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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The Lord’s prayer and its eschatological context

9 Pray then in this way: Our father who is in the heavens, may your name be sanctified;

10 May your kingdom come; may your will be done, as in heaven and upon earth;

11 Give us today our bread for the coming day;

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;

13 And may you not lead us into trial, but deliver us from the evil one.

Here is a good example of the sort of tight corner that a historical reading of New Testament eschatology can get us into. The Lord’s prayer is a central element in our formal and informal liturgies. We assume that it is timeless: we imagine that we pray it in the same way and for the same reasons that the first disciples prayed it. For example, I have been reading Scott McKnight’s The Jesus Creed. He regards the prayer as fundamentally an expression of Jesus’ core creed: to love God and to love others. This is an excellent thing to express, but I fear that it really misses the point of the prayer. McKnight recognizes that it is Jesus’ version of the Kaddish but he appears to have nothing to say about the significance of the obvious eschatological orientation of this Jewish prayer. There are numerous other ways in which the prayer is tied to - and potentially confined to - a narrative framework, but these are obscured by the traditional liturgical use of the prayer.

The dilemma, therefore, is this: How should we pray Jesus’ eschatological prayer in a post-eschatological context? Of course, that is my particular dilemma - not everyone will be bothered by it! But the exegetical details are worth considering, and I would argue that there are constructive ways of keeping the prayer central to our worship that do not compromise its narrative integrity.

Jesus’ version of the Kaddish

The model for the Lord’s prayer is the Jewish Kaddish:

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to his will. May he establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

Like the Kaddish, therefore, it is a prayer that YHWH will bring to an end the state of judgment, deliver Israel from oppression, and come to reign over his people in the place of their enemies, with the result that the name of Israel’s God would be vindicated throughout the world. The strong emphasis on fulfilment within the lifetime of those praying is missing from Jesus’ prayer, but to pray for the kingdom of God to come is to pray for the fulfilment of Jesus’ re-told narrative of the Son of man:

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matt. 16:28)

This is a prayer for the lifetime of the disciples. It must be seen as having immediate and credible historical relevance.

May your name be sanctified

J.D.G. Dunn (Jesus Remembered, 476-77) cites Wright, who cites Fitzmyer (in good rabbinic fashion), for the argument that the petition ‘may your name be sanctified (hagiasthētō to onoma)’ is meant to invoke the words of God to Israel in Ezekiel 36:23 LXX:

And I will sanctify my great name (hagiasō to onoma mou…), which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in the midst of them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord when I am sanctified among you before their eyes.

The name of YHWH has been brought into disrepute by Israel’s sin and the disgrace of exile; it will be sanctified by the rescue of Israel from the nations, from its enemies, the cleansing of the people, and the renewal of the covenant through the Spirit. The Lord’s prayer begins, therefore, as an eschatological prayer for the restoration of a sinful people oppressed by its enemies.

May your kingdom come

Jesus announces at the beginning of his ministry that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Matt. 4:17). The coming of the kingdom is not an event that will be indefinitely postponed. It will happen within a generation. It will consist of a transfer of sovereignty over Israel from Caesar to YHWH, but Daniel’s vision of the symbolic Son of man figure has suggested that YHWH will then give this sovereignty to the suffering community - that is, to Jesus and those who suffer in him.

Bread for the coming (epiousion) day

The word epiousios is difficult to translate, and we are dependent, therefore, on the narrative context that we construct for it. If there is an allusion to the provision of manna in the wilderness sufficient for the day ahead, then Jesus’ point would be that his disciples are going through a transitional period of extreme reliance on God to provide for their needs for the sake of the re-establishment of the people in a new ‘promised land’. There may also be the thought of the coming eschatological ‘day’ - so it would be the bread of the age to come, which is the age of the restored people of God. In John’s Gospel these two thoughts are merged:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:48-51)

The disciples pray, therefore, not only for material support as they endure the ‘birthpangs’ of the end of Israel’s age but also for the spiritual life of the new age in the Spirit of God.

Forgive us our debts

This is, in the first place, a prayer for the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. Luke 11:4 has ‘forgive us our sins’ (aphes hēmin tas hamartias hēmōn). In the background are passages such as Isaiah 55:7 LXX:

…let the ungodly leave his ways, and the transgressor his counsels: and let him return to the Lord, and he shall find mercy; for he shall abundantly pardon your sins (aphēsei tas harmartias humōn).

Jesus urges the disciples to forgive each other as a sign that God has forgiven Israel. Notice that Isaiah 55:1-2 also has the exhortation to Israel to buy good bread from God:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

May you not lead us into trial (peirasmon)

This is not a general petition not to be led into ‘temptation’ - ‘don’t let me look at the magazines on the top shelf’. Again, the eschatological crisis of the end of the age of second temple Judaism is in view. One relevant motif here is the ‘testing’ (tou peirasmou) of Israel in the wilderness (Ps. 94:8 LXX; cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). Because of the hardship of the exodus journey (in this instance the lack of water) the people lost faith in the God who brought them out of Egypt and promised them a new land. For the Psalmist this is the reason why that generation did not enter God’s ‘rest’. Jesus teaches the disciples to pray that the community will remain faithful despite the hardships of the transition to the new age.

It is also a prayer that the disciples would not be ‘tested’ in the way that the Maccabean martyrs were ‘tested’:

Therefore, tyrant, put us to the test (peiraze); and if you take our lives because of our religion, do not suppose that you can injure us by torturing us. (4 Macc. 9:7)

Peter later writes about the ‘trials’ faced by the faithful, suffering community:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials (peirasmois), so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:6-7)

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you (pros peirasmon), as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 4:12-13)

The prayer, therefore, anticipates the experience of the persecuted church. These are not generalized concerns: Jesus teaches his followers to rely on God during the period of opposition that would culminate in the vindication of the Son of man.

Deliver us from the evil one

This can be translated ‘deliver us from evil’, but the eschatological orientation of the prayer suggests that Jesus has is mind the adversary who opposes the community that seeks to remain faithful to YHWH during the crisis of the end of the age. This is the Satan who seeks to divert Jesus from his calling, who demands to sift the disciples like wheat, who inspires the extreme opposition of Greek-Roman paganism.

Conclusions

There are two themes running through the Lord’s prayer. The first has to do with the restoration of the people of God at the end of the age of second temple Judaism: the forgiveness of Israel, the defeat of the oppressor, the restoration of God’s reign over his people in the place of all other political-religious powers. The second theme has to do with the endurance of the community during the difficult period of eschatological transition for the sake of the future of the people of God.

If that is all more or less correct, then the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples has been answered. The people of God was restored, Caesar was finally overthrown, God’s kingdom was established, the community survived the eschatological crisis and entered the promised land - or as Paul puts, inherited the world (Rom. 4:13). So what do we do with it now? I suggest that we need to pray this prayer in the same way that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, as a way of remembering the exodus journey that the suffering community made in Christ.

We do not need to pray for the kingdom to come - certainly not in the way that the disciples did. The prayer has its place in the narrative, but the story-line has moved on. The victory over Satan and death that is envisaged in the New Testament has been won; Jesus is our king. Our task is to live and work under that kingship. But we cannot forget the basic reason why sovereignty was given to the Son of man: we have a ‘king’ who gave himself out of love for God and for his people so that the mission of God would have a future.