The Lord’s Prayer – do we pray it or no?

There are two main approaches to the Lord’s Prayer (LP).

  • The Lord’s Prayer was meant to be prayed verbatim.
  • The Lord’s Prayer was not meant to be prayed verbatim, but rather serves as a model prayer.

Most of the church for 2000 years has opted for the first, while also affirming that it is also a valid application to use it as a pattern; some evangelicals accept only the second. Let’s explore the options:

  1. How not to pray
  2. The intent of the Lord’s Prayer
  3. The use of the Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church

1. How not to pray, according to Matthew 6

The Lord compares his teaching with two very different alternatives. First, he tells his disciples not to pray as “hypocrites” – in this case, he describes Jewish men who wish to be seen by other people (Matt 6:5-6). The problem was not that they stood to pray in the synagogue or Temple (Luke 18:9); that was common practice. Nor that they prayed in public; that too was the norm. The problem was their motivation, to be seen praying with extravagant piety. If they wanted to give the litmus test to their own motivations, they might try praying in private and see if they are still so earnest.

"Don't pray like the pagans do!"
“Don’t pray like the pagans do!”

The second warning has to do with “pagans.” They pray with “many words” and with “babbling.” This clause is poorly interpreted by some. Jesus is not saying, “Don’t pray like they do in the synagogue, because they use set prayers.” Rather he points to pagans who use magical formulas to gain the attention of their gods, like the one shown in the picture. In paganism, the more words the better, and the practitioner would crank out prayer after prayer of nonsense sentences.

Of course, someone could use the LP hypocritically or as a magical formula. But it would be incongruous for Jesus to have warned against “empty repetition of words” and then given a prayer for them to pray that was “empty” by definition.

2. The Intent of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus seems to have taught the LP on at least two occasions – Matt 6:9-13 is reflected in a another context and a shorter version in Luke 11:2-4. In Matt 6:9 he says “Therefore, you should pray in this manner” or “as follows”; the word “you” is emphasized, to contrast with the rambling pagans in 6:7-8. Matthew uses the same language that often introduces verbatim quotes (see Matt 2:5, Acts 7:6, 13:34, 47 and other passages). In Luke 11:2 he says even more directly, “When you pray, say” the following. This answered the disciples’ question, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” They would have understood that such prayers were “formal,” like those of the synagogue, that is, fixed prayers meant to be memorized and employed verbatim.

Like Jesus, the disciples knew plenty of set prayers, most of them in Hebrew. They also had memorized many or all of the Psalms. Like all pious Jews, they would have recited the Shema creed everying morning and evening (it starts with “Shema [Hear] Israel” in Deut 6:4-9 and includes two other passages; the Mishnah rabbinic tradition has long sections on how and when to pray in public). Thus, a lack of prayers was not a problem, there existed a whole data bank. But they wanted to partake in prayer as Jesus did, who would disappear for long periods of time with his Father.

The LP is very close to an ancient Jewish prayer called the Kaddish (or Qaddish), which probably was known in Jesus’ day and came to be a popular benediction in the synagogue. Here is one brief version:

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world that he has created according to his will. May he establish his Kingdom in your lifetime and in your days and in your lifetime of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time.

One commentator goes so far as to say:

It is notable that the prayer that Jesus gives is not particularly “Christian.” It is rather a beautifully simple expression of Jewish prayer…[with a] confidence in God’s desire to answer the prayers of his children, as a loving human father desires to respond to the requests of his children. [1]

When the disciples asked for a prayer, they were saying, “Show us how to pray so that we confess that God has called us to his kingdom, resulting in us following you, Jesus, to God.” And so this very Jewish prayer emphasizes many of those themes that Jesus had taught – glorify God, the coming kingdom, daily needs, forgiveness, testing and persecution.[2]

Nevertheless, if hypothetically the LP were a model prayer, that is, a complete, integrated outline or guide for the Christian devotional life, then it is missing many vital elements. Where is the petition for God to send laborers into the harvest? Praying for the sick? Praying for the lost? Praying for Christian leaders? Praying for the gift of the Spirit (Luke 11:13)? For wisdom (James 1:5)? And goodness, what about giving thanks? Where is Jesus in this prayer, or the cross? How about Judgment Day?  

3. The Use of the Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church

There is plenty of evidence that the early church prayed the LP in their private devotions and in their meetings. Of course, their practice might have been wrong-headed, but it helps to know that they immediately picked up Jesus’s teaching in this way. And it was probably used in the earliest churches:  Jesus taught the prayer in Aramaic, and within a very short time even gentile disciples learned to call God by a foreign Jewish word, Abba, Father (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15).

Even earlier, from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, Didache (did-ah-kay) 8.2-3 said that new believers should be taught the Lord’s prayer.[3] The author uses a form of the LP that is very close to the one in Matthew 6, and states that a believer should pray it three times a day. Later on in history, new converts were taught the LP only after a long period of instruction; only on the day of their baptism were they allowed to recite the Lord’s Prayer.[4]

Interesting enough, one can see the development of the LP in the worship of the church by reading those dusty old Bible manuscripts. In your Bible there is probably a footnote at Matt 6:13 that says that some later manuscripts added the conclusion we are all familiar with: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” Matthew’s version originally ended with “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Some decades later, the Didache has a shorter blessing, “for yours is the power and the glory forever.” In the 4th and 5th centuries the manuscripts have some sort of blessing, and then in the 4th some have “because yours is the kingdom of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever, Amen.” This technical information shows that as the church regularly used the LP, it came to add an increasingly longer blessing. When the scribes copied Matthew, they added the blessing in the form they knew. All this to show that the LP as a fixed prayer (but with flexible endings) was regularly used from early in the church.

One blogger objects to using the LP in worship or devotions because, “in prayer, God is far more interested in our communicating with Him and speaking from our hearts than He is in the specific words we use.” This is a logical error, a false dichotomy. Of course we must daily pray in an impromptu fashion – when Jesus prayed all night at Gethsemane, he certainly didn’t just repeat any set prayer over and over. And of course God is more interested in the heart. But if he is not interested in words, then why do we have 150 psalms for our use in worship? Why indeed did the disciples pass along to the early church that it was proper to pray the LP as such? The author’s attachment to extemporaneous or “from-the heart-and-off-the-cuff” strikes me as contrary to Jesus’ intent in this passage.


I suggest that Jesus intended to give us a set prayer, to be prayed verbatim, as one part of normal devotional and church worship, which might also include psalms, set texts, and spontaneous prayer. This is how we take Luke 11:2, “When you pray, say the Lord’s Prayer.”

In another post, I hope to speak about mental wandering during prayer, and how it relates to formal and informal prayers.

Related Post: Hot to Teach your Church to Pray: don’t tell them, show then!


[1] Nolland, Luke, WBC, 2:619.

[2] One preacher on Youtube interprets the Matthew version of the LP in a way that I had heard about only second-hand, that it was meant to be prayed only by Jews during the Great Tribulation. Needless to say, there is nothing in the Matthean version that points us in that direction; and the Lukan version stands directly opposed to that interpretation of the LP.

[3] Didache 8 clearly is a meditation on Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 6. The author refers to the “hypocritical” Jewish practice of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays.

(1) But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday.
(2) Nor should you pray like the hypocrites. Instead, “pray like this,” just as the Lord commanded in his Gospel:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
and forgive us our debt,
as we also forgive our debtors;
and do not lead us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one;
for yours is the power and the glory forever.
(3) Pray like this three times a day. (Didache 8.1-3 Holmes version)

[4] Apostolic Constitutions 7.44 – “After [being baptized] let him stand up, and pray that prayer which the Lord taught us. But, of necessity, he who is risen again ought to stand up and pray, because he that is raised up stands upright. Let him, therefore, who has been dead with Christ, and is raised up with Him, stand up.”

“The Lord’s Prayer – do we pray it or no?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

7 thoughts on “The Lord’s Prayer – do we pray it or no?

  1. Very well reasoned piece that I gained a lot from. Working on a sermon on the subject which is proving a bit of a challenge.

  2. I like this post a lot! I think we can pray it verbatim, at other times use it as an outline, and other times pray with impromptu prayers much like Jesus’s own prayers in John 17. Great post!

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