From What Jesus Demands from the World
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. (Luke 18:1)
Pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. (Matthew 6:6)
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do. (Matthew 6:7-8)
Pray then like this: “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed by you name.” (Matthew 6:9)
Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Matthew 9:38)
How much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)
Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:24)
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:13)
Jesus intends to create a praying people. His demand is clear, and the issue is so important that he tells us why, how, for whom, and what we are to pray. And though we might think that the Son of God would be above the need to pray, he sets the example for us, as a perfect human being, by rising early in the morning to pray, (Mark 1:35), and seeking times alone to pray, (Matthew 14:23), and sometimes spending the whole night in prayer, (Luke 6:12), and, in the end, preparing for his suffering by prayer, (Luke 22:42-42).
Why? For the Glory of God
Why did Jesus think prayer was so important for his followers? The reason is that prayer corresponds with two great purposes of God that Jesus came to accomplish: God’s glory and our joy. Jesus said, Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” (John 14:13). Prayer is designed by God to display his fullness and our need. Prayer glorifies God because it puts us in the position of the thirsty and God in the position of the all-supplying fountain.
Jesus knew the Psalms and read Psalm 50:15 where God, like Jesus, demands that we pray for help and shows that this gives glory to God: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” Prayer is designed as a way of relating to God, so that it is clear we get the help and he gets the glory. Jesus said that he had come to glorify his Father. “I glorified you on Earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do,” (John 17:4). Part of what God had given him to do was to teach his disciples to pray, because when we pray in Jesus’s name, “the Father [is] glorified in the Son,” (John 14:13).
Why? For Our Joy
The other purpose Jesus came to accomplish was our joy. Everything he taught was aimed to free us from eternal-joy-killers and fill us with the only joy that lasts – joy in God. “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves,” (John 17:13). One of his most pervasive teachings for our joy was the teaching on prayer, and he made his motive explicit: our joy. “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full,” (John 16:24). The most wonderful thing about prayer, as Jesus demands it, is that it is perfectly suited to secure God’s glory and our joy.
These are great incentives for us to obey Jesus’s demand that we “always. . . pray and not lose heart,” (Luke 18:1). To these he adds other incentives, because he is so eager for us to feel hopeful in our praying. He says, for example, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” (Matthew 6:8). The point is that we don’t need to multiply pious phrases in prayer hoping that we might awaken God’s attention or inclination. He is our caring Father, and he is all-knowing. He will answer. Then Jesus underlines God’s readiness to answer by comparing him to a human father, but pointing out that God is far more eager to answer than human fathers.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. . . which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in Heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)
So in answer to the question why we should pray, Jesus says: because God is very inclined to hear and answer our prayers – which is not surprising, since prayer is designed to magnify God’s glory while sustaining our joy in him.
How then are we to pray? The readiness of God to answer and his perfect knowledge of what we need before we ask means that we should be simple in our working and reject anything like a repetitive mantra that would imply God is aroused by our monotonous incantations. “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” (Matthew 6:7-8).
How? With Perseverance
This does not mean there is no place for perseverance in prayer. In fact, Jesus is explicit in telling us to be persistent in prayer over a long period of time, if necessary, as we seek some crucial breakthrough in the cause of righteousness for his glory, (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8). The point is not to finally break God’s resistance but to discover, by patient prayer, God’s wisdom as to the way and time the prayer should be answered. He is not disinclined to help his children and glorify his name. He simply knows better than we do when and how the answer should come. Therefore, our persistence in prayer shows both our confidence that God is our only hope and that he will act in the best way and the best time in response to our persistent pleas.
How? Through His Death and in His Name
The confidence that we have in prayer is owing to Jesus. He did not just teach us to pray – he died for us and rose again to remove insuperable obstacles to prayer. Without the death of Jesus, our sins would not be forgiven, (Matthew 26:28), and the wrath of God would still be against us, (John 3:36). In that condition we could expect no answers to prayer from God. Therefore, Jesus is the ground of all our prayers. This is why he taught us to pray in his name. “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” (John 14:!3; cf. 16:23-24). Ending our prayers, “in Jesus’s name, Amen,” is not a mere tradition; it is an affirmation of faith in Jesus as the only hope of access to God.
How? With Faith
This implies that Jesus does indeed want us to pray with faith. “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith,” (Matthew 21:22; cf. Mark 11:24). Some have taken verses like this and turned them into the power of positive thinking. They believe that if we can be confident that something will happen, it will indeed happen. But that would be faith in our faith. When Jesus teaches us how to “move mountains” by faith, he says explicitly, “Have faith in God,” (Mark 11:22). There seem to be times when God makes clear to us that his will is to do a particular thing. In that case we may be perfectly confident that very thing will be done. In that sense Jesus says to us, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” (Mark 11:24). It is God who does it, and our belief rests on him and his revealed will. Otherwise, we would be God, and he would run the universe according to our will, not his.
Jesus makes it clear that there is a kind of filter that our prayers must pass through in order to be sure that they are according to God’s will. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” (John 15:7). Here Jesus’s promise is more clearly qualified than in Mark 11:24. Are we trusting in him as our all-supplying vine? And are his words shaping our minds and hearts so that we discern how to pray according to his wisdom?
Praying in faith does not always mean being sure that the very thing we ask will happen. But it does always mean that because of Jesus we trust God to hear us and help us in the way that seems best to him. It may mean that he gives us just what we ask, or that he gives us something better. Will a father give a son a stone if he asks him for bread? No. But neither will he give him bread if it is moldy. He may give him cake. Sometimes God’s answers will overwhelm us with their excess. Other times they taste more like medicine than food and will test our faith that this medicine is really what we need.
How? Not for the Praise of Others
In view of all this, it should be clear that the reward of prayer comes from God, not man. But Jesus shows us that the human heart is capable of turning the most beautifully Godward act in a manward direction and ruining it. He warns us:
When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)
Jesus hates hypocrisy – like appearing to love God when what you really love is the praise of man. His most disparaging language was reserved for “hypocrites.” He called them children of hell, “blind guides,” “full of greed and self-indulgence,” “whitewashed tombs,” (Matthew 23:15, 24, 25, 27). The demand is unmistakable: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy,” (Luke 12:1). The implication for prayer (and fasting and almsgiving, Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18) is: Treasure God, and all that he will be for you, in prayer; but do not treasure the praise of man. And most of all do not turn a God-treasuring act of prayer into a man-treasuring act of hypocrisy.
For whom does Jesus demand that we pray? Clearly ourselves. Not because we are deserving. Prayer has nothing to do with deserving. It’s all mercy. We pray for ourselves because we are weak. We are so prone to sin and utterly dependent on preserving grace to sustain our flawed obedience. “Pray then like this,” Jesus said, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” (Matthew 6:9, 13). That is a prayer for ourselves first, since we know our own frailty and vulnerability better than anyone. Then it is a prayer for the other followers of Jesus and the world.
No one is to be excluded from our prayers. When Jesus tells us to pray, “Hallowed be your name,” (Matthew 6:9), he means that we should pray this for anyone who does not yet hallow God’s name. And if our selfish hearts should think of some adversary that we do not like, Jesus is unsparing – these too must be blessed in our prayers. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44); “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” (Luke 6:28). None must be excluded from our love, and none may be excluded from our prayers.
Finally, what does Jesus demand that we pray? What are we to ask the Father to do? Jesus’s summary answer is called the Lord’s Prayer, (Matthew 6:9-13).
Our Father in Heaven,
1) hallowed be your name.
2) Your kingdom come,
3) your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
4) Give us this day our daily bread,
5) and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
6) And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
We pray for ourselves and for other followers of Jesus and for the world (1) that we would reverence and cherish the name of God above things. This is the first function of prayer – to pray that people would pursue the glory of God. (2) We pray that God’s saving, purifying, Jesus-exalting rule would hold sway in our lives and would finally come in universal manifestation and extent. (3) We pray that we would do the will of God the way the angels do it in Heaven – namely, without hesitation and full of zeal and thoroughness. (4) We pray for the practical provisions of body and mind that make an Earthly life of obedience possible. (5) We pray for forgiveness for our daily failures to honor God as we ought. That is, we ask God to apply to us each day the perfect redemption that Jesus obtained once for all when he died on the cross. (6) We pray that God would protect us from the evil one and from the temptations that would bring us to ruin and weaken our witness for him.
The Lord’s Prayer shows us the astonishing nature of prayer. It puts in the position of greatest importance the prayer for God’s name to be glorified, God’s kingdom to advance and triumph, and God’s will be accomplished on the Earth the way it’s happening in Heaven. This means that God intends to use human prayers to accomplish his most ultimate and universal purposes. For example, Jesus tells us to pray for the workers that will be required to spread the gospel to all the nations. “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” (Matthew 9:38). Yet nothing is more certain than that the kingdom of God will triumph. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. . . this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” (Matthew 16:18; 24:14). There is no uncertainty about the triumph of God. Nevertheless, in God’s providence it depends on human prayer.
This implies that prayer is not only a duty of man but a gift of God. Jesus will awaken in his people the spirit of prayer that asks for everything it will take to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. The prayers of Jesus’s followers and the purposes of God will not fail.