This week’s question comes from Kim H. at the University of Florida. She writes, “How many times did Jesus pray in the New Testament?”
The easiest way to get an answer for Kim is to run a concordance check on the gospels (a concordance is a listing of all the words in the Bible complete with references) and see how many times Jesus is associated with prayer, concentrating on how many times we read of Jesus praying. By that count, I managed to find 13 specific, unique instances of Jesus praying in the gospels. Additionally, there are about eight specific and unique teachings about prayer.
Now, if I was a counting man, I’d say that Jesus didn’t put much priority on prayer during his ministry. However, the numbers above really don’t reflect the actual number of times Jesus prayed, nor does it reflect Jesus’ emphasis on prayer.
Of the four gospels, Luke writes about Jesus’ prayer life more than the others combined, although Matthew comes in second. John, on the other hand, rarely mentions Jesus’ prayer life. However, John does include Jesus’ longest recorded prayer, which is over 600 words long; although, neither John nor Mark includes the traditional “Lord’s Prayer.”
So, just how important was prayer to Jesus?
It would be rather easy to take the position that since Jesus was the son of God that he must have had a better prayer life than anyone else simply on that fact alone. However, it is important that when we study Jesus’ life, we study the texts rather than making speculations based on either tradition or what we wish we knew.
If we only used the simple concordance count, we could conclude that Jesus was more interested in sin than in prayer (sin is mentioned over 125 times in the gospels). That talk about heaven was preeminent over prayer (mentioned over 110 times). And that even “the Law” was more important (mentioned about 100 times). But concordance counts don’t tell the whole story. It’s what Jesus said about prayer and his own personal habits that count.
For instance, when Jesus took time to pray, he would go to a place by himself and spend considerable time in prayer (Matthew 14.23; Mark 1.35, 6.46; Luke 6.12, 9.18, 11.1). Indeed, Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t pray like this on the odd occasion, but that he “…often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5.16).
Further, Jesus taught his disciples to pray. In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, the apostles come to him and ask Jesus to teach them to pray—not how to pray, but to pray. Then, after Jesus shares with them a model prayer, he goes on to teach how important it is to pray regularly and consistently (Luke 11).
And finally, if Jesus was anything, Jesus was a practicing Jew. As such, his prayer life was richer than most folks I know simply with the prayers he would have offered at each meal. Then there were the prayers Jesus offered as a matter of course in the practice of his faith at the Temple and in the synagogues.
When it came to prayer, Jesus took the subject very seriously. He can be found praying early in the morning, in the middle of the day, and, on at least one occasion, all night. He told several stories about the need for prayer and gave detailed instructions about the right and wrong way to pray (Matthew 6).
Jesus’ teachings on prayer were taken seriously by the early church, and Paul writes that we should pray without ceasing—that our whole life should be filled with constant communing with God and that we should give thanks for everything—even the tough lessons we have to endure (1 Thessalonians 5.17-18).
And so, even though the concordance doesn’t list hundreds of instances of Jesus praying, we can be sure that his life was punctuated with constant prayer.