“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). This first line of the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most familiar in the Bible. It is one of the most commonly prayed prayers in history. Yet among believers it is often underappreciated and misunderstood.
After years of familiarity with this prayer I realized that I wasn’t quite sure what I was saying. I began to wonder if I was doing what Jesus had just warned about: heaping up “empty phrases” in prayer (v. 7). What are we actually praying here? What does Jesus hold so highly as to instruct us to make it our first prayer?
Clarifying Our Understanding
Clarity came in three steps. The first step is answering this question: Is this a statement of praise, or is it a request? For years I thought it was a statement of adoration and praise. I thought “hallowed be your name” was equivalent to “you are holy and worthy.” But notice: it's not, “hallowed is your name,” but “hallowed be your name.” This is a request. It’s asking God to do something. The Lord’s Prayer is a series of petitions, and this is the first one. Jesus is telling us to pray, “May your name be hallowed.”
But what exactly are we asking God to do? Step two is considering what “hallowed” means. It is to honor something as holy (literally, to sanctify). It is to set something apart and acknowledge its uniqueness. When we hallow something, we honor it as uncommon, special, and superior.
Last step: What are we requesting be honored? God's name. Throughout the Scriptures, God’s “name” is another way of referring to himself. God’s name represents who he is.
Here, then, is what Jesus asks us to pray: “Our Father in heaven, please cause yourself to be honored.” In other words, “Would you cause yourself to be regarded as holy? Would you let people see you for who you are so that they no longer disregard you? Would you bring about an ever-increasing esteem of your great name among the nations? Would you show your great character so that people everywhere might know you and overflow with thankful hearts for all that you are and do?”
Filling Out the Backstory
The dishonoring of God’s name was a central problem with Israel in the Old Testament. In response to their continual rebellion, God sent them into exile. But once Israel was outside the land and scattered among the nations, a new problem arose. Since Israel was identified with God, their disobedience drug his name through the dirt. Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God announced the fundamental problem: “They profaned my holy name” (Ezek. 36:20). But, he added, “I had concern for my holy name” (v. 21). He promised to act “not for your sake,” to be clear, “but for the sake of my holy name” (v. 22). “I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them” (v. 23).
What, specifically, would he do? He promised to bring the blessings of a new covenant. The great promise is that God will cause his name to be honored through his people, and that he will do it by forgiving sins, replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and giving his Spirit to cause them to—finally—walk in obedience (v. 25-28). In theological terms, this is a promise to bring about justification, regeneration, and sanctification through the work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Through a new covenant, God would create a people who hallow his name in the world.
Jesus came to inaugurate these blessings. They have been poured out on his people as a result of his outpoured blood. As a result of his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is creating a new people for the glory of God. Jesus came to create a people who hold God’s name with holy regard.
Joining the Prayer
With this first request of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to make this our preeminent prayer. What, then, does it look like to integrate this prayer into our lives? Here are three ways.
First, we should pray out of deep awareness that God’s name is honored far too little. To pray for God’s name to be honored is to acknowledge that it isn’t. This will only become our prayer when we settle it deep within that not only should God’s name be honored, but that it often isn’t. We will only pray this when, after surveying the needs around us, we are provoked within at how little God is valued. We always ask for that which we most desire. That this should be our first request implies that it should be our first priority. If this is our great concern, it will become our constant request.
Second, we should pray with God’s glory as our highest aim. The honor and esteem of God’s name is to be the great and ultimate goal of all our praying. To pray for God’s name to be honored is to pray like the apostle Paul, who regularly oriented his requests toward the glory of God (Rom 16:27; Eph. 3:20-21; Phil. 1:11; 2 Thes. 1:11-12). The aim of our prayers is not ultimately to be our immediate material and physical comfort but, rather, that God would be held in ever-increasing esteem by an ever-increasing multitude.
Third, we should offer requests shaped by this great aim. If the deeper and broader honoring of God’s name is our great desire, then we should pray for things that would result in this end. The backstory of God’s promises in Ezekiel help us greatly at this point; promises of forgiven sins, transformed hearts, and empowered obedience. As more and more people experience these blessings, they will increasingly honor God with their hearts and actions. This request, then, gives an alternative to many of our superficial and self-centered prayers. In their place, we are to pray for these kinds of gospel blessings to spread more deeply and broadly in the world.
This first request of the Lord’s Prayer directs our desires, shapes our tone, and realigns our requests. And it shapes not only our personal prayers, but also prayers in our families, small groups, meetings, and other church gatherings. For the honor of God’s name, then, let us pray for the honor of his name.