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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Article by David Hall

The Disciple's Prayer Life 101

April 14, 2015 •

Read Matthew 6:5-13

The verses in Mt. 6:6-8 show us how Jesus instructed us NOT to pray. He said that we were not to pray seeking fame and admiration from others. He also cautioned us not to pray with vain repetition or saying the same meaningless phrases all the time. He warned us that if we pray like that then we’ll receive as our only reward the human all-star balloting for Most Valuable Prayer, but not the lasting approval of our Father. Jesus, our Lord, told us not to be hypocrites or play-actors in our prayers. We are not to love to be respected by others for our prayer ability, nor are we to be spectators impressed with our own piety.

Rather, he who was the best expert on prayer, he who had prayed many times to the Father, told us that our prayer should be unpretentious. If we’ll mine these verses, we’ll have one of the best primers on prayer, as Christ first tells us to do three things, providing us with the beginning steps for the disciples’ prayer life:

1. Go into a private undisturbed room or office for prayer—don’t start in public.

Prayer is predominantly a private exercise, although there is a place for prayer groups.

The first truth that Jesus sets forth in this chapter is that the true believer must ever be on guard against hypocrisy in giving or prayer. Verse 5 contains his description of the pride of the Pharisees as they went before the Lord in prayer. In verse 5 we read, when you pray, “you are not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, so they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Here Jesus describes the practice of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, whom he calls hypocrites here, are desiring the approval of men in prayer. And we see that in a couple of ways.

First of all, notice the places that they go to pray. They desire to pray in the synagogues and in the street corners. Those places intended to maximize the exposure of their expression of religiosity. They want as many people as possible to see them praying. And the Lord Jesus goes on to tell us why. They desire to be applauded for their religion. They desire to be praised for their piety. They want people to say, “Look how religious that man is. Look how holy that man is. Look how impressive is the display of piety that this woman is showing as she prays, as that fellow prays in the synagogues or in the street corners.” The problem of the Pharisees is that they do not know the heavenly Father. They do not have a saving relationship with God and hence, they do not know God as heavenly Father; so they do not sense the acceptance of God. And so they seek their acceptance from man. They do not know the free and gracious acceptance of the heavenly Father, and they need that sense of acceptance to be fulfilled and so they go to men for that acceptance. They want men and women to say, ‘we admire that man as holy,’ because they do not know what it is to be accepted in the righteousness of Christ by the heavenly Father. Their prize is the affirmation of the world. They long to be applauded by men, and that is what they get. They fool the undiscerning into thinking that they are holy. But that is the only reward that is theirs. They will never hear the “well done, my good and faithful servant” of the heavenly Father. For they have not known him, and they have not trusted in him.

Please note here that Christ is not condemning all public prayer. The Lord Jesus himself prayed in public. He prayed in semi-private settings, as well as public settings. And we are given records in the Scriptures of the public prayers of the saints in both testaments. The Lord is not saying to his disciples, make sure you never pray in public. He is not ordering, never ever pray over your meal when you are in a public place. He is not advising, ‘never stand up and pray at Prayer Meeting,’ and he is definitely not saying, never have a prayer in your worship services. That is not his point. His point is that all prayer ought to be with a view to God as its audience, not as man. And we ought to look for God’s answer and his approval, not the approval of men. All of our prayer must be done in humility and with a view to God alone.

2. The Second preliminary is: Close the door to avoid distractions and to shut out interruptions—prayer is that important, and we are easily preoccupied. Won’t you need to leave your cell phone behind some for prayer? Prayer needs your concentration. We must shut the world out, including using restraints if we wish to pray rightly.

3. The Third beginning point is: Pray to your Father—as a loving child—in secret. So our prayer should be secret, simple and sincere. This chapter ties prayer to the fatherhood of God. Keeping the right focus in prayer starts with a child praying—trustingly—to his kind Father.

Terry Johnson rightly notes that Jesus has already told the disciples not to pray ostentatiously, like the hypocrites do. Here Jesus adds a caution, this time drawn from paganism. “First, do not use ‘meaningless repetition.’ Older versions translated this ‘vain repetitions.’ The underlying Greek word is rare. It may be onomatopoetic, like our word ‘babble,’ or the Greek word ‘barbarian.’ The ba-ba-ba is what one hears listening to foreigners. It sounds meaningless or senseless. Don’t use meaningless, senseless repetition. This is what the ‘Gentiles’ or pagans do. They ‘heap up empty phrases.’ They repeat magic words, chants, mantras, over and over again, mindlessly repeating sounds. Fewer words with sincerity is in order.”[1]

Second, Johnson clarifies, “do not us endless repetition. Paul uses a second word at the end of verse 7, ‘many words.” The first emphasizes the use of meaningless words, the second the use of many words. In this case the pagans think that God hears and grants their requests for their ‘many words.’ They pray on and on and on, as though God could be coerced by the sheer volume of words.”

If you’re a beginning in the school of prayer, start with these: Pray simply, pray privately, pray to the father. You can build your prayers as you go. And don’t forget to pray using the pattern of biblical prayers. Whole verses from the Psalms, from OT prayers, and from the NT epistles are great starters.

So to begin: don’t pray with hypocrisy or babbling of the hypocrites but pray humbly, sincerely, and to your Father. Next, knowing the fatherhood of God is key to a healthy disciples’ prayer life.

[1] Terry L. Johnson, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the Lectio Contnua Commentary on the New Testament (forthcoming; from unpublished mss.)


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