They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

To Pray Without Ceasing

“Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”
–1 Thessalonians 5:17

"Rabbi, Is There a Blessing for a Sewing Machine?"Rabbi: There is a blessing for everything! -- Fiddler on the Roof

“Rabbi, Is There a Blessing for a Sewing Machine?”
Rabbi: There is a blessing for everything!
— Fiddler on the Roof

I’ve always been puzzled and confused by this verse and others like it, thinking that only a monk would spend all his time praying. I couldn’t imagine a situation in life where all I would do was pray. However, as I’ve begun to learn more about the Eastern mindset and how Jewish people view and approach life, I think I am beginning to see what it means “to pray without ceasing”.

To the Hebrew mind, everything was centered around God. There was no distinction between the sacred and secular areas of life. You didn’t just pray to God and think about God while in church or during a specific prayer time. Life wasn’t compartmentalized into church functions for just a few hours and then regular life the rest of the time. To them, all of life was controlled by God and God’s hand was on every circumstance and situation, whether good or bad. Prayer was the means by which Jewish people communicated with God concerning those circumstances. Instead of making prayer a certain time where you went by yourself, bowed your head and spoke to God, the Jewish person talked to God in short one or two sentence prayers about everything that was happening to them during the day. They said the Shema (Deut 6:4-6) three times a day and then uttered short sentence prayers to God as every circumstance unfolded during the day. They had over one hundred of these “blessings” (berakhot) that were recited to acknowledge God’s direction and hand on everything in the universe. Each prayer started with the Jewish words, “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam”, which says, “Blessed are you O Lord, our God, King of the Universe”, and then added what they were thanking him for. They recited a prayer on hearing good news or bad news, when smelling something cooking, or a even a fragrant plant. They also had prayers for seeing the sunrise, thunder, lightning, rain or a rainbow. They even had a prayer for going to the bathroom. The Jews believed that by praying for and about everything, you were able to stay attuned to God and keep His divine perspective on life. They constantly praised God throughout the day with these single sentence prayers, looking for God in the common place events of the day. Each hour, each place, each event, every word spoken was a chance to see God’s hand at work.

Now, when I look at praying from a Jewish perspective, the verses on praying continually make more sense. I am trying to adopt the philosophy of thanking God and talking to God more on a moment to moment basis rather than just having a once daily quiet time. I’m trying to see him in all the small events that happen throughout the day, as well as the obvious big things that happen. Praying without ceasing has taken on a new and more significant meaning. When I read Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, 1 Corinthians 10:31, and Colossians 4:2, I have a deeper understanding of what the writer was trying to say. Colossians 3:17 may sum it up best – ”And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”.

P.S. A great lesson that is a companion to this story is, ”All of Life is Sacred” and conveys some of these same truths.

Pillar of the God Fearers

Pillar of the God-fearers

Pillar of the God-fearers

In 1976, archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Aphrodisias in southwest Turkey uncovered an object that is very significant to studiers of the Bible. An eight foot carved marble pillar with several names on it was uncovered in the agora (market place). The part of the agora where the stone was found was thought to be occupied by the Jewish population of the city, because that area contained vats for the dying of garments, an occupation done almost exclusively by Jews. When they extracted and cleaned up the pedestal, they found some interesting information carved on the stone. At the top of the pillar, written in Greek, was a list of over thirty names of Jewish men who were members or founders of the dyers guild (union) in the city. They were common Jewish names that you would recognize today, such as Samuel, Eleazar, and Abraham. After the Jewish listing, there was a gap between the next set of names. The heading for the second set of names was, “theosebeis”, which is Greek for, “God fearers”. Fifty-seven Greek names (more in number than the Jewish names) were then listed as also being members or a part of this Jewish community. This is very significant because it parallels the Bible’s account of a group of people who were Gentiles, but who bought in to the Jewish lifestyle and worshiped the Jewish God. Think for a second how the Jewish lifestyle would have stood out in this very pagan, Greek, world. The Jews only worshiped one God and they didn’t even have a statue or picture of their God to look at and worship! The Greeks had a pantheon of gods, and there were statues and temples to them everywhere. The Jewish people really stood out, with their dress, the way they ate (kosher), their observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, and not cutting the corners of their hair. They lived a very moral and faithful lifestyle compared to the pagans around them because they did not eat meat with blood or participate in the orgies that were so common in the worship of the Greek gods.

Evidently this lifestyle was attractive to some of the Greeks and Romans and they wanted to be a part of this type of community. What did they have to do to get in and be a part of the Jewish community? The Jewish people had a heated discussion about what would be required to let the Gentiles in. Some said that it would have to be “all or none” and they would have to do everything that a Jewish male would do, from circumcision to keeping all the dietary laws, etc. Others said that this was too big a burden to put on someone and that they should just have to keep some lesser restrictions. This is what the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 was discussing, “What do we have the Gentiles do to be a part of our community of faith?” If you read Acts 15:19-20 and the footnotes, you will see that they decided that just the laws of Noah would be enough to require of these people to become a part of their community.

Once these God fearers were accepted they could go to synagogue and to the Feasts the Jews celebrated each year. They could enter the Temple in Jerusalem, but were only allowed in as far as the Gentile Court. The Bible has several incidences that include God fearers. Cornelius, in Acts 10:1-2, was called a God fearer and was the one that Peter was involved with when God showed him that the Gentiles were going to be included in this new order. Paul, in several places in Acts, when he went to the synagogue, always made an attempt to reach the God fearers that were present (see Acts 13:16, Acts 14:1, Acts 17:1-4, Acts 11-12, Acts 16-17, and Acts 18:4).

The exciting part of all this it that the God fearers were the ancestors of us as modern day Gentile Christians! These “goyim” (Jewish for Gentiles) became “theosebeis” (God fearers) and served the one God and lived a moral, upright lifestyle in a very pagan world and then carried it over the centuries to us. These are the believers on whose shoulders we stand, our roots! Thankfully, these Gentiles accepted the call of the God of Heaven and Earth and followed Him faithfully so that we would have the opportunity to do the same all these centuries later.

Names removed from the stone

Names removed from the stone

P.S. One more interesting thing was noted on the Pillar of the God Fearers. It was evident that some of the names at some point in time had been cut off and a new name put in it’s place. Evidently, you could lose your place in the community and some were taken off the roles and lost their title. This makes Revelations 3:5 a very interesting read. It says, “I will never blot out (the literal Greek is ,”cut out”), his name from the Book of Life…”. God’s pillar in heaven won’t have names chipped out- our position will be secure.

The Shoulders on Which We Stand

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer
If you do a study on what happened to the New Testament disciples and their followers, you quickly realize what a sacrifice has been made for us to be able to exercise our Christian faith in the 21st century. The early years of the Christian movement were perilous and deadly times. How the gospel survived those early years can only be attributed to the fact that God ordained it and the hard choices and perseverance of the saints that were charged with carrying the torch to the the next generation. Over the ages, thousands have paid the ultimate price so that the gospel could be brought vibrant and intact to us in the twenty first century.

Most modern day believers don’t give much thought to the past and how and why we are able to freely worship today as Christians. Our study of the faith is focused inward and centers around obtaining inner peace and personal satisfaction in life, with little thought given to the history of those who selflessly brought the faith to us. Whether we realize it or not, we are standing on the broad shoulders of those who have come before us. We have a heritage that we must acknowledge and actively be aware of. If we forget where we are from, we will definitely lose sight of where we are going. We also have a responsibility to keep the torch lit and pass our faith along to those who come behind us. Let’s take a brief look at the shoulders we are now standing on.

First of all, where we come from matters to God and He put us in a natural family as well as a spiritual family as part of His master plan. Heritage was God’s idea and it is evidently very important to Him. The Book of Genesis carefully lays out the beginnings of the Jewish nation and covenants that God made with his chosen people. From Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, the lineage of each is carefully recorded. Later, when God calls Moses in the Exodus story, He tells him in Exodus 3:4-6, “I am the God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. Isaiah 51:1-2 tells us that we are to look to the rock from which we were cut, to look to our Jewish roots (Abraham and Sarah) if we want to seek Him. In the Book of Numbers, chapter 1, God list all the families and their households to preserve their lineages and heritage for all the generations to come. Moving to the New Testament, the first seventeen verses of the first book, Matthew, list the genealogy and lineage of our Messiah, Jesus. Hebrews 11 lists all the Old Testament saints and martyrs who have gone before us and paved the way for those that would come later. Hebrews 11:33-40 details the difficult circumstances that believers faced because of their unwavering belief in the God of their fathers. The fulfillment of their faithfulness and perseverance was realized in the person of the the Messiah, Jesus. Jesus was the ultimate example in suffering and endurance (Hebrews 12:1-3) and His discipled followed his example to the point of death. They carried the gospel message forward for 2,000 years to each succeeding generation. Though persecuted and pursued, they were faithful to pass the torch on to us.

We are standing then on some very broad shoulders. A tremendous price has been paid by our forefathers that have gone before us. Have you ever given any thought to whose shoulders you are standing on? Who in your lineage (family or spiritual) has been responsible for showing you the way to the Messiah? Also, what are you doing to ensure that the legacy is being passed on to those in your family? God has given us the responsibility to pass the legacy on to the family that He has so carefully placed us in. We must be the shoulders that the next generation stands upon. Where will the next generation of leaders come from if we don’t carry our our responsibility? Who will be standing on your shoulders?

P.S. Consider these verses as you ponder your thoughts:

  • Psalm 145:4
  • 2 Timothy 2:2
  • Hebrews 13:7

Where Heaven and Earth Meet – Part 1

When God first created heaven and earth in Genesis, they were both the same place. If you read the creation story, it does not talk about two distinct places where God lived and man lived. For example, the tree of life, which signified life without death, was located in the middle of the garden of Eden (Gen 2:9). This same tree of life is pictured in Revelations 2:7 and 22:2,14 as being in the new heaven at the end of the age. In Eden, God created a space where He could live with His creation. His perfect intention was for His people to dwell in His place, with full access to His presence. In Genesis 3:8, God was walking in the garden with His creation. It doesn’t say He came down from somewhere else to visit, it implies that He was there, his presence was with His creation in the garden He had created.

Because of the original sin of Adam and Eve, God was forced to drive them from the garden of Eden and put cherubim and a flaming sword to guard its eastern entrance and keep his creation from entering (Genesis 3:23). God was holy and could not live where sin was, so He had to separate himself from His creation.

The only hope that man now has is that God would have mercy and somehow redeem His fallen people that are separated from Him by the chasm of sin. The story of Eden is where the redemptive thread in the Bible begins. Who will pay the price for Adam and Eve’s rebellion? How do we get Eden back? The salvation story begins not with Jesus, but with Adam and Eve.

Because of His infinite mercy, God did not give up on his desire to dwell with His creation. In Exodus 25:9, he told Moses, “Have them make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them”. In this verse, you can hear the echo of Eden. God wants to live with His children again, so he has them build a sacred place where once again heaven and earth can meet and be one and the same.

Notice the similarities of the Tabernacle to the Garden. The entrance to both is from the east (Genesis 3:24 and Exodus 26). Both were guarded by cherubim (Genesis 3:24 and Exodus 26:31-33). God placed the tree of life in the garden (Genesis 2:9). In the construction of the Tabernacle, God told the craftsmen to build the menorah to resemble the tree of life, with buds, blossoms, branches and fruit (Exodus 25:31-39). The tabernacle was erected on the first day of the New Year (Exodus 40:17) to signify a new beginning between God and His people (see also Creation Story in the Tabernacle).

Heaven and earth could now meet in the Holy of Holies where God lived in the Tabernacle. Time and space would meet here where God would forgive the sins of the people through the sacrificial system He put in place. For one small moment, the Garden of Eden would be back, sins would be forgiven, and worshipers would experience what heaven is like. God would be living with His people again.

Jewish Dress and Custom – A Study of Haluk, Tallit, Kanaf, Tzitzit, and Tfillin

It is interesting to do a short study on the clothing that Jewish men would have worn during Jesus’ day and then to ask ourselves if the mental pictures that we have of Jesus matches our findings. What did Jesus and the other Jewish men in Israel wear and look like and how does that add to our knowledge of Bible stories when we understand the Jewish customs of that time period? As usual, the more we know about the culture of the Bible the more alive the Scriptures become.

Man with Haluk, Tallit, Kanaf, Tzitzit, and Tfillin (phylactery)

Man with Haluk, Tallit, Kanaf, Tzitzit, and Tfillin (phylactery)

Jewish men during the time of Jesus wore two garments for every day use. The first one, a linen undergarment or undershirt, was called “haluk” (or chaluk). It was long, like a night shirt and fell halfway between the knees and ankles. You wore this garment at home, or to work in, but not in public. Mark 14:51-52 describes a young man (probably Mark) escaping from the soldiers and having his haluk ripped off, making him naked. The fact that he only had his undergarment on suggests that the disciples were sleeping somewhere nearby when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. Also, in John 19:23, the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ haluk, his linen tunic, at the crucifixion.

The second garment that they wore was an outer garment that went over the haluk. This garment was called “tallit” and was usually white, made of wool, and had holes in it for your arms and head. This was the garment that was worn out in public. Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 5:40 to give someone your haluk as well as your tallit, takes on new meaning as Jesus would have been saying, “Give them everything you have!”

Because of Numbers 15:37-41, Jewish men always wore tassels on the corners of their tallit. The tassels were called, “tzitzit” (pronounced seat-seat) or “tzitziot” (plural). There were to be four tzitzit, one on each corner of your robe, and each tassel was to have a blue cord in it. The blue cord represented royalty. The tassels were to be a visual reminder of God and His commands and His authority. The corner of the robe with the tassels on it was called, “kanaf”or “kanafim” (plural). This Hebrew word also meant, “wing”. Two Bible stories come to mind that involve the corners and the tassels on them. The first one is the story of David and Saul in 1 Samuel 24:1-4). David cut off the corner of Saul’s robe in the cave where David was hiding. David was not just cutting off a piece of Saul’s robe. By cutting off the kanaf and the tassels (tzitzit) that symbolized God’s authority and protection, David was saying, “God has taken His hand off of you and you no longer have His authority on your kingship.” The second story concerning the tassels is in Matthew 23:1-7, where Jesus criticized the Pharisees, not for wearing tzitit, but for making them extra long.

TzitzithIt is interesting to note the effort to which Jewish people would got to tie their tassels in a certain way. There were were eight strings on each tassel and five knots were tied in the cords. The five knots represented the five books of the Torah and the four spaces between the knots represented the four letters in God’s unspeakable name. Also, the Hebrew language attaches numeric value to each letter in their alphabet (e.g. echad, the first letter in the alphabet corresponds to 1). The numeric value of the Mishnaic spelling of tzitziot is 600, and if you add to that the 8 strings and 5 knots, you get 613, or the total number of all the oral laws in the Mishnah, or all the laws of Moses. The detail to which they went is an example of their devotion to their God.

During New Testament times, tzitziot took on and additional and more important meaning. As the Jews began to look for the Messiah, prophets began to give clues as to what attributes the “coming one” would have. In Zechariah 8:23-24, it was prophesied that the Jews would take hold of the Kanaf of the Messiah’s robe because they had heard that God was with Him. Also, in Malachi 4:2, it declares that the coming Messiah would have healing in his Kanaf (wings), which, if you will remember, is the same word as the corners of His robe. The Jewish people knew that the Messiah’s tallit and tziztit would be special.

Now, let’s fast forward to Jesus’ day and read these scriptures: Matthew 9:20-22, Matthew 14:35-36, Mark 5:24-34 and Luke 8:42-48. The common people believed that when the Messiah came he would have special powers in the corners of His robe. In the story of the woman with the bleeding disease, she would have thought, “if I can just get to touch a tziztit or if I can just touch the corner of His robe, I can be healed.” She was totally convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and demonstrated her faith by grabbing the corner of His robe. Jesus then acknowledged that He was the Messiah and did have healing powers by saying, “Your faith has made you well.”

One other subject that we could discuss would be the phylacteries or boxes (called, “tfillin”) that the Jews of Jesus’ day put scriptures in and then wore on their foreheads to remind them of the command that God gave them in Deuteronomy 6:8. Would Jesus have worn a tfillin? Have you ever seen a picture of Jesus that had him wearing tassels or tfillin?

The main conclusion that we can draw is that Jesus would have dressed like the other men of his day and would have fit into the customs of His Jewish peers. He was Jewish to the core and did what the Scriptures and His traditions told him to do. Because we look at the Bible from a 21st century perspective, and because our mental picture of Jesus often comes from a Middle Ages era European artist’s depiction of Him, our ideas of what He looked and dressed like are skewed. Once again, learning about the culture during Bible times doesn’t necessarily change the story, but it sure gives it more depth and meaning and this study of Jewish custom and dress is a perfect example.


Christ Before Caiaphas & the Sanhedrin

Christ Before Caiaphas & the Sanhedrin Duccio di Buoninsegna (1311)

In a study of the gospels and the book of the Acts of the Apostles, several times Jesus and His followers were brought in front of a body of rulers known as the Sanhedrin. Jesus went before the Sanhedrin in Mark 14:53-55, Peter and the apostles were sent to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:27-40, Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin in Acts 6:12, and Paul was forced to appear before the Sanhedrin in Acts 22:30. What do we know from history about this group and what was its function in the Jewish time period that Jesus was here on the earth? A look into history reveals some interesting information.

First of all, the word, “Sanhedrin”, has three meanings in the Hebrew language. This is not uncommon, because Hebrew is a “poor” language, meaning that it has a relatively small number of characters compared to other languages (85,000 vs. 600,000 in English). Because of this, many words must necessarily have more than one meaning and you must translate a word according to the context in which it occurs. As you can imagine, this occasionally causes some problems. Here are the the three meanings:

  1. Sanhedrin (with a capital “S”) – referring to the highest Jewish judicial council in Jerusalem, under the leadership of the high priest. It was the final authority on Jewish law, much like the Supreme Court. During New Testament times it was made up of seventy members plus the High Priest. This arrangement came from Numbers 11:16, where God told Moses to elect seventy elders to help Moses carry the burden of leading the people. Membership in the Sanhedrin was conferred by appointment and an ordination ceremony called S’mekah, that involved the laying on of hands. The appointment was evidently for life. Members came from three groups; chief priests, scribes and elders; although it is not clear how they were divided out. Some sources say that during the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin consisted of the High Priest, sixty five Saducees, and five Pharisees. We know there were Pharisees on the Council because Nicodemus was a member of the Council (John 3:1) and also Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-35), but evidently they were a small minority. The Pharisees represented the lay class of people, while the Saducees were all aristocracy. This mixture and the different beliefs that each group espoused led to a sometimes hostile environment (see Acts 23:9-10).
  2. Sanhedrin – can also be a place, as in the building, where the Council met (council house). The Council met in a place called the “Hall of Hewn Stones” in the Temple complex in Jerusalem. Several scholars argue that Jesus was taken not to the Council itself, but to the building where the Council met.
  3. sanhedrin (with a little “s”) – as in a local ruling council. Every town and every synagogue and even the Temple itself had a ruling council that governed their local affairs and this council was also called, “sanhedrin”. This is similar to the way in which organizations in the United States are structured today; each having a president, board members, and rules of order.

When you read, “Sanhedrin” in the story of Jesus’ trial, it is possible that it could have been the local council in charge of the Temple and not the Supreme Court that sent Jesus to Pilate. Even if this is true, it wouldn’t diminish the seriousness of what they did, but would totally change who did it. If the whole Sanhedrin body had been present, you would have expected some remarks and defense by the Pharisee group similar to what happened in Acts 5:34 and Acts 23:9-10. If, in fact, it was not the huge body that represented the whole Jewish nation, but a small group of Temple officials who convicted and condemned Jesus, then it begins to make more sense. The Temple officials were very angry at Jesus when he turned over the tables in the Temple and called them a den of thieves. He had upset the whole Temple economy. Caiphas’ remarks in John 11:49-50 supports this thinking process. They had to get rid of Jesus, not because of his religious beliefs, but because he was a threat to their livelihood.

In summary, because of the three possible definitions of the Hebrew word translated into Greek as Sanhedrin, there are several theories as to who and what was actually involved in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. It is just an interesting thought that maybe it was a smaller Temple council, the sanhedrin, that gave the orders to send Jesus to Pilate and not the much larger ruling council that might have given Jesus a fairer hearing.