A LESSON FROM HEBREW SPIRITUALITY
by Doug Ward
Near the close of his first epistle to the early Christians at Thessalonica, the apostle Paul gave the following instructions:
``Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you'' (I Thes. 5:16-18, KJV).
It is clear that the three parts of Paul's admonition-joy, prayer, and thanksgiving-are closely related. One who is in constant contact with God through prayer, acknowledging Him as the ruler of the universe and source of all good gifts (James 1:17), will be well-equipped to face the vicissitudes of life with joy. These verses seem to describe an ideal spiritual state that all of us would like to experience more consistently and completely.
In reading Paul's epistles, we see evidence that Paul practiced what he preached in I Thes. 5:16-18. His letters are filled with benedictions and expressions of gratitude toward God. For example, in the letters to the Thessalonians notice I Thes. 1:2-3; 2:13; 3:9-13; 2 Thes. 1:3, 11; 2:16-17; 3:16-18.
We can also infer more about how Paul and his congregations might have applied I Thes. 5:16-18 when we consider the fact that Paul was a Jew-specifically, a Pharisee-of the first century A.D. (See Acts 22:3; 23:6; Phil. 3:5.) In this article, I would like to explore what the Bible, along with extrabiblical sources like the Mishnah and the Didache, suggest about the spirituality of Paul's day. Studying the practices of ancient Christians and Jews can help us to grasp the meaning of I Thes. 5:16-18 more fully.
A Biblical Worldview
There is a tendency today for us to divide our lives into sacred and secular compartments. Worship and prayer fall into the ``sacred'' category and occur at specified times-e.g., during a church service-while our careers and other aspects of life fall into a separate ``secular'' category in which God is seen as mostly not involved.
However, this sort of compartmentalization is not evident in ancient Hebrew culture, as biblical scholar Marvin R. Wilson points out in [4, pp. 156-158]. Instead, the Bible pictures the God of Israel as ultimately responsible for everything that takes place in the world, including both fertility and infertility (Gen. 30:22; I Sam. 1:5-6), both good times and hard times (Ruth 1:6, 21).
According to the worldview of the Bible, every occupation and activity of life is carried out in God's presence and should be approached accordingly. This understanding is clearly communicated in Paul's epistles. ``Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God,'' we read in I Cor. 10:31. Similarly, Col. 3:17 says, ``And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.'' Verse 23 adds, ``And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.''
The Didache, a manual of Christian instruction from the early second century A.D., also expresses a conviction in God's absolute control over all the universe. Didache 3:10 states, ``Accept the things that happen to thee as good, knowing that without God nothing happens.''
Giving Thanks for Everything
Both Paul's epistles and the Didache reflect an awareness of God's involvement in all aspects of existence. Some instructive concrete expressions of such an awareness can be found in ancient Jewish traditions.
One of the most important prayers in Judaism is the Amidah. According to the Mishnah (Berakhot 4:3), every Jew is to pray this prayer-or at least a summary of it-each day. Many scholars believe that the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) is a summary of an early version of the Amidah. (A modern English translation of the Amidah is given in .)
The Amidah is also commonly known as the Shemoneh Esreh (``the Eighteen''), because it originally consisted of eighteen sections. In its present form there are nineteen sections, each of which praises God for a particular aspect of His nature or His works. Specifically, its various sections express praise and thanksgiving for God's
· creative and redemptive activity in history;
· control over nature and promise to resurrect the dead;
· greatness and holiness;
· gifts of knowledge and understanding;
· delight in the repentance of His people;
· mercy and readiness to forgive sins;
· deliverance from affliction;
· faithfulness in healing sicknesses;
· provision for day-to-day needs;
· promise to regather His scattered people;
· righteous and just kingship;
· punishment of enemies and humbling of the arrogant;
· support of the righteous;
· promise to rebuild Jerusalem;
· promise to send the Messiah;
· responsiveness to prayer;
· promise to restore the temple;
· continual mercy, generosity, and protection;
· gift of peace.
Taken as a whole, the Amidah constitutes a comprehensive statement of a Jewish understanding of God's character, deeds, and promises. With just a few alterations, it is also consistent with a Christian understanding of these things.
Another important aspect of traditional Jewish spirituality is the custom of saying short blessings (berakhot in Hebrew) throughout the day as an acknowledgment of God's presence and help in all areas of life (see [4, p. 157]). A number of these berakhot are compiled in the Mishnaic tractate of the same name. (For a modern English translation of the Mishnah, see .) Mentioned there are blessings for
· entering or leaving a house of study;
· walking through a dangerous place;
· eating various kinds of food;
· celebrating the close of the Sabbath;
· passing by a place where a miracle has occurred;
· passing by a place where idolatry has been uprooted;
· seeing meteors or lightning, feeling earth tremors or wind, hearing thunder;
· seeing mountains, hills, seas, rivers or deserts;
· building a new house or buying new clothes;
· hearing good news or bad news.
Berakhot typically begin with the Hebrew phrase, ``Baruch atah Adonai elohenu Melek ha-olam'' (``Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe''). For example, the blessing listed in the Mishnah to precede the consumption of vegetables is, ``Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the ground.'' Similarly, the berakhah for wine is, ``Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine'' (Berakhot 6:1).
Berakhot in the Gospels
With an awareness of these traditions, we can detect hints of their practice in the gospels. For example, Matthew 9:8 states that when a crowd of people witnessed Jesus healing a paralyzed man,
``they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.''
Scholar David Flüsser  has suggested that this verse contains a berakhah that would have been recited when a healing miracle was witnessed. In support of his view, he points out two analogous benedictions that are mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 58a). According to the Talmud, the blessing that one would say upon seeing a sage was, ``Blessed be God, who has given (a portion) of his wisdom to flesh and blood.'' Similarly, when one saw a king, the appropriate benediction was, ``Blessed be God, who has given (a portion) of his glory to flesh and blood.'' The substitution of ``power'' for ``wisdom'' or ``glory'' in these formulae yields a blessing of the sort that may have been pronounced in Matthew 9:8. 1
Clear references to berakhot appear in the accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels, when Jesus gives blessings for the bread and wine (Matt. 26:26-27; Mark 14:22-23; Luke 22:17-20). The usual blessing for wine has been mentioned already. For bread the traditional blessing is,
``Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth'' (Mishnah, Berakhot 6:1).
If Jesus uttered these words at the Last Supper, they would have had a special significance, since God would soon afterward bring forth (i.e., resurrect) Jesus (symbolized by the bread) from the earth. 2 Here we see another example of the fact that a knowledge of Jewish traditions can give us a better understanding of the words and deeds of our Savior.
The apostle Paul's words in I Thes. 5:16-18 take on greater meaning for us when we see them in the context of the worldview and traditions of his time and culture. The purpose of this study of ancient Jewish traditions is not, of course, to promote the idea that modern Christians should adopt them in every detail. This study does suggest, though, that our spiritual habits should reflect and promote an awareness of God's presence in all aspects of our lives. That is the true spirit of ``praying without ceasing.''
1. David Bivin, ``The Amidah Prayer: A New Translation,'' available on the internet at http://www.egrc.net/articles/other/amidah.html
2. David Flüsser, ``A Lost Jewish Benediction in Matthew 9:8,'' pp. 535-542 in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1988.
3. Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1988.
4. Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.
1Flüsser admits that no such blessing is given in rabbinic literature but says that this is not surprising, since rabbinic authorities may have been worried about the possibility of ascribing divine power to a charlatan.
2See the article ``Dining With the Almighty: The Passover Seder, the Christian Eucharist, and the Jewish Kiddush'' in Issue 3 of Grace and Knowledge.
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