Prayer for Obedience
The disciples had observed Jesus praying. What they saw and heard prompted them to seek instruction from Jesus as to how they could speak with God in heaven. Jesus answered their request and taught them how to pray. His first instruction revolved around the matter of Who one spoke too; one speaks to Father. He next moved on to the mind-set that is to characterise prayer. In speaking with God one is not to be self-centred; one is instead to be God-centred – "hallowed be Your name.'' Further, the context of this life may not be forgotten as one speaks to God. Since life is war, the reality of that warfare is to feature in prayer – ''Your kingdom come."
The third petition Jesus instructed His disciples to pray is this: "Your will be done." The only word that could give us some problem in this petition is the word 'will'. The question then is this: does the word 'will' in the third petition refer to God's secret plan for our lives, contrived before the world began? Or does the word 'will' describe God's law, His commands for us?
With this petition we are not asking the Lord God that God please do what He thinks He should do; we're asking God rather that we do what He thinks we should do. The point of this petition is not that we ask God please to act according to His secret and sovereign plan; the point of this petition is rather that we ask God that we might be made to act according to His revealed commandments in the Bible. In the words of Lord's Day 49:
Grant that we and all men may deny our own will, and without any murmuring obey Thy will.
We can "deny our own will" and do God's will only when the Lord God has told us what to do and what not to do. God's secret plan for our lives is not our business; it's God's business. It is for us to involve ourselves with what God has revealed, and that's His law, His commands. With the third petition, Jesus told the twelve disciples around Him to focus on God's law for them; specifically, to ask God that their every action may be determined by God's will revealed in Holy Scripture. That's the third petition.
How did this petition touch the disciples in their circumstances? Were the disciples to understand Jesus' instruction to them in the third petition in this way that they were to ask God for strength that they might not steal, might not commit adultery, might not lie, etc? That is: were the disciples to understand Jesus' instruction here as a general prayer for general strength in the broad outlines of daily living?
To appreciate what Jesus taught in the third petition, we do well to understand that God's laws touched the disciples' lives in every detail of their existence. To draw out this point, we need to go for a short walk through the book of Leviticus.
Leviticus 11 contains God's instruction to His people about animals they could eat and animals they could not eat. By God's ordinance, the cow was clean and therefore edible, but a horse was unclean and therefore could not be eaten. Mutton was acceptable, but pork was not (cf vss 1-8). The same was true when it came to fish: any fish that had fins or scales could be eaten; if it missed either fins or scales it could not be eaten (vss 9-12). Similar rules are given regarding birds (vss 13-19), insects (vss 20-23) and reptiles (vss 41-45). Through all these stipulations, the Lord sought to impress on His people that they were different, holy, set apart from the nations (Leviticus 20:22 ff).
The practical effect of this list of clean and unclean animals was that this chapter from the Word of God had to accompany the Israelites in all of life. There's food needed for tea, and so Mother sends the boys out fishing. The boys, however, could not bring home for tea whatever they caught; they first had to consider the will of the Lord, whether the Lord God wanted them to eat the fish they hooked. That is: the boys had to take Leviticus 11 with them to the sea, and ask themselves this question: what does the Lord want me to do with the fish on the line? So too when a guest arrived: Dad could not instruct his servant to kill yonder pig; it had to be that calf or that sheep. In other words: one first had to consider the will of the Lord; did God want us to roast this pig or that sheep? That was the faith God gave to His people by covenant; God's people had to ask what God's will was in terms of what to put on the table.
Pots and pans
God's law reached into other areas of life. Leviticus 11:33 stipulates that any clay vessel in which was found a dead mouse or lizard or gecko had to be broken; it was unclean. We need to remember; in those days they did not have the closed-in houses that we've got, and didn't have rat poison to put in the attic either. In other words: rodents and lizards were not uncommon in the houses of Israel, and so a dead one in the pantry was quite possible too; this kind of thing happened so many times per year in each house. The Israelite had to consider the will of the Lord: what does God want us to do in this pot?
Leviticus 13 mentions leprosy, spots on the skin. We know from experience that spots on the skin do occur from time to time, be it in the form of a scab or ringworm or eczema, etc. The people of Israel immediately had to consider what the will of the Lord might be here: did the Lord want them to show this scab, or this swelling, or this bright spot on the skin to the priest (Leviticus 13:1ff)? So too when it came to pulling the winter clothes from the closet. Before the people could wear their winter coat, they had to check for spots, be it mould or something else (Leviticus 13:47 ff). That is: God's law had a bearing on whether or not you could put on that favourite coat; what does God wish me to do?
Leviticus 14 speaks about "the leprous plague in a house" (vs. 34). That is: if a mother in Israel, while doing her regular house cleaning, found a reddish or greenish spot on the wall (and let's face it, mould is a reality in showers and laundries even today – let alone then), this woman in Israel couldn't just apply the old time equivalent of Shelleys Mould Killer, but she first had to consider the will of the Lord and possibly fetch the priest (14:33 ff).
Chapter 15 speaks about bodily discharges, and how anything is unclean if one who has a discharge sits on it or lays on it. We all know that there's scarcely a household where there's no discharge some time during the month (cf vs. 19). So: a particular bed, a particular chair in the house was unclean for a set period every month. That meant in turn that when the youth came home from school or from work, they could not just sit down on whatever chair they wished; Mom's chair could be unclean today. The point again is this: even when it came to something so basic as choosing which chair to sit on, the people of Israel had first to consider the will of the Lord. In all of life, down to the details of what goes on the table and what shall the children wear and where shall I sit, God's covenant children had to be busy in their minds with the question; what does God want me to do? Every area of life was claimed by the God who created heaven and earth; no inch of life in Israel was free from His oversight and authority.
Now the Lord Jesus tells His disciples what to pray. They're not sure about prayer, not sure what to say and how to 'get through' to God. Says Jesus in the third petition: ask God to enable you to do His will, to obey His law. Here Jesus builds on what God had instructed Israel in the Old Testament. God's law did not pertain only to the big decisions of life, things like whether to kill somebody or whether to obey parents or what to do on the Sabbath. God's will stipulated for Israel what the people had to do in every area of life; always the people had to consider what God wanted them to do in their specific circumstances. This is Jesus' point: He instructs the twelve disciples, in their specific circumstances, to ask God for strength to do God's will each moment of the day. Specifically:
Peter was a fisherman by trade, and so were James and John. As they hauled the nets out of the water tomorrow morning, they had to ask what God's will for them was at that moment – could they keep this fish, that fish, that one…? For God had said: some fish are unclean, and you may not eat them. So there was no dollar to be made by the disciples when they caught, say, a cobbler or a squid.
For all we know, the disciples had (their own homes, with their own collection of clay pots and pans. It can very well happen that they come home tonight to find a dead mouse in the pantry. In a circumstance as down-to-earth as that, the disciple had to ask the question: Lord, what do you want me to do?
As a result of work, Nathanael (say) got a splinter in his finger, and it ended up in an infection. Could he just go to the doctor without any more? First he had to consider his God: Lord, what do you want me to do? Is this something for the priest to see?
The conclusion is this: around the clock, in all their circumstances – be it big or small – the people of Israel (and so Jesus' disciples too) had to be busy with the will of God: what does God want me to do now?
This is the thought that Jesus incorporates into His teaching about prayer. His disciples want to know how to pray. Says Jesus to them: "when you pray, say..: Your will be done." That is: "Grant, Father, that, we… may deny our own will, .and without any murmuring obey your will, in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves." Seeking God's will, says Jesus, should be part of prayer; it gives so much to pray about, makes prayer part and parcel of all of life: Lord, what do you want me to do?
No Change Today
And we are to know: in the New Testament dispensation God's claim to every area of life is no less comprehensive than His claim was in the Old Testament. Not only does His God-head dictate the point, not only does Christ's lordship over all the world dictate the point, not only does the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts dictate that God claims us all the time; it's also the specific revelation of Scripture. Says Paul to the. Corinthians (and his words are built on the material of Leviticus!) – says Paul:
therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.1 Corinthians 10:31
It's very New Testamentic: things so mundane, so down-to-earth as eating and drinking, are to be done to God's glory. And we understand: God is glorified through our activities only if we do God's will. What we eat, when we sit down to drink, when we choose our clothes for the day, the question is to be on our minds as much as it was in Israel: Lord, what do you want me to do? Should I eat this? Are You happy if I drink this? Do You wish me to wear this? In fact, Jesus specifically says that on the day of judgment we shall need to give account of every idle word we have spoken (Matthew 12:36). "You see: even the words I speak are subject to the notion of: Lord, what do You wish me to say?"
It is the nuts and bolts of this life that I need to speak about with my Father in heaven.
With the third petition – "Your will be done" – Jesus builds on God's Old Testament revelation that God's law touches all of life, with no exceptions, from foods to clothes to words to sport. So the third petition is to be on my lips always too: "Your will be done"; Lord, what do You want me to do in this situation, in that situation? It followed that I am to pray from out of my particular, specific circumstances, and here seek God's will. Prayer is not to be general, vague, detached from concrete circumstances.
Some time after Jesus gave His instruction to the disciples about prayer, He Himself prayed the third petition. It happened on the night before His crucifixion – Matthew 26. Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with eleven of His disciples (Judas Iscariot had already gone to the chief priests). In the Garden Jesus "began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed" (vs. 37). In His distress Jesus prayed the following: "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me." That is: Jesus was very well aware that the cross was around the corner, very aware that even now Judas was on his way with the chief priests and the temple police to arrest Him. In His prayer, Jesus spoke of a cup; "let this cup pass from Me." The word 'cup' is used in the Old Testament to describe the wrath of God (cf Psalm 75:8). It's that wrath that Jesus was about to face, and He looked up against it terribly. So He told God exactly what His circumstances were and how He felt about His circumstances: "Let this cup pass from Me." With words from the Old Testament, Jesus told the Father about His actual situation and feelings. This is specific, this is concrete.
Notice too, though, what Jesus does after He's told the Father of His situation and His feelings. He prays the third petition: "Your will be done." It's an amazing prayer, really. Think about it: what would you do if you were standing in Jesus' shoes that night? You well know that the temple police are on their way, and you know too that a cross is waiting for you tomorrow. What would you do?? Every fiber in my body would cry out: "Run!" We'd run, we'd hide, we'd escape, anything to get away from the horrors of the cross. Yet that is not what Jesus does! Instead, He prays! He tells His God of His situation, tells Him of His anguish, and then seeks God's will for Him in the situation. Jesus knows the Scripture, knows that God's instruction for Him is death by means of the cross (see Matthew 16:21; 20:17 ff). The sacrifices of the law, God's revelation in a passage as Isaiah 53, etc., made abundantly clear to Jesus what God's will for Him was. So Jesus prays the third petition, and prays it not once but twice, yes, three times: "O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done"(vs. 42).
Here is the instruction of Jesus to His disciples in the third petition, worked out concretely for the benefit of the disciples. I know: the three who were with Jesus were sound asleep when Jesus in His anguish sought to subject His will to God's holy will. But this material came to the disciples' attention – it got in the Bible somehow – and so became for them (and for us) penetrating instruction of what the third petition is all about. Jesus in His anguish understood that He lived not for Himself, understood in His anguish that He was here for God, understood too that Satan would love to make Him follow His own desires. So Jesus made it His business to pray the third petition, made it His business to seek from God strength – in His particular and pressing circumstances – to deny the self and do what God wanted Him to do. He prayed, and so laid before us how He would have us to work with His instruction about prayer.
As we pray in this manner, as we seek God's will for us in our specific circumstances, shall our prayers be answered? God's promise is clear: Yes, your prayers shall be answered! Think again of Jesus' words in Luke 11. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus taught them the Lord's Prayer, and then Jesus added these words:
ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you (vs. 9).
That's comprehensive: whatever you ask will be given. But: it's a promise given in the context of the instruction of the Lord's Prayer. In other words: ask according to the instruction of the Lord's Prayer, and it will be given. So: ask for what God's will might be for you in your specific circumstances and God will show you. Ask with the motif of the first petition in mind, that God's name be hallowed. Ask with the motif of second petition in mind, that life is war and God must win. Ask with the motif of the third petition in mind, that you do His will in your situation. And God will answer! That's the promise! Is He not Father for Jesus' sake?! Does He not love you, care for you; is He not deeply interested in you?? Seek then His face in your specific circumstances, ask Him what it is that He wishes you to do, and you may be sure: He will show you His way. That's the promise.
That leaves a challenge for all who would pray the third petition. That challenge is this: you cannot pray the third petition and at the same time keep your Bibles closed. God's will for us is revealed to us not by means of a voice in the ear or in the heart, it's not revealed by means of intuition or gut-feelings. God's will for us today is revealed in His Word. As Paul put it:
All Scripture is., profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16 f
And David: Your Word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.Psalm 119:105
As we pray for understanding and strength to do God's will in our circumstances, we shall need to make it our business to be thoroughly familiar with the Word God gave.