In Matthew 6:11 we don’t know with certainty the meaning of the word translated “daily.” This leads to much debate and two good interpretations: one literal and one metaphorical. Both understandings have merit. Both use good methodology. Both teach something that is taught elsewhere in Scripture, and in that sense, both of them are true. In this life, we may never be certain which one Jesus meant, but we can affirm the truths both of them teach.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) makes one main point which can be summarized in various ways: What does genuine saving faith look like? Or who will inherit eternal life? Or what characterizes the children of God?
The third section (Matthew 6:1-7:14) examines the same question from another angle: Beware of the kind of righteousness that is a show for other people.
Jesus begins this section: “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 (Mathew 6:1).” Then he gives 3 parallel examples of traditional Jewish religious practices (giving to the poor, praying and fasting). For each example, he contrasts how the hypocrites perform these practices with how those genuinely seeking God perform them. The particular point Jesus emphasizes is to avoid practicing your religion as a show for your peers and seeking their approval as your reward.
In the middle of his second example, Jesus includes a discussion of prayer which includes the Lord’s prayer.
5“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But 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. 7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread, 12and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. – Matthew 6:5-15
- Jesus criticizes the way the hypocrites and the Gentiles view prayer.
- Then he gives a counter-example, a prayer that models and embodies the right way of thinking about prayer and one that captures his main teaching.
- The Lord’s prayer is a prayer for one thing and one thing only: for God to establish His kingdom both in our hearts and in all creation.
- The first three petitions ask God to establish His holiness in all creation (Thy kingdom come).
- The second three petitions ask God to establish His holiness in us, His people.
Give us this day our daily bread, – Matthew 6:11
“Give us today our epiousion bread” (τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον).
- No one knows what the word translated “daily” means; Strong’s G1967 ἐπιούσιος (epiousios, pronounced ep-ee-oo’-see-os).
- The only 2 uses of this word in Greek literature is here in the 2 gospels.
- The etymology of this word is also uncertain.
- Absent word usage and etymology, we are left with looking at how early translators translated this word into other languages. Again, the evidence is inconclusive.
At the risk of oversimplifying the debate, broadly speaking we can organize the options into two main categories. Each category has two sub-options. Plus for each option/sub-option we must decide if Jesus is speaking literally or metaphorically.
Option 1: This word refers to time.
- Option 1a: The time is “today” leading to the translation “our daily bread”. This option quickly became tradition.
- Option 1b: The time is “tomorrow”, leading to a translation of “bread for the coming day.”
- Both options can be literal or metaphorical.
Option 2: This word refers to a necessary amount.
- Option 2a: The amount is “subsistence” or just the amount we need to sustain our lives.
- Option 2b: The amount is “greater than subsistence”, perhaps even abundance.
- Both options can be literal or metaphorical.
This debate can be complicated and nuanced. I am generalizing and simplifying into like-categories.
- Every translator, scholar, author and teacher has various linguistic, theological and technical arguments to support whatever conclusion they reach.
- Every teacher, scholar and translator minimizes the evidence that does not support his/her view and highlights the evidence that does support his/her view.
- I am no different.
- We do not have much evidence to go on. We have to make our best guess.
- However, the Bible is very clear about what we must know to be saved. We are not in a situation where it is crucial to understand every last word precisely. We are in a situation where we need to understand the main themes, and those themes are repeated, obvious and clear.
My research yielded 2 main interpretative options: one literal, one metaphorical. Both understandings have merit. Both use good methodology. Both teach something that is taught elsewhere in Scripture, and in that sense, both of them are true. In this life, we may never be certain which one Jesus meant, but we can affirm the truths both of them teach.
Literal: daily bread
- Jesus means literal bread made from flour. This is a request to give us what we need to sustain us in this life.
- Different scholars argue for different nuances within this literal understanding. For teaching purposes, I organize them all into one option with the common denominator being that they understand Jesus to be urging us to pray for the physical necessities that sustain our lives.
- If you pray this prayer in the morning, you are talking about today the upcoming 24 hours. Sustain our lives today, the day I am about to live.
- If you pray this prayer in the evening, you are talking about tomorrow the next day you are about to live.
- Scholars who take this view point back to the Exodus 16:1-36.
- God rescued the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. As they were traveling through the wilderness, they complained that they didn’t have enough to eat. God supernaturally provided food for them each day.
- Through the manna, God taught Israel to have confidence for the future, because He will provide. His people are secure, not because they have hoarded, but because God has said He will provide for them.
- This request then something like this: God, I acknowledge that you are the source of all good things both in this life and the next. My physical needs will not be met unless you graciously provide. I am trusting in you, just as Israel trusted you with the manna in the wilderness.
Metaphorical: Bread of the coming day
- I lean toward this metaphorical option because of the context [see above] and one piece of linguistic evidence.
- In the 19th century, two copies of an ancient Syriac version of the gospel were discovered. Ancient Syriac is very close to Aramaic, the original language Jesus spoke this prayer.
- A wooden translation of this verse in the ancient Syriac is “Give us today the bread that doesn’t run out.” [For a discussion of this evidence, see chapter 9 of Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.]
- Scholars who take this view point to John 6:27-51 where Jesus contrasts physical bread which sustains physical life with spiritual bread that can sustain the soul.
- This request then something like this: Please give us today the true bread, the bread that we really need that will ultimately give us eternal life in your kingdom. Make us the kind of people who have our hearts set on the bread of life. Make us the kind of people who pray thy kingdom come because that’s the desire of our hearts.
Jesus set up the Lord’s prayer by warning about 2 very common perversions of prayer. One, like the hypocritical Pharisees, uses prayer as a tool to gain the worldly approval of others rather than seeking the approval of God. The other, like the Gentiles, uses prayer as a tool to manipulate God into giving them worldly gain in this life.
I don’t think Jesus is telling us what to pray for, rather he’s teaching us the mindset we should have when we approach God in prayer. Don’t be like the Pharisees who act religious to gain worldly approval. Don’t be like the gentiles who seek to manipulate God into giving them prosperity now. Be the kind of people who want to find eternal life in the kingdom of God.
He is NOT answering the question: what are the most important things to pray for? Rather, he is answering the question: with what mindset should I approach God in prayer?
This prayer tells me that I should approach God in prayer agreeing with him that the kingdom of God is what I most need; I am a sinner who needs to be rescued from my sin; the world is broken and needs to be rescued from such corruption; His holiness is what I most need and what the world most needs.