READ : Luke 11:1
Jesus teaches his followers to pray, by his example, by the practice and pattern of his prayers, by the words that he spoke, by the attitudes that breathe in all of his prayers and then by his indwelling Spirit.
I’m grateful to be back again, talking about following Jesus in prayer. Do you remember how the disciples came to Jesus while he had been praying and when he finished, one of them asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” What were they asking there? They were saying, “Just as John taught his disciples a way of praying that was appropriate for them, Jesus, teach us how to pray as your disciples.” And, I think, they really meant “like you.”
They, of course, had prayed. They grew up in pious Jewish homes. It was customary to pray three times a day, in the morning, in the evening, and at the time of the afternoon sacrifice. Their prayers may have been often brief and stylized, but they knew what it was to pray. But they sensed in Jesus’ praying something far beyond their depth. They saw the time and the heart he gave to it. They saw the central place it had in his life and they began to realize that it was the key to the poise and power that characterized his whole life and ministry. They wanted to follow Jesus in prayer and so do we.
I feel more and more all the time that the title I like best for myself is “follower of Jesus.” I love the name “Christian,” of course. I’ve been called that all my life, but in some settings it doesn’t say all that we want to say. Sometimes it can sound like a status: “I am a Christian,” whereas to say, “I am seeking to follow Jesus” describes a process and a journey. We haven’t arrived yet! We’re on the way. I like that. And if we’re going to follow Jesus at all, it seems to me that we need to follow him in prayer, because that was so central in his life.
Today I want to talk about Jesus’ practice of prayer. I want to talk about his communion with the Father and the effects that it had, about the things that characterized his praying and what the disciples learned from them. And I’m praying that we as disciples will begin to learn those things too.
JESUS’ PRACTICE OF PRAYER
Jesus prayed at major milestones in his life: at the time of his baptism in the waters of the Jordan. As the Spirit was about to descend upon him in bodily form like a dove, Jesus was praying (Luke 3:21).
On the night before he chose his twelve disciples, before he made that momentous choice on which so much would depend, we read that Jesus spent the whole night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12-13).
Before Peter’s great confession, Jesus had prayed. Remember how Jesus asked the disciples first, “Who do others say that I am?” and they gave him their answers? Then he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter made his great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Luke 9:18 ff.). Just before that, Luke tells us, Jesus had been praying, as though to ask, “Father, open their eyes.” Later he said to Simon Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed it to you but my Father who is in heaven.”
And think of the transfiguration, another major moment in Jesus’ life. We learn from Luke that he went up on the mountain to pray, and it was while he was praying that the glory of God came shining, streaming through his countenance, and even his clothing. (Luke 9:28-29) So that at these major milestones in his life, Jesus enters them by prayer and prays in the midst of them. Again, just before this request of the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,” (Luke 11:1) he had been praying, as though asking the Father to create a hunger in them to learn how to pray. He seemed more intent on their learning to pray than on almost anything else that he taught them.
But it’s not only at key moments in his life that he prayed, but as a habitual practice. We read about him in Mark 1:35 that in the morning a great while before day he went out to a solitary place and prayed. That seems to have happened more than once. We read in Luke 5:15-16 about many occasions in which he would be ministering to the crowds, teaching, healing, delivering, blessing people, and then suddenly he would leave and go off to a solitary place and pray. Then he would come back and resume his ministry, pouring himself out in loving labor for people, and then once more retire for prayer.
We begin to see it was a pattern in his life, a rhythm of worship and work, of prayer and ministry. That’s how he lived his life. And we ask ourselves (as sometimes people ask me when I talk about prayer), “Why did Jesus need to do all this praying? If he was the Son of God, why all this prayer? Well, he was indeed the Son of God, but he was a genuine human being and he lived his life as it is meant to be lived. He becomes a pattern for us of how to live a life of dependence on God, of fellowship with God, of fulfilling God’s purpose. Jesus lived it in prayer.
HIS COMMUNION WITH THE FATHER
What went on in these prayer times? I’ve been struck recently by these words from John’s Gospel: “I have not spoken on my own, that is, from myself. My teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (John 12:49-50; 7:16). As I reflect on that, this awareness comes. Jesus is not saying that he knew beforehand in eternity everything he was going to say, but that day by day as he moved along in his life he listened to God, in fellowship with him, and then spoke the words God gave him to speak. Again he says, “The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). In his prayer times, he listens to what God is saying and watches what God is doing. Then his life of teaching and of ministry grows out of this communion with God (John 5:30). That’s how he spent his days, listening and watching, then speaking and doing. Prayer for him was the ever-renewed experience of communion with the Father in which the outlines of his ministry became clear:
- just what God was leading him to do,
- just what he was giving him to speak.
Everything else flowed from that.
HOW JESUS PRAYED
Now think about the attitudes that Jesus showed in his praying. He prayed with great love. That night before the choice of the disciples, surely much of the night was spent in praying for these twelve and bringing them before the Father, asking that they would be shaped, prepared and empowered for the ministry that awaited them.
Then we get a glimpse toward the end of his ministry of how he prayed for each one individually. When Peter was about to stumble and fall badly, Jesus says to him, “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to have you that he might sift you like wheat but I’ve prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32). It seems to be what he was doing all the time, for these his disciples and friends, praying for them that their faith would not fail. And when they did stumble, when they did collapse, he prayed that they would be restored and would strengthen one another.
In his great high priestly prayer he prays again for those whom the Father has given him out of the world, and not only for them but also for us, for all who would believe in him through the word of the apostles. His prayers went down the generations in loving concern for us who would follow them in faith.
Jesus on the cross actually prays for his tormentors, for his mockers, for his murderers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” So his prayers are always characterized by this amazing compassion and love.
He prays also, we see, with total surrender to the will of God. At the darkest moment of his life, as he confronts the reality of forsakenness that awaits him, he prays, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” This was the honest expression of the desire of his heart. But then the deeper concern follows: “Nevertheless, not what I will but what you will.” That’s how Jesus lived every day. He was always submitting himself to the Father’s will in his prayers as well as in all the rest of his life.
We see him also praying with a steady and remarkable trust. Remember at the grave of Lazarus before the marvelous miracle took place, how Jesus said, “I know, Father, that you’ve heard me. I know that you always hear me.” And that was the pattern of his life, always confident in the Father’s hearing of his prayers. Then in the last words that he ever speaks, before his death, we hear: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Here is trust in all the circumstances of life and even in his last moments on earth. He surrenders, he entrusts his life into the hands of God.
WHAT THE DISCIPLES LEARNED
And as we read through the book of Acts, we see how the disciples learned from Jesus. They learned first from his practice. They began to pray more than they ever had in their lives. Acts 1:14, “They gathered together in this upper room and they continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.” They’re learning from his practice to make prayer central and dominant.
They learned from his love. You read the letters in the New Testament and people like Paul speaking about how they long over their fellow believers, pray for them and they thank God for them. Their wellbeing means everything to these apostles because they pray for them with love. (Luke 6:12; 22:31-32; John 17:6-11, 20; Luke 23:34). And think of Stephen when he is being stoned to death, praying as Jesus did for his murderers, “Lord, don’t lay this sin to their charge.” They picked up the love of his prayers and began to express it in their own.
And the surrender. Here’s Paul knowing that trouble and affliction and imprisonment and maybe worse await him in Jerusalem, and yet he’s determined to go that way. When people try to dissuade him he says, “What do you mean, weeping and breaking my heart, I’m ready not only to be bound in Jerusalem but even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And so his friends say, “The will of the Lord be done.” That’s carrying over into their prayers. That’s surrender to God’s will.
They learned also that utter trust. This same Stephen who dies as the first martyr looks up to heaven and says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Thus Jesus teaches his followers to pray by his example, by the practice and pattern of his prayers, by the words that he spoke, by the attitudes that breathed in all of his prayers and then by his indwelling Spirit. That’s what made a huge difference in the lives of these disciples. They learned to pray after Jesus had conquered death and was giving his Spirit to his church. From that point on they become people who follow Jesus in their prayers, in the place they give to prayer, in the heart they show in prayer, and in the way it’s central to their whole lives.
Lord, teach us to pray that way, just as the disciples learned from him how to pray. As the Spirit came then and they turned the world upside down, so may we. Let it be so. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.