-Acts 3:1 (ESV)
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.”
-Acts 10:1-3 (ESV)
The disciples devoted themselves to “the prayers.” “Luke’s reference to ‘prayers’ rather than to prayer per se here may indicate observance of regular prayer times in the Temple – as well as the community’s own prayers.” (see Le Cornu and Shulam, “A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Acts: Acts 1-15, 147.”) Most English versions obscure the meaning by not transmitting the definite article. The Greek says that they devoted themselves to “the prayers (tais proseuchais).”
“The prayers” should be understood in keeping with the common liturgical, daily prayers of Judaism, the synagogue, and the Temple. Six verses later, Luke depicts Simon Peter and John “going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1).
This does not mean that early believers prayed out of a Siddur. Prayer books did not yet exist. It only implies that they prayed in concert with other Jewish people, following the same forms, conventions, modes, and times of prayer as the rest of the Jewish world. Their faith in Yeshua (Jesus) did not change their mode of worship. Their faith made their worship more intense and ardent.
In my previous meditation about the Torah Club commentary on Acts, I tried to explain a couple of things. Based on Acts 2, I illustrated that those who were at the Shavuot (Pentecost) festival, and the 3,000 who received the Holy Spirit in Christ’s name, were all Jewish. Coupling what we read in Acts 2 with this week’s study of Acts 2:42-4:31, we can see that the very early days of “Christianity” with Peter and John in Jerusalem involved a completely Jewish religious community. In fact, this portion of Acts is devoted to the description of the early Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah in the weeks and months after his ascension.
I’m choosing to focus on that aspect of Jewish community involving “the prayers” for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious point that nothing about the practice of the Jewish disciples changed in the slightest because they were disciples of the Jewish Jesus. They still observed “the prayers” at the set times for prayer. They prayed together with other Jews, both disciples of the Master and any others who had gathered together, seemingly in the part of the Jerusalem Temple known as Solomon’s Portico.
However, you will notice that I again insert something from Acts 10 about the Roman Centurion Cornelius, the God-fearer, who at the beginning of that chapter, had not yet received the Christ; the Messiah, as Lord and Savior. And yet, he was praying at the ninth hour which was “the hour of prayer,” just as the Jews did, including Peter and John.
I also said in my previous missive that the non-Jewish God-fearers and later, the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus indeed took on some (or many) of the Jewish religious practices in order to imitate their mentors and in fact, at that point in history, the “Jewish model” for worshiping God was the only model available. This didn’t make Cornelius or any of the Gentile disciples suddenly Jewish or automatically obligated to a full Jewish lifestyle (otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have thrown such a “temper tantrum” in Galatians 5:1-5). However, it does mean that “Christian” worship looked a lot more Jewish, even after the first non-Jews began to be admitted as disciples, than we could ever imagine it being today.
I suppose that I’ll have a lot more material on Cornelius and the first non-Jewish “Christians” when I actually arrive at the Torah Club’s commentary on Acts 10 (which won’t happen for another six weeks or so) but I want to point out, for those of you reading this who may not already know, the discipleship under Jesus Christ for the early Jewish and Gentile believers did not entail some abrupt demarcation from what otherwise was considered “normal” Jewish religious practice. As D. Thomas Lancaster points out in this week’s study (pp. 61-62):
Notice that each of the four devotions (The Apostles’ Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers) are hallmarks of Jewish practice. The new community that formed around the disciples of Yeshua did not adopt new customs or innovations that could be considered particularly Christian and distinct from Judaism. Instead, they devoted themselves to the same pursuits that might characterize any Jewish faith community. Today’s churches and communities of faith would look more like messianic synagogues if we committed ourselves to the four devotions of study, community, hospitality, and liturgy.
That recalls a question I asked not too long ago. Do Christians Practice Judaism? As we understand the concepts today, the answer must be “no.” However, as the “Messianic faith” began as a wholly Jewish expression of discipleship under the Master, what were the very first Gentiles doing when they were brought into discipleship with the Jews? For that matter, what did Cornelius think he was doing when he, as a God-fearer, prayed at the ninth hour and (presumably, though we can’t know for sure) gathered with the Jews in synagogue on Shabbat? Practicing Judaism?
Well, probably not, anymore than a modern-day Noahide could be said to be practicing Judaism by davening with Jews in a synagogue on Shabbat. But is the relationship between a Noahide and a Jew in the 21st century the same as that of a “Messianic” Jew and non-Jew in the mid-1st century? Noahides generally see themselves as bound by the covenant of Noah (see Genesis 9), while Jews claim the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants, so strictly speaking, they are unlike members of God’s community, attached to God by different covenants.
I’ve said before that I believe we Christians have a relationship with God due to certain blessings included in the Abrahamic and New Covenants but that we are not attached to all of the same conditions within those covenants. Further, it is my belief (because there’s no evidence directly involving non-Jews) that we are not recipients of any blessings from the Mosaic covenant, which more than any of the other covenants, specifically identifies the Jewish people as a unique covenant people, even within the Messianic community of the 1st century and of the budding Messianic Jewish community of the 21st century.
But let’s wind back to the very early chapters of Acts again and take a look at the community as it existed after that first fateful Shavuot when the Spirit was given.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
-Acts 2:42-47 (ESV)
Here we see some of what Lancaster called “the devotions,” namely teaching/studying and fellowship through breaking of bread (which is just as it sounds, eating together, rather than some special sacrament). This passage is also sometimes referred to as “Christian Communism,” since everyone “re-distributed wealth” so that everyone shared everything. This brings up a point I want to make, not only about this passage but about the larger issue of community.
There are some who would isolate this part of the second chapter of Acts and say it’s the only way a Christian community should be run, and if any other Christians are “hoarding” material wealth for themselves through private ownership of a car, house, and so on, they are in violation of their Christian faith.
But we’re only talking about five verses in a single chapter of the Bible. Who develops an entire theology and Christian lifestyle based on a tiny handful of verses taken out of context?
Actually, quite a lot of people. I tend to think of Christians and Christian groups who insist on cherry picking verses to fit some arcane theology as “on the fringe” and I hope they are indeed in the minority, because it’s a dangerous practice. Focusing on just little bits and pieces of the Bible in an attempt to justify a “pet theology” and then to “sell” it to a wider audience as some form of “scholarship” is not only dishonest but potentially misleading to people who may actually believe it for lack of any better insights on their part.
Let’s take another example from Lancaster’s commentary. He defines the early Jewish Messianic community in terms of the larger context of 1st century Judaism in Jerusalem and Roman occupied Palestine. Let’s keep in mind that there was no one, monolithic Judaism then, anymore than there is one now (that goes for Christianity too, by the way). There were differing sects of Judaism and the sect that became known as “the Way” was what we see as the early Jewish disciples of Jesus in the beginning chapters of Acts. They were Jewish. They behaved in a way that was considered acceptable relative to Jewish religious and lifestyle practices. Except for their insistence that the man from Nazareth named Yeshua was indeed the Messiah, and that he was unjustly executed and three days later, rose from the dead, their Jewish lives and teachings wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow from any other Jew in the Holy Land.
Can we take a “snapshot” of their lives as we see them lived out in Acts 2 and 3 and say that’s how we Christians should live today? Is it any more valid to say that than to say that we must live a Christian lifestyle that exactly mirrors Acts 2:42-47? Probably not. It fails to take a great deal into consideration.
If the 1st century Jewish disciples of Jesus lived a lifestyle that was completely consistent with their Jewish peers and their surrounding Jewish culture, does that translate into a bunch of non-Jewish Christians in the 21st century doing the same thing? Remember, for the most part, Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples didn’t appear particularly unusual as they prayed at the ninth our in Solomon’s Portico. They didn’t appear particularly unusual as they met together to study the teachings of their Master. They didn’t appear particularly unusual when they met together for communal meals. Lots and lots of different groups of Jewish disciples of one Rabbi or another behaved in very similar ways.
But that wouldn’t necessarily translate to Christians twenty centuries later any more than it would translate to modern Jews. Our situations have changed drastically and on top of that, we don’t have a complete picture of what the early Messianic Jewish communities looked like. We can extrapolate based on whatever knowledge we possess of wider Jewish practices in the late Second Temple era, but we have even less knowledge of “normal” Christian practices among the newly minted Gentile disciples post-Acts 10. How could we ever figure out, assuming our goal was to imitate some portion of 1st century worship behaviors, how to replicate what that community (or those communities if we assume that once early non-Jewish churches were founded, their practices began to vary from those of the Jewish disciples in the synagogues) did way back in the first weeks, months, and years after the ascension of Jesus?
We can’t, at least not to a high degree of reliability and detail. What we can do is take what we understand of some of the general principles we see lived out and match them up with some of Christ’s teachings within a larger Biblical context and figure out some foundational points with which to connect.
Meeting together? Don’t we do that now? Don’t we have churches? Don’t we have home Bible studies? Don’t we serve food and eat together? Don’t we study together? Don’t we pray together?
Didn’t I just cover Lancaster’s four devotions in the previous paragraph?
Nothing in what we’ve seen in the first chapters of Acts necessarily tells us that the Gentile disciples (who didn’t exist during that time frame) where to behave exactly like their Jewish counterparts. It does tell us that the early Jewish disciples behaved very consistently with the Jewish religious and cultural practices in which they lived. Those Jews believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah and yet there was nothing at all to say that they ever stopped being Jews, stopped making sacrifices at the Temple, stopped celebrating the traditional festivals, stopped keeping kosher, stopped observing the Shabbat, stopped…you know what I’m getting at.
In the days when the Second Temple still stood and after the ascension of Christ, there was nothing to show us that the so-called “Jewish Christians” stopped being Jewish and started being “Christian” as we understand the term today.
But while I’m content to table what the later (from an Acts 3 point of view) Gentile disciples were supposed to do within what appears to be a wholly Jewish religious arena (I know I just left this question hanging, but I’ll pick it up again in subsequent studies of Acts via Torah Club), can we say that if the ancient Jewish disciples of the Master lived completely Jewish lifestyles and those lifestyles were totally consistent with their discipleship under Jesus Christ, could the same be true for the modern Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah?
Most of my regular readers (the ones who typically comment, anyway), already know that answer. But some of you, especially if you’re just surfing in here, may be a bit surprised. Food for thought.