This article is part of the What Did Jesus Teach? series.
Teach Us to Pray
What did Jesus teach about prayer? This question can be answered relatively easily by considering Christ’s own answer to a request raised by one of his disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray . . . ” (Luke 11:1). The Lord obliges by offering what has been famously called the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4). But the occasion of this request by one of his disciples was in fact due to their observation of Christ’s own prayer life (Luke 11:1, “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place . . . ”). This is to say, any attempt to answer what Jesus taught about prayer will certainly be anemic if we do not first understand that Jesus himself was a man of prayer and the reasons why he was so often in prayer.
In the Beginning, God . . .
God the Father took Jesus “from the womb” and “made” him trust [God] at his mother’s breasts (Ps. 22:9). In other words, God made Jesus a man of prayer from the beginning until the end of his life (Luke 23:46). Our Lord could say, as the psalmist did,
For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you” (Ps. 71:5–6).
This is possible because God establishes strength from the mouths of infants (Ps. 8:2). Jesus grew older and was “strong, filled with wisdom” because God’s favor was upon him (Luke 2:40). The habits of grace were firmly rooted in his being so that he was always about his Father’s business, being taught by him each morning (Isa. 50:4–6). The Father taught Jesus to depend upon him, especially in prayer.
Christ’s relationship to his Father teaches us much about prayer. The first recorded words of Jesus in Luke 2 speak of his allegiance to his Father when he spoke of his business in his Father’s house. The last recorded words of Jesus speak of his trust in his Father as he cries out, “‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).
Prayer is, if we look at the life of Christ, intimate dealings with our heavenly Father. Referring to God in prayer as “my Father” was virtually unheard of during Christ’s time. Jews typically referred to God in prayer as Yahweh, my Lord, my God, or God of my father. These words of Christ simply have no precedence: “At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth . . . ’” (Matt. 11:25). Whether fixed liturgical prayer or spontaneous “free prayer,” there is no analogy in Jewish literature of the time that offers us what Jesus does in his life of prayer, which was clearly an example for those who would be named by his name.
Thus, Jesus revolutionizes prayer in a way that does justice to the radical nature of his ministry. With no previous examples of faithful Jews addressing God as “Father” in prayer, the supremely faithful Jew (Jesus) refers to God as “Father” almost exclusively in his recorded prayers. There must be a very good reason for this development.
The Aramaic word abba refers to a father-child relationship. Before Christ’s time, Aramaic-speaking children would learn to refer to their parents as abba and imma. During Christ’s life, not only small children used abba, but also grown children would refer to their father as abba. Yet, to address God as abba would have been deemed disrespectful by Jews. What our Lord did was new and, as I say, revolutionary in how to approach God. If Jesus was not who he was (the only-begotten Son), we would have grounds for joining with the Jews in accusing him of blasphemy: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
Because of Jesus’s unique and therefore special relationship to the Father, it remains most appropriate to address him as Father. As the eternal Son of the Father, the intimate relationship they enjoyed manifests itself clearly in the audible prayer of Christ in Matthew 11:27, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Given the intimacy clearly revealed in the mutual knowledge Father and Son possess of one another, Jesus rightly relates to him as Father and paves the way for us to do the same.
The Bond of Prayer
As mediator, Jesus brings us to God, but he does so by pouring out his Spirit upon us so that our own prayer life is to replicate his prayer life in terms of how the Holy Spirit binds us to our Father in heaven.
Besides his unique relationship to the Father as the Son of God, Jesus also called upon him as Father due to the powerful indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not only of the Father (Matt. 10:20), but also of the Son (Gal. 4:6). The Spirit provides the bond of the Trinity and, with it, the union of love between the Father and the Son. Thus, it should come as little surprise to us that in his earthly ministry as the God-man, the Messiah manifests himself as the man of the Spirit par excellence. Indeed, Isaiah foretold this hundreds of years before the birth of Christ:
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isa. 11:2 see also Isa. 42:1; 61:1).
The Holy Spirit related to Christ as his inseparable earthly and (even now more so) heavenly companion. He was poured into Christ’s heart that Christ might naturally, frequently, and joyfully call upon God as “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). The Spirit bore witness to his spirit that he was the Son of God (cf. Rom. 8:16). The Spirit bears witness to us that we are children of God; but this is only true because the Spirit comes from the hand of Christ who enables us to share in the joy he had as the Son of God.
As mediator, Jesus brings us to God, but he does so by pouring out his Spirit upon us so that our own prayer life is to replicate his prayer life.
Given the intimacy of his relationship to the Father, Christ would have experienced the deepest agony, frustration, and unhappiness if he could not call upon him as such. It would have constituted an essential denial of “paternity.” But since no one else can claim existence as the only begotten of the Father, Christ possessed the unique joy and privilege of revealing God in this manner to those aware of his Messianic calling.
What does Jesus teach us about prayer? Jesus shows us God in prayer. But, specifically, we are confronted with a triune God who brings us to himself: we pray to our Father in the name of the Son by the power of the Spirit. Prayer that is not trinitarian is not Christian prayer. Jesus provides us not only with a marvelous example of what a life of prayer looks like, but he so intercedes on our behalf that we are enabled to follow his example of “loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7) with our own to a God who will hear us too because of our reverence and because he is our Father who is in heaven.
Mark Jones is the author of The Prayers of Jesus: Listening to and Learning from Our Savior.
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