Jesus Taught Us How to Pray
by Trisha L. Knaul
What did God tell us about prayer?
If we want to know what God told us about prayer, we must listen to what Jesus—God the Son—told us. There are several passages where Jesus prayed, all of which give us examples of what and how God Himself modeled prayer for us. (We will explore those another time.) However, the gospels also record the times when Jesus actually taught his disciples about prayer. So, what did Jesus teach about prayer?
We find Jesus’ first prayer teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sermon (or collection of teachings) by Jesus recorded in the Bible. It covers everything from adultery to fasting, from blessings to worry. This sermon also contains the longest recorded teaching on prayer. In the very middle of his sermon, Jesus taught the crowd:
5 “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 others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)
We are expected to pray.
Jesus introduced his teaching on prayer by saying, “when you pray.” When, not if. We are expected to pray. It is not an option for those who follow Jesus Christ. Jesus did not command us to pray; he expected us to be praying. This passage is not a call to prayer. It is instruction (for those who should already be praying) on how to effectively pray.
We are to be real when we pray.
Jesus continued with a warning that we are “not to be like the hypocrites.” The Greek word for hypocrite was the same word used for an actor on a stage. A hypocrite was someone who played a part for the benefit of those watching—what others saw was not who they really were. The rewards for an actor were self-satisfaction and recognition.
Jesus told his followers not to pray in a way that sought or brought recognition for themselves. People who pray in such a way, will receive the same recognition as an actor—self-satisfaction and recognition. Sadly, that is the only reward they will receive. Although public prayer should be done, praying for the praise of men instead of for the glory of God results in nothing but the puffing up of our own pride. The only reward that prayer will receive is the momentary praise of men. We must be ever vigilant of the temptation to shift our focus from God to ourselves when we pray, especially in a group setting.
Prayer is between you and God–private.
How should we pray, then? “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Unlike the hypocrite who is seeking recognition, we are to seek God. Most prayer should be between us and God alone—private. While I don’t want to minimize the importance of praying with others, it needs to be stressed that God wants alone time with us. Our prayers should always be about God, not ourselves.
Once we approach God with the right attitude, “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Seek God, not accolades from others. The best way to do that is to pray where others cannot see us. When we approach God in this way, God will reward us.
Right prayers are rewarded.
What will that reward be? When Jesus said that the hypocrite only receives the reward of men’s praise, the Greek word for reward is misthos. It is a reward “that appropriately compensates a particular decision (action).” (https://biblehub.com/greek/3408.htm) In other words, they will get what’s coming to them, i.e. nothing but the momentary praise of men.
By contrast, when Jesus told us that God will reward the ones who pray in secret, the word for reward is apodidómi which means “to return…, in relation to the source of the giving back.” (https://biblehub.com/greek/591.htm) The ones who pray for God (not for men’s praise) will receive in relationship to what they give. The ones who pray with the right attitude will be rewarded in relationship to the honor given to God—God will honor their prayers as they have honored Him.
God hears our prayers.
Jesus ended this teaching by cautioning us to consider our words carefully when praying. We cannot convince God to listen to us by “babbling like pagans.” God knows what we need (and want) before we even ask. We are to be confident that God hears us. Although there is a time to “not give up” (We will talk about that passage in part 4.), prayers are always to mean something. They are not to be mindless chatter. Prayers that only drone on and on and do not engage the heart and mind of the one praying are just gibberish. The key is personal engagement and relationship with God. He always hears and rewards real, heartfelt prayers offered in humility.
Things to think about:
- How does it make you feel to know that God expects you to be praying?
- If you have ever caught yourself acting when you pray, how did the realization affect you?
- Describe your private place of prayer.
- What rewards have you experienced through prayer?
- Do you find comfort in the thought that you don’t need to use a lot of words when you pray?
In Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus gave specific instructions on how to pray. Jesus didn’t just give his students a lecture, however. He provided an example of how to pray:
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“’Our Father in heaven,
hallowed by your name,
your kingdom come,
10 your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Our prayers should acknowledge and praise God.
“’Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name.” Acknowledge who God is and praise Him. He is our Father in space and time–heaven. A name represents who a person is–character, works, relationship, personal history. He is: Creator, Judge, Redeemer, Holy, etc. We need to remember our history with God. We should begin our prayers by recognizing who God is and, by extension, who we are in relationship to Him.
Praying anticipates God’s earthly kingdom.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our prayers let God know how much we anticipate His earthly kingdom. As we pray we can ask Him to grant us a little piece of it here and now. Ask Him to help us follow His will so that others can gain a glimpse of heaven on earth.
In prayer, we can ask God for what we need.
“Give us today our daily bread.” Ask for needs. Jesus’ sample prayer does not include asking God to grant our wants. He is not a cosmic Santa Claus who pours over our wish list and stuffs all our wants under the Christmas tree. He does, however, grant our needs. Think about the things we are asking Him for. Are they genuinely needs? Or are they wants? Notice that Jesus only asked for today’s needs to be met. We need to pray for our immediate need. Don’t worry over what comes next.
Forgive before praying and seek forgiveness while praying.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Ask for forgiveness. Recognize that forgiveness is extended only as far as we have forgiven others. The Greek word for forgiven is all about releasing the offense so ask God to help you release the pain, anger, resentment, etc. As difficult as is can be, we need to ask Him to help us genuinely forgive the one(s) who hurt us. We must forgive others the same way we want God to forgive us.
Pray for protection from evil.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Ask for protection from temptation. God does not promise we will never be tempted. We can be protected in mind and spirit by receiving His wisdom to recognize it and His strength to resist it and His word to combat it. Ask for protection from “the evil one.” The Greek word means evil, not necessarily “the evil one.” In either case, seek God’s help and protection from the evil around us and aimed at us.
Forgiveness is a prerequisite to prayer.
Jesus concludes his prayer sermon with one more reminder:
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
We forgive others; God forgives us. God takes it very serious when we do not forgive others but expect Him to forgive us!
Things to think about:
- What are some ways you acknowledge and praise God in prayer?
- How can you model God’s kingdom on earth?
- Are you comforted or frustrated with the idea that you should pray only for daily (immediate) needs? Why?
- Was the idea that God will not forgive you if you don’t forgive others new to you? How does that affect you?
In Parts 1 and 2 we explored the longest recorded teaching on prayer by Jesus. There was so much in Matthew 6:5-15 it doesn’t seem possible that Jesus would have more to say on the subject of prayer. Yet, I was left with plenty of questions. How about you? Fortunately, Jesus kept teaching. This time he gave his disciples another short lesson on prayer as they left Jerusalem one day. This lesson came when they approached a dead fig tree cursed by Jesus the day before when he found no fruit on it. When the disciples expressed their shock, Jesus began his lesson:
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Faith is a prerequisite to prayer.
“Have faith in God.” Faith is a prerequisite to effective prayer. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” If we do not believe God can or will answer, prayers are just hollow-sounding babble to Him.
The preposition in or from (depending on the translation) is not in the original Greek. It is an addition that will reflect the theology of the translator. It literally reads “God faith” or “faith God.” Why do I point this out? Because it could be that our faith is in and from God… or for or through or about or etc. Our “God faith” is bigger than any one preposition!
Prayer removes barriers to the salvation message.
The topic of this passage was the removal of barriers to the salvation message. A mountain is something that stands in the way, something that must be overcome to reach a goal or destination. If there is a mountain in the way of our fulfilling God’s purposes, God will remove that mountain, if we have faith—belief that He can and will.
Before praying you must forgive.
Once again Jesus stressed the relationship between our extending forgiveness to others and our receiving forgiveness from God. Forgive to be forgiven.
Things to think about:
- Was the idea of faith as a prerequisite to prayer new to you before reading this series?
- Since you began this series, have you needed to deal with unforgiveness? What have the results been?
- Many times people use these verses to try to prove that God will remove all the hard stuff in life. How did it affect you when you realized that it speaks about removing barriers to Jesus?
Jesus used only two parables to teach lessons on prayer. Both are found in Luke 18:1-14. We will look at the second parable in part 5. The first parable on prayer is:
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Always pray for God’s justice.
Luke introduced the first parable by letting us know that the main point was: “they should always pray and not give up.” Jesus was not comparing God to an ungodly, uncaring judge. He was letting us know that if such a judge could grant justice to a persistent person then God could do it too. According to Luke, the point is not that we should pester God but that we should never give up on prayer.
Again, we need to stress that Jesus was not telling his disciples that God would give them everything they wanted if only they pestered Him enough. Notice that the widow was seeking justice, not gain. We can be sure that if we bring our requests for justice before God—repeatedly, if necessary—He will bring justice.
Verse 8 lets us know that not only will God bring about justice but also that it will come quickly. Quickly in this sense means with a speed that is appropriate to the situation. (Strong’s) We do not have the same view of our circumstances as God does. In His infinite wisdom, He will see that justice occurs at the right time. We can count on it. Don’t give up seeking justice from God for He will bring it when the timing is right.
Things to think about:
- What does it look like to “always pray and not give up?”
- What does it mean to pray for justice?
- How do you respond when God’s quickly is not as fast as you want it to be?
In Part 4 we looked at the first of 2 parables Jesus used to teach people about prayer. Without any break, Luke moved directly to the second parable, so let’s do the same:
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We remember who and what we are when we pray.
Jesus addressed the second parable “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It is important to realize our spiritual position before we go to God in prayer. Is our confidence in our own righteousness or in the righteousness of Jesus applied to us? Do we compare ourselves, our situation, or our sin to others and feel better than them? We have all probably fallen into that trap from time to time so Jesus’ words here are a reminder to all of us of the importance of remembering who and what we are. Remember it is the righteousness of Jesus, not of ourselves, that saves.
Jesus set the stage for his parable by introducing 2 men: a religious leader and a common man. Then he told us what the self-righteous man prayed. He thanked God for his public, physical position and went on to remind God that he was following all the religious rules. By contrast, a despised tax-collector (synonymous with sinner) didn’t dare approach the altar or even raise his eyes to God in heaven. He “beat his breast.” He recognized himself as a sinner unworthy to approach God’s throne, and he begged God for mercy.
Don’t compare when we pray.
Although this parable compared 2 men, the lesson is that we are not to compare ourselves to other men (or women), especially when it makes us feel superior. Comparison is ineffective. Thanking God for making us “better” than someone else fails to recognize our own utter sinfulness and need of mercy. Jesus is the only one we should compare ourselves to. If we do that we will recognize our sinfulness and need and where our true confidence and righteousness are.
Praying in humility before God is rewarded.
As Jesus concluded this parable on prayer, he drove home his point: Those who think too highly of themselves will be humbled by the Exalted One, and those who humble themselves (have a proper view of self before God) will be raised from death by the Exalted One.
Things to think about:
- How do you remember who and what you are?
- What verses do you use to remind yourself of your relationship with God?
- What do you think it means to humble yourself?
The last words Jesus shared on the topic of prayer were spoken at the Last Supper. As Jesus was instructing his apostles on the way of salvation, Philip asked him to show them the Father. In spite of all the time he had spent with Jesus, Philip (and probably the others) did not yet understand Jesus’ relationship with God—His divinity. Jesus’ response to Philip began: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
As Jesus continued to answer Philip, he said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) Jesus was discussing the fact that those (the apostles present that night) who believed in him (as God the Son) would do the same works Jesus himself had been doing. What were those works? They were all types of miracles for the purpose of confirming the message and divinity of Jesus. Then, Jesus spoke these words about prayer:
13 “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
Pray for things that will honor God through Jesus.
The whatever are those things we ask for that will reveal Jesus to others and honor God the Father through them. Jesus was not telling us that he would grant every random, selfish wish. He was letting his apostles know that whatever they asked of God for the purpose of showing The Way (of salvation) to others would be granted. You will not be granted everything you want just because you ask God. You will be granted whatever you want to use or do to point others to Jesus, not whatever you want to use or do to bring yourself comfort or honor. God grants requests made for the sake of sharing the gospel message with the world.
Things to think about:
- What things can you pray for that would confirm the salvation message?
The Teachings of Jesus on Prayer
As we wrap up our Jesus Taught Us How to Pray series, let’s explore 5 themes about prayer as revealed in Jesus’ teachings on the topic:
PRAYER IS EXPECTED.
There was no command to pray. Only an expectation that it was already being done. God expects us to be communicating with Him. (Matthew 6:5)
PRAYER HAS PREREQUISITES.
For prayer to be effective, it must possess two things: faith and forgiveness. The person who approaches God in prayer must believe (have faith) that God is real and ready and willing to answer their prayers. Forgiveness is so important that it was repeated in several of Jesus’ teachings and even several times within a single lesson. His teaching was clear: If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. Failing to forgive others puts up a barrier that prevents our prayers from reaching God’s ears. (Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:22, 25)
PRAYER ATTITUDE MATTERS.
God cares about our attitude when we approach Him. We are to come with no pretense or self-righteousness (usually alone with God). There should be no comparison to others in order to justify our actions or attitudes. We should approach him with humility, recognizing our own sin and need. We can be confident that he hears, indeed already knows. (Matthew 6:5-8; Luke 18:9-14)
PRAYER HAS PURPOSE.
Prayer acknowledges God as God. It helps us to recognize our position before Him. Prayer seeks kingdom purposes, even removing barriers to the spread of the gospel. It brings about whatever is needed to confirm the message and divinity of Jesus. Prayer helps us recognize our true needs and brings them before God. Prayer protects us from temptation and evil influences. Prayer seeks justice before God. (Matthew 6:9-13; Mark 11:24; Luke 14:12-13; 18:6-8)
PRAYER IS REWARDED.
Jesus’ teachings on prayer told us that prayer is rewarded. Justice in God’s kingdom is granted. Barriers to the spread of the gospel and acceptance of its message are removed. Prayer (that meets the prerequisites and has the correct attitude) is rewarded with justification (forgiveness). The person who prays in the above way will be exalted by God. (Matthew 6:5-6; Mark 11:23, 25; Luke 18:14)
Things to think about:
- What impacted you the most from this series?
Visit the Project Prayer Resource page for more prayer related downloads.
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