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The Prayers of Jesus: Not What He Prayed, but How He Prayed

Introduction

Much has been written about the content of Jesus’ prayers, and rightly so.  They demonstrate the highest piety and the most intimate relationship with God the Father ever heard from human lips.  Nevertheless, how Jesus prayed can be seen to reveal nearly as much as what He prayed when viewed from the right perspective.  That is the purpose of this article.  First, we will explore the prayer practices of His spiritual predecessors—those whose modes of prayer informed the practices of the culture into which Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again.  Then we will survey the prayer practices of the Master Himself, after which we will consider how these insights might impact His followers today.

Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Antecedents

When Jesus read His Bible (the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), He found description after description of individuals praying, from Abraham to Nehemiah.  These “saints” provided the covenant community a wide variety of prayer practices to follow.  As these prayer practices were voluntarily repeated generation after generation, the pious of the covenant community willingly followed the established modes of prayer employed by their role-models who preceded them.  Because these prayer practices had been recorded in texts that were revered as sacred, they had a “normativizing” impact on subsequent generations.  In other words, although nowhere commanded in the Scriptures, these means of prayer came to be accepted and even expected.  What then did prayer look like in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament?  Although space does not suffice for an exhaustive survey, four components of the prayer practices of Jesus’ spiritual ancestors will be reviewed here.  

Prostration.  One of the more expressive postures of prayer in the Old Testament was the practice of prostration.  It was a commonly-accepted means of demonstrating humility and submission toward human superiors.  It also appears to have been second-nature as a prayer posture in the cultures of the Ancient Near East including ancient Israel.  While this form of worship is attested prior to biblical times, it can also be seen from the beginning of the Hebrew Bible to its end.  In the context of prayer, language like “falling on [one’s] face” appears in some texts (Josh. 5:14; 7:6-7, 10; Ezek. 11:13).  Elsewhere, “bowing with [one’s] face to the ground” precedes prayer (Gen. 17:17; 18:2; 24:52; Jgs. 7:15; 1 Kgs. 18:42; 2 Chron. 7:3; 20:18; 29:29, 30; Neh. 8:6).

Face uplifted/eyes open.  Like prostration, offering prayer to one’s god with eyes open and looking heavenward was not new with nor unique to ancient Israelites: it can be found throughout the Ancient Near East.  It is not surprising, therefore, that we find this expression well-attested in ancient Israelite practice as well. Therefore, “looking up to the heavens,” and as such, looking up to God is another posture of prayer that finds expression in the Hebrew Bible. This is found in well-known passages (Pss. 121:1; 123:1, 2) as well as in more obscure texts (Ezra 9:6; Job 11:15; 22:26; Pss. 25:15; 141:8; 145:15; Isa. 38:14; Dan. 4:34, etc.).

Raising/lifting up/stretching forth of the hands. Again, it is clear from evidence outside the Bible that this expression predates the Bible (e.g., the engraving on the largest standing stone of the Canaanite high place from Hazor, now in the Israel Museum). Therefore, it is not suprising that this posture of prayer appears often in the Hebrew Bible. The language employed is usually “lift up [the] hands” (Pss. 28:2; 63:4; 134:2; 141:2; Lam. 2:19, etc). The point is this: from the earliest times of the Old Testament until its very end, whether in private or corporate times of prayer and worship, the covenant community included the raising of the hands as a normal part of communicating with God.

Audible prayer. In terms of the content of prayer itself, from the earliest times, people are said to “cry out/call out/lift up or raise [one’s] voice to the Lord” in prayer (Gen. 30:6; Exod. 3:7, 9, Deut. 15:9; 24:15; Josh. 10:14; 1 Sam. 7:8; 2 Sam. 22:7; 1 Kgs. 8:28 = 2 Chron. 6:19; Lam. 2:19; Pss. 3:4; 5:2-3; 18:6; 27:7; 28:2; 77:1; 142:1; Isa. 58:9; Hab. 1:2, etc.).  These instances often combine terms like “cry out” and “prayer” in the same passage, making the context abundantly clear.  In numerous locations throughout Scripture, the word “shout” is used in the context of prayer (Pss. 47:1; 66:1; 71:23; 95:1-2; Ezra 3:11, etc.).  Even when phrases like “the meditations of my heart” (Psa. 19:14b) are used to describe prayer, the broader context (the poetically parallel “words of my mouth,” Psa. 19:14a) makes it unquestionably clear that prayer as practiced in ancient Israel was typically vocalized, and therefore audible.

Intertestamental Antecedents

After surveying some of the ways the saints of the Hebrew Bible prayed, an appropriate question to ask is whether those external or more physically expressive modes of prayer continued beyond Old Testament times. Were those postures of prayer unique to the saints of the Hebrew Bible and destined to be updated by subsequent generations? Alternatively, did Old Testament modes of prayer establish norms that those within the covenant community continued to imitate long after the Old Testament was completed?

Every expression of physically (and vocally)expressive prayer mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and discussed above is also attested in the various literatures of the Intertestamental Period. In fact, in light of the widespread use attested in the various literatures, the Intertestamental Period should be seen merely as a continuation of the same practices observed in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.  The physical expressions of prayer established in the Old Testament appear not only to be acceptable, but in fact desirable and perhaps even preferable during the Intertestamental Period. In this section, inquiry will be restricted to the same four prayer practices considered in the previous section.

Prostration.  The practice of prostration (“falling down upon the ground” “falling on [the] face,” “falling face down,” etc.) during times of prayer can be seen across a wide array of intertestamental literature (Judith 6:18; Ben Sira 50:17; 1 Maccabees 4:40, 55; 2 Maccabees 3:15; 3 Maccabees 5:50; 4 Maccabees 4:11; 3 Ezra 8:91; 9:47; 4 Ezra 4:11, etc.).It is found with approximately the same frequency, and carries the same intended meaning (humility and submission) as in Old Testament times.

Face uplifted/eyes open. Similarly, “looking up/lifting up [the] eyes/face to/toward heaven” also occurs frequently throughout the literature (Tobit 3:12; Susanna 13:9; 2 Maccabees 15:34; 3 Ezra 4:58; 4 Maccabees 6:6, 26, etc.; cf. Prayer of Manasseh 9; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2.14.2, etc.).  This is the standard posture of prayer (cf. Luke 18:13): except when prostration is employed, there is no other posture described anywhere in the relevant corpora of literature.  Interestingly, even when alternate prayer postures became the norm in later Christian practice, Judaism retained this predominant practice.  Whether in private or corporate prayer, this prayer posture has remained consistent until today.

Raising/lifting up/stretching forth of the hands.  As in the Hebrew Bible, intertestamental Judaismand beyond continued to express itself to God in prayer by “raising/lifting up/stretching out/stretching forth the hands” (Ben Sira 50:20; 2 Maccabees 14:34; 15:21; 3 Ezra 8:73; 9:47; 4 Maccabees 4:11, etc.; cf. Mishnah Berachot 6:4).  While not seen as frequently today as the expression in the previous paragraph, this prayer posture is often employed in tandem with uplifted face and open eyes. 

Audible prayer.  Lastly, throughout this period, prayer is consistently portrayed as vocalized, and therefore audible (Judith 6:18; 9:1; 14:9; 1 Maccabees 4:40; 5:30, 33; 2 Maccabees 3:15; Susanna 60; 3 Ezra 5:62; 3 Maccabees 5:51; 6:17; 4 Maccabees 6:27, etc.).  As in the Old Testament, silent, contemplative prayer is absent from the written record during the Intertestamental Period. 

Further, to the earliest rabbis, audible prayer was not merely allowed—it was actually required:

If a man recited the Sh’ma [a prayer required of observant Jews three times a day], but not loudly enough to hear himself…Rabbi Yose says, “He has not fulfilled it [his obligation to pray].”  If he recited it without clearly pronouncing the letters…Rabbi Judah says, “He has not fulfilled it [his obligation to pray”(Mishnah Berachot 2:3-4, emphasis added to demonstrate the audible nature of prayer).

Similarly, Rabbi Akiva decreed:

If his prayer is fluent in his mouth, he should pray the [entire] “Eighteen [Benedictions,” a prayer prescribed by the early rabbis] (Mishnah Berachot 4:3-4, emphasis added).

Because modern Judaism is built largely upon the precedents established by ancient rabbinic Judaism, the practice of verbalized, audible prayer is universal within Judaism today.  This is the case whether the prayers are uttered in private or among thousands of worshipers.  As was the case in the days of the Early Church Fathers St. Jerome (In Amos 5:23) and St. John Chrysostom (Against the Jews, Homily 1), so also today: the prayers of Jews in corporate settings can be heard for blocks away.

The Prayer Practices of Jesus

Many aspects of Jesus’ prayer life should strike His followers today as being quite unusual.  In this section, the same four areas surveyed in the two previous sections will be discussed in terms of the external modes of prayer employed by Jesus.  A fifth appears at the end of this section that has no parallels in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament or in intertestamental literature.

Prostration.  After His baptism and during His time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted to “fall down and worship” Satan (Matt. 4:9, emphasis added).  In this instance, Jesus refuses to perform this act of humility and submission.  However, following Hebrew Bible/Old Testament precedent, Jesus actually does prostrate Himself before the Father with the same intended meaning prostration had always carried: humility and submission of a “lesser” when in the presence of a “greater” (Matt. 26:39 = Mark 14:35).  Following the ministry of Jesus, prostration continues to be a prominent feature describing early Christian practice (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14; Rev. 5:8, 14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4, 10; 22:8).

Face uplifted/eyes open.  Followers of Jesus today should experience surprise when nowhere in the New Testament do we see Jesus described as bowing His head, folding His hands, or closing His eyes to pray.  Instead, again following Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and intertestamental precedent, each time Jesus’ eyes are mentioned when He is praying, they are open and He is gazing heavenward (Matt. 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16; John 11:41; 17:1; and possibly Mark 7:34).  In addition to these texts, when the parallel passages of Matthew 3:16 and Luke 3:21 are read in tandem, a fascinating fact emerges: as Jesus was praying, He saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon Him!  Further, when Jesus talks about prayer, He describes the prayers typical of others in the same way (Luke 18:13; as already seen, the idiom “lift the eyes to heaven” is a Hebraic form of speech attested in the Hebrew Bible and intertestamental literature; cf. Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 105b).

Raising/lifting up/stretching forth of the hands.  Instead of being folded to pray, the only time Jesus’ hands are described, they are raised (Luke 24:50).  As seen in the previous categories discussed, this act has to be understood in light of the precedent set in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament which continued unabated throughout the Intertestamental Period.  Early Christianity seems to have followed this practice as well.  Paul instructs Pastor Timothy, “…I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Tim. 2:8).  Note the universality of Paul’s expectation: his words were not restricted to Ephesus where Timothy was personally located (1 Tim. 1:3).  Rather, the Apostle expected this to be the common practice of Christians “in every place.”

Audible prayer.  Lastly, the Gospels consistently describe Jesus as praying audibly. We are told regularly in the Gospels that when in prayer, Jesus “said” (Matt.11:25; Luke 10:21; 23:34; John 12:27; 17:1, etc.) and “cried out” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34; etc.).  As in the previous sections, this mode of prayer cannot be seen as accidental, capricious, or even innovative: here also, Jesus was simply following Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and intertestamental precedent.

The Scriptures never suggest that Jesus “thought certain thoughts while in prayer, directed them toward God, and then told His disciples the contents of these internal meditations at some later time.”  Rather, there is a reason why we have these precious words of Jesus in our Bibles today: He vocalized His prayers loudly enough for His disciples to hear them!  Had Jesus not been born into a tradition that normalized and eventually normativized vocalized prayer from the times of the Hebrew Bible throughout the Intertestamental Period and onward, we would have almost none of the deep, rich piety Jesus expressed in His prayer life.

Length of Prayer

Because there is no specific length of prayer prescribed in either the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament or in any intertestamental literature, this section has no parallel in those sections above.  Nevertheless, Jesus left behind intimations of His views on the proper length of prayer in His teaching and in His own practice. 

The most familiar of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is, of course, the “Lord’s Prayer,” also referred to as the “Disciples’ Prayer,” the “Our Father,” and the “Pater Noster” (Matt. 6:9-13).  Jesus commended this prayer to His first disciples as the “model” prayer.  He did so as a direct response to their request to be taught how to pray (Luke 11:1).  It should be noted that this prayer requires less than ten seconds to pray, and that Luke’s version is even shorter (Luke 11:2-4)!

Just before this prayer, Jesus warns that we should not be like pagans who think they will be heard for the many words they use in prayer (Matt. 6:7; although there is no parallel to this command in the other three gospels, cf. 11Q Temple Scroll 48:11, “You are not to do as the nations do…” and Ben Sira 7:14, “Do not…repeat yourself in prayer”).  Elsewhere, he condemns hypocrites who “make long prayers for a pretense, [who] will receive greater condemnation” (Matt. 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). 

It is possible that Jesus’ inspiration for this teaching is Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.  For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.”  He may also have drawn inspiration from biblical examples like Elijah, whose prayer in his confrontation with the prophets of Baal consisted of only 29 words (1 Kgs. 18:36, Heb.) as compared to the prophets of Baal, who prayed for approximately 9 hours (1 Kgs. 18:26-29).

In His own practice of prayer, the Gospels provide multiple instances in which Jesus prayed what we would consider incredibly short prayers.  This is especially significant since these prayers derive from One Who had such an incredibly intimate relationship with the Father.  For example, Jesus prays, “I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight”

(Matt. 11:25-26 = Luke 10:21).  At another point He prays, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46).  In one of His shortest prayers, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify Thy name” (John 12:28).  Because of the words “and looking up to heaven,” the one-word “Ephphatha!” (Mark 7:34) should probably also be considered a prayer to God rather than a command to the man’s ears to open.  This interpretation is further reinforced by the fact that the Greek verb here is in the singular rather than the plural that would be expected if his reference was to the man’s two ears.

In all these instances in the life of Jesus, it should be clear that what He taught and His own practice of prayer are perfectly consistent with one another.  Jesus did not teach one thing and then do another: He both encouraged and practiced short prayer.  No references to extra-biblical literature were required to arrive at this conclusion.  Nor is this a “toss-up”: it is self-evident from the overwhelming wealth of evidence from the Gospels themselves that this is the case.

The obvious question at this point is, “Why has this aspect of Jesus’ teaching and role-modeling not been emphasized within the Church?”  Why has the consistent message heard from pastors, televangelists, and spiritual disciplines gurus been that longer times spent in prayer translates into greater spiritual growth and more answers to prayer?  I once made a presentation on prayer that followed this line of argument to a group of pastors representing many Protestant denominations.  During the Q & A that followed the presentation, one pastor (with all present nodding in agreement) gave what may be considered at least a partial answer to the question.  His comment was that if he taught and/or preached this message to his congregation, he would “never be able to get anyone out to prayer meetings again.” 

While the suspicion of this churchman might indeed be true, pragmatism and utilitarianism can never be the measure of truth and should never determine our willingness to proclaim the “Full Counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).  For those of us who accept the authority of all of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16), those who preach it cannot reserve to themselves the authority to determine which parts to preach and which parts to resign to the dust bin of irrelevance.  Further, the end-game of preaching and teaching in the Body of Christ can never be to “get people out to prayer meetings.”  This is not the purpose for which Jesus suffered and died.  Rather, His death was to accomplish forgiveness of and freedom from sin so that a redeemed people can be conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29).  Any goal that comes short of this goal is unworthy of His costly, perfect sacrifice. 

A better (i.e., more biblical) way forward is to preach and teach the Word of God in its clarity, fullness, and power and trust God to work grace (rather than guilt) in the hearts of hearers.  When we are faithful to proclaim His Word in its apostolic purity, we can trust God to honor both His Word and us, and positive fruit will be the outcome in the lives of our hearers.  The cooperative work of the Spirit and the Word will work in the hearts of believers to cause them to yearn for a deeper walk with God and for more time spent communing with Him in prayer.

As if the observation that Jesus encouraged and role-modeled short prayer is not disconcerting enough, this part of the study of how Jesus prayed is further complicated by other texts that seem to be going in the opposite direction.  For example, we are told that on multiple occasions, Jesus prayed all or most of the night (Matt. 14:23-25 = Mark 6:46-48; Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; 6:12).  On other occasions, the gospel record provides specific examples where Jesus prayed lengthy prayers (John 17:1-26; cf. also Luke 5:16).

It is instructive to note that Jesus’ immediate disciples do not attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction.  Nowhere do we find James, Peter, John, the writer of Hebrews, or even Paul prescribing specific lengths of prayer-time, be they short or long periods.  All the authors of New Testament books appear to be quite comfortable in leaving the tension intact that exists within Jesus’ teaching and examples regarding the proper length of prayer time. 

We are therefore faced with not one question, but two: 1) why would Jesus leave behind what appear to us to be conflicting teachings and examples, and 2) why do His immediate disciples not attempt to reconcile and clarify what is to be proper prayer practice by His followers?  Is it possible that both Jesus and His earliest Jewish followers were aware of a tradition/practice that predates both Him and them, and that everyone in that culture knew that both shorter and longer periods of prayer were acceptable to God?

One rabbinic tradition makes exactly this point:

“And he cried unto the Lord,” etc. [Exod. 15:25]. From this you can learn that the cries of the righteous are not hard to receive. By the way, you also learn that the prayer of the righteous is to be short.  It happened once that a disciple, in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, went up to read the [Scriptures for the] service, and he made his prayer short.  The other disciples remarked to Rabbi Eliezer, “Did you notice how so and so made his prayers short?”  And they used to say about him: “This one is a scholar who makes short prayers.”  But Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “He did not make it shorter than Moses did, as it is said: “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee” [Num. 12:13].  Again it happened once that a disciple in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer went up to read the [Scriptures for the] service and made his prayer long.  The other disciples remarked to Rabbi Eliezer, “Did you notice that so and so made his prayer long?”  And they used to say about him: “This one is a scholar who makes long prayers.”  But Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “He did not make them longer than Moses did, as it is said: “So I fell down before the Lord for forty days,” etc. [Deut. 9:25].  So Rabbi Eliezer used to say: “There is a time to be brief in prayer and a time to be lengthy” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael VaYassa Alef, 1:93-105).

Another relevant text in Rabbinic Literature reads,

Rabbi Huna further said in the name of Rabbi Meir: A man’s words should always be few in addressing the Holy One, blessed be He, since it says, “Be not rash with thy mouth and let not thy heart be hasty to utter a word before God; for God is in Heaven and thou upon earth; therefore let thy words be few” [Ecc. 5:2] (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 61a).

Yet another rabbinic text reads,

Rabbi Hanin said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded.  Whence do we know this?  From Moses, our master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord” [Deut. 9:26], and so it is written afterwards, “[I, moreover, stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights like the first time,] and the Lord listened to me that time also” [Deut. 10:10].  But is that so? Has not Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” [Prov. 13:12a]? (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 32b).

When placed alongside the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Ecc. 5:2), intertestamental literature (e.g. Ben Sira 7:14), and the teachings and practices of Jesus, it is evident that the early rabbis are merely fleshing out what was already in evidence within the pre-Christian Jewish tradition.  What appears to be known by everyone in early Judaism was that brief prayer and lengthy prayer are equally acceptable to God. 

Conclusions

The physical expressions of Jesus in prayer were practically identical to those we have seen in the Old Testament, the Judaism of the Intertestamental Period, and the Pharisaic Judaism of the early rabbis.  We should not be surprised that Jesus prayed as he did: His spiritual forefathers had an unbroken tradition of praying in these ways for millennia before His Incarnation.  We should not expect Him to come along change everything for no reason. 

The reality, however, is that almost all of the external practices of prayer that are common among Jesus’ followers today developed independent of His example and the biblical and intertestamental models upon which His practices were based.  Most modern prayer practices derive from monastic contemplative prayer in medieval Europe and have little to no connection with biblical models of prayer.  It’s not that these later practices are inherently evil or unhealthy.  Indeed, most are still practiced today because they are actually beneficial in one way or another (greater internal concentration, less external distraction, etc.).  The point is simply that they should be recognized as having no roots in biblical models of prayer from earliest times and most importantly in the prayer practices of Jesus the Master.

We can be thankful that in the providence of God the Father, He sent forth His Son into the matrix of Judaism in the Land of Israel—had He not, we wouldn’t have most of the content of the prayers of Jesus.  We can be thankful that we have so much material from the Hebrew Bible and from post-biblical Judaism that makes Jesus’ prayer life and material elsewhere in the New Testament intelligible to us.  We can also be thankful that the Jesus we see preserved in the Gospels is not a Jesus who looks like a Hellenized Jew, a Greek, or a Roman.  Nor is He portrayed in the Gospels as looking like a medieval European monk or a modern Protestant.  Instead, He fits perfectly within the very context of first-century Judaism context that the Gospels claim He was born into, and because of this, we can trust the historical accuracy of the biblical Gospels all the more.

Long ago, more liberal approaches such as that of Rudolf Bultmann concluded that the Jesus we see in the Gospels is the creation of the later gentile church, and therefore, there is nothing that can actually be known of the historical Jesus.  In this study of Jesus’ prayer practices, we are indeed able to discern from the material in the Gospels a first-century Jew in the land of Israel who prayed exactly as He would be expected to pray in that context.  An analysis of the content of His prayers can legitimately be expected to produce the same result.  Therefore, in light of the literary evidence, it is also legitimate to conclude that the assessment of the “Higher Critical School” of New Testament studies of both Jesus and the Gospels of the New Testament is unwarranted and should be rejected.  Instead, this study serves as yet another example that Jesus is most clearly perceived and understood against the backdrop of the Judaisms of the land of Israel in the first century.

Practical Applications

Modern Pentecostals and Charismatics should not be prideful of their modes of prayer and worship as though they originated with them.  In actuality, they are merely a revival of ancient practices that have trajectories back through the Early Church, through Jesus Himself, through Intertestamental Judaism, and back into the earliest levels of the Hebrew Bible.  These expressions should not be understood as the result of the creativity that marked early revivals like that at Azusa Street or Topeka.  Rather, they should be understood as a part of the “Back-to-the-Bible” mentality that defined early Pentecostalism.

Also, there is much here that we can serve to guide and correct our own practice of prayer.  For example, the Hebrew Bible/OT, Jesus, and the Rabbis remind us that long and short prayer is appropriate, as befits the situation.  Nowhere within these materials is there any attempt to regulate or standardize the length of effective prayer times.  Consequently, when those like the spiritual disciplines gurus give guidance that beginners should begin developing their prayer lives by praying five minutes a day and eventually work up to hours a day, we need to recognize that they are operating outside of the tradition, and have no biblical support for these teachings.  Instead, within our authoritative tradition is the beautifully liberating dynamic of being guided by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25, etc.), not only in terms of the length of our prayers, but also their content, our body posture(s), the volume of our voice, and the like!

Additionally, we should be careful of our attitudes and motives regarding prayer.  The determining factor of how, when, what, how long, and where we pray should not be how we feel. Nor should these be determined by the dictates of some superimposed program, authority figure, or historical example (James the Just, John “Praying” Hyde, Brother Lawrence, etc.).  Such approaches all too often result in condemnation, feelings of inferiority, failure, and bondage. Again, “If we live {have been made alive] by the Spirit, then let us walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Further, motivations like the desire to obligate God by aspects of our prayer-life (volume, intensity, length, even the quoting of Scripture!) is a fundamentally pagan attitude toward God and toward the practice of prayer (Matt. 6:7).  The God we serve and pray to does no operate on the “brownie-point” system!  If we ever find ourselves slipping into these unhealthy thought-patterns, this itself should become a matter of prayer.  God is too big and we are too small for us to think that we can manipulate the Great King with such such magical trickery!  Similarly, it goes without saying that the use of prayer (whether long or short, and regardless of the physical aspects of prayer, such as kneeling or prostration) as a means of impressing other people is expressly forbidden by the Master (Matt. 23:14; Mk. 12:40; Lk, 20:47, etc.).

A word of caution is in order to communities of faith which, for whatever reason, have discouraged or even forbidden these expressions.  Leaders in these communities need to be aware that they are restricting legitimate biblical expressions of faith that have been role-modelled and in some instances commanded in both Testaments.  In an unbroken tradition that can be traced from Abraham to Paul, the godly have expressed themselves to God in these ways.  Therefore, prohibitions of such expressions rest on exceptionally shaky ground when compared to biblical revelation.

As noted in the introduction, the external prayer practices of Jesus (and many others in the ancient Israelite/Jewish tradition) bear little resemblance to those practiced by His followers today.  Thankfully, God has always been more concerned about content than about form.  Nevertheless, the challenge still remains for those who love Him, “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).  This includes not merely following His example in what we say (“Pray, then, in this way…” Matt. 6:9) but also in what we do (“the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked,” 1 John 2:6). 

We might consider integrating the prayer practices of Jesus mentioned above, possibly a new one each week or month and simply see where this leads. This should never be done with an attitude of spiritual superiority over other Christians. Nor should we allow ourselves to think that if we get the ritual right, our prayers will be more effective.  Neither of these attitudes would be pleasing to God.  God is not more pleased with us or our prayers merely because we have prayed with the proper “posture” or “volume”.  All these are the attitudes of pagan religious practice and have no place in service to this Master!  Instead, we should simply experience the sheer joy of obedience and conformity of our lives to the prayer practices of the One Who is our ultimate role-model! 

We owe no allegiance to those who influenced our modern modes of prayer, but we owe our all to the One Who gave His all for us.  He came to set us free (John 8:36), and this includes the freedom to deviate from religious practices that have no roots in biblical prayer practices.  Why not try praying as Jesus prayed and see if it does not lead us into the greater freedom He said He came to bring us (John 8:36)?

Dr. Wave Nunnally

Professor Emeritus of Early Judaism and Christian Origins Evangel University, Springfield, MO

Jewish backgrounds, New Testament, Hebrew language and the land of Israel are areas of expertise for Dr Wave Nunnally. He has studied, taught and written in these areas for over… More

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