Alongside Jesus’ astonishing miracles and teachings, the Gospels depict something just as compelling: Jesus—who is himself fully God—prayed. In fact, he prayed a lot. Luke, the go-to
Gospel for a theology of prayer, includes more descriptions of Jesus’ own prayer habits than any other Gospel. When we look closely at how Jesus’ prayer life is depicted in Luke, we discover how essential prayer is for the life of faith and our participation in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ Baptism Prayer (Luke 3:21–22)
For Luke, this isn’t just a story about Jesus’ baptism; it is a story about the power of prayer. Jesus’ baptism prayer launches his ministry, initiating his anointing, commissioning, and empowerment for ministry. Luke replaces the phrases about Jesus coming up out of the water in Matthew and Mark with “and was praying” (3:21, NRSV throughout), making the prayer and not the baptism itself the point of focus.
Immediately, we see Jesus’ prayers inviting God to act. God speaks from heaven, anointing Jesus for ministry. Jesus’ prayer initiates the arrival of the Spirit, who descends on Jesus “in bodily form” (3:22), granted for the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission. Luke goes on to describe Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit” (4:1) and “filled with the power of the Spirit” (4:14). In 4:18, Jesus announces, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” and interprets his ministry as a fulfillment of the Scriptures.
Luke draws a vital connection between Jesus’ faithfulness in prayer and the inauguration of and empowerment for his earthly ministry. If we want to be used by God for God’s kingdom work, the preliminary step for us also is to be faithful in prayer.
Jesus’ Withdrawal for Private Prayer (Luke 5:16)
Faithfulness in prayer matters. In 5:16, Luke emphasizes that Jesus habitually withdrew to commune with God alone in prayer. Luke also records many other instances of Jesus’ pattern of solitary prayer.
In Luke 22:39, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives, “as was his custom,” to pray. He goes off to a deserted place at daybreak (4:42), he prays alone regularly (9:18), and he even spends entire nights in prayer (6:12). Jesus practices what he preaches, illustrating the necessity for prayer through his own dependence on it. Luke pushes us to follow Jesus’ example.
We are people who often need a concrete plan of action if we want to be faithful to our best desires (and the invitations of God). Dallas Willard said in Christianity Today that we must make “plans” for righteousness—setting ourselves up to succeed and not fail with spiritual disciplines in spite of the inertia of our human nature. Jesus seemed to have some specific spots (Mount of Olives) and possibly times (daybreak) for regular prayer. If we still need to develop a habit of faithful prayer, simple things like having a designated spot and time can aid our best intentions.
Jesus Prays Before Choosing His Disciples (Luke 6:12–16)
Prayer aligns us with the will of God. In Luke 6, we see that Jesus’ choice of the disciples was also God’s by taking a glimpse at Jesus’ activity the night before.
Before choosing the disciples, Jesus “spent the night in prayer to God” (v. 12) conforming his will to the will of his Father. The choice to appoint disciples, the number of disciples chosen, and the choice of the particular people all fall within God’s design because Jesus has first sought God’s will in prayer.
The unique expression “in prayer with God” expresses not only Jesus’ supplication but also “his silence, the listening, and the answer of God,” noted theologian Francois Bovan. Jesus’ prayer through the night is not a statement about his asceticism but emphasizes his complete focus on the will of God and the significance of this event. Many Christians today treat prayer as a one-sided activity where we express our desires to God. Not only is the self-oriented approach misdirected, but the manner of prayer is as well. The model we have of prayer here involves an orientation around God’s purposes and extended periods of communal waiting in the presence of God.
Jesus’ Identity Revealed (Luke 9:18; 9:28–36)
Among the Synoptics, Luke alone sets the transfiguration narrative in a context of prayer. So far in the Lukan story, prayer has been regularly linked to important divine revelations. Now again, directly prior to revelation, Jesus ascends a mountain to pray (9:28).
It is important to note that the transfiguration account is connected with Jesus’ revelation of himself to the disciples in Luke 9:18–27. In each story, prayer leads to a further revelation of Jesus’ identity. In Luke 9:18, after Jesus has been at prayer, he asks the disciples who he is. The correlation of Jesus’ prayer with Peter’s response, “the Messiah of God,” shows that understanding of Jesus’ identity comes through God and is granted through prayer.
We see this further illustrated in the Transfiguration, when Jesus’ identity is also revealed through his transformed appearance, by the presence of Moses and Elijah, through the emphasis on the presence of God, and by God’s public affirmation. As a direct result of Jesus’ prayer, the disciples are enabled to see his inner self made transparent to them.
For us today, prayer is a crucial means of deepening our understanding of Jesus—of growing to know him more fully every day.
Jesus’ Prayer in Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46)
Jesus’ own struggle in prayer in Gethsemane models faithfulness to the divine will. His obedience has roots in Isaiah’s passages about the Suffering Servant, who is obedient to God even in the midst of tremendous suffering and humiliation. Jesus’ submission is even reflected in his posture. He kneels, while the usual posture for prayer in the ancient world was standing while looking up to heaven.
Luke highlights Jesus’ struggle in prayer as the turning point of the entire passion narrative, since it is here that Jesus obtains the strength to embrace his mission and God’s will. After an angel appears to strengthen him, Jesus is described as praying more earnestly “in his anguish” (22:44). The inclusio framing Jesus’ prayer (22:40, 46) indicates that the content of Jesus’ prayer was that he not enter into the temptation to follow his own will instead of God’s will. By highlighting the victorious struggle in prayer, Luke sets up Jesus as an example for the kind of prayer that gives one the courage and fortitude to resolutely insist on God’s will, even in the face of persecution and death.
Teach Us to Pray
Prayer is the driving force behind Jesus’ mission. If prayer fuels the entire work of God in Luke’s gospel, how can we fail to imitate Jesus’ example? For Luke, the focus of prayer is on God’s kingdom. Prayer is less about presenting a list of personal wishes to God and more about coming to understand what God is doing. Prayer has the ability to transform us into people who desire and participate in the work of God’s kingdom. Prayer empowers Jesus for ministry and fortifies him to accomplish God’s purposes. May the same be true of us.
Catherine J. Wright is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University. This article is adapted from Spiritual Practices of Jesus: Learning Simplicity, Humility, and Prayer with Luke’s Earliest Readers by Catherine J. Wright. Copyright © 2020 by Catherine J. Wright. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
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