The Lord’s Prayer as Portrait of Jesus

An All-too-Familiar Prayer That is Grounded in Jesus

Kendall Gunter / 10.29.19

I rarely said the Lord’s Prayer growing up. My ministers, suspicious of any swish of ritual, took it as a template and taught me to ad lib to Our Father. I’ve learned to value that emphasis on spontaneous communication and individual requests. Although I now recite Jesus’ formula more often, I decided to do so as as an adult, rather than being forced to as a child, which has let me form my own reasons why. (Which makes me the most Baptist former-Baptist I could be.)

I’ve experienced two Christian worlds: I was Sunday schooled by new evangelicals disillusioned by ‘dead’ ceremony in the establishment churches. Now I am now surrounded by #exvangelicals looking for some stability and life in those same places. Each of these communities gasps for some breathing room, to air out the received wisdom, stretch their numb spirits a little, and begin to feel again. Funny how this little prayer, between the two worlds, either shows up all the time or never at all, as a beautiful element of worship or a sterile obstacle to it.

However you relate to the Lord’s Prayer, New Testament scholar Wesley Hill’s new book-length introduction to it (out next week!) will surely help you see it again freshly. Reading this book is like watching him pick it up to turn it inside out and backward. He reorients us to this too-familiar formula by grounding it in Jesus:

Above all, I want to show that the Lord’s Prayer is first and foremost about Jesus Himself. Each petition is not only His instruction to His followers about how they are to pray. More fundamentally, each petition is a window into Jesus’ own life of prayer–His reliance on and manifestation of the One He called Father. As Dale Allison has put it, ‘Jesus embodies his speech; he lives as he speaks and speaks as he lives.’ The Lord’s Prayer is a portrait of Jesus Christ–the One who addresses God as Father, who sanctifies God’s name, who announces and bears God’s healing reign, who submits to God’s will, who gives His flesh as daily bread for the life of the world, who provides for the forgiveness of sins through His death on the cross and thus inducts His followers into a lifestyle of forgiveness, and who ultimately delivers believers from the power of death and the devil. Jesus embodies and enacts the prayer He taught His followers to pray. Jesus is ‘the invisible background of every one of [the Lord’s Prayer’s] petitions’–all of them are arrows that point toward Him, though he isn’t mentioned by name in any of them.

So the prayer leads us to Jesus, like any good biblical interpretation should, I suppose. And where then does Jesus lead us?

Paul insists that Christians are those who have the boldness … to take on the lips Jesus’ own address to God. We ‘receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”‘ (Gal 4:5-6). Later, in his powerful Letter to the Romans, Paul would write similarly: ‘When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is with that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (8:15-16). We are tagalongs, you might say, taking advantage of the closeness Jesus enjoys with His Father. As the prophet Zechariah long ago predicted, people ‘from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you”‘ (8:23). Indeed, God is with Jesus, and we do grasp our older brother’s garment [Heb 2:10-18], begging Him to take us with Him to the Father. And He does.

Yet in taking us to God, Jesus doesn’t leave everyday life behind. Like the first volume in the Christian Essentials series, Hill’s installment is sensitive to contemporary anxieties–about divine gender, about the political nature of “Thy kingdom,” about the insoluble problem of evil as it challenges belief in a good God, and on and on. He doesn’t flinch at naming these problems, but lets them burn away the sentimentality that often encrusts talk about prayer. Nor, in this slim primer, does Hill get bogged down in any of the endless discussion of these problems, either. Instead, throughout this little book, Hill braids scripture and diverse theological resources together in sketches that both our intellects and our feelings can access. He sticks as close to Jesus as he can and finds there the daily bread for our endless needs.

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