The Lord’s Prayer and the Future of Christianity
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10)
From the beginning of this age, the prayer our Lord taught to his disciples has been a prominent part of the private and public worship of Christians all over the world. We use it as a prayer, reciting it in our liturgy every Lord’s Day. Others teach that it is a model prayer, and use it as a framework to organize or to construct their own prayers. Only strict Dispensationalists reject its use altogether, claiming it belongs to another dispensation. So it is fitting that we have a clear understanding of what it means. For the mere repetition of the words does not matter if we don’t understand what our Lord meant us to pray for, and what answer to expect.
Calvin likens this prayer to the Decalogue; in that it is composed of two parts, the first having to do with God, and the second with man. The heart of the prayer lies in the first three petitions, and that will be the subject for our consideration today. This is because of its greater importance, and also because there is very little disagreement as to the meaning of the second three.
The verbs of these three petitions are all aorist imperatives. Furthermore, the verbs are deliberately located first in the sentences, for further emphasis. The Greek word order is:
Hallowed be thy name!
Let come thy kingdom!
Be done thy will!
What does this mean? It means that they are couched in the form of demands, or at least peremptory requests! The aorist imperative indicates that there is the greatest urgency about these three requests. Every Christian should fervently desire that these things should soon be fulfilled. One should never mumble through them, half asleep, not caring what he is saying, nor considering what they mean. They are to be spoken with understanding and passionate desire for their fulfillment.
This brings us to the heart of the matter. What are we supposed to be asking for? Some have found in these words nothing more than pious aspiration. The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary is an example of this:
“…we incline to think that the aspiration which we are taught in this beautiful petition to breathe forth has no direct reference to any such organic fulfillment, and is only the spontaneous and resistless longing of the renewed soul – put into words – to see the whole inhabited earth in entire conformity to the will of God. It asks not if ever it shall be – or if ever it can be – in order to pray this prayer. It must have its holy yearnings breathed forth, and this is just the bold yet simple expression of them.”
In this view, Jesus gave the church a prayer to pray repeatedly, continuously through the centuries and millennia with no expectation that it will ever be fulfilled! When we pray it, we are merely “venting” our godly desires. But would it not be strange indeed, if we were given such vehement language to express desires that God has not promised to gratify. In fact, if the pessimists are right, and God has revealed that the church will never achieve universal dominion, would it not be insubordination, even rebellion on our part to demand this of God?
Another view is that its only fulfillment is the ultimate victory of Christ’s kingdom at the end of the world. Granted, that is and must be our fervent desire and hope as Christians. The perfection of the eternal state is what we long for; but what about in the meantime? Are we really to believe that the only model prayer Christ ever gave us left out any reference to the state of His kingdom in this world? That there is nothing in the prayer about God’s current program? That our devotion can be complete without a sense of mission and a desire for the flourishing of the kingdom of God?
Martin Luther was no Postmillennialist; in fact, he expected the world to end in his day. But he did have the good sense to recognize the relevance of this prayer to the present age. In his Small Catechism, he writes:
The Second Petition – Thy kingdom come.
What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.
How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
The Third Petition – Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
What does this mean? The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.
How is God’s will done? God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.
Luther at least admits that the prayer is about the here and now, but he limits the scope of the petition to personal godliness without warrant. The second generation of Reformers, who built on the foundation laid by Luther, gave a more adequate explanation of the prayer. John Calvin expresses the optimism of faith implied in this petition:
“By this prayer we ask that He may remove all hinderances, and may bring all men under His dominion, and may lead them to meditate on the heavenly life… We therefore pray that God would exert His power, both by the Word and by the spirit, that the whole world may willingly submit to Him… There is still another way in which God reigns; and that is, when he overthrows his enemies, and compels them, with Satan their head, to yield a reluctant subjection to his authority, “till they all be made his footstools” (Hebrews 10:13). The substance of this prayer is, that God would enlighten the world by the light of his Word, — would form the hearts of men, by the influences of his Spirit, to obey his justice, and would restore to order, by the gracious exercise of his power, all the disorder that exists in the world. Now, he commences his reign by subduing the desires of our flesh. Again, as the kingdom of God is continually growing and advancing to the end of the world, we must pray every day that it may come: for to whatever extent iniquity abounds in the world, to such an extent the kingdom of God, which brings along with it perfect righteousness, is not yet come.” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, p. 320)
As to the expression I have highlighted, “the kingdom of God is continually growing and advancing to the end of the world”, Calvin gave us a fuller and more explicit statement in the preface to his Institutes of the Christian Religion. This work, written intentionally to vindicate the martyr church of France, he dedicated to his sovereign, Francis, King of France. Listen as he exhorts the King to defend the cause of the Protestants being persecuted in his kingdom:
“Your duty, most serene Prince, is, not to shut either your ears or mind against a cause involving such mighty interests as these: how the glory of God is to be maintained on the earth inviolate, how the truth of God is to preserve its dignity, how the kingdom of Christ is to continue amongst us compact and secure. The cause is worthy of your ear, worthy of your investigation, worthy of your throne.
The characteristic of a true sovereign is, to acknowledge that, in the administration of his kingdom, he is a minister of God. He who does not make his reign subservient to the divine glory, acts the part not of a king, but a robber. He, moreover, deceives himself who anticipates long prosperity to any kingdom which is not ruled by the sceptre of God, that is, by his divine word. For the heavenly oracle is infallible which has declared, that “where there is no vision the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).
Let not a contemptuous idea of our insignificance dissuade you from the investigation of this cause. We, indeed, are perfectly conscious how poor and abject we are: in the presence of God we are miserable sinners, and in the sight of men most despised–we are (if you will) the mere dregs and off-scourings of the world, or worse, if worse can be named: so that before God there remains nothing of which we can glory save only his mercy, by which, without any merit of our own, we are admitted to the hope of eternal salvation: and before men not even this much remains, since we can glory only in our infirmity, a thing which, in the estimation of men, it is the greatest ignominy even tacitly to confess. But our doctrine must stand sublime above all the glory of the world, and invincible by all its power, because it is not ours, but that of the living God and his Anointed, whom the Father has appointed King, that he may rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth; and so rule as to smite the whole earth and its strength of iron and brass, its splendour of gold and silver, with the mere rod of his mouth, and break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel; according to the magnificent predictions of the prophets respecting his kingdom (Daniel 2:34; Isaiah 11:4; Psalm 2:9).”
After Calvin, this optimistic view of the future of Christ’s kingdom was generally adopted among the Reformed churches, and held by them for many generations. It was propagated in the notes of the Geneva Bible. And it was the view expressed in the Westminster Standards.
The Westminster Larger Catechism distinguishes several aspects to Christ’s kingship in the answer to question 45:
“Q. 45. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king,  in calling out of the world a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them;  in bestowing saving grace upon his elect, rewarding their obedience, and correcting them for their sins, preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings,  restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good;  and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.”
 He sets up and governs the visible church.
 He bestows salvation according to His sovereign will.
 He exercises all power in heaven and earth on behalf of His church.
 He judges His enemies: both in history, and at the end of the world.
With the first coming of Christ, the kingdom has come, as predicted, yet not in its fullest sense. Christ has all the authority now, but He must fight an age-long and bloody war to bring the rebellious nations under His scepter. His enemies must be made His footstool (Psalm 110:1). For now, He rules in the midst of His enemies (Psalm 110:2). With this understanding, we are now ready to appreciate the Westminster Divines’ comprehensive and detailed answer to our question:
“Q. 191. What do we pray for in the second petition [of the Lord’s prayer]?
A. In the second petition, (which is, Thy kingdom come,) acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel-officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate: that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.”
Later Reformed scholars reflect this same understanding. John Gill comments on Matthew 6:10:
“In this petition the disciples were taught to pray for the success of the Gospel, both among Jews and Gentiles; for the conversion of God’s elect, in which the kingdom of God would greatly appear, to the destruction of the kingdom of Satan, and the abolition of the kingdom of the beast, in the latter day; which will usher in the kingdom, of the mediator, he will receive from his Father, and this will terminate in the kingdom of glory: in a word, not the kingdom of nature and providence is meant, which always was; but the kingdom of heaven, which was at hand, nay had taken place, though as yet was not very visible, and which is spiritual in the hearts of God’s people, Jews and Gentiles; and which will appear exceeding glorious in the latter day, and at last be swallowed up in the ultimate glory; all which must be very desirable by the sincere lovers of Jesus Christ.
Albert Barnes agrees with this perspective:
““Thy kingdom come” – The word “kingdom” here means “reign.” (See note, Matthew 3:2.) The petition is the expression of a wish that God may reign everywhere; that his laws may be obeyed; and especially that the gospel of Christ may be advanced everywhere, until the world shall be filled with his glory.
“Thy will be done” – The will of God is, that people should obey his law, and be holy. The word will, here, has reference to his law, and to what would be acceptable to him. To pray, then, that his will may be done, on earth as in heaven, is to pray that his law, his revealed will, may be obeyed and loved. His law is perfectly obeyed in heaven, and his true children most ardently desire and pray that it may also be obeyed on the earth.
The object of these three first petitions, is, that God’s name should be glorified and his kingdom established; and by being placed first, we learn that his glory and kingdom are of more consequence than our wants, and that these should be first in our hearts and petitions before a throne of grace.”
Even John Wesley, who cannot be considered “Reformed” summarizes thus:
““Thy kingdom come” – May thy kingdom of grace come quickly, and swallow up all the kingdoms of the earth: may all mankind, receiving thee, O Christ, for their king, truly believing in thy name, be filled with righteousness, and peace, and joy; with holiness and happiness, till they are removed hence into thy kingdom of glory, to reign with thee for ever and ever.”
An official confessional document of the Reformed Presbyterian Church reads:
““We believe that a period approaches, in which the kingdom of Christ shall triumph over all opposition, and have a universal diffusion, influence, and prosperity. The Romish antichrist shall be destroyed, and shall cease not only to exert a malignant influence of any kind, on the ecclesiastical and social institutions of those countries where it has prevailed, but to have an organised existence on the face of the earth. The Jews shall be converted to Christianity, and added to the church. The greater fullness of the gentiles shall be brought in. Mohammedan and Pagan nations shall embrace the religion of Jesus, and all mankind shall possess the knowledge of revealed truth. There is reason to believe, that the truth shall be felt in its illuminating, regenerating, and sanctifying efficacy, by the greater number for those who process it. Knowledge, love, holiness, and peace shall extensively prevail, under the copious effusions of the Holy Spirit. Arts, sciences, literature, and wealth shall be consecrated to the service of Christ. The social institutions of men shall be erected and administered under the influence of scriptural principle. Oppression and tyranny shall terminate; wars shall cease from the earth, and the nations be united in peace. The inhabitants of the world shall be exceedingly multiplied, and pure undefiled religion shall exert supreme dominion over the hearts and minds of men, and diffuse universal felicity. This happy period shall be of long duration. It will be succeeded by a general defection from truth and holiness, and the prevalence of irreligion and crime, which will immediately precede the second coming of the Son of man from heaven.”” (Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland, 1842. Pages 348 – 350). [I have omitted the Scripture proof texts to save space.]
Enough has been said to show that the expectation of victory is a part of our Reformed heritage; and that to pray in the expectation of that victory was regarded by our Reformed forefathers as a Christian duty. And I hope I have shown that, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are not asking God to do what we know He has no intention of doing; but rather what He has promised to do, what He intends to do, and what He shall certainly do.
The Reformers and their successors dared to dream of converting whole nations, all of Europe, even the world! They dared to strive for and pray for great things, knowing that, however small and weak they were, the work did not depend on them, but upon God, who would surely fulfill His promises to those who were faithful and obedient. May the Lord give us great faith, that we may show ourselves worthy of the priceless heritage bestowed upon us by a gracious providence; and attempt great things for God, expecting great things from God!
Howard Douglas King