The ΕχεGrεεκsις series of articles are meant for those who want to dig in deeper into the text beyond just a casual reading. It intends to pull back the curtain a little to see a bit of what goes on “behind the scenes” of translating our New Testament to English. I lay out the Greek text in bold, as from the Greek New Testament (NA28 edition), followed by my translation in blue italics, then an expansion on the meaning of the text and my choices in translating from the Greek. Additional commentary on the history, culture and meaning of the text will also be noted.
Our last article in this series looked at Jesus’s “higher standard” that he lays out for his followers in the Sermon on the Mount – which was actually an exposition of the true intent of God’s law. In this article, we take a look at his teaching on hypocrites and prayer in Matthew 6:5-15.
Comments on the structure of Matthew 6:5-24
I did something a little different with this section. I went through first and visually mapped out the structure and patterns I saw and tried to draw various links. This was done independently of any commentaries, just from the text. Within the verses we’re looking at (v. 5-24) there’s a certain repeated pattern/structure I noticed. I know this might seem tedious, but this does help us understand better the purpose behind how Matthew wrote this portion of his Gospel. The literary structure that he’s intentionally employing here is trying to bring attention to certain points. So it’s good for us to take note.
I’ll try to lay it out as follows using letters for the different sections followed by a short description of their general contents, then in the commentary that follows I’ll use these to point out their significance. The structure I noticed is as follows:
A. The hypocrite’s piety (v. 5, 16)
i.) Plural address—when you practice a certain act of piety, don’t be like the hypocrite.
ii.) A negative example of the hypocrites’ act of piety for people to see.
iii.) That will be their only reward.
B. The disciple’s piety (v.6, 17-18)
i.) Singular address—the contrast of the way in which the disciple should serve or render their act of piety.
ii.) A positive example of how the disciple’s act of piety should be done in secret.
iii.) The promise of God’s reward.
C. Example of a vain/futile effort by men (C1 = v. 7-8, C2 = v.19-21)
i.) Negative example of what not to do like people who are pagan/earthly minded.
ii.) The reason why not to follow their example.
Within these verses, there is quite a bit of similarity and mirroring that happens in the sentences within the 2 sections being looked at here. There is mirroring of the verbal tenses and moods used for the positive commands, which I will point out in the examination of the verses. After these general structural patterns for the first part, there is a difference between what follows in the 2 sections of teaching after about prayer (v. 5-8) and then fasting (v. 16-18). So it is hard to find a single way to group the subsequent teachings together without feeling like it’s forced. I have therefore opted to label them D1 and D2, and E1 and E2—since they are different, however there are some similarities which could be noted, though I’d argue not enough to say that they are following a strictly repeated pattern.
D1. A positive example or prayer to follow. (v.9-13)
E1. A teaching point based on the example to clarify what is meant and why. (v. 14-15)
D2. A positive illustration or parable. (v. 22-23)
E2. Teaching point to clarify. (v. 24)
So, that’s the structure of this passage we’re looking at—the commentary that follows will refer back to these structures. Now let’s take a look at the text itself. I’ll start off with the Greek text, followed by my own translation of it then the commentary on the passage
Matt. 6:5 Καὶ ὅταν προσεύχησθε, οὐκ ἔσεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταί, ὅτι φιλοῦσιν ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς καὶ ἐν ταῖς γωνίαις τῶν πλατειῶν ἑστῶτες προσεύχεσθαι, ὅπως φανῶσιν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις· ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν.
And whenever you should pray, you will not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they might be seen by the people. Truly I tell you, they fully have their reward.
This verse is nested within a section of which I think verse 1 functions like a summary theme, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Remember that this portion of teaching would have been delivered in public, with his closest disciples probably nearest to Jesus, and a crowd of other followers surrounding. This first sentence is addressed to a plural you in Greek, “and whenever you [all] should [do this act of piety]” and then the negator, “you [all] will not be like the hypocrites.” It fits the pattern which is set in verses 2-4, where the initial big idea is addressed to the plural congregation before him, then the specific example which clarifies the teaching is addressed to a singular you (v. 6). What follows is a description of the hypocrites’ behaviour, and the conjunction ὅπως [hopōs] (so that) explaining the reason behind their behaviour—they want to be seen! Finally, the concluding sentence “truly I tell you, they have their reward” is repeated verbatim. This pattern is repeated again in verse 16.
There are some notable differences within this pattern in part A though. If we go back, in verse 2, it opens off with a present subjunctive verb—ποιῇς (you should practice)—to describe the act of piety followed by an aorist subjunctive negator—μὴ σαλπίσῃς (should not sound a trumpet)—as the negative prescription of what not to do. However, in verse 5, the second part of the opening clause uses a present subjunctive verb—προσεύχησθε (you should pray)—to describe the act of piety. It is followed by a future indicative—οὐκ ἔσεσθε (you will not be) instead—although the thrust of the future indicative here may bleed into the realm of a subjunctive (you should not be). However, I think there may be a slight intensification of force than with simply using a subjunctive. Then, in verse 16 it again opens with a present subjunctive—νηστεύητε (you should fast)—but is followed now by a negator using a present imperative—μὴ γίνεσθε (do not become). Now, how much of a big deal we should make out of this—I’m not entirely sure—but it is interesting to contemplate. I think it’s interesting that the three acts of piety—practising charity, praying and fasting—are present subjunctives, implying they are things which disciples are expected to be continually doing and practising—indeed they should do them! However, the negators (what not to do) are what really interest me. There seems to possibly be an increasing progression of intensity from “you should not sound a trumpet,” to “you will not be like the hypocrites” and finally “do not become like the hypocrites”—going from aorist subjunctive to future indicative to present imperative. So there seems to be some escalation or intensification happening here.
One way of trying to offer a theory for this is to look at the actions themselves and see if there is a correlation with the action and the intensity of the negative prescription. It might be said that practising charity/alms is something optional for the Christian, thus the use of a subjunctive verb. Furthermore, prayer is essential and expected of every Christian, so a future indicative is used since it is expected that they “will” pray. However, for fasting this pattern seems to run into difficulty, because I don’t know if its as easy to say that fasting is a requirement, though it is definitely prescribed and Jesus does talk about the expectation for the disciples to fast later on. The use of the present imperative here then may have another function. Perhaps the build is a cumulative one—that the disciple who fails to properly practice charity, and pray secretly, and fast appropriately, in the end “becomes” a hypocrite, hence the increase in intensity of verbs used and the use of γίνομαι (become) instead of εἰμί (be). These are my own personal musings on it though. I have yet to read a commentator who makes note of this observation.
“Standing was a normal posture for prayer (cf. Mark 11:25), though when the worshiper wished to adopt an especially lowly position he might prostrate himself, as Jesus did in Gethsemane (26:39).”
However the focus here is not primarily on posture. The conjunction ὅπως (so that)—which focuses on the necessary measures that are required for an intended goal to be reached—introduces the purpose clause “so that they might be seen by the people.” It clearly tells us the intentions of the hypocrites in their actions—it is not just that they happen to be in these places praying, but that they purposely put themselves in public places of prominence to draw attention. How often do we do the same? Perhaps not necessarily by going out into the public square to pray, but how about when we may puff up our words at a prayer meeting or small group?
In the last clause, ἀπέχουσιν is a present tense verb “they have.” Louw-Nida define this verb as meaning, “to experience an event to the limit of what one could expect— ‘to experience all one deserves.’” Some translations render it “they have received” inserting “received” to make clear the point that Jesus is communicating that their reward is only in this present time and they have received the full extent of that reward. I have thus rendered it “fully have.” The word μισθός (reward) is defined as “a recompense based upon what a person has earned and thus deserves.” This is their only and expected wage or payment for their hypocritical act of piety. They will receive no reward from God, only the temporal praise of men. That is their full and only meagre reward. Likewise, if we perform our piety for the admiration of others, we have already received our full reward.
Matt. 6:6 σὺ δὲ ὅταν προσεύχῃ, εἴσελθε εἰς τὸ ταμεῖόν σου καὶ κλείσας τὴν θύραν σου πρόσευξαι τῷ πατρί σου τῷ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ· καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι.
But whenever you should pray, go into your room and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret, and your Father—who sees you in the secret—will reward you.
The conjunction δὲ is linking and contrasting this statement with what had been said before (Part A – the negative example of the hypocrites) with what comes next, that is, (Part B) the positive example for the disciple to follow. So I have translated it simply as “but.” The phrase ὅταν προσεύχῃ is setting up an expected practical situation, so I have translated it “whenever you should pray.” (I have done similarly for verse 16.) The positive prescription for the disciple is expressed in two aorist imperative commands—εἴσελθε and πρόσευξαι—and a similar pattern is seen in verse 17. These commands to “go into your room” and the “having shut your door” are seen as completed actions before the command to pray is given—so they are being seen as necessary conditions to be completed before prayer is started. The point being, of course, to go find a secret place to pray and not show off in public.
The phrase ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ (in the secret)—here repeated twice—obviously refers to inside your room as a secluded, not public place. So if you’re going into a room full of people, that defeats the point! The phrase ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ is literally, “the One seeing in the secret.” It defines the subject ὁ πατήρ σου (your Father) and makes it clear that though one enters into their room for isolation and privacy, God is there with them. “In such a secret place the disciple encounters the God who ‘is in secret.’ This remarkable phrase… suggests not only that God is omnipresent, even in the secret place, but also that he is himself invisible, in stark contrast to his pretended worshipers who are only too visible.” The point is not that Jesus is forbidding all prayer in public places, but rather, “he is giving direction for one’s own prayers and indicating that they are to be undertaken with a single eye on God, not with a side glance at people who could be impressed.” There’s a place for public prayer, but what is in focus here is private and intimate communion with Our Heavenly Father.
Furthermore, “Most Galilean homes had one or at the most two rooms (Horsley 1995: 192), and the only room in the average Palestinian home that had its own door would be the much smaller ‘closet’ (KJV) or ‘storeroom’ (Schweizer 1975: 145; Hagner 1993: 142; cf. Lk 12:24).” The word ταμεῖον means,
“a storeroom and thus a room in the inner part of a house. With houses made de of mud brick it was possible for thieves to ‘dig through’ an outer wall (cf. v. 19); thus anything valuable was stored in an inner room. In many houses this was the only room that could be locked. In the present context the emphasis is on a room that cannot be observed. Cf. 24:26. The threefold your (your room, your door, your Father) emphasizes the personal character of it all.”
The word ἀποδώσει (will reward) means “to recompense someone, whether positively or negatively, depending upon what the individual deserves— ‘to reward.’” So it has a similar meaning to μισθός used in the previous verse, that it is a reward for what was done or deserved. However, the difference is that where as the hypocrite already have the full extent of their reward from the praise of men, the disciple is promised a reward to come from God himself. The ending καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀποδώσει σοι (and your Father—who sees you in the secret—will reward you) ends off this formulaic section of Jesus’ teaching and is repeated verbatim in verses 4, 6 and 18.  This is a sure promise of reward from God himself and not the temporal praise of men.
Matt. 6:7-8 Προσευχόμενοι δὲ μὴ βατταλογήσητε ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί, δοκοῦσιν γὰρ ὅτι ἐν τῇ πολυλογίᾳ αὐτῶν εἰσακουσθήσονται. μὴ οὖν ὁμοιωθῆτε αὐτοῖς· οἶδεν γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὧν χρείαν ἔχετε πρὸ τοῦ ὑμᾶς αἰτῆσαι αὐτόν.
Furthermore, you should not use vain repetitions while praying as the pagans do, for they think that in their many words they will be heard. Therefore, you should not be like them, for your Father already knows what things you need before you ask Him.
Here, part C opens with the conjunction δὲ which indicates an additive relation to what had been previously said, so I chose to translate it as “furthermore” since it’s still expanding on the contrast of the disciple’s prayer (so keep that in mind). While we are praying, it states a prohibitive subjunctive μὴ βατταλογήσητε (you should not use vain repetitions), which is why I have translated it “you should not use vain repetitions while praying.” This advice seems reminds us of Ecclesiastes 5:1, “Do not be hasty to speak in God’s presence … let your words be few,” The two conjunctions γὰρ ὅτι (for/because) introduce the reason why the disciple should not copy the pagans—because they think their many words will make them heard.
Babbling on in Prayer
The word used here, βατταλογέω [battalogeo], means “to speak much or extensively, with a possible added implication of meaningless words— ‘to use many words, to speak for a long time.’” Βατταλογέω [battalogeo], like the English word “babble” seems to be an onomatopoeic coinage and references a noisy flow of sound without meaning (like saying ‘batta batta batta’ or our English equivalent of ‘blah blah blah’). It reminds us of what Jesus said of the scribes making long prayers for show in Mark 12:40.
What is in mind is the use of unnecessarily long-winded empty words, or to blubber nonsensical repetitions. This is one of the reasons why I believe the Charismatic practice of “praying in tongues” today is not-profitable nor Bibilcal. Much of the glossalalia practiced involves repetitions of seemingly meaningless phrases and sounds without any involvement of the mind. “Pagans piled up as many names of the deity they were entreating as possible, hoping at least one would be effective; this may be the import of “many words.” However, it is not the length of the prayer which is condemned because Jesus spent whole nights in prayer (Luke 6:12; 22:14) and we’re told that the early church tarried in prayer (Acts 1:14; 12:5; 1 Tim. 5:5). What is denounced is the “abuse and redundancy and canned formulas, in which the cry of the heart becomes mere words.” Unlike the pagans who would use longwinded incantations of calling upon their gods by secret names or adjuring them by some form to cajole their aid, as will be seen in the following example of prayer, the followers of Jesus Christ have only to say “Our Father” to be heard. We have that kind of access to God! Our Father’s ear is attentive to us. “Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath!” (Psalm 116:2 NLT)
The last statement “for your Father already knows what things you need before you ask Him” stands in contrast to a pagan idea that prayer might be informing the gods of needs which were overlooked.
“But if God does not need to be informed of our needs, why does he expect us to tell him about them? Christian spirituality has traditionally found the answer in a concept of prayer not as the communication of information, still less as a technique for getting things from God (the more words you put in the more results you get out), but as the expression of the relationship of trust which follows from knowing God as ‘Father.'”
What is primarily in focus in prayer is our attitude in approaching prayer, and it is an expression of our relationship to our Heavenly Father and our desire to align our will with His. This is what the following example of prayer will demonstrate to us.
Matt. 6:9-10 Οὕτως οὖν προσεύχεσθε ὑμεῖς·
Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·
ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου,
ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς·
Therefore, pray in this way:
Our Father, who is in the heavens,
May Your name be hallowed,
May Your Kingdom come,
May Your will be done upon the earth also as it is in Heaven,
The next section opens off with οὕτως οὖν (therefore, in this way) linking what had been said prior about not praying like the pagans do by using vain repetitions or incantations to cajole the deity to answer. “The instruction is addressed to the disciples corporately, and the whole prayer will be phrased in the plural. It is the prayer of a community rather than an individual act of devotion, even though its pattern would also appropriately guide the secret prayers in the store-room (v. 6).” I think sometimes we miss that the Lord’s prayer is a prayer which is worded in the plural. It is a corporate prayer—not simply a personal petition—but rather the prayer of the Church that links us to the larger body of believers!
A Pattern for Prayer
We see in what follows, as opposed to a strict formula to be exactly repeated, is a recommended structure or template example of prayer which is distinctly different from these types of pagan prayer. We see that it is not a strict formula in the differences between how Matthew records the prayer and how Luke records it. “The fact that the early church seems to have been content for the prayer to be preserved in different forms does, however, suggest that it was more concerned with the content of the prayer than with its exact form.” In essence, because of what we have just talked about—the example of what not to do, “this then is how you should pray.” There is no fancy incantation or calling upon secret names of gods, no flattery or complex formula, and in fact, hardly any real requests or petitions for stuff. Instead, there is a simple but intimate direct address of God as “Our Father,” a very simple and clear outline, and mostly expressions of longing for the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of God’s Kingdom and reign.
Even where there is some expression of a material petition “give us today our daily bread,” it is open ended in determining what God would deem necessary to be defined as ‘daily bread.’ The only direct petition is for the forgiveness of debts and to deliver us from evil after the request to not be ‘led into temptation.’ In this way, the Lord’s prayer stands in contrast to the pagan or hypocritical examples of prayer. Jesus clearly stated in verse 8 that God already knows our needs before we ask, therefore the purpose of prayer is not primarily to get what we want or to give some new information to God. Prayer is rather, from what we can see here, a longing for His glory, a realigning of our wills to His in submission to His Kingdom, and the petition that He continues to provide for our needs.
The use of “our Father” is something instantly recognizable to every person. In putting forward this contrast of pagan prayer with his example of prayer, Jesus is teaching us, “you want to learn how to pray? Don’t look at those who are religious hypocrites or pagans, look at kids who have a good dad and how they interact with him.” However, our perceptions of “Father” may be marred by our own earthly experiences. The quality group which defines “our Father” as the One who is perfect “in Heaven,” sets Him apart from our earthly dads though. This concept of the nearness of God as “Abba Father,” but also the recognition of His transcendence as the One “who is in Heaven” is a dynamic tension establishing both appropriate intimacy and reverence.
“It not only underlines the metaphorical nature of the concept, but also prescribes the disciple’s attitude to God: he is on the one hand all-powerful and therefore completely to be trusted but on the other hand to be approached with the reverence which the following clauses of the prayer will express.”
Also, notice that he did not say “my Father,” but “our Father.” The statement establishes prayer as a community expression from the beginning. Even more amazingly, it brings us in with Jesus’ relationship to the Father, to share the relationship the Son has with God the Father! Even though Christ had set the context for this in his command for secret prayer, our mindset should still be family oriented on our other brothers and sisters who share “Our Father.”
Third Person Imperatives
What follows are a series of three clauses with third person imperative verbs about God and His worship. “The first three clauses of the prayer are strongly reminiscent of the Aramaic Qaddish prayer or doxology which was already in regular synagogue use by the time of Jesus.” Third person imperatives are a bit tricky to translate since they don’t exist in English. We are more familiar with second person imperative commands like “go clean your room.” Third person imperatives are like a strong statement that something should exist, or an action should be done—similar to a sort of deep longing or strong plea for God’s action to bring about this state of affairs. The best we might be able to get to it in English is by saying, “let there be” or “may it be.” Thus I have rendered them “May Your name be hallowed,” and so on. Out of the third person imperatives, two are in the passive ἁγιασθήτω (may it be hallowed) and γενηθήτω (may it be done).
What is interesting is that though God’s Name is the subject of the verb receiving the “hallowing,” the exhortation is made to God. The implication of the passive voice in this phrase begs the question then, by whom is God’s name being hallowed—by God or by us? It would seem to me that the answer would be both. God is the primary and ultimate sanctifier of His Own Name, and we ask Him to sanctify it in, through and among us here. Holiness is a prime characteristic of God himself, therefore, it “is not then a request that it be made holy, as the traditional translation ‘hallowed’ properly means—it is holy already. Rather it is that people may recognize and acknowledge its holiness, by giving God the reverence which is his due.” We could similarly say of the “doing of God’s will”—it is both a work of God and to be done by us.
This reminds me of Philippians 2:12b (work out your salvation… for it is God working in you) and Ephesians 2:10 (good works God prepared before hand, that we should walk in them). Both passages show this duality that it is both God who works and we who work. We also note the clause “upon the earth also as it is in Heaven” which emphasize that eschatological longing for God’s will to be perfectly consummated here on earth as it is done in Heaven. However, they “can be seen to apply to all three of the preceding clauses. In heaven (among the angels) God’s name is already honored, his kingship acknowledged and his will done, and the prayer is that this heavenly state of affairs may be reflected also on earth.” What else does this imply than the Christian’s desire to see God’s Kingdom establishd more and more here on earth? This means that we should want to see God’s will done in every area and sphere of life – family, education, politics, church, community, entertainment, the arts, business, law, etc. Praying that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven implies the Christian’s desire to see all of life submitted to the Lordship of Christ. This prayer instructs us what our desires should be towards public life and what has often been termed the “secular sphere” – we want to see it all submitted to Jesus Christ!
The phrase ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου (may Your Kingdom come) nicely captures this longing for the coming of God’s Kingdom and reign in its fullness. The imperative used this time is active instead of passive, petitioning God to actively have His Kingdom come here both one day and now in our hearts. N.T. Wright says of this, “But there was, of course, still work to be done, redemption to be won. The present and the future did not cancel one another out, as in some unthinking scholarly constructions. Nor did “present” mean “a private religious experience” and “future” mean “a Star Wars-type apocalyptic scenario.” In praying for the coming of the “Kingdom” we are talking about the reign of Christ as Lord—of Christ’s Lordship. It is for this reason that prayer is not about making our will be done or getting our way, for how ridiculous would it be to address God as Lord (implying submission to His rule) and then proceed to tell Him what to do? Unlike pagan prayer, Christian prayer is not a sort of bargaining table with God.
Matt. 6:11-13 τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·
καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,
ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·
καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν,
ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.
Give us today our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
As we also forgive our debtors,
And would You not lead us into temptation,
But rescue us from the evil one.
This section contains three petitions for our own needs which balance the first half of the prayer’s three clauses about God’s Name, Kingdom and will. I perceive a progressive movement in the verbs used going from three third person imperatives (ἁγιασθήτω, ἐλθέτω and γενηθήτω), to two second person imperatives (δὸς and ἄφες) and then finally one second person subjunctive verb (εἰσενέγκῃς).
“The first half of the prayer is concerned with God’s honor, kingdom and purpose, and only after that do our own needs find a place. The first three clauses are cast in the form of wishes, using the third-person imperative form; they are in effect a doxology, an act of worship, associating the praying community with God’s purpose in the world. The second-person imperatives of the following clauses are thus set within the overall priority of God’s will rather than our desires.”
Bread in the ancient world was the most basic form of sustenance—so what is to be understood in this petition is trusting God for that which is basic to our survival. By implication, if we are to trust Him in even this most foundational provision, we are to also trust Him for everything else. The term ἐπιούσιον has a lot of debate surrounding its exact meaning. The word translated “daily” represents this Greek word ἐπιούσιος, “which occurs nowhere else in extant Greek literature.” Ancient Syriac versions have “continual” or “for our need” and earlier Latin versions have “daily,” whereas Jerome’s Vulgate has “supersubstantialis” which probably meant “supernatural.” Some take it as “needed for existence” and some as “for the present day,” but many see it as an adjective deriving from a phrase found in Acts 7:26; 16:11; 20:15; 21:18 for “the following day.”
Aside from all the scholarly debate over nuances, considering the clear inclusion of “today,” in the verse, I think the main thought is that in our petition, we are not asking for excess or for unnecessary abundance of riches for selfish gain. Rather, we are asking for what God deems necessary for us, and what is appropriate for our present or daily need. “To ask for such bread “today” is to acknowledge our dependence on God for routine provision.” This undoubtedly reminds us of God’ daily provision of manna in the dessert for the Israelites—they only got what they needed for the day, and the next day there was new manna. Similarly, our trust in God’s provision is day to day, moment by moment. The instruction to not worry about material provision in verses 25-33 seem to confirm this understanding here.
Forgiveness of Sin and Protection from Evil
Something noticeably absent from the prayer is an explicit confession of sin. Rather what we find is the petition to forgive us our debts, which could be understood as our moral debt of failures to God—or sin—and thus implicitly may be spoken of here. It is interesting also that this petition for forgiveness comes after the petition for daily bread. So often, practically speaking, we think the opposite—that I have to butter up to God, ask forgiveness, get right with Him first before I can ask for grace. However, this underlies our continuing struggle to really ‘get’ grace!
There is a textual variant here with some manuscripts having ἀφίεμεν (aorist) instead of ἀφήκαμεν (present) which may reflect some uncertainty on this issue, “the aorist tense properly indicating that our forgiveness of others is prior to God’s requested forgiveness of us, while the present may be thought to allow a less precise relationship.” However, I think if we take this verse in its context and not as a single isolated verse, verses 14-15 seem to make this issue clear. It is interesting that verse 12 is the only verse singled out for a comment afterwards, probably because it was recognized that it needed clarification. “The point of that comment, as indeed of the balancing structure of the clause itself, is that forgiveness is a reciprocal principle, a point which will be more fully underlined in the parable of 18:23–35.” In the parable in chapter 18 of the unforgiving servant, the “answer in 18:21–22 makes it clear that debt is a metaphor for offenses which need to be forgiven.” We should note that it is the debtors rather than the debts which we have forgiven; our concern, like God’s, is to be with personal relationships. So then, there is something inevitably reciprocal about the forgiveness which Jesus speaks of. “To ask to be forgiven while oneself refusing to forgive is hypocritical.”
After this petition for forgiveness of our past sins, comes one for protection from future sins. In verse 13, it is in two parts, both expressing a desire to avoid future sinning in a way that the second clause may be understood as an expansion of the first clause, “lead us not into temptation.” It is interesting that Jesus’ example of prayer ends with reference to the struggle we all face. 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.” Some struggle with the text, asking how is it that God can bring us into temptation? However, this involves two mistaken assumptions. R.T. France is helpful on this point:
“Firstly, a negative request does not necessarily imply that the positive is otherwise to be expected—a husband who says to his wife “Don’t ever leave me” is not necessarily assuming that she is likely to do so. Secondly, peirasmos is not in itself always to be understood as a bad thing: it was after all the Holy Spirit who took Jesus into the wilderness “to be tested” (4:1). When James says that God “does not tempt anyone” (Jas 1:13) he is presumably using peirazō in its more limited sense of “tempt to do wrong”, but the idea of God “testing” his people is a biblical one (Gen 22:1; Deut 8:2 etc.). If peirazō is here taken in that more positive sense the point of the petition would be not that the testing is in itself bad, but that the disciples, aware of their weakness, would prefer not to have to face it.”
In any case, the text is clear who the hero of this fight is and it certainly is not us. We are the ones begging for God’s deliverance and He is the one who will rescue us from sin. It is interesting to me that this part is put at the end of the prayer, as many of us have been taught in church traditions that repentance and confession must come before petitions through our various formulas for prayer (such as ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). I think this may turn some people’s worlds upside down a bit, but, God hearing our prayers is not predicated on how holy our lives are before Him, or how pure we can keep ourselves. It is rather based on His goodness, grace and mercy towards His children. We don’t confess our sins so that God will hear us so we then can get what we ask of Him. Our holiness is not a ‘bargaining chip’ for God’s grace. We who are saved, have already been justified and stand right before God now—this is why we can boldly approach His throne to find grace in our time of need (Heb.4:16).
Matt. 6:14-15 Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν, ἀφήσει καὶ ὑμῖν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος· ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, οὐδὲ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ἀφήσει τὰ παραπτώματα ὑμῶν.
For if you should forgive people their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you should not forgive people, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This section expands on the teaching on forgiveness, since it was the only one with a condition, it probably necessitated some elaboration. In it we see twice repeated, a conditional clause in the subjunctive followed by a promise in the future tense. The first expresses the concept positively and the second, negatively—making it emphatically clear what had been implied in verse 12. “If the forgiveness of sins which is achieved through the saving death of Jesus (26:28) is not matched by an appropriately forgiving attitude on the disciple’s part, it cannot be presumed upon.” It is not that our act of forgiving earns our forgiveness from God, but rather that—forgiven people forgive.
It is interesting to note that in verse 14a, τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν (the trespasses of them) is the direct object of ἀφῆτε (you should forgive) with τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (people) as the indirect object. The counter balancing promise implies that our trespasses are also the direct object of God’s forgiveness towards us. In the verse 15, though it says, “if you should not forgive people,” obviously the implied direct object is again “their trespasses.” However, some manuscripts insert τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν (the trespasses of them) again here—probably just for clarity’s sake. There is no specification on these “people”—they could be anyone; murderers, criminals, liars, adulterers. The parable in 18:23-35 shows us by comparing the enormous debt the king forgives with the small debt demanded by the evil servant that no offense we may suffer is even close to the weight of sin we have been forgiven of by God. So, our forgiveness should reflect the forgiveness which we lavishly received from God.
I hope that you enjoyed this ΕχεGrεεκsις article and that it was informative and helpful to understanding the text in a deeper way. Look out for future articles and you can also browse the previous ΕχεGrεεκsις articles on the site for more similar content.
- Barclay, William., Lord’s Prayer, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
- Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
- France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007.
- Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
- Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
- Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.
- Newman, Barclay Moon, and Philip C. Stine. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1992.
- Spicq, Ceslas and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.
-  Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 140. The word groups ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς (in the synagogues) and ἐν ταῖς γωνίαις τῶν πλατειῶν (on the street corners) are linked by καὶ and seen as the same object for ἑστῶτες προσεύχεσθαι (standing to pray), functioning as an adverbial clause describing where the hypocrites pray standing up. So I have rendered it as “to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners” rather than seeing them as two separate entities “to pray in the synagogues and standing on the street corners.”
- Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 806.
-  Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 490.
- France, The Gospel of Matthew, 239.
-  Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 140–141. Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 164. Some commentators cross reference “go into your room and having shut your door” with the Septuagint of Isaiah 26:20. However, the context in Isaiah is that of a threat to hide from the Lord’s anger. Also mentioned is 2 Kings 4:33, where Elisha “went in and shut the door upon the two of them and prayed to the Lord.”
-  Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 210.
-  Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 141.
-  Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 490.
-  There is a variant reading in some manuscripts which adds ἐν τῷ φανερῷ (in the open) to the end of this verse. This was perhaps to balance off the phrase ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ (in the secret). Variant reading occurs in K, L, W, Δ, Θ, f13, and others including 𝔐.
-  Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 277.
-  Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 398.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 240.
-  Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 212–213. Citations in quotation were edited out for clarity.
-  Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 278.
-  Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 279.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 241.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 244.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 242.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 242.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 245.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 243.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 245–246.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 246.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 247.
-  Longenecker, Into God’s Presence, 135
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 243.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 243.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 247–248.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 247–248.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 248.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 250.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 249.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 249–250.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 250.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 250.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 251.
-  Barclay, Lord’s Prayer, 104
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 251.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 253.
-  Variant reading in B, K, L, W, Δ, Θ, f13, 22. 565. 579. 700., etc and others including 𝔐.
-  France, The Gospel of Matthew, 253.