A little while ago I had a curious discussion with someone online. Commenting on one of the events for Remembrance, I noted that the prayer said by the Christian leader took the form of a general invocation of a deity, but wasn’t actually a Christian prayer. ‘What do you mean by a Christian prayer?’ came the response. ‘One that is Trinitarian’ I replied. ‘Well, in that case, the Lord’s Prayer isn’t a Christian prayer’.
I was rather struck by that, not just as I hadn’t considered it, but also because it explains something about how the Lord’s Prayer is commonly used. The Ten Commandments have been commonly thought of as a general set of rules for life that anyone can follow. In their location in Exodus 20 they begin with the explicit introduction that ‘I am the Lord you God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery’—yet the Commandments are separated off as if this story and context did not matter, and detached from the story of God’s dealings with his people Israel. In a similar way, the Lord’s Prayer is often treated as a general kind of prayer that anyone can say. It is that assumption which made the controversy, several years ago, about showing the prayer recited in cinemas rather odd. Even Richard Dawkins thought there could be little objection! The two belong together, not least because it was in the past traditional in many churches to have the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer displayed on either side of the Communion table at the east end of the church building.
But this raises the question even more sharply:in what sense is the Lord’s Prayer Christian? Is it a prayer that assumes or requires that the person saying it is a Christian? Is it Trinitarian—that is, does it bear the hallmarks of that thing which distinguishes Christian belief from all others? Kevin Giles, commenting on the historically orthodox understanding of the Trinity, comments on the ordering within the Trinity in the following terms:
Although the three divine persons are the one God, working inseparably with one will, their life is ordered. Both in eternity and in the world of space and time, how they relate to each other and how they operate follow a consistent pattern that is unchanging and irreversible. This order in divine life is seen in many ways. For example, there is a processional order: the Father begets the Son and breathes out the Spirit in eternity and sends them both into the world in time. ere is a numerical order: the Father may be thought of as the first person of the Trinity, the Son the second, and the Spirit the third. And there is order in how God comes to us and we to him: the Father comes to us through the Son in the Spirit, and we come to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. This order in divine life and operations, it needs to be stressed, does not envisage any sub-ordering in divine life. Ranking or hierarchically ordering the three divine persons in being or power introduces the Arian error.
I think this helpfully identifies the nature of Christian prayer, which is to the Father, through the Son, and in or by the Spirit. Mike Higton, in his explanation of the Trinity in words of one syllable, puts it slightly differently:
So there is God, the one to whom we pray, the one to whom we look, to whom we call out, the one who made the world and who loves all that has been made. And then there is God by our side, God once more the one with whom we pray; God in the life of this man who shares our life, this man who lives the life of God by our side, and who pours out his life in love for us. And then there is God in our hearts, God in our guts, God one more time, the stream in which we dip our toes, the stream in which we long to swim, the stream which filled the Son and can fill us too, and bear us in love back to our source.
Mike is here constrained in his language by the commitment to use only words of one syllable. And he is not suggesting any kind of modalism here; rather, these are the three realities of who God is for the Christian believer. This is what it means for prayer to be Trinitarian, and it is why some kind of Trinitarian formula is often included in Christian prayers—and at the very least a mention that we pray in the name of Jesus, and to the Father.
So in what sense is the Lord’s Prayer Trinitarian? Well, it is clearly addressed to God as Father, and the prayer is presented in the gospels as being taught by Jesus. But the question remains: where is the Spirit?
The first thing to note is the place of the prayer in Luke’s gospel. Matthew presents the prayer (Matt 6.9–13) in the context of Jesus’ teaching in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, and particularly in the context of Jesus’ teaching about the devotional practices of giving, prayer and fasting. It is clear (for the whole ‘Sermon’) that Matthew is organising his account of Jesus’ teaching according to thematic links, just as he groups together his parables about the kingdom in Matthew 13 and his teaching about eschatology in Matthew 24–25.
But the context of Luke’s slightly shorter version (Luke 11.2–3) is quite different. First, it actually springs from the example of Jesus’ own prayer, which his disciples observe, and then ask him to teach them to pray in the way he does (which raises the interesting question about the petitions for forgiveness of sins and resistance to temptation). But, secondly, Jesus then immediately follows the prayer by teaching about asking for the gift of the Spirit. There appears to be the implicit assumption that this is not a prayer you can prayer without the Spirit’s help.
What of the specific wording of the prayer? Can we find the Spirit there?
Our Father in heaven. Although addressing God as father was not unknown in first century Judaism, all the evidence suggests that it was Jesus’ distinctive and striking form of address to God, so that we have in Mark’s gospel the Aramaic term ‘Abba’ that Jesus actually used in Gethsemane (Mark 14.36). Moreover, Paul is clear that a key work of the Spirit is to grant us the same relationship with God after the pattern of Jesus:
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Gal 4.6)
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Rom 8.15)
Addressing God as father is something the Spirit works in us and, just as Paul says quite clearly ‘No-one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 12.3), we might add by inference ‘No-one can call God “Father” except by the same Spirit’.
May your name be-known-as-holy. The Spirit is described as ‘Holy’ throughout the gospels, Paul, Hebrews and 1 Peter. A large part of the work of the Spirit in us is sanctification—make us more and more holy as God is holy—so that Paul addresses those to whom he writes as ‘saints’, holy ones. So we find the language of the people of God being ‘sanctified’ all through the letters (for example, 1 Cor 1.2, 6.11, 1 Thess 5.23, Heb 10.10) but there is also one occurrence which echoes the language here of God being sanctified: ‘In your hearts sanctify Jesus as Lord’ (1 Peter 3.15).
May your kingdom come. In the ministry of Jesus and in the growth of the church, under the leadership of the apostles in Acts, the coming of the kingdom and the ministry of the Spirit are intertwined.
If it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matt 2.28)
It is rather poignant that, when the disciples in Act 1 ask about the kingdom of God in terms of Israel nationalism, Jesus’ response is offered in terms of their testimony in the power of the Spirit:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1.8)
The reason for this is that, both in Jewish expectation and in the narrative of the New Testament, the kingdom of God is brought to us by the one who has been anointed (the christos) by his Spirit. There is such a close relationship between these two that, though the kingdom is most often described as the ‘kingdom of God’ or (mostly in Matthew) the ‘kingdom of heaven’, it is occasionally described as ‘the kingdom of Christ’ (2 Peter 1.11, and implied in 2 Tim 4.1, ‘his kingdom’) or the kingdom of both Christ and God (Eph 5.5, Rev 11.15). In other places, the kingdom of God is equated with the ‘teaching about Jesus Christos‘ (Acts 28.31) or the ‘authority of the Christos‘ (Rev 12.10).
May your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Although ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ refer in spatial terms to the realm of God’s presence, and the creation which has become estranged from him, in the New Testament they also have a temporal reference, in that the ‘age to come’ will involve heaven coming down to earth, depicted in Revelation 21 as the New Jerusalem coming to earth from God. Paul talks of the Spirit as the ‘deposit’, the first downpayment of that which is to come (2 Cor 1.22), so we have a foretaste now of the heavenly realm as we ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ (Gal 5.25). In other words, where the Spirit is Lord (2 Cor 3.17) there is a little oasis of ‘heaven’ on earth.
It is worth noting here that the structure of the prayer is quite different from how it is prayer in most English versions. In English, we tend to treat the opening solution and the first intention together as a form of address:
after which we add the other two intentions. But the structure in Matthew 6.9–10 says something quite different:
Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·
ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου
Following the appellation ‘Our Father in heaven’ we then have three intentions, each of four words, in exact parallel with each other in their verbal structure. In other words, we cannot separate the hallowing of God’s name from the coming of his kingdom and the doing of his will. The second and third can never refer to mere social change, separate from the life of discipleship, but must involve the honouring of God as holy.
Give us today our daily bread. The term here translated ‘daily’ (ἐπιούσιος) is unusual, occurring only here in the New Testament (in Matt 6.11 and Luke 11.3). It has the sense of ‘bread of the day to come’, so is rendered by some as ‘bread of the morrow’—that is, bread of the heavenly age, gifted to us in the present that we might do the works of the kingdom. This, again, ties in with the gift of the Spirit, and particularly in Luke, Jesus’ teaching and ministry is exercised ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14), even after his resurrection (Acts 1.2).
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. In Gal 5, Paul contrasts the impulses of the sinful human nature (‘flesh’) with the fruit of Spirit. In Acts 2.38, Peter links repentance, the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Spirit, and these are assumed links not only in John’s baptism of Jesus and the coming down of the Spirit (though in Jesus’ case this is not a ‘baptism for forgiveness of sins’) but also in the incident in Acts 8:14-17 when the Samaritans have been baptised but (oddly) not yet received the Spirit. In relation to forgiving others, Paul’s central meditation on love as the heart of true S/spirituality in 1 Cor 13 includes the qualities of ‘patience’ and ‘not keeping a record of wrongs’ (1 Cor 13.5).
When we receive new life in the Spirit, we are stepping into a life of forgiveness—that which we have received from God, and which we live our in our relationships with others.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. In all three synoptic accounts, the Spirit is integral to Jesus’ temptations in the desert and his resisting them. In Mark 1.12, the Spirit ‘throws’ or drives Jesus into the desert; in Luke’s account, Jesus enters the desert ‘full of the Spirit’ but returns from the experience ‘full of the power of the Holy Spirit‘ (Luke 4.1, 14).
The net result of all this is that, though the Spirit might not be named explicitly within the Prayer, the work of the Spirit is the essential corollary to every aspect of praying the Prayer. Perhaps that explains why so many find it an easy prayer to say, without fully realising the implications. It is only as we encounter God as Spirit that we really understand all that this prayer of Jesus, prayed to the Father, actually involves.
Do you see any other connections? Do please comment!
(A shorter version was previously published in 2019.)