This then is how you should not pray. Actually, it’s this then is how you should pray. You may or may not recognize those words. But you’re much more likely to remember what comes after them. It’s The Lord’s Prayer. Or maybe you know it by The Our Father. Depends on what denomination you are. Or what you’ve heard. But I’m curious – how many of us know the part that comes before the words so many of us know? In any case, before we talk about should, let’s look into should not. It’s interesting.
I wrote this series back in 2017. Someone requested it a couple years before that. But I had a hard time writing it. I wanted a different look at it. Something that might be very meaningful to us in this day and age. So we’re going to look at what it means to people we love and care about. People who aren’t Christians. Even people who claim to be Christian, but it’s more like in name only, without actually trying to live a Christian life.
For more on that thought, please check out Are we supposed to Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God? The short answer to the title question is this: we are supposed to believe so strongly that we act on those beliefs.
But now it’s 2020. Almost three years after the first writing. I was reformatting it for mobile phone access. Then I realized it’s really complicated. I guess I’ve changed writing styles over the past few years. Easier to understand. But necessarily longer. I hope this is better.
You can see the updated versions, as they’re written, here.
This then is how you should not pray.
Question. Did you notice Jesus is saying, this then is how you should pray? “This” relates to what follows that sentence. But “then” refers to what came before it! So even starting off with this then is how you should pray is missing something. So we’d better back up a bit.
What did Jesus say before that? What is the then we’re supposed to pay attention to?
Mt 6:5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
That’s the passage before The Lord’s Prayer. Short. A mere 4 verses. But what is Jesus really saying? Is it like, I wish you wouldn’t pray like the hypocrites? Or maybe it’s, I’d like it if you could avoid praying like them. Or is it more like, you really need to ask for My help and try very, very hard to not pray like them? Or do you think it’s just a suggestion, as in it’d be nice to not be like them but don’t worry if you can’t help it?
Wait ’til you find out what they meant. It’s shocking if you’ve never noticed before.
This then is how you should not pray – like the hypocrites
OK – don’t be a hypocrite. That sounds reasonable. But then, did hypocrite mean then what it means today? More importantly, is it the same as what it means to you, the reader? The Greek word in Matthew’s gospel is rather simply defined.
5273 ὑποκριτής [hupokrites /hoop·ok·ree·tace/] n m. From 5271; TDNT 8:559; TDNTA 1235; GK 5695; 20 occurrences; AV translates as “hypocrite” 20 times. 1 one who answers, an interpreter. 2 an actor, stage player. 3 a dissembler, pretender, hypocrite. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
It’s almost as useful, or is it useless, as something from a modern dictionary. So let’s go deeper. Look at the root word from which the one above came.
5271 ὑποκρίνομαι [hupokrinomai /hoop·ok·rin·om·ahee/] v. Middle voice from 5259 and 2919; TDNT 8:559; TDNTA 1235; GK 5693; AV translates as “feign” once. 1 to take up another’s statements in reference to what one has decided for one’s self. 1A to reply, answer. 2 to make answer (speak) on the stage. 2A to impersonate anyone, play a part. 3 to simulate, feign, pretend. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
We’re getting closer. 2A to impersonate anyone, play a part. 3 to simulate, feign, pretend. In more modern terms – fake it. More like two-faced, if we get down to how it’s used today. But Jesus seems to be adding intent into it with His choices of words.
There’s a problem with doing that though. We can’t really fake out Jesus on anything.
Who were the hypocrites Jesus referred to?
To get down to what Jesus was really talking about, I think we should look at other times when Matthew records Jesus using the same word. They say more than any amount of explanation could.
The first time Jesus uses that word is immediately before what we’re looking at now. Both instances are part of what’s known as the Sermon on the Mount. For a brief introduction to that event, please see The Sermon On The Mount – Introduction. The really short version of what’s going on is this. Jesus initially is talking only to His disciples. But a large crowd gathers. The Sermon on the Mount starts off with The Beatitudes. Shortly after that, Jesus says this:
Mt 6:1 “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Mt 6:2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
It’s remarkably similar to what Jesus says about Prayer. In both cases, He tells us not to be like them. The Hypocrites. But both of these passages are directed at us, the people who would like or be or already are followers of His. However, it doesn’t answer the question of who the hypocrites are. And therefore, it also doesn’t really give us Jesus’ view of those people.
So let’s keep going.
Mt 6:16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
That one comes right after Jesus gave us The Lord’s Prayer. And again, it’s very much like the other two times Jesus is talking to us. Still not identifying the hypocrites. But don’t worry. It’s coming. Right now.
15:1-20 pp — Mk 7:1-23
Mt 15:1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Mt 15:3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father’’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
Mt 15:8 “ ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Mt 15:9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
Like I said. Wow. What Jesus says in this passage is actually far more insulting than what we’d probably think. The thing is – it’s also very true.
Mt 15:10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”
Mt 15:12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
Mt 15:13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
Mt 15:15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
Mt 15:16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”
For a more detailed look at what Jesus told the Pharisees and teachers of the law about cleanliness, please see Blessed are the merciful, which is one of the Beatitudes mentioned earlier. If you choose not to read it now, know this – it’s incredibly insulting. And very true. And its impact extends to every Jewish person coming into contact with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. In other words, it’s huge. Obviously, I’m biased, but I think it’s worth checking out.
Since that’s already been written up, let’s keep moving along and look at the next time Jesus uses the word we read as hypocrite.
22:15-22 pp — Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26
Mt 22:15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.
The Pharisees. Again.
16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Of course, this wasn’t the real question. And of course, Jesus knows that full well.
Mt 22:18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
So Jesus knew they were doing those things we looked at earlier. 2A to impersonat(ing) anyone, play(ing) a part. 3 to simulat(ing), feign(ing), pretend(ing). So He replies accordingly.
Mt 22:21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Mt 22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
These days, we call that dropping the mic.
So we’re kind of getting an idea here. We really don’t want to be a hypocrite. Pretending to be someone we aren’t. And on top of it, trying to fake out Jesus in the process.
Believe it or not, though – it gets worse. There’s a passage the NIV calls The Seven Woes. Since we’re not going into detail on what they mean, I’m only going to include the verses that actually contain the seven woes. It’s a project for another day (week or more like month) to write those up in more detail.
23:1-7 pp — Mk 12:38, 39; Lk 20:45, 46
23:37-39 pp — Lk 13:34, 35
Mt 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
[Mt 23:14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.”] Is not included in the NIV, but is in some other translations. It would, of course, make eight woes. New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Mt 23:14). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
Mt 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
Mt 23:16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
Mt 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Mt 23:25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Mt 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Mt 23:29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
The Pharisees. Yet again. And the teachers of the Law. The ones who should have known better than anyone else that Jesus was the prophesied Son of God. The Messiah. But look at them. And I know I’m not going into details here, but the words Jesus spoke right after the last Woe above makes things crystal clear.
Mt 23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
So when Jesus tells us, And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, we need to ask ourselves a question. Do we really want to be included in the bunch of people He just pronounced all those woes on? Do we really want Jesus asking us, How will you escape being condemned to hell? Don’t know about you, but I don’t want any part of it.
What’s wrong with praying while standing in the synagogue or on a street corner?
Jesus said don’t be like the hypocrites. That they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. What’s wrong with either of those things? It depends. There’s nothing wrong with praying in a place of worship. And while praying on street corners isn’t common in most countries today, it was very common in Israel at that time. Probably still is today in many parts. The key thing to remember is that if / when we pray in a place of worship, or on a street corner, or anyplace else, don’t be like a hypocrite. Don’t be like an actor, playing the part of someone praying but who’s actually just out to be noticed by other people.
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with praying in either of those things, unless, well, unless we pray like a hypocrite. Like I said, times are different now. Things that used to be common are now viewed as kind of weird. And things we do now would have been out of place then. So we’d better go back to what it meant when Jesus said it. That’ll help us figure out the intent of what Jesus said, rather than being a legalistic, dare I say it, Pharisee?
Don’t pray like this –
The admonition to pray in secret has been used as an argument against praying in public. But Jesus prayed publicly (John 11:41–42). The thing He was condemning throughout this section was making a display of one’s piety in order to win the praise of man. Earle, R. (1966). The Gospel according to St. Matthew. In Matthew-Acts (Vol. 4, pp. 36–37). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
So praying in public, in and of itself, isn’t bad. It’s the “why” part that decides when it’s bad. For instance, do we pray in public to be like the light on a hill?
Mt 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in te house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Notice – the praise from people goes to God, not to us. If we pray in public with the goal of having the praise go to us, then we’re likely standing in the hypocrite camp. Not a good thing, is it?
When you (pi.) pray, do not be like the play actors, because they love to pray, standing in the synagogues and street corners. In that way they may be seen by people. I tell you (pl.) under oath, “They have their reward.” When, however, you (s.) pray, enter into your store rooms, and after you (s.) have closed the door, Buchanan, G. W. (2006). The Gospel of Matthew. (W. E. Mills & G. W. Buchanan, Eds.) (Vol. 1 & 2, p. 291). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.
This is the actor. Someone who looks really good while they’re praying, assuming they’re good actors. But also someone to whom the words mean little to nothing. Words are just part of the act. The only thing coming from the heart is a desire to look good to the public. It’s about the show. It’s not about God. Also not a good place to be.
Verse 5 forbids praying to be seen by men. Persons might well pray while standing in the synagogues or while on the street corners not bringing attention to themselves. Praying in the synagogue would be indoors. Praying on the street corners would be outdoors. Jesus’ examples illustrate a range of possible places; however, the issue is not the place but the purpose. The hypocrites Jesus condemned love to pray in ways that cause them to be seen. When the purpose is to be seen, the reward comes from being seen and that reward is payment in full. Hahn, R. L. (2007). Matthew: a commentary for Bible students (p. 99). Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.
This one points out cultural differences between then and now. It’s hard to pray on a street corner without being noticed these days, because it’s just not done. At least not anyplace I’ve been in this country. But back then it was common. But sitting in a park, before eating at a restaurant, things like that – it’s still common enough that it’s not necessarily going to make us a hypocrite in the sense Jesus used the term. But again, it’s about our hearts. It’s not about any specific place or means of prayer.
This then is how you should not pray – babbling like pagans
Most of us probably have an image of this. But honestly, how many of us have been to a pagan worship ceremony and actually seen something like this? So here are some explanations to look at.
Vain repetitions are to be avoided, such as using names of deity over and over in a short prayer. This is neither respectful nor reverent. God hears the sincere petition without repetitiousness.
Simplicity is what Jesus urged in praying. As an example He gave what is known as the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9–13). It is a model of simplicity and unselfish consecration. Earle, R. (1966). The Gospel according to St. Matthew. In Matthew-Acts (Vol. 4, p. 37). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
It sounds redundant to say we should avoid pagan things like vain repetitions. Any prayer said to a false god is by definition said in vain. But then, they don’t believe it’s a vain effort. That’s why they do it.
On the other hand, God doesn’t need the repetitions. Some explanations / apologies may be needed here for Catholics that say the Rosary. For those that say it correctly, with its full meaning, there are specific things to meditate on depending on where on the Rosary beads you are and when you’re saying it. But for those that only repeat the words, I wonder. If nothing else, it feels like you’re missing out.
Note – I’m no longer Catholic for a number of reasons. I don’t advocate for them. However, I also don’t consider them non-Christian either, like some do. We are supposed to love each other, are we not? To that end, here’s a link to a site that has a number of different meditations to do while praying the Rosary. It’s not one of my sites. I provide it only as informational to anyone wanting to know more about it. My mother was Catholic, and the meditations that went with her saying the Rosary meant a lot to her.
6:7. Jesus warned that we use not vain repetitions (Gr. battalogeō denotes babbling or speaking without thinking). Such prayer was characteristic of the heathen. A good example of this is found in the ecstatic babblings of the false prophets in the Old Testament and in the prophets of Baal who confronted Elijah on Mount Carmel (cf. 1 Kin. 18:26–29). King James Version study Bible. (1997). (electronic ed., Mt 6:7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
If you haven’t read what happened with Elijah on Mount Carmel, I really encourage you to check it out. An amazing story of faith. But for now, here are the verses mentioned above.
1Ki 18:25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
1Ki 18:27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Needless to say, Baal never responded.
On the other hand, here’s Elijah’s prayer, which God did answer.
1Ki 18:36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer e, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
… for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
So we see – it’s not the public visibility. It’s not the number of words. Nor is it the actions we take while praying. However, it is the sincerity. Honesty. The heartfelt words, however short they may be. God already knows what we need. It’s that He wants us to ask. To trust Him enough to ask. And to love Him enough to ask. Please see Can I trust what I think I know? for more on that. The bottom line comes from this passage.
Mt 18:2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
And that verse isn’t about literally being like a little child. It’s at least partly about having child-like trust for our Father.
Conclusion – This then is how you should not pray
OK – so now we know quite a bit about what we shouldn’t do when praying. I hope it’s been useful. It’s probably been different. Not something you’d normally even think about. Hopefully it’ll add meaning to what we all pray, knowing how strongly Jesus really felt about those who He called hypocrites. Actors. Those who prayed for other people, not for God. Or who prayed to other gods. Even those who imitate people praying to other gods while praying to Him.
He is, after all, The God. Remember what Jesus said to John in Revelation.
Rev 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
When we pray to Him, can’t we at least try not to do the things He asked us to avoid?
image from prayerlesson.blogspot.com
|↑1, ↑2||Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.|
|↑3||New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Mt 23:14). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.|
|↑4||Earle, R. (1966). The Gospel according to St. Matthew. In Matthew-Acts (Vol. 4, pp. 36–37). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.|
|↑5||Buchanan, G. W. (2006). The Gospel of Matthew. (W. E. Mills & G. W. Buchanan, Eds.) (Vol. 1 & 2, p. 291). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.|
|↑6||Hahn, R. L. (2007). Matthew: a commentary for Bible students (p. 99). Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.|
|↑7||Earle, R. (1966). The Gospel according to St. Matthew. In Matthew-Acts (Vol. 4, p. 37). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.|