The Lord’s Prayer: Who is in Heaven…

The Lord’s Prayer: Who is in Heaven…

Jan 24, 2017

By Pastor Phil Lawton from the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Shiloh, NJ.

Check out Phil’s blog at


We probably don’t spend as much time understanding this phrase as we should.

Heaven. If you asked most Americans they would say that heaven is up in the sky. It has puffy clouds and golden gates and angels with harps and halos. But this is not really what Jesus meant when He said that the Father is in heaven. Actually, He said that the Father is in the heavens. He used the plural. For some this might not do anything, but for others this might change the meaning.

Just like the last entry in this series, we often overlook this phrase. We think we know what Jesus meant when He said, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” But the truth is that we probably don’t spend as much time understanding this phrase as we should. We need to look at more than just the translation. The history of the use of this word is just as important as the translation.

I realize that what I just wrote might bring up a lot of questions for some of you. Does the plural really matter? Does the plural translation mean that Jesus was talking about the sky? Does that mean that there really are puffy clouds? Was this the first time this phrase was used to describe God? This last question is where we will start.

I should note that the next two sections are heavy into grammar! You can just skip over to “No Clouds, No Halos, No Harps” where I will summarize the main points.

In the Beginning

The Greek word used in Matthew 6 for heaven(s) is οὺρανοῖς (oo-ran-ois’). This is a plural form of the Greek word οὺρανός (oo-ran-os’). οὺρανός appears in the very first verse of the very first chapter of the Bible: Genesis 1:1. Isn’t the Old Testament written in Hebrew? Yes, and I will get to that, but all you really need to know is that there was an ancient translation into Greek known as the Septuagint. Why this exists is a story for another day.

What we find is that, for Matthew, this term was about the place that God lived. It was the dwelling place of God.

What is interesting about this appearance in Genesis is the way that it gets translated into English. It ends up being the opposite of the Greek. Our English translations have the plural used in Matthew (as heaven) and the singular used in Genesis (as heavens). This is not exactly surprising. The Hebrew word used (השּמיס) is plural and since most English translations are from the Hebrew and not the Greek this makes sense. However, these same translations take the plural Greek form and make it singular.

The Dwelling Place of God

If you do a word study on οὺρανός you will find a distinction in use between the singular and the plural forms. The singular forms often get translated as the heavens or sky. (The word used in both cases here is οὺρανοῦ in Greek and השּמיס in Hebrew.) The plural form does show up in the Old Testament, but many times the different plural forms are translated as heavens. However, one form in particular sticks out: οὺρανῶν (oo-ran-ohn’). This form only shows up a couple of times in the Old Testament and in every case it refers to the place where God lives.

Matthew must have picked up on this distinction. The uses of οὺρανῶν in the New Testament are almost exclusively by Matthew and in every case it is used in the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” He doesn’t stop with that. When Matthew uses οὺρανοῖς it is almost always “your Father in Heaven.” What we find is that for Matthew this term was about the place that God lived. It was the dwelling place of God.

No Clouds, No Halos, No Harps

So we know that when Matthew talked about heaven it was a reference to the place that God lived. But what does this mean? We might think that since this term developed from the word for the sky, he must be referring to what we think of today. But this really isn’t the case. Yes, the Old Testament uses heavens to refer to the sky, but that almost always is coupled with the term earth. The best way to see this is to look at Genesis 1:1.

Heaven was the best way that the Bible writers had to describe the foreign nature of God. God was not us, and so much so that His dwelling place was the sky. This enabled them to talk about God living in heaven, without falling prey to thinking that he actually lived in the sky.

Jesus is teaching us the mystery and reality of God. He is showing us that the Father is instantly relational and infinitely unknowable.

The Greeks and Romans of the New Testament, and many of the nations of the Old Testament, worshiped gods who lived in the sky. Many of our constellations were named after mythological characters. Even our planets got their names from Greek and Roman gods. Native American cultures worshiped the sun. It is not uncommon to look to the sky and see gods — but for the people of YHWH, it is merely a way to talk about God, not the exact place where God lives.

We can then declare that for Matthew the dwelling place of God was not the sky. It was not full of halos, and harps, and clouds. Rather the term heaven was used to describe the other-worldly nature of God. It was used to show just how different God is from us.

God of Mystery, God of Reality

If we look at the times Matthew uses the term Father we find that often he uses the term “Father in heaven” or “heavenly Father.” Matthew is making a distinction between our earthly fathers and our heavenly Father. What is amazing about this is the contrast that this creates. In one term we have something so familiar and something so foreign. In theological terms, we have the imminent and the transcendent. We have the concept that we understand — father — and we have the completely foreign nature of heaven.

Jesus was imminent and transcendent too. He was human like us, and He was God. He felt our pain. He suffered like us. He died like us. But He also rose. He was like us in every way and nothing like us. This is a dichotomy that we are familiar with in reference to Jesus, but here Jesus is using it in reference to the Father. The Father is at once close like our earthly Fathers and at the same time distant and worthy of praise.

The way we pray shapes our concept of God. Here Jesus is teaching us the mystery and reality of God. He is showing us that the Father is instantly relational and infinitely unknowable. These first two phrases of the Lord’s Prayer gives us that distinction. We should look to God as a perfect Father, but we should never forget His holiness — a concept we will look at next time.

May you look to the sky and see the wonders of God.

May you feel the love of a perfect Father.

May you know that heaven is the dwelling place of God and nothing else.

And may God lavish His love on you.


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