Prayer can be difficult. As one theologian of the past said, “There are times in my life I’d rather die than pray.” When it comes to communion with God through prayer, we often need all the help we can get.
One way for us to find some success in our prayer life is to consider the prayers of Jesus. Instead of being made to feel guilty that we do not pray enough — which may be true — we should fix our eyes on Jesus and see if his example can help us in our understanding and enjoyment of prayer.
The prayers of Jesus offer us a window into the most precious relationship between a man on earth and God in heaven. There are many salient and important features of Christ’s prayers that are worth discussing, but I want to offer five that might help us to think a little differently about the prayers offered by the Lord of glory.
1. Praying “My Father” Was Revolutionary
In Jesus’s day, and indeed before that, Jews typically referred to God in prayer as “Yahweh,” “my Lord,” “my God,” or “God of my father.” When Jesus speaks to God in prayer as his Father (Matthew 11:25) we are seeing an address that was virtually unheard of in prayer. Whether fixed liturgical prayer or free prayer, there is no precedent for someone calling upon YHWH as his Father.
In the case of our Lord, we must note that he really had no other choice but to call God his Father because of who he is in relation to the Father, namely, the eternal Son who became flesh. That we should also be given the opportunity to call upon God as “Father” is principally due to the fact that, in union with Christ, we share in his identity and so have every right to call God our Father in heaven because we are his children on earth.
2. Jesus Frequently Prayed Alone
Mark tells us that Jesus rose “very early in the morning, while it was still dark,” and went to pray in a “desolate place” (Mark 1:35). He left Capernaum to pray alone. Here, Mark possibly likens this act to Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, where they should have fellowshipped with God. Interestingly, Jesus’s prayers in Mark’s Gospel are always solitary (Mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32–39) and in connection to either explicit or implicit opposition to his ministry.
Luke also records several instances of Christ praying, often alone:
- Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened (Luke 3:21).
- And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place (Luke 4:42).
- But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray (Luke 5:16).
- In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).
- Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18).
It may be the case that Jesus had to pray alone often because he alone understood the unique nature of his ministry and his disciples simply were not able to bear the type of communion that would take place between God (the Son) and God (the Father) in the power of God (the Spirit). In addition, there is nonetheless an important lesson as well for us: we should aim to pray where we will not be easily interrupted.
3. Jesus Knew He Would Be Rewarded
In Matthew 6:6 Jesus promises his disciples that their Father will reward them when they pray in secret. In that one chapter, the word “reward” occurs seven times, which points us to the blessings our Father gives in response to private prayer. We do not have, because we do not ask (James 4:2), and that exposes our lack of faith (Matthew 21:22). Christ asked, because he had such strong faith.
Note his requests in John 17, for example. In turn, he wants to draw us near to God in faith, believing that he exists and that he will reward those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). As we see in John’s Gospel, Jesus believed God existed, drew near to him, and also prayed for his reward: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). We must do likewise, as long as we do so biblically.
4. Jesus Found Joy in Prayer
We typically think of Jesus as a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3). This is true, but Jesus was also a man of joy. Christians must be joyful always (Philippians 4:4) and for good reasons. We should be joyful because of God’s work in the salvation of sinners. And this work also includes the role of the Spirit in the life of God’s people. Those in the Spirit necessarily respond to God’s mighty acts of redemption, and never without joy.
The joy of Jesus exists as the foundation for our own. Throughout his Gospel, Luke clearly manifests the relationship between the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit acting as the bond of love and joy between them. What are the specific reasons for Christ’s joy?
First, we must establish an important truth about the life of Christ on earth during his time of ministry when he faced many difficult challenges, culminating at the garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha. The Lord Jesus, while “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), always experienced joy. We might find this surprising until we realize a few important facts about Christian joy.
Christian joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22; see also Acts 13:52). The possession of the Spirit implies the presence of his fruit in its entirety. A child of God may claim, “Well, I possess love, but I do not have joy or self-control or patience.” But our love is joyful love. Our patience is joyful patience. The fruit (singular in Galatians 5:22) of the Spirit means we must and will be truly (though imperfectly) loving, joyful, faithful, patient, and so on.
In the case of our Lord, the man of the Spirit, he was filled with the Spirit beyond measure (John 3:34). In this manner, Christ possessed the fruit of the Spirit, including joy, fully and perfectly. Anointed with the Spirit to accomplish his mission (Luke 3:21–22; 4:1, 14, 18), Jesus was necessarily filled with the Spirit of joy. In other words, if Jesus lacked joy, he would be devoid of love, and vice versa. This explains why he could have joy even in the time of supreme suffering (Hebrews 12:2). No matter how intense his suffering was, Jesus knew there was a purpose in that suffering that would lead to his glory and ours.
Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). Indeed, “rejoiced” is not quite strong enough; rather, the idea behind the Greek word is something akin to “exulted” or “jumped for joy.” Prayer for him was joyful. This causes me a great deal of (I trust) holy envy of our Lord.
5. Jesus Prayed Because of Distress
Trials and tribulations spur us to pray. This was the case for our Lord. In the context of prayer, Jesus was “distressed and troubled.” These words are uncommon in the New Testament. Word studies fail to give us a complete understanding about what occurs here. Yet we get a glimpse into the intensity of his experience when Jesus testified, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34).
Remarkably, Jesus freely confessed his own struggles before men who had seen him “in power” (for example, raising the dead, casting out demons). The sufferings of Job, the agony of Abraham leading his son Isaac to the altar, the grief of Joseph, David’s sorrow over Absalom’s death, and the many laments of the Psalms are pointers to the ultimate agony of Jesus, the only one undeserving of any despair in his life.
Only Jesus could understand what was awaiting him, because only he perfectly knew God. In turn, Christ’s knowledge of God gave him confidence, joy, and a resolute spirit to do the Father’s will. This knowledge triggered in him the affirmation of his soul’s sorrow to the point of death. How could our Lord not have the piercing realities of Isaiah 53 racing through his mind at this point?
Christ’s life was a sort of perpetual Gethsemane, as Luke 12:50 seems to suggest: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” The flood of God’s wrath would engulf the Savior. As such, Jesus was a man of perpetual prayer because he was a man who lived with the perpetual reality of all that he would suffer for us and our salvation.