Devoted to Prayer
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42 NRSV).”
This article is the fourth article in a series on the early Christian church as depicted in Acts 2:41-47. The first three articles were on the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and the breaking of bread.
Both the Renaissance humanists and the Protestant reformers were guided by a similar ethos–a return to the original sources (ad fontes). During the Renaissance this expression referred to a renewed interest in the Greek and Latin classics. For the reformers this meant a return to the Bible as the primary authority for Christian belief and practice. In both arenas, the Renaissance and the Reformation, this idea brought about an amazing rebirth of ancient traditions. Down through the ages, Protestant Christians have continually repeated this process of returning to the biblical text as the fountain of the church’s life.1 Acts 2 is therefore a pivotal text, not just for Protestants but for all Christians who desire to drink from the vitality of the early Christian church. In this passage, one of the most important characteristics of the first Christians is that they were devoted to prayer.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the disciples find themselves in an awkward in-between place. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus commands them to stay in the city of Jerusalem “until you have been clothed with power from on high (Lk 24:49).” Right before his ascension at the beginning of Acts, Jesus tells them that they will be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)” once they receive the empowering of the Spirit. Acts 1:12-26 therefore documents the interim period of time between the Great Commission and the Day of Pentecost. The disciples, along with certain woman and the brothers of Jesus, were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). during this time. From the beginning, prayer has been at the heart of Christian worship and devotion.
Along with Luke’s depiction of the disciples praying constantly, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians makes several references to ongoing prayer. In his opening salutations, Paul says that he “constantly” thanks God for the Thessalonians and mentions them in his prayers (1 Thess 1:2). Later in the letter, Paul expresses his desire to come and visit the Thessalonians. He says he prays “night and day” that he might be able to see them face to face (1 Thess 3:10). At the end of the letter, Paul offers a series of exhortations to the believers. One of his instructions is to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).
Within modern charismatic Christianity, there has been a movement toward 24/7 prayer, sparked by the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. All around the country, Houses of Prayer are popping up in major cities. Each of these locations operates somewhat differently, but many of them promote night and day prayer and worship. For example, the prayer room in Atlanta is open 24/7 and is staffed with musicians and singers at all hours of the day. The IHOP movement, and other associated ministries, take Paul’s admonition quite literally. This, of course, raises questions about the practices of the early Christians. Did they pray at all hours of the day? Or is Paul’s expression meant to be taken more figuratively?
Hours of Prayer
The early Christians did not invent their own pattern of daily prayer. Rather, they inherited an established pattern from Judaism of prayer at set hours of the day. These hours are the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day. In a modern way of counting time, this is 9am, 12pm, and 3pm. The Jews established this pattern based on scriptures such as Psalm 55:16-17 and Daniel 6:10. At these set hours of prayer, the Jews likely recited the Shema (Deut 6:4-9) and the Psalms.
Several references in Acts indicate that the first Christians continued to follow the three daily hours of prayer inherited from Judaism. Acts 3:1 tells of Peter and John “going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” In Acts 10:9, Peter goes up on his roof to observe the noon prayer time. Whether in public at the Temple or in private at home, Peter clearly follows the threefold hours of prayer.
In Acts 12 Peter is miraculously delivered from prison in the middle of the night. After being released, he goes to the house of Mary “where many had gathered and were praying (Acts 12:12).” Luke offers no clear timeframe for this prayer gathering, but no reference to morning comes until Acts 12:18. This would seem, then, to be a middle-of-the-night prayer time, not one of the customary three hours of the day. In this case, the believers are quite literally praying “day and night,” possibly because of Peter’s imprisonment.
Taking the references from Acts and 1 Thessalonians, it seems that the early Christians followed set hours of prayer but also observed all-night prayer vigils. This makes sense when one realizes that constant prayer is an attitude or spirit of prayer. Whether one stops at set hours or prays all night long is in many ways beside the point. The Christian life is one of constant communion with God whether one is kneeling in prayer or working in the garden. Christian monks have understood this dynamic of prayer for many centuries. The Latin saying ora et labora (“pray and work”) captures this sentiment well. Monks observe set hours of prayer throughout the day but also work at a skilled trade each day. Whatever a monk is doing, though, life itself becomes a constant prayer to God.
The Importance of Prayer
Whatever daily prayer routine a Christian develops is secondary to the act of prayer. If one thing is clear in the New Testament, it is the importance of prayer. In the early days of the church, the apostles had to deal with the practical ministry of feeding widows in the church. Ultimately the apostles choose to appoint “seven men of good standing” to oversee the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:3). They appoint these men because they recognize that they need to “devote themselves to prayer and to serving the word (Acts 6:4).” This text shows that both the feeding ministry and the prayer ministry are utterly essential to the health of the church. One cannot be neglected for the other.
The commissioning of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13 is another good example of the importance of prayer. Before sending Paul and Barnabas out to proclaim the gospel, the believers in Antioch devote themselves to fasting and praying. Only after prayer, do they lay hands on the two missionaries and send them off (Acts 13:2-3). In the book of Acts, the work of the church flows out of the prayer of the church.
In the early Christian church, the believers observe a “semi-monastic” lifestyle in regards to prayer. They pray at set hours throughout the day, sometimes in the Temple and sometimes at home. However, prayer is not legalistically limited to only certain hours of the day. Prayer spills over into all of life. The believers certainly observe intense periods of constant prayer, “night and day” as Paul says. Beyond that, prayer becomes a constant attitude of the spirit that informs everything a believer does. Whatever routines the early church followed, one thing remains clear. They devoted themselves to prayer because prayer is absolutely vital for the health and life of the church.
(1) A great book documenting one pastor’s re-discovery of the life of the early church is Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church.
Image from Xerones on Flickr. Used under creative commons license.