Jesus’s Instruction on Prayer

Jesus’s Instruction on Prayer

Please open your bibles to Matthew chapter 6.

If you’re new with us in the past couple months, my name is Matt Heerema, and I am one of the pastors here. I’ve been out of the pulpit since the beginning of May so that we could allow some other voices to preach, and so that I could focus on a few other areas in ministry. I’m grateful for that time off, but I’m even more grateful to be back, and I’m excited to share with you this morning. 

This week and next are wrapping up our summer sermon series: Praying the Bible. Looking at how the Bible models and commands for us to pray to our creator and savior. We will be looking at Jesus’s explicit teaching about prayer from Matthew 6. I suppose you could say we should have started off our series to see what Jesus had to say, but we left it to the end so that the note ringing in your ears at the end is the words of your Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s read our passage for the morning, and we will see that Jesus shows us the danger of two ditches for prayer.

5 “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:5–8 (CSB)

Ditch 1: Hypocrisy. 

Don’t pray to put on a show.

v5 “…you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people.”

The greek word “hypokrites” here, where we get our modern word hypocrite, was used for stage actors. Jesus is teaching that prayer should never be about putting on a show.  

This is a warning against acting spiritual. Not being real. Pretending to be something you’re not. 

I think we all can recognize this very easily in others. Do you know what I mean when I say that people have their “prayer voice” when they pray in a group? They talk differently. Some of that can just be because prayer is a strange and solemn thing, but sometimes we pray in certain ways so that other people think we’re more spiritual than we are. That’s the danger.

And that’s why Jesus says go into your closet, or a private room and shut the door. Do you really have to go into a private room? Well, if you never do there is a problem. This command is not against praying in public. It is about ensuring that you aren’t praying just to put on a show. If the only time you are praying is to look good in front of people, you are a hypocrite. An actor. 

This is a warning directed at us religious people. We who want to be seen as spiritually mature, maybe more mature than we really are. It is possible, and necessary, really, to pray in public without praying just to put on a show. The question is all about motive. Are you praying the way you are praying to try and impress people? Or are you praying because you know you need your heavenly father?

So this is a warning about praying to impress people. The second ditch is about praying in a way that is trying to impress God.

Ditch 2: Spamming God.

v7 “…don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words.”

The first warning against praying to put on a show was aimed at religious people. This second warning is aimed at superstitious people.  Maybe the “spiritual but not religious” people.

They believe they can get God’s attention in a special way through the way they pray. 

Through the constant repetition. Through the effort, energy, exertion. “See how serious I am, God! You must listen to me!”

Illustration: Spam

A couple weeks ago, I learned about a new kind of scam. How many of you got a text message telling you that the USPS was trying to deliver a package to you, and that something went wrong and that you needed to fill out a form to retrieve the package?  How many of you replied (don’t answer that.)

Apparently this is called “Smishing” – (SMS Phishing).  It’s a text message you receive that is trying to get you to click on a link, where it will ask you for sensitive personal details that they can then use to commit some sort of identity fraud. 


The reason so many of us got this message is because billions of these messages were sent. The hope of the scammers is that just through sheer numbers they’ll get some people to click on the link and enter their details. And the problem is that it works.

The analogy breaks down pretty quickly, but this is what Jesus is warning about in prayer. He is warning against thinking that it takes great quantity and quality of words, or great effort, to get God to hear you. He warns against thinking that, regardless of your relationship to God, if you just pray hard enough, long enough, or repetitively enough, surely someone out there has to hear you! He is warning against thinking that you can move “god” to action by your efforts.

Illustration: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

This calls to mind a scene from the Old Testament in 1Kings 18. Some of you are familiar with the story of Elijah and the prophets of the Baal. There was a contest to see whose God was the real God. Yahweh, the Most High Creator God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who Elijah worshipped, or the false pagan “god” Baal. 

The prophets of Baal danced and prayed and sang and yelled all morning and all afternoon. They cut themselves with knives to show how serious they were. And no god answered them. Thousands of words from hundreds of worshippers. With no effect. 

Elijah summoned the people, made an altar to The Living God, the one we worship, the True God. He piled up 12 stones. Laid out the wood and the bull for the sacrifice, and had the people douse it in water three times. And then he waited.

36 At the time for offering the evening sacrifice, the prophet Elijah approached the altar and said, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that at your word I have done all these things. 37 Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the Lord’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!”

1 Kings 18:36–39 (CSB)

It wasn’t Elijah’s great effort. It wasn’t his words, it was that God, the True God, the Living God, the Most Hight God, knew Elijah, and Elijah knew Him, and God knew what needed to happen.

Prayer does not “work” because of your many words, or the amount of energy you put into it. Prayer “works” because God hears the prayers of those who know Him and are seeking Him, and He knows what you need. 

Persistence vs. Spamming God.

This is not saying don’t pray persistently. This is not saying do not be watchful and diligent in prayer. Remember the parable of the persistent widow. 

[Jesus] told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not give up. “There was a judge in a certain town who didn’t fear God or respect people. And a widow in that town kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ “For a while he was unwilling, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or respect people, yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will give her justice, so that she doesn’t wear me out by her persistent coming.’ ” Then the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Will not God grant justice to his elect who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay helping them? I tell you that he will swiftly grant them justice.

Luke 18:1–8 (CSB)

She appealed to him morning and evening. She didn’t give up coming to him repeatedly. She didn’t stay in the courtroom and nag him incessantly, she “kept coming”, time after time, when court was in session, to make her appeal, her simple appeal: “Give me justice against my adversary.” 

Notice in both Elijah’s case, and in the persistent widow’s case, the prayer is simple. And that is what Jesus’s teachings regarding prayer end up looking like: simplicity, with persistence and diligence. 

How do you avoid the two ditches? Jesus shows us what it looks like in practice.

Praying the straight and narrow.

“Therefore, you should pray like this: 
Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. 
Your kingdom come. 
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us today our daily bread. 
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9–13 (CSB)

Comprehensive. Concise. Everything you need can be found here. Six, simple statements.

We’ll unpack the mountainous prayer next week, but for now just observe the simplicity, but also the magnitude of this prayer! 

Think of the kind of faith it takes to pray this honestly… not as an actor. Think of the kind of faith it takes to pray this simply and concisely, and then to leave it to God, trusting that He’s heard you, and no more needs to be said…trusting that He already knows what you need, even better than you do…

Now, it is possible that we will have hundreds of these simple kinds of requests in a day, so it might take an hour or three to get through all of them. Prayer for your daily bread might contain a hundred specific things. Prayer that we have forgiven our debtors, might require us to visit a dozen specific circumstances.

That’s not mindless repetition of the same thing over and over.  (And by the way it is possible to pray The Lord’s prayer with mindless repetition!) 

Jesus has one final word for us in our chapter. One final instruction.

Gospel-shaped Prayer

14 “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.

Matthew 6:14-15 (CSB)

Why is this the only part of the Lord’s prayer that he revisits with special instruction? Why does he expound on the prayer for forgiveness and not the prayer for daily bread, or the prayer for his will being done on earth? 

Because Jesus wants to remind us that the posture and motive of prayer are so crucial. Remembering the gospel, the good news that, when we are in Jesus, when we have faith in him,  God has forgiven us all our offenses against him, changes the way we pray!

The gospel shapes the way we pray. 

Notice how the Lord’s Prayer sounds without this admission that we need forgiveness, and without this desire to forgive those who have sinned against us:

Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. 
Your kingdom come. 
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us today our daily bread. 

And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Pain avoidance. Being on the side of power. It is a high-caliber prayer for selfish prosperity in this life, without any thought for an afterlife, or any care for other people beyond their submission to your way of thinking.

But with the gospel, humility. An admission that we are need of a rescuer. That we have that rescuer in Jesus. And that we will follow him in gratitude by extending his forgiveness and mercy to others. 

To sum up Jesus’s instructions for us in prayer? 1) Pray honestly. 2) Pray simply. 3) Pray humbly. 

Give some thought this week, how is your prayer life? Do you spend time praying alone, or do you only really pray when others are around to witness your spirituality? Do you have the faith to pray simply, and leave your requests in God’s hands, trusting that he’s heard you?

Remember what our brother Jerry taught us a few weeks ago, from Psalm 34:

The poor man and the righteous cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him from all his troubles. What about Jesus? Jesus cried, and the Lord heard him and turned His face away. Why? Because Jesus was forsaken so that you and I will never be forsaken. We are the poor, and yet we are the righteous because of Jesus.

Remember that Jesus taught us to how to pray and what to pray, and then went and made a way to ensure that our simple and honest prayers would be heard when we pray them in his name. Please pray with me now.