Originally published in 1889 as part of Imago Christi: The Example of Jesus Christ. Edited slightly for modern spellings.
I. The Mystery of Jesus' Prayers
There is surely a mystery in the prayers of Jesus. If, as we believe, He was no less than God, how could God pray to God, or what need could there be in His nature for the satisfaction of which He required to pray?
It may be a partial answer to this question to say that all prayer does not consist of petitions arising from the sense of need. Prayer, indeed, is often spoken of, especially by those who wish to bring it into ridicule, as if it consisted of nothing but a series of demands addressed to God-to give fine weather, or to take away disease, or in some other way to alter our circumstances in accordance with our wishes.
But it is not by those who pray that prayer is thus spoken of. In the prayers of those who pray most and best, petitions proper, I venture to say, occupy only an inconsiderable place. Much of prayer expresses the fullness of the soul rather than its emptiness. It is the overflow of the cup.
Prayer at its best is, if one may be allowed the expression, conversation with God, the confidential talk of a child who tells everything to his father. There is a remarkable example of this in the Confessions of St. Augustine. This great book is in the form of a prayer from beginning to end; yet it narrates its author's history and expounds the most important of his opinions. Evidently the good man had got into the habit of doing all his deepest thinking in the form of conversation with God.
If this be what prayer is, it is not difficult to understand how the Eternal Son should have prayed to the Eternal Father. Indeed, it is easy to see that, in this sense, He must have prayed without ceasing.
But this does not altogether clear up the mystery of the prayers of Jesus; for many of them were undoubtedly expressions of the sense of want. "In the days of His flesh, He offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared" (Heb. 5:7). How can we explain a statement like this? There is but one explanation of it; and it is His true humanity. It is only by accepting this truth in the fullest sense that we can understand this aspect of His life. Christ was not half a God and half a man, but perfectly God and perfectly man.
There are things about Him, and there are statements of His own, to which justice cannot be done without categorically calling Him God. We may hesitate to utter this confession, but the facts, unless we flinch from them, will compel us to make it. On the other hand, there are other things about Him which compel us in the fullest acceptation of the term to call Him a man; and we are not honoring but dishonoring Him if we do not accept this truth also in all its fullness and in all its consequences.
He prayed, then, because He was a man. Humanity even at its best is a feeble and dependent thing; it can never be self-sufficient. Even in Him it was not sufficient for itself, but dependent on God from day to day; and He expressed His sense of dependence by praying. Does this not bring Him very near us? Verily He is our brother, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.
But there is another lesson in it, and a graver one. Although a man, Jesus was a sinless man. At every stage of development His manhood was perfect. He had no sinful past to weaken the force of present effort. Yet He needed prayer and resorted to it continually. What a commentary on our need of it if He needed it, being what He was, how must we need it, being what we are.
II. The Life of Prayer
The life of prayer is a secret life, and everyone who really loves prayer has habits of it known only to himself. Much of the prayerfulness of Jesus must have lain beyond the observation of even His disciples, and therefore is altogether unrecorded in the Gospels. But some of His habits have been preserved, and they are extremely interesting and instructive.
He liked, when about to pray, to escape from the house and from the town and go away out into the natural solitudes. We read, "He went out and departed unto a solitary place, and there prayed" (Luke 4:42). Elsewhere it is said, "He withdrew Himself into the wilderness, and prayed" (Luke 5:16). He seems to have especially loved mountains as places of prayer. When the statement is anywhere made that He went up to a mountain to pray, commentators try to find out, by examining the vicinity in which He was sojourning at the time, which mountain it was He ascended for this purpose. But in this, I think, they are on the wrong track. In Palestine, as in many parts of Scotland, there is a mountain everywhere. A mile or two from any town you are out on it. You have only to quit the houses, cross a few acres of cultivated ground, and your feet are on the turfy pastures, where you can be absolutely alone.
Jesus had, if we may so speak, made the discovery that He could obtain this solitude anywhere and, when He arrived in a town, His first thought was, which was the shortest road to the mountain-just as ordinary travelers inquire where are the most noted sights and which is the best hotel.
There is a solitude of time as well as a solitude of space. What mountains and wildernesses are to towns and cities, the night-time and the early morning are to the day-time and the early night. Jesus frequented this solitude too for prayer. We hear of Him continuing the whole night in prayer to God, or it is said that He "rose up a great while before day, and departed into a solitary place to pray" (Mark 1:35). It may partly have been because, on account of His poverty, He could not easily find solitude in the houses in which He lodged that Jesus cultivated this habit, and this may give His example a special interest for any whose circumstances expose them to the same difficulty.
But it is a discovery which might immensely enrich us all if we were to realize how easy it is to get into the natural solitudes. There is scarcely a town out of which you cannot escape in a very few minutes and find yourself quite alone-on a bit of shore, or on a mountain, or in a pasture or a wood. The town or city may be thundering away quite near, with its imprisoned multitudes bound on the treadmill of its toils or its amusements; but you are out of it and alone with God.
There is more than mere solitude in such a situation to assist prayer. There is a ministry of nature which soothes the mind and disposes it to devotion. Never did I feel more strongly that in this habit Jesus had laid bare one of the great secrets of life than one day when I climbed all alone a hill above Inveraray and lay on the summit, musing through a summer forenoon. On every hand there stretched a solitary world of mountain and moorland; the loch below was gleaming in the sun like a shield of silver; the town was visible at the foot of the hill, and the passengers could be seen moving in the streets, but no sound of its bustle reached so high. The great sky was over all, and God seemed just at hand, waiting to hear every word.
It was in spots like this that Jesus prayed. He prayed, however, in company as well as in solitude. We hear of Him again and again taking two or three of His disciples away to pray with them, and sometimes of Him praying with them all. The Twelve were a kind of family to Him, and He assiduously cultivated family worship. He spoke too of the value of united prayer. "I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 18:19).
United prayer acts on the spirit very much in the same way as conversation acts on the mind. Many a man's intellect, when he is alone, is slow in its movements and far from fertile in the production of ideas. But, when it meets with another mind and clashes with it in conversation, it is transformed: it becomes agile and audacious; it burns and coruscates, and brings forth ideas out of its resources which are a surprise even to itself. So, where two or three are met together, the prayer of one strikes fire from the soul of another; and the latter in his turn leads the way to nobler heights of devotion.
And lo! as their joy increases, there is One in their midst whom they all recognize and cling to. He was there before, but it is only when their hearts begin to burn that they recognize Him; and in a true sense they may be said to bring Him there-"Where two or three are met together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).
III. The Occasions of Prayer
The occasions which call for prayer are innumerable, and it would be vain to attempt to count them. Jesus undoubtedly had, as we have ourselves, reasons for praying every day; but some of the occasions on which He prayed are especially instructive.
1) We find Him engaged in special prayer just before taking very important steps in life. One of the most important steps He ever took was the selection from among His disciples of the Twelve who were to be His apostles. It was an act on which the whole future of Christianity depended; and what was He doing before it took place? "It came to pass in those days that He went into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God; and, when it was day, He called unto Him His disciples, and of them He chose twelve, whom He also named apostles" (Luke 6:12-13).
It was after this night-long vigil that He proceeded to the choice which was to be so momentous for Him and for them and for all the world. There was another day for which, we are told, He made similar preparation. It was that on which He first informed His disciples that He was to suffer and die. Thus it is evident that, when Jesus had a day of crisis or of difficult duty before Him, He gave Himself especially to prayer.
Would it not simplify our difficulties if we attacked them in the same way? It would infinitely increase the intellectual insight with which we try to penetrate a problem and the power of the hand we lay upon duty. The wheels of existence would move far more smoothly and our purposes travel more surely to their aims, if every morning we reviewed beforehand the duties of the day with God.
2) Jesus appears to have devoted Himself especially to prayer at times when His life was unusually full of work and excitement. His was a very busy life; there were nearly always many coming and going about Him. Sometimes, however, there was such a congestion of thronging objects that He had scarcely time to eat. But even then He found time to pray. Indeed, these appear to have been with Him seasons of more prolonged prayer than usual. Thus we read: "So much the more went there a fame abroad of Him, and great multitudes came together to hear and to be healed by Him of their infirmities; but He withdrew Himself into the wilderness and prayed" (Luke 5:15-16).
Many in our day know what this congestion of occupations is: they are swept off their feet with their engagements and can scarcely find time to eat. We make this a reason for not praying; Jesus made it a reason for praying. Is there any doubt which is the better course? Many of the wisest have in this respect done as Jesus did. When Luther had a specially busy and exciting day, he allowed himself longer time than usual for prayer beforehand.
A wise man once said that he was too busy to be in a hurry; he meant that, if he allowed himself to become hurried, he could not do all that he had to do. There is nothing like prayer for producing this calm self-possession. When the dust of business so fills your room that it threatens to choke you, sprinkle it with the water of prayer, and then you can cleanse it out with comfort and expedition.
3) We find Jesus engaging in special prayer when about to enter into temptation. The greatest scene of prayer in His life is undoubtedly Gethsemane. As we enter that garden after Him, we fear almost to look on the scene-it is so sacred and so passes our understanding, and we tremble as we listen to the prayers rising from the ground where He lies. Never were prayers heard like these. We cannot fathom them, yet much may be learned from them.
Let one lesson, however, suffice in the meantime: He prayed on this occasion before entering into temptation; for at the gate of the garden, after the agony was over, He said, "This is your hour and the power of darkness" (Luke 22:53). It was the commencement of His final conflict with the powers of wickedness in earth and hell. But He had equipped Himself for the conflict by the prayer in the garden beforehand, and so He was able to go through all that followed with unruffled dignity and with perfect success. His strength was the strength of prayer.
What an illustration of contrast was presented on that occasion by the weakness of the disciples! For them also the hour and the power of darkness began at the gate of Gethsemane, but it was an hour of disaster and ignominious defeat. Why? Because they were sleeping when they ought to have been praying. "Watch and pray," He had said, bending over their prostrate forms, "lest ye enter into temptation" (Mark 14:38). But they heeded not, and so, when the hour of temptation came, they fell.
Alas, their experience has often been ours also. The only armor in which temptation can be successfully met is prayer, and when the enemy is allowed to come upon us before we have buckled it on, we have not a chance of standing.
4) If any scene of prayer in our Lord's life may compete in interest with this one, it is the last of all. Jesus died praying. His last words were words of prayer. The habit of life was strong in death. It may seem far off, but this event will come to us also. What will our last words be? Who can tell? But would it not be beautiful if our spirit were so steeped in the habit of prayer that the language of prayer came naturally to us at the last? Many have died with Christ's own last words on their lips. Who would not covet them for his own? "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit."
IV. The Answers to Prayer
If anyone were to go through the life of Christ seeking for answers to His prayers, many of them, I am persuaded, could be found. But I shall at present refer only to two on which the Word itself lays emphasis, and which are especially instructive.
The Transfiguration was an answer to prayer. This is how it is introduced in one of the Gospels: "And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, He took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with Him two men, which were Moses and Elias" (Luke 9:28-30). I do not say that He was praying for this alteration in His countenance and raiment, or even for the privilege of talking with these wise and sympathetic spirits about the work which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. But yet, I say, all this was in answer to the prayer He was offering when it came.
There are some who, disbelieving in the direct virtue of prayer to obtain from God what it asks, yet believe in what they call the reflex influence of prayer: they allow it does you good to pray, even if you get nothing directly by it, and even if there is no God to hear you. This, taken as the whole theory of prayer, is a mockery, as the simplest mind must perceive. But it is none the less true that there is a most blessed reflex influence of prayer.
Prayers for goodness and purity in a sense answer themselves; for you cannot pray for these things without in some measure receiving them in the very act. To lift up the soul to God calms and ennobles it. It was this, I imagine, that was the beginning of Christ's transfiguration. The absorption and delight of communion with His Father overspread His very face with beauty and glory, and through this outlet the inner glory leapt forth.
In some degree this happens to all who pray, and it may happen in a high degree to those who pray much. Moses, after being forty days in the mount with God, shone with the same kind of light as the disciples saw in their Master on the Holy Mount; and there is a spiritual beauty bestowed in some degree on all God's saints who pray much which is of the same nature and is the most precious of all answers to prayer. Character flows from the well-spring of prayer.
The other answer to prayer given to Jesus to which I desire to call attention took place at His baptism. Here is St. Luke's account of it: "Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended like a dove upon Him" (Luke 3:21-22). It was when He was praying that the Spirit was sent down upon Him, and in all probability it was this which at the moment He was praying for.
He had just left His home in Nazareth to begin His public work; and He was in immediate need of the Holy Spirit to equip Him for His task. It is a forgotten truth that Jesus was filled with the Holy Ghost, but it is one most clearly revealed in the Gospels. The human nature of Jesus was from first to last dependent on the Holy Ghost, being thereby made a fit organ for the divine; and it was in the strength of this inspiration that all His work, as preacher, miracle-worker, and atoner, was done. And if in any measure our life is to be an imitation of His-if we are to help in carrying on His work in the world or in filling up what is lacking in His sufferings-we must be dependent on the same influence.
But how are we to get it? He has told us Himself: "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him" (Matt. 7:11). Power, like character, comes from the fountain of prayer.
James Stalker (1848-1927), one of Scotland's most renowned preachers, was born in Crieff, Perthshire, and educated at the University of Edinburgh, as well as in Germany. Stalker served as a pastor in various churches for over 30 years and in 1902 was appointed professor of Church history in Aberdeen at the United Free Church College, where he served until just before his death. Stalker was a widely known visiting lecturer and scholar, teaching through the years at colleges and seminaries throughout the United States and Britain. He declined several leadership positions offered to him, focusing his efforts instead on making the Word known through preaching and writing. Some of his best-known books include Studies on the Person of Christ, The Life of Paul, and The Seven Deadly Sins.
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