Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How Not to Pray

Part 18 of Kingdom Life

Text: Matthew 6:5-8

Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (v. 8).

Praying to Our Father in Heaven 

Before Jesus tells his followers how they should pray (vv. 9-13), he tells them how they should not pray. How can we avoid praying in a wrong way?

When we pray, we must always remember that we are praying to a loving Father.

We know God loves us because he “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). If an imperfect father “know[s] how to give good gifts to [their] children, how much more will [our] heavenly Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11). 

Praying Wrong 

When we forget that we’re praying to a loving Father, we will pray in wrong ways. Jesus gives us two ways we should not pray.

1. Don’t pray to impress others (vv. 5-6). 

Jesus declares, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (v. 5). They “love to…pray,” not because they love prayer or because they love God, but because they love themselves. It wasn’t their posture (“stand”) or their location (“in the synagogues and at the street corners”) that was wrong; it was their motive (“that they may be seen by others”). [1]

Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (v. 5). Their reward is the applause from others. People might be impressed by this kind of prayer, but God isn’t. Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 to describe the religious hypocrites of his day: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me” (Matt. 15:8-9).

Then Jesus states, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 6). “Your room” probably refers to an inner storeroom, the only lockable room in an ordinary Palestinian house (Matt. 24:26; Luke 12:3; 2 Kings 4:33; Isa. 26:20). Jesus isn’t saying that public prayer is wrong since he himself often prayed publicly (Matt. 11:25; 14:19; 26:39, 42). [2] Again, Jesus is addressing the motive of prayer.

2. Don’t pray to badger God (vv. 7-8). 

Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (v. 7). [3] The “Gentiles” refer to “people who don’t understand what it means to know God as a heavenly Father. So instead of trusting a Father to fulfill their needs, they think they must badger a reluctant Deity into taking notice of them.” [4]

Jesus isn’t condemning long prayers or persistent prayer since he himself once prayed all night (Matt. 14:23-25) and taught that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He’s saying that when we prayer we must believe that God cares about us. He’s not an indifferent god who won’t listen to our prayers unless we get his attention with our “many words.”

Jesus states, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (v. 8). So why is pray necessary? It’s true that God doesn’t need our prayers, but “he chooses to work through the prayers of his people to demonstrate his care for us, our value to him, and the significance of our lives in his kingdom.” [5]

Don't Hesitate to Call 

A good father desires what is best for his child. Often, when a son or daughter needs help, they call their father. If imperfect fathers are willing to help their children, how much more is our heavenly Father willing to help us? When we pray, we pray to our heavenly Father who loves us and desires to hear from us.

[1] As stated in my sermon on 6:1-4, there isn’t a contradiction between 5:16 (“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them”) and 6:1 (“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”). Jesus is addressing two different sins. In 5:16, he’s addressing the sin of cowardice. In 6:1, he’s addressing the sin of pride.
[2] The pronouns are singular in 6:5-8 but plural in 6:9-13. The Lord’s Prayer can’t be prayed privately (“Our Father in heaven”).
[3] The prophets of Baal cried out to Baal for hours, even cutting themselves with swords and lances (1 Kings 18:25-29; cf. Acts 19:34).
[4] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 240.
[5] Bryan Chappell, Praying Backwards, 114.

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