Matthew 5—7 records one of Jesus’ many discourses—this one known as the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6 falls in the middle of this discourse as Jesus is addressing His disciples on the nature of the kingdom of heaven. In the middle of this chapter, Jesus provides a model for prayer in which He addresses “our Father which art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9, KJV).
Does this model provide a strict rule for whom to address in believers’ prayers? Comparing Jesus’ model prayer with other Scripture passages, this doesn't seem to be the case. Paul addresses Jesus (the Son) in prayer (2 Corinthians 12:8–9; 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17). Stephen addresses Jesus in his martyr’s prayer (Acts 7:59). John addresses Jesus in his conclusion of the book of Revelation (Revelation 22:20). Many other passages also point to the fact that prayer to the Son is appropriate. Even Jesus teaches it is proper to address Him in prayer (John 14:13–14). Jesus and the Holy Spirit mediate between the believer and the Father, so it stands to reason that prayer to Jesus and the Spirit are also acceptable (1 John 2:1–2; Romans 8:26).
Jesus teaches the aptness of addressing “our Father which art in heaven.” In those first two words, our Father, we have what some consider to be the essence of Christianity: that God would graciously forgive our sin, adopt us into His family, and restore His own image in us, thus allowing us to truly be His children (see John 1:12). “It is of the essence of Christian prayer that God should be addressed as a Father to whose love we appeal, not as a God whose anger we appease” (A. Carr, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: Matthew, Cambridge University Press, 1893).
Before His model prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus alludes to the Pharisees (a sect of Jewish religious leaders) who pray openly among others for the sake of their recognition and reputation (Matthew 6:1, 5). The Pharisees were guilty of being hypocrites (Matthew 6:5). The etymology of the term hypocrite points to an actor or role-player. In the case of the Pharisees, they were guilty of teaching with their words something different from their actions. They were placing the burden of the law and tradition on others while not following it themselves—part of this involved their prayer life. They prayed for the recognition of men, when they should have been praying to the Father for His recognition and interaction (Matthew 6:6).
The focus of this section of Scripture is the righteous humility of the person praying. After condemning the Pharisees for their pride and selfishness, Jesus provides a model for prayer beginning in Matthew 6:9. The Christian should not be concerned with man’s recognition regarding his prayers but focus on God’s recognition. This is the reason the model Jesus gives begins with God the Father as the one to be addressed. Jesus is not, however, giving a hard-and-fast rule that the Father is the only one to be addressed. Other passages teach that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are equally God (John 8:58; Matthew 3:16–17; Ephesians 1:3–14) and show examples of believers praying to God the Son.
The location of God in Jesus’ model prayer, namely “in heaven,” is undoubtedly an interesting study. The phrase our Father suggests that God is near to us; the next words, which art in heaven, suggest that He is far away. Both concepts are true simultaneously. Psalm 139:7–12 says that God is not only in heaven but everywhere. David claims there was no place he could go where God wasn’t because God is everywhere. The theological term for this quality of God is omnipresence.
Not only does Jesus provide us with a model for proper prayer, but He also provides the mediation (1 John 2:1–2) so that we, as people who have been forgiven, can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). Let us not neglect this incredible gift and daily approach God in prayer, petition, and thanksgiving.