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Prayer in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

Jesus and public prayer

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What the Christian Scriptures say about public prayer:

The author of the Gospel of Matthew contrasted public and private prayer. He recorded Jesus as saying:

Matthew 6:5-6: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...."

The reference to go into thy closet has been translated in other versions of the Bible as "go into your inner room." "go away by yourself," "all alone," "your [most] private room," "enter into thy chamber," and "go into your room."

Two of the largest Jewish religious movements in 1st century Judea were the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus is recorded as having repeatedly criticized both -- often with rather hateful and vicious language. Much of Jesus' anger may have been motivated by their prayer methods which were very public.

bullet Many liberal Christians interpret Matthew 6:6 literally. Jesus believed that prayers are to be an intensely personal event between a person and God; no one else should be present. Prayer to him was a private matter. Jesus condemns prayers in situations where other people are present. For example, in terms of today's culture, this would include:

bulletIn religious settings like churches or synagogues,

bulletIn a private or public school,

bulletIn a legislature or municipal government meeting, or

bulletIn the street or other public place.

bulletMost conservative Christians tend to downplay Jesus' instruction about the importance of going off by oneself and pray alone and in secret. After all, if public prayer is not permitted, then just about every Christian service is seriously in error, with the possible exception of some by the Society of Friends (Quakers). Conservatives interpret Matthew 6:5 as not condemning public prayer. Rather, it criticizes only that prayer in public that is motivated by a desire to show off. Prayer "may be offered in any circumstances, however open, if not promoted by the spirit of ostentation..." 1

Some commentaries on these passages are:

bulletThe Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible 2 states, with reference to Matt. 6:6 that: "...prayer and fasting are to be purely private acts involving only God and the penitent one."

bulletMatthew Henry's Commentary 3 states: "Instead of praying in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, enter into thy closet, into some place of privacy and retirement. Isaac went into the field..., Christ to a mountain, Peter to a housetop."

bulletAsimov's Guide to the Bible 4 states: "Jesus....decries giving alms openly, praying in public...Jesus points out that if it is human acclaim that is wanted, then...that is all the reward that is likely to come."

What Jesus did in public instead of prayer:

The feeding of 5,000 men, their wives and children by Jesus is reported in all four gospels: Matthew 14:13-23, Mark 6:32-46, Luke 9:10-18, and John 6:1-15. Jesus is recorded as performing a miracle, by feeding a crowd which probably totaled 15,000 adults and children with only 5 loaves and two fish. The practice of a communal meal was one of the features of his ministry and of the early Christian church. During and following this miracle, Jesus appears to have been moved to thank God for the food and later to pray to God.

It is notable that he blessed the food in public. All four of the canonic Gospels describe this event. In chronological order:

bulletMark 6:41: "And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all."

bulletMatthew 14:19: "...took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude." (KJV)

bulletLuke 9:16: "Then he took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed them, and brake, and gave to the disciples to set before the multitude."

bulletJohn 6:11: "And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would."

In a similar manner, there is a another passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is recorded as having given thanks to God. This is in John 11:30-45 when Jesus is said to have raised Lazarus from the dead:

bulletJohn 11:41b to 42: Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me."

But then Jesus wanted to pray. So, he went off by himself to pray in private. All four gospel writers emphasize that he prayed alone:

bulletMark 6:46: "And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray."

bulletMatthew 14:23: "And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone." (KJV)

bulletLuke 9:18: "And it came to pass, as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him..."

bulletJohn 6:15: "...he departed again into a mountain himself alone."

Jesus' message, displayed by his actions, appears to be that it is acceptable, perhaps even desirable to give thanks to God at important occasions. But prayer -- communion with God -- is to be performed privately, in complete isolation from other persons.

How did Jesus Pray:

The Gospels contain many references to Jesus praying, including:

bulletMatthew 14:23: Jesus went up on the mountain by himself to pray.

bulletMatthew 26:36-44: Jesus went with three disciples, left them behind and went further to pray alone. This is the well known passage in which his disciples fell asleep at Gethsemane, just before Jesus' arrest and execution.

bulletMark 1:35: Jesus is went to a solitary place to pray.

bulletLuke 3:21: This passage describes how Jesus was baptized and was in prayer when the Holy Ghost descended. Unfortunately, this passage does not describe how and where Jesus was praying.

bullet Luke 5:16: Jesus is described as often going to lonely places to pray by himself.

bulletLuke 6:12: Jesus withdrew to a mountainside to pray. Verse 13 implies that he was alone at the time.

bulletLuke 9:19: Jesus was praying alone, with his disciples in the vicinity.

bulletLuke 22:41-43: Jesus withdrew from his disciples "about a stone's throw" to pray by himself.

bulletJohn 16, 17: These chapters are ambiguous about the circumstances of Jesus' prayer just before his arrest. He first talked to his disciples; then he prayed, then he went with his disciples across the Kidron valley. It is not clear where the disciples were situated when Jesus prayed. But if he was consistent with the pattern described in other passages, he would have left the disciples behind, and prayed in private.

It would appear that Jesus engaged in private prayer, away from other people. His actions might be interpreted as showing his disapproval of public prayer.

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Prayer elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

Jesus introduced many new concepts during his ministry to the Jews of Palestine. The author of the Gospel of Matthew quoted Jesus as saying: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17) Jesus took the Mosaic law and extended it in new directions, to expose a new meaning. In the Gospel of Matthew alone he said "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time...But I say unto you..."

Some examples of his radical innovation include:

bulletHe freely talked and associated with women -- a forbidden practice for Jewish men of the day.

bulletHe associated with a Samaritan and a Pagan Gentile -- again forbidden behavior for Jews at the time.

bulletWhereas the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) stressed the importance of animal sacrifices in the Temple, he recommended connecting directly with God through solitary prayer.

Other references to prayer in the Christian Scriptures might appear to conflict with Matthew 6:6 because they describe prayer in public, not in private:

bulletLuke 18:10-14: "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (KJV)

In his parables, Jesus talks about real people in real 1st century situations. Jesus is here commenting on the practices of two observant Jews, praying in the temple, as would have been their custom. But in Matthew 6, Jesus describes the new regime which he is advocating: one is to go into their back room by themselves and pray to God, alone in private -- not in public as was the custom of the day.

bulletMatthew 19:13-15: "Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence." (KJV)

Here, Jesus might appear to be violating his instruction for people to pray in isolation from others. His intent was to touch each child and pray for them individually. It is obvious that Jesus could not have gone done this in isolation, by himself. At least he and a minimum of one child would have to have been together. So, when a parent or adult blesses a child -- a common Jewish behavior -- one has to do it with the child in attendance. The practice becomes an logical exception to the Matthew 6:6 rule.

bulletMatthew 21:12-13: "And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves." (KJV)

Again, the temple was the place where various rituals were performed at that time according to instructions found in various passages of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). These included prayer, ritual killing of animals, the making of grain offerings, a yearly transfer of sin from the community to a scapegoat, etc. These were the Jewish practices at the time. Jesus reference to the Temple being called "a house of prayer" apparently came from Isaiah 56:7: "Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people." (KJV)

Jesus offered a new path in Matthew 6:6 -- one in  which every human could have direct access to God through private prayer. No animals need be hurt in the performance of this ritual. People did not have to travel to the temple to pray. They need only go to a place where they can be private, alone. But, of course, at the time that he committed aggravated assaults in the Temple (early in his ministry according to the Gospel of John, and late in his ministry according to the other three Gospels) very few Jews had accepted his message. Essentially the entire Jewish population would have still followed prayer practices from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Use of the Lord's Prayer in Church services:

The early Christian movement appears to have not used the Lord's Prayer during religious services.

bulletA letter to a Roman official in the second or third century CE gave an outline of a Christian service; it did not include prayers of any type. (We are attempting to find out more details on this letter).

bulletThe Didache, subtitled "The teaching of the Lord by the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles," was written for the guidance of Christians circa 60 to 100 CE. It recommended that the Lord's Prayer be recited by each Christian three times a day as a personal act of prayer. 5

bulletThe Lord's Prayer seems to have not been used during the Eucharist until the middle of the 4th century CE.

At the present time, the Lord's Prayer is used almost universally in church services.

References used:

  1. J.D. Douglas, Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Testament Volume," Tyndale House Pub., (1990)
  2. C.M. Laymon, Ed, "Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible" , Abingdon Press, Nashville TN (1971)
  3. "PC Study Bible: Matthew Henry's Commentary", Biblesoft, Seattle WA (1994)
  4. I. Asimov, "Asimov's Guide to the Bible", Wings Books, New York NY, (1981)
  5. Kenneth Stevenson, "Abba Father: Understanding and Using the Lord's Prayer," Canterbury Press, (2000), Page 27. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright © 1996 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated: 2013-AUG-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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