Theology in 3D

Why Did Jesus Pray? (Part 1)

Greg Stiekes | October 31, 2019
New Testament

A study of the Gospels reveals that Jesus prayed. Often. It was his habit. In fact, the time Jesus spent in prayer and the depth of his prayers puts our own prayer lives to shame.

But why did Jesus pray? And why did he pray so much? “The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father”? [1] Surely Jesus did not pray to merely leave us an example, for most of the times we find Jesus praying he is trying to be alone (e.g., Matt 14:23; Luke 5:16). As he himself advocated, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt 6:6).

Nevertheless, in the Gospels, when Jesus prays or refers to prayer, we can discern why it was so important to him to pray. Furthermore, learning more about what motivated Jesus to pray is a wonderful way to strengthen our own habit of prayer.

Love Your Enemies

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:44–50).

Here, Jesus teaches that people in general can reciprocate love, but only those who are mature (teleios, “perfect,” full grown) children of the Father can learn to love their friends and their enemies, the just and the unjust. Moreover, Jesus’s leading idea in this text of how to express love for one’s enemies is to pray for them.

Did Jesus Pray for His Enemies?

Luke 23:34 comes immediately to mind as the ultimate example of praying for those persecuting you. Nailed to a cross, dying an agonizing death, mocked by his enemies, Jesus genuinely prayed,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [2]

By praying this way for his enemies, Jesus shows himself to be the “perfect Son of the Father.” He demonstrates profound love not only through his death itself for the entire sinful world, but even in the way he faced his death, showing grace and compassion even when he received only cruelty and hatred.

But this premier example cannot be the only time Jesus prayed for those who hated him. If we read the Gospels closely perhaps we can discern that Jesus may often have prayed for those who were against him.

We know that Jesus prayed for Peter regarding Peter’s unconscionable denial of the Lord. Jesus told Peter pointedly,

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.”

Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me” (Luke 23:31–34).

Peter did indeed deny his association with Jesus, in the early morning hours on the day Jesus was crucified. The account is recorded in all four Gospels, and in Mark and Matthew’s rendition Peter even invokes a curse upon himself and swears, “You’ve got the wrong guy! It wasn’t me! I don’t know him!” (Matt 26:69–74; Mark 14:66–72).

This is why Jesus tells Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. And when you have returned again ….” Returned from where? Returned from Satan’s sifting of his soul, that he might test Peter just as he tested Job in ancient times.

Yet, ostensibly, Satan demanded not only Peter but also Judas, and even entered into Judas, urging him forward to the evil act of betrayal (Luke 22:3). Did Jesus pray for Judas? We are not told explicitly. But we do know that Judas is included in John’s assertion that Jesus “loved his own [disciples] who were in the world … to the end,” and that, moments before Judas left to betray him, Jesus washed Judas’s feet (John 13:1–5).

We also know that Jesus prayed in the garden for those who had yet not turned to him when he said to his Father, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). Could that have included those who were about to crucify him? Or those who would be his sworn enemies before they turned to him in faith? When Jesus confronted Saul on the Damascus road he said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Could Jesus have prayed in advance for the young, rising Pharisee, Saul? Could it be that he also prayed for other religious elites, the scribes and pharisees who were always seeking to destroy him?

Again, the textual evidence is not explicit. However, we can be assured that Jesus practiced what he preached. And if he was a man of prayer who loved people, then he prayed for all people—even his enemies—that the Father would be merciful to them.

If we want our prayer life to be more like Jesus’s prayer life, then our motivation for prayer must be like his. Therefore, identify your enemies, those who hate you, those who are even determined to hurt you, or simply those who are hardened toward you because of your walk with Christ. And love them enough to pray for them. You will be praying for the same reason Jesus prayed.

Continue reading Why Did Jesus Pray? (Part 2)

[1] From the Nicene Creed.

[2] This dominical saying is disputed, since it is absent from some of the earliest manuscripts, including P75. But Luke’s way of implying parallels between Jesus and the leaders of the early church (cf. Steven’s dying words in Acts 7:60) argue for its authenticity. Moreover, there are tenable theories explaining why some scribes may have intentionally omitted the saying early on.

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