Let me rapidily sketch those fifteen mentions of the gospel writers, attempting to keep their chronological order.
The first mention is by Luke, in chapter three. The first three gospels all tell of Jesus' double baptism, but it is Luke who adds, "and praying." It was while waiting in prayer that He received the gift of the Holy Spirit. He dared not begin His public mission without that anointing. It had been promised in the prophetic writings. And now, standing in the Jordan, He waits and prays until the blue above is burst through by the gleams of glory-light from the upper-side and the dove-like Spirit wings down and abides upon Him. Prayer brings power. Prayer is power. The time of prayer is the time of power. The place of prayer is the place of power. Prayer is tightening the connections with the divine dynamo so that the power may flow freely without loss or interruption.
The second mention is made by Mark in chapter one. Luke, in chapter four, hints at it, "when it was day He came out and went into a desert place." But Mark tells us plainly "in the morning a great while before the day (or a little more literally, 'very early while it was yet very dark') He arose and went out into the desert or solitary place and there prayed." The day before, a Sabbath day spent in His adopted home-town Capernaum, had been a very busy day for Him, teaching in the synagogue service, the interruption by a demon-possessed man, the casting out amid a painful scene; afterwards the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, and then at sun-setting the great crowd of diseased and demonized thronging the narrow street until far into the night, while He, passing amongst them, by personal touch, healed and restored every one. It was a long and exhausting day's work. One of us spending as busy a Sabbath would probably feel that the next morning needed an extra hour's sleep if possible. One must rest surely. But this man Jesus seemed to have another way of resting in addition to sleep. Probably He occupied the guest-chamber in Peter's home. The house was likely astir at the usual hour, and by and by breakfast was ready, but the Master had not appeared yet, so they waited a bit. After a while the maid slips to His room door and taps lightly, but there's no answer; again a little bolder knock, then pushing the door ajar she finds the room unoccupied. Where's the Master? "Ah!" Peter says; "I think I know. I have noticed before this that He has a way of slipping off early in the morning to some quiet place where He can be alone." And a little knot of disciples with Peter in the lead starts out on a search for Him, for already a crowd is gathering at the door and filling the street again, hungry for more. And they "tracked Him down" here and there on the hillsides, among clumps of trees, until suddenly they come upon Him quietly praying with a wondrous calm in His great eyes. Listen to Peter as he eagerly blurts out, "Master, there's a big crowd down there, all asking for you." But the Master's quiet decisive tones reply, "Let us go into the next towns that I may preach there also; for to this end came I forth." Much easier to go back and deal again with the old crowd of yesterday; harder to meet the new crowds with their new skepticism, but there's no doubt about what should be done. Prayer wonderfully clears the vision; steadies the nerves; defines duty; stiffens the purpose; sweetens and strengthens the spirit. The busier the day for Him the more surely must the morning appointment be kept, and even an earlier start made, apparently. The more virtue went forth from Him, the more certainly must He spend time, and even more time, alone with Him who is the source of power.
The third mention is in Luke, chapter five. Not a great while after the scene just described, possibly while on the trip suggested by His answer to Peter, in some one of the numerous Galilean villages, moved with the compassion that ever burned His heart, He had healed a badly diseased leper, who, disregarding His express command, so widely published the fact of His remarkable healing that great crowds blocked Jesus' way in the village and compelled Him to go out to the country district, where the crowds which the village could not hold now throng about Him. Now note what the Master does. The authorized version says, "He withdrew into the wilderness and prayed." A more nearly literal reading would be, "He was retiring in the deserts and praying"; suggesting not a single act, but rather a habit of action running through several days or even weeks. That is, being compelled by the greatness of the crowds to go into the deserts or country, districts, and being constantly thronged there by the people, He had less opportunity to get alone, and yet more need, and so while He patiently continues His work among them He studiously seeks opportunity to retire at intervals from the crowds to pray.
How much His life was like ours. Pressed by duties, by opportunities for service, by the great need around us, we are strongly tempted to give less time to the inner chamber, with door shut. "Surely this work must be done," we think, "though it does crowd and flurry our prayer time some." "No," the Master's practice here says with intense emphasis. Not work first, and prayer to bless it. But the first place given to prayer and then the service growing out of such prayer will be charged with unmeasured power. The greater the outer pressure on His closet-life, the more jealously He guarded against either a shortening of its time or a flurrying of its spirit. The tighter the tension, the more time must there be for unhurried prayer.
The fourth mention is found in Luke, chapter six. "It came to pass in these days that He went out into the mountains to pray, and He continued all night in prayer to God." The time is probably about the middle of the second year of His public ministry. He had been having very exasperating experiences with the national leaders from Judea who dogged His steps, criticising and nagging at every turn, sowing seeds of skepticism among His simple-minded, intense-spirited Galileans. It was also the day before He selected the twelve men who were to be the leaders after His departure, and preached the mountain sermon. Luke does not say that He planned to spend the entire night in prayer. Wearied in spirit by the ceaseless petty picking and Satanic hatred of His enemies, thinking of the serious work of the morrow, there was just one thing for Him to do. He knew where to find rest, and sweet fellowship, and a calming presence, and wise counsel. Turning His face northward He sought the solitude of the mountain not far off for quiet meditation and prayer. And as He prayed and listened and talked without words, daylight gradually grew into twilight, and that yielded imperceptibly to the brilliant Oriental stars spraying down their lustrous fire-light. And still He prayed, while the darkness below and the blue above deepened, and the stilling calm of God wrapped all nature around, and hushed His heart into a deeper peace. In the fascination of the Father's loving presence He was utterly lost to the flight of time, but prayed on and on until, by and by, the earth had once more completed its daily turn, the gray streaks of dawnlight crept up the east, and the face of Palestine, fragrant with the deep dews of an eastern night, was kissed by a sun of a new day. And then, "when it was day"--how quietly the narrative goes on--"He called the disciples and chose from them twelve,--and a great multitude of disciples and of the people came,--and He healed all--and He opened His mouth and taught them--for power came forth from Him." Is it any wonder, after such a night! If all our exasperations and embarrassments were followed, and all our decisions and utterances preceded, by unhurried prayer, what power would come forth from us, too. Because as He is even so are we in this world.
The fifth mention is made by Matthew, chapter fourteen, and Mark, chapter six, John hinting at it in chapter six of his gospel. It was about the time of the third passover, the beginning of His last year of service. Both He and the disciples had been kept exceedingly busy with the great throng coming and going incessantly. The startling news had just come of the tragic death of His forerunner. There was need of bodily rest, as well as of quiet to think over the rapidly culminating opposition. So taking boat they headed towards the eastern shore of the lake. But the eager crowds watched the direction taken and spreading the news, literally "ran" around the head of the lake and "out-went them," and when He stepped from the boat for the much-needed rest there was an immense company, numbering thousands, waiting for Him. Did some feeling of impatience break out among the disciples that they could not be allowed a little leisure? Very likely, for they were so much like us. But He was "moved with compassion" and, wearied though He was, patiently spent the entire day in teaching, and then, at eventime when the disciples proposed sending them away for food, He, with a handful of loaves and fishes, satisfied the bodily cravings of as many as five thousand.
There is nothing that has so appealed to the masses in all countries and all centuries as ability to furnish plenty to eat. Literally tens of thousands of the human race fall asleep every night hungry. So here. At once it is proposed by a great popular uprising, under the leadership of this wonderful man as king, to throw off the oppressive Roman yoke. Certainly if only His consent could be had it would be immensely successful, they thought. Does this not rank with Satan's suggestion in the wilderness, and with the later possibility coming through the visit of the Greek deputation, of establishing the kingdom without suffering? It was a temptation, even though it found no response within Him. With the over-awing power of His presence so markedly felt at times He quieted the movement, "constrained" the disciples to go by boat before Him to the other side while He dismissed the throng. "And after He had taken leave of them"--what gentle courtesy and tenderness mingled with His irrevocable decision--"He went up in the mountain to pray," and "continued in prayer" until the morning watch. A second night spent in prayer! Bodily weary, His spirit startled by an event which vividly foreshadowed His own approaching violent death, and now this vigorous renewal of His old temptation, again He had recourse to His one unfailing habit of getting off alone to pray. Time alone to pray; more time to pray, was His one invariable offset to all difficulties, all temptations, and all needs. How much more there must have been in prayer as He understood and practiced it than many of His disciples to-day know.