The Unexpected Journey
Chapter 18

First-Century Christian Prayer

A biblical discussion of the origins and focus of prayer both in Judaism and early Christianity is a tricky business.  Prayer is considered a fundamental expression of devotion to God in both the Judaism of the Bible and early Christianity.   Today prayer is such a fundamental expression of devotion to and faith in the God of the Bible that believers (1) are certain that they have basic understanding of prayer and (2) do not like for anyone to pose any significant questions about personally valued prayer practices.

The next two chapters are certainly not presented as anti-prayeróthere is great biblical emphasis on the importance of prayer.  The challenge is NOT for us to question the importance of prayer.  The challenge will be for us as believers to note the focus of prayer.  As before, the challenge is not to seek your endorsement of the thoughts the writer presents, but to challenge you to think as you consider the biblical perspective.

As we think together, the two principle sources of information will come from Jesus, the founder of Christianity, and the letters early attributed to Paul, the primary writer in the New Testament.  Most of the New Testamentís information on Christian prayer comes from those two sources.


Some Background

Ironically, there is not the emphasis on prayer in pre-Judaism and early Judaism that a believer in the God of the Bible might expect.  The primary emphasis was on sacrifice.  Today there continues to be a study on the early relationship between prayer and sacrifice.  As Judaism and Israel advanced into the periods of the United Kingdom and the Divided Kingdom, the prayers of devout people become increasingly prominent. 

However, there seems to be little instruction to Israel as a people about (1) when to offer personal prayers, (2) what to pray about in personal prayers, or (3) what should be the focus of personal prayers.  That personal prayer existed and was practiced seems indisputably evident in people such as David (perhaps 1 Samuel 23:2?), in the Israelites in Solomonís age and after (see 1 Kings 8:30-32), in Elijah (see 1 Kings 17:20-22; 18:36, 37), and in Daniel (see Daniel 6:10).

Some enormous religious transitions took place in the period of the Babylonian captivity of Judah.  From Israelís inception as a nation, the focus on worship (1) was place oriented, (2) relied on humans that were consecrated to be mediators between God and Israel, and (3) who offered animal sacrifices.  In preparation to consider the transitions called to your attention, thoughtfully read Deuteronomy 12:1-14; 2 Chronicles 7:11-16; Exodus 28:1-5, 40-43; Numbers 18:1-7; and 1 Chronicles 6 (especially note verses 49-53).

Prior to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the nations of Israel and Judah had enormous problems with idolatries.  The Babylonian captivity resulted in additional problems.  The temple was in ruins.  Jerusalem was destroyed.  The people from Judah no longer had access even to the area where ďGod had caused His name to dwell.Ē  The priests no longer had the Jewish altar on which to offer sacrifices.  There was no longer a divinely HHapproved situation that allowed the priests to perform their duties in Israelís ritual worship with AaronĎs descendants as the nationís mediators (see Leviticus 16). 

Many things likely happened in this period that permitted Israelites to survive as a people.  For this chapterís purpose, two are noted: (1) a shift in the power of the influence of the temple priests and (2) an emphasis on the importance/urgency of personal prayer.

By the time of Jesus among Israelites (centuries later), religious expression remained ritualized, but personal prayer was a commonly recognized trait of being devoutly religious.  Shortly after Jesusí resurrection, the mediator between humans and God was much more than a consecrated mortal (see 1 Timothy 2:5, 6), those who followed God were the temple (see 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17), and it did not take a huge gathering to praise God (see Matthew 18:20).


Jesus and Prayer

Jesus was a prayerful person who offered personal prayers to God (the Father) in lengthy prayer sessions.  Matthew 14:23 noted the time when Jesus went on a mountain to be alone and pray.  Mark 1:35 spoke of a time when Jesus went out before daylight to a lonely place to pray.  Luke 5:16 said Jesus often slipped away to the wilderness to pray.  Luke 6:12 spoke of Jesus spending a whole night on a mountain in prayer to God.  He took Peter, James, and John up what we call the mount of transfiguration to pray (Luke 9:28-31).  Jesus, the last night of his earthly life, took the same three men with him to encourage him, but he prayed alone (Matthew 26:36-39). 

With all the personal prayers Jesus prayed, not once is a text of what he said recorded.  What Jesus said to Godóeven in his lengthy prayersóto this day remains between him and God.  Perhaps the closest we come to the text of a personal prayer is John l7.  (Was that a personal prayer, or was it a part of Jesusí instructions to the disciples on that occasion?)

In the evening of John 13-16, Jesus knew this was his final night with the 12 (John 13:1).  From John 13:1 through 13:27-30, Jesus was with all 12 men.  Judas left in 13:30, and from then through 16 Jesus instructed 11 of his disciples.  In John 16:18, the 11 men were confused by Jesusí instructions, but in 16:29, 30 they declared they understood.  However, Jesus knew they do not (John 16:31-33).

This was an occasion of enormous stress for Jesus.  Though he had spent his entire ministry with these men, he knew they did not grasp the focus of his mission.  Opportunity to prepare them was almost over.  His betrayal and arrest, his trials, his abuse and humiliation, and his death were immediately ahead.  Not only did his experiences loom, but the men in whom he had invested his mission where unprepared for what would soon happen.  To Jesus, this must have been a heart-wrenching, depressing time.

Note some specifics about Jesusí prayer in John 17.  (1) His prayer was God-centered (theocentric).  His concern was not focused on what he was about to go through, but on the glorification of God.  He did not focus on ďwhat I am about to endure,Ē but on Godís purposes in what was about to happen.  Note that his glorification was secondary, but Godís was primary (verse 1).  His authority was given to him by God (verse 2), Who was the source of eternal life Who sent Jesus (verse 3).  Jesus did Godís work and God was in charge of the glorification (verse 4).  Even the disciples were a gift from God to him (verse 6) as was what he did in his ministry (verse 7).

(2) He offered an intercession for the 11 that began in verse 9.  He asked God to keep them that they might be one in this physical world (verse 11).  [Note that God keeping them did not involve protection from physical death.]  Jesus protected them during his ministry (verse 12), but Jesus was going to God (verse 13).  Jesusí concern was that these men have the joy he had [obviously the joy did not arise from favorable physical circumstances] (verse 13).  These men did not belong to the physical world (verse 14), but Jesusí request was NOT to remove them from the physical world.  His request was that they continue his mission (verses 15-19).

(3) Jesus next offered an intercession for those who would believe through these menís teaching.  He asked that they also be one that people would have reason to believe that God sent Jesus (verse 21).

(4) Jesus offered a final intercession for the 11.  He asked that these men would see the glory that God gave Jesus (verse 24).  He asked that the love God revealed in Jesus also be revealed in these men (verse 26).  He asked that the God-centered message he taught be their God-centered message (verses 25, 26).

May I suggest that given Jesusí circumstances on the final night of his physical life, this is not the prayer most of us would pray.  Perhaps SOME of the things we would pray were in his Gethsemane prayer.

Jesus stressed these things in personal prayer.  (1) He stressed personal prayers should be in private (Matthew 6:5, 6).  His point: humans do not need to be witnesses to enable God to hear the praying person.  (2) In contrast to some common forms of idolatry, Godís hearing petitions from the one praying did not and does not depend on the person saying numerous, repetitious words (Matthew 6:7).  (3) Private petitions should be based on the person practicing Godís characteristics (Matthew 6:14, 15).  (4) The focus of personal prayer was not to inform God (Matthew 6:8,32)  (5) Yet, be steadfast and unrelenting in petitions to God.  His point in the Luke 18:1-8 was that in matters of injustice, a compassionate God is more responsive than a self-centered, uncaring judge.  The urging was to place confidence in God.  (6) In the parable of Luke 18:9-14, Jesus declared God was responsive to a humble sinner who was grieved by his mistakes.  However, God was totally unimpressed with arrogant people who were deeply impressed with their righteous acts and superiority to others.

Personal prayers should declare unpretentious dependence on God as the praying person existed as an implement to Godís purposes.  He or she was much aware that considerations much bigger than his or her personal comfort/desires were at stake.  Personal prayer did not seek to inform an uninformed God.

Two of the gospels spoke of Jesus giving ďmodelĒ personal prayers.  The first is part of a sermon/lesson in Matthew 6:9-13.  The second is in Luke 11:2-4 in response to a request from the disciples to teach them to pray (following a prayer from Jesus).  Both prayers are similar.  Both suggest that the manner in which Jesus and John prayed differed from what religious people were accustomed to praying.

Basically, each says (1) honor the holiness of God.  (2) Request that Godís purposes come to pass.  (3) Acknowledge dependence on God.  (4) Ask God to help you shape your behavior by His character.


Paulís Prayers

Paul had a consistently God-centered world view.  Amazingly, as deeply as Paul loved Jesus Christ and appreciated what Jesus Christ did for him, he never attributed to the Christ the things of God.  Jesus Christ was to Paul consistently an expression of Godís love and mercy.  In his instruction to Timothy, he voiced his view of God as (1) the One who gave [gives] life, (2) the One who determined [will determine] when Jesus Christ returned, (3) the only Sovereign, (4) the King of kings, (5) the Lord of lords, (6) Who alone possessed immortality, (7) Who existed [exists] in unapproachable light, and (7) Who was [is] beyond the human ability to see (perceive???)  (1 Timothy 6:13-16).  God was [is] the source of all good things humanity knew and experienced.  It is God Who was the ultimate sustainer of humanity (Acts 17:28).

Paulís view of the mission of Jesus Christ was God-centered.  When the judgment occurred, Jesus Christ would present the kingdom to God.  Until that event, Jesus Christ (by Godís design) would function as Lord; the mission of Jesus Christ did not end at his death and resurrection.  His mission was focused on two results: (1) re-establishing permanent companionship between God and humanity (Genesis 3:8-12 plus Jesusí redemptive death) and restoring God to His rightful place He held as Creator.  Jesus would be Lord until he has defeated all of Godís enemies. When God subjected everything to the Jesus Christ, He excluded Himself.  When the last enemy was defeated, the resurrected Jesus would submit himself to God that God again might rightfully occupy the position of the ďall in allĒ (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).

Nothing changed Paulís God-centered view.  Though he experienced numerous imprisonments (see 2 Corinthians 6:5), his view of God remained unchanged.  Though he experienced repeated hardships (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-33), his view of God was unchanged.  Though he was assaulted by Satan (see 2 Corinthians 12:7), his view of God was unchanged.  Not even execution would change his God-centered world view (see 2 Timothy 4:6-8).

It was customary for Paul in fulfilling his gentile mission to include a prayer near the beginning of most of his New Testament letters to congregations.  The time in which Paul wrote and lived as a Christian was a tumultuous time.  Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire.  Persecution which could produce trials, imprisonments, and martyrs was a reality in some sections of the empire.  The idolatry establishment resented Christian intrusion (see Acts 19:24-27).  Judaism resented Christian intrusion (see Acts 9:1, 2 and 15:1, 2).  It would be difficult to exaggerate the inconvenience and danger some Christians faced in some areas of the Roman Empire.  Yet, Paul did not include these difficulties in those prayers.  To Christians of today, that is most unusual prayer behavior!

Consider some of those prayers (often referred to as Paulís thanksgiving prayers), and note the things Paul included in the focus of those prayers.

Begin with the prayer that began in Romans 1:8.  Remember two things.  (1) Paul had not yet visited this congregation.  (2) Jewish Christians recently had been required to leave Rome (see Acts 18:2).  Their integration back into the Christian community in Rome created a significant problem in Rome in the Christian community.


In his prayer, note these things.

1.     Paul was grateful for their faith and the influence of that faith.

2.     Paul deeply yearned to visit them so he and they might mutually encourage each other.

3.     Teaching in Rome would contribute to his gentile mission.

Consider Paulís prayer that began in 1 Corinthians 1:4 and note these things.

1.     Paul was grateful that Godís grace was exhibited in them.

2.     Paul was grateful for their spiritual enrichment.

3.     Paul was grateful that Jesus Christ would confirm them in judgment as God certainly would keep His promise.

Consider Paulís prayer that began in 2 Corinthians 1:3 and note this.

1.     God was [is] the source of mercy and comfort.

2.     If sufferings in Jesus Christ were abundant, comfort in Jesus Christ was abundant.

3.     When Paul and his company experienced difficulty, their hardships were to comfort the Christians at Corinth.

4.     Paul and his company found hope in the fact that the Corinthian Christians shared both their suffering and comfort.

5.     God delivered Paul and his company from enormous suffering in Asia, and the Corinthian Christiansí prayers helped in producing Paul and his company's deliverance.


Consider Paulís prayer that began in Ephesians 1:3 and note these things. 

1.     All spiritual blessings are found in Christ who is the human solution to the challenges of holiness. 

2.     God predestined Jesus Christ to be the human solution to the human problem of sin through the adoption of anyone who chooses to be a Christian (because God is kind). 

3.     Godís beloved (Jesus Christ) was the source of redemption/forgiveness as a result of Godís grace. 

4.     God lavished grace on them. 

5.     God revealed the mystery of His will in Jesus Christ.

6.     What God purposed in Jesus Christ was the summation of Godís plans and purposes.

7.     God intended that those in Jesus Christ glorify Him and influence others to glorify Him.

8.     God will keep His promise to redeem those in Jesus Christ.


Consider Paulís prayer that began in Philippians 1:3 and note this.

1.     Remembering you caused me (Paul) joy.

2.     You participated in my work, and I know you will continue to do good. 

3.     No matter what my circumstance, you were never ashamed of me. 

4.     I really want to be with you. 

5.     May your love, your approval of godly things, and your fruits of righteousness in Jesus Christ keep on growing to Godís glorification.


Consider Paulís prayer that began in Colossians 1:3 and note.

1.     He expressed gratitude for their faith in Jesus Christ and love for Christians.

2.     Both existed because of their hope in the word of truth. 

3.     The word of truth came to them producing fruit and affirming the reality of Godís grace.

4.     Epaphras was the source of their message and informed Paul and his company of their love in the Spirit.


Consider Paulís prayer that began in 1 Thessalonians 1:2 and note this.

1.     Paul was impressed with their faith, love, and hope in Jesus Christ.

2.     He knew God chose them because of the way they responded to the message and to them.

3.     The result was that their faith was known far and wide.

4.     They became Christians to serve God and to await the return of Jesus Christ.


Consider Paulís prayer that began in 2 Thessalonians 1:3 and note the following.

1.     Their faith and love continued to grow.

2.     Paul and his company were proud of the manner they persevered in their persecutions and afflictions. 

3.     It was proper for them to suffer for God if they received Godís blessings in Jesus Christ.

4.     God would afflict those who caused their suffering when Jesus Christ returned.

5.     Paul prayed for their endurance.


Of the numerous things deserving of emphasis, two are called to your attention in Paulís focus in these prayers.  (1) Though Paul endured many forms of physical hardship, he never asked any congregation to pray that his physical circumstances improve.  (2) He did not pray for the improvement of physical conditions/circumstances of those to whom he wrote. 

While it is likely that the congregations in Corinth and Philippi prayed for Paul physically, there is no record of Paul requesting those prayers.  The focus of Paulís known prayers is on the spiritual development of Christians.  Paul might pray for their spiritual maturing, or their spiritual understanding, or their spiritual insight regarding Godís work in Christ, or their endurance in the face of opposition, but he did not pray for an increase in material well being.  The closest he came to this may be his request that Christians pray for kings and those in authority that such people might allow Christians to live tranquil and quiet lives.  However that was so salvation in Jesus Christ could spread more quickly (see 1Timothy 2:2-7). He acknowledged that Philemonís prayers played a role in his release (Philemon verse 22), but Paul did not comment on how he (Paul) knew Philemon prayed for his release.

In regard to himself, Paul requested prayers for deliverance from those who did not believe (see Romans 15:30-33) and for the ability to speak well (see Ephesians 6:19, 20). e wsaHe

 He was delighted to receive material aid, but he was delighted at what the gifts declared about the faith of the senders (see Philippians 4:10-19).

Paul maintained a spiritual focus, and he rejoiced when Christians shared that focus.

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