A rare opportunity presented itself to me, and I wanted to nail it. A famous preacher was in town, and I was given the opportunity to meet him. He was an influential person in my life who shaped my faith, and I wanted to make a memorable impression. Excited, I told my wife, and we left together.
As I approached him, I rehearsed some smart and lofty things to say to him. And, while shaking his hand, I spoke rather eloquently. I felt very confident that I was doing well and that those around us noticed my extraordinary words, until his awkward smile on his face told me otherwise. He leaned in and said very softly, “Okay, and who is this?” He was pointing next to me. My wife was with me the entire time, and I failed to introduce her. In my attempt to honor myself, I failed to do and say what mattered most. I completely missed the mark with my audience and my content.
Many of us approach our Lord the same way. We dress up our words to make an impression and completely miss what really matters when we pray. Fortunately, our Lord is patient and instructive. In Matthew 6:5-15, we learn how to pray God’s way.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
Our Father 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 lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”Matthew 6:5-15
As you might have thought, this is part of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” where he preaches about kingdom living, a particular subject that the Jewish leaders were supposed to teach. But, over the years, they derailed and added teachings of their own. So, much of this sermon involves our Lord course-correcting the common misconceptions of the day.
In fact, here in this passage on prayer, he corrects two different manners of prayer. In verses 5-6, he corrects the audience you seek in prayer. In verses 7-13, he corrects the content you speak in prayer. And, that is our basic outline of the passage.
A Double Blessing
Before we walk through these two points, I want you to know that this passage will bless you in two ways. On one hand, it teaches us how to pray God’s way. It is a “how to” guide on prayer. Matthew 6:5 says, “and when you pray.” Matthew 6:7 also says, “and when you pray.” And finally Matthew 6:9 says, “Pray then like this.” It is obvious that this is a passage on how to pray God’s way.
Do you level-up your prayer life? Do you feel like your prayers could use some improvement? Would you like to pray God’s way? Well, this passage will bless you. It will teach you how to pray the way God wants you to pray. Well, that’s good enough in itself, but that is not all.
Matthew 6:6 tells us that when we pray God’s way, our “Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This is actually the motivation here in chapter 6. Back in verses 1-6, Jesus teaches about giving God’s way in order to gain heaven’s reward, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Then again in verses 16-18, Jesus teaches fasting God’s way in order to gain heaven’s reward, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Could you use a heavenly reward right now? Do you want the Father in heaven to richly bless you with the presence and goodness of grace? My friend, God wants to reward you, so He gives you a “how to” guide to gain heaven’s reward. This passage is not just about how to pray, but how to pray God’s way in order to gain heaven’s reward.
The Audience You Seek in Prayer
Matthew 6:5-6 is the first course-correction. “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” Jesus is talking about the prayer pretenders, but uses a much stronger word. The term “hypocrite” is a theatrical term that refers to actors in a play. It describes people as playing a part, acting like someone they are not, and being insincere. A hypocrite was an actor who wore a mask to make an impression on others. They put on a show for their audience for the sake of self-glorification.
Jesus says that they “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners” (Matt. 6:5), which in and of itself was nothing out of the ordinary or even sinful. Pray belonged in the synagogues and it was common for the one who was speaking to stand in order to be heard. Moreover, we are to pay publicly in the streets and the presence of others.
Their problem was not location, but intention. Jesus said that they prayed in order “that they may be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5). So, praying “at the street corners” was not for God’s glory but their own. The phrase suggests something like we experience at Times Square, New York. The street corners were busy places, where the largest crowds could be found. These prayer pretenders wanted more bang for their buck. They were aiming high and going for the gusto. The bigger the crowd, the greater the applause. This was what they wanted—the reward of man. The audience they were seeking in prayer was an earthly audience who yielded an earthly reward.
Jesus said, “they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:5). And, a sad reward it is when compared to the eternal reward that God gives to those who seek the audience of God. “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). Jesus is not suggesting that we have to pray in isolation. In fact, the pattern of prayer that He teaches just three verses later includes plural pronouns like “our” and “us” in the prayer. Rather, He is teaching us about focusing our attention on God and our intention on God’s glory.
Try to picture it. When you go into your room, you are separating yourself from the temptation of seeking to impress others. And, by shutting the door, you are canceling out the noise and distractions of the world. It is not necessarily that you are in a secret place physically, but that you are in a secret place mentally. You are positioning your heart and mind to commune in a deep way with the Lord. You are not there to show off. You are not there to impress. You are there to commune with God. He is the center. He is the focus.
Jesus is making the point that praying God’s way is making God the audience you seek. It is that we do whatever we must to bring our full attention to God in order to glorify Him in our seeking of Him and making most of Him. And, when you do, the Lord will reward you with a heavenly reward.
The Words You Speak in Prayer
It is not enough that we come to prayer seeking an audience with God alone. We also need to know what to say to Him in order for our prayer to be effective. This is the second course-correction that Jesus does. It begins with Matthew 6:7, “and when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
In the pagan cultures, it was common for their deities to be stubborn and reluctant to answer their subjects who were in need. So, when they prayed, they were demonstrative in order to badger their gods into responding. You might remember the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 who prayed but heard nothing from their god, so they danced around the altar, cried aloud, and mutilated themselves until they were bleeding out, and still they heard nothing. They believed, as some still do today, that you must arouse and badger God until he responds.
Today, people will offer lengthy and lofty prayers, sometimes lighting candles, playing with beads, repeating certain words, even turning wheels, in order to be heard by God. But Jesus says, “Don’t be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). Now, that is some good news. Isn’t it? We don’t need to badger our Lord to get a response. He already knows what we need. Does that mean that we don’t ask Him? No. He wants us to ask, but not badger. He is not a God who can be pestered into action.
John 14:13 can help us here. Jesus teaches in this verse that when He answers our prayer requests, it brings glory to God. “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Prayer is for God’s glory, not your own. And, He is glorified when we fall upon His grace and depend on His power. Our prayer requests turn into His response which causes us to praise Him for His action. So prayer is a win-win. We obediently ask and obediently glorify. What a gift!
Jesus is not done. He told us how we should not speak. Now, He will tell us how to speak. “Pray then like this,” He says (Matt. 6:9). What follows is a model prayer, not a prayer to be indefinitely repeated in itself. It is like a color-by-number. It provides for us the number, we just have to color it in with the appropriate hues.
Notice that this model prayer is not lofty, not lengthy, not magical, not even theologically deep. It says nothing about where to pray, how loud to pray, when to pray, or even who to pray with. It doesn’t say that we should fold our hands, kneel on our knees, or stand on our feet. He’s already taught us to do whatever it takes to make Him the audience we seek and to not try to impress Him with words. Rather, prayer can be simple and short, as long as it concerns itself with these elements.
There are six to draw from. The first three relate to God’s sovereign rule and the second three relate to your practical obedience. Or, you might think of them as His heart and your walk:
- “Hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). The word “hallow” is an archaic word that relates to a unique honor and a holy set apartness. To honor the name of the Lord means to proclaim the glory of His nature and the works He performs in the earth. God is glorified when we find our supreme joy in obeying Him. “God, sanctify my life so that I might honor you before others.”
- “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). When Jesus reigns in the hearts and lives of people, His kingdom is manifesting in the world. We are to pray that God rule our hearts in such a way that His gospel advances and His grace permeates the communities and cities in which we live. “God, help me advance your kingdom in the earth.”
- “Your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). Whatever God wants is what our hearts should request. The more we learn about the heart and plan of God in His word, the more accurate we can pray for His will to be done. We are to pray that God have His way, not that we have our way. “God, take the steering wheel of my heart and drive me wherever you want me to go.”
- “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). When the Israelites were in the wilderness, the Lord provided a supernatural bread that sustained them for the day. He is our provider, and He desires to give us what we need each day. It may be food, work, or health. God is interested in your physical and spiritual needs. “God, give me work or the concentration or the patience I need today.”
- “Forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). Our biggest need is communion with God, and sin brings conflict to that communion. So, we need to confess our sins and seek forgiveness. Now, this particular element of prayer comes with a condition, “Forgive us our [sins] as we also have forgiven [those who sinned against us]” (Matt. 6:12). Don’t let this confuse you. The emphasis here is communion with “your Father,” a phrase that is repeated numerous times. Sin will never separate you from the Father’s saving love, but it does cause tension within the relationship. When I offend my wife, she doesn’t divorce me, but she is hurt and I need to seek forgiveness. “God, bring to my attention those I need to forgive and forgive me for the wrongs that I have committed against you.”
- “Lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13). We have a tendency to walk ignorantly into the snare of temptation which can easily entrap us and bring us into sin. So, this final element is simply asking God to guide us into what is good and useful to our walk of faith. “God, lead me into the righteous paths that you desire.”
These are the elements of praying God’s way. It is not that you must include each of these when you pray, but that your prayer ought intersect with some of these in order for you to be praying effectively. In fact, when you sit down before a meal and thank God for His provisions you are praying for at least two elements: God’s daily bread and God’s display of honor. These elements ought to get you started in praying God’s way in order to gain a heavenly word.
The prayer that gains heaven’s reward focuses on God and God’s heart. Where is your heart during prayer? What are you praying for? Are you positioning yourself for a heavenly reward?