What did Jesus mean we told us to pray, “Your kingdom come”? It’s worthwhile to pause and ask how this core concern ought to shape our prayers.
Jesus’ discussion of the “hypocrites” (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18) has an obviously tight structure. Right in the middle, he breaks that structure for a rather important tangent on prayer (6:7-15). The hypocrites’ intent in their religious practice was to manipulate people. Jesus tells us not to do that. But he also wants us to avoid the pagan mindset of thinking that we can manipulate God (6:7-8). The pagan gods were capricious and, if you buttered them up enough, very manipulable.
Of course, you can’t actually manipulate God. But Jesus also wants us to realize that we don’t need to. God is a loving father who values us (6:26), knows what we need (6:8), and will take care of us (7:11).
That turns prayer into something fundamentally different. As a preacher from a bygone era put it, “Prayer is more an atmosphere than an act, more an attitude than a deed, more a spirit than doing something.” Yes, we still pray for the things we need (6:11), but the asking has more to do with a relationship than with some kind of transaction (7:7-11). In The Magician’s Nephew, of course Aslan knew that Digory and his friends would need food for their journey. “But,” says the flying horse, “I’ve sort of an idea that he likes to be asked.” Asking for stuff is not about informing God. It is about taking the right posture in relationship to him.
“Asking for stuff is not about informing God. It is about taking the right posture in relationship to him.”
Indeed, prayer in general is not about getting God to line up with our interests. It is about getting us to line up with His. How else could we possibly do what the rest of chapter 6 says? Jesus tells us to take all of our basic human needs—both social (6:1-18) and physical (6:24-34)—and put them in the back seat. We’re supposed to seek the Kingdom first (6:33).
That’s crazy. The only way to do that is to get our minds centered on eternity. And so, in this chapter that tells us to prioritize the Kingdom that we don’t see over everything that we do see, Jesus teaches us to pray. To enter into prayer is to seek the Kingdom first.
Since prayer is, more than anything else, about getting us centered on God and his Kingdom, that’s exactly where the Lord’s Prayer starts, “Our Father in heaven, may your name be holy, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (6:9-10).
“To enter into prayer is to seek the Kingdom first.”
We mentioned Hebrew parallelism before. Hebrew poetry doesn’t rhyme sounds. It rhymes ideas. That often means that the second line in a couplet re-states the first one, looking at the idea in slightly different terms. Also, restating something is a way to give it more emphasis. If you say it twice, you really mean business.
Saying it three times is unheard of. The only thing that ever gets a “triplet” is God himself (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). This may be what’s going on in the first part of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s kind of awkward in English, so most translations gloss over the fact that “May your name be holy” has the exact same construction as, “May your kingdom come,” and, “May your will be done.” This “triplet” may be looking at the same thing three different ways. If the Kingdom of Heaven is the place where God reigns and everything is the way it should be, then the Kingdom coming is God’s will being done. And the more God’s reign is realized, the more his name is glorified.
“As nice as that sounds, it kicks sand in a lot of theologians’ faces.”
As nice as that sounds, it kicks sand in a lot of theologians’ faces. For instance, why do we pray for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven”? Because it isn’t. So, if your view of God’s sovereignty is that he has “meticulous control” over his creation, you get sent back to the drawing board. This world is broken. The story of Scripture simply is the story of God’s plan to fix it. (See the article on those who mourn.) And that is what we pray for: “God, we’re encountering this broken thing in our lives. Can you please fix it?”
For other theologians, praying for the Kingdom to come can trigger the anthill of millennial theories. Millennial theories tend to get lost in the weeds, but they fundamentally ask when the Kingdom comes in relation to Jesus’ return.
Premillennialism says that Jesus returns before the Kingdom comes. Postmillennialism says he returns after. Amillennialism says that it’s all a little fuzzy. Premillennialism is correct that the Kingdom won’t be fully realized until Jesus comes back. That is when God’s dwelling place will be among people (Rev. 21:3). That is when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
“There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
On the other hand, amillennialism is correct that the Kingdom has already started breaking in. In the work of Christ, the Kingdom has “come near” (Matt. 4:17; see the article on Heaven).
On the third hand, postmillennialism is correct that the Kingdom can be progressively realized here on earth. Again, this is exactly what we pray for—that God will reach down into this broken world and make something right. When he does, his Kingdom has come just a little bit more.
So how does his Kingdom come? How do things transition from the broken world that is to the unbroken world that should be? That’s the kicker. Oh, we have plenty of programs for trying to make it happen. That’s what political power is for—to hammer through our program for putting things right. But, as Susan Neiman observes in Evil in Modern Thought, those who try to unite “is” and “ought” by force “usually do more harm than they set out to prevent” (322). Heck, Jesus had a Zealot in his entourage who wanted to make the Kingdom come by putting a knife in a few Roman necks. Whatever that would bring about, it sure isn’t the Kingdom.
Our programs for bringing about the Kingdom usually aren’t Jesus’ program. Like it or not, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ program for how the Kingdom comes on earth.
“The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ program for how the Kingdom comes on earth.”
Yes, we want a creation that isn’t broken any more, but Paul strongly indicates that the first thing that needs to be fixed is us (Rom. 8:19-21). That fits Jesus’ focus in the Sermon on the Mount. He isn’t concerned about stuff out there. He talks about our hearts. In that sense, to pray for the Kingdom to come is to pray for Matthew chapter 5. As our resemblance to a citizen of the Kingdom grows and as our heart comes to look more like God’s heart, that is the Kingdom coming.
And as we are transformed, people “see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). In other words, God’s name is made holy.
If the lines of this “triplet” are saying the same thing, then making God’s name holy is what this is all about. Focusing our perspective on heaven means realizing that God is in the center of that frame. We want his will to be done because it’s his. We want his kingdom to come because it’s his. We want his name to be held sacred because he is worthy of it.
“True prayer begins when we shut our eyes to this world and hear the angels in heaven crying out, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.'”
True prayer begins when we shut our eyes to this world and hear the angels in heaven crying out, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” True prayer begins when we come and kneel before the throne of the one who was, and is, and is to come.