Perhaps the most quoted of Jesus’s sayings is a short, three- or four-verse prayer, one which Jesus actually instructed his followers to recite. And they do. The “Lord’s Prayer” is routinely offered in virtually every Christian church by members of virtually every Christian denomination. But do these words mean the same to the faithful today as they did to those who first heard Jesus teach them? Were they meant as a plea for help with daily life and a promise of continued ethical behavior? While people can certainly infuse any meaning they wish into their own prayers, I suggest that originally these words of Jesus were not meant to serve as a program for living. They are better understood within the context of the apocalyptic preaching of an apocalyptic prophet.
Just what is an apocalyptic prophet? The term is based on a type of ancient Jewish writing now known as an “apocalypse.” In its original Greek, the word apocalypse means “revelation.” Thus, apocalyptic writings propose to offer revelation given by God or another heavenly being to the author who often writes under an assumed name, usually that of a Biblical figure from the past. Examples of such texts include The First Book of Enoch, The Fourth Book of Ezra, The (Syriac) Apocalypse of Baruch and The Apocalypse of Abraham. Parts of the Biblical book of Daniel are apocalyptic. Early Christians adopted this style of writing and composed their own apocalyptic texts. The New Testament contains The Apocalypse of John. Other Christian examples include The Apocalypse of Peter and The Apocalypse of Paul, both written pseudonymously long after the deaths of their presumed authors.
The revelations received by the writers of these texts usually include a cosmic recreation of worldly events as well as a future forecast. At the time the revelations are received and written down, life looks bleak for both the author and his community. They were usually facing a severe crisis that threatened their very existence as a people. The world powers of the day were arraigned against them. But fear not, says the writer. These malevolent forces are destined for destruction and the evildoers (whoever they happened to be) will be destroyed. God will then restore the world and reward his loyal and righteous followers with new life in a new age, one like the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus.
Apocalyptic prophets saw themselves as messengers who were charged with bringing their revelations to the people. John the Baptist was such a prophet. He warned that the wheat (the righteous and loyal followers of God) was about to be separated from the chaff (the wicked, ruling powers) and that the chaff would burn in fire. According to John, the ax (of final judgment) was already at the root of the trees (people) and those trees that did not produce good fruit (the wicked) would be chopped down.
Jesus, according to most scholars, was also an apocalyptic prophet. There is much to commend this view. According to the gospels, Jesus often warned of a coming judgment in which a heavenly judge called the Son of Man would separate the righteous from the wicked (Matthew 13:41, 16:27 etc.). Jesus also seems to have believed that the coming of God’s rule, which he referred to as the Kingdom – or better “Kingship” – of God, would come during his generation (Mark 13:30). Apocalyptic prophets and writers usually emphasized the imminence of such world-changing events.
Jesus differed in some ways from what we know of most apocalyptic prophets and seers. Jesus seems to have given at least equal time to the positive aspects of the coming calamity. He actually referred to his warnings as “good news.” For repentant and faithful followers, the Kingship of God would bring complete renewal to the world restoring it to the way it was intended to be. It would be like a new Garden of Eden replacing the one which was lost due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
Under God’s direct rule, people would once again no longer have to fret about food and clothing as they had to after being expelled from the Garden of Eden (Mat. 6:25; compare with Genesis 2:21 where Adam and Eve must begin to wear skins to cover their nakedness, and Genesis 3:17 in which Adam is sentenced to farm for his food). In the Kingship, peace and harmony will characterize social and ecological relations (John 13:34; compare with Genesis 4:1-8 in which jealousy, duplicity, and murder mar the relationship between the first “brothers” Cain and Abel, Genesis 3:14 in which animals were set against Adam, and Genesis 3:18 in which the land began to grow thorns and thistles). Satan will no longer wreak havoc with human lives in the Kingship (Mark 3:26; compare with Genesis 3:1-5 in which the serpent successfully tempts Eve to disobey and sets humanity on its path to destruction). Physical suffering would become a thing of the past (Luke 9:2; compare with Genesis 3:16 in which Eve is promised pain in childbirth). Finally, in the Kingship, life would be eternal (Mark 10:30; compare with Genesis 3:19 in which Adam is condemned to return to dust as punishment for his disobedience). Death, humanity’s sentence for disobedience, would be overcome (Matthew 19:29, 25:26, Mark 10:17, etc.).
According to the gospels, Jesus forecasted this changing dynamic in his own work. He produced food in miraculous quantities, reached out to the socially marginalized, cast out demons, healed others of their infirmities, relieved them of their pain, and caused some to rise from the dead. By his actions, the gospels suggest, Jesus demonstrated for his followers what the kingdom would be like once it was fully established.
The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke received the text of the Lord’s Prayer from an earlier, written collection of Jesus’s sayings which scholars have agreed to call “Q” (Q stands for Quelle, the German word for “source”). Q contained scores of sayings by Jesus including the famous prayer. Because the authors of Matthew and Luke have reworked their source material, or worked with different versions of Q, the prayer is rendered slightly differently in each gospel.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-12 NRSV)
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. (Luke 11:2-4 NRSV)
Luke usually preserves the original text of Q more faithfully than Matthew. In this case, however, I think Matthew preserves the apocalyptic ideas behind the prayer more in accord with Jesus’s other teachings and thus may reflect the more original form. Luke likely preserves the original word “sin” rather than Matthew’s “debts,” however. Let’s examine the prayer line by line.
To open, Jesus acknowledges the sanctity of the name of God (“Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name”). This is the essence of the first of the Ten Commandments which also serves as the basis for the shema recited in daily prayer by many Jews: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord our God is one.”
Jesus next makes the apocalyptic call that becomes our key to understanding of the rest of the prayer in its original context: “Your kingdom come.” Jesus is here calling on God to re-establish his dominion over the earth and all of his creation. This expectation is at the root of the message that he and John the Baptist have been proclaiming in their ministries. This is the same kingdom, or kingship, the benefits of which Jesus has been demonstrating through his deeds. From this point in the prayer, Jesus has his sights firmly fixed on the coming kingdom.
What will the kingdom be like when it comes? First, God’s will, his original intent for his created world once manifested in the Garden of Eden, will again be realized on earth (“Your will be done on earth…”). For now, this perfect expression of God’s intent is limited to the realm in which God resides (“…as it is in heaven”). The coming Kingdom will provide so many benefits and relieve so much suffering that a brief itemization is in order to remind the faithful of what they are praying for.
Under God’s rule, he will give food to everyone in abundance (“Give us this day our daily bread”) just as all food requirements were met for Adam and Eve in the Garden. This “daily bread” will no longer be a matter of concern: God will give it. It will not be obtained by planting seed, tilling the soil, and threshing the fields as Adam and his descendants have been sentenced to do because of their disobedience.
Under God’s rule, his faithful followers will be acquitted of all their sins (“Forgive us our sins…”; see also Mark 3:28). Both mutual forgiveness (“…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”) and forgiveness by God are hallmarks of life under God’s reign according to Jesus. Jesus and John the Baptist spoke tirelessly of forgiveness not only in the form of baptism but as part of the physical process of healing (Mark 2:5). Forgiveness is a status commensurate with life in God’s coming kingship. Forgiveness puts right the fouled relationship that exists in the present age between God and humanity and between one and another.
With the coming of God’s rule comes a judgment, a time of trial. John the Baptist predicted it and Jesus confirmed it. The righteous people hope to avoid judgment by virtue of their prior repentance and renewed faith in God. They plead for acquittal before the coming trial of judgment (“Do not bring us to the time of trial”). Jesus further instructs his followers to pray for the day when Satan and his minions are finally destroyed (“Rescue us from the evil one”). Only under God’s rule can this prayer line become possible. Rescue from evil is a prominent feature of the final victory of God reclaiming his cosmos from the demonic forces that oppose him. Jesus looked forward to the day when Satan would be defeated (Luke 10:18). The Gospel of Luke does not include this last provision in the prayer but the criteria of contextual credibility and coherence make it likely that Jesus included it in his teaching.
It is safe to say that most modern Christians interpret the Lord’s Prayer as a supplication for daily sustenance, mutual good behavior, and spiritual support. But the focus of the historical Jesus was not about good social behavior or how to deal with the mundanities of daily life. It was on the immediate future and its imminent end. By any understanding of the apocalyptic nature of Jesus’s teaching, he was calling for the kingdom to come in his lifetime bringing the benefits so eloquently outlined in his prayer.