Luke's Theology of Prayer
Christians who pray earnestiy and regularly may nonetheless have an impoverished understanding of why they pray. They may base their practice on human analogy-"Jesus prayed and so should we." But the real theological basis is the history of redemption: "Jesus entered into the new age of prayer, and we enter with him and after him."
Luke in particular draws attention to the gaps in our theology of prayer. In his two-volume story of the words and works of Jesus, he gives prayer its theological place in the divinely directed history of redemption. Thirtyfour of the eighty-four occurrences of the most common verb for prayer in the New Testament, proseuchontai, are in Luke's writing.
Many scholars have noted the uniqueness of Luke's account of the prayer life of Jesus. Luke speaks of nine prayers of Jesus, seven of which are mentioned only by him and not by the other gospel writers. Luke alone tells us that Jesus was praying when the heavens opened at his baptism (Luke 3:21 ). Luke alone tells us that Jesus was praying alone in Caesarea Philippi, and asked his disciples, "Who do the people say that I am?" (Luke 9:18 ). Luke alone tells us that Jesus took Peter and James and John up to the mount to pray when he was transfigured (Luke 9:28,29 ). Luke alone records the request of Jesus' disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples" ( Luke 11:1 ). Luke alone tells the prayer parables of the friend at midnight asking for bread (Luke 11:5-8 ), the shameless widow begging the judge (Luke 18:1-8 ). Luke alone notes JeLukeus' prayer for Peter that Satan would not "sift" him (Luke 22:31-32 ), and his exhortation to the disciples to pray on their arrival at Gethsemane (Luke 22:40 )
But though writers often point out the attention Luke gives to Jesus' prayers, few go on to delve into the reasons for this emphasis. And so they cut the line connecting Luke's portrait of Jesus as the Messiah, tbe inaugurator of the kingdom-day, and prayer. Luke s account of the prayer life of Jesus and his people cannol be fully understood apart from Luke's approach to the history of divine salvation. He writes of the prayer of Jesus as a basic reminder that a new page has been turned in God's dealing with man. Jesus, the anointed of the Spirit, enters as Forerunner into the Age of the Spirit, and his life of prayer manifests this act of entering in. He prays "in the Holy Spirit" (Luke 10:21 ).
To Luke, Jesus' prayers are eschatological. To Jesur himself, prayer was an eschatological activity, God's link between the beginning of the fulfillment and iti consummation in glory. The point of Jesus' kingdon parable of the importunate widow is this, that we "ougli alwa.vs to pray and not lose heart" (18:1). But it ii prayer in the light of the eschatological tension between the now and the not-yet. God will avenge his eleci speedily, but the widow must call upon the judge repeatedly. Jesus has come and the kingdom has come, Bul now we must wait for that day when the righteous judge comes to fulfill his kingdom pledge of full salvation and full judgment. And till that day comes, in the tensiot time between the beginning of fulfillment and the con' summation of fulfillment, Jesus says we 8r€ to "watch and pray."
This eschatological perspective in prayer is a greal feature of the Old Testament prophets. The prophets describe the time of the coming kingdom as a time of answered prayer. Isaiah had told Israel God would hest her prayers no longer (Isaiah 1 : 15 ). "Your iniquities hatt made a separation between you and your God, an your sins have hid his face from you ,o ihut he cioes nd hear" (Isaiah 59:2 ). Isaiah means this as more than simply a divine reminder of the prerequisite of moral purity for answered prayer. God's people, he was saying, were no longer a kingdom of priests. So God was going to send a true priest, and when he came, there would be a new beginning to our prayer life.
God is going to visit as he did in the garden of Eden. And this time, his people will call and not flee (Isaiah 58:9 ). God is going to "create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind " (Isaiah 65:17 ). And in this new paradise, the wolf and the lamb shall graze together, lions shall eat straw and "before they call I will ansrver, while thev are still speaking I will hear" (Isaiah 65:24 )
In this new heavens and new earth, all shall pray and worship the Lord. Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will be brought to God's holy mountain (Isa. 56:6,7 ). And the center of their joy will be God's house of prayer, which "will be called a house of prayer for all people" (Isaiah 56:7 ). The last book of the Old Testament sounds the note of a coming great day of prayer. "From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name" (Malachi. 1:11).
Now, says Luke is his two-volume work, that great day' of redemption has dawned, and Jesus, the captain of our salvation, has first entered in as the new Adam. The door opens with prayer. So the opening two chapters of Luke's Gospel are divine talk-shows in which two themes are discussed: the new age come, prayers offered. While the people stand at prayer outside (Luke 1:10 ), the angel speaks to Zechariah of the coming of the Lord of the new day. Mary sings her prayers to God in praise of the One who has come (Luke 1:46 ff.). Zechariah is described in Luke's eschatological short-hand phrase as "filled with rhe Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:67 ) and his prayer becomes prophecy, his prophecy prayer. 'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel" (Luke 1:68 ). Simeon takes the baby kingdom-builcler in his arms and prays. Anna sees God's salvation ..and she gave thanks to God. (Luke 2:38 ). The OId Testamenrt flavour of these opening chapters moves from a textbook history approach to front page newspaper journalism, as we participate in Lord's unfolding history.
So the first place we read of prayer in the tife of Jesus is at his baptism. While he is praying (Luke 3:21 ), the Holy Spirit comes as a dove to mark the opening of the final page in God's history book, just as a dove had marked another new eschatological beginning earlier (Gen. 8:8ff.) The heavens are opened. a signal of the final dialogue between God and man, and Jesus is invested for the beginning of the new covenant, day of prayer for all people. And that is signalized also by prayer.
Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wiiderness for forty days. He enters as the last Adam (something Luke draws special attention to by carefully placing his chronology between the baptism and the wilderness histories - 3:23-38 and designating Jesus, at the climax of the chronology as "the son of Adam, the son of God"). Jesus enters the wilderness as the Remnant, the Elect One (Isa 42:1 : 45:4). Israel had received its testing for forty years under the leadership of Moses. Now Christ as the Remnant Israel, the new Moses, is tested. Will it be paradise lost or regained? Again, the context of whole Messianic struggle is the context of prayer.
Twelve apostles are chosen in Luke 6 to proclaim the healing power of the kingdom here and now, to proclaim blessing to the poor here and now because theirs is the kingdom of God. Luke tells us that before that selection was made Christ, "went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God" (Luke 6:12 ). Jesus, mission is not simply undergirded with prayer; it is to be identified with prayer.
At Caesarea Philippi, he reveals to his disciples in a clearer way than ever before his imminent death and resurrection in its relation to his Messianic purposes. And all this begins, says Luke, while he is piaying alone (Luke 9:18 ). On the mount of transfiguration, Luke alone specifically tells us of the nature of the conversation Jesus had with Elijah and Moses: they were speaking of "his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31 ). And Luke again relates the mission of Jesus - his death, his resurrection, this preview of coming glory - to prayer; Christ had gone up on the mountain to pray (Luke 9:28 ).
This is not coincidence. Jesus' prayers are another wiindow onto his relationship with the Father, and the task given him by his Father. A new way of praying is born, for One has come who displays a new and exclusive relation to the Father, one that has no analogy (Luke 10 : 21,22). The disciples sense this. "He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, ' Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples"'(Luke 11:1 .)
There is more here than a group of men impressed with the prayer life of Jesus. Their question reveals far more than simply their failures in learning how to pray. Joachim Jeremias reminds us that religious groups in Jesus' day apparently had characteristic prayers (New Testament Theology, Scribner, 1971, p. 170). The Pharisees had such prayers, as did the community at Qumran, and the disciples of John the Baptist. Now Jesus' disciples ask, "Give us a fixed prayer that will correspond with your message and your work. Teach us to pray as men should pray who are partaking now in the kingdom of God and yet waiting also for is final fulfillment."
So Jesus teaches us how to pray in the new age. The heart of the prayer he taught is the heart of his message and his mission-the coming of the kingdom."Thy kingdom come," he says. And in connection with that kingdom's coming, may the name of God be hallowed, may the will of God be done (Matthew . 6:33; 5: 19, 20). May there be a realization here and now of the saving gifts and blessings of God-forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31 :34; Matt. l8:23 ff. ) and bread "for the coming day." May there be preservation from the apostasy of the last terrible hour of temptation, present now (John 16:33 ) but still to come in its fullest sense. For all these things, the followers of Jesus are to seek, to ask, to find (Luke 11:9 ff.). And they will not be disappointed.
The final great cycle of prayer in Luke's Gospel comes where now we should expect it - at the place where all the Gospels draw us, the place of Jesus' Kingdom - enthronement, his death and resurrection. Luke alone tells us Jesus is strengthened by an angel in the garden in the preparation for his coming judgment - salvation ordeal. And Luke tells us that in prayer he gives up his soul as an offering for sin to the Father (Luke 22:39 - 46). Two of the three last words of Jesus on the cross recorded by Luke are prayers (Luke 23:34 , 46) And to this, Hebrews adds the note that through his prayer he is raised from the dead. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supprications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear" (Hebrews 5:7 ). The resurrection of Jesus, the climax of Book One, is a response to the prayer of the God - man, Jesus.
At this point Luke reinforces the link between Jesus at prayer and his Church at prayer. For he has a second volume, the Acts of the Aptstles, to write his history of all that Jesus, througth the Spirit, does and teaches (Acts 1:1 ). Jesus has entered the new age of the Spirit in prayer. Now his peopie enter that age after him. And the same characteristic of the new age marks them as well. these people who "devoted" themselves to prayer"
(Acts 1:14 ). Acts provides the iink between Jesus and his covenant people, the prayer sign for the people who live in the between - times. The last verses of the Gospel had centered in a climax of prayer and praise (Luke 24:52 - 53). In the opening verses of Acts the center is still prayer. Only now it is inauguration, not climax. And it is Jesus' people at prayer, not Jesus.
The Messianic, kingdom ministry of Jesus now becomes the Messianic, kingdom ministry of Jesus' people. And with both Jesus and his people, it is a ministry related to prayer. .."In prayer," a replacement for Judas is appointed to the ministry of the apostolate (Luke 1:24 ). "After praying," the church sets apart the seven and initiates the minisrry of waiting on tables (Luke 6:6 ). After fasting and prayer, the church Antioch sends Barnabas and Saul to fulfill Christ's commission (Luke 13 :2, 3). Elders are appointed in the struggling new churches of Asia Minor "with prayers and fasiing" Luke 14:23 ).
Just as Jesus manifested the kingdom blessings of salvation and forgiveness of sins, the blessings of the new day of new prayer, so also the Church manifests those same kingdom blessings in that same new day of prayer. The comparison is not a devotional exercise of "like - and" but a history - of -redemption exercise of ,"initiation - succession - consummation." Paul and Silas proclaim the kingdom blessing of satvation to the Philippian jailor at midnight, and they preface their evangel of the kingdom with prayer and singing (Luke 16:25 ) in the prison. Jesus announces the coming of the Kingdom through mighty signs of healing, recovery of sight to the blind, life to the dead, and the early Church announces that same kingdom, come in Christ and coming in Christ, , through those same mighty signs. Peter prays and calls in kingdom - power anticipation, and the dead Tabitha arises (Luke 9:40 ). Paul prays and the sick are healed (Luke 28:8 ). Jesus comes in prayer to "proclaim release to the captives," and the earty Church's vigil of prayer brings freedom ro the captive Peter; the KIngdom blessing of prisoners set free becomes reality (Luke 12:12 ).
The new Age of the Spirit will see old men drearning dreams and young men seeing visions (Luke 2:17 ) Peter sees a sheet let down from heaven, and Luke tells us it happened when he went. up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray" ( Luke 10 : I 0). Cornelius sees a man in shining garments. "Call for Peter," the man says. And when Peter comes, Cornelius tells him, I was praying in my house" ( Luke 10:30 )
God's cure for what Dennis Clark has called "the aggressive know - it- all do - it - now disease of western Christianity" lies precisely here: putting the gem of prayer in a setting not of pietistic devotional exercise but of God-centered redemptive history, seeing the age of the kingdom come and coming as the age of prayer between the times. Write on the cover of your little book of recorded prayer requests, as an elderly Korean evangelist did on his, a title: "The book of the kingdom of God."
When this link between God's redemptive ordering of history and his demands on our individual lives is severed, prayer has a way of floating away from the center, of becoming peripheral to the heart of things. Long before the "new theologian" begins to question the validity of preaching, he has questioned the validity of prayer. Why shouldn't he? The evangelical long ago confined it to that neat little compartment of "house - keeping projects" known as the devotional life, the schizophrenic bungalow "around the back,, of what Daniel Poling has spoken of as "the biggest buildings - and -grounds, construction - and - shrub - trimming period of Christian history." "Radical Christianity," either to the left or to the right of center, is looking for roots to reform. Very seldom does it look at prayer as a root.
Any evangelical pastor who lacks Luke's insight may adopt a pragmatic view of prayer, and look for theological heresies in the footnotes rather than at the prayer meetings. He prays without a theological consciousness of the place of prayer in God's redmptive history, it's vital part in kingdom reality. To that extent, he misses the theological reasons why one prominent American cleric was supposed to have said once to the New York state legislature: "I'm not going to pray for you. There are certain things a man does for himself. He has to blow his own nose, make his own love, and say his ownprayers."
One says his own prayers, draws his own breath, insofar as he realizes that God, through Christ, has placed him in the center of a whole new beginning, an astronaut in a new atmosphere, the first day of the new creation, the age of new prayer.
The late Harvie M. Conn was associate professor ol missiology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), from which he received the Th.M. He previously was a missionary in Korea and taught at the Presbyterian General Assernby Theological Seminary in Seoul. This artricle first appeared in the December 22nd issue of Christianity Today.