22 Jan 2016

They Continued Steadfastly in … THE Prayers: What Does Luke Say the Disciples are doing in Acts 2.42?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Acts, Apocrypha, Bible, Church, Church History, Didache, Discipleship, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke, Prayer, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship
Hours of Prayer Sacrifice

The Hours of Prayer as they relate to daily prayer and the Cross of Jesus

It is late Friday Night. According to biblical reckoning the Sabbath began at sunset, so I have been thinking about some shabbat theology and the idea of “context.” I want to look at an old and very familiar passage to most restoration Bible students to illustrate two kinds of context: historical context and historical context (that is of ourselves).  This continues the kind of sleuthing we exemplified in our article the setting of Acts 8.27 recently we do this again to bridge the 2000 year gulf between Acts 2 and ourselves. (See Indiana Jones, Temples of the Jews, and Acts: Who Did Philip Talk To? Notes on Acts 8.27 and Why History Matters.)

I want to highlight the historical, that is the Jewish, context of the early Way by looking at our own Protestant blindness can obscure what is actually in the text.  Acts 2.42 is not an unfamiliar text and yet is, perhaps, alien to most modern disciples.

In our fellowship we have had arguments galore over Acts 2.42.  W. J. Rice began the Gospel Missionary in Texas to promote the view this was the PATTERN of worship (the proper order!) and the liberals were to be disfellowshipped. R. L. Whiteside led the fight against that reading of Acts 2.42 in the early 20th century.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (American Standard Version)

The NIV, unhelpfully, omits the article and the plural and reads, “the devoted themselves … to prayer.” See the NRSV, RSV, ESV, Jerusalem Bible, etc. While there is no doubt the disciples were prayer warriors that is not exactly the same thing as being devoted to “the prayers.”

In most commentaries on this verse the discussion is usually over whether the “breaking of bread” is the Lord’s Supper or not (most ink is spilled here). That is not my interest today. We want to ask about “the prayers.”

Traditional Worship Experiences Can Blind Us

The “kind” of worship we are used to can significantly impact what we think we read. In fact our worship experiences often act as filters that blind us to things that are “in plain view.” Prejudice of all sorts creates all kinds of unspoken and hidden assumptions that exercise powerful but silent control over how we see reality. We can project our experience backwards and do violence to the text by simply assuming how we have done things is how they did them. We want to examine those assumptions a little more deeply.

Did you notice, perhaps you never did, that the text DOES NOT SAY that the disciples devoted themselves TO PRAYER. For most of my conscious life with this text, I did in fact assume it said “to prayer.” That is I thought the text simply meant the disciples spent time in prayer.  And that is not wrong but it just is not right either. Extemporaneous prayer is not what Luke means at all. Luke is making about claim about the piety of the early Way.

THE Prayers …

The text says that the disciples “devoted themselves … to THE prayerS.” Note the article and the plural. The rise of critical scholarship was also accompanied by a surge in anti-semitism and in English Evangelical Protestantism anti-catholicism (this was true of German scholarship as well). In my tradition the Puritan roots we share are very anti-liturgy (liturgy meant ritual and ritual meant Catholic and Jewish!). That is anything like a prayer book, or the like, is anathema. So even in normally reliable scholars like F. F. Bruce – in his commentary written in the 1960s – assumes (with no discussion) that this is simply extemporaneous prayer.

Since the late 1970s scholars, like Jacob Jervell (among others), have recognized there is an actual historical setting here. Why does it say THE prayerS? What are “the prayerS? There is no doubt that the early Christians prayed when they got good and ready. So did Jews! But early Christians WERE Jews.  Luke is not saying that the disciples prayed when they got good and ready. He is making another claim altogether.

What is so interesting is that a mere four verses away from 2.42 we read two important datum,

temple-of-jerusalemDay by day, as they spent much time together in the temple …” (2.46)

and then

One day Peter and John were going up to the TEMPLE at the HOUR OF PRAYER … or 3 o’clock” (3.1)

In between 2.42 and 3.1 is 2.46 where Luke writes “And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple …” (ASV)

There is a connection between “the prayers” and “the temple” in the life of Second Temple Jews.

First, “THE PrayerS” are not extemporaneous prayers. The prayerS are first of all set HOURS. That is there is set time when faithful Jews would stop for prayer. That time was the time of the sacrifice in the temple called the Tamid. There were three (the sacrifice was only in the morning and evening however), they were led by the priests in the temple. The morning prayer took place at the morning sacrifice or 9 am.  The evening prayer took place at 3 pm. Thousands of faithful Jews gathered daily for “the prayers” which were accompanied by the priestly blessing we find in Numbers 6.22-24.  This is the setting for Acts 3.

When we read Acts, as it is written, it is pretty clear that the Way followed the traditional “pattern” of prayer found in the Hebrew Bible, what was found at the Temple and in the synagogue. Daniel becomes the model for Christian prayer by praying morning, noon and evening (when Peter and John went to the temple).

He [Daniel] continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open towards Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” (Dan 6.10)

Actually the times of prayer are embedded in the Psalter itself, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter” my prayer (Ps 55.17; etc).

The saintly Judith is depicted as ordering her life, even under most trying circumstances, according to the hours of prayer. The author of Judith notes, “Judith prostrated herself … at the very time when the evening incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem” (Judith 9.1, her prayer is in vv 2-14). Before she is brought to Holofernes “toward the morning,” Judith asks permission to “go out and pray” (Judith 12.5-9). Her habit of evening prayer becomes the means of the demise of the evil Holofernes (Judith 13.1-5). Her prayers follow the hours of sacrifice.

Peter is at prayer at “noon,” that is the second hour of prayer, when he receives a vision from God (Acts 10.9). Luke notes that Cornelius also follows the pattern of the hours of prayer (Acts 10.3, 30).

What these sources indicate, and there are more, is that this liturgical ordering of communal life was simply part of the world of Jesus and the early disciples on the Way. The Way followed the daily Temple sacrificial hours of prayer.

Luke assumes his readers know the significance of “the prayers.” In the first century a large number, if not most, of the readers of Luke and Acts are going to be Jewish.  For Luke the Way, where ever they are, are bound together at the hour of sacrifice in the Temple.  The community of believers are bound together by the “pattern” of hours of prayer.  Disciples could and did pray anytime they felt the need. But the community went to the throne together keeping “the prayers.”

Secondly, “the prayerS” refer to actual prayers. Primary among these would be the Shema, which Jesus had declared to be the greatest of all commands. Deuteronomy enjoins the Shema on the faithful twice daily at morning and evening prayer (Deut 6.4-25 & Mishnah, Berakoth):

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד

The actual recitation “ceremony” included verses from Deuteronomy 11.3-21 and Numbers 35.36-41 as well.

The prayers would include reciting various Psalms. There were actual “daily” Psalms, Psalms for the Sabbath, Psalms for Pentecost (Ps 63 in case you didn’t know) and even for Hanukkah (Pss 105 & 30). No rational argument can be raised against the notion that that is exactly what Peter and John would have done at the hour of prayer in fellowship with the rest of the believers gathered in the Temple.

The prayerS probably would include the Lord’s Prayer. The early believers did not by any stretch understand the Lord’s Prayer as a mere

Lord's Prayer in Hebrew

Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew

model but something that was supposed to be said. The Didache, which dates to the end of the first century, preserves information that is decades older. It is most interesting that it understands the LP as something that is commanded.

Do not pray as the hypocrites do {surely a reference to a squabble with unbelieving Jews}, but rather as the Lord COMMANDED in his Gospel, ‘Our Father …” (Did 8).

This was to be done “three times each day” which is the traditional hours of prayer. Historical research has shown that the roots of the daily office – Terce, Sext and None – are in the first century.

My Protestant, anti-Catholic, prejudice had led me to completely misunderstand the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.5-6. Protestants have habitually taken perceived legalism of the Catholic Church and projected that backwards onto the biblical text where Jews are concerned. To be even more accurate this is not just a Protestant bias but especially a Puritan bias. The magisterial Reformers were hardly anti-liturgy. But the Puritans, whose blood has flowed into most American “free church” traditions, liturgy is a poltergeist floating around in the psyche of all restorationists!

However the Gospels repeatedly depict Jesus himself taking part in Temple, Sabbath and Festival worship. Jesus, in Matthew 6.1-18 is not anti-liturgy, he is anti-hypocrisy.  Luke, however, depicts the church under the “apostles’ doctrine” as cultivating liturgical prayer. That is both set times for prayer and content. Our historical distance and our anti-Jewish subconscious disposition filters out what Luke says in black and white.

There are actual Spiritual benefits to this apostolic way of life. Having set hours establishes a cadence or rhythm or pattern in our life where we consciously submit to the One who sits on the throne where ever we are at the hour of prayer. Having specific words that we share – like the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and the Shema among others – keeps prayer from turning into a gigantic “me” session.

Prayer rather becomes praise, prayer becomes kingdom focused, prayer becomes God-centric.  Luke, like the Hebrew Bible before him, sees no conflict between liturgical hours (and even words) for prayer and extemporaneous praying anytime there is the need.  His point in Acts 2.42 is not that the disciples prayed anytime they liked.  Rather his point is that the entire messianic community was devoted to THE Prayers … a time when the whole community was united, as the Spirit endowed Messianic community, in heart, body, and Spirit before the throne of God in worship.  That time was regulated by the hours of sacrifice in the Temple.

Wrapping Up

Context both of the TEXT, and of OURSELVES, matter in how we interpret the Bible. Prejudice – even when we think we are not prejudiced – can blind us greatly. Luke tells us what the “THE prayerS” are when tells us the believers were in the temple “at” the hour of prayer. He shows us that the early believers are simply doing the “normal” thing … he unlike most today did not have an anti-ligurgy nor an anti-semetic axe to grind. The early “church” had a Jewish pattern for prayer. Perhaps we should … I wonder if Acts is relevant to us as we seek to be the people God wants us to be.

Acts 2.42, as we have seen, reveals the deeply Hebraic character of early church as Luke depicts it.  We would do well, we would be far truer to the biblical text, when we recognize the deeeeeeeeep Hebraic color Luke claims for the church.  Are we devoted to … THE Prayers?

Good contemporary sources:

Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God
Eugene Fisher (editor), Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy
Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity
Jerome H. Neyrey, Give God the Glory: Ancient Prayer and Worship in Cultural Perspective
Andrew McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical and Theological Perspective

And cautiously, Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus chapter 2, “Daily Prayer in the Life of Jesus and the Primitive Church.”

7 Responses to “They Continued Steadfastly in … THE Prayers: What Does Luke Say the Disciples are doing in Acts 2.42?”

  1. Steven Hall Says:

    interesting….and yet I know of no record of the gentiles being taught a Jewish liturgy at their conversion. Perhaps the Jews were doing what most people would do…approaching God in the only way they knew how….showing continued devotion without attempting to establish another “doctrine” or requirement. Perhaps the lack of clear and specific instruction concerning the gathering of the Church means that the heart of the believer is free do express itself to God without limits or requirements.

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      And yet we have Acts 2.42-3.1. We have Cornelius, a Gentile, presented as a man who follows the hours of prayer. And we have Luke, a Gentile, who certainly seems to know this stuff. We have the Didache, not inspired for sure but some how those folks got the idea of the hours prayer. 🙂 In fact if we look at Luke-Acts together we find that the Tamid (daily sacrifice/hour of prayer) plays a rather large role in Luke’s doctrinal understanding. But that is another post for another day.

      But it was not my intent to build some kind of obligation. It was my intent to understand the text. I think I have done that. But I also think it was Luke’s intent to demonstrate the Way was following a certain way of life.

      Thanks for reading and thinking with me. 🙂 Blessings

      • Steven hall Says:

        “The Church” was not an entity prior to Acts 2, so it should be of no surprise that the Jewish forms were in play up until that point, and without specific instructions to the contrary, would continue for the new Jewish believers. Cornelius is described as a “righteous and God-fearing man” so he was already practicing Jewish liturgy, I expect.

        I understand your attempt to explain the text “more perfectly” but I would neither support or condemn the application of it to today’s Christian because of “approved example”…. and I would still consider anything done as a mindless habit to be less than what God has in mind for believers. Pray 6 times a day if you are moved to do so…:)

  2. Rich_constant Says:

    Just signing in Bobby

  3. Dwight Says:

    I think we think something done over and over again as mindless, but that is not the case and if so, then telling our wives we love them as we leave for the day and come home is meaningless. The Jews understood that prayer was to be done and morning, noon and night formed a structure for being mindful of God. It is clear that they prayed other times as well. So what we often do in protest to this concept is to ignore God in prayer three times a day, but wait we often pray at meals…hopefully at all three. It appears we don’t ignore this concept as we subconsciously apply it. We would consider this commendable.
    But let’s think about this. God never commanded this three time prayer and many prayed towards Jerusalem, because that is where the Temple was. Daniel did this and God was not upset over this.
    The Jewish saints continued to practice Jewish worhip as this was not sinful and this is what they knew. In Galatians Paul condemns those who wish to condemn others who worshipped as a Jew in the feast, New Moon and Sabbath. It was worship of God and worship was not wrong.

  4. Jack A Colgrove Says:

    Thx for the insight, our Jewish roots run deep in spite of our running away from them. I’ve often wondered what the Ethiopian church did for worship upon the eunuch’s return….how Jewish must their worship have been!!! but, I am also reminded by the Jeusalem conference in Acts that very little could and should be bound on the Gentiles by the Jewish church traditions!?!

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      Hey Jack honored to have you reading and commenting on my blog. I do hope it has been helpful in your study of God’s word. You raise some good questions indeed. I believe that early Christian worship was heavily influenced by Judaism. Just because Gentiles did not offer sacrifice in the temple does not mean it was not shaped and molded by the synagogue and temple. I have explored some of these themes in other blogs and I invite you to look at them. On the Ethiopian in particular let me recommend this one

      Indiana Jones, Temples of Jews, and Acts: Who did Philip talk to in Acts 8?

      Be blessed.


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