It seems that the early disciples witnessed on may occasions the prayer performances of religiously misguide fanatics who identified their religions with the ceremonial performance of their prayers and other ritualistic theatrics. Such religious performances were so prevalent and common in the first century that when John the Baptist came as the forerunner of the Christ, he had to teach his disciples the simplicity of prayer (Lk 11:1).
When Jesus was revealed as the true light, He too needed to teach His disciples how to pray. After determining that there was a significant difference between Jesus’ prayers and the prayers of the religionists of the day, one of Jesus’ disciple eventually came to Him and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray as John also taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1). It was then that Jesus taught the disciples the substance of that for which they must pray, as well as how they should make their requests known to the Father (Lk 11:2,3). Jesus and John had to teach their disciples how to pray because the misguided performance of prayers of the religious world in which the disciples lived.
When the gospel moved out of Palestine and into all the world, there was the continued need that prayer be taught to the new disciples because the gospel had brought many out of idolatry. In the absence of the written New Testament Scriptures, one of the works of the Holy Spirit among the early disciples was to teach proper prayer. This was Paul’s meaning in the statement, “The Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Rm 8:26).
If the religious-oriented disciples of Jesus and John needed to be taught how to pray, then certainly the Gentiles, who were converted out of idolatry in their obedience to the gospel, needed to be taught to pray correctly with the help of the Holy Spirit (See 1 Co 14:15). But when the Scriptures were written on the matter of proper prayer, there was no longer the need that the Spirit directly lead the disciples in prayer. The miraculous gift of prayer passed away (See 1 Co 13:8-10). If one seeks to be taught how to pray today, then he or she must study the Spirit-inspired manual on prayer, the New Testament.
We must understand that Jesus did not give His disciples a ceremonial ritual of prayer to perform. Neither did He give them a recital of words that should be repeated in order to pray properly. Jesus did not establish a religion by handing down a legal ceremony of ritualistically worded prayer that would identify His disciples. Doing such would have established the disciples as just another religion of the day with their own unique ceremony of prayer to perform.
If we would legally use the exact words that Jesus gave to illustrate the substance of correct prayer, then we would be ceremonializing the words, and thus instituting another ritual of religion that should offer prayers exactly as He stated. And then we need to consider the fact that if we used as our prayer the exact words that He gave in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4, then we could not pray for one another, for none of us were mentioned personally in Jesus’ example prayer.
In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wanted to make it clear that His disciples would not cry out from morning to noon as the Baal prophets with some ceremonial prayer of repetitious words and phrases (See 1 Kg 18:26). He did not want the disciples to cry out in confusion in public places that would bring attention to themselves as specialists in prayer. Neither would they pray themselves into an emotional frenzy, even to the point of falling down, or cutting themselves as the Baal prophets (1 Kg 18:28). If they prayed in such a manner, then the Holy Spirit said that when the unbeliever witnessed such confusion, he would think that they were mad (1 Co 14:23). At least one principle in the Spirit’s instructions concerning prayer is very clear: The manner of our prayers should never give the pretense of confusion, madness or false spirituality.
In order to guard His disciples against digression into the confusion and disorder of showmanship prayer, Jesus gave some important principles that should characterize our prayers and the atmosphere in which we should pray:
A. Sincere prayer:
“When you prayer,” Jesus instructed, “you will not be as the hypocrites” (Mt 6:5). The religious leaders during Jesus’ ministry were the Pharisees who gave a pretense of righteousness in public places because “they love the praise of men more than the praise of God” (Jn 12:43). They publicly prayed for the praise of men. But at the same time they were inwardly ravenous wolves (See Mt 7:15-20). Nevertheless, they loved to utter public prayers in order to be seen of men to be spiritual in their prayers. If people seek to be seen in public for their boisterous praying, then they are hypocrites as the Pharisees because they pray for the praise of men.
B. Unnoticed prayer:
Jesus continued to teach the disciples, “When you pray, enter into your closet” (Mt 6:6). The metaphor of the closet is clear. Once in the closet of secrecy, shut the door to the public. Jesus wanted us to understand that in the secrecy of our “closets” we can pour out our hearts to God without being tempted to draw the attention of the people to us in our prayers. In such a personal location of communication with God in secret, we would not be tempted to use some hypocritical “prayer language” to approach God. We would not be tempted to preach in our prayers. We would be motivated to understand that a quiet prayer in seclusion is as effective as a prayer in public before the assembly.
C. Quiet prayer:
The volume of one’s prayer does not enhance its effectiveness. Volume does not guarantee answered prayer. We must not pray as if God were deaf. Some feel that prayer in a loud voice demands that God listen. However, shouting prayers are more self-centered than God directed. When more than one person is praying publicly at the same time, the people who are praying often get into a shouting contest in order to be seen by others that they are praying with earnestness. If one is seeking public attention for his praying, then he needs to find a closet.
D. Prayer without repetitions:
In view of the repetitious words and phrases that were used by the Pharisees in their prayers, Jesus instructed His disciples, “When you pray, do not use meaningless repetitions” (Mt 6:7). Some translations render this verse with the phrase “vain repetitions.” In other words, repeating the same words or phrases over and over again is useless, if not senseless. In the eyes of God, it is meaningless to go on chattering with repetitious phrases. God is not one to whom we must repeat what we say in order for Him to hear and understand. Saying the same phrases over many times in prayer is simply meaningless chatter in the ears of God. If we spoke to one another in such a manner, we would think that we were all mad. Why do we think we can speak in the same repetitious manner to God?
E. Few words in prayer:
Those who practice repetitious prayer performances “think that they will be heard for their many words” (Mt 6:7). The Baal prophets of Elijah’s day led themselves to believe this. They cried out in prayer most of the day (1 Kg 18:26). The vain worshipers of the temple of Ephesus believed the same, and thus, they cried out in praise of the goddess Artemis for two hours with the same meaningless chant (At 19:28). If we do the same in our prayers today, then we have followed after the same religious ceremonialism in prayer as the prophets of Baal and the idolatrous worshipers of Artemis in Ephesus. If Elijah were alive today, he would certainly take the opportunity to mock those who behaved as the Baal prophets, as well as those in the temple of Artemis who chanted the same phrase over and over for two hours.
In order that His disciples not lead themselves into believing that repetitious prayer performances are profitable, Jesus reminded His disciples, “Your Father knows what things you need before you ask Him” (Mt 6:8). Jesus’ statement does not say that the Father answers our prayers before we pray simply because He already knows our needs. Jesus was revealing the omniscience of the One to whom we pray.
Before we pray, the Father always knows that for which we would ask, and thus, asking over and over for the same thing assumes that we believe God does not know our needs. Before we start a shouting session of repetitious words and phrases in a performance of prayer, therefore, we need to remember that all such behavior in prayer is useless and senseless in view of the fact that the Father already knows that for which we would pray.
We must keep in mind that our Father wants us to communicate with Him. He does not need to be preached to in prayer. Neither does He need repetitious shouting, or confusion. As His children, He simply desires that we lay our hearts before Him in words that come from a dependent child who calls on Him for comfort and reassurance. There is no need to make our conversation with God a performance. Whenever we think of performance, we must always remember that performance is something that we do for men. The Baal prophets of Elijah’s day were masters at performances in prayer (1 Kg 18).