If you’re not a prayer meeting type of person, let me encourage you—neither was I and neither were the apostles. Jesus’ disciples were no more capable of praying for 10 days than they were to fly to the moon. The night prior to His execution, Jesus urged His disciples to pray with Him for an hour—a mere sixty minutes—but they couldn’t do it. They kept dozing off. They failed miserably. Rather than joining Jesus in His upper room of prayer, they each rolled over, grabbed their pillows, and fell back asleep. Now, only a month later, they can pray like champions. So, what happened?
How do you explain that, these disciples who were previously incapable of praying for one hour, are now suddenly able to pray passionately for 10 days? This is obviously an astounding miracle – it’s what we call the second upper-room miracle, the miracle of praying.
There are two sides of the disciples’ prayer lives that both require an explanation: (1) Why did they fail in prayer in the garden? (2) How do we explain their success in the upper room?
Failure in Prayer
Many of us feel like failures in prayer. There is perhaps nothing that contributes to prayerlessness more than the hopelessness of ever finding a cure for our inability to pray.
When a thousand pastors were surveyed on what their greatest perceived need was, the answer was almost unanimous: We need to learn to pray. One leader admitted, “We do pretty much everything at church, but pray.”
We are painfully aware of our own prayerlessness, but what is surprising is discovering the prayerlessness of the disciples. After all, Jesus had spent three years—the better part of one thousand days—mentoring these leaders. Some people mistakenly think that Jesus sent His disciples to the upper room because He didn’t know what else to do with them. Don’t be so naïve. From the moment Jesus first called His disciples, He was preparing them for the upper room. There are several ways Jesus mentored His upper-room disciples.
1. He modeled prayer in His own life
Jesus began His ministry by spending 40 days in prayer and fasting. Throughout his thirty-six months of public ministry, He was frequently caught in the act of praying.
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place and there he prayed,” (Mark 1:35)
“And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray,” (John 14:23)
“But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray,” (Luke 5:16)
“In those days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God,” (Luke 6:12)
The reason upper-room prayer was natural to Jesus is because He came from the upper room in heaven and was about to return there. While on earth He knew more clearly than anyone else that the closest place to heaven on earth is the upper room. The upper room was the due north of the compass inside His heart.
2. Jesus not only prayed; He did things by prayer
At virtually every significant moment in Jesus’ life, He is seen in His God-encountering upper room of prayer.
Before calling His twelve disciples, He spent the entire night in prayer.
He took His three core disciples with Him up to a mountain for the express purpose of praying.
While celebrating the Passover meal in the upper room, Jesus warned Peter of his denial, but encouraged him, saying, “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).
On the final night of His life, Jesus invites the disciples into His upper room in the Garden of Gethsemane for an extended time of prayer.
Even from the cross, while accomplishing His sacrificial atonement for all people, Jesus prayed two prayers: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and again with his very last words before dying, He prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:34 and Luke 23:46).
Even today, from his upper room in heaven, the Bible tells us, “He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
3. Jesus explicitly taught His disciples about prayer
Jesus gave His disciples the Lord’s prayer pattern, which is the most complete, foundational, apostolic prayer ever given; the Lord’s prayer contains all prayer.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one, for yours is the kingdom and the power and glory.’” (Luke 11:2-4; Matthew 6:9-12).
Jesus told many parables on how to be courageous, persistent, and even insistent in prayer. He told stories on how to pray and not give up. He gave promises to bolster the faith and tenacity in the disciples’ prayer lives: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9–10).
4. In addition to encouraging the faith of the disciples, Jesus frequently rebuked their unbelief
In fact, Jesus was so concerned about His disciples’ unbelief that He rebuked them six times for having such little faith.
We can easily conclude that Jesus did everything in His power to train His disciples to pray, and they had every reason to succeed. But why did they fail so miserably? This is critical— nobody knows how to pray. Nobody.
Can we agree that if anyone should have been able to pray, it would have been the twelve, but they failed miserably? Even though they had the best teacher and the best role model, not even one of them could pray effectively. Even when Jesus was their alarm clock, they kept hitting the snooze alarm on that dark night in Gethsemane.
Admitting that they were prayer failures was important to the disciples, and it’s important to you and me to admit the same. As long as we think God expects us to succeed at prayer, we will keep trying. When will we realize that our trying is what prolongs our failure?
The Bible says, “No one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11), and again, “We do not know what to pray for” (Romans 8:26). We keep trying, but the harder we try, the worse we fail. Realizing that on our own we are incapable of praying properly is the first step toward victory. It was crucial to the early disciples and it is crucial to us.
Parts of this article have been developed with permission using material from Author and Rev. Fred Hartley, International College of Prayer.