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MATTHEW, vi. 9.—“Our Father which art in heaven.”

THE Lord’s Prayer touches all hearts by its simplicity and comprehensiveness. Its familiar words come home to us with a living meaning in comparison with which all other words of prayer are cold. The more we use them, the more we feel what true, healthy, happy words of prayer they are—how deeply they reach all our spiritual necessities, and carry them forth in one harmonious utterance to the throne of grace. The prayer is also one of more manifold and hallowed associations than any other. It is the catholic prayer of Christendom—the few heaven-taught syllables which unite the hearts of the faithful everywhere, and amidst divisions of opinion and diversities of service, in parish church and cathedral choir, 28draw the hearts of God’s children together, and inspire them with a common feeling of brotherhood as they say, “Our Father.” It is the dearly-remembered prayer of childhood, when the mind as yet only vaguely understands what the heart with its deeper instinct owns; when the human realities of father and mother interpret the solemn language, and make its awe pass into sweetness. And in after-years, when we may have learned many forms of prayer, and sought a varied expression for the varied wants of life, the old beautiful words come back to us, as far more full of meaning—more adequate in their very simplicity—than all we have otherwise learned; and we realise the truth so near to the centre of all religion, that the child’s heart is the highest offering we can offer unto God—holy and acceptable in His sight.

The opening words of the prayer—“Our Father which art in heaven”—form the keynote from which all the rest starts, and to which they lead up. Let us try in a simple, unsystematic way to find the meaning of the words. This meaning in a certain sense is not far to seek.

The words of the text unfold three aspects of truth.

I. Fatherhood.


II. Common Fatherhood.

III. Perfect Fatherhood.

The idea of Father is the generic idea of the text. We are taught to pray to God as our Father. “After this manner ye shall pray,” our Lord taught His disciples. He had been speaking of the hypocritical prayers of the Pharisees in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets; and of the “vain repetitions” of the heathen, thinking “they shall be heard for their much speaking.” He unfolds a higher conception of prayer as a living communion of spirit with spirit, of children with a Father. There was nothing absolutely new in this conception of Divine Fatherhood. No novelty is claimed for the conception. Even the heathen had spoken of the supreme Deity as “the Father of gods and men.” The idea of Fatherhood is supposed by some to be an essential part of the primitive Aryan conception of God. And in the prophetical writings of the Old Testament, the idea frequently appears. “Doubtless,” says Isaiah,1414   Chap. lxiii. 16. “Thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not. Thou, Lord, art our Father.” “Have we not all one Father?” is almost the closing utterance of Jewish prophecy.1515   Malachi, ii. 10. 30The idea of Divine Fatherhood, therefore, could not have presented any novelty; the very language used by our Lord may not have been heard for the first time. “Our Father which art in heaven,” may have been customary words of prayer to the Jews. We may have in them an utterance of religious thought common to the Jewish schools of the period. Some have pleased themselves with this idea. Some have even imagined that the Lord’s Prayer in its several details was a familiar Jewish prayer. Nor would it matter if it were. For here, as with other parts of our Lord’s teaching, it is not absolute novelty that is claimed for it. It is not that the same things or similar things were never said before by any teacher. But it is that no one has ever said them, as He did, “with authority.” No one ever transfigured them, as He did, with living light for the souls of men, or gave them such a creative transforming power over the wills of men. This is the Divine originality of our Lord, that He illuminated all truth, traditionary or otherwise, concerning our relations to the Divine, and imparted to it a force and life of meaning that it never had before. The idea of Divine Fatherhood, for example, became animated 31in all His speech and in all His acts into a spiritual principle, such as neither Gentile nor Jew had before felt it to be. In Christ, God was seen not merely to be the creative Source of the human race, “who hath made us, and not we ourselves;” He was not merely a Divine Power or Ruler; the Divine Personality—creative and authoritative—was not only brought forth in Him into a clearer and happier light: but more than this—it was made plain that God loves men, and cares for them with a genuine, moral affection. As a wise and good man regards his children—and in a far higher degree—God regards us. He not merely made us and rules us, but He truly loves us; and all His actions towards us—all His dealings with us—spring from love. Love is the essence of the Divine Fatherhood in Christ. It sums up all its other meanings. We may love wrongly: a human father may allow his affection to outrun his justice in dealing with his children. There is no security for the balance of moral qualities in us. But in God as revealed in Christ there is a perfect consistency of all moral attributes, and love is the expression of this consistency. As St John says, “God is love.”1616   1 John, iv. 8. The revelation of 32the Divine love in Christ is in a true sense the revelation of all else. All other truth can be conceived from this point of view. All leads back to this source.

And this it was which men had hitherto failed to see. They had been unable with a clear vision to reach this Source, and to perceive how all Divine action springs out of it. They had never before got to the true point, from which, and from which alone, all the other characteristics of the Divine fall into order. It had been from the beginning of the world, and even continues to be, one of the hardest things for men to believe that God really loves them. They lacked then, and they often lack still, faith to look beyond the appearances of nature and the issues of life—frequently so full of evil—to a Light in which there is no darkness, and to a Love of which there is no doubt. The fowls of the air and the lilies of the field of which our Lord speaks in this chapter might have taught them better, if they had been able to see all the Divine meaning in them. But, after all, evil lay near to many poor human creatures as a bitter burden too heavy to be borne; and the lilies of the field were far away, and the birds of the air sang not for them in the branches. The lack of faith to 33look beyond the darkness and evil of the world, and to read the Divine meaning of good in all nature and providence is, after all, for many men, perhaps for most men, something rather to be deplored than to be wondered at.

But this Divine truth has been brought near to us all in Christ. In Him the great Source of all being is perfectly good. He has a Father’s heart. He loves all creatures He has made. “This is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all”1717   1 John, i. 5. “He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love”1818   Ibid. iv. 8. It is only in Christ that the character of God thus appears in perfect light and love, casting out all darkness and fear, shining with the lustre of a perfect spiritual harmony. There is a supreme Will above us. God is our Creator, our Ruler, our Judge. But primarily and essentially God is our Father in Christ. All His purposes with us—all His rule over us—all His judgment upon us,—goes forth out of His love, and because He desires our good. He afflicts not willingly. If He punishes, it is because He loves. This is the essential revelation of God in Christ—the central idea of 34he Divine from which all other ideas go forth. They are, if not subordinate to this—for subordination is not a proper aspect under which to regard the Divine attributes in relation to one another—yet executive of this, which is the supreme, essential, Divine fact revealed in Christ. And it requires only a slight knowledge of Heathenism and Judaism to know that neither Gentile nor Jew fully understood this fact before “the Dayspring from on high visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” When the humble Christian looks up to God, and says, “Father,” with some real insight and feeling, such as Christ Himself had of what He says, he has a vision of the Divine beyond all other visions. He sees God, if not “face to face,” yet heart to heart. The spirit of bondage—the sense of fear—dies out of him; the Spirit of adoption takes hold of him, and all his being goes forth in the cry, “Abba, Father.”

II. But God is not only a Father in Christ; He is our Father—the Father, that is to say, not of any class or sect or nation of men, but the Father of all: “He hath made of one blood 35all nations of men.”1919   Acts, xvii. 26. Not only so, but He exercises the same paternal relation to all who will only claim Him as a Father, and address Him in the language of our text, “Our Father which art in heaven.” This is the simple, undiluted meaning of the text, and we must not let ourselves be robbed of its blessing and comfort by any theological glosses whatever. The relation of Divine Fatherhood in Christ is universal, and may be claimed by all who will honestly accept the position of Christ, and use His language. This is the simple solution; and there is no other solution of all the difficulties in which the subject has been involved.

This community of Fatherhood in the Divine was for the first time made manifest in Christ, and realised in Him towards all men. In no respect, perhaps, does the religion of the Gospels more brightly vindicate its divine Original. All distinctions of humanity, diversities of race, of colour, of culture, disappear in Christ. In Him there is neither Greek nor Jew, barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free. Brāhman and Sūdra, priest and beggar, master and slave, are all alike before God. The Supreme stands in the same relation to all. Jewish jealousy, Greek or Roman 36aristocracy, Egyptian or Indian caste, vanish before Him. There is no individual, no class of individuals, no family or race or sect, no tribe or nation—white, brown, or black—can claim any special relation to Him. All are the same in His sight—all may claim equal access to Him. This is now a mere commonplace of Christianity. But when it was for the first time fully disclosed in Christ, it was intolerable alike to Jew or Gentile. It required a special revelation to make it known to the Apostle St Peter; it was but faintly apprehended by the early Jewish Churches planted by St James and St Peter; it needed the great Apostle of the Gentiles to hold it steadily before the conscience, to fix it as a living germ of thought in the intelligence of mankind.

Not only so; but the Christian Church has been continually liable to fall below this great idea, and to let it become obscured. The equal community of all in the Divine is a truth which few Christian communities hold with consistency, or carry out to its clear consequences. There are widespread notions in all our Churches which could not last a day if this truth were thoroughly apprehended and applied. And the cause of the misapprehension is not merely the pride of some—that love of exclusiveness so natural to the human heart, or desire of power so dear to it, 37which all organisations, ecclesiastical as well as civil, naturally breed; but it is also the servility of others. It is not only the Pharisee thinking himself nearer to God, and giving thanks that he is not as other men; but it is the publican overdoing his humility, and not so much as lifting his eyes to heaven, save through some one standing between him and heaven. Just as men have difficulty in believing at all in the Divine love, or that they have a Father in heaven who has no thoughts towards them but thoughts of good; so they have difficulty in believing that their share is as direct and immediate as that of any other in this love—in saying with all their hearts, “Our Father.” They have difficulty in recognising that they are as near to God, and as dear to God, as any priest is or can be; that they are as close to Divine blessing, and have an equal share in it with any minister. They shrink from the fulness of Divine privilege which they have in Christ. They are content to stand afar off, if only some transmitted ray of the heavenly favour may reach them—some broken shower of the Divine blessing may fall on them. This spirit of religious servility lies deep in human nature; and Christian Churches have too often fostered it and used it, instead of trying to kill it, and to educate the popular religious conscience 38into a full perception of spiritual life and freedom. It is out of this servile spirit—this “spirit of bondage again to fear,” as the Apostle terms it2020   Romans, viii. 15.—and not merely from pride and a perverted love of power, that ideas of human priesthood come, and tendencies so constantly reappear towards a mediatorial religion incarnated in human forms and symbols. Continually men are sinking below the full conception of the Divine love; and as they do so, the priest comes into the foreground and offers to mediate between them and a God whom they have ceased to comprehend. Priestcraft grows as true religion dies. When men make much of priests, they cease to believe in God. This is the essential evil of ceremonial and priestly religion. It implies doubt of the equal love of God towards all men—of His equal care and concern for all—of the direct interest which all have in the Divine Fatherhood—the immediate share which all have in the Divine love.

The idea of a Priesthood is a valuable and a true idea, in so far as it represents the reality of a spiritual order, and the necessity of certain men being devoted to educate other men in the perception of this order and in duty towards it in 39so far, in short, as it shadows forth and brings home to us the infinite help that there is in God for all human creatures. In the struggles and aspirations of life, and especially of the religious life, we instinctively cling to others who seem wise and good, and able to help us in our upward way. There is a wonderful faith in the human heart, with all its waywardness—faith in a Divine guidance, which others can interpret for us better than we ourselves. This is the moral meaning of a priesthood, and it is a true meaning. The idea of such help is deeply planted in the religious soul. We would say nothing to weaken it where it is combined with intelligence and sense. But so soon as the idea of moral help becomes translated into ceremonial power or privilege, it passes into falsehood. The priest then becomes not merely the representative of a spiritual order, but the dispenser of spiritual good. By some outward act done to him he is supposed to stand nearer to God than others—he claims to stand nearer to Him, and to hold the blessings of God in his hand, to give according to his own choice and discrimination. Of all this there is not a trace in the Gospels. God is there equally near to all. He is equally the Father of all who will come to Him as children and claim His Fatherly 40affection. And, on the other hand, all men are alike before Him—Pharisee and Sadducee, priest or scribe, have in themselves no spiritual advantage or divine right. If any are disposed to say, “We are the children; others are outside of the divine circle within which we dwell,”—Christ says, in reply, that He is able to raise up children unto Abraham from the very stones of the street.2121   Matt iii. 9; John, viii. 39. He everywhere passes by external distinctions, and brings into prominent relief those essential characteristics of human nature which bring men together, and make them common or alike before God—those spiritual qualities which, in comparison with mere intellectual or social qualities, unite them on the same level. Dismissing from view all the accidents of which men make so much—distinctions of social or intellectual grade, of education or ability or culture—He fixes attention on the broad moral features in which we are all comparatively one—sinners alike needing salvation, alike capable of salvation. In His unerring sight, no one stands before another; in His unerring, comprehending love, no one receives to the default of another. He is the Father of all. “Of a truth God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he 41that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.”2222   Acts, x. 34, 35.

III. But God is not only “Our Father;” He is “Our Father which art in heaven.” This conveys to us the idea of perfect Fatherhood; and this idea is an important complement of those we have already considered. The effect of our previous exposition is to bring the Divine very near to man. God is a Father. He is our Father. The Supreme Being is represented under the nearness and dearness of a familiar human relationship. We approach Him, as children a father. We are in the presence of One who loves us, who cares for us, who desires only our good. All this is fitted, if anything can be fitted, to touch within us the instincts of spiritual affection, and awaken in our hearts that love of God which ought to be the guide of our lives. But mistake is apt to arise out of this very familiarity with the Divine which we are taught to cherish in Christ. We are apt to think of God as altogether such an one as ourselves. His heart of love so near to us, so open to us, may be supposed to be a heart like our own in its weakness as well as in its tenderness—subject 42to influence as well as open to entreaty. We may carry up, in short, the idea of human frailty, as well as of human affection, to the Supreme. And it is needless to say that this has been universally done in all human religions. An element of human passion is found clinging to every natural imagination of Deity. The Divine is pictured as subject to animal instincts and gratified by animal sacrifices. The most cruel and dreadful practices have sprung out of this picture of a Divine being as not only to be entreated of men, but propitiated by them—moved by some ceremony which they performed or some victim which they offered. You have only to realise the picture to see how irreligious it is. A God of such a nature could be no God. A being pleased with sacrifices and burnt-offerings, whose disposition towards men was affected by the slaying of a victim, and the sprinkling of its blood upon an altar, is hardly a moral being at all. The taint of weakness in its grossest form clings to such a notion of Deity. You must get quite out of the region of such notions before you attain to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ—of a Father who is at the same time “Our Father which art in heaven.” In Christ the 43Supreme is seen to be a perfect Moral Will, whose sacrifices are the reasonable services of the creatures He has made.

The essence of the Divine Fatherhood in Christ, as we have said, is love, but love which is wholly without weakness; not any mere tenderness, or pitifulness, or affectionateness, but a perfectly good Will, at once just and loving, righteous and tender, holy and gracious. It is only in our imperfect perceptions that these moral attributes are separable. Essentially in the supreme Will, they are inseparable. A love which failed in justice would be no true love, morally speaking. A tenderness which lacked righteousness would become mere good-nature, and issue in evils probably worse than the most rigorous equity. A grace which was without holiness would be no blessing. To break up or separate these moral conceptions in God is a fertile root of false religion, and, we may add, of false theology.

The invocation of the Lord’s Prayer in its full form, unspeakably tender as it is, blends inseparably all these moral conceptions. It brings God into the closest personal relation to us, and yet it raises Him infinitely above us. It reveals a love near to us, and which we can fully comprehend, and yet a love transcending while it 44embraces us. No closeness of relationship with God brings Him down to our level. He remains far above us. “Our Father,” indeed, but “Our Father which art in heaven”—the Head not merely of the lower world of visible beings in which we live, and move, and make our daily bread—but the Head as well of a higher world or order of being. The expression “which art in heaven” must mean this at least. It must mean that there is a transcending sphere in which God dwells. Such an idea of a higher world—a world of spirit, and not merely of matter—a supernatural order exceeding yet embracing the natural order, seems necessarily implied in religious thought. It is the teaching more or less of all spiritual philosophy that such a world is the true world of being—of substance and reality—of which the visible material world is only the transitory form or expression. Nature is a veil or screen hiding God in His essence from us, while revealing Him in His operations. We must pierce the veil of sense, and get behind the screen, of which our outward lives themselves are a part, before we reach the higher world, where God is the light which no man can approach unto.

This conception of a higher life than the 45present—a supernatural life in which all the elements of good that we know here shall be perfected, and all the elements of evil expelled—seems the essential foundation of religious aspiration—of all lifting of the soul towards the Divine. Apart from such a conception, prayer seems a mockery, worship a delusion. Yet we have lived to see an attempt to build religion upon a mere basis of Nature—on the denial that there is a higher world at all, and that man himself in his varied activities is the highest form of being, above which there is nothing, or nothing at least which we can ever know. Unless all the past expressions of the religious instinct are a delusion, this must be a delusion. Not in himself, but above himself—in a higher, holier, and perfect Being—has man in his best moments hitherto sought the power of religious consolation and the bond of his spiritual life. It has been the awe of such a Being which has most moved man to religious thoughtfulness, and inspired him with the dread of sin. He has never been able to sustain his higher aspirations, or to purify his inner life, by Nature. If there is nothing beyond himself to which he can lift his eyes, he will not lift them at all. The only object of religion which can at once engage his 46intelligence and affection is a Father in heaven. If we worship, we must worship a Glory that is above us. If our hearts move in prayer, they must move towards another Heart that liveth for ever, in which there is all the love, and far more than the love, that is in us, and yet in which there is none of the weakness which mingles with love in us. If we bow in adoration, we must bow before a Personal Presence—a throne at once of mercy and of judgment, of righteousness and of grace—a Will higher than our own, whither our wills, feeble and wavering, yet amidst all these fluctuations pointing beyond earth and flesh, may ascend. Such a Will it is, such a Presence, such a Heart, such an enthroned Personality, that is revealed to us in Christ: a Father, yet a Judge; a Saviour, yet a Lord; near to us, yet infinitely transcending us; “having respect unto the lowly,”2323   Psalm cxxxviii. 6. yet “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy.”2424   Isaiah, lvii. 15. Towards such a Presence and Person should we worship when we pray “after this manner”—“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name.”

In conclusion, let us bear in mind that we cannot claim God as our Father unless we are willing 47to be His sons. His will towards us changes not. His name remains for ever the same. But we cannot know His will, we cannot claim His name, if we reject His love. To them who reject His love, His will is no longer one of love, but of wrath; His name is no longer a name of endearment, but of terror. It is of the nature of the Divine Love that it should not spare the impenitent and unbelieving, the contemptuously selfish and guilty, who say in their hearts, “Who is the Lord that He should reign over us?” It belongs to the idea of Divine Fatherhood that it should cast from its embrace those who disown its solicitations; who turn away from its light and love the darkness, because their deeds are evil. The more “Our Father in heaven” loves us, the more fearful it is for us by wilful sin to reject His love—the more must we suffer if we do so. Brethren, it is the very love of God which, despised, makes the wrath of God. It is the very Fatherliness of the Divine which makes it a “consuming fire” against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men.

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