When Jesus began His ministry, He traveled around the towns and villages of Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and healing the sick, so much so that His fame spread abroad "and great multitudes came together to hear and to be healed by him of their infirmities. And he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed" (Luke 5:16). Concerning this event, Mark records, "And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed" (Mark 1:35)
This was not the first time Jesus had gone off by Himself to pray. Before starting His ministry he went into the wilderness where He stayed alone for forty days and nights, fasting and praying. Nor was this the last time but one of many times when Jesus would retire to a secluded place and pray. On one particular occasion "he went out into a mountain to pray and continued all night in prayer to God" (Luke 6:12). On another occasion, after He had fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, "when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone" (Matthew 14:23)
On another occasion, "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" (Luke 9:28-29). And, of course, we know that after eating His last supper, He went to the garden of Gethsemane. Although He took eleven of His closest disciples with Him, He eventually went alone to pray. We also know that during this time of solitude, He prayed for three hours (Matthew 26:40-44).
All of these incidents raise two questions. The first is: Why did Jesus pray so much? All Christians believe that Jesus is God and is the Creator of the world. As such, He knows all things. He knows the thoughts of men, He knows the future, and He knew the will of God, so why did Jesus need to pray about anything? More than that, why did He pray for such long periods of time? Most of us spend five to ten minutes praying yet, we have more reason to pray than did Jesus. Then why did He pray so much and for so long?
And that leads us to the second question which is: What did Jesus pray about? Generally, when we pray, we ask God for things we want but Jesus is God. He doesn't need anything because all things are His already.
Furthermore, Jesus taught, "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly" (Matthew 6:6). As we look at the life of Jesus, what we see is that He often went to a secluded place to pray alone, away from the crowds and even from His closest companions. But what is so important about praying this way?
Unfortunately, the Bible doesn't give us specific answers to any of these questions but there are clues that might provide us with some understanding.
"And it came to pass, that, as he (Jesus) was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1). To us today, this may seem like an odd request but that's because Christians pay differently than the Jews. Whenever a Jewish person wants to pray, they take out their prayer book which contains a list of prayers that are designed to cover everything a person may need to ask God. When a Jewish person wants to pray, they open their prayer book, find the prayer that pertains to what they want to pray about, and then read that prayer out loud.
However, even though Jesus was raised in the Jewish faith, it seems clear from the scriptural account, that He didn't use a prayer book. Instead, He talked to God as a son talks to his father. The prayers that Jesus uttered came from His heart and the words He used were His own rather than those of someone else.
It seems certain that when the disciples of Jesus heard their Master praying in this personal manner, they must have been amazed and, because they had never prayed this way, it's apparent they wanted Jesus to teach them how to pray as He did. Jesus answered their request by saying, "When ye pray, use not vain repetitions… After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptations, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen" (Matt. 6: 7, 9-13).
What Jesus taught his disciples was not what to say but how to pray. What Jesus taught them was the format to use when praying from the heart rather than using the same written prayer over and over again without really paying attention to what is being said. However, too many people today repeat this formula Jesus gave to His disciples as if it were a prayer. While Jesus taught us how to communicate with God without mindlessly repeating someone else's words (what He called "vain repetition"), yet that is exactly what many people do today when reciting the Lord's prayer.
The formula Jesus gave us can be separated into six parts.
The first part is, when we start our prayer, we address it to God, "our Father" and we speak to Him in a respectful manner because He is holy. Even His name is hallowed. When Moses first came before God he was told, "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5). When we pray to God we are drawing nigh to a holy Being and because of that our demeanor and words should reflect an attitude of divine reverence and respect.
The second part of the prayer formula calls for us to pray that God's kingdom will come to earth. One way that happens is by doing God's will here on earth just as it is done in heaven. Jesus often talked about the "kingdom of heaven" and in heaven whatever God commands is faithfully obeyed. When we on earth faithfully carry out God's commandments, we are helping to establish part of God's kingdom here on earth.
But God's kingdom is more than people keeping His commandments. The Jews were doing that before Jesus was born, but John, the Baptist, preached that he was preparing the way for the coming of the kingdom of God. Obviously, the kingdom hadn't come yet when he uttered those words. What John was preparing for was the coming of Jesus and Jesus came not only to teach the gospel but to atone for our sins. In many of His parables, Jesus likened Himself to a bridegroom and His followers as the bride. Thus, the kingdom of God consists of those who are united with Christ and who seek to bring others unto Christ.
The third part is to ask for "our daily bread." Our daily bread represents the material things we need in life therefore Jesus taught that we should pray for our temporal needs. The fourth part of our prayer consists of praying for those who have offended us and express our forgiveness towards them. Without forgiving others God will not forgive us of our transgressions. Associated with this is the fifth part which is praying for God's help in overcoming the temptations of sin. Then, the sixth part is where we close our prayer by acknowledging God's glory and power and our submission to Him as our King.
This is the formula for praying that Jesus taught His disciples and it seems obvious that this was the same formula that Jesus used. If that is true then we should be able to find examples to support this assumption.
The first part of the formula is to pray to our "Father" and do so with reverence. The number of times Jesus talked about His Father are too numerous to mention and in each case Jesus spoke of Him in a reverential manner. When Mary Magdalene saw Jesus the morning of his resurrection, He told her, "go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17). Therefore, it seems certain that when Jesus prayed He address His petitions to His Father in heaven who is the same God and Father to whom we are to address our prayers.
The second part of the prayer formula is to ask for God's kingdom to come here on earth and Jesus was in the forefront of that effort. He epitomized bringing God's kingdom to earth and He gave His life to establish it. As far as keeping God's commandments, Jesus lived a totally sinless life. In fact, no human even comes close to keeping the commandments as well as Jesus did.
The duty of John, the Baptist, was to prepare the way for the coming of Christ and the way he did that was by calling people to repentance and having them baptized. Jesus was baptized by John and then immediately "was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness" where He spent the next forty days fasting and praying. The Bible doesn't tell us what Jesus did during that time but we know that "the angles ministered unto him" (Mark 1:13). And it was after those 40 days that Jesus went to Galilee and began His ministry.
The clear impression is that during those forty day of fasting and prayer Jesus came to know what His mission was in life. He came out of the wilderness knowing exactly what His message was to be, what He was supposed to teach, and what He was supposed to do. It seems that even at the beginning of His ministry, He knew He was going to die by crucifixion for the purpose of atoning for the sins of the world. Therefore, it seems that Jesus spent those forty days being instructed by God, His Father, and angels, on how to bring the kingdom of God to earth.
There was another time when Jesus spent the whole night in prayer. Although the Bible doesn't tell us what Jesus prayed about we know that "when it was day he called unto him his disciples; and of them he chose twelve, whom he called apostles" (Luke 6:13). It seems illogical to say that what Jesus prayed about all night had nothing to do with what He did as soon as daylight came.
As soon as the sun came up Jesus called all of His followers together and of them He specifically chose twelve to be called apostles. The title of apostle is not one that had been used before therefore it seems clear that this idea came to Jesus during the night as He prayed. Then there was the number of apostles and which people were to be chosen. It doesn't appear that Jesus called His disciples together and asked who wanted to be an apostle and it just happened that twelve men volunteered. In fact, the Bible gives just the opposite impression. It states that it was Jesus who chose them rather than them choosing Him. And Jesus knew exactly which twelve men He wanted. It seems clear that this knowledge came to Him during His all night prayer.
This early morning meeting was held on a mountain top and, after selecting these twelve men, Jesus then gave them a sermon to prepare them for their future responsibilities. We have come to know that discourse as the Sermon on the Mount. These twelve men later became the leaders of Christ's church after Jesus had ascended to heaven, so it appears that Jesus spent all night praying about what else needed to be done to bring the kingdom of God to earth. In retrospect, it appears that Jesus called and trained a future group of leaders who would take over His ministry once He was no longer with them.
During that sermon Jesus told His disciples, "seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33) This is what Jesus had been doing all night in prayer. He also told His disciples, "Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asketh receiveth and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8). When we go to God in prayer we are asking for help, seeking guidance, and knocking, as it were, on heaven's door for answers. It seems apparent that this was exactly what Jesus had been doing all night.
The third part is to ask God to give us our daily bread. When Jesus sent His disciples out to preach, He told them, "Take no thought saying, What shall we eat? Or What shall we drink?" (Matthew 6:31) yet, surely Jesus must have prayed that His Father would provide for His temporal needs and it appears that God heard those prayers because Jesus often got invited to eat at the home of wealthy people, and the Bible describes some of those meals as feasts. When Jesus fed the 5,000 "he commanded them to make all sit down by companies… and when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes he looked up to heaven and blessed and brake the loaves" (Mark 39,41). This blessing upon the bread was a prayer. He also blessed the food when He ate (see Matthew 26:26). Therefore, it is clear that Jesus gave a prayer of thanks for his daily bread.
The fourth part is to forgive others. Although Jesus never committed any sin for which He needed to be forgiven, yet, as He hung, nailed to a cross, He prayed to God saying, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). When the Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, He forgave her and on several other occasions he forgave people of their sins (Luke 5:20; 7:47).
Considering that Jesus taught "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44) and with so many people trying to discredit Him and His message, it seems very probable that when Jesus prayed He ask forgiveness of those who hated and despitefully used Him.
The fifth part is to pray that we are delivered from evil and not fall into temptation. All Christians are well aware of Christ's temptation in the wilderness and that happened while Jesus was fasting and praying for forty days. During His greatest trial of suffering in Gethsemane, when He sought to shrink from the agony of the atonement, Jesus prayed for both physical and spiritual strength.
But Jesus also prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail (Luke 22:32) and during His last meal in mortality He lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed to His Father to watch over and protect not only those whom He had been given (His disciples) who would remain in the world after He had left them "but for them also which shall believe on me through their (the disciple's) word" (John 17:20).
The sixth part is to give glory to God. In the same prayer He offered during His last supper Jesus said, "And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was" (John 17:5). Yet, this wasn't the first time Jesus gloried God. Throughout His entire ministry He frequently spoke of God's glory and attributed all He did to God.
In addition to these things, we know that Jesus also prayed for the sick, the needy, and the poor (see Matthew 25:31-36). He prayed at the time He raised Lazarus from the dead and gave thanks to God for raising him (John 11:41). He prayed to cast out devils and on one occasion He could have prayed for protection but deliberately didn't (Matthew 26:53).
So what we see is that the things Jesus prayed about are no different than the things we pray about but what made His prayers so significant is their duration and depth of emotion. When Jesus prayed, He had a heart-felt and very personal conversation with God. His prayers weren't superficial, casual, or insincere. His prayers weren't trivial or frivolous, nor were they self-centered. Instead, they were focused on the needs of others, including those of His Father in heaven. He didn't pray because He had to but because He wanted to.
Many times, earthly children don't take time to talk very much with their parents and when they do talk, it's often in the form of short answers to their parent's questions. Although parents would love to spend time having a meaningful conversation with their children, when children do engage in a longer dialogue, it's usually about something that the child wants from their parents.
Unfortunately, that's the way many people talk to our Father in heaven but Jesus took the time to have a real conversation with God. He not only prayed but He listened to what His Father had to say. Jesus explained, "For the Father loveth the Son and sheweth him all thing that himself doeth" (John 5:20). To see and hear what God had to say, Jesus had to take the time to listen and understand what God was trying to tell him.
But, from the scriptural account, it doesn't appear that what Jesus learned from praying came as clear, direct instructions from God. Instead, the scriptures seem to indicate that as Jesus prayed He spent considerable time contemplating, reflecting, and pondering the things that were on His heart, and, as He did, His mind was illuminated as the Spirit taught Him.
This is the same way that God talks to us except we often don't take the time to ponder, reflect, and contemplate the things of God as Jesus did. If we did, the scriptures tell us that whatsoever we ask in prayer, believing, shall be given to us (Matthew 21:22). It appears that when Jesus taught this concept to His disciples, He knew what He was telling them was true because of His own personal experiences.
In the hectic pace in which we currently live, we don't always have the time to pray and ponder for hours at a time but we can nevertheless be taught by the Spirit "all things" if we take the time to learn how to improve our communication with God and we can do that as we follow the example of Jesus.