I’ve always read Jesus’ example prayer, traditionally called “The Lord’s Prayer,” as a series of hopes or wishes: may Your name be honored, may Your will be done, and so on. I’m not alone. A number of modern English translations have used the “mays”1. But after studying the original language I now see Jesus intended prayer to be something entirely different, something far more potent.
Pray Like This
As part of a discourse we’ve come to call “The Sermon on the Mount” Jesus gave His followers this pattern for their prayers:
This, then, is how you should pray:
“ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”
(Matthew 6:9–13, NIV)
It’s safe to say that the “Sermon on the Mount” occurred in the first half of Jesus’ ministry, probably about a year or so after He was baptized by John and coincident with His appointing “The Twelve” as His official Apostles. The model prayer He gave might not have made a deep impression on them at the time because about a year later, after frequently witnessing Jesus going off to pray2, one of Apostles asked Him to teach them all how to pray. Without a rebuke, or an “I already told you”, Jesus seems to have reminded them of His earlier instruction with a shortened version:3
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’ ””
(Luke 11:1–4, NIV)
What’s with the verbs in this prayer?
As I said, I always took the requests with an implied “may” expressing a possibility or wish. For example to me the phrase “He may talk” means he might or might not talk – who knows? Some translations use the word “let” which has about the same force to me and adds the question who is doing the letting? In Greek everything you need to know about a verb is wrapped up in its spelling so when I checked it out I was surprised to find that it’s very clear these verbs are imperatives!4
As you probably know, an imperative is usually used to command or authoritatively insist upon some action – “Move it”, “Let’s go”, “You, do that!” 5 So, did Jesus tell His followers to take a demanding attitude in prayer, as if to push God around? Unlikely. So how are we to make sense of this?
Grammatically there are three ways to translate these imperatives into English: “let (or may) your name be honored” is sometimes used, or “Your name shall be honored”, or “Your name must be honored.” Of course some translations, like the NIV quoted above, just avoid the issue by not using any helper word. The difficulty with using “let” or “may” is that these English words often imply a permission for something to happen which is definitely not the force of these Greek words.6 Shall seems a better choice than let, but allow me explain why I think the best choice is must.
My reason lies in understanding that there is another way to use an imperative. Suppose I were to say “you must give me that.” I would be stating the fact that if I’m to get “that”, whatever it is, you are the only one who can give it to me. I could also be pointing out that I am in need of “that” and if you don’t provide it, I won’t have it, perhaps ever! So an imperative can be part of a request that expresses confidence in both what needs to take place and that the person being addressed is the one, and probably the only one, who can, or will make it happen.
If this is what Jesus had in mind, then I think He used imperatives so that prayer would challenge our allegiance and faith each and every time we address God. The first few lines of “The Lord’s Prayer” particularly challenge us to ask what it is that we see must take place in the world and in our lives. Are the honoring of the Father’s name, the coming of His Kingdom and His will on our personal “must happen” list or on our “it would be nice someday, maybe if/when God makes it happen” list? If they “must happen” then we should be compelled to examine our role in their completion and consider whether there is some way we should be involved in their fulfillment today.
It certainly surprised me that the verb “give” in “Give us our daily bread” is also imperative! In Matthew’s Gospel it’s “give!” and in Luke’s it has the force of “be continually giving!” Again are we to think God is at our beck and call? How silly. He’s the sovereign almighty creator whose will drives all things in the universe. So what do we make of this?
In another place Jesus told the Apostles that childlike dependence is not optional for those wanting to be in His kingdom and be His disciples.
And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change [reverse course] and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3–4, NIV)
In Jesus’ day Roman law said that a father had life and death authority over his children.7 Now that can foster some humble dependence!
So this part of the prayer is meant to challenge prideful self-sufficient attitudes and express our total dependence upon God for our own physical needs. When you and I pray “Father, you must give us each day our bread for the day!” we are driven to affirm the conviction that He is the only source we expect to supply our needs. Furthermore He must provide our needs for if He does not, then we do without!!
This certainly puts a new light on saying “grace” at meals doesn’t it? Because if we prayed “The Lord’s Prayer” in the morning, then “grace” at meals becomes a humble acknowledgement of answered prayer – right?
“Forgive us!” Yes, it’s another imperative! This cry brings to light two connected concepts.
First, regardless of who else forgives us, if we are not forgiven by God we have nothing to look forward to after this life but everlasting darkness, gnashing of teeth and regret8. Abundant, wholesome, fulfilling life cannot be found apart from being reconciled to God. We may prolong physical life and grasp for immortality by human ingenuity but God has decreed that everyone must die and then face Him.
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NASB95)
“Forgive us!” affirms our reliance upon His ever-available grace. We can never do anything that obligates God to forgive us, so unless He graciously chooses to forgive we are eternally doomed. Such prayer challenges us. Are you convinced that this His forgiveness is the only way to an abundant life into the ages?
Second, even though we may have declared our trust that Christ died on our behalf and know we are eternally and totally forgiven with our names written forever in His book of Life, as we still sin against God in our daily lives our cry “You must forgive us!” reaffirms that our present fellowship with Him is so important that it must be restored at any cost.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV)
As We Forgive
Then there’s “as we forgive…our debtors.” In this verse, the idea of someone being our debtor is that they owe us an apology and perhaps restitution because they have been unloving toward us through gossip, theft, violence, deceit or betrayal. In Matthew the prayer literally says “as we have forgiven our debtors” while Luke writes “as we are continually forgiving the ones who keep on owing us.” Get the point?
God’s forgiveness of us must create an attitude of forgiveness in us toward our fellow human beings. We cannot put these into separate compartments for long without damaging our relationships with each other and with God. Do we affirm our commitment to this fact when we pray? We must not only truthfully state before God that it is characteristic of us to have forgiven all those who offended us in the past, but that we also continue to forgive everyone who asks us for it – every time they ask.9.
At a small group leadership conference I once heard Larry Crabb, a well known Christian psychologist, say that the single greatest barrier to effective small groups in the Church is forgiveness. As a small group leader with years of experience I would have to agree. Forgiving those who have hurt us is fundamentally about allowing our welfare and feelings of significance to be in God’s hands regardless of what people do to us.
“May you lead us…” does not have an imperative in the underlying Greek text. Why only here? Perhaps Jesus is challenge us to simply be honest: we ask God to lead, but will we follow?
God does allow Satan, our spiritual accuser and sifter, to put before us things and ideas that draw us away from God and those who are honoring God’s name. But we need not succumb. In James 1 we are commanded to ask God for the wisdom needed to resist, but of course we often try to take temptation on alone, or fail to look for and follow the wisdom God gives us.
But God makes it clear that we cannot be rescued from temptation by our own efforts alone. How many times have you told God you will never to that again? Be honest, what happened? The Scripture declares that we can only overcome the evil in this world by trusting in God10. So we must cry out “You must rescue us!” (an imperative). God must work in our minds and hearts to give us yet another opportunity to see the truth of our situation through His eyes and lead us to repentance or we will remain deceived.
In Hebrews 11:13–16 the author points out that the great men and women of Biblical history refused to be limited and driven by the things their earthly bodies desired. The lived for something greater, even at great physical cost. The author concluded His consideration with:
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:39–40, NIV)
The incredible testimony of God’s word is that there is still room for us in their company! In fact they’re waiting for us in heaven right now so we can all be resurrected together.
The imperatives in this prayer our Lord gave us remind me of the shout of determination heard as a sports team comes out of a huddle. A huddle is a time to clarify the immediate task ahead, set all distracting concerns aside and commit everyone’s actions to the plan the captain has called for.
Is prayer like being in a huddle with God and His team of saints before the next play in the game of life? Is it a time of commitment to God’s purposes and a time of humbling yourself in absolute dependence upon the team captain? Can you pray “Your name must be honored!” and mean “it must be honored in my life and one day over this whole Earth whatever the cost to me, and whatever role I’m assigned to play”? Or will you pray with the limp and timid “meh, maybe it will happen someday but that’s what I’m wishing for” attitude I had?
Perhaps we can pray with a bit of the determination of a Māori Haka . The Haka is an expression of self-confidence, but we can be just as determined to express the fact that God must act or we are doomed! As Jesus said “Apart from me you can do … nothing!”11Footnotes
- GNB-Good News Bible, ISV-International Standard Version, LEB-Lexham English Bible, NET-New English Translation, NCV-New Century Version, NIrV-New International revised Version [↩]
- Matt 14:23; Mk 1:35; 6:46; Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28,29; 11:1; 18:10; John 11:41 [↩]
- Jesus often repeated the same lessons in different settings. This is one of a number of reasons so-called harmonies of the Gospels must be used with caution. [↩]
- Out of 30 English Bibles I checked, 6 of them lessen their impact by adding the word may: GNB, ISV, LEB, NET, NCV, NIrV [↩]
- Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics by Daniel B Wallace, Zondervan, 1996, pg. 485 [↩]
- Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics by Daniel B Wallace, Zondervan, 1996, pg. 486 [↩]
- At one time the father of the Roman household had absolute rule, even over the life or death of a family member, especially the children, but this ultimate authority was curbed by law in the first century A.D. The father’s authority was usually executed and mediated through a family council. (Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans, Dictionary of New Testament Background : A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000). [↩]
- Matthew 8:12; 13:42; 25:30; Luke 13:28 [↩]
- Matt. 18:21-35; Luke 17:3-4 [↩]
- James 4:7-8; Revelation 12:11 [↩]
- John 15:5 [↩]