Whose ‘…Father who art in Heaven’?

Although the Lord’s Prayer is without question the best-known prayer the world has ever known, because it is the Lord’s Prayer we shouldn’t be surprised that it will continue to fill us with surprises until we see him face to face.

This is true, in part, experientially. Prayer is the heart-cry of the child of God; but we will only truly cry from the heart when we truly appreciate the depth of our needs as God’s children. Often it is only when God takes us out of our depth and beyond our natural limits that the words he himself has put on our lips in prayer begin to resonate with us in fresh ways.

There are, however, other surprises embedded in the language of this precious gift Christ has given his people. One of the greatest is the pronoun with which it begins: ‘Our Father…’ The question that needs to be asked (though seldom is, because we are too quick to assume we know the answer) is, ‘Whose Father?’

Our instinct is to say, ‘ours’ in the sense of those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and have received his gift of salvation. After all, did not the apostle John say, ‘…to all who received him [Christ], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to be called the children of God’ (Jn 1.12). Undoubtedly this is true: this prayer is the family prayer of the people of God. But is there not more to it?

There are certain clues elsewhere in the gospel record that should make us pause for thought before rushing on into the rest of the prayer at this point.

One is quite simply that the opening form of address Jesus puts on the lips of his children in these words is a direct echo of how he himself addressed the Father. In the hour of his own greatest need, in Gethsemane, Jesus cried out, ‘Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet, not what I will, but what you will’ (Mk 14.36). Confronted by the awfulness of Calvary, in the genuineness of his humanity and the struggles of his truly human mind, as the incarnate Son he reached for the most intimate form of address available to him as he prayed.

Another clue is found in John’s account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Describing his encounter with Mary Magdalene when Jesus gently chides her for trying to cling on to him before his ascension and enthronement, he tells her to go to his ‘brothers’ and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (Jn 20.17). In so doing, after his triumph on the cross, he graciously extended the deepest of all privileges (that belonged to him uniquely) to those he had come to redeem.

Christ has so identified himself with his people in his incarnate life and by his full obedience, that the salvation he came to secure is not merely a ‘gift’ in isolation; but one that is cannot be separated from him as the gracious giver. He stood foursquare with us in the depths of our need that we might be elevated foursquare with him to the heights of his glory and blessedness.

With this in mind, in a way that we too easily forget, our justification – by which we are reckoned right with God – is always only ‘in Christ’. It is never merely from him as a gracious gift; it is only ever in him – the One to whom we are joined in saving union – and with him, who is our righteousness, that we have this new standing before God.

All of this should make us stop and think again about the wonder of the words Jesus taught his disciples when they said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Lk 11.1). He was not just putting words in their mouth; but sharing the richest of words that belonged rightly to him alone, not just as the eternal Son, but also as ‘the man Christ Jesus.

The practical relevance of this runs deep. Not least because a theology of prayer, which fails to grasp this detail, can easily leave us feeling an unnecessary loneliness as we pray. Although we readily grasp the right of access to God that Jesus grants us as our Great High Priest and Mediator (He 4.14-16), we can subliminally regard him as being outside of ourselves. We can regard him as a spectator to our praying as opposed to the One who has bound himself up with our struggles in prayer to a depth we will never fully fathom.

This is deeply linked to what Paul says about the role of the Spirit in prayer as the One who ‘helps us in our weakness’, ‘intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express’ and who ‘intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will’ (Ro 8.27). Most of all, he is ‘the Spirit of sonship’ by whom we ‘cry out, Abba, Father’, who ‘testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (Ro 8.15-16). And he is ‘the Spirit of Christ’ (Ro 8.9-11). He is the One by whom, not only are we joined to Christ; but in whom Christ has joined himself to us!

So, when we pray ‘in Jesus’ name’, we are not simply reaching for his ‘name’ as some sort of admittance pass allowing us an audience with God, we approach God in and through him. He is the Christ, who has walked our path, felt out pain and known our perplexity, but who now personally leads us into the fullness of the divine provision for all our needs. When we are exhorted to ‘pray these words together’, it is not just the Pastor who invites us to take the Lord’s Prayer upon our lips, but our incarnate Lord himself. We pray in him as much as through his merits.

Mark Johnston