The Place of Prayer in the Life of Christ
In His Youth
As we are about to reflect together on the position of prayer in the ministry of office bearers, our first point of attention needs to focus on Jesus Christ. During his time on earth he perfectly fulfilled his task as office bearer. This perfect ministry is the power for the ministry of imperfect office bearers.
The evangelists provide us with no information about Jesus’ prayer life prior to his public ministry. Obviously this does not imply that during this period of Jesus’ life prayer had no place — on the contrary. The Gospel writers inform us that Jesus is born from Mary. The angel prevents Joseph from parting from Mary when she appears to be expecting her child from the Holy Spirit. The angel orders Joseph that he should call the child by the name of Jesus.
Jesus receives two believing Israelites as parents. In faith both accepted God’s revelation about the birth of the Redeemer.
That certainly holds true for Joseph. When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant from the Holy Spirit, he wants to divorce her quietly (Matt. 1:19). It is incorrect to regard Joseph’s intention as an act of unbelief. The opposite is true. Joseph does not doubt for a moment the faithfulness of his betrothed. Joseph knows that the child in her womb is conceived by the Holy Spirit: “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). Joseph realizes that the womb of Mary has been claimed by God to execute his plan of salvation. For that reason, Joseph is inclined to silence his love for Mary in order to give ample opportunity for God and his work of salvation. He is of the opinion that he has to take a step back, now that God is using his engaged for the salvation of the many. That is why he wants to divorce her: an act of faith. It is not without reason that we read in Matthew 1:19 that Joseph is a “just man”.
It is very likely that prayer has occupied a significant place in the life of Joseph and Mary. They will have lived according to the command of the Lord; also in connection to the set times of prayer in their daily lives. It is logical that they taught their children to pray. It belonged to the faithful nurture to teach their children about the relationship with their covenant God through prayer.
We can add to this that Jesus was without sin. During his life he lived perfectly in observance of God’s commandments. These commandments included also the duty to pray at certain set times. When as a 12-year-old boy Jesus perplexes the scribes in the temple because of his knowledge, it becomes apparent how he was busy with the things of his Father. He experienced every day the unbroken unity with his Father. Prayer is the means for people to exercise covenant communion. Seeing that prayer takes up such an important place in Jesus’ later life — during his public ministry — in his exercise of communion with his Father, it is obvious that prayer also occupied a central place in his younger life.
In His Adulthood
At the Acceptance of His Office
By prayer Christ came to the acceptance of his calling. His official public ministry begins when he is baptized by John the Baptist at the Jordan. It is there that the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the shape of a dove. The anointing with the Holy Spirit implies that God appoints his Son as Office bearer and that he also gives him the ability to do his work in this office. Luke informs us that at this occasion Jesus was praying: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22). Luke tells us that immediately following his baptism, Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven. God hears Jesus’ prayer directly, for the Holy Spirit descends. The correlation between prayer and office is clearly shown.
At Jesus’ Preaching
When Jesus has accepted his office he travels through the cities to preach the gospel. His preaching is embedded in his own prayers. In Mark 1:35 we read, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” This happens after Jesus has had a busy day. In Capernaum he preached the gospel. This preaching was underscored by the healing of the sick. Some of the people were possessed by evil spirits. In other words: Jesus had to do battle against the devil. Then afterward he finds rest by speaking to his Father. Prayer gives him new strength. For when his disciples find him he says that he wants to go to neighbouring places to bring the glad message (Mark 1:38). This happens, and again he drives out evil spirits.
We read the same in Luke 5:12-16. Jesus heals a leper, and although Jesus asks the leper not to talk about it, yet the rumours about Jesus are spreading. Then many people come to him to listen to his preaching and to let themselves be healed from their illnesses. But every time he withdraws in order to pray.
From Matthew 11:25 it appears how the preaching of Jesus results in prayer. Jesus has announced the judgment over three cities. After this he goes in prayer before God and says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children...” This does not mean that this prayer of Jesus can only be connected to the prior preaching of judgment. Before this he has preached about John the Baptist. This preaching is not only about the judgment, but it also mentions the faith of some in Jesus’ mission. This present preaching of grace and curses ends up in Jesus’ prayer. Prayer cannot be missed in the official administration of reconciliation. Jesus proclaims the gospel in the strength of prayer, and armed with this weapon he fights against Satan.
When Performing Signs and Miracles
During his life Jesus has performed many miracles. Through these he revealed himself as the Saviour. The gospel of liberation is truly liberating. The sick were healed. People who were possessed were rescued from the snare of the devil. The dead were raised.
One of those who had died and was raised to life by Jesus is his friend Lazarus. We can read about this in John 11:1-44. Jesus makes us realize that he — as man — is not able in his own strength to raise Lazarus. In John 11:41-42 we read, “And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.’” Jesus emphasizes that he prays in the certainty of being heard. That is what he also says. Here — at the grave of Lazarus — he does not suffice with a silent prayer. He allows those who are present to hear something of his communion of prayer with the Father — a communion of prayer that is not interrupted by any sinner. After the prayer follows the command for Lazarus to come out of the grave. Lazarus is raised. Prayer has been heard. With Jesus, prayer clearly has a function in the exercise of his office.
At the Appointment of the Apostles
A very significant moment in the office-ministry of Jesus is the choice and the appointment of the twelve disciples. In Luke 6:12 we read, “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.” After this night of praying and being awake he calls his disciples/apostles. From this it becomes apparent that Jesus prayerfully makes decisions that are connected to the execution of his calling. The choice of the twelve disciples has everything in common with Jesus’ ministry. Luke speaks of twelve apostles. The word “apostle” indicates that here we are dealing with people who are authorized envoys of someone. Jesus’ disciples will need to be apostles. As emissaries of Christ they will need to let the world know who Christ is. That is a responsible task. The emissaries need to represent and to proclaim the Office bearer Jesus.
Jesus arrives at such a decision which is significant with a view to the continuing official ministry in the new dispensation, only after a whole night of prayerful discourse with his Father.
Jesus had to make decisions more often that had a bearing on the future of the New Testament church. We may safely assume that he has made all these decisions in prayerful submission to his Father, even if it is not always mentioned that he was actually praying.
From this prayer of the highest Office bearer we learn that all decisions in the official ministry need to be preceded with prayer. Only then will the Lord give this his indispensable blessing.
In Days of Testing
Particularly in times of testing the Lord Jesus took hold of the weapon of prayer. When the weight of the burden of having to suffer on the cross is felt increasingly stronger he shows that he can carry this burden only in prayer. We read of such a moving prayer in John 12:27, “Father, save me from this hour.” This prayer is expressed after Jesus had spoken to his disciples about his imminent death. His death is necessary with a view to the coming harvest. There will be no missionary harvest without the death of the missionary seed.
The fact that Jesus connects his dying to the imminent work of mission becomes apparent in John 12:20. It is noted here that some Greeks want to see Jesus, likely to speak to him. Their request is passed on via Philip and Andrew to Jesus. But Jesus does not react directly to their request. Instead he speaks about his death. The coming of the Greeks is for Jesus a happy moment. Because of this it seems that Pentecost is coming already. But Jesus makes it clear to Andrew and Philip that there cannot be a Pentecost without a Good Friday first. That is why he speaks of a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying. “But if it dies it bears much fruit.” Jesus does not skip over Good Friday for the sake of some Greeks, but he is on his way via Good Friday toward Pentecost, for the sake of the millions whose names are written on the scroll of the spiritual Israel.
Jesus himself is the dying grain of wheat, the seed of mission. He wants to be this seed. At the same time he is conscious of what this implies: severe suffering. That explains his prayer to be delivered from that hour of suffering. However, he immediately follows up to these words of prayer, “But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” With these words Jesus indicates that he is ready to fulfill the purpose of his office; if necessary, through the hour of the heaviest suffering.
When we think of Jesus’ prayer in the days of testing we need to pay special attention to his wrestling in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). In Gethsemane he cast himself down to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Luke tells us that after this prayer an angel came from heaven to strengthen him. This heavenly strength — fruit of prayer — does not prevent that the man Jesus becomes deathly afraid and therefore prays the more earnestly. “And his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Jesus prays whether the Father will save him from the bitterest suffering: the hellish God-forsakenness. No, he does not ask that God will change his justice. Jesus knows that his Father maintains justice. And that needs to be paid to guarantee the salvation of the Father’s children. That is what God had said in Paradise (Gen. 3:17). But Jesus prays whether the justice of God can be paid in any other way than through this hellish agony.
Jesus makes known his desire to God. But at the same time he says in prayer: “Not mine but your will be done”. In doing so he leaves the matter in the Father’s hands.
Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane shows that only through prayer can he receive the cup of the God-forsakenness of his Father. While praying, he commits himself to the way that the Father has determined. This way leads also to hell.
Jesus has prayed in days of trials. The author of the letter to the Hebrews also says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).
It is not correct to conclude from these words that Jesus could also have been disobedient. It is testified of the man Jesus that he truly was man. As man he did not automatically accept his vicarious suffering. He had to learn to follow God’s way. In order for him to learn this, prayer was necessary. Only through prayer is it possible for the man Jesus to avoid the way of disobedience and instead to go the route of obedience. Only by praying can he submit fully to his final earthly official ministry and put himself at the disposal of the Father.
On the cross itself Jesus was praying as well. Isaiah already prophesied about this. He was counted with the transgressors, “...yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). Jesus prays, while hanging on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
During his life Christ made intercession for his disciples and for the church of the new dispensation.
He has shown Peter that his intercession for him was sorely needed. Without Christ’s intercession Peter could not have been an apostle. During the conversations at the final Passover –after the institution of the Lord’s Supper — Jesus says, “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” (Luke 22:31-32). When Peter says afterward that he will never give heed to the devil, Jesus foretells that Peter will deny him. In his reaction Peter shows that actually he can do without prayer: his faith will not fail him. But Jesus lets him know how close this is to unbelief. Jesus’ intercession is definitely needed.
Jesus’ farewell prayer in John 17 in particular is from the beginning to the end the prayer of the Office bearer for the preservation and the gathering of his church. In this prayer Jesus prays for himself, for his disciples and for those who will come to faith through the preaching. He does not pray for protection from sickness and war and catastrophes. But he does ask his Father to keep his disciples in the faith. That is the subject of his prayer, also for us. For indeed the disciples constitute the foundation of the church of the new dispensation. Christ’s prayer for them is therefore the prayer for us today.
The high-priestly prayer shows already how Jesus is praying as the exalted Saviour.
In His Exaltation
After Christ has risen from the dead he remains on earth for yet another forty days. This has a two-fold goal:
- He wants to show himself to his disciples as the risen King of Easter, such that they as apostles can be eye- and ear witnesses;
- He wants to instruct his disciples with a view to their ecumenical task of preaching the gospel.
From this period between Easter and Ascension there is no mention of a particular prayer of Jesus. This does not mean that he would not have continued to pray during this time. He will also have spoken to his disciples about the place and the meaning of prayer in carrying out one’s office, for he speaks to them about all things pertaining to God’s kingdom (Acts 1:3). In the service of God’s kingdom prayer has a central place just as Jesus has shown in the time of his suffering. Therefore there is no doubt that Jesus would have spoken about prayer. After their calling, he has taught them to pray. He taught them the Lord’s Prayer, which is directed entirely at the kingdom of heaven.
After forty days Jesus went into heaven. The church confesses that the goal and the value of Christ’s ascension lies in the fact that in heaven he pleads for God’s children.
In the Heidelberg Catechism the question is asked concerning the benefit of the ascension of Christ: “First, he is our Advocate in heaven before his Father” (Lord’s Day 18, Q/A 49).
In the Belgic Confession the following is confessed: “What more is needed? Christ Himself says: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). Why should we look for another advocate? It has pleased God to give us his Son as our Advocate. Let us then not leave him for another, or even look for another, without ever finding one” (Article 26).
In Romans 8:34 is also spoken of the prayer of our exalted Saviour for God’s children: “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
With these words the apostle Paul interacts with the question: who will condemn us? The answer is: no one. For Christ is the one who died and who was raised. And: Christ is sitting at God’s right hand and he pleads for the believers. Through these realities — two from the past and two from the present — the believers are not condemned.
One of these realities from the present is Jesus’ pleading intercession. When Jesus is interceding for the believers he makes an appeal to God’s justice. Christ then appeals to the righteousness that he has earned through his cross and resurrection. This pleading then also assumes the facts of salvation of Good Friday and Easter — but also the fact of salvation of the Ascension. For the Ascension and his subsequently being seated at God’s right hand prove that God has regarded the work of his Son as sufficient. Well then, this is what Jesus is appealing to. He has earned the right and therefore his prayer is that God will not condemn the believers.
The verb used in Romans 8:34, “interceding”, is not used for Christ’s praying during his life on earth. In the time of the New Testament this verb was applied especially to matters of jurisdiction. While before this the word meant in general to make a request, in the apostolic era the verb indicated more the making of a request where an appeal was made to the right that one possessed.
Moreover, the same verb is being used in Romans 8:26-27 where it deals with the intercession of the Holy Spirit. The believers have two advocates.
Jesus pleads for the believers with his Father; he appeals to his earned right. The Holy Spirit does the same in the hearts of the believers.
In Hebrews 7:25 it is noted that the exalted Saviour is making intercession for us: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Here the same word is used as in Romans 8:34. Indirectly it says in Hebrews 7:25 that Jesus makes intercession on the basis of his earned right through the cross and resurrection. In Hebrews 7 he is also named as an eternal High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. As Priest he has offered himself and God judged this sacrifice as acceptable by raising Jesus and taking him up into heaven. Therefore Jesus is an eternal High Priest. His sacrifice remains forever his plea.
Jesus Calls God His Father
Every time when Jesus is praying he addresses God as his Father. In the Gospels we read of only one instance where Jesus does not mention the name of the Father. That occurs when he is hanging on the cross and is forsaken by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). It can be explained why Christ does not mention the name of the Father here. This is not caused in the first place because Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22, but it is a consequence of the situation in which Jesus finds himself. God has left him. He can no longer call God his Father. In the address of “My God” we taste something of the reality of the God-forsakenness. Certainly, Jesus from his side continues to hold on to God. He does not say “God”, but “My God”. However, the name of the Father does not cross his lips.
When God returns Jesus again prays to his Father. In the final word on the cross we hear, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).
In the gospels we find — with the exception then of the fourth word on the cross — prayers in which Jesus addresses God as Father. Some examples:
- “Our Father in heaven...” (Matt. 6:9);
- “I thank you, Father...” (Matt. 11:25);
- “My Father, if it be possible...” (Matt. 26:39);
- “Father, I thank you...” (John 11:41);
- “Father, the hour has come...” (John 17:1;see also verses 5, 11, 21, 24, 25).
There are differences of opinion whether this address is so special. Some people think that this address must have been surprising and shocking for Jesus’ contemporaries. This surprise would have been even stronger through the word “Abba” that Jesus uses in some instances. According to these commentators the peculiarity of this word lies in the fact that it has such a familiar sound.
Others are of the opinion that there is no element of surprise. In the address as ‘Father’ they see a connection to the Old Testament “The bells of the Old Covenant sound forth their peals in the Saviour’s instruction about prayer” (van Bruggen, 1979).
In comparison with the old dispensation the name “Abba” also does not add any new resonance to the prayer of the believers. “When there is any difference between the Old and the New Covenant, than it is not a difference in our knowledge about God or in the covenant relationship, but in the knowledge of the possibility and foundation of this covenant relationship in the sacrifice of God’s unique Son. The prayer sounds no different in the New Testament than it does in the Old. However, it gains in the firmness of tone and volume” (van Bruggen, 1979).
The fact that Jesus addresses God as his Father makes us see the relationship between Jesus and God, for Jesus is the Son of God. Many regarded this as blasphemy. Jesus made it his goal to reveal himself as God’s Son, also through the manner by which he addressed God in prayer. It is not as if this was so different from what the believers were used to, but this address from his mouth yet unfolded the mystery of his divine Sonship. No one knows the Father except through the Son. Jesus is one with the Father.
It is especially in the high-priestly prayer (John 17) that it becomes clear that the mentioning of the Father’s name emphasizes the unity between the Son and the Father: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us...” (John 17:20-21).