Matthew 6:9

Matthew 6:9

9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.


Now we approach the Lord’s Prayer, that beautiful model prayer that Jesus gave us.  It is a prayer that has nurtured the Christian church for two millennia and that is justly seen as the absolutely essential first step for all prayer.  Martin Luther said this about the Lord’s Prayer:

To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill.  It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me.  It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it.  What a great pity that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world!  How many pray the Lord’s Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one jot, of it!  In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth…  Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.[1]

That is said with that kind of jarring imagery that only a Luther could muster!  “The Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth!”  Perhaps he’s right.  But, if it is, I can’t blame other people for making a martyr of it.  I must first blame myself.

Can you?  Has prayer, even this prayer, become an empty exercise in repetition to you?  Have you martyred it on the stake of your own indifference?  When you pray, do you consider the great miracle that you have been invited to do something utterly startling, to talk to the God of the universe?  Has it occurred to you that prayer should be the secret delight of your soul?

Let us consider this startling prayer.  We will begin doing so by considering the first verse, verse 9.  That is an amazing little verse containing Jesus’ model introduction to pray.  It is packed with theological content.  Meaning, it is packed with basic ideas about God that are crucial to our understanding of who He is and how we should pray to Him.  Let us, then, is consider three theological foundations of prayer presented in Matthew 6:9.

I. The First Theological Foundation of Prayer:  God’s Fatherhood

What is immediately striking about the Lord’s Prayer is the title Jesus employs to speak of God.  Furthermore, it is the title He instructs us to use as well:  “Our Father.”  It has been observed that a first century Jew would have found this language provocative indeed, for while the Jews did indeed have a concept of the Fatherhood of God, referring to God as Father was not a normal part of their prayer life.  What is more, Jesus used the Aramaic term abba, a term that denotes intimacy.  That was the word that children used when referring to their fathers, and it is the word that Jesus used to speak of God.  It is the word we must use as well.

Mary Ann Bird wrote this in The Whisper Test:

I grew up knowing I was different and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth and garbled speech.

When schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?” I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me. There was, however, a teacher in the second grade whom we all adored — Mrs. Leonard by name. She was short, round, happy — a sparking lady.

Annually we had a hearing test … Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back — things like, “The sky is blue.” or “Do you have new shoes?” I waited there for those words. God must have put into her mouth, those seven words that changed my life, Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper: “I wish you were my little girl.”

Here is a beautiful picture of God as abba!  Mrs. Leonard was indeed modeling the heart of God, for God leans down to us in our imperfections and weakness and sin and lostness and whispers something to us that we cannot dare to imagine on our own:  “I wish you were my little girl.  I wish you were my little boy.”  And, through Jesus, we can be.

It has also been suggested that, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was likely taking and altering the traditional Jewish synagogue prayer known as the Kaddish.  The earliest form of this prayer that was likely prayed in the synagogues at the time of Jesus went like this:

Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will.  May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon.  And to this, say: amen.[2]

You will notice the similarities between the Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer:  both hallow the name of God, both ask for God’s glory to be seen in the world, and both reference the Kingdom of God.  But you will also notice a striking difference.  The Kaddish begins, “Exalted and hallowed be His great name in the world…”  The Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our Father…”

This is remarkable, for in using that term Jesus was saying a lot with a little!  To call God “Father” is to speak of relationship.  God is not, therefore, distant and removed.  He is immanent.  God is near to us.  God loves us.  The Father loves His children.  As it speaks of our family relationship with God, it also speaks of the fact that we are an authentic family before Him, because if God is “our Father” then you are “my brother” and “my sister” as well.

That little word “Father” communicates a great deal indeed!  John Chrysostom observed that the mere act of calling God Father communicates “remission of sins, and taking away of punishment, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, and adoption, and inheritance, and brotherhood with the Only-Begotten, and the supply of the Spirit.”[3]  Chrysostom was right!  It does indeed speak of forgiveness and redemption and all of these things, for God is our Father only insofar as we stand in right relationship with Him, and we stand in right relationship with Him only on the basis of the blood of Christ that redeems us.

That means that the word “our” is also very important.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father…”  Who is the “our”?  Clearly it is those who know God as Father through the redemption and salvation offered through and by the Son.  The “our” means “God’s children.”  The “our” means, “those who have been adopted into the family of God.”  He is “our” Father.  We have been brought near by the blood of Christ and we can call Him “Father”!

Like the Prodigal Son in the pigsty, we tell ourselves that we would be content to be one of the Father’s slaves or servants, just so long as He will let us come home.  But God the Father will have none of that.  He does not accept us into the Kingdom as groveling, fearful servants.  He insists upon wrapping us in a cloak and robe and calling for a feast!  Why?  Because we, His sons and daughters, who were dead in their sins, have now come home!  “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15)

May we never cease marveling at the amazing miracle that we are privileged to call God “Father”!  May we never grow used to this startling and unsettling fact:  we who were dead in our sins, we who were at enmity with God, we who had the devil as our father in our sinfulness and rebellion against God, have, by God’s grace, been brought into the position of sons and daughters!  We are enemies no more!  We have now been welcomed home!

R. Kent Hughes has passed on the story of missionary Everett Fullam, who made contact with and brought the gospel to an isolated tribe in inner Nigeria.  Fuller recounted that the tribe was profoundly primitive and pagan.  They knew nothing of the outside world or of science or technology or any of the things we take for granted.  When Fullam pointed to the moon and told the chief that two people had recently walked on it, the chief grew angry and said, “There’s nobody up there!  Besides, it is not big enough for two people to stand on.”  That was the challenge that Fullam faced.

But Fullam brought the gospel to those people, and some of them believed and trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  They came to know God as their Father, and it revolutionized their minds and hearts.  Listen to Fullam’s description of the baptism he performed for three of the tribe’s people:

There were two men and one woman.  We stood on the banks of a muddy river, wet and happy.  I had never seen three more joyful people.  “What is the best thing about this experience?” I asked.  All three continued to smile, the glistening water emphasizing the brightness of their dark-skinned faces; but only one spoke, in clear, deliberate English:  “Behind this universe stands one God, not a great number of warring spirits, as we had always believed, but one God.  And that God loves me.”[4]

The Fatherhood of God was the source of this people’s greatest joy!  Is that the case with you?

II. The Second Theological Foundation of Prayer:  God’s Transcendence

I said that the Fatherhood of God speaks of God’s immanence, His nearness.  But Christian theology has always held, on the basis of the witness of Scripture, that God’s immanence must be held beside His transcendence, His otherness.  Meaning, God is indeed near to us in loving relationship (“Our Father…”) but He remains the transcendent God who cannot be captured and contained by us (“…in heaven…”)

This use of the phrase “in heaven” is a spatial image intended to communicate that God is enthroned above all creation and cannot be contained in it.  Even to His children, who He holds in His very heart, He remains utterly holy.

It is very important that we not read “in heaven” to mean, “sitting up on a throne somewhere up there,” in a crude, localized sense.  The intent of the image is not to localize God within some spatial parameter.  Augustine rather humorously said that the fact that God is our Father in Heaven does not mean that “the Lord is closer to tall people” or “nearer to those who live on higher hills.”  On the contrary, Augustine pointed to Psalm 34:18, that reads:  “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.”[5]

Indeed, God is omnipresent.  There is nowhere where God is not!  In Psalm 139, David said this:

7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
 Or where shall I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! 
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
 and the light about me be night,”

12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day, 
for darkness is as light with you.

No, “in heaven” does not mean “contained.”  It is rather intended to remind us that the Lord God is enthroned on high, and that the earth is His footstool.  He is exalted and mighty and powerful!

Both of these truths are needed for us to think rightly and to approach God rightly:  “Our Father” and “in heaven.”  “Our Father”:  we come as a child to his father and we come to the tender heart of our great God.  “In heaven”:  but we do indeed come before Almighty God, who spoke Heaven and Earth into existence, and who holds the universe on the tip of his tiniest finger.  “Our Father”:  we come with no fear, boldly to the throne of grace.  “In Heaven”:  yet we tremble before the throne of our majestic Lord of Heaven and Earth.

It seems to me that we misstep if we throw off the biblical balance between immanence and transcendence, between his nearness and his otherness.  He is your Father, but He is not your pet.  He is your mighty God, but He is not a distant deity.  He is – in that amazing paradox that only the gospel could make possible – the King who we dare call “Father”!

If you stress God’s otherness to the neglect of His nearness, you end up with an unknowable God.  Richard John Neuhaus put it like this:

The transcendence of God has been excitedly seized upon by the ringmasters of the circus that is theology today…God, they tell us, is so transcendently transcendent, so ineffably ineffable, so utterly utter, that no words, no creeds, no liturgies, no gestures can possibly claim to speak the “truth” about God.  (It is a significant sign of our time that so many put truth in quotation marks.)[6]

If you stress God’s immanence without His transcendence, however, you end up with a domesticated God lacking power.  When I read a well-known author saying that he thinks of “cuddling” with God, I get the feeling that he needs to remember that God, while Father, is yet God in Heaven.

III. The Third Theological Foundation of Prayer:  God’s Holiness

Thirdly, we begin our prayers with a plea for God to hallow, to make holy and glorious, his own name:  “…hallowed be your name.”  It is interesting to see how various translations have handled this verse.

“Our Father in heaven,
Your name be honored as holy.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

“Our Heavenly Father, may your name be honoured” (J.B. Phillips New Testament)

“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.” (The Message)

“Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.” (New Living Translation)

Herein we see various attempts to encapsulate this plea:  Oh God!  Make your name holy!  Make your name glorious!  Make your name powerful!  Make your name majestic!  Hallowed be Thy name!  Immanence, transcendence, and holiness:  the theological foundation of all prayer.  God is near to us in Christ, but God is enthroned on high.  And our heart’s desire must be to see God’s name made holy!

To desire the hallowing of God’s name is to see it as holy yourself and to refuse to use it disrespectfully or in cheap ways.  Fred Craddock once noted that, as a boy, he and his siblings would sit around the fire and practice phonic spelling, spelling words the way they sound.  He said that his mother led them in this, providing them with a list of such words.  He said that, as a boy, he learned to spell words like oviparous, ovoviviparous, and hypotenuse.  “I once knew how to pronounce and spell asafetida,” he writes.  Then he says this:  “But one word she never put on the list because she knew we were just children.  She never put on the list God.”[7]

Do you see?  Craddock’s mother did not want her children to view the word “God” as just one more word on a list.  There is something distinct about this word.  It’s distinctiveness lies in the fact that it is not just a word.  It is a name.  It is the name of God.  And for that reason, it is hallowed.  And for that reason, we should desire to see it hallowed, made holy.

R.C. Sproul has made a helpful observation about the holiness of God.

Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree.  Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession.  The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy.  Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy.  He is holy, holy, holy.  The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice.  It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, that the whole earth is full of His glory.[8]

Yes!  We should join with the Bible’s emphasis on the holiness of God:  holy, holy, holy!  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer rightly, we are praying that God’s name would be made holy in the earth!  How?  In many ways, to be sure, but ways that must certainly include our own lives!  The whole heartbeat of the Sermon on the Mount might be summarized as the manifestation of the glory and holiness of God revealed through the outworking of the Kingdom of God in the lives of disciples of Jesus.  Our lives should be about the holiness of God!

In June of 2011, Roni and I attended the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ.  While there, we heard John Piper preach.  Interestingly, Piper decided to preach on this phrase:  “hallowed be thy name.”  He told us that the year before, during a sabbatical he took to take stock of his soul, his marriage, and his ministry, this phrase came to have a special meaning to him.  It occurred to Piper that he had long misunderstood the nature of this petition.

I grew up thinking this was an acclamation, not a petition—like I was saying, “Praise God! Your name is hallowed.” For years it never occurred to me that I was asking God to do something…[T]he verb hagiastheto is a third person imperative…It’s the same form as the verb for “baptize” in Acts 2:38 (baptistheto): “Let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus.” This is not an acclamation. It’s not about giving permission or allowing. This is a command. What should you do in response to the gospel that Peter has just preached? Act. Repent and be baptized. It’s an imperative.

And so is hagiastheto in the Lord’s prayer. Father in heaven, act! See to it God! See to it that your name is hallowed. Cause your name to be hallowed in my life, and my family, and my ministry, and in this world. Cause you name to be hallowed among millions of Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and animists and post-Christian secular Westerners.

This is a startling thought!  We are pleading with God to hallow, to make holy and glorious, His own name!  Piper said that previously he had seen the Lord’s Prayer as simply a series of petitions, but that, on this sabbatical, when he was calling out to God to help him as a disciple and husband and pastor, it occurred to him that this first petition, “hallowed be thy name,” was actually different from the rest and that, in fact, all of the petitions that follow this one in the prayer relate back to it.  In other words, every petition of the Lord’s Prayer is dependent upon the hallowing of God’s name.  He then told us this:

So on October 9 last year during my leave of absence while I was pondering these things, I wrote in my journal:

My ONE Great Passion!

Nothing is more clear and unshakeable to me than that the purpose of the universe is for the hallowing of God’s name.
 His kingdom comes for THAT.
 His will is done for THAT.
 Humans have bread-sustained life for THAT.
 Sins are forgiven for THAT.
 Temptation is escaped for THAT.

And then on the next day, October 10, I wrote:

Lord, grant that I would, in all my weaknesses and limitations, remain close to the one clear, grand theme of my life: Your magnificence.[9]

As I we sat there listening to this sermon, that struck me as true and as significant:  that the hallowing of the name of God is indeed a fundamental, foundational petition that should come to define who we are.  When the glory of God’s name becomes the preeminent concern of our lives, we are able to become the people we should become, and we are able to pray as we should pray, and we are able to see God move in mighty ways.  On the other hand, insofar as the hallowing of God’s name is not the most important aspect of our lives, the rest of this prayer becomes unintelligible.  If God’s name is not the most beautiful thing in the world to us, we will not desire to see His Kingdom come, or His will be done.  We will not know from whence daily bread comes, nor will we see the need to cry out to God for forgiveness of deliverance from temptation.

Do you see?  The desiring of the hallowing of God’s name reveals that we are truly His!  Stanley Hauerwas put it beautifully when he wrote:

We are commissioned to live lives that make visible to the world that the holy God, the same God before whom Moses hid his face when he was told God’s name (Exod. 3:6) reigns…God has regained his territory from the enemy.  God’s newly won territory is those who pray, “Hallowed by thy name.”[10]

I like that!  God’s great victory is that now, in this fallen world, there exists a people whose hearts have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and who, despite their pasts, dare to breath out these words:  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name!”


[1] Martin Luther.  A Simple Way to Pray.  (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), p.34.

[2] Charles Quarles, The Sermon on the Mount. NAC Studies in Bible & Theology. Vol. 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p.192.

[3] John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol.10. First Series. Ed., Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), p.134.

[4] R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.157.

[5] Manlio Simonetti, ed. Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.Ia. Thomas C. Oden, ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.71-78.

[6] Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.11.

[7] Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories. (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), p.21-22.

[8] R.C. Sproul, Holiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), p.26.

[10] Stanely Hauerwas, Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.77-78.

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