Great Texts of the Bible
Prayer and Choice
And it came to pass in these days, that he went out into the mountain to pray; and he continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called his disciples; and he chose from them twelve, whom also he named apostles.—Luke 6:12-13.
1. The praying Christ is a prominent figure in each of the four Gospels, and in none more so than in the Gospel according to Luke. Indeed, it seems to have been the special care of this Evangelist to call attention to the prayerfulness of Christ. He refers to no fewer than six of the Lord’s prayers which are unnoticed by the other Evangelists—the prayer at His baptism, after cleansing the leper, before calling the Apostles, at His transfiguration, on the cross for His murderers, and with His dying breath. It is like Luke, with his clear insight into the needs of our nature, to give us such a glimpse of the Lord’s spirit and character. And it assuredly accords with the general tone of the “Gospel of Human-heartedness,” as this Third Gospel has been called. At least it gives an ideal completeness to his portraiture of Christ’s humanity; for this Gospel is pre-eminently the Gospel of the perfect Son of Man. Christ prayed, and prayed much. The seasons of communion with God the Father were of very frequent occurrence, and formed the habit rather than the exception of His life on earth. He prayed. It was not only a habit but a necessity of His life; He could not have accomplished His work on earth, He could not have fulfilled His Father’s will, without constant prayer.
2. The scene of this lonely vigil is the same, in all probability, as that of the Sermon on the Mount. As described by recent observers, “it is a hill with a summit which closely resembles an Oriental saddle with its two high peaks. On the west it rises very little above the level of a broad and undulating plain; on the east it sinks precipitately towards a plateau, on which lies, immediately beneath the cliffs, the village of Hattin; and from this plateau the traveller descends through a wild and tropic gorge to the shining levels of the Lake of Galilee. It is the only conspicuous hill on the western side of the lake, and it is singularly adapted by its conformation to form both a place for short retirement and a rendezvous for gathering multitudes.” Hither at nightfall, alone, weary, burdened with a world’s redemption, came Christ to pray. The stars came out one by one above Him, the silence deepened around Him as the night wore on, and when, after midnight had passed and the morning star stood in the heavens, the first ray of dawn tipped the trans-Jordanic hills, Christ was still in this communion with His Father.
I wonder if we have sufficiently observed our Lord’s love of the heights, and of the ministry of the heights upon His spirit. Have we all experienced the subtle ministry of hill and mountain? There is something even in physical altitude which helps the elevation of the soul. There is something in wide spaces which aids the expansiveness of prayer, and redeems it from narrowness and meanness. And then a mountain by night! There we have height and depth, with the allied ministry of mysterious silence. There is an absence of glare and glamour, and in the deep hush the primary voice becomes audible. And then, again, “all night in prayer to God”! Think of it—the night, the ceaseless communion! Let us not suppose that the Master spent the night in speech. There would be seasons of quiet listening, perhaps seasons when familiar psalms were sung, and seasons when He just comfortably realized the enwrapping presence of the Father in heaven. Now and again there would be the cry of a sheep or a lamb, and the lone plaint would make His own purpose emerge, as the Shepherd whose mission it was to seek and to succour wandering sheep. And I wonder what the dawn would have to say to Him, and whether in its growing radiance He would foresee the gradual illumination of the whole world with the evangel of His love and grace. Be that as it may, the night was thus spent as a preparative to the choice of the morrow. He sought to be perfectly attuned to His Father’s will, in order that all His decisions might be one with the mind of the Father in heaven. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.”1 [Note: J. H. Jowett]
Thoreau’s love of mountains is exemplified in many passages of his diary, and the occasional excursions which he made to the lofty outlying ranges visible from the Concord hills formed Rome of the most pleasing episodes in his life. “A mountain chain,” he says, “determines many things for the statesman and philosopher. The improvements of civilization rather creep along its sides than cross its summit. How often is it a barrier to prejudice and fanaticism! In passing over these heights of land, through their thin atmosphere, the follies of the plain are refined and purified; and as many species of plants do not scale their summits, so many species of folly no doubt do not cross the Alleghanies.”1 [Note: H. S. Salt, Henry David Thoreau, 65.]
Take the text in three divisions—
I. Our Lord’s Habit of Prayer.
II. The Occasion of the Night-long Prayer.
III. The Answer to the Prayer.
Our Lord’s Habit of Prayer
1. The impression which the records of Christ’s prayers make on us is that these prayers are the indexes to His whole life as a life of prayerfulness. They suggest to us the fact that He made so much of prayer as to avail Himself of every possible outward aid to devotion. He who was careful to instruct men that they were to enter into their closet and shut the door and pray to God in secret—He sought the stillness of night-seasons and mountain-tops, the calming influences of perfect solitude far from the madding crowd. These notices disclose to us the fact that Christ’s devotional life here and there came out in transcendent intensity and volume, taking for its needed expression whole nights upon mountain-tops.
(1) Why should Jesus pray? In the first place, it was natural for Him to pray, because He was the Son of God. Prayer at its best is, if one may be allowed the expression, conversation with God, the confidential talk of a child who tells everything to his father. There is a remarkable example of this in the Confessions of St. Augustine. This great book is in the form of a prayer from beginning to end; yet it narrates its author’s history and expounds the most important of his opinions. Evidently the good man had got into the habit of doing all his deepest thinking in the form of conversation with God. If this be what prayer is, it is not difficult to understand how the Eternal Son should have prayed to the Eternal Father. Indeed it is easy to see that, in this sense, He must have prayed without ceasing.
(2) Jesus also needed to pray because He was the Son of Man. Prayer was the sign and proof of His having been made in all things like unto His brethren—a veritable son of man. It was the surest evidence He ever gave, on the spiritual side of His being, of His perfect and complete manhood. Hunger and thirst and weariness and pain told the story of His humanity, as far as the frail tabernacle of the flesh was concerned. But prayer—the cry of want, the language of dependence and trust, the words of submission and obedience to the will of God the Father—bespoke the reality of His spiritual humanity, and showed, more clearly than aught else could show, that in the inner life of thought and feeling, mind and spirit, the Lord Jesus was one with ourselves.
It is true that there are provinces in the realm of prayer which were foreign to Him. He never traversed them during the whole of His life. They lay entirely outside His experience as One who was “holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners.” He had no need, as we have, to confess sin or to use in any sense the language of penitence, and to ask, as we must do, for Divine pardon. And this, in all His approaches to God, Jesus Christ is never shown to have done. And yet, because He was man, partaker of our nature and our name, He must needs pray.
He sought the mountain and the loneliest height,
For He would meet His Father all alone,
And there, with many a tear and many a groan,
He strove in prayer throughout the long, long night.
Why need He pray, who held by filial right,
O’er all the world alike of thought and sense,
The fulness of His Sire’s omnipotence?
Why crave in prayer what was His own by might?
Vain is the question,—Christ was man in deed,
And being man His duty was to pray.
The Son of God confess’d the human need,
And doubtless ask’d a blessing every day.
Nor ceases yet for sinful man to plead,
Nor will, till heaven and earth shall pass away.1 [Note: Hartley Coleridge.]
2. Jesus loved the solitudes. “He went out into the mountain to pray.” In Palestine, as in many parts of Scotland, there is mountain everywhere. A mile or two from any town you are out on it. You have only to quit the houses, cross a few acres of cultivated ground, and your feet are on the turfy pastures, where you can be absolutely alone. Jesus had, if we may so speak, made the discovery that He could obtain this solitude anywhere; and, when He arrived in a town, His first thought was, which was the shortest road to the mountain,—just as ordinary travellers inquire where are the most noted sights and which is the best hotel.
Never did I feel more strongly that in this habit Jesus had laid bare one of the great secrets of life than one day when I climbed all alone a hill above Inverary and lay on the summit of it, musing through a summer forenoon. On every hand there stretched a solitary world of mountain and moorland; the loch below was gleaming in the sun like a shield of silver; the town was visible at the foot of the hill, and the passengers could be seen moving in the streets, but no sound of its bustle reached so high. The great sky was over all; and God seemed just at hand, waiting to hear every word. It was in spots like this that Jesus prayed.1 [Note: J. Stalker, Imago Christi, 133.]
3. The prayer of Jesus was a sustained effort. “He continued all night in prayer to God.” All night He prayed, when the great task of choosing the twelve apostles lay close before Him. And this, although the Father had said, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased”; and although He Himself could say, “I know that thou hearest me always.” And this, also, although He had forbidden long prayers and frequent repetitions, and over-anxiety about the morrow. Was He then anxious for the morrow? Assuredly He was. But was He doing that which He deprecates in the Sermon on the Mount? Assuredly not. The conduct of Christ rather illustrates than contradicts His teaching there.
When we read that Jesus prayed all night, we cannot think of Him as uttering words all night. He who upbraided men for using vain repetitions, and told them that they were not heard for their much speaking, and taught them the shortest and most comprehensive form of prayer, would not be likely to construe the act of prayer into a continuous verbal appeal in His own case. We may conceive of this all-night prayer as a conscious laying open of His soul before God, a devout lifting up of His heart to the tender out-reaching of God, a grateful appropriation of the sweet rich gifts and influences of Nature, which are themselves true emanations of God. We seem to see that gracious, solitary figure of the Lord, dimly outlined under the dewy canopy of the night, with the clear eastern stars pouring down their lustre; sometimes the figure would be kneeling on the mountain side in the attitude of prayer, sometimes He would be seated on some grey crag lost in deepest thought, sometimes He would be simply resting in the ample solitude, drinking in the quiet peace of the holy time, abandoning Himself to the enfolding beauty of the midnight scene—alone with Nature, with His own brooding thoughts, and with His Father. It was not a time of idle dreaming or a mood of empty reverie; it was a time of real, earnest, conscious self-recovery and self-preparation for the arduous work before Him.1 [Note: W. A. Mursell, Sermons on Special Occasions, 64.]
Nothing was more easy to me now than to practise prayer. Hours passed away like moments, while I could hardly do anything else but pray. The fervency of my love allowed me no intermission. It was a prayer of rejoicing and of possession, wherein the taste of God was so great, so pure, unblended and uninterrupted, that it drew and absorbed the powers of the soul into a profound recollection, a state of confiding and affectionate rest in God, existing without intellectual effort. For I had now no sight but of Jesus Christ alone. All else was excluded, in order to love with greater purity and energy, without any motives or reasons for loving which were of a selfish nature.2 [Note: Madame Guyon, in Life by T. C. Upham, 38.]
4. Christ’s prayerfulness was balanced by incessant activities. Paint His devotional life in never so vivid colours, His working life keeps in harmony with every tint and outline. In fact, what gives this picture in the text—Christ praying alone on the mountain-top through the long night-watches—its great power and glory is that He went to that mountain-top after one day of toil, and would come down from it to engage in another exactly like it; so that, if a disciple could say of His unrecorded works that the world itself could not contain the books that might be written to record them, it might also be said that those works of Jesus, so incessant, so numberless, so gracious, are only the outgrowth of an answering prayerfulness.
When Luther had a specially busy and exciting day, he allowed himself longer time than usual for prayer beforehand. A wise man once said that he was too busy to be in a hurry: he meant that, if he allowed himself to become hurried, he could not do all that he had to do. There is nothing like prayer for producing this calm self-possession. When the dust of business so fills your room that it threatens to choke you, sprinkle it with the water of prayer, and then you can cleanse it out with comfort and expedition.1 [Note: J. Stalker, Imago Christi, 138.]
Sister Dora spoke unreservedly to her household upon the absolute necessity of constant private prayer, and expressed openly her own strong conviction that no blessing could attend the hospital unless those who worked in it fulfilled their duty in this respect. It was literally true that she never touched a wound without lifting up her heart to the Giver of all virtue, and asking that healing might be conveyed by her means; that she never set a fracture without a prayer that, through her instrumentality, the limb might unite. As she attended upon the surgeons during an operation, the most absorbing and anxious of a nurse’s duties, where the patient’s life must often, humanly speaking, depend on readiness of eye and instantaneous comprehension of the slightest sign on the part of the operating surgeon, and on intelligent obedience to his orders, she seemed able to separate her bodily and intellectual from her spiritual powers, which were engaged in holding communion with that Being in whose Hand are the issues of life and death.2 [Note: M. Lonsdale, Sister Dora, 102.]
The Occasion of the Night-Long Prayer
1. We come here to a new departure in our Lord’s Messianic mission. The selection of the Twelve by Jesus from among those who had been led to believe in Him, to be His Apostles, and be with Him during His earthly ministry, and then take up the work, and carry it forward after He left the world, is an important landmark in the history of the gospel dispensation. We are not informed as to the particular time in His ministry at which He made the selection, but we know that He had preached and laboured for some time alone and single-handed. It seems that His selection of the Apostles at this time had become a necessity to Him in carrying forward the work for which He came into the world. He had won many followers, and as it was necessary that some should be with Him all the time to be His witnesses, and as the multitudes who attended on His ministry could not follow Him from place to place, especially in the journeys that marked the latter part of His ministry, He chose the Twelve for this purpose, and ordained them to this end. So Mark tells us that Jesus called unto Him whom He would, and they came unto Him, and He chose twelve that they should be with Him.
There is one letter to his sister written from Massowah in 1878, in which General Gordon writes freely about mission work in North Africa.
“There is not the least doubt that there is an immense virgin field for an apostle in these countries among the black tribes. But where will you find an apostle? I will explain what I mean by that term. He must be a man who has died entirely to the world; who has no ties of any sort; who longs for death when it may please God to take him; who can bear the intense dullness of these countries; who seeks for few letters; and who can bear the thought of dying deserted. Now, there are few, very, very few men, who can accept this post. But no half-measures will do.… A man must give up everything, understand everything, to do anything for Christ here. No half nor three-quarter measures will do. And yet, what a field!”1 [Note: R. E. Speer, Some Great Leaders, 29.]
2. This new departure called for special preparation and prayer. When we consider the ground on which this election of Apostles had to be made, the work to which they were to be called, we can the better understand why even He should have spent the whole night in prayerful preparation for the task of the coming day.
These men were to be the companions of His ministry, fellow-workers unto His Kingdom, workers of miracles in His name, preachers of His gospel of salvation from sin and death; and, above all, living witnesses, when He had gone from the world, both of the historic truths of His life, and of the supernatural and holy character of the religion He set forth by word and deed. This is the chief point—they were to be witnesses of Him; not so much of what He said and did, as of what He was in Himself; witnesses of His holiness, of His grace, of His Divine love and compassion and sympathy for men; witnesses in their own lives to the power of His life to sanctify and uplift and save men. He foresees that they will have to take in hand His work when He is no more with them in the flesh, and to be responsible under God for carrying it on in His name. The heaviest part of their task will consist, not in having to speak of Him and for Him, but in having to show to the world what was the spirit of His own perfect life. The Apostles themselves felt this. Speaking for them all—himself included—Paul declares the purpose of their ministry to be, “that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” Every true-hearted and well-instructed Christian worker feels this to-day. Christ foresaw it all on this night of ceaseless prayer; and His chief care was to have men morally and spiritually capable of being witnesses to His truth and holiness.
Afterwards he said: “That was an awful thought of Ruskin’s, that artists paint God for the world. There’s a lump of greasy pigment at the end of Michael Angelo’s hog-bristle brush, and by the time it has been laid on the stucco, there is something there that all men with eyes recognize as divine. Think of what it means. It is the power of bringing God into the world—making God manifest. It is giving back her Child that was crucified to Our Lady of the Sorrows.”1 [Note: Memorials of Sir Edward Burne-Jones.]
3. In most respects this was the most important work that had ever been done for the world. As the sun rose to chase away the darkness from the eastern horizon, the Sun of Righteousness arose from a sleepless night spent in prayer to chase away the moral and spiritual darkness that had so long covered the earth, and the gross darkness that to so great an extent covers the people to this day. This was the first organized effort at the world’s evangelization. This was the first missionary society ever organized for the purpose of preaching the gospel to every creature. In the glorious light of our gospel day, this was a morning worthy of everlasting remembrance. There is missionary inspiration in this early morning scene. The organization of the college of Apostles was followed by the greatest sermon that was ever preached, and that sermon was followed by the healing of the leper and the sick, and by other events that were proper and appropriate at the beginning of a movement that is to go on blessing the world until the day of time shall close, and an eternal morning shall break on a world redeemed and a church eternally established without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.
The Answer to the Prayer
1. Jesus received on the mountain-top a reinforcement of vigour and vision. There is a mysterious power in Nature to unseal the eyes of the soul, and Jesus, the Divine Poet, received many a rich gift of vision from the lessons He learned in her school. He received that wondrous healing from Nature which we are slowly coming to understand better and to rejoice in to-day; and it may well be that some of that mystic healing virtue which flowed from Jesus like a tide was partly due to His profound understanding of some of Nature’s deepest secrets. And these reinforcements are close at hand, and may be ours if we will but seize and use them. Nature is in very truth a symbol of Divine things, a treasury of holy thoughts, a storehouse of God’s own secrets; and to meditate and pray in the midst of Nature’s wonder and beauty as Jesus did—to ask, seek, and knock earnestly at the door of her vast treasury—is to become gladder in heart, fresher in mind, more powerful in spiritual understanding and discernment. Tennyson had this in view when he wrote:—
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand,
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
The balance of thought is a delicate thing, and it is often dislocated by the frets and shocks and burdens of life, and there is no such restorer of the mind’s poise and peace as Nature. Often have I found myself unable to see my way clear through a process of thought, and have thrown down my pen in a bewilderment almost akin to panic or despair, and I have gone out and found the solution of my problem or the thread of my sermon on the open moor or the green hill-side.1 [Note: W. A. Mursell.]
When a friend once said to Browning: “You have not a great love for nature, have you?” he had replied: “Yes, I have, but I love men and women better;” and the admission, which conveyed more than it literally expressed, would have been true I believe, at any, up to the present, period of his history. Even now he did not cease to love men and women best; but he found increasing enjoyment in the beauties of nature, above all as they opened upon him on the southern slopes of the Alps; and the delight of the æsthetic sense merged gradually in the satisfied craving for pure air and brilliant sunshine which marked his final struggle for physical life. A ring of enthusiasm comes into his letters from the mountains, and deepens as the years advance; doubtless enhanced by the great—perhaps too great—exhilaration which the Alpine atmosphere produced, but also in large measure independent of it. Each new place into which the summer carries him he declares more beautiful than the last. It possibly was Song of Solomon 2 [Note: Mrs. Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of R. Browning, 302.]
No man may live unto himself, and yet
How poor are they that scorn their Olivet!—
Who, in their turmoil, seek not day or night
The sanctuary of the mountain height,
Fulfilled with whose indomitable breath
Long time ago the Lord of Nazareth
Raised up the fallen and subdued the strong,
And woke the stars to universal Song of Solomon 3 [Note: G. Thomas, Birds of Passage, 44.]
2. The special answer to Jesus’ prayer is seen in the selection of the Twelve. In the great high-priestly prayer, recorded by St. John, the Saviour three times over speaks of the disciples as the gift of God. They are known in the Church as “the glorious company of the apostles.” They merit the praise they have received and will continue to receive from the believers in Christ through all ages, but their glory was not of this world. The world looked upon them, in their day, as a very insignificant company. They were regarded as a band of poor, illiterate Galileans. They had no social prestige, no influence, with the great and powerful of earth. All of them, except Judas the traitor, were from Galilee, a section that was looked down on by the Jews, and had no special influence among any other people.
Consider how large a part of the New Testament is occupied with the story of the lives and labours, the spoken and written words, of the men who belonged to this first apostolate. By their life-work Christ’s Kingdom was made known in all parts of the Roman Empire within forty years of His ascension. How well they did His work; how faithfully they carried out His great commission; how nobly they bore witness to the facts and doctrines of the Gospel, and, above all, to the spirit and power of His life, the first pages of Church history, and their own Epistles, tell. We must not overlook the fact that the life of every one of these Apostles, with its far-reaching results, was an answer to His prayer—a gift of God. Every such life was a “fruit-tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof”; and that seed is growing to-day in every soil and in every climate over the whole earth. The answers to Christ’s prayer multiply and increase for ever. We speak of “the conservation of force.” There is a force in activity around us continually, a force which science takes no account of, and cannot explain. It is a force which is not only conserved but increased, whenever and wherever it is exercised. Christ used it and taught us to use it—“the force of prayer.”1 [Note: W. E. Winks, The Gospel of Prayer, 55.]
3. The answer to the grandest prayer is wrapped in mystery. Who can escape the question, “If these men were chosen as the result of all this prayer—perfect, faultless prayer—why was Judas among their number? Was his election part of the answer?” Why Judas was chosen at all is not clearly shown. What his character was at the time of his joining the apostolic band we cannot tell; although we may reasonably suppose that it was such as justified his election; and that he broke the fair promise of his early discipleship, and sank at last in the mire of covetousness, deceit, and villainy. But then comes the question, Was not all this foreseen by Him who gave and by Him who chose a man of this type to be among the Twelve? From this question will arise many others touching Divine foreordination and human freedom. These mysteries are not fully solved in the words of Christ, and evidently were not meant to be solved. They are still left among the “secret things” which “belong unto God.”
Yet one point comes out clearly from His words. In the answer our Lord received to this prayer, as in the prayer itself, there are elements both Divine and human. Turning to God, Christ spoke of the Twelve as “those whom thou hast given me”; turning to these men themselves, He said, “Have I not chosen you?” And the men themselves are permitted to hear both declarations, to see both sides or poles of the sphere of truth. We may rest assured that it is ever thus with answers to prayer: like the prayers themselves, their answers are both “from God and of man.” We are allowed to see this at least—and it is of inestimable value to us—that God’s blessing in response to our supplications comes to us along the lines of our own faculties, and in reward for our proper use of them. The Great Creator always honours His own gifts by making their legitimate exercise the condition of His favour. The praying Christ came under this law of life. Otherwise the history of His earthly sojourn must have been written in very different terms, and the prayers He offered to God could have been no pattern and encouragement for us.
Lately I have asked specially in prayer, with a large faith in God’s goodness, for one or two things, but the prayer has brought no sign of an answer. This has not in the least affected my confidence in God, but it has led me to ask myself whether that sort of prayer is right, or whether the best way is just to tell out to God your difficulty or trouble, and then rest in the confidence that in His own way and His own time the best will come to pass. Whatever happens, time will roll on, bringing me—and, I trust, my loved ones—safe home, and that should be enough.1 [Note: J. Brash: Memorials and Correspondence, 160.]
Oft when of God we ask
For fuller, happier life,
He sets us some new task
Involving care and strife.
Is this the boon for which we sought?
Has prayer new trouble on us brought?
This is indeed the boon,
Though strange to us it seems;
We pierce the rock, and soon
The blessing on us streams;
For when we are the most athirst,
Then the clear waters on us burst
Prayer and Choice
Campbell (W. M.), Footprints of Christ, 155.
Little (W. J. K.), The Light of Life, 178.
Manning (H. E.), Sermons, ii. 342.
Murray (J. O.), in Princeton Sermons, 192.
Mursell (W. A.), Sermons on Special Occasions, 61.
Nash (L. L.), Early Morning Scenes, 156.
New (C.), Sermons preached in Hastings, 158.
Robarts (F. H.), Sunday Morning Talks, 199.
Salmon (G.), Sermons preached in the Chapel of Trinity College, Dublin, 171.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xiv. (1868), No. 798; lvi. (1910), No. 3178.
Stalker (J.), Imago Christi, 127.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), vi. (1869), No. 628.
Watkinson (W. L.), The Education of the Heart, 186.
Winks (W. E.), The Gospel of Prayer, 39.
British Congregationalist, August 20, 1908 (J. H. Jowett).
Christian World Pulpit, xxxvii. 133 (J. H. Atkinson); lxiv. 390 (C. S. Macfarland).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Ember Days, xv. 442 (W. T. Henham).