If you’ve been around church for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that prayer is important. After all, it’s one of the “big 3” things (“Read the Bible, go to church, and pray”) that we should do, right? (In fact, I don’t think that this prescription is a complete picture of discipleship, but it’s a great start, and these three habits can lead us to the rest of what it means to follow Jesus.)
We also find that Jesus prayed…a lot. For instance:
- He prayed at His baptism (see Luke 3:21-22)
- He prayed at His transfiguration (see Luke 9:28-36)
- He prayed in solitary or lonely places (see Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16)
- The Lookout [referenced at the end of this article] reminds us that He prayed on the cross, itself.
- And, He prayed other times (see also Luke 9:18-20, Luke 11:1-13, John 17)
Jesus also prayed in Gethsemane on the night before His crucifixion (see Matthew 26:36-46 and Mark 14:32-42; see also Luke 22:39-46). In that prayer, we have a specific example of where He asked to be spared from suffering. In that context, it would be natural to associate the following verse from Hebrews with Jesus’ prayer just before His arrest:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
Hebrews 5:7 NIV
However, I wonder if some of Jesus’ other prayers included the same plea? After all, this verse from Hebrews suggests “days” (plural) that Jesus “…offered up prayers and petitions…”. While that might be a general reference to Jesus’ “days on earth” [see Girdwood, referenced below], Jesus knew that He would die, and He knew this well before the Passover meal that we call the Last Supper (see Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 8:31, Mark 10:32-34, Luke 9:21-22). As a result, He may very well have had this burden on His heart for a long time. Perhaps He even knew it as a child.
Regardless of some of the details that we don’t know for sure right now, Jesus’ prayers were heard. It might seem strange to suggest that sometimes God would not hear prayers, but this verse seems to indicate that there was a reason why Jesus’ prayers were heard. On the other hand, we also have verses like James 4:3, about those who ask but do not receive. I think of this as the difference between an omniscient God who knows everything, and one who works through the prayers of righteous people (see James 5:13-20) in a different way than He responds – or doesn’t respond – to the requests of others.
Considering Jesus’ prayers to be spared from suffering on the cross, God the Father’s answers to Jesus’ prayers weren’t exactly what Jesus asked for…or were they? Jesus prayed that He could be saved from death (Hebrews 5:7), and yet Jesus still suffered and died. Was this God not answering Jesus’ prayers?
I think that a key part of the answer here is found when Jesus prayed that God’s will be done (see Matthew 26:39 and Mark 14:35-36). Jesus yielded to God the Father’s will, and that prayer was answered.
In addition, Jesus’ suffering had a purpose. God the Father’s will was to achieve something greater through Jesus’ suffering.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:8-10 NIV
(Incidentally, a commentator suggests that “Son though he was…” from verse 8 could actually apply to the previous verse.)
Today, I would like us to remember that, as the Lookout [referenced below] puts it, “The cross always precedes the crown.” God answers our prayers, but sometimes our path takes us through suffering, yet not without a purpose. I think that there is a lot of suffering going on today, both around us, and as individuals. It may not be encouraging to think that this makes us like Jesus (see Philippians 3:7-10), but God’s faithfulness to His promises means that we can endure the suffering and have confidence that something immeasurably greater awaits us on the other side of that suffering.
I won’t try to take away your suffering today with trite phrases or an over-simplification of this complicated situation. However, I can assure you that suffering does not mean that God doesn’t hear your prayers (nor does he ignore the prayers of others who seek Him), and that pain is not a sign that He doesn’t care. He knows what it is like to feel pain and suffering, and remains with us even during the darkest of times. May each of us hold on to that hope.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for October 10, 2021
- The Lookout, October 10, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Hebrews, by Jim Girdwood and Peter Verkruyse. College Press Publishing Company, © 1997.