The Prayers of Jesus

By J.W. McGarvey (1829-1911)

“Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; though he were a Son yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:7,8).

Why did Jesus pray! Scoffers have said that if He was divine He prayed to himself, and his prayers were not real. They forget that while He was here he was less than himself – that tho, before his advent he was “in the form of God, and counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God,” he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). This is the representation from which to regard him. Having thus made himself in a measure dependent on his Father, it was proper for him to pray.

Others have said that he prayed, not because he needed, as we do, the benefits of prayer, but simply to set us an example. This answer is little better than the other; for if he prayed only to set an example, it was a bad example, for it would teach us also to offer prayers for which we would feel no need. That his prayers were real and heartfelt, is manifest from the passage cited as my text in which it is said that “in the days of his flesh he offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears.” When prayers are accompanied by “strong crying and tears” on the part of a sane man, there can be no possible doubt of their sincerity and reality.

The question still confronts us, why did Jesus pray? We are told that he was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). If this is true, he must have employed with unfailing success the means of resisting temptation which we employ so ineffectually. One of these is prayer; for he said to his disciples, “Watch, and pray that ye enter not into temptation.” To “enter into temptation,” is to come under its controlling power. To watch and to pray guards us against this. We watch, in order to see the temptation ere it assails us. We pray for strength to resist it when it comes. If we study the prayers of Jesus with reference to the occasions on which they were offered, I think we shall see very plainly that he faithfully practiced the precept which he gave to his disciples.

He began his public career by solemnly submitting to John’s baptism. Whatever may have been his trials and temptations before this, he knew that this act would introduce him into a career in which they would be more severe and would end in a struggle testing the utmost strength of his soul. He perhaps knew also that immediately after his baptism he would be subjected to the strongest temptations which Satan’s ingenuity could invent for that moment in his career. Most wisely then was his baptism followed immediately by prayer. And it was while he was praying that the heavens were opened above him, and the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the form of a dove, and entered into him (Lk. 3:21,22; Mk. 1:10, 11). He was now prepared for the worst that Satan could do, and when, after forty days he triumphed and drove Satan from him, angels came and ministered to him.

We know not to what extent Jesus was dependent on his Father for wisdom and guidance respecting the affairs of his coming kingdom; but we know that he made his most important administrative act the subject of protracted prayer. That act was the selection of the twelve men to whom he would entrust the establishment and ordering of his kingdom on earth after he should have returned to the world whence he came. No selection of subordinate officers in any kingdom since the world began has been of so momentous importance. Suppose, if we can, that all had proven as false to their trust as did Judas Iscariot, who can begin to imagine the consequences? We may not be able to see any temptation that beset him in making this choice, unless it was in regard to placing among the twelve the thief who was to betray him; but we learn that before making the selection he spent the whole of the preceding night in prayer (Lk. 6:12-16). Who can tell to what extent the unequaled fidelity and amazing triumph of those men in the inauguration and administration of the kingdom of God resulted from the efficacy of that prayer? The answer is wrapped up in the secrets of eternity.

On the morning of the day in which the five thousand were fed the twelve apostles returned to Jesus from their first tour of preaching and healing (Lk. 9:1-17). They had not yet eaten their morning meal. An agitated throng gathered about them and pressed them so that they could not do so. As Mark expresses it, “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat” (6:30,3 1). At the same early hour an excited group of John’s disciples came to Jesus with the crushing announcement that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod, and that they had taken his headless body and laid it in a tomb (Matt. 14:12-14; Mk. 6:29). Either of these reports was enough to excite the people; and when they heard both, they were wild. The people were already thrilled by what the twelve had been doing, and when they heard of the bloody deed of Herod they went wild; for all counted John as a prophet. The more they heard the details of the bloody deed the more exasperated they became.

But if this fateful announcement was exasperating to the multitude of the Galileans, what must it have been to Jesus? John had been the best friend he had on earth next to his mother. He had baptized him, had given him honor in the presence of the multitude, and had secured for him his first disciples. He was also a kinsman in the flesh, and even his murderer had acknowledged him to be “a holy man and just.” No one who has not been suddenly informed of the cruel murder of a dear friend and kinsman, can realize the conflict of emotions which agitated the soul of Jesus when this announcement was made. The pang was all the keener in that it foreshadowed what was soon to come upon himself. He said nothing. Not a word of comment is quoted from him by any of the narrators. What he was tempted to say we can conjecture only by our knowledge of human nature, and the apostle’s statement that he was “tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.” He only said to his apostles, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile” (Matt. 14:34). What other purpose he had in going to the desert place we learn farther on. They quietly entered their boat and struck out for the pasture lands belonging to Bethsaida Julias, at the northeastern curve of the lake (Lk. 9:10). The people soon saw to what point the boat was headed, and with a common impulse they started on a rush around the northwestern curve and northern end of the lake for the same spot. The news spread like wild-fire through the villages, and almost the whole population ran out to join the race. Soon the largest multitude that ever gathered about Jesus was before him, and the rest for which he had started was prevented. His compassion for them and for the sick whom they brought with them overpowered his desire for rest and quiet, so he spent the day in teaching and healing until it was too late for the people to return to their homes without suffering from hunger. Then came the feeding. So wildly excited had the people been, that they had come to this uninhabited plain without food; and reckless of consequences, had remained all day.

At this point an incident mentioned only by John added immensely to the temptation which had been oppressing Jesus since the early morning. He perceived that the people 9 4 were about to come and take him by force and make him king” (6:15). This was a renewal of Satan’s third temptation in the wilderness. The people believed that he intended to set up a political kingdom; and such was the exasperation now felt toward Herod that the moment for an uprising seemed to have come. The five thousand men present were ready to strike the first blow. Herod’s capital city, Tiberias, was in full view across the lake, and it could be taken in a few hours. With five thousand men ready to move at his command and the whole of Galilee in a popular ferment, it would have been easy and quick work to dethrone the murderer of his friend, and then march with accumulating forces upon Pontius Pilate and Judea. If his soul had been fired with such passions as are universal with men, how strong the temptation would have been! But no; the disciples are hastily ordered into their boat with orders to cross the lake, the multitude are formally dismissed, and Jesus retires into the mountain at the base of which he had spent the day. Not till now did he find that for which he had started in the morning. Alone in the solitude of the mountain he spends the night in prayer. Once more he applies the safeguard against temptation; once more the tempest within his soul, like that on the lake a few days previous, hears the rebuke, “Peace, be still”; and there is a “great calm.” It was now about the fourth watch of the night; the full moon of the passover week was shining (Jn. 6:4); and a very strong wind was blowing from the west; but Jesus, knowing that his disciples were struggling in the middle of the lake against that wind, walks out to them on the boiling waves, a distance of nearly three miles (Jn. 6:1). The boat soon glided over the remaining three miles, but when it landed another day had dawned, and the whole company had passed twenty-four hours without rest, without food, unless they partook with the multitude of the cold barley bread and fish, and without sleep. This is a specimen of the laborious life which Jesus was leading, and into the hardships of which his disciples were initiating the twelve.

Not long after this occurred that ever memorable occasion on which Jesus was first formally acknowledged by his disciples as the “Christ, the Son of the living God.” He was “praying alone” when the disciples came to him and heard from him the searching question, “Whom do you say that I am?” (Lk. 9:18-20) What the especial occasion of that prayer was, we are not informed; but it illustrates at least his prayerful habit.

About eight days after these sayings Jesus went up into another mountain to pray, and now he takes with him Peter, James and John (Lk. 9:28). Matthew calls it “a high mountain” (17:1), and as one of the sayings from which the eight days are counted was spoken near Caesarea Philippi, which stands at the base of Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Palestine, it was probably this or some of its outlying spurs that he now ascended. It was a laborious climb to reach the spot, and here was another night of prayer. The three disciples soon completed their short prayers, and fell asleep. They were awakened by the sound of voices; and on looking up they beheld Jesus transfigured in glory and two other men in glory deeply absorbed in conversation with him. They soon learned by hearing their names called, that the other two were Moses and Elijah. They learn, too, that the subject of conversation was “the decease which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” They had first heard of this about eight days before from the lips of Jesus himself (Lk. 9:22,28). Now, to their amazement they hear it spoken of again by these mighty men whose abode had been for many centuries in the land of departed spirits. What they said of it we may never know; but may we not safely conclude that the purpose of Jesus in that night of prayer was to plead for an increase of fortitude as the shadow of his final agony was now growing deeper as he approached it? His prayer was answered by the words of sympathy which came to him from men almost divine. How I would love to know what they said. If my courage shall fail not when I meet with Moses or Elijah, I shall inquire what they said to Jesus; and I shall also ask how they knew that he would be on the mountain that night, and how they knew that he was going to die in Jerusalem.

Although Jesus was so prayerful himself, he was not persistent like the apostle Paul in urging this duty on the disciples. Even in his well-known remarks on the subject in the Sermon on the Mount, he did not exhort them to pray; but, assuming that they would pray, he was content with telling them how. And so, in the subsequent course of his ministry he depended on the force of his example, rather than on repeated precept for their training in this respect. His method had the desired effect; for after what I have thus far narrated, “it came to pass, as he was praying in a certain place that when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples'” (Lk. 11:1-4). Having been a disciple of John, this man knew what John had taught on the subject, and he also knew what Jesus himself had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Why then was he not satisfied? Evidently he thought from the protracted prayers of Jesus, and perhaps from what he saw, or thought he saw, of their effects on the life of Jesus, that there was yet a secret in prayer which he had not discovered. None of the disciples could as yet pray all night; and none since then have learned to do so. Whoever tried it without falling asleep? And who has prayed so effectually as to guard himself against sin? It is a high credit to this disciple – and probably he spoke for the others as well as for himself – that he aspired to his Master’s devotion in this respect. He was disappointed. Jesus answered only by repeating the major part of the simple prayer which he had taught them before, and by adding a parable to show the value of importunity in pleading for what we need (Lk. 11:5-13).

While seated at the last supper, Peter met with a surprise greater, perhaps, than any he had ever known. Jesus said to him: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you that he might sift you like wheat: but I made supplication for thee, that they faith fail not: and do thou, when once thou art turned again, establish thy brethren” (Lk. 22:32). What a revelation to Simon! How startling to know that Satan had thus reached for him, that he might toss him up and down like a farmer winnowing his wheat! What could be meant by his future turning again that he might strengthen his brethren; and how watchful the Master had been to interceed for his safety when he was unmindful of danger. Who knows to what extent the final salvation of Peter depended on that supplication? How sweet it is to know that we too may be objects of similar solicitude in our days of peril. While praying for himself, Jesus did not forget to pray for others. Did he pray for Judas? He gave the traitor blood-curdling warnings on that same fateful night, but not a word about praying for him. Was it true of him, as the old preachers were once accustomed to say, that they was no longer on “praying ground or pleading terms with God?”

The longest prayer ever quoted from the lips of Jesus followed after Judas had left the upper room and the solemn feast. It contains few words for himself, and the rest for the faithful to whom the destinies of his kingdom were now to be entrusted till the final day without his visible presence. Then followed the silent moonlit walk through the deserted streets and down the steep declivity to the Kidron and Gethsemane. On reaching the garden it was observed that “He began to be sorrowful and sore troubled.” The composure that he had maintained thus far broke down as he directed Peter and the sons of Zebedee to go farther with him, and said to the rest, “Sit ye here, while I go yonder and pray.” His supreme hour had come, and what could he do but pray? To the three he said, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” – death, unless he could find relief. “Abide ye here and watch” (stay awake) “with me.” Three times he went from them a short distance to pray, and three times came back to find them asleep. He could not endure to be thus left alone in his anguish. But wakeful angels were watching over the scene and at the moment of his keenest anguish one of them was permitted to appear to Him and strengthen Him. The reported words of this prayer are few. It was doubtless now that his words were attended with strong crying and ears, and by these he was choked almost into silence. I can almost hear the sob with which he prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Who can fathom the depth of meaning in that utterance, or weigh the temptation which it implied? It was offered to “him who was able to save him from death,” and he was heard (Heb. 5:8) – heard not by saving him from death, but by sending the angel to strengthen him. How I long to know what that angel said! Some day I hope to ask him. It did strengthen him; for when he next returned to the sleeping disciples, instead of waking them, as before, he said, “Sleep on now, and take your rest.” Without another cry, or another groan, he passed through the arrest, the trial, the mocking, the scourging, the crucifixion, till the moment when he cried out, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” In another moment we hear the last prayer he ever uttered: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. ” His father had not forsaken him. His temptations, his prayers and his tears were now ended forevermore. (Reprinted from Robert Scott and William C. Stiles, eds., Modern Sermons by World Scholars, 1087 Vols. [New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1909), VI: 75-87; thanks to Bruce Hudson for bringing this material to our attention.)

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 16, pp. 498-500
August 20, 1992