Did Jesus Pray Using Vain Repetition in Matthew 26:44?

Category: Ask Pastor Jeff

Here’s our question for today: “Matthew 26:44 says Jesus ‘went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.’ Does it not seem strange that the Son of God would make a request of his Father multiple times, saying the same words? What should we make of this, especially considering Jesus’ teachings on prayer?”

I have to make an assumption here in answering the question since it wasn’t stated in the question itself. My first assumption is that when our questioner mentions “Jesus’ teaching on prayer,” they are referring to Matthew 6 and what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. Making that assumption, let’s go there and see what Jesus taught.

In Matthew 6, beginning at verse one, Jesus on how to NOT practice righteousness. In verses two, three and four He talks about the wrong way to give, and then in verse five, He moves to the area of prayer. Let’s read verses five through eight, which would then take up to where Jesus teaches the proper way to pray. Verse five:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Keep in mind what Jesus said at the beginning of the chapter: “Beware of practicing righteousness before other people to be seen by them.” He gives an admonition about giving to the needy and now He gives an admonition about praying. These are negative commands: “don’t do it like this.” Verse nine begins the “do it like THIS” part of the message – the positive commands. Then if we were to continue past what is known as “the Lord’s Prayer,” we’d see another admonition – this one about fasting and how people appear in public when they are fasting.

When we read these verses – and the Sermon on the Mount in general, we always have to be careful in making “absolutes” out what Jesus says, to borrow from what D.A. Carson has to say on this – Carson calls it “absolutizing.” Why? Are these the only words in Scripture which speak to these topics? No. We have Luke 18 and the account of the persistent widow in the first eight verses. Did that widow violate Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6? Luke 18 says the widow “kept coming to the judge.” The judge – a wicked judge – says she is bothering him with this repeated coming, and that her coming to him was ‘continual.” Later in the passage, as Jesus gives the application, He says God will do what? He will give justice to His elect,” but the elect are doing something that results in the justice being given – doing what? Verse seven says, “they cry to Him day and night.”

We can look at Paul and his thorn in the flesh – whatever it was doesn’t make a difference here. What we know is that Paul wanted it gone. In 2 Corinthians 12 we see Paul prayed repeatedly – three times he pleaded with the Lord, verse eight says. Did Paul sin and violate Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 by praying three times for the same thing?

Then as our questioner asks, in Matthew 26, Scripture tells us that Jesus, at Gethsemane, prayed again in verse 44 – for the third time and not only prayed for the third time but prayed the same words. Did Jesus contradict His own teaching in Matthew 6 by doing what he did at Gethsemane?

The answer is “no,” but I just can’t assert that without some foundation. Is the issue in Matthew 6 only that of praying for the same thing, and maybe even using the same words, over and over? The ESV isn’t our best help here with its use of the “empty phases.” The King James and the NKJV use “vain repetitions.” The NASB and the Legacy Standard use “meaningless repetitions.” Others use “babbling repeatedly.” We have to keep context in mind here as we’re trying to work out that which Jesus is speaking against. The base issue is how you conduct yourself in public – with regard to giving, praying and fasting. But then when you do pray, be it in public or private… don’t be using that which is “vain repetition,” or “meaningless repetition.” It’s somewhat ironic that the very words of Christ which come after this have become in many places “vain repetition.” The Lord’s Prayer has become vain repetition for many. But this word Matthew uses – it means to babble. To use the same words again and again – and I know Jesus is said to have done that in Matthew 26 so we can’t ignore that – but it also has the meaning of to “stammer.”

People stammering, or stuttering, was more common in generations past, I do believe. My Father had a minor stammer until the day he died. Sometimes he would try to speak and the first syllable of a word would come out several times before he was able to speak the whole word. I remember a boy in grade school in the 1960s and I still remember his name – this boy had a terrible stammer. Back then we called it stuttering. You felt so bad for him because he would try to say a word and he would stutter 15-20 times and kids would make fun of him. In that case it wasn’t “meaningless repetition” but we get the idea as it’s applied here.

In the days of Christ, pagan would pray endless prayers over and over and over in the hope that the repetition itself would cause their false gods to respond. Today we can think of the mantra used in Hinduism and Buddhism. A mantra is a word or phrase which is repeated over and over again that by the mere act of repetition is to have a spiritual influence. We could also think of the rosary in Roman Catholicism. It’s the mere act of repeating the Rosary which is said to have influence in having God answer prayers – it’s the words being repeated which have the force, not the prayer coming from a sincere heart. Just repeat the Rosary and the Rosary itself is said to be effectual.

This is what Jesus is speaking against. He’s not speaking against Paul’s praying two more times after the first prayer for the thorn to be taken away. He’s not rebuking the persistent widow for coming repeatedly to the judge. He’s not rebuking Himself for praying the same thing three times at Gethsemane. He’s rebuking vain, dead religion. Religion, which when done in public is done to make one appear holy and spiritual in the eyes of men. He’s not rebuking praying for the same thing more than once, or even using the same words here in Matthew 6. He’s speaking against meaningless praying. He’s speaking against thinking that the more words you pile up, the more effectual your prayers will be. Think about an effectual prayer of three words: “Lord, save me!” Peter’s prayer in Matthew 14 as he’s starting to sink. How about a nine-word prayer? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief on the cross next to Christ in Luke 23.

I want to return to D.A. Carson’s concept of “absolutizing” here. Matthew 6:8 says our Father knows what we need before we ask Him. If that’s the case, why pray? Don’t we have to be careful here? Jesus said to gouge out eyes and cut off hands, too, didn’t He? But we don’t gouge out eyes and cut off hands because the issue isn’t in the physical realm, at its root. We do pray, though, because we’re commanded to and that phrase about our Father knowing what we need isn’t the only teaching on prayer, is it? We have God-breathed words such as “Pray without ceasing.” We have God -breathed words such as “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James 5:16. James also tells us if we need wisdom, to ask. Does God already know we need it? Of course, He does. James 1:5 says God will give that wisdom…but only if we ask in faith, not being double-minded – verses six and eight.

Let’s wrap this up by looking at real life. Your spouse is lost. Are you sinning by praying every day from your heart for your spouse to be saved? No. Your children are lost. Pray every day from your heart? Yes. Paul tells Timothy to pray for those in authority. How many times do we pray for our mayors, our governors, our legislators, our President, the Supreme Court? Once? No, I believe we can pray until we die for them. Does Jesus want you running downtown at rush hour or when all the tourists are there and doing this on a street corner so people can hear you? No. Or…how about this? At your church’s prayer meeting. Do you pray for 25 minutes so people can hear what a wonderful prayer language you have and go, “Wow…this guy can pray!!!” No. That’s the proverbial synagogue or street corner about which Jesus is speaking. Now, can a 25-minute prayer be one that is pleasing to the Lord, if done in a prayer meeting? Yes….it’s all about the motives of the heart. Let’s also be honest here….a 30-second prayer in public can be sinfully motivated as well. Jesus cares greatly about the intents of the heart and whether we do what we to please Him or to please man, or whether we do what we do because we fear man more than we fear God.

There’s our answer. Amen.