Whose prayer life matters most?
The sirens are blaring outside at this very moment. As I sit here at home, situated on the doorstep of Philadelphia—a town currently reeling over the police shooting of a young mentally-ill black man, and some violence and looting in its wake—I am reminded of the normal Christian response to such happenings. In times when profound political differences surface, when caustic incivility divides, when hostile elections with an uncertain aftermath happen, when injustice continues, when mayhem bleeds out into our streets, when fear, grief, and rage co-mingle in our hearts, and when pandemics and disasters strike, we Christians often remind each other that “We need to humble ourselves and pray.” And well we should. There is a good deal of truth in the words. A deepening prayer life is often needed, tested, and enriched when crises happen.
This call to prayer is heard in more peaceful times, too. Christians engaged in discipleship or accountability conversations will often ask “So how’s your prayer life?” as a gentle accountably goad to prod saints into a more faithful devotional experience with the Father; that deeper soul-care and nourishment so much needed by the people of God. It is a good and helpful question—so long as it is not coupled with legalism on the one hand, or gospel-lite prosperity-thinking on the other.
But as worthy as these exchanges are, Scripture reminds us that there is a prayer life that matters most in times like these; and it is not ours. It is the prayer life of our precious Lord Jesus Christ. Since it is likely that many do not even realize that Jesus has a prayer life (never mind that it is more important than ours), we would do well to think about it in this hour of crisis.
The Best Pray-er of All
That Jesus is a perpetual, non-stop pray-er is clearly taught in Scripture (see Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:23-25; 2:17-18; 4:14-16). He always lives to make intercession for us. To intercede is to approach one person in behalf of another, bearing a request or need. When a sibling says to another sibling, “Go ask mom if we can have some candy” he is asking for intercession. When a job-seeker seeking work at Company X asks someone who works there to “put in a good word for me” to the company boss, the job-seeker is hoping for an intercessor.
In Christian terms, intercession is prayer before God in behalf of another. We should do this for each other, of course. But more importantly, we need to know that Jesus is doing this for us, all the time (Hebrews 7:23-25). He is our access to God (Ephesians 2:13, 18). He is the great High Priest who enters the Father’s presence, and, through the merits of his own blood that has guaranteed us everything we need (Romans 8:32), carries our needs before the Throne of Grace. He is the One who prays for us that our faith will not fail (Luke 22:31-32).
We should not conclude that because Jesus asks the Father for our needs, there is ever any difference between what the Father wants for us and the Son wants for us. God is not a reluctant Father who needs to be persuaded to give us our needs. He is happily eager to bless. Nevertheless there is, in the redemptive purposes of God, a Mediatorial High Priestly role for his Son. Between us and God is Jesus—and it’s a good thing it is so. He is the only Mediator there is (1 Timothy 2:5), our faithful advocate before God (1 John 2:1-2), and the very best pray-er alive.
Think about it. How good of a pray-er are you? Do you know what to pray for these days? Do you understand what God is up to and what the outcome will be? Do you know what is best even for you, never mind the whole Church and world? In truth, we do not know what to pray for as we ought, which is why the Holy Spirit also lends us his own interceding help (Romans 8:26-27). Our prayers are often—if not always—flawed and inadequate. Weak and ill-advised, they all too often are little more than poorly motivated attempts to manipulate God to give us what we want; with next to no consideration of what we might need (James 4:3).
This is why it is good that Jesus is praying for us—because Jesus is the best pray-er of all; the One whose prayers matter most and do the most amount of good. This is true because Jesus always prays for us (Hebrews 7:25); because he knows what we need (Hebrews 2:17, 18; 4:14-16); and because he always prays in faith, with perfect knowledge of our needs, and in complete accord with the will of God—all of which are essential components of effective prayer (e.g.-see Mark 11:24; James 5:15; 1 John 5:14).
The Best Prayer of All
If Jesus is the best pray-er of all, then what is the best prayer of all—at least the best one ever recorded? I know of none better than John 17:1-26 which many have called, “The True Lord’s Prayer” and “The High Priestly Prayer of Christ”. This is Jesus praying—and praying for us. As Jesus (in John 18-19) stepped into the darkness that surrounded the arrest, the trial, the travesty, the injustice, the mob scene, and the bullying, bloodying, and brutalizing that led to his death, he knew the devastating trauma this would inflict on his disciples. So he paused and prayed for them—in their hearing. And in so doing I suspect he intended to offer them—and us—a preview into what he continues to pray in their and our behalf (John 17:20). I see five primary requests in this prayer, each of which communicates what Jesus cares about when we are traumatized by life.
“Father, Fortify Them”
Jesus prays for us that in the face of a hostile world and evil enemy, we will be guarded and protected; spiritually secured by the Father’s hand, “though all hell should endeavor to shake” (John 17:11-15).
“Father, Sanctify Them”
Jesus prays that we will so know the Truth that it will sanctify us, or make us holy; setting us apart from the world and sin; consecrating us in devotion to God (John 17:16-19).
“Father, Unify Them”
Jesus prays that in the midst of the gathering and breaking storms of life, we as the Church—despite all our vast and deep diversity—will be one as he and the Father are one; unified as one Body at the foot of the Cross (John 17:20-23; Ephesians 2:13-22).
“Father, Multiply Them”
Jesus prays that the testimony of a holy and unified Church will lead the world to know and believe the truth (John 17:18, 21-23; 13:34-35). He prays for our gospel witness that the Church will be multiplied; asking that our unified love will be a compelling and converting witness to the world
“Father, Glorify Them”
Jesus prays that we will see his glory (John 17:24), in part that we might share his glory (John 17:22). Since it is by seeing glory that we are transformed into glory (2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 John 3:2; Philippians 3:20-21)—Jesus asks the Father that this hope might become reality in a glorified Church.
From this best of all prayers we learn what is most important to our Savior’s heart when chaos breaks loose—that we be fortified, sanctified, unified, multiplied and glorified.
From this prayer, we ourselves can learn how to pray; for it teaches us to re-arrange our own prayer priorities; and to fill up our prayers, not with cries for material prosperity or political victory or physical safety or personal health, but with longings for the security, holiness, unity, increase, and enhanced glory and beauty of the Church.
And from the prayer life of Jesus, the best pray-er of all, we learn that though life becomes hellish and hard, with disaster looming everywhere, it is all going to be alright; because Jesus is praying for us. From this best of all prayers offered by the best of all pray-ers we gain peace and hope—for we know that Jesus prays what is best for us, and always receives what he asks. From this prayer we are assured of this: the Church will be fortified, sanctified, unified, multiplied, and glorified. For Jesus has prayed that it would be so; and his prayers never fail.