Now it came to pass, as [Jesus] was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples." —Luke 11:1
According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was a prayerful man; He prayed often, whenever and wherever He saw fit. Luke 11 tells of one instance when He prayed with His disciples. It's unusual that the disciples, having followed their Master for a long while, were still ignorant of how to pray and of the meaning of prayer. John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray, as Jesus?disciples may have noticed and admired. They then asked their Master to do the same so that they could follow suit and perhaps be viewed as equals among their peers. Jesus responded to their request and began to teach them what to say in their prayer, the content of which, as the Lord's Prayer, has become quite familiar to us modern Christians (Lk 11:2-4; cf. Mt 6:9-13).
Jesus is God incarnate. Theoretically, He does not have to pray, because praying to oneself is self-contradictory and does not make sense. Jesus did pray, however, and prayed quite a lot. We may interpret this as an expression of His human needs. It may also be a manifestation of His filial humility. The more appropriate explanation, it seems to me, should be that He demonstrated Himself the model Christian, an ideal character He wanted His disciples to emulate. We can elaborate this point by focusing on some accounts in the Gospel of Luke.
Jesus Prayed for Preparation
Luke mentions that while Jesus was being baptized by John the Baptist, He was at the same time praying (Lk 3:21). This observation is unparalleled among the Synoptic Gospels. It shows that Luke regards Jesus?praying as highly significant in relation to the subsequent opening of heaven and confirmation of Jesus? divine sonship (Lk 3:22). It also has close bearing on what Jesus intended shortly to do. After His baptism and prayer, Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit and went to meet His Temptation, a spiritual struggle that inaugurated His earthly mission (Lk 4:1).
After his Temptation, Jesus pronounced His plan of salvation at the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-19). He then performed a series of mighty acts in various places, including casting out the demon in Capernaum, healing Peter's mother-in-law, producing a miraculous catch of fish in the lake of Gennesaret, and cleansing a leper in a certain city, all of which testified to the fact that the reign of God had dawned in the human world (Lk 4:31-5:14). We should be reminded that Jesus accomplished these miracles due to His sound preparation—most notably, His prayers.
The miracles Jesus performed brought Him fame and praise, and great crowds gathered about Him (Lk 5:15). This immediate "success," however, did not cloud His sense of mission or lead to vainglory. Rather, He made an unexpected and dramatic turn: He withdrew to deserted places and prayed (Lk 5:16). Jesus began His ministry with prayer and ended His holy work with prayer, too. He knew pretty well when and how to start, as well as when and how to stop. By praying, Jesus manifested not only His power but also His wisdom. This quiet retreat into solitary prayer concluded His previous busy engagements; it at the same time prepared Him for more work to come.
Jesus Prayed for Missionary Direction
Jesus was conscious of the significance of His mission, and to Him prayer was the only way to realize what He was entrusted with. It was His usual practice to pray on the mountain. When it came to important decisions, He would pray longer and more earnestly. Luke informs us that in order to select the twelve disciples who were to form His inner circle, Jesus prayed all night (Lk 6:12). Afterwards He chose the best candidates from among the multitude of followers and named them apostles, or messengers (Lk 6:13). They became Jesus's co-workers who would together proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 9:1-2). Again, Jesus did not have to pray in order to pick up the right men for His service. He prayed for our learning; He wanted to show how crucial it is to make prayers whenever important affairs arise. He prayed because as God incarnate He sympathized with our weakness and intended to point a way out of this weakness for us.
Jesus Prayed for Transformation
Sometimes Jesus prayed alone, but at times He liked His disciples to pray with Him (Lk 9:18; 11:1). This is because while prayer might be very private, it can also be communal. Communal prayer was especially teachable and demonstrable. On one occasion Jesus took with Him Peter, John, and James, the pillars of the future church (Gal 2:9), to pray on the mountain. There the Master was transfigured, assuming His celestial appearance in dazzling glory. The slumbering disciples were awakened, amazed and speechless, to witness Jesus? spiritual identity (Lk 9:28-36). This scene of revelation might be mystical in a sense, but its message is by no means impalpable. The Master brought His close disciples to the mountain not so much to disclose His true self as to demonstrate the way to divinity. Through deep prayer, as Jesus would teach, one could transform one's base humanity and gradually ascend to the spiritual height, a realm where such respectful figures as Moses and Elijah reached. Indeed, if Jesus and the ancient saints could become divine through prayers, His disciples should and could do likewise.
Jesus Prayed with Persistence and Humility
Jesus taught His disciples how to pray through His living demonstration. In addition, He taught them the right attitude of prayer through parables. Luke records two of Jesus's parables about prayer in chapter 18, which are also unique among the Synoptic Gospels. The first is about a poor widow who was bullied by her opponent and sought justice from a corrupt judge. She appealed to him incessantly. The judge, although godless, granted her request due to her insistent entreaties. If even an unjust judge could change his mind, as Jesus underlined His lesson, "shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily" (Lk 18:7).
The second parable is about two contrasting characters, a self-righteous Pharisee and a repentant tax collector. The former prayed to God with a conceited mind and pompous words, intending to elevate his importance in the presence of God. The latter, realizing that he was a sinner unworthy of God's grace, simply asked for God's mercy. Jesus again concluded His parable with a clear verdict: "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 18:14). A spirit of persistence, humility, and repentance is the means for making effective prayers.
Jesus did not merely emphasize this in His parables; He demonstrated praying with a persistent and humble spirit in the last stage of His life. When He was about to be arrested, Jesus prayed in agony at Gethsemane. He sensed the impending danger, fully aware of the pain and suffering waiting ahead. If possible, He prayed, He would avoid tasting the bitter cup. Yet out of His filial submission, He would see the Father's will fulfilled. His prayer this time was another psychological tug-of-war, a spiritual struggle more serious than His first Temptation. He prayed with such importunity that, as Luke vividly describes, an angel from heaven appeared to Him and gave Him strength. In His anguish He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat became "like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Lk 22:42-43). God listened to His prayer as a result, and the heavenly power Jesus gained brought His mission to the perfect, final consummation.
Emulating Jesus through Prayer
Jesus advised His disciples to pray in alertness (Lk 21:36), and twice he warned them to escape from trial through constant prayer (Lk 22:40, 46). Prayer henceforth plays a decisive role in a Christian's earthly journey and substantially determines his spiritual life. Recognizing the importance of prayer, how then do we get started? The question is akin to the wish Jesus?disciples expressed when they said, "Lord, teach us to pray." He taught them what to say when they prayed, but more significantly He demonstrated to them how and when to pray in real-life situations. He prayed at the beginning and end of holy work. He withdrew into solitary and quiet prayer even in an extremely busy schedule. He prayed very earnestly when facing important decisions. He revealed His divine appearance in prayer to show us the means for spiritual transformation. And in every prayer, He was always persistent, humble, and serious. If Jesus showed Himself a model Christian, should we not try our best to emulate Him?