How many times have we said our prayers, but never really prayed? The desires of our heart somehow never find the correct words to satisfy our inner yearnings to lay our petitions before our Father. Our prayers often come forth from our lips as if they were uttered to gods of stone whom we knew would never answer. We seek to pray to a living God with dead words. We seek to carry our words before the altar with cold formality, void of the vehicle of our hearts. No wonder John the Baptist and Jesus taught their disciples how to pray. There was something different about their prayers, and thus, one of Jesus’ disciples asked that He teach His disciples how to pray.
Now it came to pass that as He was praying in a certain place, when He finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John also taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1).
At least this one disciple witnessed in Jesus’ prayer something that was different than the cold formalities of prayer that were commonly uttered by himself and the other disciples. It is interesting that this is the only request that the disciples made of Jesus to teach them something specific. They did not ask that He teach them how to preach. They did not ask Him to teach them how lead singing. They did not ask that He teach them how to conduct a colorful assembly of the saints. “Teach us to pray” was all they asked.
We find this interesting, if not revealing of our own selves. We seek to be taught everything, but how to pray. Since our character should be defined by a dedicated prayer life, then we need to be on our knees with the same request as the disciple who asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Since we are always unsatisfied with our prayer life, then we are always seeking instructions in how to pray.
- Jesus teaches on prayer.
It is not surprising that there is a great deal of instruction in the Sermon on the Mount in reference to prayer. If the Sermon on the Mount would be the constitution for character building, then we would expect no less in reference to the subject of prayer. Notice Matthew’s introduction to the occasion of Jesus’ teaching:
And seeing the multitudes, He [Jesus] went up on a mountain. And when He sat down, His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them … (Mt 5:1,2).
Jesus taught them many things on this particular occasion. When He came to the subject of prayer in the “sermon,” He taught them many things concerning how to express their inner desires to the Father, as well as what to request. The following are some very important points of Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the context of Matthew 6:5-15:
- Do not pray as the religious hypocrites. There were some in the religious environment in which the disciples lived who loved to pray in prominent places “so that they may be seen by men” (Mt 6:5). Prayer is not a performance. Prayer is not to be uttered in order to receive the glory of men. On the contrary, “when you pray, enter into your closet” (Mt 6:6). Prayer is a private matter. “In your closet” assumes that prayer is between the one praying and God.
There are those public occasions when holy men lifted up holy hands in order to lead a group in prayer. In view of the phrase “in your closet,” we could deduct that even when one leads in a public manner, his prayer is addressed orally, but the prayer is still an expression of thoughts of the one who is praying. The Holy Spirit wanted “men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting” (1 Tm 2:8). This statement is made in reference to public prayer. The mandate is that the men be the ones who are lifting up their holy hands in prayer in public.
We must keep in mind that the statement of instruction to Timothy does not say that all the men in the assembly should pray at the same time. No one person praying in such an environment should pray his own prayer to the exclusion of others. Public prayer is simply one person expressing the thoughts of the entire group in prayer. If one is to lead the thoughts of others in public prayer, then the group must be silent in order that the words of the one who leads the thoughts of the group can be heard by the group. If everyone seeks to make his own prayer at the same time in an assembly, then there is no leading in prayer, only vocal confusion with individuals trying to compete with one another in prayer. Such behavior leads to confusion in the assembly.
Jesus’ instructions on prayer indicate that there should be no public displays of one’s praying in a manner that would give a pretense of righteousness, or draw attention to one’s self. This was the context of Jesus’ instructions and the problem of the Pharisees. Prayer is a private matter, not a public display of shouting to God for attention, or an effort to compete with others. We see this in Jesus’ instructions on prayer: “But you, when you pray, enter into your closet. And when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret” (Mt 6:6). If one prays publicly in order to display himself, as did the Pharisees, then he would be as the religious hypocrites who also prayed publicly in order to be seen to be somewhat religious.
[Next lecture tomorrow, September 25]