The Lord’s Prayer:
The Essence of Jesus’ Model Prayer in the Context of First-century Judaism
Modern readers who understand the Lord’s Prayer within its linguistic and cultural context gain a new, profound understanding of Jesus, His faith, and what He expects of His followers.
By Marc Turnage
Jesus’ world shaped Him and defined Him. He was a first-century Jew1, and as such, His message and faith grew out of the soil of first-century Judaism. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray (Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4),
He did so within the contemporary context of Jewish prayer, communicating through this prayer His view of God and humanity. Although Christians have prayed “The Lord’s Prayer” since the beginning of the Church2, few have sought to place the prayer within the cultural, historical, and linguistic context of Jesus and first-century Judaism. Among the various voices of Christian interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, we often overlook the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Understanding the complexities of Jesus’ simple words is not about spiritual insight or revealed wisdom. Rather, by listening to it in its linguistic and cultural context, we gain greater insight into the faith of Jesus, His view of God, and how He taught us to approach God.
The goal of this essay is to serve as a mouthpiece for Jesus, and allow the reader to sit at the feet of Jesus and let Him teach us, gaining insight into the original utility and profound theology of the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps by entering into His world and hearing His voice, we can allow Him to enter ours and better communicate His message today.
Prayer in Ancient Judaism
After the return of the Jewish people from Babylonian captivity (sixth century B.C.), public liturgies, which included prayer and a reading from the Torah, became more prominent and served to deepen the religious feelings of the Jewish people. In response to the growing religious importance of Torah reading and prayer during the Second Temple Period, the Jewish people established the synagogue.3 Although we do not know their precise origins, synagogues existed within Jewish communities by the third-century B.C.
The diverse Jewish literature of the Greco-Roman Period (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature) indicate that fixed prayers became an important part of the religious expressions of Jewish communities and individuals. With the rise of fixed prayers, the sages repeatedly warned against prayer becoming a “fixed” practice. The sages did not want liturgies to reduce prayer to something mechanical and perfunctory, devoid of inward devotion. To this end, the sages repeatedly emphasized the intention of the heart in public or private prayer (see Luke 18:9–14).
The most prominent of the fixed prayers that began during the Greco-Roman Period, still prayed among Jewish communities today,4 is the Shemoneh Esreh (“the Eighteen [benedictions]”), which refers to the number of benedictions within this prayer.5 This prayer was in its present form by A.D. 90–100, with many of its portions dating to the first and second centuries B.C. According to Rabban Gamaliel (c. A.D. 90–100), “One must say the Eighteen [benedictions] every day.”6 The sages recognized, however, that life situations did not always permit praying the full “Eighteen Benedictions,” so they offered abbreviated prayers that people could pray and fulfill their obligation.
Rabbi Eliezer, a young contemporary of Jesus, provided an abbreviated prayer that can fulfill one’s obligation to recite the ‘Amidah: “May Your will be done in the heavens above, and grant peace of mind to those who fear You below, and do what is good in Your eyes. Blessed are You, O Lord, who answers prayer.”7 The similarity between this prayer and the prayer Jesus taught His disciples is quite apparent. This similarity, along with others discussed below — and the widespread tendency of sages to offer abbreviated prayers to their disciples that fulfilled the obligation of praying the ‘Amidah — indicate that in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus provided His disciples with His own abbreviated prayer of the great Jewish prayer, a prayer He and His disciples knew well.
Our Father in Heaven
The Lord’s Prayer begins “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:19),8 a common form of reference to God in ancient Jewish prayers. Within the Old Testament, prophets and poets repeatedly used the imagery of father to refer to God.9 By identifying God as “Father,” the biblical authors recall the fact we are God’s creation, and as His children, we have a responsibility to obey Him and follow His ways (Deuteronomy 32:6; Malachi 1:6).
Jesus used the phrase “Our Father” to identify God’s fatherhood of every human, whether righteous or not: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. [italics added] For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44,45, ESV).10
According to Jesus, no one person or group has exclusive rights to God; everyone is His child. Jesus’ worldview follows that of the sages. According to Jesus and the sages, God, like a good father, takes care of His children even when they do not deserve it (Matthew 6:25–34; 7:7–11; Luke 11:9–13; 12:22–32). Yet, He will also discipline them within His love and mercy (Proverbs 3:11,12; Hebrews 12:5–11).
May Your Name Be Sanctified
After the invocation, “Our Father in heaven,” Jesus introduces the first benediction of the prayer, “hallowed be Your name” (Matthew 6:9, KJV). The common rendering of the first benediction of the Lord’s Prayer fails to capture the meaning of the phrase as Jesus intended it. This was not a statement of praise and exaltation; rather, the Hebrew phrase behind the Greek of the Gospels is best rendered “may Your name be sanctified.”
In the Old Testament, we encounter the idea of sanctifying the name of God in Isaiah 6:3. The prophet Ezekiel also declared, “I [God] will show my greatness and my holiness (lit. I will make myself great and sanctify myself), and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 38:23). The Hebrew phrase “I will sanctify myself” parallels Jesus’ benediction “may Your name be sanctified.”
According to Ezekiel, God sanctifies His name by His actions. Both the Old Testament and ancient Jewish literature indicate that God’s people sanctify His name by the way they act. Whenever people obey His commandments they sanctify God’s name. The opposite of sanctifying God’s name by our obedience is to profane His name through disobedience (Numbers 20:12).
Later Jewish sages forbade any unethical economic dealings with Gentiles lest “the name of Heaven be profaned among the nations” because His children invoked the name of God in their actions. Likewise, Paul in Romans 2:21–24 called on Jews in Rome to live holy lives in the midst of the Gentiles lest the name of the Lord be profaned among the Gentiles as in Ezekiel 36:23. God’s name is sanctified either by how He acts or how we act; consequently, we profane His name in our disobedience, especially in how we relate to others.
Jewish suffering in the years leading up to the time of Jesus and in the years afterward occurred largely because of Jewish commitment to obey God’s commandments. As a result, the phrase “the sanctification of the Name” became a euphemism for martyrdom — dying because of their devotion to the commands of God.
Previously we suggested that the Lord’s Prayer was an abbreviated prayer Jesus taught — like other Jewish sages — that fulfilled one’s obligation of praying the ‘Amidah. The third benediction of the ‘Amidah, known as the Kedusah (sanctification), parallels the first benedictions of the Lord’s Prayer: “May we sanctify Your name in this world as it is sanctified in the highest of heaven” — “May Your name be sanctified. … May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As we will see, the first three benedictions of the Lord’s Prayer — “May Your name be sanctified,” “May Your kingdom come,” and “May Your will be done” — are poetically parallel and variations of the same thing. Jesus began His prayer with the benediction asking God that His name would be sanctified by the way in which His disciples obey Him perfectly in this world as the heavenly hosts do in the highest of heavens, for wherever God’s will is done His name is sanctified.
May Your Kingdom Come
Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” more than any other within the Gospels yet, historically, it is probably one of the most misunderstood ideas within Christendom. Traditionally, theologians and scholars have defined the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as either, 1) pertaining to something eschatological (i.e., the end of the age) and/or apocalyptic, or, 2) Jesus’ desire to establish a messianic kingdom on earth, a hope dashed by the tragedy of the Cross.
The expression “kingdom of heaven” only appears outside the Gospels within rabbinic literature; it does not appear in any other Jewish literature, including the literature interested in apocalyptic or eschatological themes.11 Some teachers have misled Christians in their understanding of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” because of the language of the phrase. First, “heaven” does not refer to a location. Rather, during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (third century B.C.–third century A.D.), Jews avoided articulating the name of God or the Divine Name. They spoke about God using circumlocutions, e.g., the glory, the omnipresent, the place, heaven. Thus, the “kingdom of heaven” is no different from the “kingdom of God” (as the phrase appears in Luke’s Gospel).
Second, “kingdom” in English denotes a physical place. In Hebrew, however, the word for “kingdom” (מלכות) is a verbal noun and is better translated as “reign” or “rule,” thus, the “rule (reign) of God.” In the Lord’s Prayer, the phrase “May Your kingdom come” could suggest a future realization of the “coming” of God’s reign, but the Hebrew phrase behind the Greek of the Gospels suggests the notion of “making one king” or “establishing one as king.” In this way, Jesus’ benediction parallels the Jewish prayer, the Kaddish: “May He cause His kingdom (rule) to reign.”12 The phrase “May Your kingdom come” would be better paraphrased as “May You continue establishing Your reign.”
Among the sages, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” anticipated a future time when God would reveal His rule to all the inhabitants of the world. At this time, God would remove the yoke of foreign domination from Israel. Some also anticipated that the revelation of the “kingdom of heaven” would signal the defeat of Satan and his powers.13 At present, those obeying God’s commands acknowledge His right to rule over them and thus realize the “kingdom of heaven.”
The sages connected the realization of the kingdom of heaven in this world with Israel’s obedience to God. In fact, they attributed Israel’s subjection to foreign rulers as a result of disobedience: “If the house of Israel transgresses the Law, foreign nations will rule over her, and if they keep the Law, mourning, tribulation, and lamentation will depart from her.”14 Consequently, within rabbinic circles, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” developed as an anti-Zealot slogan in opposition to the Zealots who demanded the sole rule of God. The Zealots fought against Rome and those allied with her believing that by using Rome’s tactics of violence against her they could establish God’s rule on the earth (Luke 22:24–27).
In contrast to the violence advocated by the Zealots, the sages taught that the realization of God’s rule on the earth would come whenever His people obeyed His commands. For both Jesus and the sages, the kingdom of heaven is present and future.
While God’s reign will be visibly revealed in the future, His reign is revealed presently in the obedience of His people. Jesus, however, uniquely understood His movement as inaugurating a historical point-in-time in which the Kingdom was “breaking forth” (Matthew 11:12; Luke 17:20,21), and we identify those living presently in the kingdom of heaven by their obedience to the commands of God (Matthew 5:20).
Within the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ instruction of His disciples to pray, “May You continue establishing Your reign (i.e., through our obedience),” parallels the opening benediction, “May Your name be sanctified,” because we sanctify God’s name and establish His reign through our obedience. So, too, it parallels the following benediction, “May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Thus, at the outset of Jesus’ model prayer, He teaches His disciples to pray: “May Your name be sanctified, and may Your reign be established through our obedience and submission to Your will and commandments.”
May Your Will Be Done on Earth as It Is in Heaven
In the ‘Amidah, the third benediction, the Kedusah (“sanctification”), reads: “We sanctify Your name in this world as it is sanctified in the highest heavens” (emphasis added). Jesus said, “May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Among the various streams of Jewish piety in the first century, the term “will” (רצון),15 as it pertains to the “will of God,” was an important and distinguishing theological concept. According to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, questions regarding divine providence, or the will of God, distinguished the three principal Jewish parties (Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes). Josephus says regarding the Pharisees, “They say that certain events are the work of Fate (i.e., Providence), but not all; as to other events, it depends upon ourselves whether they shall take place or not,”16 specifically in matters of righteous and wicked behavior.17 Within Pharisaic circles, doing the will of God was equivalent to obeying the commandments.
In contrast to the Pharisees, the Essenes believed everything was predetermined by the will of God. According to Josephus, “The sect of Essenes, however, declares that Fate is the mistress of all things, and that nothing befalls men unless it is in accordance with her decree.”18 For the Essenes, the will of God determined everything within the world, even identifying the righteous and the wicked. The Essenes’ predeterminism led them to isolate themselves from the rest of society and develop sectarian ideas and practices. The strict predeterminism of the Essenes does not appear in the teachings of Jesus; moreover, an Essene would not have prayed, “May Your will be done in earth and in heaven.”
The sages frequently connected Israel’s hopes for redemption with their obedience to the commandments of God (i.e., His will). Jesus also associated people’s obedience to God’s will, through repentance, with entry into the kingdom of heaven, and the redemptive hopes of Israel (Luke 4:16–30; Matthew 4:17; cf. Isaiah 58:6–9; 61:1,2). Jesus taught His disciples that, through their obedience to God, His will is done on earth as it is by the angels of heaven. By submitting to God’s rule, we establish His reign on earth. Jesus’ prayer asks God to sanctify His name, establish His rule, and make His will done by the obedient submission of Jesus’ followers. Like His Jewish contemporaries, Jesus viewed such obedience as preparatory for redemption.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer reads, “Give us (literally: be giving us continually) each day our daily bread” (1:3). Matthew’s “Give us today our daily bread” (6:11) better preserves the Hebraic idiom of Jesus’ entreaty, as well as Jesus’ radical conviction that each day contains its own blessing (Matthew 6:24–34; Luke 12:22–31).
Jesus drew the radical conclusion that to seek one’s provision beyond the day expressed anxiety and worry, which, for Jesus, marks one as being “of little faith” (Matthew 6:30–32). In this, Jesus belonged to a stream of Jewish thought that viewed each day as possessing its own sanctity and as such one should praise God for the present day (Matthew 6:34).
In part, the genesis of this worldview derived from the episode of the miracle of manna (“daily bread”) in the wilderness where God commanded the Israelites to “gather enough for that day” (Exodus 16:4–10). By requiring the people to daily rely on God for their sustenance, He tested them to ascertain if they would “follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4; cf. also Deuteronomy 8:2–4; Luke 4:4).
Jesus identified those anxious about tomorrow as being “of little faith.” The source of this daily confidence and outlook lay not in the power of positive thinking, but in an unrelenting trust in God, who creates the day and sustains all life.
Jesus’ instruction to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” fits within His attitude regarding anxiety and worry: “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat,’ or ‘What shall we drink,’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For … your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. …Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:31–34, RSV; see Luke 12:22–31). At the conclusion of His statement about worry, Jesus said, “Instead, seek his kingdom,19 and these things20 shall be yours as well” (Luke 12:31, RSV; cf. Matthew 6:33).21
Jesus enjoined people to focus on the true source of their sustenance — our Father in heaven. Jesus, like His Jewish contemporaries, expressed that only the one who truly trusts God for the provision of the day can appropriately study the divine commands. By making obedience to the will of God the primary goal of one’s life, a person does not need to be anxious about the cares of life, for one who worries about the cares of life misunderstands the character of God, our Father.
Forgive Us … as We Have Forgiven
In the centuries leading up to the first century, Judaism underwent a transformation that produced a new religious sensitivity whereby people were to serve God with unconditional love, without any thought of reward.22 This new religious sensitivity crystallized around the two biblical passages, “you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “you shall love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Luke 10:27). People viewed the oath at the conclusion of Leviticus 19:1823 as enforcing the divine command to “love your neighbor.” In keeping with such an interpretation of Leviticus 19:18, the verse became interpreted, “Love your neighbor who is like yourself.” Equally important to the development of this new sensitivity was Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his own image.” Because every human bears the image of God, he or she has immediate value.
In circles where this new sensitivity developed, loving one’s neighbor became a precondition for reconciliation with God. This same sentiment lies behind Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are the merciful (i.e., those who show mercy), for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). A sage living shortly after Jesus observed, “Transgressions between a man and his neighbor are not expiated by the Day of Atonement unless the man first makes peace with his neighbor.”24 In like manner, at the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instructed His disciples, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14,15).
Jesus enjoined His disciples to pray, “Forgive us ... as we have forgiven.” In other words, our forgiveness from God depends on the forgiveness we show to others. This new sensitivity stands at the heart of Jesus’ message and teachings. This development within Judaism enabled Him to draw His radical conclusion — not echoed among His Jewish contemporaries or His later followers — that we should even love our enemies, those who hate us (Matthew 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–36).
Jesus commanded His disciples, “There must be no limit in your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” (Matthew 5:48, NEB).25 If you love your neighbor, who like you is created in God’s image, God will show you mercy, but if you hate your neighbor, who like you is created in God’s image, God will punish you (Matthew 25:34–46). Jesus taught, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37,38).26
Within Jesus’ thought, like His Jewish contemporaries, our relationship with God and His forgiveness of us depends on our relationships with others and the mercy we show to them (1 John 1:9,10). For Jesus, this was no sentimental teaching, but the very essence of His message (Luke 4:16–30).
And Do Not Bring Us Into the Grasp of Temptation, but Deliver Us From Evil
Jewish prayers, like Jewish poetry, made frequent use of parallelism where one statement reinforces another. In the Lord’s Prayer, the phrases “May Your name be sanctified,” “May Your kingdom come,” and “May Your will be done” are parallelisms where each statement reinforces the other. Jesus also used parallelism in the phrases “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (KJV).
The English translation “Lead us not into temptation” is too harsh a translation of the Greek given the Hebrew sense of the phrase. A better translation would be “And do not bring us into the grasp of temptation,” a common sentiment in contemporary Jewish prayers.
Some modern New Testament translations have translated the second phrase “but deliver us from the evil one,” instead of “but deliver us from evil.” While it is possible to translate the Greek either way, in Hebrew one would not say “evil one” in reference to Satan. Rather, if Jesus had intended His disciples to ask for deliverance from Satan, He would have used the term “Satan,” a request made in some contemporary Jewish prayers. Moreover, the parallelism of these phrases indicates that the correct translation should be “deliver us from evil,” which restates the request “do not bring us into the grasp of temptation.”
Jesus believed people are tempted because evil inclination rules over them. If God will deliver us from the rule of the evil inclination, then He will deliver us from evil, which causes temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). The plea for deliverance Jesus placed into His model prayer further acknowledges God’s right to reign and our submission to His reign. By recognizing our tendency to be led into temptation, yet at the same time our desire to submit to God’s rule and commandments, Jesus instructs His followers to look to God as their deliverer from the grasp of temptation and evil.27
The best Greek manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel do not include the doxology — “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen” (KJV) — indicating most likely it was not part of the original prayer Jesus taught His disciples. The genesis for this doxology most likely came from the use of the Lord’s Prayer within early Christian worship and liturgy, where it was prayed three times a day.28
The Lord’s Prayer grew out of the soil of Jewish religious experience and piety in the first century. It anchors Jesus within the religious life of first-century Judaism, particularly the stream of piety exhibited by the sages. At the same time, the Lord’s Prayer provides a window through which His disciples gained a vivid understanding of His faith, view of God, our relationship to Him, and the interrelationship between us, others, and God. Modern readers who understand this prayer within its linguistic and cultural context gain a new, profound understanding of Jesus, His faith, and what He expected of His disciples. We feel like the layers of the centuries have been removed, and once again we, too, can sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from the Master.
1. Within recent decades, it has become quite popular to speak about the “Jewishness of Jesus” within Christian and New Testament circles. Such trendiness removes the study of Jesus of Nazareth away from historical and linguistic disciplines that are so vital to contextualizing and understanding His words. In fact, the modern trend to “rediscover the Jewishness of Jesus” or “the Jewish roots of Christianity” has produced a portrait of Jesus quite foreign to Jesus of Nazareth and first-century Judaism. The purpose of this article is to engage the Jesus of the Gospels and provide a window into His theology and worldview in the prayer He instructed His disciples to pray.
2. Cf. Didache 8:2,3.
3. Acts 15:21. Cf. also Philo, De vita Mosis II, 215,16; De opificio mundi, 128; and Josephus, Against Apion 2:175.
4. This prayer forms the heart of the morning, afternoon, and evening weekday services in the synagogue.
5. This prayer is also referred to as the ‘Amidah (“standing”), since it is recited while standing, or simply as Tefilah (“prayer”), the most common way to refer to this prayer in the early literature.
6. M. Berachot 4:3.
7. T. Berachot 3:7.
8. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4) begins “Father” omitting the phrase “who is in heaven.” Luke probably did this out of sensitivity for his Greek readers, who would most likely associate the “father in heaven” with Zeus of Greek mythology. For some time, the pagan world had not believed in Zeus who resided in heaven; thus, Luke omitted “who is in heaven” and also the phrase “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” since they could be misunderstood in a non-Jewish context.
9. Jeremiah 31:9; Psalm 68:5; 103:13; “our Father,” Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; 1 Chronicles 29:10; and “my Father,” Jeremiah 3:4; 3:19; Psalm 89:26.
10. Matthew 5:44,45; cf. b. Ta’anit 7b. Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, copyright 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
11. Within nonrabbinic Jewish literature, certain aspects of the concept of the kingdom of heaven appear, but the phrase grew out of rabbinic circles.
12. Cf. also the Eleventh Benediction of the ‘Amidah: “And rule over us, You alone.”
13. Cf. Testament of Moses 10:1–10;Testament of Daniel 6:1–5; and Luke 10:17–20.
14. Targum on Ezekiel 2:10.
15. רצון also means favor (cf. Isa. 61:2).
16. Antiquities 13:172.
17. “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given” (m. Avot 3:19).
18. Antiquities 13:172.
19. That is His rule, which is established by obedience to His will.
20. The cares of life, i.e., clothes, food, and shelter. Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
21. Luke 12:31; cf. Matthew 6:33.
22. M. Avot 1:3; cf. D. Flusser, “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 469–489.
23. “Love your neighbor as yourself — I — the Lord” (emphasis added).
24. M. Yoma 8:9; cf. Matthew 5:23,24.
25. The New English Bible. New Testament, 1961. C.H. Dodd, ed., The New English Bible. New Testament. Oxford and Cambridge: Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1961. Bible, 1970. C.H. Dodd, ed., The New English Bible with the Apocrypha. Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1970.
26. Luke 6:37,38. A saying recorded by Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 96) attributed to the Lord parallels Luke 6:37,38: “Be merciful, and you will find mercy; forgive, and you will be forgiven; as you do, so it will be done to you; as you give, so it will be given to you; as you judge, so you will be judged; as you do good, so will good be done to you; with the same measure in which you give, it will be given to you” (1 Clement 13:2).
27. Cf. b. Berachot 17a; and Romans 7:7–25.
28. Cf. Didache 8:2,3.