Our Father in heaven: a pattern for prayer (Luke 11, Matt 6) part I

In the series of Gospel readings offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, there is a break from the sequential readings begun in early January each year. This year—Year A—we began with the early chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew (from 2:1 through to 5:37); but when the season of Lent began, the Gospel readings were taken largely from John, with John and Luke featuring during the Sundays after Easter. Only now, after Trinity Sunday, does the sequential pattern resume.

However, that pattern begins with Matt 9 on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, jumping from where we had left the Gospel back in February, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. The missing chapters (5:38 to 9:8) are omitted by the lectionary. Now, the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are confronting and difficult—but that is no reason to avoid them!

What is omitted is the latter part of the sequence of Antitheses, including the command to love our enemies; teachings on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving; and a series of sayings about assorted matters, each of which presses us to be more intentional and focussed in our discipleship.

And in the middle of all of that, “pray then in this way”, says Jesus, giving his disciples a set of words (6:9–13) that has come to be known as The Our Father (after its opening phrase) or The Lord’s Prayer (after the one who gave it to his disciples). So before we get too far into the series of readings in the season of Pentecost, I thought I would offer some thoughts about this well-known and much-loved prayer.

Christians are used to praying this prayer on a regular basis, in obedience to the instructions of Jesus recorded in two Gospels: “when you pray, say …” (Luke 11:2; Matt 6:9). This prayer can be considered a succinct primer for prayer, since it contains the key elements of praying.

After an opening adoration of God (“our Father in heaven, holy is your name”), there follows prayers for the world (“your kingdom come, your will be done”), petitions for ourselves (“give us bread for the day, forgive us our sins, do not bring us to the time of trial”), and intercessions for others (“as we forgive those who sin against us”). In the later version of the prayer, a closing benediction is included (“yours is the kingdom, the power, the glory”), ending, of course, with “Amen”. The pattern is clear and concise.

Each element in this prayer is and expression of traditional Jewish piety; every line draws from Hebrew Scripture. Although this prayer is so frequently associated with Jesus, it is not a prayer that is original to him in its content or orientation. The originality of the prayer lies not in its content, but in the way that Jesus has drawn together each element into a cohesive unity.

The structure of the prayer is pleasingly aesthetic. There is an opening address to God (“our father in heaven”) and a closing benedictory phrase (“yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory”). These phrases frame the who,e prayer; whilst the largest component of the prayer, the inner section, is focussed on us where we are in this present time, the outer frames set our lives into this larger context.

Following the opening phrase, there are three clauses addressed to God (“holy is your name … your kingdom come … your will be done”). These clauses extend the opening address to God, identifying key elements in how we understand God. (See below for further discussion of this.) The third clause is extended with the phrase “on earth as in heaven”, drawing our attention to the close correlation that is expected between the divine and we human beings.

Before the closing phrase, there are three requests made of God, for ourselves (“give us bread for the day … forgive us our sins … do not bring us to the time of trial”) with the second and third phrases extended with an additional phrase (“as we forgive those who sin against us” and “rescue us from the evil one”).

The second extension draws the attention of people who are praying the prayer away from us as people praying (give us, forgive us) to others who are beyond the scope of the group praying—to other people in society with whom we engage day by day.

And the third extension draws the attention of people away from us as people within this material world, to a dimension that is somehow beyond, transcending this world. Reference to “the evil one” raises the spectre (oops!) of the realm of “principalities and powers” (as referred to in the epistles). Life as we know it is not entirely within our own control; there are other forces—both evil, and also good—that impinge upon us. It’s an interesting extension in a prayer which is, at least in the larger middle section, focussed on our here-and-now in this world.

So in my mind, just as the opening and closing phrases balance each other, so these three petitions balance with the three addresses to God in the earlier half of the prayer. The symmetry is not exact, in terms of precise syllables or words used; but the syntactical structure is clearly patterned and pleasingly symmetrical, in my mind.

And then, to make sure that we know that the prayer is ending, we have the tag-line, as it were: “for ever and ever, Amen”. So in my mind, quite often when I pray this prayer, I hear the structure as an invitation to pause, focus on God, remember our needs and remember also others, recall the immediate dimension as well as the transcendent, and then conclude with gratitude to God. The Amen at the end is the typical conclusion to prayer, signalling the agreement of the prayers and all present to what has been prayed.



The content of the prayer, as previously noted, draws at every point from Hebrew Scripture. The opening address identifies God as father, and as “hallowed”—a somewhat archaic adjective, rarely used now in common speech, meaning holy, consecrated, sacred, or revered. The related noun, hallow, denoted a saint in older English. The concept of being holy, however, was well- known in ancient Israel, and appears frequently in Hebrew Scripture.

Addressing God as “father in heaven” is found in just a few texts in Hebrew Scriptures: in the cry of “the faithful one”, “you are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!” (Ps 89:26), in the praises of the psalmist, “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps 68:5), and in the questioning of the prophet Malachi: “have we not all one father? has not one God created us? why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Mal 2:10).

By contrast, that God’s name is holy is an affirmation found many times in Hebrew Scriptures. God is addressed as holy (Ps 22:3) and God’s name is holy (Ps 30:4; 33:21; 97:12; 103:1; 105:3; 106:47; 111:9; 145:21). “Holy One” is a term applied to God in the Writings (Ps 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Job 6:10; Sir 4:14; 23:9; 53:10; 47:8; 48:20) and by the Prophets (Isa 1:4; 5:19, 24; and a further 24 times; Jer 50:29; Ezek 8:13; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3). When Hannah sings with joy of the son whom she is expecting, she describes God as the Holy One (1 Sam 2:2).

Just as God was holy (Lev 11:44; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8; 1 Sam 2:2; Ps 99:5, 9), so God had called Israel to be a holy people (Exod 19:5–6; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:19; 28:9) and to live lives of holiness (Lev 11:45; Ps 77:13). God provided the people with a “holy land” for them to live (Josh 5:15) and there was a “most holy place” in the heart of the Temple where God dwelt (1 Kings 7:50; 1 Chron 6:49). And so, the followers of Jesus are instructed to consider themselves as God’s holy people (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19; Eph 5:25–27; Col 1:22; 3:12; Heb 3:1; 1 Pet 1:13–16; 2:5, 9) and to live accordingly.

“Your kingdom come” also expresses a hope that is central to the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel, of course, eventually adopted the pattern of nations that surrounded it, and appointed a king (1 Sam 8–10)—although not without some wrangling with the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 8:10–18). The various kings of the ensuing centuries each had to reckon with the prophets that were anointed by God and gifted by the Spirit, often to their great frustration!

A number of psalms acknowledge that God is in fact sovereign over Israel, declaring “the Lord is king” (Ps 10:16; 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; and see also 1 Chron 16:31). “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever”, says one song (Ps 29:10), amd extending the scope of divine sovereignty, “the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth”, is a striking claim in Ps 47:2.

One psalm claims that the kingdom of the Lord “is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps 145:13; also Dan 4:3; 7:27). Whilst the prophets who speak about a future kingdom invariably foresee a restoration of the greatness of a Israel in the land (Isa 9:7; 11:1–5; Amos 9:11–15; Obad 1:21), the developing notions relating to the demand for justice-righteousness, the judgement of God, the prediction of a Day when the Lord will act, and the coming of The End are all premised on the sovereignty of the Lord God and a certainty that God will indeed act to bring in a time and a place where God’s ways will guide all. See

For “on earth as in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer, see

So Jesus stands firmly in that prophetic line of assurance in God’s sovereign power and certainty that God’s kingdom will come for people of all the nations (Mark 9:1; Matt 8:11; 16:28; 24:14; Luke 9:27; 13:29) and, indeed, that this kingdom has come near to Israel through his own message and activities, as he regularly declares (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17; 10:7; 12:28; Luke 10:9, 11; 11:20). So this line in the prayer expresses both faithful Jewish expectations and typical perspective of Jesus.

See more at

Preparing for Pentecost

The Spirit is an important figure in Christian experience and in Christian theology. The festival of Pentecost, which is celebrated this coming Sunday, is an opportunity to focus on the Spirit in the worship life of the Church. Every year, at Pentecost, the story of “the first Pentecost” is proceed by the lectionary as the reading: an account of how the Spirit was experienced by believers gathered in Jerusalem, 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Acts 2 forms a pivotal turning point in the story that Luke tells throughout his two-volume work, which we know as two separate books, The Gospel according to Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. The Spirit plays a crucial role in both volumes, beginning before Jesus and his cousin John are born, and continuing right through until the final thing that Paul says, when he meets with the Jewish leadership in Rome while under house arrest.

Over the last few years, I have written quite a number of posts for this week, as we approach Pentecost. I’ve listed them below, as you may wish to dip into some of them in the lead up to Pentecost.

Constantly devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1; Easter 7A)

During the season of Easter, we have been hearing stories from the book of Acts, with highlights this year with Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7), and then Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This coming Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the opening chapter of Acts (1:6-14), most likely in order to prepare for the reading that we will have the following week, on Pentecost Sunday (2:1-21). Here we encounter a community that was, as the NRSV translates, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer”.

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, for the First Reading the lectionary offers us a passage from Acts (1:6–14) which includes the story of the ascension of Jesus (1:6–11) and an insight into that early community, gathered in Jerusalem (1:12–14). This sets the scene for recounting various scenes from the life of the community in Jerusalem, where the earliest followers of Jesus establish a pattern of faithful living through their common life, their public witness, and their persistent adherence to their Jewish traditions. The whole section is located entirely within Jerusalem (1:4,8,12; 2:5; 4:5; 5:16; 6:7; 8:1).

Ten days separate the ascension of Jesus (forty days after Passover, 1:3) from the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (2:1, fifty days after Passover). Only two things are told of these ten days; already the process of selectivity which shaped Luke’s Gospel can be seen in his second volume.

In the previous blog, I noted that the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left. In this blog, my focus is on how that community of followers begins to prepare for that enterprise.

Thus, we learn only that the community had gathered on the day of ascension (1:12–14) and that at some stage in these days a replacement was found for Judas Iscariot (1:15–26). The material relating to Judas is omitted from the lectionary offering this year (it appears in Year B); you can read my take on this passage at

The list of those meeting in the upper room of the house in Jerusalem includes both eleven of the twelve already identified (Luke 6:14–16) as well as “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). That is consistent with the notes of women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:27, 49) as well as the presence of his brothers (Luke 8:19–21). The community which met together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” was a gender-inclusive group.

Luke uses a hugely significant Greek word here; the word homothumadon. This is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with most of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. It is most often translated as “all together”.

Luke initially tells of how “they were all together in the upper room” (1:12), forty days after the resurrection of Jesus—the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, they were all together once again, in the precincts of the Temple (2:1), along with devout Jews from all the nations surrounding Israel (2:9–11).

Then in the days following, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42), they continued to be all together; “they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (2:46).

And still later, the community of believers came together to welcome Peter and John, after their hearing before the authorities, and “they raised their voice to God all together in prayer” (4:24). And then again, some days later, “they were all together in Solomon’s porch” in the Temple precinct (5:12). Gathering together, meeting in unity, was a key characteristic of the early community of Jesus followers.

As the story continues, Phillip travelled north out of Judea into the region of Samaria, where he was preaching to the Samaritans. Here, Luke comments: “the people were all together listening to those things which Philip spoke” (8:6).

Then, some time later, after Saul had his Damascus Road experience and Peter had his vision of all foods being declared clean, after Paul and Silas and Barnabas had been travelling amongst the Gentiles sharing the good news, we read that there was a gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem, who conferred together, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, being assembled together as one, decided to choose … representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (15:22,25).

So the point is, with each step along the way, this little community of assorted disciples, was all together … or, of one accord, in another translation.

In the early chapters of Acts, as we have noted, we are at a very significant point of transition. Luke is clearly marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church.

Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos meaning “temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought.” One scholar writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor. The role of the conductor is to ensure that flutes and cellos, drums and violas, trumpets and clarinets, are all making their distinctive contribution to the end result—the piece of music being performed for the audience to enjoy.

Perhaps another appropriate image, today, might be of the way that the artist sets out a palette of colours to be used in painting, and as the creative activity gets underway, those various shades and hues and colours are mixed together in such a way as to produce an intricate, complex, and aesthetically pleasing end result: a work of art.

That is how Christian community is to function. That is what we are to be, as the people of God in the place where we gather. Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who have the same passion, who share the one persuasion, who are of the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose.

Homothumadon suggests both a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.

The word first appears in Greek literature from 500 years before the time of Jesus (in the plays of the dramatist Aristophanes, the treatises of the philosopher Plato, the oratory of the general Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group which drew together when facing a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.

In a sermon I gave on this passage, I noted that believers today stand with Peter and the disciples and the women and the brothers of Jesus in a liminal place, a place on the edge. We are leaving behind the old, reaching out to the new. The dramatic events of Pentecost, that we will recall in a week’s time, invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.

These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to be all together, to ‘act of one spirit’, to unite for the common good. May we be up to the challenge!


See also

Descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1; Advent 4A)

In the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by this Sunday’s lectionary, Paul refers explicitly to the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). In the midst of the Christmas carols and Christmas cake, the Christmas cards and the Christmas parties, there stands this stark affirmation: Jesus was a Jew. And, more specifically, that Jesus was a descendant of David.

It is noteworthy that Paul makes very little reference in his letters to the earthly life of Jesus; he is much more focussed on the death and the resurrection of Jesus, rather than his life of teaching, preaching, story-telling and miracle-working. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he makes a similar affirmation about the humanity, and the Jewishness, of Jesus: when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4).

Descended from David, born under the law: Jesus was clearly a Jew. That needs to sit at the heart of the story that we recall each year at this time. The Jewishness of Jesus is an essential element of the Christmas story.

Those who recount the story of Jesus, in the documents we know as the Gospels of the New Testament, are clear about this fact. Mark locates Jesus in Galilee, the northern part of the land of Israel, and identifies his home town as Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). Matthew and Luke follow the pattern established by Mark, in locating the vast majority of the activity of the adult Jesus in the northern regions of Israel.

Matthew intensifies this picture, however. At the start of his book of origins, he traces the lineage of Jesus back to David, and further back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). He traces this lineage of Jesus, not through his mother, Mary, but through Joseph—because it was Joseph who was of the lineage of David. This Davidic heritage of Jesus is central and important for Matthew, for he, most of all the evangelists, has characters in the story address Jesus as “Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42). He wants to advocate, as he tells his story, that it is through Jesus that the ancient promises to David will come to fruition.

At the start of his story, and at various places further on, Matthew notes that the actions and words of Jesus occur as fulfilment of prophetic words (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

Twice in his account of Jesus, Matthew is insistent that his active ministry and that of his first followers took place only amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). For Matthew, Jesus was resolutely, scrupulously, Jewish.

The Gospel of John also reinforces the Jewish identity of Jesus. The Samaritan woman describes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9), Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals (John 2:13, 6:4, 7:1-10, 10:22, 12:12, 13:1), in conformity with Jewish piety. When Pilate questions Jesus, he recognises him as King of the Jews (18:33-35) and refers Jesus to Jewish leaders for their decision (18:31, 19:6-7, 19:14). Pilate then has him crucified under a sign identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (as, indeed, the other three Gospels also report).

In the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish identity of Jesus is recounted, repeated, and intensified. Although often touted as the evangelist who most strongly orients the story of Jesus towards Gentiles throughout the hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, Luke actually sets his orderly account in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6).

The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).

In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). These are, by rights, the first Christmas carols—songs which sing of the one to come, which tell of the birth of one promised, which look with hope to the change he will effect. And they are resolutely Jewish.

The children whose births are recounted in these early chapters of Luke—Jesus and his cousin John—bear the weight of traditional Jewish hopes and expectations as they come into being. They are born as faithful Jews. They both lived in fidelity to the Jewish law. The mission of Jesus to fulfil the hopes articulated by Jewish prophets (Luke 4:18-21) and to point to the promise of the kingdom ruled by God (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) which, he proclaimed, was already becoming a reality in his own time (Luke 17:20).

The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24) in accordance with Jewish custom, and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).

So we would do well not to skirt away from this very particular and specific aspect of the Christmas story.

As we come to the celebration of the child in the manger, let us remember that he spoke with a voice that called people—his people in Israel, and people beyond his people—to the enticing vision (sourced from the Hebrew prophets) of a world renewed and reconciled, where righteousness and justice were realities, where the hopes of Israel could flourish and come to fruition. That is the thoroughly Jewish vision that the story of Jesus offers.


The featured picture portrays a Judean man from Jesus’s time, based on archaeological findings, and is often used as an image for what the historical Jesus may have looked like.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/