The journalist Ambrose Bierce once defined praying as asking “that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy”.
Whatever you make of that, according to one poll, Americans as a whole today have more faith in prayer than that definition would indicate Bierce had. We are a prayerful people—well, that is, about three quarters of us believe that prayer has the power to actually help heal an injury or illness (even if most people who say that to pollsters don’t really spend much time praying themselves). People who were least likely to affirm that this is the case, the poll reported, were men, Democrats, white, under 35, making more than $50 000 a year, and those with college degrees. Lest you be encouraged by the faith of the nation, I should tell you that most Americans also believe that it doesn’t matter who you pray to.
But in Christianity, prayer isn’t quite that vague. Who you pray to is actually understood to make a difference, as is why you pray. Other matters, too, are significant, like where we pray, with whom we pray, and when we pray.
So where can we go to learn more about these things? I suggest that we turn to Mark, to two small, often ignored verses stuck in between the famous stories of the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on the water.
Immediately [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. (Mark 6:45-46)
I want us to consider what we may learn from these verses about prayer, and what we may learn about Jesus. You’ll remember the context of these verses: Jesus had originally called his disciples away on a retreat earlier in the chapter (vv. 31-32). There’s a cycle for Jesus and his disciples going on, a rhythm of spending and replenishing—so after the episode of feeding the 5000, Jesus made his disciples get into a boat bound for Bethsaida while he went off to pray.
Why would Jesus insist on his disciples going on ahead of him? Some have speculated that perhaps he was trying to separate them out from the crowd’s move to make him king. As we know from John 6, Jesus had just gone through a moment of supreme peril in his mission. After the feeding of the 5000, the crowd attempted to make him king (John 6:15). But Jesus refused, and in Mark’s account he successfully dispersed the crowd, perhaps preventing a messianic uprising in the desert. (As a side note, it’s exactly this kind of refusal to encourage political action which kept Jesus off the screen of secular historians.)
Whatever the reason, Jesus moved both the disciples and the crowds, and takes time to pray. He takes control of the disciples (“he made his disciples get into the boat”), the crowd (“dismissed the crowd”), and himself (“he went up on the mountain”). These verses are clear about who is in authority! But the main thing I want us to notice is where, with whom, and when Jesus prayed.
1. Where Jesus prayed
After farewelling his disciples, Jesus went up on a mountainside to pray.
Significance for us
I won’t make a major point of this, but do realize that place can be significant. A certain amount of detachment from your surroundings can be helpful, especially if you’re busy. The more public you are in your ministry, the more there is showing above the water, the more you better take care to have great weight below the water, out of sight, in your private life, and most especially before the Lord.
So you can try to have quiet times of prayer during your morning commute on the way in to the office, but there is something to be said for—when you can—heading to the hills to pray. Or going to the park, or at least taking a walk, or sitting down with no glowing computer or TV screen in front of you or iPod feeding your ears. We can learn from Jesus’ example here in realizing that where we go in order to pray can be important.
But after looking at this, I wonder if the location of Jesus’ prayer has more significance than simply encouraging us to take care where we pray.
Significance for Jesus
This isn’t the only time you see Jesus on the mountainside, you know. Jesus was on the mountain in Mark 3:13 when he called out the twelve. In the other Gospels, we see that Jesus both prayed and preached on mountainsides. Other accounts of calling his disciples take place on the mountain (Luke 6:12), he was transfigured on the mountain (Luke 9:28-36), and preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-8:1).
So, we’re not surprised to find here Jesus going up to the mountainside to pray. Personally, I have always enjoyed praying from higher places, not so that the reception will be clearer, but so that I can look out and my own eyes can quite literally give me a larger perspective.
Is Jesus seeking a wider view? Think for a moment. More than simply the obvious symbolism of going up to God, where had Moses received his revelation from God? On the mount (Exod 19:24; 33-34). And where was Elijah when God would speak to him? He was up in the mountain (1 Kgs 19:8).
Mark’s record here of Jesus on the mountain speaking with his Father shows us who he really is. So too later, in chapter 9:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4)
The Law and the Prophets bore witness to the identity of Jesus. The fact that Jesus here went up to the mountainside to pray may be instructive for us about what we should do, but it is even more instructive to us about who Jesus is.
2. With whom Jesus prayed
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus always prays alone.
I don’t mean that Mark thought that Jesus never prayed with others. In the preceding passage, Mark records Jesus looking up to heaven and thanking God for the food (Mark 6:41). What I mean is that every time Jesus is recorded as simply praying, he does it by himself.
Three passages in Mark narrate Jesus praying:
- At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (1:35): “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed”.
- At the end of Jesus’ ministry (14:32‑35): “And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.’ And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed…”
- In the middle of Jesus’ ministry (6:45-46): “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”
Significance for us
Now, I don’t know exactly how each of you feels about prayer, but I hope you’re paying attention. I don’t think that these passages mean that Jesus is against us praying together.
You know, some people think of prayer as only something you do at church. They’d no sooner do it alone than they would sit in their living room all by themselves and break out singing the national anthem. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing it, it’s just something they’re not used to doing by themselves.
Prayer alone is no less real than prayer with others. Certainly Jesus prayed in the synagogue on one day; but then he would also pray alone the day after. This, of course, was consistent with his own teaching:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt 6:5-6)
Private prayer in that sense saves us from insincerity and hypocrisy, because there’s no human to impress. Sometimes people seem to feel that it is wrong to ever send others away, or to stop what you’re doing simply to have time alone with God, but Jesus didn’t seem to feel that way. We can learn from Jesus’ example here.
But after looking at this, I wonder if Jesus’ practice of praying alone has even greater significance than simply encouraging us to pray alone.
Significance for Jesus
In the medieval period in Europe, when a serf would pledge fealty and loyalty to their liege lord, they would kneel before him and clasp their hands together. I’ve read that the way that Christians began to pray in this posture was when a medieval bishop of Rome, the Pope, prayed in front of his cardinals this way. While this may at first seem a show of humility, it was in fact a way of showing that he understood himself to derive his authority directly from God, and from no-one else.
Whether or not that was the case for that medieval bishop, it seems to me that Jesus’ praying alone indicated his authority. His disciples (and perhaps others) knew that he did this, and that it was to demonstrate who Jesus was working for. He was directed by no-one but God.
Even as Moses’ authority was underscored by him going by himself to talk with God, so this practice was meant as evidence that Jesus was taking his direction only from God.
3. When Jesus prayed
Sometimes, it was before the sun rose: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Two other recorded times of prayer are in the evening (6:45-46, 14:32-39). Mark implies that this occasion on the mountainside and the later events in the Garden of Gethsemane are at night; John tells us this explicitly (John 6:16). But it’s much more instructive to notice when in his ministry Jesus prayed.
As I said above, the three times Mark records Jesus simply praying are at the beginning of his ministry (1:35), the middle (6:45-46), and the end of his ministry (14:32-39). Each of these times are decisive points in his ministry where he is faced with decisions and temptations regarding his messianic mission.
Significance for us
Jesus is a model for us in this, too: we should pray at crucial times. Like Jesus, we should be defined by God’s call. Prayer reminds us of who we are—God’s adopted children in Christ. It also reminds us of what we’re about—doing God’s will, as we serve him and serve others.
I don’t think it’s possible to emphasize enough the importance of being defined by your relationship with God more than by any other characteristic. Prayer reminds us of this relationship, and encourages us to keep defining ourselves by this relationship.
This kind of prayer—prayer about significant matters with submitted hearts—will grow your relationship with God. This kind of prayer is what will grow the roots of your congregation and your ministries. For all that it may be helpful talking over a big decision with a friend or family member, who should you talk with more than God?
If you need some help on knowing how you should pray, and what the substance of your prayers should be, let me encourage you to get a copy of Don Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation.
We can learn from Jesus’ example of giving himself to prayer at decisive moments in his life. But after looking at this, I wonder if when in his life Jesus prayed has even more significance than simply encouraging us to give ourselves to prayer at such times.
Significance for Jesus
Some people may feel it’s strange that Jesus would pray at all! Like the child who wrote, “Dear God, who do you pray to?” Why would Jesus pray?
Simply, we know that Jesus prayed for others and for himself to be strengthened in doing the will of God. Here in Mark 6, Jesus had certainly had an eventful, draining day! You see, it’s not helpful to think of Jesus as Superman. The Gospels are very clear that Jesus was dependent on his heavenly Father. He needed guidance. Prayer might help Jesus in discerning what he must teach, and how to teach it, and maybe even some lesson planning.
Perhaps he was troubled by the prospect of the popular response to his miracles overshadowing his message. Perhaps he was praying for his disciples to finally come to understand who he was, before time ran out? Because that’s what he’s doing in chapters 6-8—teaching his disciples who he is. So he prayed.
His praying was a symbol of his whole life being lived out in fellowship with and in submission to the Father. It was his Father, after all, who had sent him (John 8:42). And it would have to be his Father who would continue to direct him.
This time in prayer with God would only reinforce the certainty of Jesus, and clarify the source of his direction, that he had come to do his Father’s will.
So, Jesus withdrew to pray at defining moments, so that his life could continue to be defined by God’s will.
The testing in the wilderness at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry wasn’t the only place or time he faced temptation. The allure of caring primarily for the body, or to rule primarily over nations, or to throw away his physical body (or wrongly preserve it) were ongoing temptations.
In Mark 1:35 he is, perhaps, resolving not to be a Messiah who is primarily a physician-healer. In 6:45-46, at what is arguably the height of his earthly temptation, problems were piling up. Herod, Pharisees, nationalists—here perhaps he is resolving not to be a Messiah who is primarily a provider-king. Political answers are not the right way to analyse and pursue every question, or to solve every problem. And in chapter 14, he is resolving to be the one who has come to heal our diseases, give himself as the bread of heaven, and be the suffering servant who bears our sins. He is resolving to therefore heal with his wounds and to rule from his cross.
By his choices of where to pray, with whom to pray, and when to pray, Jesus shows us something of the practice of prayer. But he also shows us something more about who he is. The choice of the mountainside demonstrates that he is the Messiah of God. Praying alone shows that he took his direction from the Father, and the Father alone. Praying at significant points in his life demonstrates that his life is defined by God’s will.
And so, through his practice of prayer, we see something of who Jesus is: God himself, come to establish a new covenant with a new people who would believe in him.
 A Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary, University of Georgia Press, Georgia, 2002, p. 185.
 D Blanton, ‘Fox News Poll: Most Believe Prayer Heals, 45 Percent Believe in Creationism’, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/09/07/fox-news-poll-most-believe-prayer-heals-45-believe-in-creationism/, published 07/09/11.
 R Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky, 1994, p. 31.