By Bill Warren, Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question: What do we know about the personal prayer life of Jesus?
Bill Warren response: The Gospels mention several occasions when Jesus prays and also contain passages reflecting general Jewish prayer practices, thereby giving a solid picture of Jesus’ prayer life. The content of Jewish prayers often came from the Old Testament, ranging from the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5-6) to passages from the Psalms to “blessings” thanking God and seeking God’s favor. For example, Jesus prays on the cross by citing Psalm 31:5, “Father, into your hands I place my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
First-century Jewish daily prayers (two or three times daily) are addressed specifically in Matthew 6:5-13. Jesus criticizes those who use the daily prayer times for gaining status by religious showmanship versus truly addressing their prayers to God. As a way to keep the daily prayers focused on God, Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus would have been raised praying daily at set times and most certainly would have keep this daily prayer emphasis throughout his life, with it being his assumed practice even when not emphasized explicitly.
Jesus also has special extended times of prayer normally in a private place alone. For example, in Mark 1:35-38, Jesus goes to pray early in the morning alone, with like times of extended prayer before he chooses the 12 Apostles (Luke 6:12), after the feeding of the 5,000 when his popularity and the related dangers are growing rapidly (Mark 6:46), before the transfiguration (Luke 9:28), and in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew. 26:36). Another major prayer emphasis is found in John 17 when Jesus prays for his disciples.
These are definitely not the regular Jewish daily prayers, but rather are instances when Jesus faced major pressures and decision points in his life and ministry.
Jesus approached major decisions with more focused prayer so as to be sure of the direction that should be taken, as in Gethsemane when he prays not for his own desires but for faithfulness to the Father.
Jesus shows us that critical, decisive moments in life require focused prayer beyond our daily prayer practices. In learning from the example of Jesus, we need regular daily prayer and also concerted periods of private prayer for facing the major turning points of life. But even more,
Jesus exemplifies that the real key to prayer is the one to whom we pray: We pray to God, our heavenly Father who cares for us and desires the best for us, so we pray consistently, with proper attitudes, and with a desire to be faithful to Him.
William F. “Bill” Warren Ph.D. is Professor of New Testament and Greek, and Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies, both at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.