Why did Jesus pray? As in any answer to questions like these, one could find many sound reasons to explain why the God-man, Jesus Christ, prayed. Many theologians over the course of church history have wrestled with this question. I think the answer to this question is relatively simple: Jesus prayed because he needed to pray.
1. Jesus prayed because God infused in him a spirit of prayer.
In Psalm 22 we catch some glimpses of the various details of Christ’s life, not just his crucifixion that so prominently features in this Psalm.
Christ’s life of prayer began at birth. Psalm 22 finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ, though its immediate story is that of David. The Father prepared a body for Christ, which was formed by the Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. According to the natural limits of his humanity, Christ’s early prayer life was clearly not as developed as it would be at the end of his life.
Experience is a great teacher for our prayers, and the more he experienced, the more his prayers would develop in light of those experiences, challenges, and struggles. Whatever acts of consent were possible toward the Father, involving the deliberate use of his human will, Christ performed perfectly, but also appropriately according to his age and stage in life.
His acts of reason were married together with the holy principles in his heart formed by the Holy Spirit. His heart, soul, mind, and strength all directed his actions in a manner appropriate to his age and capacity for spiritual acts of reason. He possessed the habit of faith from the womb, which would then bring forth particular acts of faith at the appropriate time in response to God and his Word.
God took Christ “from the womb” and “made” him trust at his mother’s breasts (Ps. 22:9). Christ trusted God, but not as though he alone was responsible for his acts of faith toward God. Rather, the Father sustained him so that Christ’s religious life was faithful from the womb to the tomb. In another psalm the reality of spiritual life from the very beginning of our existence comes into focus:
For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you. (Ps. 71:5–6)
If these words are true of the psalmist, how much more are they true of the Son of God? Christ not only trusted from his youth but also leaned on God from before birth. How very different is this Hebrew idea of spirituality, which allows for and celebrates the faith of children from the womb, compared with our rationalistic views today.
Not only Psalm 22 but also Psalm 8 speaks of the reality of Christ’s religious life from the womb: “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (Ps. 8:2).
2. Jesus prayed because of who he is in relation to the Father.
The first recorded words of Jesus in Luke 2 speak of his allegiance to his Father when he tells of his business in his Father’s house. The last recorded words of Jesus speak of his trust in his Father as he cries out, “‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’” And, Luke adds, “having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).
Any study on the prayer life of the Son of God must take into account the fact, especially observed in the Gospel accounts, that Jesus habitually and fervently prayed to his Father in heaven. This may at first seem to us to be quite ordinary, until we probe further. Referring to God in prayer as “my Father” was virtually unheard of during Christ’s time. Jews typically referred to God in prayer as “Yahweh,” “my Lord,” “my God,” or “God of my father.”
The words of Christ simply have no precedence: “At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth . . .’” (Matt. 11:25). As New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias says, “We can say quite deliberately that there is no analogy at all in the whole literature of Jewish prayer for God being addressed as Abba. This assertion applies not only to fixed liturgical prayer, but also to free prayer, of which many examples have been handed down to us in Talmudic literature.”
Thus, Jesus revolutionized prayer in a way that did justice to the radical nature of his ministry. With no previous examples of faithful Jews addressing God as “Father” in prayer, the supremely faithful Jew referred to God as “Father” almost exclusively in his recorded prayers. There must have been a very good reason for this development.
The Aramaic word abba refers to a father-child relationship. Before Christ’s time, Aramaic-speaking children would learn to refer to their parents as abba and imma. During Christ’s life, not only small children but also grown children would refer to their fathers as abba. Yet, to address God as abba would have been deemed disrespectful by Jews. What our Lord did was new and, as I said, revolutionary in how to approach God. If Jesus were not who he was, we would have grounds for joining with the Jews in accusing him of blasphemy: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
Consider that because of the uniqueness of the eternal relationship between persons of the Trinity, Christ addressed God as Father in practically all circumstances, even the most dire:
“‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’” (Matt. 26:39).
This bold request from the incarnate Christ found its impetus in the infinite intimacy with which he related to the Father from eternity. At the same time, the arrival of the Son in the flesh provided a new way of relating to God. Prayer became a deeply intimate conversation between God the Father and his people because of Christ’s person and work in bringing us to such a place.
In conclusion, Jesus prayed to God because God infused him with a spirit of prayer and also because of who Christ is in relation to his Father, namely, the Son of God. His identity, coupled with God’s own desire to commune with his Son, explain why Jesus needed to pray. There are other reasons, too, but these are crucial to understanding the prayers of our Lord.