I heard someone recently say that the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16. I started to think about this and realised that this isn't exactly right, certainly not for Irish people.
I reckon the most well known Bible verse (or verses) in Ireland are the words Jesus spoke when His disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray. This passage of scripture from Matthew 6, is referred to in Irish culture as "The Our Father", and is often associated with confession; "He gave me 3 Our Fathers and 4 Hail Marys" or a similar phrase was what many people associate the words of Jesus with.
It is a prayer that for most people, can be reeled off in seconds, without a thought and yet what is contained in these few lines is spiritual dynamite, it is how Jesus taught His disciples to pray.
Two thousand years ago, in Israel, Jewish children were brought up in a culture where they aimed to emulate their teachers. The best students in the synagogue were encouraged to listen and understand their teachers, the pharisees and the priests. They learned by doing things the way they had always been done and not questioning these methods. The most intelligent students would continue to learn as they grew older and spend their youth watching and copying their teachers so that they would become like them. Knowing this is important to understanding the disciple's request for Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11 v 1). They wanted to be like Jesus.
There are many versions of the prayer, but for this, I'm going to use the one I'm most familiar with- the King James Version.
9After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11Give us this day our daily bread.
12And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13And 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 v 9-13, KJV.
Lets go through it as Jesus prayed it.
He starts off by addressing God directly.
"Our Father which art in heaven".
He's your dad as much as mine Jesus is saying. He's the head of our family and He dwells in heaven, you can talk to Him the same way I do, in fact, this is how I want you to talk to Him.
"Hallowed be thy name".
Your name, Father, is Holy. Your name is above all other names and is worthy of our prayers. You are the Almighty God.
"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done".
I want Your Kingdom to come, and I want Your Will to be done. I want what you want, to happen. I want what you have, to happen.
"in earth, as it is in heaven".
One of the reasons I like the King James Version here is the way this line is phrased. Most if not, all of the other versions of the Bible I looked at say "on earth, as it is in heaven" but the KJV uses the word "in". The significance of this, to me is that Jesus is inviting God's Kingdom to come and His Will to be done in the earth as opposed to it being done on the earth. It's possessive, it's inside, it's not just something to exist outside of us.
Jesus is actually telling us to ask God to do in the earth, what He does in heaven. Jesus is asking God to come and reign supreme in the earth, as He does in heaven. He is asking God to bring heaven into the earth.
This has the potential to be one of the most loaded lines in the whole Bible. If we really believe what we pray, then what we are asking God for here is an earth that is without pain, an earth that is without suffering, an earth that is without sickness, an earth that is exploding with the love and presence of God in such a substantial way that these things, which are not of God, simply can't exist. The Light of God is so bright that darkness just isn't around.
"Give us this day our daily bread"
I had been wondering what was the significance of this line for a long time. I'm a Christian over 30 years and I always thought it was about providing our needs. It is, but there's more to it than that. God is a God of abundance. God is a God who cares for the birds and God is a God who cares for you.
"Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?"Matt 6v26
So, asking God for our daily bread is asking God for what we need. God, being gloriously abundant in nature, loves to look after us and has a wonderful track record of providing our needs. He gives us what we need, when we need it, and then some.
"Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us," Ephesians 3v20.
You ask God for something, He gives us what we need and more. He fed the Israelites in the desert abundantly, He gave them more than they needed and if they took too much, it wasn't of use anymore. Jesus is telling us that we don't need to be greedy, we can trust God to look after us. His name is Jehovah Jireh, He is our provider.
"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors"
Next we are asking God to forgive us our debts, trespasses or sins. Jesus prayed this knowing that we needed to pray it. Jesus didn't pray it for Himself- He was and is perfect and without sin, yet He encourages us to do it while we are forgiving others. Don't hold a grudge He's saying, God doesn't hold a grudge against you. He's talking about embracing the identity God has given us, not the old one that we love to cling on to.
"And lead us not into temptation"
This line has troubled me to be honest. Why would Jesus put this into a prayer? Why would He tell us to ask God to not lead us into temptation? If God is good, then why would He do that?
I had to look at other translations to get my head around this, most are similarly worded, but The Message puts it differently:
"Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil."
So according to the Message, it's Jesus asking God to help us to stay alert to what is in front of, or around us. We are asking God to help us stay away from temptation and to not yield to it.
Remember Jesus was tempted in the desert when He was there for 40 days, and He was without sin.
Being tempted is something that will happen, but we can try to stay away from temptation and this is why Jesus is encouraging us to pray in this way.
"but deliver us from evil;"
Keep us safe from the works of the enemy. Protect us from his works and keep holding onto us.
"For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen"
The final part of the prayer in the KJV isn't regularly included in church or public prayers, it's a statement of who God is, it's praise of and onto Him, it's Jesus encouraging us to praise the Father by reminding us of how wonderful He is. Father, it's your kingdom, your power and your glory and it's beyond comparison. It goes on for all eternity. So be it.
Praying the "Our Father" is speaking the words that came out of Jesus' mouth. It's something that we are privileged to have because we can speak God's word into our situations and know that we are praying according to His will, asking Him for what He knows is best for us. It may be a prayer that is recited in many circumstances, but it is one that reflects the character of God and what is on His heart for us.
The next time you read or pray it, take a moment and thank God that He loves you enough to give you the words to speak to Him when you are speechless.