The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer

(Originally published in Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, ed. R.L. Longenecker. 2001, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 132-54.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)


“AS OUR SAVIOR CHRIST hath commanded and taught us, we are bold to say: ‘Our Father. . . .’”  So runs the old liturgical formula, stressing the Pater Noster as a command and its use as a daring, trembling, holy boldness.  At one level, this is entirely appropriate.  At another level, however, it fails to catch the most remarkable thing about the Lord’s Prayer — and so fails to grasp the truly distinctive feature in Christian prayer that this prayer points us to.  For the Lord’s Prayer is not so much a command as an invitation: an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself.

Seen with Christian hindsight — more specifically, with trinitarian perspective — the Lord’s Prayer becomes an invitation to share in the divine life itself.  It becomes one of the high roads into the central mystery of Christian salvation and Christian existence: that the baptized and believing Christian is (1) incorporated into the inner life of the triune God and (2) intended not just to believe that this is the case, but actually to experience it.

The Lord’s Prayer, along with the Eucharist, forms the liturgical equivalent to what Eastern Orthodox church architecture portrays and western Gothic architecture depicts — both developing, each in its own way, the central temple theology of Judaism.  The God worshiped here, says this architecture, is neither a remote dictator nor simply the sum total of human god-awareness.  This God is both intimately present within the worldand utterly beyond, other, and different from it.  He is present to celebrate with his people and to grieve with them, to give them his rich blessings and to rescue them from all ills, because he is also sovereign over heaven and earth, sea and dry land, all the powers of this world, and even over the urgings of the human heart.  The Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to know this God and to share his innermost life.

All this is so, more particularly, because the Lord’s Prayer is the “true Exodus” prayer of God’s people.  Set originally in a thoroughgoing eschatological context, its every clause resonates with Jesus’ announcement that God’s kingdom is breaking into the story of Israel and the world, opening up God’s long-promised new world and summoning people to share it.  If this context is marginalized — or regarded as of historical interest only (because, for instance, as some would suggest, the Parousia did not arrive on schedule) — the prayer loses its peculiar force and falls back into a generalized petition for things to improve, albeit still admittedly to God’s glory.  In order for it to be prayed with anything approaching full authenticity, therefore, it is necessary to be grasped afresh by the eschatological vision and message of Jesus himself, who announced the true Exodus, the real return from exile, and all that is implied by these wide-ranging shorthand expressions.  (On these topics, see my Jesus and the Victory of God [1996].)

I begin this article, therefore, with some reflections on the rootedness of the Lord’s Prayer within the ministry and kingdom announcement of Jesus.  This will lead to a fuller exposition of the way in which the Lord’s Prayer opens up the heart of Jesus’ “New Exodus” project and invites those who so pray to become part of it.  And this will then lead to some reflections on the shape and content of Christian liturgical praying and private praying, and, finally, to some concluding remarks moving on from the “Our Father” of Jesus’ ministry to the Abba cry of which Paul speaks in Galatians 4 and Romans 8.

1. The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ Own Prayer Life

References to Jesus’ own practice of private prayer are scattered throughout the Gospels and clearly reflect an awareness on the part of his first followers that this kind of private prayer — not simply formulaic petitions, but wrestling with God over real issues and questions — formed the undercurrent of his life and public work.  The prayer that Jesus gave his followers embodies his own prayer life and his wider kingdom ministry in every clause.

Father/Our Father

Jesus’ own address to God, it appears, regularly included “Father.”  Though the Aramaic word Abba is only found in the Gospels in the Gethsemane narrative at Mark 14:36, there is a broad consensus (1) that Jesus indeed used this word in prayer, and (2) that the notion of God’s fatherhood — though, of course, known also in Judaism — took central place in his own attitude to God in a distinctive way.  So when the prayer given to his followers begins with “Father” (Luke 11:2) or “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9; cf. Didache 8:2-3, which also begins “Our Father”), we must understand that Jesus wants them to see themselves as sharing his own characteristic spirituality — that is, his own intimate, familial approach to the Creator.  The idea of God’s fatherhood, and of building this concept into the life of prayer, was not, as must again be stressed, a novelty within Judaism.  But the centrality and particular emphasis that Jesus gave it represents a new departure.

Hallowed Be Your Name

The sanctifying of God’s name, as in the clause “hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2//Matt. 6:9), is not a major theme in the Gospels.  Where it does occur — as, for example, in Mary’s exclamation, “Holy is his name!” (Luke 1:49); or Jesus’ prayer, “Father, glorify your name,” and the Father’s response, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28) — it appears as a natural, and typically Jewish, affirmation of God’s holiness and majesty.  But the hallowing or sanctifying of God’s name is thoroughly consistent with the sort of work that Jesus conceived himself to be undertaking.

Your Kingdom Come

The coming of God’s kingdom, however, as expressed by the petition “your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10//Luke 11:2), is a major theme throughout the entire Gospel tradition.  And though its interpretation has sometimes been controversial, there is no doubt (1) that Jesus made this the central theme of his proclamation and (2) that he meant by it that the long-awaited kingdom or rule of God, which involved the salvation of Israel, the defeat of evil, and the return of YHWH himself to Zion, was now at last happening (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, chs. 6-10).

Inaugurated eschatology, or the presence and the future of God’s kingdom, was a hallmark of Jesus’ public career — as it was, probably, of the Teacher of Righteousness a century or more earlier (see M. O. Wise, The First Messiah, which is a stimulating and suggestive book, even if the argument is possibly pressed too far) and of Simeon ben-Kosiba a hundred years later.  Where the leader, God’s chosen one, was present, the kingdom was already present.  But there was, of course, still work to be done, redemption to be won.  The present and the future did not cancel one another out, as in some unthinking scholarly constructions.  Nor did “present” mean “a private religious experience” and “future” mean “a Star Wars-type apocalyptic scenario.”

The presence of the kingdom meant that God’s anointed Messiah was here and was at work — that he was, in fact, accomplishing, as events soon to take place would show, the sovereign and saving rule of God.  The future of the kingdom was the time when justice and peace would embrace one another and the whole world — the time from which perspective one could look back and see that the work had, indeed, begun with the presence and work of the anointed leader (see Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 10).

To pray “your kingdom come” at Jesus’ bidding, therefore, meant to align oneself with his kingdom movement and to seek God’s power in furthering its ultimate fulfillment.  It meant adding one’s own prayer to the total performance of Jesus’ agenda.  It meant celebrating in the presence of God the fact that the kingdom was already breaking in, and looking eagerly for its consummation.  From the centrality of the kingdom in his public proclamation and the centrality of prayer in his private practice, we must conclude that this kingdom prayer grew directly out of and echoed Jesus’ own regular praying.

 Your Will Be Done

The performance of God’s will, as voiced in the entreaty “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) — whether one sees that clause as subordinate to the clause “your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10//Luke 11:2) or as distinct — chimes in with the emphasis of Jesus at several points in his recorded work.  This is particularly noticeable in John’s Gospel.  But it finds many echoes in the Synoptic Gospels, not least in Luke’s repetition of how God’s will must be fulfilled.

 Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

The prayer for bread, as in “give us today [or, ‘day by day’] our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11//Luke 11:3), awakens echoes that resound throughout Jesus’ public ministry.  The two evangelists who give us the Lord’s Prayer also give us the temptation stories, where Jesus’ hunger and his refusal to create bread for himself feature prominently (cf. Matt. 4:2-4; Luke 4:2-3).  The wilderness feeding stories suggest both a literal feeding and a symbolic act that demonstrated God’s power, operative through Jesus, to provide for the needs of the people (cf. Mark 6:32-44 par.; 8:1-10 par.).  Jesus’ own prayers of thanks on these occasions (cf. Mark 6:41 par.; 8:6 par.; see also Luke 24:30) are translated by the Lord’s Prayer into a trustful prayer for God’s regular provision.

One of the most securely established features of Jesus’ public ministry in recent discussion, with only an occasional dissenter (e.g., D. C. Allison Jr., Jesus of Nazareth), is his frequent participation in the festive meals of his day, where he celebrated the kingdom with all comers.  One does not have to go all the way with the members of the Jesus Seminar, who have described Jesus as “the proverbial party animal,” in order to appreciate that the sharing of food, both actually and symbolically, was a central feature of his life.

The sequence of meals in the story of Jesus reaches its climax, of course, in the Last Supper.  The bread there was — again in the context of prayer — given a special meaning, which echoes back throughout Jesus’ lifetime and on to the cross and his resurrection.  To pray for bread (whether for “today,” as in Matthew, or for “day by day.” as in Luke), therefore, is once again to align oneself with one of the most central and practical symbols of Jesus’ kingdom work.  Bread follows from and symbolizes the kingdom, both in the Lord’s Prayer and in Jesus’ own career.

Forgive Us Our Debts/Sins

The prayer for forgiveness — “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12); “forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4) — is the one instance of a prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray that they did not suppose he needed to pray himself.  The well-known scene of John the Baptist’s initial objection to baptizing Jesus (Matt. 3:14-15) and the very early tradition of Jesus’ personal sinlessness (cf. John 7:18; 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22) bear witness to the great divide at this point between Jesus and his followers.  They needed to repent and seek God’s forgiveness, but he did not.

This exception, however, clearly proves the rule that the Lord’s Prayer was intended by Jesus to bind his followers closely to the agenda of his whole ministry.  Forgiveness, which is offered freely and without recourse to the temple system, was another hallmark of Jesus’ work — indeed, so much so that it was the cause of scandal (as, e.g., in Mark 2:5-12).  Furthermore, there is good reason to think that Jesus regarded this free offer of forgiveness as a central part of his inauguration of the new covenant, and that he saw the corresponding obligation to mutual forgiveness as a necessary badge of membership (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, 268-74).  This prayer for forgiveness, therefore, though not aligning itself with anything in Jesus’ own spirituality, belongs very closely with the total picture of Jesus’ public ministry, as his ministry is set out in the Gospel narratives.

Lead Us Not into Temptation, but Deliver Us from the Evil One

With the prayer about deliverance from temptation (peirasmos) and the evil one (ho poneros) of Matt. 6:13, we are back again with Jesus.  Again, the temptation narratives of Matt. 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are close at hand as part of the context; and again, the Gethsemane scene and the complex of “trials” before Caiaphas and Pilate offer themselves as the wider setting.

Jesus’ whole public career was marked by “trials” of one sort or another — by what he, and the evangelists, saw as a running battle with the powers of evil, whether in the form of possessed souls shrieking in the synagogues or angry souls challenging in the marketplace.  The fact that Jesus was not spared these trials, but had to face them at their fiercest, suggests a clue as to the meaning of this controversial clause, which we will pursue later.

Here in the prayer of deliverance is, once again, one of the clearest overtones in the Lord’s Prayer: “Let me be as my Master.”  “You are those,” says Jesus in Luke 22:28, “who have continued with me in my trials (en tois peirasmois mou).”  So in giving this prayer, Jesus is inviting his followers to share his own struggles and to experience the same spirituality that sustained him.

This brief survey is enough to demonstrate that the Lord’s Prayer is by no means simply a collage of vaguely suitable material culled from the liturgical culture of Second Temple Judaism.  Its shape and content remind us of the public career of Jesus at every point.  And since Jesus’ public career was solidly rooted and reflected in his own life of prayer, we must conclude that the Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to share Jesus’ own prayer life — and with it his agenda, his work, his pattern of life, and his spirituality.  The Lord’s Prayer marks out Jesus’ followers as a distinct group not simply because Jesus gave it to them, but because it encapsulates his own mission and vocation.  And it does this in a form appropriate for his followers, which turns them into his co-workers and fellow-laborers in prayer for the kingdom.

Of course, if one thinks of Jesus simply as a great human teacher, then summoning his followers to share his own pattern and style of prayer is a reasonable commonplace.  But if we accept the early Christian assessment of Jesus — with its dramatically high, though still Jewish, Christology — what has been said so far strongly implies that here within the Lord’s Prayer we are meeting the beginnings of trinitarian soteriology: the Son is inviting his followers to share the intimacy of his own life with the Father.

2. People of the New Exodus

All of what we have set out above, however, leads us to the present, main section of this article.  In this section the theses will be proposed (1) that Jesus saw his kingdom work in terms of the much-hoped-for “New Exodus,” and (2) that the Lord’s Prayer encapsulates this vision.

The Lord’s Prayer as Encapsulating and Celebrating a New Exodus Vision

The events of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, the people’s wilderness wanderings, and their entry into the promised land were of enormous importance in the self-understanding and symbolism of all subsequent generations of Israelites, including Jews of the Second Temple period.  The geographical “return” of the nation from exile, however, had not been matched by the fulfillment of the promises that Israel would be free from pagan domination and free to serve YHWH in her own land.  When that happened, it was expected that the Exodus would form the backdrop for that much-longed-for real return from exile (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, xvii-xviii and passim; idem, “In Grateful Dialogue”).

When YHWH restored the fortunes of Israel, it would be like a new Exodus — a new and greater liberation from an enslavement greater than that in Egypt.  There are signs of this theme scattered liberally throughout the Gospels.  The reported conversation of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in Luke 9:31, where the focus of their discussion is on Jesus’ “exodus” that he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem, is one prominent example of this theme.  And the Lord’s Prayer can best be seen in this light as well — that is, as the prayer of the new wilderness wandering people.

Typological correspondences between the Exodus of Israel’s memory and the New Exodus of Christian proclamation are complex, and should not be pressed for exact one-to-one correspondences.  That is not how this sort of thing works.  Nonetheless, it may be reasonably claimed that for the evangelists — and arguably for Jesus himself — the equivalent of the crossing of the Red Sea is the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Last Supper is the Passover meal that anticipates, and gives meaning to, the great act of liberation.  From that point of view, the wilderness wandering, led by the pillar of cloud and fire, does not occur until the post-Easter period — where exactly this theme is picked up, as we will see, by Paul in Romans 8.

There are some signs, indeed, that Jesus saw the period of his ministry as, at least in certain respects, parallel to that of Moses at the court of Pharaoh.  Luke 11:20, for example, alluding to Exod. 8:19, portrays Jesus as saying: “If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  The parallel in Matt. 12:28 has “spirit” for “finger,” so it is, of course, possible that Luke deliberately created an Exodus allusion in a Jesus saying where it was not originally present.  But even if an accumulation of such points were held to prove that Jesus regarded his followers prior to Calvary and Easter as still “in Egypt,” I would still argue that the Lord’s Prayer was designed to constitute them as “Exodus People,” “Freedom People” — indeed, as “New Covenant People.”

The Lord’s Prayer, in fact, was designed to encapsulate and celebrate, in the presence of God, the liberation that had already begun to take place and that had yet to be completed.  It was designed to enable Jesus’ followers to beseech the Father that they would be enabled to remain loyal to his freedom purposes through all the tribulations that lay ahead.  This can be seen more particularly as we look again at each of the clauses of the Lord’s Prayer from a New Exodus perspective.

Father/Our Father

In highlighting echoes from the Exodus tradition in the Lord’s Prayer, we must begin, of course, with “Father”: “Israel is my son, my firstborn; let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exod. 4:22-23); “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).  Calling God “Father” not only evokes all kinds of associations of family life and intimacy; more importantly, it speaks to all subsequent generations of God as the God of the Exodus, the God who rescues Israel precisely because Israel is God’s firstborn son.  The title Father says as much about Israel, and about the events through which God will liberate Israel, as it does about God.

Jesus’ own sense of vocation, that of accomplishing the New Exodus, was marked principally by his awareness of God as Father (cf. my Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 13).  Now in the Lord’s Prayer he invites his followers to consider themselves Exodus people.  Their cry for redemption will be heard and answered.

Hallowed Be Your Name

God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, speaking his name and giving it as the main reason why he could be trusted to bring the children of Israel out of captivity (cf. Exod. 3:13-16).  And it was the honor and reputation of YHWH’s name that Moses would subsequently use as the fulcrum in his great prayer for Israel’s forgiveness after the episode of the golden calf — a theme that was also picked up by Joshua after the debacle at Ai (cf. Exod. 32:11-14; Josh. 7-9).  The sanctifying of God’s name, in other words, has to do once more not merely with God’s own reputation in, as it were, a private capacity, but with the fact that he is committed to and in covenant with the people of Israel.  To pray that God’s name be hallowed, therefore, is to pray that the Exodus may not only happen but be followed through to its proper conclusion — that is, that Israel be redeemed not only from the original slavery of Egypt, but also from the sin and rebellion that keeps her from arriving and safely settling in the promised land.

Your Kingdom Come

The sovereign rule of the one true God is, of course, the main subtext of the battle between Moses and Pharaoh.  As with Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the story of the Exodus is a story about which God is the stronger. It is in deliberate evocation of the Exodus theme that Isa. 52:7-10 writes of the great return:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace;
who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see YHWH returning to Zion. . . .
YHWH has made bare his holy arm before all the nations;
all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

The Exodus is the background; the great return the foreground; the kingdom of YHWH the main theme.  This is the context of Jesus’ own kingdom announcement, the setting that gives meaning to the kingdom clause in the Lord’s Prayer.

Your Will Be Done

The doing of YHWH’s will on earth as in heaven is, of course, part of the whole apocalyptic theme in which heavenly truths and events become embodied in their earthly counterparts.  Part of the point of the whole Sinai theophany — the central part, in fact, of the Exodus story — was the meeting of heaven and earth, with Moses as the intermediary who went to and fro between the two spheres, so that laws and instructions made in heaven could be carried out on earth.  This anticipates (or, depending on one’s view of Pentateuchal origins, reflects) the temple theology in which the sanctuary was considered to be quite literally the place where heaven and earth met.  If Torah was the means by which, within Israel, God’s will was to be done on earth as in heaven, and if the temple was the place where this was embodied in cultic celebration and sacrifice, to pray that this might happen anew — within the context of the New Exodus motifs already so strongly present — was to pray not merely that certain things might occur within the earthly realm that would coincide with plans that God had made in the heavenly realm, but that a fresh integration of heaven and earth would take place in which all that temple and Torah had stood for would be realized afresh.  It was to pray both that God’s saving purpose for Israel and the world would come about through God’s personal action, and that God’s people would find themselves not merely shaped by a law, however divine, or focused on a building, however God-given, but embraced by a saving personal love.

“Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” can, of course, carry all sorts of further overtones, such as prayers for wise political solutions to world-shaking crises, prayers for bread for the hungry, and prayers for justice for the oppressed.  But at its heart lies a prayer for the appropriate integration of heaven and earth that the early Christians came to see already accomplished in Jesus himself — who was like Moses, but so much more so — and came to long for in God’s eventual future (cf. Rev. 21; see also Rom. 8:17-30, which we will discuss later).

Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

The prayer for bread has its historical background in the provision of manna in the wilderness.  God’s daily gift, following the people’s grumbling, became the stuff of legend.  Jesus’ actions in the feeding miracles alluded to the wilderness stories, as the evangelists (especially John) suggest.  In the context of the Lord’s Prayer, this clause aligns the followers of Jesus with the wilderness generation and their need to know God’s daily supply of not only literal bread but also of all that it symbolized.

Manna was not needed in Egypt.  Nor would it be needed in the promised land.  It is the food of inaugurated eschatology, the food that is needed because the kingdom has already broken in and because it is not yet consummated.  The daily provision of manna signals that the Exodus has begun, but also that we are not yet living in the land.

Forgive Us Our Debts/Sins

The story of the manna, however, was also the story of Israel’s sin and lack of faith.  The prayer for forgiveness, therefore, is quite appropriate in this context, and not merely another item in a shopping-list of spiritual needs and wants.  In the light of Jeremiah 31 and Jesus’ offer of forgiveness as the central blessing of the new covenant — that is, the great return that was happening through his work — forgiveness is raised to a new height.  If the Egypt from which the New Exodus is freeing God’s people is the Egypt of sin and all that it produces, then the prayer “forgive us our sins” becomes precisely the prayer of those still in Egypt: “Deliver us from Pharaoh!”

Matthew and the Didache, of course, present Jesus as speaking of the forgiveness of debts (as in Matthew) or debt (as in the Didache).  I have elsewhere agreed with those who see in this a sign of the Jubilee, and of Jesus’ intention being that his followers should celebrate it amongst themselves (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, 294-95).  The Jubilee provisions, of course, look back to the fact that Israel had been enslaved in Egypt and that God had rescued and delivered her (cf. Lev. 25:38, 42, 55).  They were part of the Exodus theology.  In the same way, Jesus’ demand that his followers should forgive one another belongs precisely within the same logic.  Redeemed slaves must themselves live as redemption people.  The inner connection between forgiving others and being forgiven oneself, which is so strongly emphasized in Matt.6:14-15 and 18:21-35 (cf. Sirach 28:1-7), grows directly out of this Exodus motif.

Lead Us Not into Temptation, but Deliver Us from the Evil One

In this wider context the difficulties about the clause “Do not lead us to ‘the testing,’” which are reflected in current debates about the wording for liturgical use, may be addressed with some hope of success.  Who is testing whom, with what intent, and with what result?

The normal assumption is that the prayer is asking to be spared having one’s faith tested by God.  But the tradition throughout early Christianity that sees the testing of one’s faith as a necessary part of discipleship — indeed, as a following of Jesus — speaks strongly against such an understanding.  Is it, then, as Albert Schweitzer thought, the eschatological peirasmos— the Great Tribulation, the worst moment in history — that the prayer is asking to be spared from?  A strong case for this reading can be made out, and I have myself taken this line in the past (cf. Jesus and the Victory of God, esp. 577-79).

On this view, Jesus believed that “Messianic Woes” were coming on Israel, and that it was his particular task and vocation to go out ahead and take the full weight of them on himself, so that the people would not need to undergo them.  This would explain the repetition in Gethsemane of his command to his disciples: “Watch and pray, that you may not enter the peirasmos” (Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38; Luke 22:46) — meaning by that command: “Pray that you may be spared this great moment of anguish; it is my task to enter it alone.”  (We may note, however, that when Jesus himself prayed a somewhat similar prayer the answer was “No.”).  And such an interpretation fits well with what I have elsewhere argued to be Jesus’ perception of the moment of crisis in which he saw himself to have a central role.

But it remains somewhat strange to see this as the complete explanation of “lead us not into temptation.”  For if the early church came to believe that in some sense the great peirasmos had, indeed, happened to Jesus on the cross, why would they have continued to pray this clause in the Lord’s Prayer thereafter?  Granted, the fall of Jerusalem, which was still in the future for those who handed on the early traditions, had been spoken of by Jesus in similarly dramatic terms, as witness Mark 13 and its parallels.  But what about after that, in the period when we must assume the Didache, at least, to have been written — and most likely the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well?

One possible answer, of course, is that in the days following AD 70 the church looked beyond the fall of Jerusalem to the final moment when God would redeem the whole of creation — and that such a futuristic vision included a final, yet-to-occur tribulation.  But this possibility, which we can see reflected perhaps in the Book of Revelation, only sharpens the question.  For then we must ask: Did the church expect to be in some sense spared the sufferings of this final tribulation? Did not salvation consist, rather, in remaining faithful within it? This, then, leads us to reconsider the Exodus tradition and to search for other possible meanings.

The most probable explanation, I propose, is that the “testing” is not God’s testing of his people but the people’s testing of God (cf. J. Gibson, “Testing Temptation”). One of the central charges against the wilderness generation was that they, in their unbelief, “put YHWH to the test” by challenging him to produce demonstrations of his presence with them (cf. Exod. 17:7).  The particular issue, of course, was YHWH’s provision of water from the rock, which followed directly on the people’s grumbling about food and YHWH’s provision of manna.  The deuteronomic memory of the wilderness “testings” echoes on in the prophetic traditions, with Ahaz using the old warning as an excuse not to look for the sign that Isaiah was offering (cf. Isa. 7:12; see also Ps. 78:18, 41, 56; 95:9; 106:14). In one of Paul’s alignments of the church with the wilderness generation, he cites this specifically as a central failing that the church must not emulate (cf. 1 Cor. 10:9).  This was, more specifically, one of the key failings of the wilderness generation that Jesus specifically avoided during his initial temptations (cf. Matt. 4:7//Luke 4:12, quoting Deut. 6:16).

The passage in Paul’s letters in which this theme finds expression — that is, 1 Cor. 10:9: “We must not test the Lord [or, ‘the Christ’] as some of them did” — also suggests that the early church had become used to taking “the peirasmos” in a wider sense than simply the sharply focused eschatological one.  For in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul draws a close parallel between the church and the wilderness generation, speaking of that earlier generation as having been “baptized” into Moses (v. 2) and as having all eaten “spiritual food” and drunk “spiritual drink” (w. 3-4).  Their testing of the Lord — or, as the preferred reading has it, of “the Christ” — was one aspect of their many-sided failure.

Nonetheless, when Paul speaks of peirasmos a few verses later, it is clear that he means not the Israelites’ testing of God but the “temptations” that come on God’s people, not least from the pagan environment in which they live.  1 Cor. 10:13 is the clearest statement of what peirasmos had come to mean in the early church and of how, with its Exodus overtones, it was being reapplied:

No peirasmos has overtaken you but that which is normal to the human race.  God is faithful: he will not allow you to be tested beyond your strength.  He will make, with the peirasmos, also the way out, so that you are able to bear it.

This can only refer to the much more general “temptation,” within which the temptation to put God to the test is one, but only one.

What we see here in this reapplication of the Exodus tradition is not so much the downgrading of eschatology into moralism, but the taking up of moral instruction into typological eschatology.  Paul will not rest content with simply telling the Corinthians how to behave and chiding them if they go wrong.  He will teach them to think of themselves as the people of the true Exodus, and within that framework show them how the moral struggles they face — including the temptation to devise tests to see how strong their Lord is — are the equivalent of the temptations which brought the wilderness generation to ruin.  They must now succeed where their typological predecessors failed.

Who, then, is the author of this “temptation” of 1 Cor. 10:13?  Paul does not say directly, but the context strongly implies that it is the evil one. Despite the apostle’s firm conviction regarding the sovereignty of God, such “testings” come from “the Satan” (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; the word peirasmos occurs in the Pauline corpus only in 1 Cor. 10:13; Gal. 4:14; and 1 Tim. 6:9).  1 Corinthians 10, therefore, might be seen as a practical commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, particularly on its concluding clauses.  What Paul, in effect, is saying is: You are the Exodus generation; therefore trust God to lead you out of your moment of testing without succumbing to it — that is, to deliver you from the evil one.

If this is accepted, then we may understand the last part of the Lord’s Prayer (i.e., the last two clauses in Matthew’s version and the Didache) as follows: Jesus’ followers are instructed to pray that they may be spared the great peirasmos that is coming on Jesus himself and the cognate tribulation that is coming on Jerusalem and the whole world.  To this extent, the petition is similar to what Jesus urges in Matt. 24:20//Mark 13:18: “Pray that your flight may not be in winter.”

But the petition also broadens out to include all of what Paul speaks about — that is, the variegated temptations, which, coming from “the Satan,” include the temptation to put God to the test, but also include such other sins as idolatry and grumbling.  Thus “Lead us not into temptation” would then mean, in that broader context, “Do not let us be led into temptation [from which we cannot escape].”  The fact that God has promised to be faithful and to provide the way of escape does not mean, in the logic of New Testament prayer, that one should not pray for it, but rather the reverse.  Those who pray the Lord’s Prayer are designed by Jesus to be those who remain faithful to the God who intends to remain faithful to them — and who thereby constitute the true eschatological Israel, the people of the New Exodus.

The Lord’s Prayer as the Heart of the New Covenant Charter

We may now stand back briefly from this Exodus-based exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and examine the results.  Certain features from our investigation can be highlighted.  The prayer is given by Jesus to constitute his followers as the true Exodus people.  They are to succeed, not least by prayer, where the original wilderness generation failed.  The prayer moves from the disciples’ relation to God, through the honoring of God’s name and the doing of his will, to provisions for bodily needs and dealing with evil.  Furthermore, the prayer has something of the same shape — and, within the new eschatological moment, something of the same role — as the Decalogue within the Exodus narrative.  Thus the Lord’s Prayer may be seen as being to the church as the Ten Commandments were to Israel: not just something to do, a comparatively arbitrary rule of life, but the heart of the new covenant charter.

Of course, it is not quite as easy as that.  Matthew, who one might have expected to make this point, may be thought to have hinted at it by his placing of the Lord’s Prayer within the Sermon on the Mount, redolent as it is of Exodus typology.  And it would be sheer folly to think that the Decalogue has no abiding significance within the church, albeit reinterpreted in various ways — just as it would be folly to suppose that Israel BC was not also commanded and invited to pray the intimate covenantal prayer, the Shema, that Jesus himself reaffirmed (though, interestingly, as ethic rather than prayer, as in Judaism; cf. Matt. 22:34-40;Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).  Nevertheless, there is an important point here, which is at the very heart of our investigation: If we are looking for characteristic marks of the church, the Lord’s Prayer offers itself more readily than the Ten Commandments, despite the parallel use of them in some systems of Christian education, as though they were, respectively, simply a timeless prayer and a timeless moral code.

The Lord’s Prayer takes its place, rather, alongside baptism and the Eucharist.  Both are thought of in Exodus terms in the New Testament, not least in 1 Corinthians 10.  It is, therefore, appropriate that praying the Lord’s Prayer should take place corporately and publicly within the liturgies for both baptism and the Eucharist.  But it is also the case that the Lord’s Prayer will be most fully understood and most fully “meant” within those Exodus-based narratives, which are symbolically and dramatically acted out in their new Christ-centered form.  These sacraments are precisely among those moments when — within the inaugurated eschatology through which alone Christianity makes sense — both past and future, heaven and earth, are brought together in one dramatic action.

The Lord’s Prayer is the means by which the church celebrates what has been accomplished already in Christ and strains forward for what lies ahead.  And in the course of living between the present and the future, the church prays in the Lord’s Prayer for grace and strength to remain faithful to its Lord and not to fall away from the bracing agenda of his kingdom announcement.

3. Prayers and Paradigms

The church that prays the Lord’s Prayer claims, thereby, the status of the eschatological people of God.  In so praying, it locates itself between Calvary, Easter, and Pentecost, on the one hand, and the great consummation (sometimes, by metonymy, called “the Parousia”), on the other hand.  The Lord’s Prayer is thus a marker, a reminder, to the church of who it is and why.

To locate oneself on this historical scale is, of course, to look with dismay at the many times when the church, like the wilderness generation, has betrayed its Lord, put its God to the test, and committed various idolatries and immoralities.  But it is, at the same time, also to claim that, with the cross and resurrection of Jesus behind it, forgiveness and restoration are ever-present realities as well.

A Paradigm for the Church’s Liturgy

The shape of the church’s regular worship, therefore, ought to be ordered, I suggest, in ways that highlight this identity.  All sorts of Christian traditions have been tempted in various ways to de-eschatologize themselves, and so to settle down into being simply a religion, with or without an accompanying moralism.  It is this, perhaps, that has allowed so much contemporary thought to assume, without more ado, that Christianity is simply one “religion” among many — a view that the New Testament’s characteristic eschatology would never permit.

One obvious way of keeping the church’s eschatological focus would be to allow the shape as well as the content of the Lord’s Prayer to inform its liturgy more strongly, not just in that part of the worship service labeled “prayer” but also in the structure of the whole.  Invocation of God as Father, worship and prayer that sanctifies God’s name, prayer for Jesus’ kingdom work to find its complete fulfillment on earth as in heaven — all of these might come first.  Intercession for particular blessings, of which bread is among the most basic and hence symbolic of the rest, would occur within this larger context.

Furthermore, we should note that, against the grain of some post-Augustinian liturgies, the church is not instructed by its Lord to approach its Father with “Sorry” as its first word.  Even the Prodigal Son began his speech with “Father.”  There is, to be sure, an appropriate place for penitence, both for communities and individuals.  But the normal Christian approach to the Creator God is the unfettered and delighted “Father.”  There is a time for penitence, but its location within the Lord’s Prayer suggests that it should not take pride of place in regular liturgical worship.

There are, of course, some theologies still current in which all penitence is pushed to one side as gloomy or doleful.  That this is a gross caricature should not need to be said.  The Lord’s Prayer indicates both that penitence is a regular necessity and that it is not the most important element.  Pride and paranoia are alike to be avoided.

If the Lord’s Prayer is correctly understood in its New Exodus eschatological context, a liturgy that grows up on this basis is likely to choose Scripture readings in such a way as both to celebrate God’s deliverance of his people and to remind the congregation that they belong within this overarching story.  This does not mean the avoidance of the non-narrative parts of Scripture, such as the Book of Proverbs.  But it does mean that the sequence from the Old Testament to the New has some importance, and that at some point that sequence, which gave birth to the church, should be brought into explicit focus, whether by prayer or song.

The church’s task in using the Lord’s Prayer as a paradigm for liturgy, therefore, is (1) to thank God for its identity as the people of the New Exodus, (2) to pray that God’s achievement in Jesus Christ may reach its complete fruition for both the church and the entire creation, and (3) to pray for grace and strength to remain faithful to God’s calling in the present.  In so doing, the church is explicitly identifying with Jesus himself in his own prayer and work (as we have highlighted in the first section of this article) — a stance that can only be taken without gross arrogance when it is remembered that the prayer, as given by Jesus, is not simply a command but an invitation. Like a good deal in the Gospel accounts, it requires a belief in the Holy Spirit to make full sense of this picture (which is what John and Paul, in particular, supply, as we will note later in this article).

A Paradigm for Christian Living

The Christian is also called to make the Lord’s Prayer paradigmatic in his or her own personal life.  The context in Matthew 6 includes Jesus’ command to go into one’s own room, shut the door, and pray to the Father who sees in secret (6:6).  (We might want to ask, how many of Jesus’ original hearers had private rooms into which they could retreat, with doors by which they could shut out all others?)  The life of the individual Christian is lived out between baptism and bodily death and resurrection on the same principle as the life of the corporate church.  It is true, of course, that the story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings has been more regularly applied to the Christian life than to church history, and the symbolism is well enough known: the crossing of the Jordan symbolizing death, and so forth — or, as in some “second blessing” traditions, altered so that the crossing of the Jordan signals an entry into a “higher life” of full sanctification.  Nonetheless, the Exodus story is still a fruitful source of imagery for reconstructing a genuinely Christian spirituality.

The Lord’s Prayer, as used by a Christian who is conscious of his or her pilgrimage to the eventual promised land, celebrates the great beginning of that pilgrimage when, in baptism, that individual is united with Christ in his death and resurrection.  Calling God “Father” says and celebrates all of that.  The early petitions of the prayer, with their focus on God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will, can all be used in this context as the framework for focusing in one’s private prayer on God himself, and for claiming already in the present — as, indeed, is done in the sacraments — the blessings of the future that are already secured in Christ.  And within private prayer, as with public prayer, all of the other elements take their place: intercession, the prayer for forgiveness, and the clear-eyed plea against peirasmos and against the poneros.  These all find their appropriate, though still subordinate, home.  The individual Christian is called to be a man, woman, or child of prayer as a New Exodus person.

But that cannot be the whole story.  For, as I said in the first section of this article, at its heart the Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to each Christian to share in the praying life of Jesus himself.  The early Christians were very conscious of Jesus’ exalted presence before God’s throne, where his constant task is to intercede on behalf of his people (cf. Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 9:24).  The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, by uniting Jesus’ people with their Lord in the prayer that formed the inner core of his own life, brings about the situation where those who pray it are even now, whether they realize it or not, “seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6; cf. Col. 3:1,3).

There are different ways of appropriately embodying this reality.  Precisely because we are to pray God’s kingdom into existence “on earth as it is in heaven,” it is always worthwhile exploring and reflecting on those ways — including matters of place, posture, timing, musical accompaniment, and so on.  These are not mere incidentals.  They will, of course, vary quite widely with culture, personality, and opportunity.  Such variations, however, do not suggest that there are not some more and some less appropriate outward forms and fashions.  Rather, the reverse is true.  Each individual Christian and every church community is responsible, under God, for not just maintaining a human tradition — or, for that matter, demolishing one — but for discovering the forms that the Lord’s Prayer itself prompts and suggests within a particular culture and for the particular people who are going to be using it.

4. Abba, Father: Conformed to the Pattern of Christ

It is striking that at the two places where Paul quotes Jesus’ use of Abba, the Aramaic word for “father,” he also speaks in dramatic language of the two things that have formed the underlying structure of this article: (1) the New Exodus in Christ, and (2) the incorporation of the worshiping Christian into the inner trinitarian life of God.  I conclude this article, therefore, with a brief look at these two passages and some suggestions as to what they mean for our regarding the Lord’s Prayer as a paradigm of Christian praying.

In Gal. 4:1 -11, as is fairly obvious though not always fully drawn out, Paul tells the story of the Exodus again.  Only it is not now the Exodus from Egypt, when God sent Moses and gave the Law, but the Exodus of God’s people in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles, in long-term and complete fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.  Thus in verses 4-7 he says:

When the time had fully come.  God sent forth his Son… to redeem… and because you are children.  God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba, Father.”  So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and, if a son, then an heir, through God.

As a result, as he emphasizes in verse 8-11, there can be no “going back to Egypt.”  God has now been revealed, not in a burning bush but in the Son and the Spirit — or, rather, as the One who sent the Son and now sends the Spirit of the Son.

The God of the New Exodus is the God revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit.  The only alternative is some kind of paganism, even if, paradoxically, it is hiding underneath the Jewish Torah.  And the revelation of God as Trinity is completed in the experience of Christian prayer — that is, in the Abba, which certainly refers to Jesus’ own usage and may well refer to the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer in the early Aramaic-speaking church.

Two reflections on the use of this Abba prayer by Christians may be of note.  First, just as the Lord’s Prayer is still known as the “Pater Noster” by many Roman Catholics who actually now say it in English, so perhaps — though it can only ever be a guess — the same prayer may have continued to be known as the “Abba” by those who said it in Greek.  Second, it may be asked: Is it simply a coincidence that the key prayer word of the early Christians, like some of the key prayer words of their pagan counterparts, was a palindrome (that is, a word or number that reads the same backward or forward) — indeed, one of the simplest possible palindromes?

The point, anyway, is that the Lord’s Prayer — by (1) reflecting the prayer of Jesus and inviting his followers to share it, and (2) embodying the New Exodus stance that summed up so much of Jesus’ whole agenda — is now the appropriate vehicle of a specific type of prayer.  This prayer is not shouting across a void to a distant and perhaps unknown God.  Nor is it simply getting in touch with one’s own deepest feelings and self-awareness.  Nor is it getting in tune with the wider spirit of the whole cosmos.  It is prayer that grows directly out of the Jewish experience and knowledge of the one creator God, but that finds, without leaving that Jewish base behind, that the knowledge of this one God has three intertwined aspects — not least of all because Jesus himself, as a human being, remains at the heart of it.

Rom. 8:12-30 completes the circle (see my “New Exodus, New Inheritance”).  Here we find the fully inaugurated, but not yet consummated, eschatology that so perfectly reflects Jesus’ own kingdom announcement, albeit seen now from the post-Easter perspective.  We are saved in hope; but hope that is seen is not hope.  And this salvation is precisely the New Exodus.  Led by the Spirit, who here takes on the role of the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, we are called the children of God.  We are no longer slaves, and must not dream of going back to Egypt.  Rather, because we are those who cry “Abba, Father!” we are not only children but heirs, heirs of the true promised land.

The true promised land is not a strip of territory in the Middle East or elsewhere, nor yet “heaven” as a far-off and basically disembodied final resting place.  Rather, it is the renewed creation itself.  It is God’s world restored, healed, and flooded with the Spirit, sharing in the freedom that goes with the glorification of God’s children.  Creation itself, in other words, will have its own Exodus.  Our Exodus experience in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is both the key starting point of that long project and the guarantee that God will complete what he has started.

In the midst of all of this, the characteristic Christian prayer is that which, inspired by the Spirit, catches the Christian up in the mysterious, and even painful, dialogue of the Father and the Spirit (cf. 8:26-27).  It is this that forms the Christian according to the pattern of the crucified and risen Son (cf. 8:17, 29).  And it is this that constitutes Christians as “those who love God” (cf.8.28) — in other words, those who fulfill, at last, the great Exodus prayer-command of Deut. 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one; and you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The Lord’s Prayer, then, though not explicitly referred to by Paul, points on to what in many ways must be seen as the crown of early Christian theology and practice.  For the Abba prayer, inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, is the characteristic Christian prayer.  It encompasses within itself that celebration of God’s goodness and kingdom, that intercession for and grief over the world in pain and need, and that anguish over trials and temptations that still beset and besiege what is the normal state of Christian existence.  More than all that, however, as an invitation to share in Jesus’ own prayer life and as the New Exodus prayer, it enables the baptized and believing Christian to share — humbly, wonderingly, painfully, joyfully — in the life of God himself, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Selected Bibliography

Allison, Dale C., Jr. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Gibson, Jeffrey. “Testing Temptation: The Meaning of Q11:4b” (unpublished paper given at the 1998 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Orlando, Florida).

Keesmaat, Sylvia C. Paul and His Story: (Re)Interpreting the Exodus Tradition. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Koenig, John. Rediscovering New Testament Prayer: Boldness and Blessing in the Name of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1992; repr. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1998.

Wise, Michael O.  The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ. San Francisco: Harper, 1999.

Wright, N. T.  Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

————.  The Lord and His Prayer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

————.  “New Exodus, New Inheritance: The Narrative Structure of Romans 3-8.” In Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of his 65thBirthday, ed. S. K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 26-35.

————.  “In Grateful Dialogue.” In Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, ed.  C. C. Newman.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999.