Daniel prayed, “O Lord, the great and awesome God” (Dan. 9:4). Hannah cried, “O LORD of hosts” (1 Sam. 1:11). Jehoshaphat intreated, “O LORD, God of our fathers” (2 Chr. 20:6). What was Jesus trying to emphasize in the model prayer when he taught his disciples to address God as their “Father in heaven”? (Mt. 6:9).
At first glance, “Father” impresses us with a sense of intimacy and warmth while “heaven” implies a significant distance and due reverence, testifying to God’s immanence and transcendence. Context, however, reveals a meaningful nuance.
In Matthew 6:1, Jesus warns, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” In the next six verses, preceding the Lord’s prayer, Jesus supplies two examples of practicing righteousness: (1) giving to the needy and (2) praying. Jesus urges, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:4). He continues, “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:6).
v. 1 — practice your righteousness before “your Father who is in heaven.”
v. 4 — give to the needy before “your Father who sees in secret.”
v. 6 — pray before “your Father who is in secret…your Father who sees in secret.”
“Father who is in heaven” is clearly synonymous with “Father who is in secret.”
In verses 7 and 8, Jesus expounds further on praying to the Father as one who knows our needs, and begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer in verse 9: “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven….”
However we interpret the phrase “Father in heaven,” we should take into consideration the phrase “Father in secret.” God is secret to all men in that he is unseen, but this has vastly different implications for those who know God as Father and those who ignore him by living without reference to him.
Unbelievers are not keenly aware of God’s watchful presence; they suppress the knowledge of God by their unrighteousness. But for the believer, God is secret in a different sense. By verbalizing that he is secret, we acknowledge his thorough knowledge of our self and circumstances and embrace the reality that our lives are ever lived before his watchful eyes; in a sense, we say, “you are not secret to us.”
To pray, “Our Father in heaven,” is to say, “While all men look to one another for their help, sufficiency, and praise, we acknowledge you as the God who sees, gives, and forgives all things.” It is to confess that although God is not seen (secret), he is fully acknowledged and intimately known (a secret revealed to us).
Father, help us to live as in your presence. By acknowledging your heavenly watchfulness, make us keenly sensitive of our responsibility to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your sight. While the world does not acknowledge you at all, we joyfully confess that you are very much with us, even to the ends of the earth.