Jesus’ prayers are special moments in scripture. Although their recorded instances are few, in them we find some of Jesus’ deepest desires exposed to our understanding. In them repose his teachings in their most authentic settings. In some are manifest his greatest moments of joy, pain, mercy, and love. By studying how Jesus himself prayed, from instances both in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, we may come to understand what his words about prayer were intended to teach. Such an understanding can help us enrich our own prayers and obtain our own witness of the truth of his message.
An examination of Jewish prayers at the time of Jesus increases our insight into the Lord’s prayers. Since he was reared in a devout home, Jesus was probably taught to pray three times a day according to the customary Jewish practices of his age. In the morning and again in the evening the Jews offered the following prayer, the impact of which upon Christian teachings is quite evident:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
“And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” (Deut. 6:4–7. See also Matt. 22:37.)
The third prayer of the day was observed in the early afternoon, simultaneous with the performance of the purification ceremonies at the temple in Jerusalem. When the temple trumpets sounded, every Jew would stop wherever he was to pray for forgiveness. Those who frequently “just happened” to find themselves standing on a busy street corner at this moment of the day so that their prayers could be heard by all were criticized as hypocrites by the Lord. (See Matt. 6:5.)
In addition to his probable observance of these three daily prayers, Jesus worshipped at the synagogue. (See Luke 4:16.) At the conclusion of many services the following prayer, which bears some resemblance to the Lord’s prayer, would have been recited:
“Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will.
“May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon.
“And to this say: Amen.” (J. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, London, 1967, p. 98.)
In their prayers, Jesus’ contemporaries addressed God as “my Lord, my God,” or simply, “my Lord,” or “God of my father.” Since Jewish appellations for God tended to be a little abstract and rather impersonal, they did not regularly use the word Father in their personal prayers to God. Pre-Christian designations of God as “Father” are references either to God’s role as one who helps in time of need or else to man’s obligation to obey God as a son obeys a strict father or a subject his ruler. (Direct evidence of this can be found in Heb. 12:9.) But with Jesus, much of this was to be significantly changed.
Jesus’ prayers did not simply follow the common Jewish practices of the day, nor did they radically break with them. Rather, they improved upon them. While he was severely critical of the hypocrisy and hollowness that he found among the religious people of his land, instead of rejecting their practices of prayer, he sifted them, refined them, and preserved much that was good in them. The noticeable similarity between the Jewish prayers mentioned earlier and several significant Christian teachings show how this occurred: he built without having to destroy. In his own words, “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” (Matt. 5:17.)
Where he found people calling upon God with abstract, distant titles, Jesus introduced a homely, personal word, Abba. This word, important to the earliest Christians (see Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15), translates simply as father; but it is actually slightly less formal than that and contains a flavor of familiarity and trust.
Where Jesus found people praying at set times, he taught them to pray as the occasion demanded, as he did at the raising of Lazarus: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” (John 11:41.)
Jesus’ actions reinforced his teachings. He prayed day and night, sometimes even through the night to the next morning, as he did before choosing the apostles (see Luke 6:12–13) and in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Mark 14:32–41). He also prayed early in the morning, “a great while before day.” (Mark 1:35.)
Jesus often prayed in seclusion in the desert and in the hills. (See Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16.) On very special occasions he prayed while his disciples were present, as he did on the Mount of Transfiguration and at the Last Supper. But he never seemed to pray, however briefly, in the presence of unbelievers or hecklers.
In Palestine in the Savior’s day, it was unheard of to pray in Aramaic, the everyday language of the people; the practice was to use the stilted, ceremonious language of archaic Hebrew. Jesus substituted simple, respectful, common speech.
When he found people praying for treasures on earth, Jesus taught them to pray for peace, for knowledge, and for love.
These innovations were bold departures from the conventional forms of the day, but they did not depart from the basic elements of Jewish reverence, dedication, or devotion.
Our understanding of Jesus’ prayers is heightened by noting that the recorded prayers of Jesus dwell upon three concerns: he thanked God, especially for revealing his word unto the world (see Matt. 11:25–27); he continually interceded to seek forgiveness and purification for mankind, even for those who were crucifying him; and he submitted himself to the will of the Father. No better manifestation of these three aspects of the Lord’s prayers has been preserved than that which appears in the beautiful nineteenth chapter of 3 Nephi. Here, upon his second appearance to the people of Nephi, Jesus instructed the people to pray, and while they did, he prayed to the Father, saying:
Then, after blessing the Nephite people, Jesus turned to pray a second time:
“Father, I thank thee that thou hast purified those whom I have chosen … that they may be purified in me. …
“… that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me.” (3 Ne. 19:28–29. Italics added.)
Finally, Jesus prayed a third time, with words so marvelous that they could not be written. As the result of this prayer, the people were given to know the will of God, receiving miraculous knowledge of him as his will was excercised freely within them. (See 3 Ne. 19:31–34.) Jesus’ submission to the Father’s will characterized his ministry as the Son of God and epitomized his unity with God. In facing his greatest trial, Jesus had prayed, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42.)
With these points in mind, we now turn to the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer was given by Jesus to those who believed in him, not to be used for repetition, but as a model for the contents of an effective prayer. The prayer is deeper and more eschatological than one might expect. One can enjoy returning to its lines and phrases frequently, as a builder repeatedly consults the architect’s design. It is a master plan that is not fully understood on first reading. Though its form is simple, its messages are profound; it supports many meanings and has many useful applications.
We have two biblical versions of the text of the Lord’s Prayer. (See Matt. 6:9–13, Luke 11:2–4.) Many scholars feel that the shorter version in Luke should be accepted as authentic, on the grounds that the simpler saying of Jesus ought to be counted as the older saying. But it is at least as likely that the richer saying is the original. Luke’s version is betrayed by many Hellenisms that are not likely to have been present in the language of Jesus: for instance, “sin” is used instead of “debt,” and there are several elements of Greek style. More authoritatively, 3 Nephi 13:9–13 testifies of the Matthean wording. [3 Ne. 13:9–13] Thus we have good grounds for asserting the authenticity of the longer version, with its symmetry, balance, and fullness.
The prayer consists of six parts: three “thy-petitions,” directed toward God, and three “we-petitions,” focused on the needs of men. These two triads parallel each other and follow the pattern we witnessed above in 3 Nephi 19. [3 Ne. 19]
The thy-petitions are:
Let thy name be hallowed;
Let thy kingdom come;
Let thy will be done.
The first, usually recited “hallowed be thy name,” is not necessarily an exclamation or declaration. The prayer is asking Heavenly Father to hallow his name. How is this accomplished? When Jesus prays, “Father, glorify thy name” (John 12:28), he seems to be forecasting his petition “Father, glorify thou me” (John 17:5). Thus understood, God hallows his name by glorifying Christ on earth. Today, as always, this occurs as God reveals himself through Jesus Christ, his Son.
We may consider the meaning of the second thy-petition, “thy kingdom come,” in several ways. The kingdom comes into a person’s life with the purifying of the individual through faith, repentance, and baptism by water and the Spirit. The kingdom of God in the earth today is Zion, or the pure in heart; in this context the prayer “thy kingdom come” is actually a prayer for the fruits of missionary work. Finally, the millennial kingdom of Christ will come when Satan is bound and purity reigns. In every case, the coming of the kingdom is based upon the righteousness of the Saints, and this is obtained through repentance and reconciliation with God.
The third petition, “thy will be done,” is like Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. It submits self to the divine will.
The we-petitions, while invoking the Father’s aid in our human situation, are parallel to the thy-petitions. They are:
Give us this day our daily bread;
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; and
Let us not fall into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Although the true content and an accurate translation of the italicized words is somewhat in doubt from the Greek, the general force of each petition is clear.
The petition for bread may be understood in the following ways. It may refer to physical bread, for Jesus recognized the need of the body for food when he fed the multitudes. But a deeper meaning is based on our knowledge that Jesus is the bread of life. The bread is called daily bread, but the Greek may also be translated eternal or future bread. Thus the prayer may also ask that the substance of eternal life might be in our midst today; in other words, it is a request that revelation of the word of God, like spiritual manna from heaven, will be found among us each day.
The next petition is for forgiveness, conditioned upon our forgiving those who stand in our debt. This is the great principle of purity, that if we are to be made pure we must forgive one another. (See D&C 82:1.)
The final petition of the prayer asks, in effect, that the will of God be done. If we do no evil then we must do good, and thus God’s will is accomplished. We are to prepare ourselves as righteous instruments through which the will of God can operate.
We should not think that the Lord would ever lead us into temptation. The apostle James made this clear: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” (James 1:13.) Likewise, Joseph Smith in the Inspired Version rendered the Lord’s Prayer thus: “Suffer us not to be led into temptation.” (JST, Matt. 6:14.)
Thus the six parts of the Lord’s prayer, and the Lord’s prayers altogether, follow much the same basic pattern.
Only three parts of the Lord’s Prayer remain for us to examine: the introductory phrase, the middle transition, and the conclusion. The opening phrase, “Our Father who art in heaven,” expresses an intimate, pure, simple, trusting relationship between a child and his father. As Jesus himself prayed “Abba, Father,” he invited all men to pray with the same direct approach to God.
The middle phrase “in earth as it is in heaven” forms a bridge from the thy-petitions to the we-petitions. This transition can help us to see that each action on the part of God requires a corresponding action on the part of man. When we say, “in earth as it is in heaven,” we should be prepared to commit ourselves to do what is required to obtain the blessing we ask of God. If the Father’s name is to be hallowed, we must receive the spiritual bread of life eagerly, just as we eat our daily bread. If the kingdom is to come, we must obtain a forgiveness of our sins and live in peace one with another. If God’s will is to be done, we must shun the temptation of evil. Each prayer, in its own way, is a covenant.
Most manuscripts, although not the earliest ones, include at the end the triadic doxology, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” This phrase (which is an excerpt from 1 Chr. 29:11–13) is a plausible conclusion for the prayer: it recognizes the preeminence of God, and our total dependence upon him; it is a reminder that he is the loving King, and we the servants; and it explains why it is to him that we pray.
As illustrated previously, Jesus’ prayers concentrated on three vital areas of religious experience: the importance of revelation, the need for forgiveness, and the supremacy of the Father’s will. These three areas dominated the Savior’s experience, from his three trials on the Mount of Temptation to his ultimate act of atonement; likewise, they should dominate the life of each member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The example of Jesus stands before us, making his teachings about prayer complete. He showed the way. By embracing wholeheartedly the encompassing spirit of the Lord’s prayers, we will have found not only an answer to the disciples’ earnest plea, “Lord, teach us to pray,” but also the pattern by which to live.