Learning to pray like Jesus

Perhaps you’ve seen the picture of Jesus kneeling by a rock in the garden; hands folded, eyes turned upward, the perfect picture of serenity. The gospel writers paint a different picture; it doesn’t include serenity. Mark records that he “fell to the ground” in distress. Luke describes a dangerous condition known as hematidrosis in which, under extreme anguish or physical pain, the capillaries beneath the skin dilate and burst, mixing blood with perspiration. Luke also records that an angel came to strengthen him. Matthew tells us that Jesus pleaded three times that the “cup pass from me” – an Old Testament reference to drinking the “wrath of God.” While Jesus didn’t fear the crucifixion or death, he did fear—and for good reason—the judgment of his Father’s righteous anger against our sin that he was about to embrace.

There is nothing peaceful about this scene. The only one praying was sweating blood, physically exhausted, and emotionally drained, but still clinging to prayer in spite of heaven’s silent answer. In his greatest hour of need, Jesus found prayer to be a sustaining resource, enabling him to do the will of his Father. Having prayed, he knew that his Father knew and that was enough.

Sadly, if you could have joined the prayer meeting in the garden that night, you would have heard more snoring than praying. While the disciples had been taught how to pray, they had not faithfully practiced the truths they had learned. Only Jesus had grown and progressed in his prayer life to the point where he could pray with clear focus in spite of his deep distress.

Taken from Just Like Jesus:biblical stratgies for growing well by Phil Moser, pages 19-20. Available through www.biblicalstrategies.com

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Prayer and decision-making

Jesus spent time in prayer before he made major decisions. Two occasions bear this out. In the opening days of ministry Jesus was shifting ministry locations (Mark 1:35, 38). If you’ve ever made a move, you know there’s a lot involved in that decision. Jesus had previously moved his ministry operations to Capernaum (Matt. 4:13). Now he would extend his ministry into the hills surrounding Galilee. To do so, he would be leaving some tremendous ministry opportunities behind (Mark 1:37). When Peter points this out, notice Jesus’ answer:  “Let us go to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38).

How did Jesus make this decision?  Three verses earlier we discover the answer. Jesus was praying “early in the morning” (Mark 1:35). It seems reasonable that Jesus discovered his next steps through prayer.

Selecting the twelve apostles was an important decision. The fact that Jesus didn’t choose perfect people is evident in the transparency of the gospel record. Thomas doubted him. Peter denied him. Judas betrayed him. All twelve argued over who would be the greatest. Yet, prior to their selection, Jesus spent the night in prayer. Luke records,

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles . . . (Luke 6:12-13).

Jesus not only prayed about this selection, he literally continued in prayer throughout the night without interruption. 1  When you face a major decision, do you pray like Jesus? Do you spend more time talking to God or talking to others?

There is another truth easily missed in a cursory reading. We may assume that Jesus’ unique relationship with his Father spilled over into his prayer life, yet we don’t see the Father speaking back to Jesus during his time of prayer; we just read that Jesus prayed all night long.  It’s not that the Father couldn’t audibly speak back; on three other occasions he spoke in an audible voice so Jesus could hear. 2 Rather, the Father speaking back seems to be the exception rather than the standard.

I confess, sometimes when I’ve prayed over a decision I’ve thought: I just wish God would tell me what to do. Perhaps you have too. Not so with Jesus. He seems to have discovered his answer through the process of prayer, not because the Father gave a quick and easy answer. He labored in prayer, and so should we. 

1 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words

2 God the Father spoke to, or on behalf of the son, from heaven in an audible voice three times: At his baptism (Matt. 3:17), when he was transfigured (Mark 9:7), and the final week of his life when his soul is troubled (John 12:28). This is significant. The Father’s response to Jesus’ prayer time does not appear to be all that different from when you and I pray.

How Jesus overcame self-pity

In the gospel record we find a number of instances where Jesus could have chosen to feel sorry for himself. When we examine the surrounding circumstances and his response, we gain a greater understanding for how we should respond in similar situations to avoid self-pity.

Change your role.

Our culture prizes being served. Google “pamper yourself” and expect to find over 7 million hits. You won’t read much about serving the poor and needy there, but one phrase is sure to show up: you deserve it. Search the web for that phrase and you’ll find 133 million people giving advice.

You will always be susceptible to self-pity whenever your starting point is someone serving you because you think you “deserve” it. Not only will others not meet your expectations, but you will desire the wrong thing. You’re looking to be served and not to serve. The disciples had this problem. Mark records they were arguing about who should have the best seats in the kingdom. Jesus response was instructive for them and for us.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

The lesson we learn from Jesus is to replace a failure to be served with a desire to serve.

Deepen your desire.

You would think that Jesus’ words and actions would have been enough to bring about change in the disciples, but they were not. On the night before his crucifixion the disciples are at it again; this time in the upper room. Perhaps it was Jesus’ triumphal entry earlier in the week that got them thinking it was time to divide up the kingdom.

Imagine the situation from Jesus’ perspective: Three years of selfless ministry, his death only 24 hours away, and still they’re arguing. That’s enough to push anyone into the self-pity chasm. Look at Jesus’ response.

Jesus . . . rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:3-5).

Remarkable. Chances to indulge our self-pity are viewed by Jesus as opportunities to deepen his desire to serve.

Purge your response.

What if you’re not recognized for your service? Is a bad attitude justified? God is purging. He wants you to develop the heart of a servant, not simply the actions.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “The hardest part about being a servant is being treated like one.” Agreed. Most of us can enjoy doing a kind deed for someone, but when the deed is taken for granted or we fail to be appreciated it’s easy to have a self-pity attack.

Even when his acts of kindness were rebuffed, Jesus didn’t succumb to self-pity. He kept serving. This response inoculated him against potential bitterness. It’s hard to have a complaining spirit when your ultimate goal is to serve others.

The secret of Jesus’ spirit of submission

Imagine, the perfect man submitting to imperfect authorities. Jesus purposed to do this because of his strong confidence in the sovereignty of his Father. This confidence is best revealed in the most preposterous of all trials. On the eve of his crucifixion Jesus will undergo six trials—three of them Jewish, and three of them Roman. As he stood before Pontius Pilate, the appointed governor in Jerusalem, Jesus kept silent in the face of the accusations that were brought against him. Into that context Pilate asks Jesus a question.

So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”  From then on Pilate sought to release him. . . (John 19:10-12).

This is a remarkable look into the mind of our Lord. He specifically states that Pilate’s authority is God derived. To the appointed governor who assumed his power was received from the Roman government this must have been an unnerving reminder. It should not come as a surprise that from that point on Pilate does all he can do to release Jesus.

When Pilate’s temporary resolve to do the right thing buckles under the Sanhedrin’s pressure, Jesus’ confidence in his Father’s will does not. This is a good reminder of the importance of submitting to our imperfect human authorities even when their interests are so self-serving.

In God’s plan he uses Pilate’s weakness and the religious leader’s jealousy to declare Jesus innocence while still insisting upon his crucifixion. Both of these elements were necessary in the plan of God in order that everyone might know that an innocent man had died in the place of the guilty (2 Cor. 5:21). Nine times in the gospel record Pilate will declare Jesus without guilt prior to his pronouncement of the death sentence (Matthew 27:24; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:4, 14, 15, 22; John 19:4, 6, 12).

Pilate’s weak leadership, without him even being aware of it, is actually used by God to accomplish God’s sovereign will in the life of Jesus. While the outcome of the trials is preposterous—how could one declare a man’s innocence nine times and then call for his execution? The function of the trials is not—they declare a man innocent of his own crimes in order that his punishment may be put to a guilty party’s account. This is exactly what Isaiah prophesied 700 years prior to Jesus crucifixion,

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

As Jesus submitted to his imperfect human authorities he developed a deeper confidence in his Father’s sovereign will. Therefore, he comes to the most pivotal moment of choice in the Garden of Gethsemane and submits to his Father’s will with joy (Heb. 12:2).

Note the progression: (1) as a young boy, Jesus submitted to his parents, who, while imperfect had his best interest in view, (2) as a grown man Jesus submitted to the governing authorities, who were indifferent to his plight or condition, finally (3) Jesus submitted to those leaders who were opposed to his ministry and would be responsible for taking his life even though their intentions were self-serving and fueled by jealousy (John 11:47-50; 19:11).

Jesus grew in his ability to submit to imperfect human authorities by taking his eyes off of their imperfections, and placing them on his heavenly Father’s perfections. It was His Father’s will Jesus wanted to do whatever the cost.  You and I will only go so far in our understanding of submission unless we grasp the truth that Jesus did: there is a hand we cannot see guiding the hands of those we can.

Because Jesus spent a life time practicing this truth he was prepared to answer Pilot’s weak but abusive authority on the day of his crucifixion (John 19:10-11).

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above… (John 19:11).

 Jesus got it. In his humility, he understood that God was able to use imperfect authorities to accomplish his will in one’s life. He not only submitted, but he did so with a humble spirit and a right attitude (Phil. 2:5, NASV).

Think about the authorities God has placed over you. How are you responding to them? When others around you complain about their leaders, what do you say? Do you join in or show a sweet spirit of submission. Is your attitude one of respect even when those in authority might be disrespectful? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do you submit even when you disagree?

Lessons learned from the temptation of Jesus

When we face temptation, we would do well to examine the lessons Jesus practiced when he was tempted. Here are four:

(1) He was led by the Spirit of God (Matt. 4:1)

Matthew records that Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be tempted. We know that God cannot be tempted, neither tempts he any man (Jam. 1:13), so the Spirit of God wasn’t doing the tempting, he was doing the leading. This is an important distinction, and a vital reminder of this truth: Jesus was not alone in his temptation. The Holy Spirit was with him.

Often we feel alone in our greatest temptation. We look to the left then to the right, and choose to sin because we think no one is watching (Heb. 4:13). We get discouraged because we think we have to battle the temptation by ourselves. The Scripture gives this great reminder: we’re not alone (Heb. 13:5).

(2) He was dependent on the Word of God (Matt. 4:4).

Three times Jesus would say, “It is written.” The first verse Jesus quoted was “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Are we that dependent upon the word of God when we face temptation? When was the last time we actively memorized verses that prepared us for the temptations with which we personally struggle? Jesus said, “We live by every word that comes from God.” That’s dependence.

(3) He was defensive for the character of God (Matt. 4:7)

Just like with Eve in the garden, Satan’s ploy was to draw into question the character of God.  “Throw yourself down from this temple and God will send angels” (Matt. 4:6). It’s as if Satan is saying, “That’s what God said, right?”

Jesus countered with, “You shall not test the Lord your God.” Jesus was saying, “I will not doubt, draw into question, or test God’s character.” The character of God is true and unchanging. When we are tempted we should not be surprised that the tempter attacks the character of God. Questions come into our imagination like:

  • Why would a loving God allow this to happen to you?
  • Is God really all-powerful? Why didn’t he stop the circumstances that brought such pain?
  • Is God really all-wise? Shouldn’t he have known your situation better?

 Temptation always places a question mark over the character of God. Jesus defends the character of God, and thus further prepares himself for his role of submission in the Garden of Gethsemane 3 years later.

(4) He waited for the provision of God (Matt. 4:11).

After 40 days of fasting Jesus needed ICU level care. God provided. He sent angels. They came and ministered to Jesus in his malnourished state. The angels appear to be the ones who break Jesus’ 40 day fast (Matt. 4:11). Jesus was willing to wait on God. Though hungry, weak, and hurting, Jesus waited on God’s provision, and God answered.

Here’s another window into the nature of temptation. We often sin when we are unwilling to patiently wait. We ought not to be in a hurry. There is always time to wait, pray, and trust God to provide—even if it takes 40 days.

The trials of Jesus — part 2

Jesus could not have been publicly crucified without a trial, but that didn’t mean that the trial would be fair or legal. In fact, it was a great travesty of justice.

Consider these ways both the Jews and Romans violated their own laws.

  • The trial was at the wrong time (at night).
  • The trial was in the wrong place (Caiaphas’ home).
  • No indictment was prepared.
  • No counsel was provided the defendant.
  • No witnesses were heard (except for those that were obviously false).
  • The death penalty was given without a night in between the verdict and the sentencing.
  • Court procedure wasn’t followed.

Having completed his Jewish trials with Anna and Caiphas, Jesus proceeds to his trials with Pilate and Herod. While these trials were necessary to bring about a public, Roman execution; from the Scripture’s point of view the purpose of the trials served as a declaration of Christ’s innocence. Eight times Pilate and Herod declare him innocent (Luke 23:4, 14, 15, 22; John 19:4, 6, 12; Matt. 27:25). Yet, in the end Pilate succumbs to the Jewish pressure to execute him.

This is remarkable. The crucifixion was meant to verify his death; the trials were meant to declare his innocence. Jesus certainly died, but he was most certainly innocent.

Paul captured it this way in his letter to the Corinthians.

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:20-21).

The trials of Jesus – Part 1

There were six trials that Jesus endured prior to his crucifixion. Three of them were Jewish and three were Roman. Two of them involved the Jewish high priest, Caiphas.

Perhaps if Caiphas could have told the story it might have sounded like this.

It was harder than we thought it would be. Getting him to the point where Rome would demand his crucifixion.   The arrest was the easy part. We sent 600 guards to ensure it, but in the end we could have gotten by with one. It was almost as if he wanted to be found. The arrest was Annas’s part. The conviction was to be mine. This Jesus was a dangerous man, and I said so. The testimonies flowing out of Bethany were real. There was little doubt among the people that he had raised Lazarus from the dead. We just didn’t know how. The Pharisees were in a panic. The people were beginning to refer to Him as the Messiah. The tide was turning. We would need to act fast before it was too late. We had already lost our popularity, we were frighteningly close to losing our power. Suddenly the thought was just there in my head, crystal clear. I don’t even know where it came from. But I knew it was the thing that had to be done. “You know nothing at all” I said to council, “it is better that one man die for the nation, then the whole nation die.” That thought galvanized the men. We knew what we had to do.

The payment of false witnesses was something we had done before. We weren’t proud of it, but sometimes it was necessary. And believe me when I say this: this time it was necessary. You couldn’t find anyone willing to bring something against this man…It was almost as if he were perfect. But he couldn’t be perfect, when His presence irritated us so much. He had such blatant disregard for our authority. It was like he didn’t recognize the fact that we were in charge. But that would all be different on this night. You don’t try to overturn our religious establishment without paying a price.

The false witnesses were a fiasco. We were trying to do this all so quickly that we had not prepared them well. Their stories contradicted each other. And the more witnesses we brought the more confusing it became. There were those on the council who would not vote for his execution, unless they were fully persuaded. In all of this Jesus sat in silence, and I regret to say this, but his silent defense was effective. Even a fool could see that the witnesses were making this up. I could feel it slipping away. The door of opportunity was closing.  So I took matters into my own hands. I stood up and addressed him directly. “Have you no answer to make to what these men testify against you? I was greeted with the same silence as before. So I goaded him. “Are you the Messiah the Son of the Blessed One?” The question just hung in the air. And for the first time the room was silent, and into that silence Jesus spoke. It’s as if He had been waiting for the question to be asked. “I am the Messiah,” He said, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” This was more than I had expected. He had just equated himself with God.  “It’s blasphemy!” I cried. We don’t need these witnesses He has testified against Himself!” I tore my garments, a bit of an act I confess, but it was effective. The rest of the leaders followed by example, it was free-for-all. In the confusion I knew it was time to ask the council the question. So I turned to them and raised my voice above the noise, “What is your decision?” I cried. And to a man they all condemned him to die.

His answer was so unexpected. Why had he not been so forthright in these claims before? It was almost as if He wanted to die, but that’s ridiculous, why would anyone, especially one as popular as he, want to die?