Images of Prayer in the Worship of Israel

Acts 3:1:  "But Peter and John were going up into the Temple for the hour of prayer, the ninth hour." 

So often through the years, Christianity has been presented as a total break with Judaism, a completely different religion that has nothing in common with the ancient religion of the Jewish people.  Instead Christianity has been presented as a philosophical faith that has more in common with Greek philosophy than with the Bible.  But if that's true, why were Peter and John coming here, to the Temple, to pray, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus?  (Jesus ascended to heaven in Acts chapter 1, this is chapter 3.)

This is one of many places in the book of Acts that show that the disciples of Jesus continued to worship as Jews, though now, of course, as Jews who believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of everything the Jewish religion was all about. 

So here they are, going up with hundreds of fellow Jews to pray in the Temple, just as their fellow Jewish believers in Jesus continued to do as long as the Temple was standing.  What was it that attracted them there?

Entrance gate photographically restored.
It's no accident that the words "going up into the Temple" are used here.  The main entrance to the vast Temple Mount in Jerusalem was up a large flight of stairs that led to several massive stone doorways or "gates."  The gates led into a tunnel, and from there, up another flight of stairs into the huge inner courts.

This kind of entrance to the Temple is what the Bible means in Psalm 100 when it says to "enter his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise."  First you went through the gates, and then into the courts. 

There were also other gates to the Temple area, but all had the same effect: even though the Temple was built right up against the city, when you entered the Temple, you entered another world, separated from the world of daily life.  It’s the same way when you go up into this area today, though it looks quite different today.  But because of the walls and its height above the city, you don’t hear much of the city noise, even with cars and trucks driving around outside. 

From these main courts, open to the sky above, they would have gone past a low stone fence.  Behind the stone fence was another, smaller set of stairs that led into the Court of the Jewish Women.  This was an area into which only Jews were allowed to enter.  This was the area where most of the worship that took place in the Temple happened.  

Stone fence and steps leading to the Court of the Women.
Just to the west of this court, the impressive front of the Sanctuary of the Temple rose up above the courts, the innermost building of the Temple Mount, that held the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.  This is where the presence of God dwelt, or as the Bible puts it, was the dwelling place of God’s name.  Those that came here to worship would stand in the Court of the Women facing the Holy Place to worship.  So in the late afternoon, when the sun was sinking behind the Sanctuary to the west, their worship was literally in the shadow of the Holy Place of the Temple.

Here, in the Court of the Women, Peter and John were met by many dozens and possibly hundreds of other Jews coming up to the Temple for what the Bible calls the "hour of prayer, the ninth hour." 

Now it's interesting and important that the Bible calls this an "hour of prayer."  Because according to the Bible, this was actually the time of the evening—or more accurately, the afternoon—sacrifice.  The ninth hour corresponds to our 3 pm, 3 in the afternoon.  This was the second time in the day—each and every day—when a specially chosen lamb was offered up to the Lord:  a lamb without spot or blemish, and therefore ritually pure or clean. 

These two lambs—one offered at about 9 am, the other at about 3 pm, every day, were known as the daily sacrifice, or the perpetual sacrifice.  This daily offering is mentioned in Ex. 29:38,39:  "And this is what you will offer on the altar:  one-year-old lambs, two of them for the day, continually (or perpetually).  One lamb you will offer in the morning, and the second lamb you will offer between the evenings."  So this is what they did, every day.  The curious expression, "between the evenings," they took to mean mid-afternoon, or about 3 pm.

So the “hours of prayer” in the Temple were actually the times of the daily offerings or sacrifices:  at 9 and 3, and another at about noon, which is when special sacrifices were offered up on holidays.  These same times of prayer continue in synagogues around the world today.  The earliest, Shakharit, got its name from the dawn (Shakhar), which is when the priests began to prepare for the morning sacrifice.  The afternoon prayer is called Minkha (which means gift or offering), and the noon prayer is called Musaf, which just means “additional.” 

These were the same three prayer times used by the earliest church:  as it says in the Didache, the earliest preserved church manual:  “Pray in this way three times a day” (Didache 8.3).   

When Peter and John made their way up into the Temple, the preparations of the priests were already well underway.  A lamb had already been selected for the sacrifice, and was waiting at the ready in a special room in the inner courts of the Temple.  It had been inspected by the priests to ensure that it was ritually clean—without any spot or physical blemish.  Now it was inspected again, in preparation for the sacrifice. 

The importance of the sacrifice being without blemish is stated over and over again in the Bible, as in Deut. 17:1.  Why was this so important?  Because a blemished animal rather than honoring God would be an insult to God, it would dishonor him.  It’s a general principle in the Bible that we should bring our best to God.  This is how we show him honor and show him the respect that he is due as God. 

Among the priests themselves, lots were drawn to decide who would fulfill the different duties that were to be performed that day:  some would prepare the wood and the fires on the altar of sacrifice, others were assigned for the actual slaughter itself, in which the lamb was swiftly killed, its neck cut with a quick stroke of the knife.  This was intended to produce the least pain to the animal.  Then the skin of the lamb was removed, and it was cut into sections, just like in a butcher shop. 

These pieces were then carried ceremoniously to the huge altar of sacrifice, which also stood out under the open sky, directly in front of the Sanctuary of the Temple.  The sections of the lamb were then carried up the ramp of the altar, and laid on one of the three fires kept burning on its top.  Here the entire lamb was completely burnt up in the flames. 

In Hebrew, this whole burnt offering is called an olah offering, a “going up” to God.  This refers to the smoke ascending from the altar, "going up" as it were, to God in heaven.  This kind of animal sacrifice can be traced all the way back to Abraham, back to Noah, and even to Cain and Abel in the opening chapters of the Bible.

It was quite different than the practice in the pagan temples, where several-course restaurant-style meals were prepared and set before the idols—only to be eaten by the priests.  In the Israelite practice of worship, the olah—the "going up" sacrifice—was not used to benefit any earthly priesthood.  It was intended only for the God of heaven, as could be seen by the thin white stream of smoke ascending from the top of the altar. 

The idea of burning up animals in this way, every day, may seem a tremendous waste of perfectly good animal meat to us today.  After all, God certainly doesn't "need" the smoke of that burned animal—he certainly doesn't eat it.  But this kind of earth-bound thinking misses the whole point:  that the offering of sacrifices was not nearly so much for God's benefit as for ours.  The offering up of these animals to God was an activity that drew people into the presence of God—just as it drew Peter and John into the Temple that day.  It was an act of worship that caused people to turn away from their own interests and activities and to turn to God—to spend time in his presence. 

In fact, you could say the daily ritual sacrifice is what made it possible to come into the presence of God.  Because only after the sacrifice was performed, twice each day, were the priests allowed to go into the Holy Place, the Sanctuary of the Temple.  This daily ritual presented the truth that because of the sinfulness of man, sacrifice, death to atone for sin, is necessary to enable us even to enter into the presence of God. 

This was a truth the disciples knew had now been fulfilled in Jesus.  Through his one sacrifice, he had atoned for the sins of all time, and because of it had himself entered directly into the presence of God, not in any earthly Temple, but into the heavenly presence of God himself. 

But how did the times of the daily sacrifice come to be called "hours of prayer"?  What was the connection with prayer?  The identification of the daily sacrifice with prayer can already be seen back in the time of the Old Testament. 

In Elijah's confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, he offered up his prayer to God at precisely the time of the afternoon sacrifice:  as it says in 1 Kings 18:36:  "And it happened at the going up of the offering (the Minkhah; i.e. the afternoon sacrifice) that Elijah the prophet came near and he said, ‘LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel....'"  This was the prayer that God answered with fire from heaven, a fire that consumed the sacrifice, the rocks of the altar, and even the dust around the altar.

Even earlier, Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, addressed his prayer to the Lord after many hundreds of sacrifices had been offered up; a prayer that, according to 2 Chron. 7:1, God also answered with fire from heaven.  Solomon prayed, with his hands lifted up to heaven:  "Have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his supplication, LORD my God, to listen to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you, that your eyes may be open toward this house day and night, toward the place of which you have said that you would put your name there, to listen to the prayer that your servant prays toward this place."  (2 Chron. 6:19-20)

This position of prayer—with hands raised, facing the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem—eventually became one of the most important positions for prayer.  Why hands raised?  It's a symbol of surrender to God—just like in a military surrender.  It means, look, I've got nothing in my hands, no hidden weapons, no tricks up my sleeve.  It's like our gesture of waving an open hand to say “Hi!”—see, it's safe, I've got nothing in my hand.  It's a friendly gesture, the gesture of a friend.  It’s also the gesture of a child that comes running to a parent the child is glad to see.  It’s a gesture of openness, of wanting to receive someone. 

This is how the Jewish people and later the early Christians, for at least the first eight centuries of Christianity, prayed.  It's a symbol of surrender to God:  I give up, I surrender myself to you, I'm holding nothing back, no hidden agenda—I'm a friend and not a foe.  I want to be with you.  I want to receive you.

Why were these prayers prayed toward the Temple?  Because the Temple was a symbol of the presence of God, with sacrifices that made it possible for sinners to come into the presence of a holy God, sacrifices that opened the door to communion and to communication with God. 

The prophet Isaiah went so far as to call the Temple a "house of prayer."  As it says in Isa. 56:7:  "I will bring them (he's talking about foreigners here) to my holy mountain (that is, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and I will make them glad in my house of prayer.  Their whole burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my House (that is, the Temple) will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples."  Why will the sacrifices of foreigners be accepted in God's Temple?  Because he wants his Temple to be a house of prayer for all nations.  Here again, we see the direct connection between prayer and sacrifice, a connection that Jesus confirmed in his teaching by quoting this verse in Matt. 21:13.

Even today, 2,000 years after the destruction of the Temple, religious Jews continue to pray every day at the time of the ancient sacrifices in the Temple, facing toward the Sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. 

The Muslims, too, originally prayed in this direction, but later, in the lifetime of Mohammed, they changed the direction to Mecca. 

The connection between prayer and sacrifice was also symbolized in the Temple by the duties of the other priests, duties that were performed after the sacrifice had been "offered up" on the altar of sacrifice.  As the worshippers watched from the Court of the Women, three priests approached the altar of sacrifice, where the lamb was still burning.  One went up the to collect some of the burning coals from the altar in a container. 

Then he, together with the other two priests, entered all alone into the Sanctuary of the Temple—the tall building in the middle of the Temple compound.  Here they proceeded forward past the golden lampstand and the table of showbread to the golden altar of incense.  This stood just in front of the veil or curtain of the Temple that divided the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.  This was the closest that an ordinary priest could ever get to the Holy of Holies. 

Here one of the priests laid out the hot coals on the altar of incense.  Another set down a container of incense. And then these two priests ceremoniously withdrew from the Temple, leaving the third priest standing all alone in the sanctuary. 

This lone priest then took the incense, which was in a powdered form, into his hands and spread it out on the hot coals on the altar.  This immediately sent a thick cloud of fragrant smoke up into the air.  While he was doing this, the people were outside, in the Court of the Women, prostrated before the Lord in silent prayer for about half an hour. 

This ceremony gave yet another name to this time of sacrifice and prayer:    “the hour of the incense offering” (Luke 1:10).  The incense, rising before the Holy of Holies, was a symbol of the prayers of the people rising up to God. 

This connection between incense and prayer was understood all the way back in the time of David.  In Ps. 141:2 it says, "May my prayer be presented as incense before you, the lifting up of the palms of my hands as the evening sacrifice."  This verse, as in all the poetry in the Bible, is written in poetic parallelism:  that is, one line reinforces, or restates another.  In this verse, the parallel is between prayer and incense in the first line, and the lifting of hands and the evening sacrifice in the other.  In other words, the association of prayer and incense is equated to the relationship between the lifting of hands and the evening sacrifice. 

The first part is a symbolism most Christians are familiar with.  In the same way that the incense went up and over the veil (or curtain) of the Temple into the hidden place of the Holy of Holies, so our prayers enter up and into the presence of God where, as Jesus put it, he dwells "in secret."  As Jesus said in Matt. 6:6:  "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret..."

But here David equates not only the incense, but the entire evening (or afternoon) sacrifice with prayer:  as he says, "the lifting up of the palms of my hands (in prayer) as the evening sacrifice."  In other words, he equates the whole of the evening sacrifice, both the sacrifice itself and the offering up of incense, with prayer.  Both, together, are an image, a picture, of prayer, ascending to God.  They represent time spent worshipping God, in which the focus of our attention is on God himself, lifting up those things that are of great value to us:  our thoughts, our concerns, our inner life to him, surrendering ourselves to his will and to his way. 

As David goes on to say in the next two verses:  “Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice deeds of wickedness with men who do iniquity; and do not let me eat of their delicacies" (Ps. 141:3,4).  David is asking for God's help to live God's way.  He's surrendering himself completely to God. 

This is the context of Paul's thoughts in Rom. 12:1.  It's a verse we're all familiar with, but which I hope we can now see in a new, more accurate light.  If I read it the way it’s usually translated, it says, "I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, pleasing  to God—which is your spiritual worship." 

The language of the last part of the verse is a little difficult, because this is not the word “spirit” as in the Holy Spirit, but rather the word logikos, which is the root of our English word logical.  This word can have the meaning “sensible” or “reasonable.”  But here, as in another place in the New Testament, it is used in the sense of giving the spiritual or deeper meaning of a symbolic picture.  What it means is that presenting our bodies as a sacrifice to God is a spiritual picture of what true worship and true service of God are supposed to be.

In this image, Paul takes things a full step forward from the language of David in Psalm 141.  Rather than just offering a sacrifice, Paul says we are to become the sacrifice:  not a dead sacrifice, instead a living sacrifice.  But like a sacrifice, we are to completely give over our bodies—in other words, our lives—to God.  Notice the language used here:  our bodies are to be "holy and pleasing to God." This is just like the ritual cleanness of the lambs that were offered as a sacrifice, without spot or blemish. 

This is the same language used by Paul in Ephesians 5:27 of the wedding feast of the Lamb:  "that (Jesus) might present the Church to himself as glorious, not having a stain or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she might be holy and blameless." 

This, Paul says, is the true meaning of worship, the true meaning of the Christian life:  to present yourself to God as a sacrifice, having been set apart to God—set apart from the things of the world, which is what "holy" means—just like the lambs for the sacrifice, living our lives in a way that is pleasing to God, through our surrender to his way.  It’s a picture of stepping, as it were, right into the fire of the altar, to be completely consumed by God and the things of God, our lives going up continually to God as a sacrifice.

This is not the only place that Paul uses this kind of language.  In Rom. 15:16, he describes his ministry to the Gentiles as that of a priest, offering up the sacrifice of the Gentiles on the altar of faith.  Or to quote it directly: "...ministering as a priest the gospel of God, that the offering up (in other words, the sacrifice) of the nations (the Gentiles) might be acceptable, having been made holy by the Holy Spirit."

This is a picture of total surrender, of total commitment to God:  not just of setting aside time for the Lord every day, but of living a life that is burning with the power of God—a life that is a continual prayer ascending to God, a life lived in constant fellowship and communion with God.

This is what Jesus himself was talking about when he says in Matt. 10:39:  "The one who has found his life will destroy it, and the one who has destroyed his life because of me will find it."  Following Jesus is not a way to find yourself with regard to the things of this world.  It’s a way to completely give yourself up to him. 

People who truly follow Jesus look like they’re destroying their lives to others.  “Why are you going over there to be a missionary?  You’re just throwing away your life.”  Yes, destroying it from the point of view of the world. But following Jesus is the only way to find true life.  If you stop short of total surrender, it will only bring loss.  

As Jesus said in Luke 14:27:  “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  Carrying your cross means destroying your life from the point of view of this world.  This is the same idea in different words. 

But then he illustrated it with a parable:  “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him” (Luke 14:28-30).  What did he mean by this?  That once we begin with Jesus, we need to press on until we finish.  Otherwise, what good will it be?

Peter put it even more directly when he said that it’s much worse for you if you start with Jesus and then turn back:  “For if they, having escaped from the defiling deeds of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus the Messiah, but having then again been entangled by these are overcome, this latter situation is worse for them than the former one” (2 Pet. 2:20). 

So what’s the solution?  Only total surrender to God brings us victory:  giving up everything for him, and then following him without getting sidetracked.

Jesus paints the same picture using a slightly different image in Luke 9:62 when he says:  "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."  Once you get started with Jesus, don’t look back.  Just keep going.  We need to willingly give over our entire lives to him, total surrender—just as he totally surrendered his life as a sacrifice for us.  What’s the Christian life about?  Losing your life for Jesus; surrendering your life to Jesus. 

The earliest church saw a connection between the cross and prayer in the position of prayer I mentioned before, standing with arms outstretched, which they saw as a symbol of the cross.  Prayer is an act of surrender to God.

Total surrender—total commitment—not just offering a sacrifice, but becoming the sacrifice; not just giving of what you own, but giving everything you own; not just offering prayers, but becoming a prayer:  a life consumed with the fire of the Almighty.  Our God, the Bible says over and over, is "a consuming fire."  Have you stepped into the fire?  Have you felt the heat?  Are you being consumed by his presence in your life?

I want to challenge you today to pray with me with your arms stretched out to God.  Or to prostrate on the ground if you like.  Because both are positions of complete surrender to God.  And let’s ask God to have his way in our lives. 

Let's pray:  Father God, we have heard the words of your Son to us today, words that challenge us to the deepest place in our being.  But they are also freeing words, liberating words, if we accept them, words that have the power to free us from the entanglements and worries of this world, words that can free us from the tyranny of worry about our lives and set us free to trust you completely.  Help us to come away from the world with you:  to be holy, to be different, to enter into the secret place with you, Father, where we can find true life.  Help us to put our hands to the plow of serving you and never look back.  In Jesus’ name.

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