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

Lord Teach Us to Pray: Part 2

Part 2 of a Series on the Lord’s Prayer, found in Luke 11:1-4 and Matthew 6:9-13

Jesus & His DisciplesIn our opening post we learned that Jesus and His disciples would have prayed three times a day to their Lord in Heaven. During these prayer times, they would have faithfully recited the Shema and a series of eighteen prayers called the Amidah. In light of this, when one of the disciples asked their rabbi Jesus, “teach us to pray”, it wasn’t that they didn’t know any prayers or how to pray. Rather, they were asking Jesus to give them a model of how to pray better, or how to summarize the prayers that they were already saying. We also learned that Jewish Rabbis often taught their disciples summary versions of these daily prayers to illustrate how to use them better in their private prayer time. Jesus did exactly that when he gave the disciples a model of how to pray and what to pray for. The model He gave them was a Jewish prayer from the first words to the last and came out of their daily prayer lives. The Lord’s Prayer is not then a liturgical formula or the only acceptable words in a liturgical prayer. It is at it’s heart a model from Jesus on how to approach His Father and what to pray for when you are desiring to communicate and have a conversation with Him. Let’s now take a further look at that model.

The prayer that Jesus taught His disciples begins with the phrase, “Our Father who is in Heaven” (in Hebrew, “Avinu sh’ba Shamayim”). This reflects Jewish tradition and the Eastern mindset because it says, “Our Father”, instead of “My Father”. Instead of focusing on our individual needs, Jewish prayers emphasize community needs and prayers for the group as a whole. Even when we are praying individually, “Our Father” is still proper because no Christian is praying alone. We are all members of God’s household and are adopted into a distinctive union of God’s people, so that we can say both individually and corporately, “Our Father”.  For further study, see also “Our Father”. It is interesting, in light of His own deity, that Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to pray to Him or to use Him as a mediator to God and call to God in His name.

The Bible assumes the existence of God in heaven and never argues for it. Prayer rests on the premise that the Creator God can hear us when we speak to Him. It is also interesting to note that the name of God, the tetragrammaton or YHVH, was not used in His model prayer and in fact was never used by Jesus. Out of fear and reverence for His name, Jesus and His contemporaries paraphrased God’s name into, ”Our Father”, “The Holy One, Blessed Be He”, “Hashem” (the Name), “Adonai” (Lord), or “Elohim”. God was Jesus’ own father but He had such great respect and reverence for His name that He always inserted “Our Father”, or “ Lord”, and never spoke His name.

The second part of the opening phrase, “Hallowed be your name” (in Hebrew, “ Yitkadeish Shimka”) is a little hard for us to understand since the word Hallowed is not commonly used in today’s English. “May your name be sanctified”, or, “may your name be made Holy”, are better ways to express this statement. This phrase presents somewhat of a paradox, since God’s name is the most holy reality there is. He is the very definition of Holiness. It would be like saying, “May the fire become hot”. God and only God can make His name holy, but it can be defiled by the disobedience of His children. The Holiness of God requires purity and righteousness from His people. Matthew 5:16 says, “let your light so shine among men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven”. We keep his name from being defiled and build up his name by living holy and righteous lives.

We have now completed the first phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed is your name” and hopefully have a better understanding of what Jesus would have wanted us to think and say when we heard or spoke those lines. We will now turn our attention to the second set of words that are also a little difficult to understand in English, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

Lord Teach Us to Pray

AmidahThe Lord’s Prayer, found only in the gospels of Matthew (Matthew 6:9-13) and Luke (Luke 11:2-4), is a passage of scripture that was probably one of the first Bible verses most of us learned. Even for many adults, it is one of the only portions of scripture that can be recited word for word by memory. However, if you think for a moment about the Lord’s Prayer which we so familiarly recite, a lot of the phrases sound a little strange and they really don’t have a lot of meaning to us. “Hallowed be thy name”, “Thy Kingdom Come”, and, ”Lead us not into temptation” (have you ever stopped to think about this one, the Lord leads us into temptation unless we stop Him?) are examples of things that we say but don’t really understand. Since the Lord’s Prayer is viewed as a model of how to pray, given to us by our Lord, Jesus, let’s examine the prayer closely though historical and cultural eyes and see what we can discover about how Jesus would have prayed and how he would have wanted us to pray.

First of all, the Lord’s Prayer itself illustrates the Jewishness of Jesus. His model prayer to us could have readily appeared in early Jewish literature without changes. It is similar to and reflects the make up of the ancient Jewish prayers that have been recorded since long before Jesus’ time. In fact, the first phrase, “Our Father which art in Heaven”, opens many Hebrew prayers of that time period. Also, phrases such as, “May your will be done”, and “In Heaven above”, and petitions for daily sustenance and repentance are also found throughout the early Jewish prayers. The Lord’ Prayer then was not a new way to pray for the disciples, but a condensed example of how to pray and what to pray for. Next, let’s look at what might have been the pattern of prayer for a Jew living during the time of Jesus.

Well before the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had developed a pattern for daily prayer. A pious Jew prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10); at sunrise, at three o’clock in the afternoon, and finally at sundown. After the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C. and the subsequent Babylonian captivity, the Jewish people began to think of their prayers as a substitute for the three times daily sacrifices at the Temple, which they were no longer able to perform. When they prayed on these three occasions during the day, what did they pray? The Jewish daily prayers always began with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), which begins with the phrase, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone”. Then they would recite a series of eighteen prayers called the ”Amidah” (“standing”) which were always recited while standing. The Amidah was also known as the ”Shemoneh Esreh” (“the eighteen”) and “Tefillah” (“the Prayer”). Every Jew was religiously obligated to pray these eighteen prayers daily and also in time of emergency and special need. These prayers are still in use in every Jewish synagogue service today and have remain unchanged for almost 2000 years.

The prayer, always spoken in Hebrew, takes about five minutes to recite. The Amidah prayers were composed of three sections. The opening section was praise in nature and spoke of God’s history with his people, His nature and His holiness. For example, the opening sentence says,

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God and God of our Fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of of Jacob, the great mighty and revered God… creator of all things…”

The prayers on His nature and His holiness contained familiar phrases such as, “We will hallow your name in the world as it is hallowed in the highest heavens”. The second section contains thirteen petitions asking for wisdom, daily provision, healing, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil, and to send the Messiah. The last section contains concluding benedictions.

From these examples, it is evident that the Amidah contains much of the familiar language and aspects of the Lord’s prayer; God’s Holiness, the coming of His Kingdom, daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil. Was Jesus using the Amidah as an example to teach his disciples to pray?

The early sages often taught their disciples shortened summary prayer versions of each of the eighteen subjects that were covered in the Amidah, so that a person could recite them quickly if and when the need arose. There are hundreds of examples of the shortened Amidah prayers in early Jewish literature. It has been suggested by many scholars that the Lord’s Prayer was a summary prayer by Jesus of the teachings of the Amidah because of its similarities in language and style and the fact that it incorporates several of its themes. This also would have been consistent with what other rabbis were doing as far as teaching their disciples how to pray. It is interesting to note that the early church prayed the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, just like the Amidah.

We know from scripture that Jesus placed and emphasis and priority on prayer. We know from Mark 1:35 that Jesus arose early and went off alone to pray. In Luke 6:12, He prayed all night before choosing His disciples. He taught about praying and wove parables about prayer, so it is not surprising that He would give his disciples some ideas about how they could pray to His Father. In our next post, we will begin to break down the Lord’s Prayer a phrase at a time, to better understand what Jesus was telling us with His example of how to pray.

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.

Hinds’ Feet on High Places

Nubian ibex

The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer (hind KJV), he enables me to go on the heights
— Habakkuk 3:19

This verse, found in the last chapter of Habakkuk, was a repeating of the psalmist’s writing in Psalm 18:33 and was probably a section of the Temple prayers that were chanted with the accompaniment of instruments during Temple worship. What was the psalmist and the writer of the Habakkuk trying to say in this poetic and oft quoted verse? Immediately, a mental picture comes to us as believers; we are standing on a lofty place, surveying the valley below, with God by our side. Learning something about the land of Israel, it’s topography and it’s wildlife, will reveal a picture and a life lesson perhaps at first you didn’t see in this verse.

First of all, although much of Israel is very arid, the topography is extremely rough and rugged. The wilderness, which covers the eastern and souther parts of Israel is the most rugged of all. In a distance of 40 miles, the topography changes from 1300′ below sea level near the Dead Sea to 4000′ above sea level around Jerusalem. This was the Judean Wilderness that was home to most of the Old Testament Bible characters. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were wilderness dwellers that made their living in this harsh environment.

IbexThe main animals that inhabit these remote and rugged areas are the gazelle, which is a small antelope, and the much larger Nubian ibex which is a species of goat. Although at home in the mountainous areas, the gazelle prefers the gentler terrain and smaller slopes. Conversely, the ibex lives in the roughest, steep terrain that it can find. Their hooves are built almost like suction cups to help them to traverse the steep rocky cliffs they call home.

What then is the hind or the deer that some translations have for these verses? A hind is a female red deer that is native to Europe and there are no deer species native to the land of Israel. Could it be that something is missing in the translation of this word? If, as many scholars believe, the ibex is the animal being referred to in these Biblical passages, then a great Bible life lesson begins to unfold.

When we pray about the future, we always ask God for smooth paved paths, with curb and gutter, no rocks, and plenty of park benches for resting along the way. We don’t want to face the trials and tribulations that are often a very real part of this life on earth. A sign of maturing in the Christian faith is realizing that God often puts us in wilderness situations where the going is tough and the path strewn with rocks, to teach us to trust Him, when our strength and scheming won’t get it done.

Now, can you picture the ibex working through the steep terrain, with his feet giving him sturdy footing on the cliffs? Could this be what this verse is alluding to? God, give me strength, give me the feet of the ibex so that I can hold on and make it through the rough places that you are having me walk through? Our prayers should not necessarily be for smooth paths, because we know that there is not much of this life that is flat and smooth. Our prayer should be, “give me the feet to walk the path that you’ve put me on today. I trust you to take me through the high and rugged places where the footing is treacherous and a fall would be ruin”. This is the cry from the writer of Habakkuk and Psalms, “give us the feet to traverse the rough patches of life that God is sending us through to mold us into the person that can completely trust in Him.”

The next time you find yourself in a rough and rugged patch of life, instead of asking God for a way out, ask him for the feet needed to walk the path He chose for you.

Up on a Mountain to Pray – Mt. Arbel

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place where he prayed” – Mark 1:35

Mt. Arbel, Galilee, Israel – This high mountain, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, affords one of the most breathtaking views of the area that Jesus spent most of his public ministry in. Josephus tells us that there were over 200 towns and villages around the lake called the Sea of Galilee during Jesus’ day. Almost all the people living there earned their living by farming or fishing. From the top of Mt. Arbel, you have a panoramic view of the whole area where Jesus walked and lived. You can see Capernaum, Bethsaida (where the Jordan River empties into the lake), the Mt. of Beatitudes, Korazin, and the Decapolis (home of the demoniac). A lot of Jewish history is also in this mountain. Herod the Great came here and killed hundreds of Galilean Zealots that were hiding in the steep cliffs on Mt. Arbel to crush their rebellion against his authority. The mountain is a landmark in the area and can be seen from almost anywhere for miles in any direction.

Our group of disciples came to this mountain and climbed it to learn about all the geographical places and to also learn another fascinating lesson abut the relationship between a rabbi and his talmidim (disciples). At the base of the mountain is the small fishing village of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. We left early in the morning, at daybreak from Magdala, and made the arduous ascent through the cliffs, to the summit. It was very tough physically and at one point we had to climb vertically and cling to metal pegs that were driven into the cliffs. Once on top however, the view was breathtaking. We could imagine Jesus and his disciples as they moved from village to village around the lake. While we were on top, we heard the following story about the relationship that a Jewish Rabbi had with his talmidim:

Rabbis were passionately committed to the young men that they had chosen as their disciples. They felt totally responsible for their physical and spiritual growth and well being. It was a common practice for a rabbi to get up early in the morning, well before light and make a very strenuous climb to a place where they could overlook where their disciples were sleeping. The harder the climb for the rabbi, the more it emphasized his commitment to his flock. After reaching his observation point, the rabbi would look below and begin to earnestly pray to God on behalf of his disciples. He would pray large portions of the text out loud and ask God to make those scriptures come alive in the hearts of those young men under his tutelage. It was a very gratifying experience for the teacher as he pleaded to God on behalf of his unsuspecting students below.

After just making this tough climb ourselves, we could feel the commitment and the sacrifice that the rabbi had for his talmidim. He was willing to do the hard work it took to make sure that they became just like him and were instructed correctly. We then read the Mark Passage and saw that our Rabbi Jesus also got up early in the morning and went out to pray for his disciples.

Who are your disciples? According to Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus instructed us to go and make disciples and to teach them to do everything that He had taught us. Are you earnestly praying for them and their walk with Jesus? If we are to become like Jesus, we will have to have disciples and we will have to commit to praying for them. It will take a high level of commitment on our part. Mt. Arbel burned in my spirit the need to be a man that lives and prays the text and that is actively pursuing someone to train to walk in the footsteps of our Rabbi, Jesus.

Why Do We Bless Our Food?

As Western thinking Christians today, it is a common practice for us when praying before a meal to say, “Lord bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our bodies to your service.” Where did this practice of blessing the food before the meal come from and can we find a biblical base for doing it? Some research into the history of this subject provided some interesting answers.

First of all, in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus would have grown up on, there is not a single instance in which there is a command to bless the food before a meal. The only passage that would come close to indicating this would be Deuteronomy 8:10, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless (praise) the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.” In this verse however, it says to bless, “after the meal” and not before the meal. Also, this verse says to direct the blessing towards God and not the meal itself. Marvin Wilson says, “Unlike the practice of most Western Christians today, in Bible times, the Hebrew people did not see the need to bless food, drink, or other material things. In prayer, they focused only on blessing God, the Creator and Giver.” Why was this the case? Wilson continues, “The ancient Hebrews would have never thought of blessing what they ate. The idea would have been totally foreign to them; it would have been an insult of sorts, to God! If everything that God created was very good (Genesis 1:29-31, and Genesis 9:3-4), why should someone imply that it was unholy and profane and needed to be blessed again by God? The idea that you had to sanctify, cleanse, or purify what God had already said was good would have been foreign to the early Jewish people. To do this would have suggested that food and drink were unacceptable until they were blessed and made holy through prayer.” How then did our practice of blessing the food originate? In all likelihood, this practice has its origins in Greek thought. The Greeks and Gnostics shared the belief that material (physical) things were, by nature, unholy and unclean. Therefore, according to this belief, it was necessary to “make holy” the things that were of this world.

You could point out that there are several examples in the new Testament of Jesus giving a blessing at meal time. For example, in Matthew 14:19 it says, “He gave thanks and broke the loaves.” Also, in Matthew 26:26 it says, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it.” Almost every Bible scholar agrees that the “thanks” or “blessing” that Jesus would have given at these meals would have been the b’rakhah (blessing, benediction) that Jews have said for over two thousand years before meals. Jesus would have said, “Barukh attah, Adonai Eloheynu, melekh-ha’olam, haMotzi lecheem, minha’aretz”, or in English, “Blessed are you O lord, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” In this age-old prayer that Jesus would have recited, again God is the one being blessed and not the food.

What does this short study tell us? Let’s not bless the food since food is already one of God’s blessings to us. Instead, let us bless God for providing our daily bread for us! We should express our gratitude and thanks to God who provides all our needs, including our need for food. By blessing God and thanking Him for our food, it will help us to focus on God and to thank Him in every area of our life. As Paul says in Colossians 3:17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

Note: I gleaned this lesson from the following sources that you may want to look at further. They are: