What makes Christian prayer distinctive?

Across cultures and religions, people pray. How is Christian prayer different? The question helps us clarify our faith.

Christian prayer has its roots in Judaism: one God, no idols, covenant relationship between the heavenly sovereign and his people on earth. We saw how the distinctive basis for prayer in Judaism is this reliance on God’s revelation of himself and his faithfulness towards the people who are called by his Name.

That’s the background for our Lord’s Prayer. In synagogues across Galilee, Jesus would have joined in this Aramaic prayer:

“Magnified and sanctified be His Great Name in the world which He hath created according to His will. May He establish His Kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of the whole household of Israel, even speedily and in a near time! So say ye ‘Amen.’ ”
Response: “Let His Great Name be blessed forever and unto all eternity!”
— “Ḳaddish” in The Jewish Encyclopedia ed. Isidore Singer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901–1906), 7:401.

When Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer, his disciples were not at a loss. Hallowed be your name was a familiar theme, for Kaddish means “holy.” They were already praying, Your kingdom come. They prayed for God’s will to be done on earth in accordance with his creational intentions.

What was distinctive about Jesus’ prayer was approaching God as Our Father. Without losing the sense of awe for the Sovereign of all things and his Hallowed Name, Jesus introduced a new emphasis on the familial relationship that places us at Father’s table.

My Father and your Father

God was occasionally recognized as the Father of his people (e.g. Deuteronomy 32:6), but Jesus took it to a whole new level. Father is his favourite word for God. More than 40 times in the Gospels, Jesus calls God my Father. Why? It may be the strongest evidence we have that Jesus understood himself to be the Son.

Without projecting trinitarian theology back onto the NT, the Father/Son relationship makes sense in light of the OT promises. Through Nathan the prophet, God gave David this promise: I will be his father, and he will be my son (2 Samuel 7:14).

Nathan wasn’t predicting Jesus. He was saying that Solomon would inherit the kingdom from David. More accurately, Solomon would inherit the kingdom from the eternal heavenly Father of all people who had decided that the son who would represent his throne in the earthly realm would be David’s son. And God made this commitment to the descendants of David knowing full well that they would be flawed human rulers:

2 Samuel 7:14–16 (NIV)
14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. 15 But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

Sure enough, Solomon’s heart turned away from the Lord. Solomon became preoccupied with his own power, so God took most of the kingdom from him (1 Kings 11:11-13, 31-36). One tribe (Judah) continued to enthrone David’s sons. In each generation, the enthronement ceremony included this declaration:

Psalm 2:7–8
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.

Eventually, David’s descendants so misrepresented the Father in heaven who had given them authority to reign, that God took the kingship from them. The Psalms wrestle with this dissonance between what God promised and what his people experienced as they were taken into exile to serve other rulers:

Psalm 89
26 He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Saviour.’ …  38 But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. 39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust. … 49 Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

Jesus understood his people were confused and harassed like sheep without a shepherd, as they waited for their Father in the heavens to appoint his Son to reign, restoring the kingdom to his Anointed.

That’s the hope Jesus infused in God’s people each time he spoke of My Father. In him, God would become your Father (x 30 in the Gospels).

The two phrases — my Father and your Father —  finally came together on the day God raised him from the dead. Here’s the message he entrusted to Mary, the first evangelist:

John 20:17
Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

Our Father

The Son invites us to approach the Father in his name. He calls us his siblings — brothers and sisters in Father’s family, children whom our Father has entrusted to his care (Hebrews 2:11–13). That’s the distinctive of Christian prayer.

For many peoples, prayer is an attempt to get the gods on side. Assured of a place in the family, Christian prayer doesn’t need to be strident or protracted to attract God’s attention: Your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:7–8).

Prayer is not an attempt to manipulate God into giving me what I want. It’s a conversation with the Father, opening up to the Holy Spirit who shapes us into our Father’s image: How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13).

It can feel overwhelming to approach the majestic sovereign who reigns in the heavens, the holy authority of the throne that bears his name. What transforms that experience is the Holy Spirit’s affirmation within us of what Jesus told us — that in him we belong in Father’s family. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. And if children, then heirs — co-heirs with the Anointed Son, participating in his sufferings, and so participating in his reign (based on Romans 8:16-17).

As children, we’re invited to present our needs: daily bread, forgiveness, protection. But our prayers are not primarily telling God what to do or how to do it. The Spirit assures us that Father knows our needs and is more than willing to provide for his family. The Spirit attunes us to our Father’s heart, to what he wants in his earthly realm and to how he wants his family involved:

Romans 8:26–27
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Our best prayers rise from communion with the Spirit of our Father whose life we’re sharing in his Son.

What others are saying

Craig A. Evans, The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew–Luke, (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2003), 123–124:

In essence the prayer is Jesus’ own adaptation of an ancient Aramaic Jewish prayer, known as the Qaddish (“let be sanctified” or “hallowed”). …

The major difference, besides length, is that whereas the petitions of the Qaddish are in third person, those of the Lord’s Prayer are in the second person. Jesus teaches his disciples to speak directly to God their Father.

M. M. Thompson, “God,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green et al, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 316–317:

Perhaps the most memorable and distinctive characterization of God in the Gospels is the designation of God as “Father,” the designation that comes to function in Christian parlance as the regular way of referring to God. The term patēr used for God is spread unevenly across the Gospels (Matthew 44×, Mark 4×, Luke 15×, John 109×). Remarkably, these references to God as Father are found in the Gospels virtually exclusively in the speech of Jesus (the only exceptions are Jn 1:14, 18; 8:41; 14:8). Typically, “Father” is coupled with a personal pronoun, so that Jesus speaks either of “my Father” (Matthew 14×, Luke 5×, John 20×) or “your Father” (Matthew 12×, Luke 2×, John 2×). Only once is Jesus depicted as using the first-person plural possessive, “our,” when he teaches the disciples how they should address God in prayer (but only in Mt 6:9; cf. Lk 11:2). In John 20:17 Jesus speaks of “my Father and your Father, my God and your God,” not simply of “our Father” or “our God.” This Johannine pattern reflects the implicit distinction in all the Gospels between the way that Jesus, the Son of God, and the disciples relate to God as Father.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 241:

The reason why “you” (plural, the disciple community united in prayer) are not to be like them [pagans] lies in a theology which attributes to God both the benevolent concern of a Father and an omniscience which makes the prayer apparently unnecessary (cf. Isa 65:24: “Before they call, I will answer”). But if God does not need to be informed of our needs, why does he expect us to tell him about them? Christian spirituality has traditionally found the answer in a concept of prayer not as the communication of information, still less as a technique for getting things from God (the more words you put in the more results you get out), but as the expression of the relationship of trust which follows from knowing God as “Father.” The pattern prayer which follows illustrates how such a relationship works.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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