Even on a first reading of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s striking that Jesus views himself as distinct from the Father who is hearing his prayer. How is it possible for the Son to communicate and interact with the Father unless the Son is distinct from the Father? Jesus refers to “your name,” “your kingdom,” “your will”; he requests that the Father would act on his behalf—“give,” “forgive,” “lead,” “deliver.” The language of Jesus’s model prayer will not allow us to act as though Jesus were talking to himself.
But is Jesus praying in any way for himself? Or is he merely giving us a paradigm for our use, without viewing himself as a participant in the prayer at all? Surely he had no debts to forgive, no trespasses he had committed against others. But he needed each day his daily bread. He wished to be kept from temptation and evil.
Did Jesus pray his own prayer for us or for himself?
Jesus prays to the Father
To find out, we should look at Jesus’s other prayers across the Gospels. Taken together, the Gospel records demonstrate that Jesus’s prayers are not merely modeling prayers for us. He is praying for his own sake.
Jesus’s prayers in the Gospels amount to 660 Greek words—equivalent to the entire book of Titus. In fact, Jesus was already praying privately just before he taught his disciples to pray.
Table 1: All of Jesus’s Prayers1
|Biblical Passage||Description||Jesus’s Words Recorded|
|Matt 6:9–13; Luke 11:1–4||The Lord’s Prayer||57 words|
|Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; 9:18||Jesus’s prayers in a solitary place||N/A|
|Luke 3:21||Jesus’s prayer at his baptism||N/A|
|Luke 6:12||Jesus’s prayer before choosing the twelve apostles||N/A|
|Matt 11:25–26||Jesus’s prayer of thanksgiving||29 words|
|Matt 14:19; Mark 6:41||Jesus’s prayer of blessing over the loaves and fishes||N/A|
|John 11:41–42||Jesus’s prayer of thanksgiving at the tomb of Lazarus||26 words|
|John 12:27–28||Jesus’s prayer in response to his impending death||5 words|
|John 17||Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer||486 words|
|Matt 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46||Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane||34 words|
|Matt 27:46; Luke 23:34, 46||Jesus’s crucifixion prayers||23 words|
And the theology of these prayers further demonstrates that Jesus is authentically communing with the Father. All of his recorded prayers include the address: “Father” or Abba. Many of them explicitly distinguish the Father from Jesus and speak of the two persons interacting—the Father sending him (John 11:42), the Father giving authority over all things to the Son (Matt 11:27), or the Father saving the Son in his final hour (John 12:27). Certainly, John 17 is one of the richest and most extended insights into intra-Trinitarian relationships. It refers to “Father,” “Son,” or “you” and “I” 113 times within only twenty-six verses. Nor does this exclude the Spirit. Jesus will “ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper” (John 14:16; Rom 8:26, 34).
Taken together, this information suggests that we should view Christ as a fellow petitioner alongside us in our prayers. In terms of our question, Jesus prays for us and with us, directing his prayers along with ours to the Father. But the matter is, of course, more complex than this simple picture—because Jesus is not only the one praying; he is also the one who hears and answers prayers.
Jesus hears and answers prayers
Remarkably, the very same biblical statements that distinguish Christ from the Father also support Jesus’s full deity and the ultimate unity of the triune God. As the Father’s name ought to be “hallowed,” so also the name of Jesus. Jesus can pray that the Father’s kingdom would come while also boldly announcing that his own kingdom is near at hand. In fact, every request of the prayer has critical parallels elsewhere in the Gospels acknowledging Jesus as the one true fulfillment of those same prayers.
Table 2: Jesus, the fulfillment of his own prayer
|The Lord’s Prayer||Christological Echoes||Summary|
|“hallowed”||John 10:36; 1 Pet 3:15||“honor Christ the Lord as holy”|
|“be your name”||Acts 4:12; Acts 9:14–16; 19:17; Phil 2:9–10; 2 Thess 1:12; Heb 1:4; 3 John 7; Rev 3:12; 19:12–13||God has “bestowed on him the name that is above every name”|
|“your kingdom come”||Matt 16:28; Luke 17:21; 22:30; 23:42; John 12:15; John 18:33–37; 19:3; Col 1:13; Heb 1:8||“the kingdom of his beloved Son”|
|“your will be done”||Matt 7:21–24; 26:39, 42; John 4:34; 6:38–40; 8:29; 14:31; Heb 10:7||“I have come to do your will, O God”|
|“give us our daily bread”||John 6:41, 48, 50–51, 58; 1 Cor 10:16–17||“I am the bread of life”|
|“forgive us our debts/sins”||Mark 2:5–10; Luke 7:48; 23:34; 24:47; Acts 10:43; Eph 4:32; Col 1:14||“Father, forgive them”|
|“lead us not into temptation”||Matt 4:1; 26:41; Heb 2:18; 4:15; 5:7–8; 1 Pet 4:12–13||He has been “tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin”|
For each petition of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus himself is the fulfillment of the request he makes of the Father. The Father’s provision and Jesus’s obedience are one and the same. Jesus prayed to the Father, but his disciples could just as soon make the same requests of him.
Jesus’s other prayers also confirm his deity and equality with the Father. Jesus was actively praying when the voice declared that he was the divine Son (Luke 3:21–22). The prayer of Matthew 11:25–26 leads to the declaration that “all things have been handed over” to the Son’s authority and that Jesus alone knows the Father perfectly (v. 27). The struggle of Gethsemane resolves with Jesus’s desires united with the Father’s—“your will be done.” And Jesus’s longest prayer records profound expressions of divine unity—Jesus existed eternally with the Father, he deserves God’s glory (John 17:5); all that belongs to Jesus belongs to the Father (v. 10); the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father (vv. 21–22); and climactically, “we are one” (vv. 11, 21).
In summary then, we are left with some of the same tensions—both unity and distinction—that underlie all of Trinitarian theology. Jesus can pray to the Father because he is distinct from him, but Jesus also hears and answers prayers. In fact, only Jesus has the inherent right to speak to the Father like this, because only he is equal with the Father. Returning to our original question, Jesus’s role in prayer is far richer than we might expect. Jesus prays as a petitioner, but he also hears our prayers.
Pray then like this
And yet, in a way, Jesus’s prayers threaten to leave us out as fellow supplicants—for how could we ever relate to the Father as Jesus does? Can we also pray?
The Lord’s Prayer answers this very concern. These words were given, after all, as a pedagogical pattern. Luke records the prayer as Jesus’s response when the disciples asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), and Matthew introduces it with both a negative command (“do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do”) and a positive (“pray then like this”). Nor is this the only occasion when Jesus actively sought to teach his disciples about prayer. Jesus prayed audibly for the direct benefit of his hearers on multiple occasions (e.g., John 11:42; 12:30; 17:13).
But to observe and slavishly copy what Jesus prayed—to use the Lord’s prayer only ever in a rote, word-for-word way—under-appreciates the significance of the Lord’s Prayer. Communion with the Father is only possible because Jesus is one with him. And in calling us to pray as he does, Jesus invites us to join him in that fellowship.
It is significant that though the Old Testament does refer to God as Father (Ps 103:13; Mal 2:10), addressing him directly as “Father” is a new pattern originated by Jesus to describe his own relationship and hence his followers’ relationship to God (John 20:17; Rom 8:15). This was not typical language before Jesus modeled it.
Even the pattern of pronouns is instructive. “Our Father” implies that the disciples together in communion can also refer to “their father.” But when speaking of sins, Jesus switches to “your Father” (vv. 14–15), and when speaking of his unique relationship he chooses “my Father” (e.g., 7:21; 10:32; 11:27).2 Jesus’s language is careful and intentional. And he boldly invites his disciples to claim the rights and privileges that by inheritance could belong to him alone. Through the victory of the Son of God we have become children of God (John 20:17) so that now we can also speak to Jesus’s Father as our Father.
And so Robert Letham rightly observes that prayer itself rests on the foundation of the intra-Trinitarian relationships—the Father, Son and Spirit in communion.3 Through union with Christ, our astonishing inheritance is to share a taste of divine communion (John 17:21–23). Where we gather as two or three, Jesus is there in our midst (Matt 18:20). And just as Jesus could speak freely in communion with his Father, so now can we. With Jesus and because of his Sonship, we can also cry out to “our Father” (Eph 3:14; 5:20). The Spirit seals and confirms this assurance, leading us to boldly cry out, “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), echoing the distinctively bold prayers of Christ himself (Mark 14:36).
To answer our starting question, Jesus’s prayer is both for himself and for us. But the former is also the basis of the latter. Because Jesus communes with the Father and is One with the Father, he invites us to join him in a relationship that would otherwise be impossible. We now follow Jesus’s example and “pray then like this” on the basis of that unique relationship. As fellow heirs with Christ, we can now join with his words and boldly cry out, “Our Father.”
- How Our Prayers Reveal Our Theology
- What is Prayer? Ways to Pray, Example Prayers & More
- The Lord’s Prayer Reminds Us: God Doesn’t Need Our Prayer
- I have chosen to count the Greek words according to the Nestle-Aland (28th ed.). Where there are multiple synoptic records I have followed Matthew.
- D. A. Carson, Matthew, Expositor’s Bible Commentary 9 rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2017), 203–04.
- See his chapter, “The Trinity, Worship, and Prayer,” in The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, rev. and exp. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019), 493ff.