What are some present-day forms of vain repetition? Are we ever guilty of this sin? What are some things we can do to ensure that our hearts and minds are laboring in prayer?

5.What is the organization of the Lord’s Prayer? Which petitions receive the priority? Should (or, how should) its organization affect the organization of our prayers?

6.What additional light doMatthew 5:24Matthew 18:23-35, andLuke 7:36-50 shed on the fifth petition and Jesus’ commentary on that petition.