Jesus’ Teaching on Prayer

Over my years as a pastor, it was not uncommon to hear people asking how to pray. Their question resembled the command/request that one of the twelve disciples posed to Jesus in Luke 11:1. “Teach us to pray like John taught his disciples.” Jesus responded with what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is curiously simple compared with the disciples’ longing for knowledge. Frankly, for many years, I considered Jesus’ response a bit disappointing. If I were one of the disciples listening to Jesus, I would desire a “deeper” lesson on prayer. Shouldn’t Jesus’ response to such a deep question have been more profound? Yet, what made the Lord’s Prayer so special in the disciples’ eyes? Perhaps I’ve taken this simple prayer for granted and missed something important. When I began to study further the Lord’s Prayer, I discovered that it is quite outrageous. In a sense, Jesus’ teaching on prayer exploded my “black box” of traditional prayer. Upon examination of the Lord’s Prayer in both Matthew 6 and Luke 11, a question arises. Why did Jesus teach his disciples to pray by primarily using commands rather than requests? Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, what might be learned from the Greek use of commands? For example, how do we account for the Greek imperative (command) being used? Greek scholars have noted the unusual usage of the imperative in the New Testament. The ancient Greeks regarded the imperative form as inappropriate to use with superiors. However, modern grammars of New Testament Greek interpret imperatives used in prayer as a form of request or asking permission, but this explanation does not address the reluctance in ancient Greek to use the imperative in addressing a superior. The question arises: if the imperative merely reflected asking permission and not necessarily giving a command, then why was it not used in communication with a superior in Greek culture? Furthermore, on what basis do we interpret a command as asking permission, and when is it truly a command? For example, if it is possible to interpret imperatives as asking permission, then how do we know Jesus is not merely requesting us to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34), rather than issuing us a command to do so? To a Greek-speaking first century reader of the New Testament, the abundant use of the imperative in Jesus’ teaching on prayer to God must have been shocking. At the very least, the New Testament writers were pushing boundaries by using Greek imperatives to describe their relationship with Jesus and with God our Father. The implications of their writings require us to reflect further on what type of relationship our heavenly Father desires to have with us.

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