"The Model Prayer"
(Delivered Sunday, January 30, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
We have been studying our Lord's instructions on prayer as they're found in His Sermon on The Mount. And this morning, we come to what is certainly one of the most beloved and well-known passages in the Sermon - perhaps even in all the Bible. My suspicion is that almost everyone here today can quote this beloved prayer from memory in the old King James style:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen" (Matthew 6:9-13; KJV).
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We often call this section of the Sermon on The Mount "The Lord's Prayer". But that's not the best name for it. If you really wanted to find the prayer of our Lord Jesus, you'd need to go to John 17. The prayer found in John 17 is not a prayer that we could ever pray; because it is the prayer of our great "High Priest", just before He gave Himself as an offering for our sins. If any prayer deserved to be called "The Lord's Prayer", it would be that one.
A better and more accurate name for the prayer in this morning's passage, however, would be "The Disciples' Prayer"; because it's a prayer meant to be prayed by Jesus' followers. It's not a prayer that Jesus Himself would need to pray. After all, He is the sinless Son of God; and would never need to ask the Father to forgive His debts, or ask Him not to lead Him into temptation in the way that we would. Instead, this is a prayer that He is offering to His disciples - the citizens of His own Kingdom - as an example of what is to characterize their own prayers. It is the model prayer of a follower of Jesus.
And how glad we should be that He gave it to us! Imagine what it would be like if you were invited to stand before a great king or an important governmental leader and speak to him. Would you know what to say to him? Would you know what the manner of your approach to him should be? What if you were to ask the wrong thing? What would be the proper protocol? On your own, you might not have any confidence at all that you would know what to say or do. Wouldn't you be glad if someone, who knew this king or leader well, could come beside you and coach you in what to say and how to behave?
Well here, our beloved Savior - the Son of God - is inviting us to do something even greater than speak to a great earthly king or governmental leader. He's inviting us to speak to His own Father in heaven - the Creator and Sustainer of all that there is; the One before whom all the hosts of heaven bow; the One that the Bible describes as "He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power" (1 Tim. 6:15-16). And in this passage, our wonderful Savior is One who graciously comes to our aid - teaching us how we are to speak to His Father and how we are to behave toward Him.
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This is such an important and beloved passage of Scripture that it is often thought about all on its own - that is, completely apart from its context. But if you read the surrounding context, you discover that this model prayer is really a digression from Jesus' main theme.
He had been warning us as His followers about the danger of hypocrisy in our manner before God. His main concern was to teach us not to do our acts of spiritual devotion before God with the evil motive in mind of being seen by others and of thus being thought very spiritual by them. He says, in verse 1, "Take heed that you do not do your charitable [or more accurately, "righteous"] deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven."
He then goes on to warn us about this danger in three specific areas - three areas that touch on every possible expression of our spiritual devotion. First, He warned us about this danger with respect to acts of charity - that is, with respect to the needs of others:
"Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (vv. 2-4).
And near the end of this portion of His sermon, He warns His followers against this danger with respect to fasting - that is, with respect to our denial of self:
"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (vv. 16-18).
So; Jesus warns us against this kind of hypocrisy with respect to other people, and with respect to our own selves. And tucked between these two warnings, He gives us a warning against this danger with respect to God our Father - that is, specifically, when we pray to Him:
"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (vv. 5-6).
And it's there - in the midst of these words of warning concerning prayer - that we find this digression from Jesus' main topic of the dangers of hypocrisy. It seems that, for the moment, He sets aside the concern of hypocrisy before others in order to teach us some deeper truths about prayer. He shows us what our manner should be when we pray to His Father and, as it were, coaches us in the right way to approach Him and speak to Him. It's as if He says, "I want you to learn to be real and sincere in your prayers. I don't want you to pray before men in such a way as to deliberately be seen and thought well of by them. And by the way; while we're on the subject of the right way to pray, let me pass on a few more words of instruction to you." Perhaps He goes on to say more about the subject of prayer because prayer to the Father is such an important aspect of our lives as His followers.
I have found it helpful to divide what the Lord says into three principles that He wishes to pass on to us. The first of these three principles is that we are to pray with . . .
I. SINCERITY OF EXPRESSION (vv. 7-8).
He says, "And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words" (v. 7).
The Greek word used for the phrase "vain repetitions" is a very interesting one - almost a funny one (if you happen to be the kind of person that finds some Greek words 'funny'!). It's the word battalogeġ. It comes from combining the Greek word for "expressing one's self in utterances" with the Greek word for stammering. It's an 'onomatopoetic' word - that is, one that makes a sound like what it's meant to symbolize. Someone who just blathers away thoughtlessly is speaking "batta-batta-batta". And so, this word battalogeġ signifies the act of just pointlessly speaking in a bunch of words repeated over and over, with out any purpose or personal thought; that is, in "vain repetitions". Our phrase, "Blah . . . blah . . . blah!" might be a close parallel to this idea.
Now, right away, you might be thinking of certain traditions of Christendom that use such repeated phrases and words in prayer over and over. Perhaps you've listened on some radio stations where such prayers are offered at certain times of day; or perhaps you even grew up in one of those traditions of the faith in which you were taught to pray in those repeated phrases. We can be certain that Jesus is warning us against doing that.
This makes it easy for some of us, who are not of those traditions, to think that we're pretty much off the hook. But stop and think about how many time you've prayed about something so often, and in pretty much the same situation or setting over and over, that you came to almost memorize your prayer. You got used to praying such a prayer after a while; and could even pray it with 'style'. Have you ever found that you began to bring your petition to God in words that you almost didn't need to think about any longer? You felt obligated to pray it; but not as obligated to think about it. Or how about this: have you ever found yourself rattling off the so-called "Lord's Prayer" in the same sort of way - that is, with the words all memorized and without much thought?
This is the kind of "vain repetition" that the Lord is speaking of. Our Father isn't impressed with our accurate recitations, or with the numbers of times we repeat the same phrases over and over. When we do so without thought before Him, they just come across to Him as so much "Batta-batta-batta . . . blah-blah-blah!"
I heard once about one of my former professors in Bible college. He met his students one day for a class very early in the morning; and was probably not completely awake yet. He began his class as he habitually did - that is, with a word of prayer. But it was clear that his mind wasn't really engaged; because he began by praying, "Father, we thank you for the food we're about to eat . . ." That sure woke everyone up; and you can bet that his students never let him forget it from then on!! But if we're honest, we've all prayed at times with our eyes closed and our minds elsewhere. We've all been guilty of praying "vain" prayers in some form or another. And so, this is a call for us to think carefully about what we're saying to the Father when we pray; and to make our prayers to Him genuine and sincere expressions of the heart.
Jesus says that this wrongful way of praying - that is, in mindless, thoughtless, repetitions of the same phrases and words over and over - is the way the "heathen" pray. The word "heathen", here, is simply the Greek word for "Gentiles"; and it's not speaking of literal Gentiles - because that, of course, is what many of us are who are here this morning. Rather, it's speaking of spiritual "Gentiles"; that is, someone who is not a believer and who is outside the grace of God through faith in Jesus. It's speaking of someone who does not have a relationship with the Father through His Son, and who does not trust Him by faith in His grace (Matthew 6:32). Such "heathen" pray in this way to false gods. They believe that they can earn a hearing from their god by great personal feats of "devotion" - such as repeating the same prayers endlessly. They assume that their god is not really willing to answer their prayers, or that such prayers ordinarily can't be heard by him; and so the "heathen" thus believe that they must 'convince' their god to answer their prayers by speaking the same particular formula of words over and over again mindlessly a certain number of times and in a ritualistic way. They believe such behavior somehow "impresses" their god and moves him to grant their request.
Jesus is teaching us that this is not the way His followers are to pray. He says, "Therefore, do not be like them" (v. 8) - that is, like the unbelievers who pray in "vain repetitions" to their false gods. And He tells us the reason: "For your heavenly Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him." Isn't that good to know, dear brother or sister in Christ? Even before you formulate a prayer in your mouth, your heavenly Father is already aware of what you need. He doesn't require that you to tell Him even once what you need - let alone a thousand times over and over in the same mindless pattern.
But a question might come up at this point: "If this is true, then why then pray at all? If He already knows what I need before I ask, why do I even bother asking?" Well; we can be sure that it's certainly not because He needs to know what we want. Jesus tells us that He already knows our needs before we ask. Rather, I believe it's because we constantly need to know that He knows! He calls us to pray to Him and bring our petitions before Him, because doing so focuses our attention toward Him, and thus changes us. It keeps us looking to Him, and trusting Him, and waiting upon Him, and rejoicing in Him. It keeps Him at the forefront of our thoughts, and forces us to keep the communication lines open toward Him.
Sincere expressions of prayer force us to keep what one pastor from our community used to call "constant conscious communion" with the Father; and that's the exact opposite of the sort of disconnected, mindless, impersonal "batta-batta-batta" that we experience when we pray in "vain repetitions." How important it is, then - and really, how wonderfully liberating it is - that we may approach our Father with simple expression of prayer that come from a sincere heart! He welcomes us when we simply come to Him as we are, talk to our Father in simple words, and share with Him what we really want to tell Him.
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Another principle we learn from our Lord's instruction on prayer is . . .
II. REVERENCE OF CONTENT (vv. 9-13).
Here, of course, is when we actually read our Lord's model prayer. And what a wonderful prayer it is! It's remarkably short and simple; and yet, I wish we had more time to consider it, because I truly believe that each and every line deserves a sermon all its own.
A question sometimes comes up about this prayer. Is it a prayer that the Lord meant for us to pray word-for-word? We often do so in some of our prayer meetings here in church; and I certainly don't believe it's wrong to do so - so long, as we've already said, that it doesn't become yet another "vain repetition" itself in the way we pray it.
But I believe that this prayer is meant to be something much more than a prayer that we merely recite word-for-word. I believe it gives us a pattern to follow. Jesus begins by saying, "In this manner, therefore, pray . . ."; or "Pray then like this . . ." (English Standard Version); but He didn't say, "In these exact words pray." In fact, on another occasion, He taught His disciples to pray in very similar words - but not in precisely the same words (Luke 11:2-4). I believe that we should understand these to be the broad categories in which we should express ourselves to our Father in prayer. In other words, this is a "general pattern" for what to pray, not an "exact prescription" of what is to be prayed.
There are six separate petitions in this prayer; and they touch on six areas of our lives before God. The first three of them address His concerns. And isn't that an important thing to remember? His concerns should come before ours in prayer. What a revolution that would bring about in our prayer life! Three "Your" petitions come before three "our" petitions. How often it is that we come running into God's throne-room in prayer, hastily bringing our concerns before Him but without first thinking of what He is concerned about! May this model prayer help teach us to place His concerns before our own!
And there's something that we need to think about even before we first think about our Father's concerns. We must first think about our Father Himself. We are to begin our prayer with a reverent recognition of who it is that we pray to. If you wish, you could put it this way: we're taught to preface our requests with worship.
Jesus says that we are to begin by addressing Him in this way: "Our Father . . ." Do you realize what a wonderful thing it is that we may call Him "Our Father"? Jesus - the only begotten Son of God - here invites us to call His own beloved Father "Our Father". By implication, we are to see ourselves as coming before Him as His beloved children.
Now it's important that we understand our relationship to Jesus' Father correctly. Jesus uses the phrase "Our Father" in this prayer; but only as an example of how we - as His disciples - are to pray. It's interesting that, when Jesus spoke directly to His disciples, He didn't refer to God as "Our Father" - as if the Father was His Father in the same way as He is the Father of His disciples. In fact, after He rose from the dead, He told Mary to tell the disciples, "I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God" (John 20:17). He made a distinction in the relationship, because He is, uniquely, the Son of God. We too are 100% sons and daughters of the heavenly Father; but He is the "only begotten" Son (John 1:14, 18), and we are children by "adoption" (Eph. 1:5). But here, He is teaching His disciples how to pray to His Father; and He is telling them, "When you all speak to Him, address Him as 'Our Father . . .'".
Unbelieving people - whatever else they may say or think - do not have the right to address God as "Our Father". They are not His children, and do not have the right to approach Him as if they were. That right comes to us only through faith in Jesus Himself - the only begotten Son of God. The apostle John tells us, "But as many as received Him [that is, Jesus], to them He gave the right to become the children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). And for those of us who have become His daughters and sons by faith, we have the freedom to come to Him at anytime, and bring our concerns to Him openly - knowing that He will always welcome us as His own beloved children. What wonderful grace He has shown us in allowing us the right to call Him "Our Father"!
But Jesus also tells us that we are to approach Him as Our Father "in heaven"; and this reminds us not only His grace, but also of His majesty. He sits upon the throne of heaven as the almighty King of heaven; and He rules over all the earth as the Creator of all things - far above all His creation in glory and power and holiness! It is our privilege to approach Him gladly and freely as "Father"; but Jesus reminds us that He is also sufficiently powerful - as Our Father "in heaven" - to perform for us whatever is needed. What's more, His designation as our Father "in heaven" also reminds us that we dare not to approach Him in an irreverent, or flippant, or sinful manner. We must always bear in mind that He is our Father "in heaven", and must at all times honor Him and trust Him accordingly.
So here's a way that we can put Jesus' model of prayer into practical application. Make sure that when you come to the Father in prayer, that you come to Him through faith in Jesus Christ. And when you come in Christ's name, come having properly thought about Him and worshiped Him. Come freely and gladly and gratefully - knowing that you are loved and accepted by Him as His dear child because of what Jesus has done for us. But also remember that you come before a mighty God who is most holy! Come with proper reverence! Come, first of all, in a spirit of worship.
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That leads us to the things that we are invited to ask. And the first of the things that we are to seek is His own concerns. I believe that we are to seek these three things always in our prayers - whatever it may be that we ask of Him.
First, Jesus tells us to pray, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name" (v. 9). We are to "hallow" His name. To "hallow" something means to consider it as separate and distinct from all else; to reverence it as 'holy'. And God's name, in this case, means more than simply a set of letters that form the word of His name. His "name" here is a way of expressing all that is true of Him. His "name" is the summation of all His attributes and characteristics; all His acts and purposes; all He is and does. And so, Jesus is telling us here - as a primary matter in all our prayers - to hold the very name of God our Father in the utmost attitude of reverence. To "hallow" His name is to "hallow" Him; and that's what we are to ask for when we come to Him.
The second petition follows naturally from the first. Jesus tells us to pray, "Your kingdom come" (v. 10). If we truly "hallow" God's name, then we will also desire His kingdom. Unfortunately, when we see the word "kingdom", we're accustomed to thinking of something that we learned from growing up with story books. We think of something that involves castles, and banners, and ponies, and fair maidens, and knights with shining armor. In other words, we associate "kingdom" with a kind of "place". But when we pray, "Your kingdom come"; what we're really asking for isn't so much that a place to come into being, as that the rule of a Person spread to the places that already are. Jesus is the King; and when we pray that His Father's kingdom come, we're praying that our Father's rule through Jesus - His appointed King - spread further and further, and be fully realized where it is now not being honored. It's a prayer that looks ahead to the time when Jesus will return to this earth and reign upon this world; and it's a prayer that motivates us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. We "hallow" the Father's name; and when we pray, "Your kingdom come", we're asking that others will come to hallow it as well who are not hallowing it now.
And again, the third petition follows naturally from the first two. Jesus tells us to pray, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (v. 10). It's a prayer that recognizes that our Father does only what is good and knows what is best for us. It's a prayer in which we submit ourselves to the Father's good purposes for us, and in which we allow Him to use us as He sees fit. It's a prayer that our Savior Himself prayed in the garden, before He went to the cross. It's a prayer that humbly bows to "our Father in heaven", and says, "Not my will, but Yours be done." And more than that, it's a prayer that His will be done fully. It's a prayer that asks that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And how is it done in heaven? Immediately and completely!
And these are the broad categories in which Jesus calls us to pray when we talk to the Father. Ask yourself: when you talk to Him, do you come hallowing His name? Do you come seeking His kingdom first, as the highest priority of your life? Do you come with humble submission to Him - desiring that His will be done above your own, and that His will prevail in all the earth? If we begin with these as our petitions to the Father, then our hearts will be rightly oriented toward bringing our own concerns to Him in prayer - because we will be wanting what He wants first.
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This leads us, then, to the last three petitions that Jesus calls us to ask. In the first three, we become rightly oriented toward our Father; and in the second three, we learn to trust such a wonderful and powerful Father for our own basic needs. In these last three petitions, Jesus speaks of three areas of need that touch on any possible need we could have. They cover our physical needs, our relational needs, and our spiritual needs.
I believe that Jesus means for us to pray in the basic manner that He here describes at any time that we have a need in one of these three areas. For example, do we have a physical need? Jesus teaches us - after we have asked for what the Father wants in that need - to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread . . ." This prayer recognizes that all of our physical needs are of concern to the Father; and that He is sufficiently capable of meeting them if we will but trust Him. It recognizes that, ultimately, we are dependent upon Him for our needs - and not ultimately dependent upon our own resources or power. Asking the Father to give us our daily provision places Him in first place, even before our own needs. It teaches us to trust Him only for that day's provision, and to depend upon Him one day at a time. And it also teaches us to cease from worrying about tomorrow.
Jesus gives us permission to cease worrying about our basic needs; and His permission gives us the basis for our confidence when we pray this prayer. He taught us;
"Therefore do not worry, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matt. 6:31-34).
And what about those times when we need to ask Him for help in a situation in which our relationship with someone else is strained? Jesus teaches us to pray, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Here, He teaches us two important things we need to acknowledge in our prayers whenever we have been wronged. The first is that we ourselves have wronged God often. We are certainly unworthy of His forgiveness; and yet, He graciously pardons us whenever we confess our sins and turn from them. And the second thing is that we ourselves would therefore be wrong to not forgive others when they confess their wrongdoings toward us.
And finally, what about those times when we feel the temptation to sin, or suffer under the attacks of the devil, and we are in need of spiritual strength in the trials of life? Jesus teaches us to pray, "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
When Jesus teaches us to pray, "And do not lead us into temptation . . .", it's not that we're asking the Father to NOT do something that He was intending to do. The Bible tells us that our Father never tempts us to sin (James 1:13). And after all, let's face it: no one needs to lead us into temptation, because we're pretty good at finding it all on our own! Instead, this is a prayer that God would protect us and not allow our natural inclination toward sin to get the better of us. It's basically a prayer that God would fulfill, in specific situations, the promise He has already made for us in 1 Corinthians 10:13; "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." And not only does Jesus recognize in this prayer that we have an inclination toward sin in our own selves that must be resisted, but He also recognizes that we have an enemy that would seek to undo us. And so, He also teaches us to pray "But deliver us from evil . . ."; or as the original language of the Greek would be better translated, "But deliver us from the evil one."
Those are three categories that any circumstance of need can be placed into: daily provision, relational forgiveness, or spiritual protection. And having properly placed our Father's priorities first in our prayer, we are set free to bring our petitions before Him in these other areas in the way that Jesus has taught us.
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Before we move on, we need to say something about those closing words: "For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen." Some of you have them in your Bibles; and others of you do not, but find them in a footnote. These words are not found in some of the oldest and most reliable copies of the New Testament; and the evidence seems to indicate that they didn't make their way into the biblical text until the second century.
I suggest that we should be cautious about quoting these closing words as if they were the authentic words of our Savior. But having said that, I also suggest that there's no doubt that they express a truly biblical idea. They are very much in keeping with what King David prayed 1 Chronicles 29:10-12 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit;
"Blessed are You, LORD God of Israel, our Father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness, the power and the glory, the victory and the majesty; for all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours; Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and You are exalted as head over all. Both riches and honor come from You, and you reign over all. In Your hand is power and might; in Your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all" (1 Chron. 29:10-12).
There's no doubt that, if our hearts are rightly oriented toward God - as they would be if we can genuinely say "amen" to everything else in this prayer - then we will be moved to cry out that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory truly do belong to God forever.
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Now having said that, there's one more principle that Jesus passes on to us in this model prayer; and that is the principle of . . .
III. HOLINESS OF HEART (vv. 14-15).
We can see this in the fact that Jesus responds to something that we may have wondered about in one of the petitions He taught us. He, of course, anticipates that we would ask about such a thing; because our Father already knows the things we need before we even ask them.
Jesus had taught us to pray, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." That prayer doesn't follow the natural inclination of our hearts though, does it? We would have preferred to pray that we would be able to forgive others as our Father has forgiven us. But Jesus clearly meant what He said. He goes on to explain:
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (vv. 14-15).
This underscores the whole matter of the holiness of heart with which we are to approach our Father. If we harbor unforgiveness in our hearts toward one another, God Himself will withhold forgiveness from us.
We have already been forgiven of our sins through faith in the blood of Jesus. God is now 100% our Father and will never cease to be so. But though there is never a loss of our relationship with the Father, there will be a hindrance in that relationship so long as we harbor bitterness and unforgiveness toward those who do wrong to us. God does not want such unholiness of attitude to be found in the hearts of His children as they approach His throne; and so long as such unholiness is found in us, that hindrance in our relationship to the Father will not be removed. And so Jesus is calling us to conform to His Father's holiness by being as ready to forgive others as He has been forgiving toward us. He conditions our "relational forgiveness" from the Father with these words: "as we forgive our debtors". After all, remember that Jesus taught us to pray to "Our" Father . . . and He means for us to be right with one another when we do so.
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This, dear brothers and sisters, is the model of how we are to pray to our Father - given to us from the highest possible Authority. What a great grace from God it is that we may pray it as God's beloved children!! Let's grow to be skilled in praying together according to this pattern.
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