I’ll never forget the question, even though it has been 20 years since I was asked it. I had just settled into the easy chair in the living room of a pastor friend. I was there to talk with him about his church supporting our new venture, Harvest Prayer Ministries. Before I could begin my appeal, he startled me by asking: “So you’re starting a prayer ministry. What is your personal prayer life like?”
It was a valid question. If you are going to teach on prayer, you had better be praying!
That’s why it is so encouraging to look at the prayer life of Jesus. He didn’t just talk about it. He prayed. Prayer was woven into both his action and teaching. If we are going to dig deep and truly understand prayer, we need to examine Jesus’ prayer life and all he taught on the subject.
Jesus Gets It
Jesus has a unique perspective on prayer. He is the only one who gets prayer from both sides. Not only does he pray to his Father, he is also the God who is prayed to. He both offers prayers and hears prayers. He certainly has something to say to us about this subject.
Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows us Jesus made prayer a priority. Consider these occurrences:
• Matthew 4:1–11: Jesus prayed during 40 days of fasting in the desert.
• Mark 1:35: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”
• Luke 5:16: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
• Luke 6:12, 13: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.”
• Mark 6:46: “After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.”
• Luke 9:28: “About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.”
• Luke 10:21, 22: Jesus prayed after the 72 disciples returned from ministering in surrounding towns.
• Matthew 11:25–27: Jesus gave praise to the Father.
• Matthew 14:23: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.”
• John 17: The entire chapter is Jesus’ lengthiest recorded prayer.
• Luke 22:41-44: Jesus prayed in Gethsemane before his death.
• Luke 23:34: Jesus prayed from the cross.
It is important to consider why Jesus prayed. I often hear people say Jesus prayed as an example for us. While he is certainly a good example of a praying man, his prayer life goes way beyond that. If he prayed merely as an example, he would not have made so many attempts to withdraw from others and pray in secret.
No, Jesus prayed not just as a model, but because he had to pray.
Just Ask Me
Psalm 2:7, 8 gives us insight into the “why” of the prayer life of Jesus. In this amazing passage, we are privileged to hear a conversation between the Father and the Son. “He [the Father] said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.’”
The Father promises to give the Son planet earth for his willingness to take on human flesh and fulfill the plan of redemption. But, because Jesus is also fully human, he is under the constraints of God’s plan for giving us those things that we specifically request. “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). Even Jesus had to ask in order to receive.
Prayer was an essential part of Jesus’ ministry, which makes perfect sense. The Father and Son’s plan was to get things done on this planet through prayer. Jesus often withdrew to quiet places to be alone with his Father and to understand what he must do. Jesus said of himself, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (John 5:19).
Teach Us to Pray
Jesus’ personal prayer life was so central to his ministry that it led his disciples to ask him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). It is fascinating to note Scripture does not record the disciples asking Jesus to teach them anything other than prayer. They watched the amazing life and ministry of Jesus and correctly made the connection to his prayer life. If they were to follow Jesus, they needed to learn to pray like Jesus.
So much has been written about what we often call “the Lord’s Prayer” (Luke 11:2-4) that I hesitate to add anything. I will simply suggest that this model prayer is God-centered and kingdom-focused. Although Jesus certainly gives us permission in it to pray about personal matters, such as daily bread and dealing with temptation, he also teaches us to focus on his Father’s agenda in prayer.
As I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I find that after I have worshipped the Holy One and have poured myself into praying for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven, any bit of energy or time I have left is then given to personal issues of prayer. But my prayers focus primarily on the greater things of the kingdom, as Jesus taught us.
Some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings on prayer are found in John 14–16. Though it isn’t possible, it almost sounds as though Jesus overpromises when he teaches these prayer principles:
• John 14:13: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
• John 14:14: “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
• John 15:7: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
• John 15:16: “Whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”
• John 16:23: “Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”
• John 16:24: “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”
There is a tendency to believe Jesus was talking symbolically or philosophically. But what if Jesus meant exactly what he said? Did he really intend to say, “Ask me for anything in my name and I will do it”?
If all true prayer is initiated by God and is all about accomplishing his agenda on earth, then these promises suddenly seem very practical and doable. It doesn’t seem like overpromising at all!
Ultimately, these promises have more to do with relationship than our desire to receive something in prayer. In this same section of Scripture (John 15:1-8), Jesus teaches us he is the vine and we are the branches. We are not separate, but connected. The only thing that flows through the branches is whatever originates in the vine. When we remain in him, then the things that are in him—those things he desires—become possible for us when we ask.
It’s true for us as it was for Jesus in his fleshly form. He said he only did those things he saw his Father doing. He spoke only those things he heard from the Father. Prayer for us becomes that connectedness through the Spirit with the Father and the Son, so that what they desire might be accomplished on earth through the praying Christian. This is what it means to pray “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Jesus Gets Ticked Off
Prayer was such a part of Jesus that we should not be surprised at how upset he became during the cleansing of the temple. The Father had declared that his house was to be a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). Jesus recognized his people were failing to live up to the name and intent of the Father’s house.
It is important to recognize the supernatural significance of Jesus’ reaction to the lack of prayer in the temple—it’s a huge clue that something powerful is going on. Jesus’ godly anger could be his only response to something so totally counter to his and the Father’s plan.
Mark’s account of the temple’s cleansing opens the door to a deeper understanding of this. Mark 11:11 states, “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”
The next day, Jesus came back with purpose, cleansing the temple of the merchants who were defiling the place of prayer. Could it be he and the Father had a long talk that night about what was happening in their house? Rather than a spur-of-the-moment flare-up, I believe it was a carefully considered move that came about at the direction of the Father.
There is a reason the cleansing of the temple is recorded by all four Gospel writers. The temple was intended as a picture of how God had chosen to do his work in this world: it was to be through the prayers of his people. When the place of prayer is perverted into something different, it arouses the righteous anger of God.
Scripture makes clear that Christians, both individually and as the church, are called to be a new temple, God’s house. And God’s house is still called to be a house of prayer for all nations. We have to wonder, if the Lord walked through our house as he did the temple, would he find we are a house of prayer, or would he characterize us more as a “den of thieves”?
Our Role and Partnership
God has invested something of great significance in prayer. It is his way of bringing about change on earth, and at the same time, bringing his children to maturity. Understanding his purpose and his ways will not only change your perspective on prayer, but also on the purpose and nature of the church.
Jesus modeled the life of prayer the Father intends for all of his children. It was prayer that focused on the kingdom and its advance in the world. Jesus also demonstrated a balanced prayer life with private prayer and public prayer blended together for maximum impact.
Twenty years ago, when my preacher friend asked me about my prayer life, I satisfied his curiosity by telling him about my spiritual disciplines and prayer practices at the time. What I would say today is, “I’m trying to pray like Jesus.” I want to model prayer and teach prayer. Ultimately, I want all my prayers to sound like Jesus, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
This essay first appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Prayer Connect magazine.
David Butts serves as president of Harvest Prayer Ministries in Terre Haute, Indiana. He also serves as chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee and is the 2014 president of the International Conference On Missions.