This is the third chapter of my dissertation on The Lord’s Prayer.
“Our Father who is in heaven,”
Key Word Analysis
ὑμεῖς πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς
The beginning of the prayer, similar to a conversation or a written letter, announces the intended audience. The very first word is powerful and sets the stage for things to come. Our/ ἐγώ is used forty times in the New Testament as a possessive pronoun. It is used equally as either “my” or “our”, showing individual or plural ownership of a person, concept or object. In this case, as with all of the first person pronouns of the Lord’s Prayer, it is presented as a plural first person pronoun.
Our daily bread
Our debts and our debtors
Lead us not into temptation
Deliver us from evil
While prayer is often thought of as an individual activity, Jesus presents it from the first word as an expression of our belonging to a bigger group or community. All those who chose to recite this prayer or live out its intentions do so as individuals belonging to a larger group of believers, a family. “We” are his children. He is “our” Father. He seeks to know not just one of us but all of us.
This first word also shows that this prayer is not for just anyone, but limited to those who identify themselves as believers or disciples of God the Father. The life sought by the speaker or fulfiller of these words seeks to be within a family or group of believers seeking closeness with their creator. God is the creator of everyone, but only the Father of those who seek to identify themselves within his group of disciples. “He is the Father of those who love him and do his will.”
Father/πατήρ is found 418 times in the New Testament. Literally it means nourisher, protector or upholder. It is used in the New Testament with one of two meanings. It means either generator-male ancestor or as God the Father. This same word was used by Jesus just moments prior to teaching the disciples when he told them to go to their secret places and pray to their Father quietly without others hearing. Either of the two meanings could be applied here.
Martin Luther saw this word at the beginning of the text as permission to go to God with “all boldness and confidence” as a child would to their father with a serious need or desire. As our “true Father” he is interested and in helping us succeed in fulfilling our needs or finding our true desires. Luther saw the word as that of our both our ancestor-human like father and also that of our Heavenly Father, looking down on his chosen or true children and seeking to help them prosper and succeed in the spiritual life.
Who/πατήρ is the article tying the two parts of this key phrase, connecting the Father and the description of where he lives. As he often did, Jesus used a very common form of this word, found over five hundred times in the New Testament. The use of “who” in the NASB contrasts with the use of “which” in the King James Version. In fact the two articles used share the exact same origins. There is no deep difference between the two although one seems to point to a person and the other to an entity or power. Both are just parts of speech connecting two parts of a sentence.
Is in/ἐν has similar characteristics, a common preposition best understood as with, by or in. It finalizes the link to heaven/οὐρανός, the residence of the Father as stated by Jesus. This is not the town-like name of a place but rather a description of a region. Used 274 times in the New Testament, heaven here refers to a place other than Earth, a region above the visible sky where “God dwells along with other heavenly beings.” While the Bible speaks through the original languages of Heaven in different terms, at times describing different levels or regions of the place where God lives, here it is simply described as the place other than Earth where God dwells.
The word study reveals that Jesus intended for believers to see themselves as part of a bigger community or group. The Father in Heaven is both our ancestor and our ultimate authority. We can approach him with the confidence of a child loved by a parent. He lives in a place other than Earth with other heavenly beings. In our lives as well as our prayers the Father wishes that we approach him, individually and in the presence of other believers. He wishes us to look to him as a child looks to their father. He seeks a relationship with us that bridges the distance from the place where he lives and where we live.
Historical Theology Analysis
The analysis of this passage from the historical perspective will focus on the three key words of the passage: our, Father and Heaven. When used by Jesus, the question is not what we interpret these to mean today, but what the disciples heard and learned from him when he used these words. The use of “our” spoke of a community or family, not just of an individual. The disciples would have heard this context before. It was one that would have been very familiar to any Jew raised on the teachings of the Torah. There are many examples of “our” expressed in the Torah to mean a community or family.
“Let us make man in Our image” (Genesis 1:26)
“give us rest from Our work” (Genesis 5:20)
“Our father is old” (Genesis 19:31)
“our family through our father” (Genesis 19:34)
“the practice in our place” (Genesis 29:26)
“in our father’s house” (Genesis 31:14)
“from our father” (Genesis 31:16)
“in the presence of our kinsmen” (Genesis 31:32)
“take our daughters” (Genesis 34:9)
“treat our sister” (Genesis 34:31)
“kill our brother” (Genesis 37:26)
“Your servant our father” (Genesis 43:28)
“go with our young and our old” (Exodus 10:9)
“spared our homes” (Exodus 12:27)
“kill us and our children” (Exodus 17:3)
“Our wives and our little ones” (Numbers 14:3)
“while our little ones live” (Numbers 32:17)
“Our brethren have made our hearts melt” (Deuteronomy1:28)
“animals as our booty” (Deuteronomy 3:7)
“covenant with our fathers” (Deuteronomy 5:3)
The use of “our” “links the praying person to other believers,” making them part of a community, not an individual circumstance. The prayer’s very first word set a tone for the suggested prayer and activity to come. Young Jewish men, raised on the Torah, would be very familiar with the family or community concept. Jesus’ choice of this word sets a tone that proper prayer or proper living is not done alone, but most appropriately in a group of believers. The first word sets the tone and the second word gives the believer the focus of his prayers and life.
The Hebrew version of Father used in the prayer indicates the biological father of a person or an ancestor. It would also have a very familiar sound to a student of the Torah. It is used in its parallel Greek version in the Old Testament to indicate the biological fathers of familiar Jewish leaders.
“a man shall leave his father” (Genesis 2:24)
“he was the father of those” (Genesis 4:20)
“died in the presence of his father” (Genesis 11:28)
“from your father’s house” (Genesis 12:1)
“go to your fathers” (Genesis 15:15)
“land of your fathers” (Genesis 48:21)
“Israel your father” (Genesis 49:2)
“God of your father” (Genesis 49:25)
“blessings of your father” (Genesis 49:26)
“Joseph fell on his father’s face” (Genesis 50:1)
“he buried his father” (Genesis 50:14)
“God of your fathers” (Exodus 3:13)
“He who strikes is father” (Exodus 21:15)
“in his father’s place” (Leviticus 16:32)
“nakedness of your father” (Leviticus 18:7)
“shall reverence his mother and father” (Leviticus 19:3)
The Torah used “father” to illustrate the father of an individual, God as father of his people. It was a term of great respect and honor. The listeners to Jesus would not have thought of a heavenly being in this circumstance. They would have pictured their own biological father or a father-figure from their family. The use of “our” and “father” would have verbally connected them to Jesus as their biological brother, the children of the same father. They would have all been of one family with the same family leader, the same father. The combination of these two words would have had an earthly, practical context to a listener in that setting. If Jesus has stopped after those first two words, the lesson would have been tremendous. He was guiding them to look to each other for support as a family with a common ancestor or father. But this was just the beginning of the lesson he would teach that day.
The disciple’s perspective of Heaven determined their perspective of where the Father lived to they were to live for and who was to be the object of their prayers. The disciples’ concept of Heaven may have been very different from a believer today. From the Torah, Heaven is a region, a place above the visible universe, the home of God. It is sometimes translated as “sky” in some texts. At this time the concept of immortal life and an everlasting existence in the presence of God was not yet taught or accepted widely. Heaven was a place that God had created and lived. How God’s Heaven related to life on Earth would be defined by the life and ministry of Christ. The disciples would have had a Torah taught perspective of Heaven.
“God created the Heavens” (Genesis 1:1)
“God called the expanse Heaven” (Genesis 1:8)
“Let the waters below the heavens be gathered” (Genesis 1:9)
“the heaves and the earth were completed” (Genesis 2:1)
“the angel of the Lord called to him from Heaven” (Genesis 22:15)
“with its top reaching to Heaven” (Genesis 28:12)
“throw it toward the sky” (Exodus 9:8)
“Moses stretch his hand toward the sky” (Exodus 9:23)
“from under Heaven” (Exodus 17:14)
“the Lord made the heavens” (Exodus 20:11)
“I have spoken to you from Heaven” (Exodus 20:22)
“I will also make your sky” (Leviticus 26:19)
“lift your eyes to Heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:19)
The disciples would have thought of Heaven as a region, as the heavens above the Earth, not as a place of residence or their ultimate destination. This perspective of Heaven completes the historical theological perspective of this portion of the passage. “Our Father who is in Heaven” sounded more like “the ancestor of us all who looks down from above” to the original listeners of this passage. The concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing God who looked down on Earth from above was alive and well, taught to the Jews of that day from their childhood.
In summary, the original language and historical perspective teacher us that Jesus intended his followers to look to God as a community, not only as individuals. The Heavenly Father is a literal figure, in many ways like an ancestral, earthly father. The Heaven where the Father resides is a place other than Earth, likely where he looks down on his children below. This understanding of the meaning of the original words along with the perspective of the original listeners leads us to the modern implications of this part of the prayer.
Contemporary Theology Analysis
Jesus’ intentions are obvious from the first word. “Our is a plea for the universal brotherhood of our race and for our universal charity” towards each other. It is intended that we approach the father not only as an individual but also within a group of believers. Jesus himself did not live or work alone. He shared nearly every moment of his adult ministry with several others around him. There were times of private prayer, rest and reflection, but these were not the norm. He lived and worked with a group of brothers who walk the earth with him throughout his ministry. The idea of this brotherhood extends beyond this first word. This often overlooked characteristic of this passage was passionately written of and spoken of by one of Christianity’s move beloved and respected theologians.
Thomas Aquinas believed and preached that “we were created for no greater purpose than friendship with God.” Before we knew God the Father, he promised to be our God, to watch over and protect us. He desires a relationship with us. It is not because of anything we have done but because he chose to be “our” Father. This is much like the choice of an earthly father in fathering a child. The family of Christianity may be the only one that matters. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” (I Peter 2:10) When we join the family or community of Christianity, we become part of the “our”.
“Father” reminds us not only that we were created from another but that we also have brothers and sisters. We not only have earthly brothers and sisters, but Jesus himself. We may confidently approach God in both prayer and life as the fleshly brother of the earthly Jesus. “We have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which he inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His Flesh.” (Hebrews 10:19-20)
“Father” is also distinctive as a name for God in Jewish teaching. In this example for his followers, Jesus did not address God with any title emphasizing his lordship, greatness or power as was the custom of that day. He simply said to call God “Father”. We address his in the same emotion as our earthly father, then immediately show his separation as living “in Heaven”. Also unlike an earthly father, we cannot be separated from our Heavenly Father. No power on Earth “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
Jesus using the title Father is also significant for contemporary application because of the New Testament tone he helped to set. In the Old Testament, God is referred to as Father only six times. Jesus refers to God as “my Father” or “our Father” more than 60 times. A Father is someone who gives life and provides for a family. “Our Father” speaks of both the family and the parent.
Our Father is in Heaven, not here on Earth. The passage speaks to the idea that God the Father resides in a place other than Earth. He figurative or literally looks down on his earthly creations. The practical application is again that of a parent looking in on his children. The watchful eye of a parent on the playground is a good analogy.
The examination of the original language and the historical perspective lead to clear indications of the path to a life closer to the Heavenly Father. Jesus seeks that we live as a community, not just as an individual. He wishes that we look to the creator not just as a God, but as a loving parent, bringing us life and lovingly watching over us in our lives. This parent lives in a place other than Earth. In this passage, there is no promise to getting to Heaven to be with God but a plan for a more Heaven-linked life here on Earth. Now that the recipient of the prayer and his location has been determined, the next passages will begin to even more clearly show the way to speak directly to God in search of a righteous life.