JESUS AND PRAYER
Prayer was another subject to which Jesus gave a fair amount of attention. Why was prayer much more important to Him than it often is to us? Prayer was His lifeline to the Father. It was important that His disciples understood that prayer was the way that human sons and daughters communicated with their unseen heavenly Father.
Prayer as the Bible presents it, does not exist outside of this relationship. People may “pray” to their gods but it is nothing more than babbling to something that does not exist. The God of the Bible is the only one who responds to prayer. Oh, some may call it coincidence but when people pray, coincidence happens. When they don’t, it doesn’t!
You who answer prayer, to you all people will come (Psa. 65:2).
Jesus took the time to teach His disciples about prayer and He often prayed in their presence. For Him, motive and attitude were as important as the prayers themselves. In His first teaching session with them, according to Matthew, He set the scene by warning them about wrong attitudes and motives.
There were two groups of people whose example Jesus’s disciples were not to follow, the hypocrites and the pagans, for very good reasons. Who were these people?
- The hypocrites
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Matt. 6: 5)
The first group were the “hypocrites.” The word “hypocrite” originates from classical Greek where the word was used of an actor who wore a mask to impersonate a character in a play. “Hypocrites” came to mean those who pretended to be who they were not. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites on more than one occasion, revealing the identity of the hypocrites were of whom He spoke here. Theses men exposed the falseness of their own hearts by their contradictory behaviour, doing the “right thing” but ignoring the spirit of Torah.
It was a common practice to pray standing in the synagogue with arms upraised towards God. Jesus did not condemn their posture since the Bible advocates different postures in prayer, including standing before the Lord. He drew attention to their motive – they wanted to be seen so that they could be admired by their onlookers. They chose the most visible and public places for prayer so that they would be noticed and admired for their piety and, of course, for their long prayers. Jesus was adamant that they were not the model to follow. Why?
The reward they wanted was not from God but from people. They wanted accolades so that they could be admired and applauded with no thought of seeking God’s approval and God’s answers. Prayer had become ritualistic repetition, mere religious exercises with no sense of need for God. Jesus assured His disciples that, if this was all the reward they sought, it was the only reward they would get.
Prayer is not about impressing people. It’s not even about impressing God. Prayer is about seeking the face of God out of weakness and need. God responds readily to those who pray for the right reasons.
The ordinary people were surrounded by self-seeking, approval “addicts” whose prayer model was reprehensible – despicable, inexcusable and unacceptable – but His disciples were not to follow their example. Better to seek solitude and commune with God in secret where there are no watching eyes and listening ears than to pray in public, so that prayer can be sincere and real.
- The pagans
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matt. 6: 7)
The second group were the “pagans”. Who were the pagans? Jesus mentioned pagans on at least four occasions in Matthew’s gospel.
- Pagans only relate to those who relate to them (Matt. 5:45-47).
- Pagans mutter empty repetitive prayers (Matt. 6: 6-8).
- Pagans run after material things (Matt. 6: 31-33).
- Pagans refuse to respond to the process of reconciliation (Matt. 18: 15-17).
In Bible times, people who worshipped false gods were regarded as pagans. They were despised, not only for their idolatry but also because of what they did.
For you have spent enough time in the past doing what the pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. (1 Peter 4: 3)
Jesus warned His disciples not to allow their prayers to degenerate into “babbling”. Another word for “babble” is to “mutter”. Why did pagans mutter? They muttered because they wanted to be heard. Empty repetition was the hallmark of pagan “prayer”. They had no assurance that their gods ever heard them. The cry of the priests of Baal from morning until noon when Elijah challenged them to a contest on Mount Carmel was, “O Baal, answer us!” 91 Kings 18: 26). Elijah’s short prayer, by contrast, was answered immediately! (1 Kings 18: 36-38).
How easy it is to “babble” when we commune with a God we cannot see and hear! God is a spirit. Our communion with Him takes place in the spirit, with or without words. We must keep in mind that God hears our hearts, not our words. We need to practise God-awareness which takes us beyond ourselves and our concerns into the realm where God is sovereign and knows and works far beyond our thoughts and understanding.
God-awareness will save us from putting our circumstances before God, and from being need-and-word orientated rather than God-conscious. Our Father knows our needs before we ask Him. When we concentrate on needs and words rather than on God and who He is, our prayers degenerate into “panic” praying or giving Him information or advice. This is not prayer. This is paganism – speaking to gods who have to be informed or persuaded because they do not exist.
Prayer is essentially the interaction between a loving Father and His submissive and obedient child. It is the communion of heart with heart.
Scripture is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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