(Wave Nunnally is emeritus professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University/Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and president of Bible Unplugged.)
Much has been written about the content of Jesus’ prayers — they demonstrate the most intimate relationship with God the Father ever heard from human lips. Nevertheless, how Jesus prayed can be seen to reveal nearly as much as what He prayed when viewed from the right perspective.
PRAYER IN THE OLD TESTAMENT/HEBREW BIBLE
When Jesus read the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT), He found multiple descriptions of individuals praying, from Abraham to Nehemiah. These “saints” provided the covenant community a wide variety of prayer practices to follow. As these prayer practices were voluntarily repeated generation after generation, the pious of the covenant community willingly followed the established modes of prayer employed by their role models who preceded them. Although nowhere commanded in the Scriptures, these means of prayer came to be accepted and even expected. What then did prayer look like in the Old Testament (OT)? Following are four (of many) components of the prayer practices of Jesus’ spiritual ancestors.
Prostration. Prostration was a commonly accepted means of demonstrating humility and submission toward human superiors. It also appears to have been second nature as a prayer posture in the cultures of the Ancient Near East, including Israel. While this form of worship is clearly evident prior to biblical times, it can also be seen from the beginning of the Hebrew Bible to its end. In the context of prayer, language like “falling on [one’s] face” appears in some texts (Joshua 5:14; Ezekiel 11:13). Elsewhere, “bowing with [one’s] face to the ground” precedes prayer (Genesis 17:17; 1 Kings 18:42).
Face uplifted/eyes open. Like prostration, offering prayer to one’s god with eyes open and looking heavenward was not new nor unique to ancient Israelites: it can be found throughout the Ancient Near East. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find this expression well-attested in the Hebrew Bible (Psalms 121:1; Ezra 9:6; Daniel 4:34, etc.).
Raising/lifting up/stretching forth of the hands. It is clear that this expression predates the Bible (e.g., the engraving on the largest standing stone of the Canaanite high place from Hazor, now in the Israel Museum). Therefore, it is not surprising that this posture of prayer appears in the Hebrew Bible. The language employed is usually “lift up [the] hands (Psalms 28:2; Lamentations 2:19, etc.), although “stretch out/forth [the] hands” also appears (Psalm 143:3; Ezra 9:5, etc.). From the earliest times of the OT until its end, in private and corporate times of prayer and worship, the covenant community included the raising of hands as a normal part of communicating with God.
Audible prayer. From the earliest times, people are said to “cry out/call out/lift up or raise [one’s] voice to the Lord” in prayer (Genesis 30:6; Exodus 3:7, etc.). These instances often combine terms like “cry out” and “prayer” in the same passage, making the context clear. Throughout Scripture, the word “shout” is used in the context of prayer (Psalms 47:1; Ezra 3:11, etc.). Even when phrases like “the meditations of my heart” (Psalm 19:14b) are used to describe prayer, the broader context (the poetically parallel “words of my mouth,” Psalm 19:14a) makes it clear that prayer in ancient Israel was typically vocalized/audible.
Every expression of physically (and vocally) expressive prayer mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and discussed above is attested in the various literatures of the Intertestamental Period [the centuries between the last book of the OT and the first book of the New Testament]. Therefore, the Intertestamental Period should be seen merely as a continuation of the same practices observed in the HB/OT. The physical expressions of prayer established in the OT appear not only to be acceptable, but desirable — perhaps even preferable — during the Intertestamental Period.
Prostration. The practice of prostration during times of prayer can be seen across a wide array of intertestamental literature (Judith 6:18, 1 Maccabees 4:40, etc.). It is found with approximately the same frequency, and carries the same intended meaning (humility and submission) as in OT times.
Face uplifted/eyes open. Similarly, “looking up/lifting up [the] eyes/face to/toward heaven” also occurs frequently throughout literature (Tobit 3:12; Susanna 13:9, etc.; cf. Prayer of Manasseh 9; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2.14.2, etc.). This is the standard posture of prayer (cf. Luke 18:13): except when prostration is employed, there is no other posture described anywhere in the relevant corpora of literature. Interestingly, unlike Christianity, Judaism has retained this practice, whether in private or corporate prayer, even today.
Raising/lifting up/stretching forth of the hands. Intertestamental Judaism and beyond continued to express itself to God in prayer by “raising/lifting up/stretching out/stretching forth the hands” (Ben Sira 50:20; 4 Maccabees 4:11, etc.; cf. Mishnah Berachot 6:4). While not seen as frequently today as the expression in the previous paragraph, this prayer posture is often employed in tandem with uplifted face and open eyes.
Audible prayer. Lastly, throughout this period, prayer is consistently portrayed as vocalized (2 Maccabees 3:15; 3 Ezra 5:62, etc.). As in the OT, silent, contemplative prayer is absent from the written record during the Intertestamental Period.
Further, to the earliest rabbis, audible prayer was not merely allowed — it was required:
If a man recited the Sh’ma [a prayer required of observant Jews three times a day], but not loudly enough to hear himself . . . Rabbi Yose says, “He has not fulfilled it [his obligation to pray].” If he recited it without clearly pronouncing the letters . . . Rabbi Judah says, “He has not fulfilled it [his obligation to pray” (Mishnah Berachot 2:3-4, emphasis added to demonstrate the audible nature of prayer)].
Because modern Judaism is built largely upon the precedents established by ancient rabbinic Judaism, the practice of verbalized, audible prayer is universal within Judaism today — whether the prayers are uttered in private or among thousands of worshipers. Even today, the prayers of Jews in corporate settings can be heard for blocks away.
THE PRAYER PRACTICES OF JESUS
Many aspects of Jesus’ prayer life should strike His followers today as being unusual. The same four areas surveyed above will be discussed in terms of the external modes of prayer Jesus employed. A fifth appears at the end of this section that has no parallels in the HB/OT or in intertestamental literature.
Prostration. Following HB/OT precedent, Jesus prostrates Himself before the Father, demonstrating humility and submission of a “lesser” when in the presence of a “greater” (Matthew 26:39 = Mark 14:35). Following the ministry of Jesus, prostration continues to be a prominent feature describing early Christian practice (Acts 9:4; Revelation 5:8).
Face uplifted/eyes open. Each time Jesus’ eyes are mentioned when He is praying, they are open and He is gazing heavenward (Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16; John 11:41). In addition to these texts, when the parallel passages of Matthew 3:16 and Luke 3:21 are read in tandem, a fascinating fact emerges: as Jesus was praying, He saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon Him. Jesus also describes the prayers typical of others in the same way (Luke 18:13).
Raising/lifting up/stretching forth of the hands. The only time Jesus’ hands are described during prayer, they are raised (Luke 24:50). This act has to be understood in light of the precedent set in the HB/OT. Early Christianity seems to have followed this practice as well. Paul instructs Timothy, “…I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Timothy 2:8). Note Paul expected this to be the common practice of Christians “in every place.”
Audible prayer. The Gospels consistently describe Jesus as praying audibly. We are told regularly in the Gospels that when in prayer, Jesus “said” (Luke 10:21; John 12:27, etc.) and “cried out” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34, etc.). This mode of prayer cannot be seen as accidental, capricious, or even innovative: Jesus was simply following precedent.
The Scriptures never suggest that Jesus “thought certain thoughts while in prayer, directed them toward God, and then told His disciples the contents of these internal meditations at some later time.” Rather, the reason why we have the prayers of Jesus in our Bibles is that He vocalized them loudly enough for His disciples to hear them! Had Jesus not been born into a tradition that normalized and eventually normativized vocalized prayer from the times of the Hebrew Bible, we would have almost none of the rich piety of Jesus’ prayer life.
LENGTH OF PRAYER
Because there is no specific length of prayer prescribed in either the HB/OT or in any intertestamental literature, this section has no parallel in the previous sections. Nevertheless, Jesus left behind intimations of His views on the proper length of prayer in His teaching and in His own practice.
The most familiar of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13). Jesus commended this prayer to His disciples as the “model” prayer when they asked to be taught how to pray (Luke 11:1). Note that this prayer requires fewer than 10 seconds to pray.
Just before this prayer, Jesus warns that we should not be like pagans who think they will be heard for the many words they use in prayer (Matthew 6:7). Elsewhere, He condemns hypocrites who “make long prayers for a pretense, [who] will receive greater condemnation” (Matthew 23:14; Luke 20:47).
It is possible that Jesus’ inspiration for this teaching is Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore, let your words be few.” He may also have drawn inspiration from Elijah, whose prayer when confronting the prophets of Baal consisted of only 29 words (1 Kings 18:36, Hebrew Bible), while the prophets of Baal prayed for about nine hours (1 Kings 18:26-29).
The Gospels provide multiple instances in which Jesus prayed short prayers. Notably, these prayers derive from One Who had such an incredibly intimate relationship with the Father. For example, Jesus prays, “I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight” (Matthew 11:25-26 = Luke 10:21). At another point He prays, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). In one of His shortest prayers, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify Thy name” (John 12:28).
In all these instances, it is clear that what Jesus taught and His own prayer life are consistent with one another: He both encouraged and practiced short prayer.
The question is, “Why has this aspect of Jesus’ teaching and role modeling not been emphasized within the Church?” The consistent message has been that longer times spent in prayer translates into greater spiritual growth and more answers to prayer. I made a presentation on prayer that followed this line of argument to a multidenominational group of pastors. One pastor (with all present nodding in agreement) noted that if he preached this message to his congregation, no one would ever come out for a prayer meeting.
However, pragmatism and utilitarianism can never be the measure of truth or determine our willingness to proclaim the “Full Counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). For those who accept and preach the authority of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), they cannot reserve to themselves the authority to determine which parts to preach and which parts to deem irrelevant.
A biblical way forward is to share the Word of God in its clarity, fullness, and power and trust God to work grace (rather than guilt) in the hearts of hearers. When we proclaim His Word in its apostolic purity, we can trust God to honor both His Word and us. The Spirit and the Word will work cooperatively in believers’ hearts to cause them to yearn for a deeper walk with God and for more time spent with Him in prayer.
If the observation that Jesus encouraged and role modeled short prayer is not disconcerting enough, it is further complicated by texts that seem to be going in the opposite direction. On multiple occasions, Jesus prayed all or most of the night (Matthew 14:23-25 = Mark 6:46-48; Mark 1:35). The gospel record also provides examples where Jesus prayed lengthy prayers (John 17:1-26; cf. also Luke 5:16).
Jesus’ immediate disciples do not attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction. All the authors of New Testament books appear to be quite comfortable in leaving the tension intact that exists within Jesus’ teaching and examples regarding the proper length of prayer time.
This presents two questions: 1) Why would Jesus leave behind what appear to be conflicting teachings and examples? and 2) Why do His immediate disciples not attempt to reconcile and clarify what is to be proper prayer practice by His followers? Perhaps Jesus and His earliest Jewish followers were aware of a tradition/practice that predates them, and that everyone in that culture knew that both shorter and longer periods of prayer were acceptable to God?
One rabbinic tradition makes exactly this point:
“And he cried unto the Lord,” etc. [Exodus 15:25]. From this you can learn that the cries of the righteous are not hard to receive. By the way, you also learn that the prayer of the righteous is to be short. It happened once that a disciple, in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, went up to read the [Scriptures for the] service, and he made his prayer short. The other disciples remarked to Rabbi Eliezer, “Did you notice how so and so made his prayers short?” . . . But Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “He did not make it shorter than Moses did, as it is said: “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee” [Numbers 12:13]. Again it happened once that a disciple . . . went up to read the [Scriptures for the] service and made his prayer long. The other disciples remarked to Rabbi Eliezer, “Did you notice that so and so made his prayer long?” . . . But Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “He did not make them longer than Moses did, as it is said: “So I fell down before the Lord for 40 days,” etc. [Deuteronomy 9:25]. So Rabbi Eliezer used to say: “There is a time to be brief in prayer and a time to be lengthy” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael VaYassa Alef, 1:93-105).
When placed alongside the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Ecclesiastes 5:2), intertestamental literature (e.g. Ben Sira 7:14), and the teachings and practices of Jesus, it is evident that the early rabbis flesh out what was already in evidence within the pre-Christian Jewish tradition — that brief prayer and lengthy prayer are equally acceptable to God.
The physical expressions of Jesus in prayer were practically identical to those we have seen in the OT, the Judaism of the Intertestamental Period, and the Pharisaic Judaism of the early rabbis. We should not be surprised that Jesus prayed as He did: His spiritual forefathers had an unbroken tradition of praying in these ways for millennia before His Incarnation.
Almost all of the external practices of prayer that are common among Jesus’ followers today developed independent of His example and the biblical and intertestamental models upon which His practices were based. Most modern prayer practices have little to no connection with biblical models of prayer. These practices are not inherently evil or unhealthy — most are practiced today because they are beneficial in some way (greater internal concentration, less external distraction, etc.). However, they should be recognized as having no roots in biblical models of prayer or in the prayer practices of Jesus.
We can be thankful that God the Father sent forth His Son into the matrix of Judaism in the Land of Israel — had He not, we wouldn’t have most of the content of Jesus’ prayers. We can be thankful that we have so much material from the Hebrew Bible and from post-biblical Judaism that makes Jesus’ prayer life and material elsewhere in the New Testament intelligible to us. We can also be thankful that the Jesus fits perfectly within the very context of first-century Judaism that the Gospels claim He was born into, and because of this, we can trust the historical accuracy of the biblical Gospels all the more.
Modern Pentecostals and Charismatics should not be prideful of their modes of prayer as they are merely a revival of ancient practices that have trajectories back through the earliest levels of the Hebrew Bible. These expressions should not be understood as the result of the creativity that marked early revivals like that at Azusa Street. Rather, they should be understood as a part of the “Back-to-the-Bible” mentality that defined early Pentecostalism.
Also, there is much here that can serve to guide and correct our own practice of prayer. For example, the HB/OT, Jesus, and the rabbis remind us that long and short prayer is appropriate, as befits the situation. Within our authoritative tradition is the beautifully liberating dynamic of being guided by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25, etc.), not only in terms of the length of our prayers, but also their content, our body posture(s), the volume of our voice, and the like.
The determining factor of how, when, what, how long, and where we pray should not be how we feel. Nor should these be determined by the dictates of some program, authority figure, or historical example. Such approaches all too often result in condemnation, feelings of inferiority, failure, and bondage.
Further, motivations like the desire to obligate God by aspects of our prayer-life (volume, intensity, length, even the quoting of Scripture!) is a fundamentally pagan attitude toward God and toward the practice of prayer (Matthew 6:7). God is too big and we are too small for us to manipulate the Great King with such trickery. Similarly, the use of prayer to impress other people is forbidden by the Master (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40, etc.).
Leaders in communities of faith which have discouraged or forbidden these expressions need to be aware that they are restricting legitimate biblical expressions of faith that have been role modelled and, in some instances, commanded in both Testaments. Prohibitions of such expressions rest on exceptionally shaky ground when compared to biblical revelation.
The external prayer practices of Jesus bear little resemblance to those practiced by His followers today. Thankfully, God has always been more concerned about content than about form. Nevertheless, the challenge still remains, “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). This includes not merely following His example in what we say (“Pray, then, in this way…” Matthew 6:9) but also in what we do (“the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked,” 1 John 2:6).
Jesus came to set us free (John 8:36), and this includes the freedom to deviate from religious practices that have no roots in biblical prayer practices. Why not try praying as Jesus prayed and see if it does not lead us into the greater freedom He said He came to bring us (John 8:36)?
This should never be done with an attitude of spiritual superiority over other Christians. Nor should we believe that if we get the ritual right, our prayers will be more effective. Instead, simply experience the sheer joy of obedience and conformity of our lives to the prayer practices of the One Who is our ultimate role model.
(This article has been edited and abridged. Click here to read the full article.)