A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian’s Prayer: The Christian way of prayer (continued).
*Give us this day our daily bread*. Some early commentators could not believe that Jesus intended our first request to be for literal bread, bread for the body. It seemed to them improper, especially after the noble three opening petitions relating to God’s glory, that we should abruptly descend to so mundane and material a concern. So they allegorized the petition. The bread he meant must be spiritual, they said. Early church fathers like Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine thought the reference was either to ‘the invisible bread of the word of God’ or to the Lord’s supper. Jerome in the Vulgate translated the Greek word for ‘daily’ by the monstrous adjective ‘supersubstantial’; he also meant the Holy Communion. We should be grateful for the greater, down to earth, biblical understanding of the Reformers. Calvin’s comment on the spiritualizing of the fathers was : “This is exceedingly absurd.’. Luther had the wisdom to see that ‘bread’ was a symbol for ‘everything necessary for the preservation of this life, like food, a healthy body, good weather, house, home, wife, children, good government and peace’, and probably we should add that by ‘bread’ Jesus meant the necessities rather than the luxuries of life.
The petition that God will ‘give’ us our food does not, of course, deny that most people have to earn their own living, that farmers have to plough, sow and reap to provide basic cereals or that we are commanded to feed the hungry ourselves (Matt.25:35). Instead, it is an expression of ultimate dependence on God who normally uses human means of production and distribution through which to fulfil his purposes. Moreover, it seems that Jesus wanted his followers to be conscious of a day-to-day dependence. The adjective *epiousios* in ‘our daily bread’ was so completely unknown to the ancients that Origen thought the evangelists had coined it. Moulton and Milligan are of the same opinion in our generation. It is probably to be translated either ‘for the current day’ or ‘for the following day’. (AG). Whichever is correct, it is a prayer for the immediate and not the distant future. As A.M.Hunter comments: ‘Used in the morning, this petition would ask bread for the day just beginning. Used in the evening, it would pray for tomorrow’s bread. Thus we are to live a day at a time.
Forgiveness is as indispensable to the life and health of the soul as food is for the body. So the next prayer is, *Forgive us our debts*. Sin is likened to a ‘debt’ because it deserves to be punished. But when God forgives sin, he remits the penalty and drops the charge against us. The addition of the words *as we also have forgiven our debtors* is further emphasized in verses 14 and 15 which follow the prayer and state that our Father will forgive us if we forgive others but will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive others. This certainly does not mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven. It is rather that God forgives only the penitent and one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit. Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offence against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offences of others, it proves that we minimised our own. It is the disparity between the size of debts which is the main point of the parable of the unmerciful servant (Mt.18:23-35). Its conclusion is: ‘I forgave you *all that debt* (which was huge)…: should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ (33).
The last two petitions should probably be understood as the negative and positive aspects of one: *Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil*. The sinner whose evil in the past has been forgiven longs to be delivered from its tyranny in the future. The general sense of the prayer is plain. But two problems confront us. First, the Bible says that God does not (indeed cannot) tempt us with evil (Jas.1:13). So what is the sense in praying that he will not do what he has promised never to do? Some answer this question by interpreting ‘tempting’ as ‘testing’ (Cf. NEB, ‘Do not bring us to the test.’), explaining that though God never entices us to sin he does test our faith and character. This is possible. A better explanation seems to me to be that ‘lead us not’ must be understood in the light of its counterpart ‘but deliver us’, and that ‘evil’ should be rendered ‘evil one’ (as in 13:19). In other words, it is the devil who is in view, who tempts God’s people to sin, and from whom we need to be ‘rescued’ (*rusai*).
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian’s Prayer: The Christian way of prayer (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.