Jesus prayed alone often. On several occasions his private prayer preceded significant moments in his ministry. After Jesus has been praying alone (Luke 9:18), he asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Their answers reveal that many contemporaries of Jesus speculated that one of the prophets of old lived anew in the person of Jesus. Two prophets who are named, Elijah and John the Baptist, were fierce proclaimers of God’s will. They had not hesitated to confront kings with God’s claim on their lives. Many believed that Elijah would return to prepare the way for the Messiah; some had speculated before that John was Elijah performing that role. Some now, after the execution of John by Herod Antipas seemed to indicate that John might not be “Elijah,” suggested that Jesus might be the one preparing the way for the Messiah. The identity of Jesus and the purpose of his ministry was the focus. What people believed about the Jesus and his goals would shape how they interpreted what he said. Some thought he was a prophet. Others anticipated a Messiah King who would lead a revolution against Rome. What do you think they heard when Jesus talked about the kingdom of God being at hand? Jesus, however, having established what the disciples were hearing about him from their contemporaries, challenges his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Were they buying into popular speculation? Peter replies that Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah. Peter does not believe that Jesus is merely preparing the way. Jesus then promptly describes to his disciples what it means for him to be God’s Messiah. Jesus as Messiah is God’s suffering servant; the disciples are to follow his example.
Jesus preceded his questions with personal prayer. Had he been praying about the purpose of his ministry and his identity? In Luke 4, political power and celebrity-like fame are among the temptations for Jesus. Jesus prays and then teaches his disciples that his mission, and theirs, does not focus on attaining political power or fame. Each disciple is to take up his or her cross and follow Jesus.
The next paragraph begins with Jesus taking three disciples with him as he goes up on a mountain to pray. The events that transpire again cause the disciples to focus on who Jesus is and what that means for them. Peter, James, and John learn in dramatic fashion that God wants them to listen to Jesus, not Moses or Elijah.
Our own aspirations may color how we think of Jesus and how we interpret his teachings. Like Jesus and his disciples, we need to pray for clearer understanding of who Jesus was and what he taught. Then we may pick up our metaphorical crosses and follow him wherever he leads even if it leads to death. Carrying a cross usually did. We need to pay attention to when Jesus prayed. Perhaps when we understand when Jesus prayed, we will understand why and what he prayed. Then we will know how we should pray and where we should follow.
Lord, We live so long after you walked on this earth as a man. Your contemporaries struggled to understand you. We should not be surprised if we misunderstand. Open our eyes, Lord, and help us to see your will clearly. Help us to understand who you are and who we may be when we follow you. Give us courage we will need to walk in your steps. In Jesus’ name, Amen.