Praying in PublicBy Nathan Mates
At a meal recently, with several other believers, I mentioned that we should pray once the food started arriving. Surprisingly-- to me-- one thought that such prayers were the kind of public prayers that Jesus didn't want, and asked me what Biblical basis for public prayers exists. Off the top of my head, I named Solomon's prayer of dedication for the temple in 1 Kings 8, the public repentance prayers offered up by the Israelites in Ezra/Nehemiah, and Jesus's prayers for the disciples in John chapters 16-18. [It's really John 14-16] The conversation soon shifted to other topics, but I felt I should double-check the scriptures (as is recommended-- Acts 17:11) to see where such an approach came from.
I believe the main verses that speak to this issue come from Jesus's sermon on the mount: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." [Matthew 6:5-6]
In the first part of that quote, Jesus's focus is on the public prayers, true, but not of the believer, but of the hypocrite. With God, it is not just the outward appearances that matter-- which the Pharisees of Jesus's day only focused on-- but the condition of the heart. In short, one's motivation counts as much-- if not more-- than what is said or where. If you publicly pray, for the purpose of getting others to see you pray, then Jesus says you'll have no further reward. Jesus encourages the believers to shun ostentatious religious displays, and spend time alone with God.
Also speaking on this subject, "As he taught, Jesus said, "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."" [Mark 12:28-40] I do not believe that Jesus is condemning solely long prayers made in public here, but the entire package of a person not following God's commands combined with false religion put on for show.
Did Jesus pray privately? Absolutely-- see Matthew 14:23, 26:39,42,44 (and parallel verses about Gethsemane in the other gospels) Mark 1:35, 6:46, Luke 5:16, 6:12. Luke 5:16 states this succinctly: "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." However, the definition of 'private' was larger in some places: "Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say I am?"" [Luke 18:18] While this is not prayer time spent alone with God, it was with a close group of friends. Jesus's prayer in John 14-16 for his believers, and the church by extension, on the way to Gethsemane, was also with a a small group of his disciples and probably a few others.
Also, Jesus did practice some level of public prayer: "Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there." [Matthew 19:13-15] It was Jesus's disciples that didn't want public prayer for some reason-- taking too long, they thought audience wouldn't be receptive, or any other reason-- but Jesus took the time to pray for kids.
Jesus also reinforced God's words in the Old Testament that "my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." [Isaiah 56:7b] That house was God's temple, built first by Solomon, and rebuilt later in the time of Ezra. [Ezra 3:8-13] Jesus threw out those who'd turned the area for gentiles (non-Jews) into a marketplace, instead of allowing it to be used for prayer. [Matthew 21:12-13] Jesus wanted the temple to be used for its specified purposes, and that did include prayers given in public.
In fact, in a parable, Jesus reinforces that prayers at the temple were acceptable, if the heart attitude was right: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."" [Luke 18:10-14]
In our own lives, there are several levels of how many others are around us in prayer, just like Jesus. At the most private level, there's prayer time spent alone with God. This is something I believe everyone should have regularly, following Jesus's example and comment in Matthew 6:6 to do so. This is where you can be in undistracted time spent with God, focusing on him-- his attributes and what's he done, confessing any and all sins of the heart, and praying for others.
Next up on the levels of prayer are those offered by a small group of believers-- from 2 to about 15 people. Examples of this include praying as a family, to a discipleship/accountability partner/group, to a church group. This is like Jesus praying 'privately' with his disciples, a group of believers united in prayer.
At the largest level of prayer are those done in church services. It is customary for the pastor to offer one or more prayers during the course of a service, such as prayer for people or events at church, to the pastor's pronouncing of a blessing on the congregation. That's a fairly public prayer, as not everyone hearing it may be a believer, yet this is not to be blindly opposed.
What can we learn from all of this? Given the evidence in Jesus's life referenced above-- to say nothing of all the other instances of public prayer in the Bible-- I would say that focusing on where prayers are offered is the wrong issue. Jesus repeatedly said that it's the heart attitude that matters most, rather than appearances and practices. So, search your heart before prayer, and always seek that God, not you, will be glorified through the prayer and every other action you do.