Our familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13) might give us the impression that it is rudimentary. It is not. Right at the outset we are confronted with a challenge. The first petition is not quite what we might think. There is depth and complexity to the first petition that we might miss.
122. What is the first petition?
“Hallowed be Your name,” that is: Grant us first, rightly to know you, and to hallow, magnify and praise you in all Your works, in which Your power, goodness, justice, mercy and truth shine forth; and further, that we so order our whole life, our thoughts, words, and deeds, that your name may not be blasphemed but honored and praised on our account (Heidelberg Catechism).
The first challenge is the grammar and how to get it into English. It will useful to our prayers to know a little grammar. The Greek verb used in Matthew and in Luke 11:2 (ἁγιάζω) is in the passive voice and the imperative mood. “Joey threw the ball” is in the active voice. Joey is acting upon the ball. “Joey was hit by the ball” is in the passive voice. Joey is being acted upon by the ball. The gospel writers use the verb “to sanctify” in the passive voice to signal that something is being acted upon by someone else. In this case the subject of the action is the name of the Lord. More about that in a moment. The verb is in the imperative mood. We use the indicative mood to signal a narrative. “Joey threw the ball” is in the indicative mood. Were Joey at second base and should there be a play at home, the catcher might say, “Joey, throw the ball!” That is the imperative voice. The catcher is urging Joey to do something. The verb “to sanctify” is in the imperative. It is an urgent request. When we pray, “holy be your name” or “hallowed be thy name” as in the Authorized Version (1611), we are making an urgent request that something be done. We are not wishing that something, which is not presently so, might be. There is another mood or two for that (the subjunctive or the optative). We are urging him who has the power to make so.
The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer is that God himself, who is holy, who is morally pure and righteous, should act so that his name should come to be regarded as holy. The antithesis of holiness is corruption. We know when something is clean and good and as it ought to be. A white shirt with a ketchup stain is not right. It is not clean. It needs to be washed and probably bleached. To sanctify is to set apart, to acknowledge as pure, as distinct, as right. Here we are urging the Lord to act so that he himself is regarded as he is, holy. Remember, in Scripture God’s name is consistently used in place of God himself. Herman Witsius says, the “name of God, however, does not strictly denote God, as he exists in himself, but as he reveals and makes himself known to rational creatures.”1 You can read more about the distinction between God as he is “in himself” and as he is toward us (the categorical distinction) in Recovering the Reformed Confession.
In Genesis 4 we read that people began to call upon the name of Yahweh (Gen 4:26). We are not to take “the name” of Yahweh Elohim in vain (Ex 20:7). God’s name is majestic (Ps 8:1,9). When we praise God’s name, we praise him. His name is who and what he is to us: our holy, gracious, covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.
Second, in the first petition, we begin our prayer, as Calvin said, by turning away from ourselves:
in the first three petitions we ought to lose sight of ourselves, and seek the glory of God: not that it is separated from our salvation, but that the majesty of God ought to be greatly preferred by us to every other object of solicitude. It is of unspeakable advantage to us that God reigns, and that he receives the honour which is due to him: but no man has a sufficiently earnest desire to promote the glory of God, unless (so to speak) he forgets himself, and raises his mind to seek God’s exalted greatness.2
It is not our name that is to be revered but God’s. His name is holy. It is our deepest desire to see all creation recognize our Father for who and what he is, the Holy One, the God of creation and redemption, and he who adopts his people out of sin, death, and judgment and into grace, life, and communion.
Third, though God is the one whom we are asking to act, we do have a part. Implicit in our urgent request to the Father to sanctify his name is a plea that he might also sanctify us. Our sanctification has a greater role in the setting apart of God’s name than we may realize. This is something I have begun to learn from the early Christian fathers (hence we speak of the Patristic church). They spent proportionally more time on moral theology and what we call the doctrine of sanctification. To be sure it can, at times, be wearying but the more our surrounding culture begins to mirror the pagan Greco-Roman culture in which they served Christ, the more I am able to understand why they so emphasized sanctification. There was not a great lot they could do or even tried to do about the surrounding culture. With one possible third-century exception in Syria, until Constantine (early 4th century), Christians met in modified private homes. They did not have ostentatious buildings and certainly they had so social influence. Their assemblies for worship were sometimes even closely guarded secrets and all the more during times of persecution. One thing Christians could influence, however, is the way they were perceived. When the critics did actually look at them they did not find moral fault in them. Pliny the Younger wrote in the early 2nd century to the emperor Trajan that he could nothing against them. In the 3rd century various pagan critics, however much they despised the foolishness of the cross, could find moral fault in the Christians. In his defense of the Christians, Justin Martyr urged the authorities to put the Christians on trial so that they and all could see that the Christians were guilty of none of the crimes with which they had been charged in popular rumors. It would not take very long to Google the various scandals that have brought evangelical Christianity into disrepute in the last few decades. When a professing Christian husband leaves his wife to take up with his secretary, does that not reinforce the suspicion of our unbelieving neighbors that we are all just a lot of hypocrites and liars?
Ultimately, however, we pray that our heavenly Father might sanctify his name and the name of the Holy Trinity, the name of the Son, and the name of the Holy Spirit, because it is a job only he can do. We are urging him to work powerfully for his own glory first of all in us but also beyond us.
Next time: What it means to pray for the coming of the Kingdom.
1. Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Lord’s Prayer, trans. and William Pringle (Edinburgh: Thomas Clark, 1839), 188.
2. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 318.