School · Theology Thursday

A Brief Exegetical Study of the Lord’s Prayer

The question that must be asked is why a seemingly innocuous prayer regarding bread functions as the pinnacle in the central pericope of the Sermon on the Mount.[1]

Few prayers have had such an impact on the world as the Lord’s Prayer. Also known as the Our Father, or Pater Noster, these few short verses have been recited daily for centuries. Most take the words at face value, though there have been countless studies delving into the meaning behind the words which Jesus instructed us to pray. Does idle repetition of the prayer create hollow words and hollow hearts? Is the prayer meant to be a framework upon which all prayer is based, or is it to be recited rote? An analysis of Jesus’ instructions, and a basic understanding of where the prayer came from, are important to keep this most holy of prayers central and relevant in Christian life today.

There is a great deal of controversy and difference of opinion when it comes to interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer. The brief prayer is found in both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, as well as in the Didache. These differing versions, further complicated by varying translations of Greek to English, fuel debate over correct word order, phrase omission, word translation, and inclusion of the doxology.

One central debate about the Lord’s Prayer concerns whether Jesus intended it to be recited rote, or whether it is merely a framework upon which to base our prayers. Supporters of the latter often point to the Greek word οΰτως, which introduces the text of the prayer.[2] It is an adverb loosely translated to mean in this way. Scholars as far back as Origen agree that the word is not meant to instruct people to recite the prayer verbatim, but rather use it as the framework for the ideal prayer.[3] However, the Catholic Church sees the Lord’s Prayer as the “true summary of the whole gospel; the ‘most perfect of prayers’”[4] and thus, must be recited verbatim.

There is general consensus concerning its division into six petitions: three concerning God’s honour, kingdom, and will; three concerning the universal needs of humans. This parallels the Ten Commandments, where the first table concerns our duties to God, while the second table concerns the duties we owe our neighbours.[5] The first three petitions focus on the majesty of God, purpose of God, and acceptance of God’s will. The latter three focus on our present need, our past sin, and our future welfare.[6]

This analysis will divide the Lord’s Prayer into its six petitions and examine them separately, along with the initial address and concluding doxology. They are as follows:

•          Initial address: “Our Father in Heaven.”

•          1st petition: “Hallowed be your name.”

•          2nd petition: “Your kingdom come.”

•          3rd petition: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

•          4th petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

•          5th petition: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

•          6th petition: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

•          Doxology: “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.”

Primary focus will be given to the version in Matthew 6, taken from the NRSV, while comparison to the versions in Luke and the Didache will be discussed.

Initial address: “Our Father in Heaven.”

The opening words are “Our Father,” which immediately defines the relationship between God and the person praying. This phrase identifies a relationship of undeserved, and unconditional, yet practical love.[7] Defining the relationship sets the stage for the rest of the prayer, and sets the context from which the six petitions are derived.

1st Petition: “Hallowed be your name.”

This petition is a call to honour the name of God. In biblical times, one’s name was more than just what you were called; it defined your very being. Therefore, the name of God stands for the very character and nature of his being, as he said in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.” Krister Stendahl argues this petition is not meant as a call to honour the name of God, but rather is an acknowledgement that his name is already hallowed. This hallowing took place through Jesus’ action in stories such as his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as told in Matthew 21:1-17, among others.[8]

The first petition echoes the opening of the Qaddish, a Jewish doxology usually recited following prayer at synagogue services. The Qaddish begins, “Exalted and hallowed be his great name.”[9] However, there is some controversy as to the date of origin of the Qaddish, as reference of its use in liturgy didn’t occur until around 600 C.E., well after the Lord’s Prayer was included in the Gospel of Matthew. Some scholars still contend the Lord’s Prayer does borrow from the Qaddish.[10]

2nd Petition: “Your kingdom come.”

This petition does not refer to a literal kingdom, but rather to the Reign of God. The prophets had declared that God would return, and the Jews would be set free, both in a heavenly kingdom and an earthly one.[11] At the time Jesus gave these instructions on how to pray, the Jews were living under the oppressive rule of the Romans, who were merely the latest in a long line of nations that had ruled The Promised Land since the fall of Judah to the Babylonians. The Israelites were anxiously awaiting God’s deliverance from the Romans, to have their land, equated with God’s Kingdom, returned to them.[12]

Along with the appeal for God to bring his kingdom into the physical plane, this petition is also a request for God to exert his power on Earth, through his Word and Sprit, so that “the whole world may willingly submit to him.”[13] It is also a request for his presence to be among the people of the Earth so that they may clearly discern his will. [14]

As with the first petition, this phrase parallels a line in the Qaddish, “May he establish his kingdom in your life-time.” Due to these parallels, David de Sola Pool argues that, “there is an exact equivalence between the Lord’s Prayer and the Qaddish except for the difference of person.”[15] This has sparked further debate about the date of origin of the Qaddish, but there is an undeniable link between the two prayers, regardless of which originated first.

3rd Petition: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This petition identifies the priority of yielding to the will of God, in the same way the angels are always ready to do his will; it is a rejection of our own will, and a submission to his.[16] Just as the petition “Your kingdom come” asks that God’s desires be paramount in our lives, this petition is a request to live in growing obedience to those desires. As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”(Is. 52: 7-10)

The phrase “On Earth as it is in Heaven” is often overlooked, but it is in fact the central phrase tying the two halves of the prayer together. Here, the prayer turns from heavenly talk of God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will, to talk of earthly things: daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance. It is the very axis upon which the prayer turns.[17]

This petition is not included in more recent translations of Luke. It is included in the King James Version of Luke, but this translation relied on later manuscripts, while more recent translations used access to older manuscripts, hence its omission.

4th Petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

With this petition, the focus changes from praise of God to intercession on behalf of humanity. Even though Jesus instructs people to focus on the glory of God, using the first three petitions, the final three petitions demonstrate that human needs are also important. Though Deut. 8:3 states, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” yet one cannot live without bread. At the time of these instructions, bread was a staple eaten with every meal, making this petition more than a request for mere bread. It is a plea for sustenance, and what is required to sustain the physical body.

There is debate over translation of the Greek word επιούσιος (epiousios), as it is not found elsewhere in Greek literature, and was quite possibly made up by one of the disciples.[18] Translated, it loosely means daily, though some say a better translation would be sufficient. The daily bread illustration is drawn from the story of the Israelites living in the wilderness for 40 years following their exodus from Egypt. As they were wandering in the wilderness, God provided enough for them to eat each day.[19] It is a request not for excess, but for the amount needed to get through each day.

5th Petition: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

As a fallen people, humanity requires more than just physical sustenance to survive; they require forgiveness. This petition, following on the heels of giving, is about forgiving. As Tertullian said, “It is fitting that after contemplating the liberality of God we should likewise address his clemency.”[20]

This petition consists of two parts, a request for forgiveness, and the forgiveness of others. The first part asks God to forgive all our sins, since the brevity of the prayer precludes a comprehensive listing. It is an all embracing plea for forgiveness. The second clause addresses our forgiveness of the sins of others. The connection between our forgiveness and forgiving others is laid out in Luke 6:37, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Following his instructions in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus re-emphasizes the importance of this petition in Matthew 6:14-15, stating, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

There have been many translations of the word debts. The original Greek word ὀφειλήματα (opheilema) is rarely used in the Bible. It has a wide range of meanings, centred on the common concept of something owed or something due. The common use of the term trespasses can be attributed to its appearance in The Book of Common Prayer. However, a more proper translation is debts. In Luke 11:4, the petition is translated, “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” The terms sins and indebted are used in place of debts and debtors from the Matthew 6 translation. As Jesus originally gave this prayer in Aramaic, he most likely used the word choba’. Interpreted literally, choba’ would mean debt, but it is also the most common rabbinic word for sin. The Gospel writers approached this word from different contexts. Matthew, being characteristically Jewish, chose the Greek word for debts, opheilema, because debt is the rabbinic word for sin. Luke, being characteristically Greek, chose a more general Greek word for sin, hamartia.[21]

6th Petition: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

This petition is often split in two, though Calvin states, “This is wrong: for the nature of the subject makes it manifest, that it is one and the same petition.”[22] In fact, Augustine would argue that the conjunction holding these two clauses together should be removed entirely.[23]

The common translation of the first clause is a request to “lead us not into temptation.” Biblical examples abound of temptation’s influence on human lives, including Eve, Job, and Christ himself. Luther insists it is not possible for humanity to avoid temptation as long as we are living in the flesh. He interprets this petition as, “merely a request to God to give us strength and power to persist in the face of great, grievous perils and temptations which every Christian must bear, even if they come one by one.”[24] Augustine takes another approach, drawing a distinction between being tempted and being brought into temptation. “All men must be tempted; but to be brought into temptation is to be brought into the power and the control of temptation; it is to be not only subjected to temptation but to be subdued by temptation.”[25]

Doxology: “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.”

The doxology is not present in Luke, or in the early manuscripts of Matthew. Most Bibles do include it in parenthesis following, or as a footnote to, Matthew 6:13. It is also included at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in the Didache. At the time of Jesus’ instructions, it would have been unheard of to end a prayer without a doxology, so Jesus likely used some form of doxology. Because it was so commonly used, the Gospel writers or early scribes may have felt it unnecessary to include explicitly. The phrase used now is a common way to end Jewish prayer, and some scholars argue it was appended to Matthew at a later date as a conventional doxology to replace what the scribes omitted.[26] The final form accepted is reminiscent of David’s doxology from 1 Chronicles 29:11, “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.”

The doxology is a fitting conclusion to the prayer, as it summarizes the previous petitions and brings the focus back to honouring and glorifying God. It recalls the first three petitions; the glorification of God’s name, the coming of his reign, and the power of his saving will. [27] The prayer began with praise, and ends with praise, framing it with glory and honour to God.

For centuries, the Lord’s Prayer has been central to the Christian church, and remains one of the most important prayers in Protestant and Catholic tradition. Despite debate over the use of Jesus’ instructions as a framework for prayer, or to be recited verbatim, the importance of this prayer remains. Elements of this prayer, of praise and earthly needs, are important aspects of all prayer, and determining their place in the Lord’s Prayer is key to understanding Jesus’ instruction. In order to keep this prayer central to Christian life, a deeper understanding of the contextual basis of these words, and insight into their meaning is important. From the focus on God’s honour, kingdom, and will, of the first three petitions, to the focus on humanity’s present, past, and future needs of the last three petitions, the Lord’s Prayer is an all encompassing prayer that is still relevant today.

[1] Rick W. Byargeon, “Echoes of Wisdom in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13).” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41, no. 3 (1998): 362.

[2] Gordon J. Bahr, “Use of the Lord’s Prayer in the primitive church.” Journal of Biblical Literature 84, no. 2 (1965): 154.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1994), 2774.

[5] John Cochrane O’Neill, “The Lord’s Prayer.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament no. 51 (1993): 5.

[6] William Barclay, The Lord’s Prayer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 20-21.

[7] Barclay, Lord’s Prayer, 32.

[8] Krister Stendahl, “Your Kingdom Come.” Cross Currents 32, no. 3 (1982): 260.

[9] Byargeon, Echoes of Wisdom, 354.

[10] Ibid.

[11] N.T. Wright, The Lord & His Prayer (Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 25.

[12] Isaiah 52: 7-10.

[13] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 320.

[14] Ibid., 320.

[15] Byargeon, Echoes of Wisdom, 354.

[16] Calvin, Commentary, 321.

[17] Arthur Paul Boers, Lord, Teach us to Pray (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1992), 84.

[18] O’Neill, The Lord’s Prayer, 12.

[19] Exodus 16:16.

[20] Barclay, Lord’s Prayer, 84.

[21] Barclay, Lord’s Prayer, 86.

[22] Calvin, Commentary, 327.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Martin Luther, The Large Catechism of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 78.

[25] Barclay, Lord’s Prayer, 104.

[26] Boers, Teach us to Pray, 146-147.

[27] CCC, 2855.


10 thoughts on “A Brief Exegetical Study of the Lord’s Prayer

  1. Why can’t the kingdom of God be realized gradually? And quickened by the immediate agency of Jesus? The Earth being reformed in the image of the kingdom of God. Why is any moral progress of the great mass of humanity in such a way that some indelible increase marking progress does exist, is antithetical to the nihilistic beliefs given in mainstream protestant dogma?

    Oh, this would be too radical. It would cause too much hope. It might cause people to think they can change something and that God and Church may be on their side. And equating the faith with progress would destabilize the Church authority when progress catches up with them.

  2. My analysis, is perhaps, more on the simplistic side:
    Our Father, who art in heaven: I feel it refers to Jesus, being one of us mortals, says we are all children of God. He confirms that HE is not God, but a child of God.
    Hallowed Be Thy Name: Here I agree, it is showing that we acknowledge and respect that God is the Creator of all that we are aware, to include good and evil, day and night.
    They Kingdom come: The ways we live here on Earth, and time, will be blessed with the peace and beauty that we believe is Heaven and settle here in this world.
    Thy Will be done: Whatever God asks of us, expects of us, will be done. How we conduct ourselves with each other and acknowledge that God is the exhaulted one and directs how things will be on Earth as it already is being done in Heaven.
    Gives us our daily bread: Man must share the load of performing tasks that provide for the welfare of one another. In this prayer, we ask that God gives us the ability to perform these tasks so that we all may live together and take care of each other, all that is upon this Earth.
    Forgive us… let us forgive others: We are emotional creatures and due to some exterior stimulus, we get off track and do things against someone and people do that to us. Whether it’s our retribution or our own offense, we look to be given the understanding of our shortcomings and intolerances when they are only occasional incidents.
    Forgive us our debts… as we forgive our debtors: We come up short in many areas of our lives and owe someone for helping us, as we have done with others, but never seem to be able to pay back or receive our just due. So, we ask that we be forgiven as we have overlooked those who owe us….
    Lead us not into temptation: God presents us with a rule, a law. To confirm we will follow His will, He initiates a situation that tests our choice to follow His way, or yield to the alluring stimulus thus breaking His desire, His rule, His law. When we stop and think about it, we ask that He give us the strength and guidance to avoid going over the line.
    Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory: We acknowledge that all of this is God’s Kingdom, and He has the Power over any situation, any event, any thing, within our comprehension of things that exits or things we know nothing about. Further, anything that is done by us regarding any of those things or events is done, not for our own elevation, but to further Glorify those things belonging to God.
    We show our appreciation for all that has been given to us or on behalf of us.
    This is my own simplistic interpretation of what I feel is meant by the Lord’s Prayer. Further, though, I submit Jesus has provided us a manner of praying, a guide on how we address God. I have never seen anything where Jesus desires us to pray to him; ask for guidance, perhaps. In the old Testament, God, Himself, says that HE is the Only God, there is no other. But Jesus has provided a model of behaviour that gives us some idea of how to conduct ourselves. And, I am not against people from asking Jesus for help on solving their own problems. Yet the prayers themselves should be directed toward God to include acknowledgement of His being and all that is His. I submit yes Jesus is a teacher, a role model, but there is so little about Him. The miracles, the resurrection were part of His life, but I cannot justify placing Him on level with God. The earlier Profits and characters in the Bible also received miracles and guidance from God.
    Even a few of the Diciples were afforded miracles. I submit, then, that the Lord’s Prayer is a guide on how to pray but, indifferent to the Catholic Church, not to repeat it, but to follow it’s structure and reverence and acknowledgements toward God.

  3. God would never lead anyone into temptation or sin. Why in the Lord’s Prayer, do we say ‘lead us not into temptation’. It is as though God could lead us there. Surely only Satan can lead us to sin?

    1. While I agree as to prayer format, understand that God set down some laws. God works in contrasts: dark to light, land from the waters. He created the devil; He created the evil. Why? Ask yourself one question: why give rules and laws to live by without a way to check to see if they are followed? God has allowed people to choose the road we take, follow His rules. And He has provided the temptations to see those who choose to obey. All of that is provided as contrast. People choose whether they will go to heaven or suffer the pains of hell. Just as the other idea I have: God does not speak languages. God communicates with us in mental video, mental pictures. Words really mean nothing; it’s what one literally sees in the minds and their hearts. Now, think in those terms and perhaps one will gain further understanding of God and how to communicate with Him.

  4. My New Prayer?

    Our Supreme Creator,
    That permeates all,
    We are awed by the thought of you.
    We accept Your rulership,
    Your will over all,
    Known and unknown.
    Provide for our existence,
    Guide our free wills to be,
    In harmony with yours,
    And all others.
    Keep us all from harm,
    You are the Grand Motive,
    Thank You.

    Why a new prayer? Because I have problems understanding the old one.

    Our Father? Does God Have to MALE gendered? Why even gendered at all? God’s beyond that!
    Who art in Heaven? Isn’t God Omnipresent? Doesn’t God exist everywhere?
    Hallowed be thy name? Which name? Jehovah? Yahweh? Jesus? Allah? YHWH? Even God is pronoun.
    Thy Kingdom come? Is King better than President, Emperor, Prime Minister, or Benevolent Dictator?
    Thy will be done? Who else’s will ? Ours? The Devil’s? Some other lesser being? I don’t think so.
    On Earth as it is in Heaven? That would be pretty much everywhere wouldn’t it? Where wouldn’t it be?
    Give us this day our daily bread? I think this means sustenance not grain based baked product, right?
    And forgive us our trespasses,
    As we forgive those who trespass against us. Basically the Golden Rule. God can do it BETTER than us.
    Lead us not into temptation? I would hope not! Unless he wishes to teach us something by doing so.
    But deliver us from Evil. Is not “Evil” opposition to God’s will? Why were we given Free will to choose ?
    For though art the Kingdom, (there’s that King thing again!)
    And the Power and the Glory, I doubt we gain God’s favor by pelting God with compliments in prayers.
    Forever and Ever, Isn’t one “forever” enough?
    Amen. Sort of a short, neat way of signing off the prayer, huh?

    If YOU have a different a understanding about this, I would be interested in knowing it.

    1. 1. Our Father.
      Father is a word that has several meanings, and if you see it as the gendered version, that is your own opinion. Father in English als refers the originator/creator of something. So Father in this context is both valid as originator/creator and also as one who has responsibility and relationship with a peoples.

      2. Who art in Heaven.
      God sees and knows all, I don’t know where Heaven is, neither do you. However the bible makes it clear that Heaven is wherever God is and that’s good enough for me.

      3. Hallowed Be thy name
      Which name? Do you have to choose one. When people are asked what their name, they usually mention atleast two names, so what’s the real issue here?

      4. Thy Kingdom come
      King AKA Lord, One who has sovereign authority by right. Yes it is better than president, emperor, PM

      5. Thy will be done…
      No need to even explain this.

      6.Daily Bread
      Well do you have a problem with bread that is baked??

      7. Temptation and Evil

      You need to understand that these will not cease from this world. The prayer is for God to help us through and out of it.

      8. For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever.

      The prayer is for you, to remember that God is to be revered forever.

      Your own version,
      Doesn’t carry as much impact as the original but it is still useful. And you are only able to write yours, based off the original. If the original is erroneous, so is yours.

    2. I’m just wondering why you need to re-write the words of Jesus. I think that if Jesus is going to tell me to pray in a certain way, I’m gonna hang on every word He says.

  5. thank you so much for that wonderful piece. but please regarding Catholic views of the Lord’s prayer, do you have any knowledge where I can get materials on tha
    t? am writing a research on Jesus’ teaching on prayer, Matt 6. please!

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