The Lord Jesus prayed much, spoke with His Father in heaven. His disciples saw Him pray, possibly heard what He said. So it happened one day that, when Jesus was finished praying, one of the disciples said to Him: "Lord, teach us to pray, as John [the Baptist] also taught his disciples [to pray]" (Luke 11:1). "Teach us to pray," they said. From the question we conclude that the disciples had difficulties with prayer. We’re not told the nature of their struggles with prayer, but we may be sure that their struggles were not radically different from the struggles we encounter with prayer.
Jesus’ answer was this: "When you pray, say…" – and there follows the familiar Lord’s Prayer. We are to note: Jesus did not answer the disciples’ question by advising techniques. I mention this fact because we live today in an age of mysticism and meditation, with various gurus telling us about different ways of sitting and stretching and what to eat and what music to listen to in order to reach the ‘other world’. Jesus does not speak of a technique; He instead teaches His disciples to pray by giving them a model prayer.
Jesus’ intent with this model prayer was not that the disciples use precisely these 37 words (37 in the original language) each time they pray. Jesus did not intend this prayer to be used a magical incantation that opens the doors of heaven every time the disciples voiced this prayer. Rather, with this model prayer Jesus gave instruction to His disciples on the how of praying. The point for us is that we need to understand the content of the words Jesus included in this prayer.
To Whom does one Pray?
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. In His answer Jesus first of all sought to instruct His disciples about Who it was to whom they prayed. Said Jesus: "When you pray, say: Father...." If the disciples have difficulty praying, they need to have fixed in their minds to whom they are praying. After all: to whom we speak determines what we say and how we say it. To a stranger we do not say the same things as we do to a friend. Similarly, if the person in front of you is a police officer, you talk in a different way and tell him different things, than if you were talking to your father. Again, the person in front of you can be your father, but the relation you have to your father and your perception of him as a person and as a father, determines how freely you talk and what you talk about. Now Jesus says to His disciples: when you pray, realise that the God to whom you speak is Father.
No doubt all twelve disciples could well relate to the notion of ‘Father’. For all we know, some of these disciples may at this time themselves have been fathers. Yet, to call God ‘Father’ is not necessarily an easy thing. We all know that our own fathers are not (or were not) always so very approachable and understanding. In fact, we can see with ourselves certain failures and shortcomings that make it difficult for our children to speak openly to us. So also the disciples; they may well have had fathers that were short-tempered, unfeeling, too busy for their children, may even have had fathers who mistreated, abused their children. Yet, when the disciples asked Jesus for lessons in how to pray, Jesus told them to address God as Father, and He did that even though Jesus well knew what sort of failures earthly fathers can be.
Why was it, then, that Jesus told His disciples to address God as Father? How does addressing God as ‘Father’ help prayer? Jesus, we are to know, did not appeal to the disciples’ experiences of what a father is. Rather, with the instruction to address God as ‘Father’, Jesus opened the Scriptures of the OT, built on that which God had revealed in the OT about Himself as Father. Of the various places in the OT where God is presented as a Father, I draw your attention to the first occurrence of the word in relation to God: Deuteronomy 32, the "Song of Moses".
The Song of Moses
The Song of Moses finds its setting on the banks of the Jordan River, after Israel had spent forty years in the desert. On the other side of the river was the Promised Land. At this point in history, Moses taught Israel a song. In the song, Moses spelled out once again who the Lord was. Says he concerning God:
Has He not made you and established you?" (6b).
He instructed him,
He kept him as the apple of His eye."
That’s what a Father is. The way God treated Israel, even from the day of her birth, was one gigantic exhibition of what it meant that God was a Father for this people. The fact that He was ‘Father’ meant that their every need was provided; Israel never lacked a thing, even in the desert. He was ‘Father’, and that meant that God trained, God educated His people. God’s interest in Israel went beyond protecting them and providing for their needs; God wanted His children to grow to mature service of Him, trust Him, love Him. That, says God, is what the word Father entails.
When You Pray, Say ‘Father’
The disciples ask Jesus to "teach us to pray." Jesus’ answer is: when you pray, know that you are speaking to Father. Says Jesus: the God you address is not a cruel tyrant that you should tremble in His presence. Nor is He a stranger that you should be tongue-tied. And He’s not a scarcely interested acquaintance whom you’re actually bothering by your small talk. Rather, He is Father. No, not like your earthly fathers, with all their sins and failures. He is ‘Father’ according to the instruction of Deuteronomy 32; He is the God who has always cared for your grandparents in the desert, who always understood their needs, who taught His children-by-covenant; He is the God who has always been most interested in His people. Says Jesus: God is not remote from you, Peter, Andrew, Nathaniel, Thomas, and the rest of you. God is not detached from you, God is not hard-hearted; God is ‘Father’. So: talk to Him! Openly, freely. You, Peter, John, Judas, Matthew, you know your Bibles. You know what God has revealed about Himself. Know Him, then, for Who He is, and speak to Him in that way. He is Father in the biblical sense of the word. Tell Him freely what is on your minds; He’s interested, He understands.
We understand: Jesus’ answer to His disciples was wonderful in its content. ‘Father’, as the term is defined in the Song of Moses, gives a very positive perception of Who God is, a picture that makes speaking with this God far easier than if He were cold-hearted, heavy fisted, uninterested.
How, then, do we go about praying? No, we do not use special formulae,
special words, special techniques in an effort to ‘get through’. Instead,
we believe who God is. Since the Lord God is Father –as described
in Deuteronomy 32, and highlighted by His gift of Jesus Christ for our
sakes– we can speak with Him openly and freely.