Skip to content

Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount – Study 3.


Prayer in The Sermon on the Mount – Study 3,
Text. Matthew 6:7-8 (OT Reading Psalm 136)

We have been looking at Jesus’ teaching, given to His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, regarding prayer, and so far we have discovered that we are not to be like the hypocrites, whose prayer was just for show. We have seen…
1. The Hypocrite’s Prayer. For they loved to pray, but their love of prayer was false and simply an exercise in currying favour with other men. Jesus warns us that we are not to be like them.
2. The Hypocrite’s Posture. Jesus told us that they loved to pray standing in the synagogues and streets. It would be obvious to everyone that they were praying. But Jesus knew their hearts…
3. The Hypocrite’s Profit. Because the purpose of the prayers of these hypocrites was to be seen of men, Jesus says, ‘They have their reward’. Men have heard them. They have been recorded and rewarded. There is no further reward.
In fact, the prayer life of the disciples, needs to be the direct opposite of what the hypocrites were doing. They were not to be hypocrites. They were to be genuine and real.

Then in our second study we noticed…
The Positiveness of Prayer. ‘when thou prayest’ Jesus does not say, “if you pray”. He simply assumes that they will pray. So, prayer is something that indicates a work of grace, and something that every Christian should engage in.
The Place for Prayer. ‘enter into thy closet’ Jesus is referring to private prayer, and he is teaching is that we are to be careful that the place we choose for our private devotions is appropriate.
The Privacy of Prayer. ‘shut thy door’ Again Jesus recognises the human weakness of his disciples. We are so prone to distractions in prayer.
The Presence of God in Prayer. ‘pray to thy Father which is in secret and thy Father which seeth in secret’ We simply need to note that when we are alone, in the secret place, God, our Father is there with us. He is in the secret place, and he meets with us there.
The Premium of Prayer. ‘shall reward thee openly’ Maybe the Christian’s reward for faithful prayer, is simply to see God’s will being done, and the contentment of knowing that whatever happens, God will ultimately work his purpose out.

Now Jesus makes another contrast.

Not only are Christians to be different from the hypocrisy of some Jews, but they are to be different from the mindlessness of the type of prayer offered by pagans. Jesus says,
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

But how did the pagans pray? One commentator remarks that it was just a mindless repetition of meaningless words and phrases.
A number of years ago I watched a historical drama series on television set in the time of the British Raj in India. One of the characters in the drama was a young Indian girl married to an older man, a local dignitary. When her husband died, it was the custom among her people that he would be cremated in the open, along with the possessions that he would need in the afterlife, and sadly that included his wife. The day of the funeral arrived and the body of the man was placed on a bier to be transported to the funeral pyre, and his wife, dressed and adorned for the afterlife, was placed on the bier along with him. As the funeral procession made its way out of the town she was heard to he continually repeating the word ‘Ram, Ram, Ram’ over and over again, – working herself into a kind of hypnotic trance, in the hope that she would be able to accept the terrible fate that awaited her.*

Now this kind of prayer was common in the ancient pagan world. We see it at Mount Carmel, when the prophets of Baal vied with Elijah. The Bible records that they cried upon their god with constant repetition of a single phrase. 1 Kings 18:26 And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us.
In the Book of Acts, at Ephesus, we see another example of pagan prayer and worship, when the riotous crowd cried out ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians’ for two hours! Acts 19:34 But when they knew that he was a Jew, all with one voice about the space of two hours cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.
Even today pagan worship, and new age worship, can be little more than the mindless repetition of a phrase. So-called ‘transcendental meditation’ once popular among the ‘hippy generation’ was based on emptying the mind, through repetition of a mantra. Moslems will recite the ‘sacred symbol’ He for hours on end. Jews will rock themselves into a trance reciting the Shema.
Now, Jesus instructs his disciples not to be like the heathen…

1. Christian Prayer must be Thoughtful
The heathens think that they will be heard because of their many words. Christians are to be different. We are not to use vain repetitions. Actually the AV translation is not the best. ESV puts it like this, ‘when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.’ Note then,
* Repetition is not really the problem. There are certainly some, especially in evangelical circles, who would ban any form of prepared prayer. Young people were taking part in a special service, and one particular young man was asked to pray. He decided that for the sake of his nerves, he would make a note of what he should pray about, and use that note to help him when he prayed. Later on, I overheard two older people complaining about this. They remarked that the service was great, but wasn’t it a pity that the young man had read his prayer! But was he wrong to do so? Did the fact that he had prepared the prayer in advance mean that he didn’t mean what he was praying?
There are others who will ban any form of liturgical prayer, even the Lord’s Prayer from services of worship, on the grounds that it would be vain repetition. But can’t we pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and really mean what we say? Why does repetition have to be vain?
In fact Jesus himself taught us that we should repeat our petitions in prayer. He commended perseverance in prayer, and in one parable he urged importunity (impudence – boldness) in prayer. Luke 11:5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.
And Jesus Himself, in the Garden of Gethsemane, repeated himself in prayer. Matthew 26:44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Psalm 136 is a classic example of how repetition can be edifying and helpful. The problem, then is not merely with repetition. In fact there are times when repetitive prayer is commendable.
* VAIN repetition is the problem. The Greek verb used here is battalogeo. It’s an unusual word, not used anywhere else in the NT. it seems to mean empty, meaningless babbling. Prayer without thinking. Going on and on, with plenty of verbosity and no sincerity. It can happen to us all, and there is great danger in it.
– Roman Catholics can mindlessly recite the Rosary and it becomes a ritual.
– Anglicans can mindlessly recite the words of the General Confession, that wonderful statement of man’s true sinful condition in the Book of Common Prayer, and it becomes a ritual.
– Evangelicals can pray extemporaneous prayers, that are full of theological and religious jargon, mindlessly repeating empty phrases.

So Jesus warns us that we are not to be like the heathen, (Ecclesiastes 10:14: A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?), – our prayers are to be heartfelt and thoughtful, a sincere communication with our heavenly Father.
And there is a very good reason for this…

2. The Christian’s God is Different from any Pagan Deity.
Jesus tells us why we are to pray differently. It is because of the nature of our God, our heavenly Father. For this God, a string of mechanically repeated empty words won’t do, for our God is OMNISCIENT. Our God see into our hearts, and he knows out needs, even before we bring them to him. This raises two important points of doctrine:

* The intimate knowledge that God has of his people. Again we see a contrast with the pagans. The Greeks beloved that their gods were transcendent, untouched with the affairs and emotions of men. They were remote and isolated and unfeeling gods, so the Greeks had to impress them with their words, in the hope that they might be spurred into acting on their behalf. Our God is not like that.
– Jehovah is a God who draws close to us, who is our Father. We should approach him as a child would approach his father, not with grand words or affected phrases, but with trusting simplicity.
– Our God is not ignorant of our needs, but rather is aware of our every situation. Sometimes be answers our prayers, even before we ask! Isaiah 65:24: Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.
– Our God is not unfeeling, but One who sympathises with us, who pities us and who loves us, so he is willing to help us. In fact sometimes he not only meets our needs, but surprises us as he well exceeds our expectations. Who is able to do abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.
– Our God is the Creator God, the One who is not only omniscient, and omnipotent, and who is able to help is in times of need.

* The real beneficiaries of prayer. Why then pray? We might ask, if God already knows all our needs, why ask at all, why pray at all? Because Jesus told us to! But consider also what Calvin says about this…
Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they might arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, hat they may relieve themselves of their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom, in a word; that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, for themselves and others, all good things‘. Matthew Henry wrote, It does not follow that therefore ye need not pray; for God requires you by prayer to own your need of him and dependence on him, and to please his promises; but therefore you are to open your case, and pour out your hearts before him, and then leave it with him. Sincere, heartfelt prayer is of great benefit to the believer.

So, Christian prayer is to be sincere, not hypocritical, like some Jews of Jesus’ day. It was to be thoughtful, not mechanical, like the pagan religions, for prayer is communion with our heavenly Father, who already knows us intimately, cares for us and loves us.

* In the drama, the young Indian princess was dramatically rescued by a dashing young English officer!

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: