When the Incarnate Son of God lived on earth he did really pray. That is a fairly obvious thing to say, but it does require to be said because the chances are that we do not take sufficiently seriously the fact that Christ did pray when he was on earth.

Christ showed us how to pray by praying. It was when he was “praying in a certain place” that one of the Twelve said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). The request leaped to the lips when one day the disciples, with hushed and awed hearts, actually watched the Son of God at prayer. Looking at Christ praying they suddenly realized what prayer was. If that was prayer they had not yet started to pray.

Christ’s Prayers Intensely Real

It requires to be emphasized again and again that our Lord’s prayers were real prayers; as real and intense as any ever uttered. It may be true that the majority of references to Christ’s prayer life concern intercessory prayer; but he did pray for himself, both in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39) and in the high-priestly prayer in the fourth Gospel (John 17). And therefore we may well be justified in assuming that during those many sleepless nights, far away from the haunts of men, when he communed with the Father in prayer, the Son would recuperate his strength for the task of redeeming a fallen world, and would make his task, and his needs on his human side, the subject of prayer. We should remember that the Son of God found that the best preparation for a long hard day of demanding work was entering into fellowship with the Father in prayer, there beholding the Father’s glory with no veil between except the thin veil of his true humanity.

There are some 17 references to Christ’s active prayer life, and these may be grouped under four heads: His prayers at the great events of his life, those in the course of his ministry, those at his miracles, and his prayers for others.

Prayer Was His Life

There is a sense in which it is not accurate to speak of our Lord participating in prayer at different times and on different occasions. The fact of the matter is that when we study his life of prayer we find that prayer was not simply a part of his life; it was his life. Prayer was a habitual attitude of his mind and heart. Prayer was the atmosphere in which he lived, it was the air he breathed. So true is that that the Hebrew original of Psalm 109:4, “But I am prayer,” or, “But I am a prayer,” was literally true of our Lord. Surely, this is remarkable when one recalls how much our Lord crammed into the three brief years of his ministry.

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Although it would be more accurate to say that prayer was our Lord’s life, yet he did, at particular times and on particular occasions, turn aside to engage in prayer.

Our Lord paused to pray in the midst of an almost incredibly busy life, and when subjected to a constantly high pressure of work and ministry. Preaching, teaching, casting out demons, healing individuals or large crowds of people, and always surrounded by excited, jostling, seething multitudes whose pathetic eagerness to see and to hear must ever have moved our Lord to pity—all this demanding service, all this eager self-giving, was carried on in the atmosphere of prayer.

No matter how busy he was, so steeped in prayer was his spirit that he could immediately, and without prolonged preparation of heart, turn aside for long seasons of prayer. Indeed, our Lord insisted on these extended times of prayer. For example, we read in Luke 6:12, “He went out into the mount to pray, and he continued all night in prayer to God.” Again, Mark 1:35 informs us that “in the morning, a great while before day (the morning of a day of incredible toil), he rose up, and went out, and departed into a desert place, and there prayed.” Or turning to Luke’s gospel again, “Great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed of their infirmities, but he withdrew himself in the desert and prayed” (Luke 5:15f).

The significance of this important factor in the life of our Lord is the more easily understood when we try to discover the real meaning of Christ’s ability to calm, in an instant, the tumultuous seas and the storm-tossed hearts of the Twelve in the midst of the tempest on the lake. We have not exhausted the significance of that moment when we attribute his miraculous power over nature to his deity. Part of its significance lies in the fact that he emerged from high converse with the Father on the mountaintop to march straight into the heart of that raging sea (Matt. 14:25). A lesson indeed for all Christian workers! If we would speak the Word with power, or exercise the healing, soothing touch, there must be in the background, unseen, our own conscious communion with God. How soon our puny resources are exhausted unless constantly replenished from the reservoirs of God. How mechanical is our work, how ineffectual is our witness, how powerless is our word, unless carried on in the atmosphere of prayer. The harder Jesus’ days the longer were his prayer times, the busier he was the greater his insistence on the practice of the presence of the Father. He recognized no substitute for the daily practice of the shut door, the bent knee, the secret communion.

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In Sorrow And In Joy

Our Lord turned aside to pray when, as truly man, he was subjected, as we are, to upsurges of deep emotion, especially of profound sorrow and of great joy. Alas, these emotions make us men and women of conflicting moods which inevitably affect our life of prayer; but not so our Lord. We have hints in the gospel records that the deep emotions that upsurged from his heart were inevitably turned into prayers. For example, we have a hint of this in Mark 8:11f, where, when the Pharisees asked a sign, “He sighed deeply in his spirit.” Again, when a deaf man was brought to him, “He looked up to heaven and groaned” (Mark 7:33f). Whereas similar emotions in us produce moods and mental conflicts that make us neglect prayer, the Lord took these very emotions and blended them into a glance and a prayer heavenward.

We cannot, as is so commonly done, restrict the significance of that profound word to Gethsemane and Olivet. It must be taken as a window into the total life of Jesus Christ. Through that window we can dimly see the agony of soul in the Son of Man when confronted by suffering humanity, and also in the long, still night of retirement, in the desert or on the lonely mountainside, where his anguished soul sent up unutterable sighs to the Father. We, the victims of mood, neglect prayer; when human emotions invaded the spirit of Christ they only drove him the more insistently to prayer. Yes, even in the awful agony of soul and fluctuation of spirit in Gethsemane and on the Cross, his spirit was in undisturbed communion with the Father, still anchored in that one haven of security—prayer. That is a lesson we need constantly to learn. The varying winds of moods and gusts of emotions that blow upon our spirits should not be allowed to disturb our communion with God. They should be made rather to contribute to our fellowship with God by turning them into “strong crying and tears, with prayers and supplication,” as did the Son of God in the days of his flesh.

The Lord turned aside to pray in the midst of spiritual conflict and death. Certain Greeks came seeking an audience of Christ, saying to Philip, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” On hearing of this the Lord began to say, more to himself, perhaps, than to the Twelve, that the hour of glory had arrived. The moment had come when the corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die, and thus bring forth fruit. He says, “Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father save me from this hour? But for this cause came I unto this hour!” And then this hour of spiritual conflict, which had driven him to prayer, issued in triumph: “Father, glorify thy Name!” And then the voice, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

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Another incident is that of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39–46). In trying to understand this event in our Lord’s life it is necessary to realize that this was not an isolated or sudden acceptance of the Father’s will. “I delight to do thy will” (Ps. 40:8) had been the ruling principle of Christ’s whole life. But this should not blind us to the fact that because Jesus Christ was truly man, as well as truly God, it was “natural” that he should desire, if it were possible, not to experience the anguish that this part of the Father’s will might involve.

But having said that, it has to be pointed out that this “natural” desire in the human side of Christ not to have to face this part of the Father’s will was not due to opposition to that will. His prayer that the cup should pass from him never for a moment conflicted with his habitual and perfect submission to the Father’s will, whatever that will might involve.

Such an incident in our Lord’s life is of profound significance for the study of his doctrine and practice of prayer because here in Gethsemane he shows, not by word but by act, what real prayer is. Real prayer is absolute self-surrender to, and absolute correspondence with, the mind, the will, the character, of God. And we require to remind ourselves that this was not a cold, unfeeling acceptance of the Father’s will. “He began to be exceeding sorrowful.” He began to tremble and faint, and therefore he took refuge in prayer. Indeed, so powerful was the pressure on his soul that an angel from heaven came to strengthen him; and to strengthen him for a still fiercer conflict, that of the Cross. “And being in an agony, he prayed the more earnestly: and his sweat was, as it were, great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

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Another extremely significant incident is that of the Cross. As our Lord’s life ebbed away, and the horror of contact and conflict with sin and death filled his soul with anguish, again he found refuge in prayer. “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” Then that dread cry of dereliction in the darkness was succeeded by another agonized prayer. Ere death sealed his lips Jesus Christ’s last words were a prayer, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” To the last, despite the horror of the past hours and of the present moment, our Lord is still in communion with the Father.

So when the sorrow and anguish of some dark spiritual conflict comes upon us, let us remember the Lord who prayed, “O Father, since this cup cannot pass away except I drink it, thy will be done.” And when at the last death draws near to us, and strength is ebbing away, and Jordan’s cold river rolls at our feet, let us remember that Jesus Christ the Son of God died praying.

Rejoicing And Thanksgiving

Prayer, for the Lord, was thanksgiving. When the Seventy returned exulting in the subjection of the demons to the Name of their Lord, Christ rejoiced in spirit saying, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Luke 10:21). Again, just as he was preparing to utter the word of power at the grave of Lazarus, Christ lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And when he had spoken thus he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:41f).

Again, before Christ fed the five thousand “He took the loaves, and gave thanks” (John 6:11). And so also when he fed the four thousand “He gave thanks” (Matt. 15:36). The most solemn prayer of thanksgiving took place, however, when Christ sat down with the Twelve to keep the last paschal feast. It must have been with profound emotion that the Son of God “took the cup and gave thanks” (Matt. 26:27). And yet again, in the evening of the Lord’s resurrection in Emmaus “He took bread and blessed it (or gave thanks) and brake and gave” (Luke 24:30).

The main point to notice in these references to our Lord’s prayers of thanksgiving is that whether he was walking in the light or in the shadow, gratitude was an integral part of his life of prayer. It was not only in life’s shining hours that thanksgiving leaped to his lips. Indeed, it would seem that it was especially in the darkest times that praise poured forth from his heart.

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Prayer, for our Lord, was also the taking of solemn counsel with the Father. The choice of the Twelve was, to our Lord, a decision fraught with such grave consequences that it was only after spending the preceding night in prayer that he made the choice (Luke 6:12f).

It was through eleven of those men then selected, and later ordained and commissioned on the evening of the day of the Lord’s resurrection, that the world was to hear the gospel, and receive the faith once for all delivered to the saints. They had to be men who would be prepared to preach only what their eyes had seen, and their ears had heard. Men who would rely, not on their choice of Christ as Saviour, but on the Saviour’s choice of them as his disciples.

Christ’s Intercession

Prayer, for our Lord, was also intercession. In this connection there is one phrase in particular which should be noticed, and which will help us to understand how prayer was for Christ intercession. The phrase is, “for their sakes,” or, “for your sakes.” For example, in John 11, where our Lord announces the death of Lazarus, he remarks that he was glad for the disciples’ sake that he had not been in Bethany to heal Lazarus, that they might believe. That is to say, the Lord raised Lazarus, not only because of his love for Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary, but also in order to bring the Twelve to see that he was the Resurrection and the Life.

Now, for whom did our Lord intercede? For example, he prayed for Peter (Luke 22:31). “Simon, Simon, behold, satan hath desired to have you that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that thy faith fail not.” That Peter did not fall as Judas fell was doubtless due, in part, to a radical difference between the two men; but finally, Peter was kept from falling away by special grace granted to him in answer to the Lord’s prayers for him. That Christ’s prayers were answered is clear from the sequel of Peter’s denial. The proof is seen in the melting grief, the bitter weeping, the frank confession. What a blessed commentary is Peter’s experience on the Pauline phrase, “by grace are ye saved.” And how precious is the thought that the Lord who prayed so effectively for Peter now prays for us as our High Priest in glory.

Finally, Christ interceded for those who crucified him. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). What amazing grace! How hard it is for us to forgive. How seemingly impossible it is to forget injury. How fatally easy it is for bitterness to linger on, deep-rooted in the heart; and how ready it is ever to break out again, and this even after the lapse of years. But here our Lord, in the midst of extreme injury, intercedes on behalf of cruel, violent men.

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However, prayer was, for our Lord, primarily and supremely communion. This is especially clear from Luke’s account of Christ’s Transfiguration: “And it came to pass (that) he took Peter, John and James, and went up to a mount to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And behold Moses and Elias appeared in glory but (the disciples) were heavy with sleep, and when they were awake they saw his glory” (Luke 9:28–32).

The Transfigured Life

The significant point for us in these moving words is that Christ was transfigured while he was praying. Prayer was the cause; the Transfiguration was the effect. Surely the lesson here is that the transfigured life is the result of the prayer life. Compare also Moses’ experience when he emerged from communion with God. His face reflected the glory of God with whom he had been communing as a man communes with his friend.

It is on the holy ground of Christ’s prayer life that we learn that only through prayer that is face-to-face communion with God can we receive the grace indispensable for the transfigured life. The grace for that transfigured life is indispensable because it includes identification with Christ in his sufferings.

I lay in dust, life’s glory, dead;

And from the ground there blossoms, red,

Life that shall endless be.

The Mount of Transfiguration shows that divine glory is unveiled, and the divine voice is heard, only after the preparation of prayer that is communion. Here it stands revealed that for Jesus Christ prayer was communion. Prayer that is communion is the prayer that goes to God, not for what he gives, but for what he is. And in the prayer that goes to God for himself alone, God comes forth to meet and to greet the seeking heart, “a blessed invasion of God’s Presence” takes place, and lo, an earth-born son is transfigured with heaven-born glory.

There is a path open to us along which lies the possibility of translating the truth and the reality of Christ’s prayer life into our own lives. That path is the path of prayer; a path which Jesus Christ has marked out for us by his living example, as well as by his teaching. By his own present intercession for us, and by his indwelling our hearts by the Holy Spirit, he has provided a spiritual dynamic to enable us to walk that path of prayer which we have seen him walk. The pathway of prayer becomes the pathway of power. He stands upon that very pathway now. Let us, then, respond with glad obedience to our Lord as he beckons to each of us saying, “Follow Me.”

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James G. S. S. Thomson is associate professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. He was formerly at New College, Edinburgh, where he taught for six years in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages. Previous to that he was missionary to Arabic-speaking Muslims in Algeria. He holds the B.A. degree from Oxford, and M.A., B.D. and Ph.D. from Edinburgh University, from which he also received the Aitken Traveling Fellowship. At Oxford he was a Casbred Prizeman. This article is an abridgment of a chapter of a book on prayer soon to be published.

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