I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.
If you read the Gospel of John, you cannot deny that Jesus is God – that was how John the Apostle specifically depicted Jesus as – a stark contrast to the other 3 Gospel books (also known as synoptic gospels). One of the more prominent examples of this theme is the detailed retelling of the raising of Lazarus – a miracle of enormous proportions and only found in John 11. Indeed, John 11 is known for the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. While it is a compelling case to study, with revelations and prophecies of great consequence, our focus today is not on Lazarus and not on the Christian concept of resurrection. Instead, our focus today is on the prayer made by Jesus prior to him performing the miracle.
Oh, but why the attention, you ask? Jesus has always been depicted to be a very prayerful person, no matter which gospel you flip to. There were at least 20 separate instances of Jesus being recorded as praying(or giving thanks) in the four gospels alone (the number I counted was actually 25, but it is a very rough number, I tried not to count similar instances across the 4 gospels, but I’m no guru and may have made a few mistakes here and there), and at least 8 other instances when Jesus taught about prayer. The Gospel of John is also significantly the one gospel that contains fewest instances of his prayers (Luke recorded the most), but, interestingly, it is in John that we find the longest recorded prayer that Jesus made – his prayer for himself, his disciples, and all believers in John 17:1-26, before he headed to Gethsemane. John 11:42 is unique, however, and stands alone as the one verse that gave an hint to why Jesus prayed aloud publicly in that one instance (Jesus often prayed in seclusion). In today’s study, we will examine the nature of public prayers, why we should do it, and how we should do it through the case study of Jesus Christ’s own prayer.
Let us run through the events that led up to Jesus’ prayer in John 11:41-42 quickly – Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, was taken ill. His sisters, who were both close friends of Jesus, sent word for him to come in haste. Jesus dallied in returning, however, and by the time he arrived in Bethlehem with his disciples, Lazarus had already died, and been in the tomb for 4 days. Jesus had asked to remove the stone from the tomb, and when Martha questioned why, Jesus told her that if she would believe, she would see the glory of God. Obediently, even though they must not have understood, they removed the stone from the tomb, and it is at this moment – with the tomb open – that Jesus looked up to the sky and prayed this short prayer. After his prayer, Jesus commanded, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
And we know the rest of the story.
This prayer is short.
In my version of the Bible (NIV), I counted 37 words. One can probably say those words in 15 seconds or so. Of course, this varies from language to language and version to version, but you get my point. This prayer is short. It’s not like Jesus isn’t capable of long prayers – he is. As mentioned earlier, his prayer before he got arrested spanned the length of one full chapter.
This prayer is calm.
We don’t see Jesus shouting or crying out here. All he did was to look up and speak – Then Jesus looked up and said [John 11:41].We don’t see any strong or emotional words used. The scene was outside Lazarus’ tomb, where everybody there were grieving for him. They were already emotional, even Jesus was emotional – he wept. There was no need for any emotional speech or prayer.
This prayer was not made because Jesus needed to.
It was, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Jesus knew that even if he commanded Lazarus to come out without praying immediately before it, Lazarus would be resurrected anyway. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me” [John 11:41-42] – Jesus had the faith that his prayer will be heard. This is perhaps one of the examples of the pinnacle of faith in the Bible – the purest kind of faith that we all look to emulate today. It was full and absolute confidence and certainty. God always hear him – not only when he prays for himself, but also when he intercedes and mediates for us. If the prayer was simply made so that Jesus could perform the miracle, then, it was really unnecessary. But that was not the chief purpose of the prayer.
This prayer was made for the benefit of the witnesses that were present.
I said this for the benefit of the people standing here – In this particular incident, who were the people ‘standing here’? The disciples were there – they had been with Jesus all the way. Jesus had told them, ‘let us go to him’ [John 11:15]. Thomas had told his fellow disciples, ‘let us also go’ [John 11:16]. Martha and Mary were there. When Jesus first arrived, Martha went out to greet him, and later on brought Mary out. They then led him to where Lazarus laid. Many Jews were there to comfort the sisters [John 11:19]. We know they were still there when the miracle was performed – Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him [John 11:45]. Out of these Jews, some of them were the ones who moved the stone, and hence played a more intimate role in this story. These were, as far we can tell from John’s narration, all the people who were standing there when Jesus prayed.
It was for their sake that Jesus made the prayer. It wasn’t for his own sake – unlike many of us today, Jesus didn’t have to prepare his own heart or clear his own mind. We see a similar scene not long later, when a voice came from heaven and spoke to a huge crowd with Jesus. Jesus said, this voice was for your benefit, not mine [John 12:30].
that they may believe that you sent me – Prayers can, and should, build others up. Prayers can be a comfort and an encouragement to others. Prayers can be as effective as sermons, in that it can strengthen the faith of those who hear them. It wasn’t just a coincidence that Jesus had arrived late at Jerusalem. He had stayed for 2 more days despite hearing the news. By the time he arrived, Lazarus was already dead for 4 days. The fact that it had been 4 days is very significant, actually. As per Jewish tradition then, it was a common belief that the spirit will reside in a corpse for 3 days. Hence, 4 days since his death, there was absolutely no hope. To them, it was just a dead body. It was totally unthinkable. Jesus picked the most impossible time to demonstrate his might. There could have been no excuses made at that point.
In a conversation with his disciples, his intentions were more clearly revealed – Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe [John 11:14-15]. This was confirmed in the prayer that we’re studying today, where Jesus said that they may believe that you sent me. And we see that indeed, there were results. Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him [John 11:45]. Had Jesus not made this prayer beforehand, they would have not been as clear that Jesus is the son of God. I would argue – though some may disagree – that it was this prayer that made people truly believe, and not the miracle itself. To me, the miracle was proof that his word is true. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he had performed many miracles – and many who had seen his feats were amazed, but it was always, always, always his preaching and his teaching that people truly understood and believed.
There was no need for Jesus to make a flamboyant and showy prayer. There was no need for a strong or loud prayer. Public prayer, in this case, was short and simple, calm and intentional.
I’m not against emotional prayers. I’m quite a fan of emotional prayers – I have a tendency to speak dramatically, and it often carries itself into my prayers as well. I often raise my voice in prayers, I often whisper as well, even in public prayers. Let’s not even talk about the length of prayers. While I no longer pray at length while praying publicly, there seems to be some kind of strange stigma against short, one-liner public prayers. Yes, I’m not very good with short and calm prayers. Thus, this verse has been a powerful reminder to me.
Obviously, this verse is about so much more than just the style or the method of prayer. Even as many placed their faith in Jesus, there were still some who went to the Pharisees and plotted against Jesus. How strange, isn’t it? Today many of us complain, if only God will do a fancy miracle in the magnitude of the splitting of the Red Sea, and it would be so much easier for people to believe! That’s not totally valid, is it? These people had seen with their own eyes the miracle of the impossible – the resurrection of a man who had been dead for 4 days. If men are unwilling to repent, no matter how big or amazing the miracle is, they will not believe.
A loud prayer, a soft prayer. An emotional one, a composed one. There is no real methodology or ideal style, perhaps. Or maybe there is. I don’t know. What’s most important, at the end of the day, is perhaps the intention. Public prayer has to be intentional. Public prayer has to turn people back to God. Public prayer has great impact, if we would only learn to do it more, and do it intentionally.