THE HIGHEST FORM OF WORSHIP
By Dwight A. Pryor
"Thirty minutes on your knees in prayer is time better spent
than three hours of study in a book."
Maybe you have heard Christians make a statement like this. Or worse, perhaps you have said it to yourself, or at least thought it! Fear not, you are surrounded by a "multitude of witnesses." This is a sentiment widely shared by Christians today.
Two years ago, Brad Young was interviewing for a teaching position at a major Christian graduate school in the U.S. (not Oral Roberts School of Theology where he presently teaches). At the time, he was completing some seven years of study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, culminating in his doctoral dissertation on rabbinic parallels to the parables of Jesus. A vice-president of this prestigious, Charismatic institution said to Brad that he believed learning Greek and Hebrew was detrimental to true spirituality.
This statement, though extreme, reflects a deep-seated prejudice pervasive in Christendom, especially in Charismatic and Pentecostal circles. Like the first statement, regarding prayer and study, it also reflects so clearly how alienated the Church has become from its Hebrew origins. We have strayed far from our Jewish roots.
The roots from which our faith sprang are to be found deep in the fertile soil of first-century Judaism. To a Jew of that day, the statement "Thirty minutes of prayer is superior to three hours of study" would seem peculiar and odd, to say the least. Studying Torah was the chief duty and greatest privilege of every Jew. A fundamental tenet of Judaism was that a knowledge of Torah was the highest good in life, and therefore every effort should be expended toward that objective. "An ignorant man cannot be pious," said Hillel. "Whoever acquires knowledge of the Torah acquires life in the world to come" (Avot 2:7).
A contemporary of Hillel expressed similar sentiments. "To the Jews who had believed Him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to [abide in, continue in] my teachings, you really are my disciples, and you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free'" (John 8:31-32). And when asked what was the greatest of all the mitzvot or commandments, the rabbi from Nazareth answered as any pious Jew would have. He cited the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4): "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27, Mark 12:28-31).
The biblical witness to the priority of study and learning is evident in both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures. Consider the following examples:
1 The Shema, or "Hear, O Israel..." (Deuteronomy 6:4), is the supreme theological declaration of Judaism and all biblical faith. The God of Israel, YHWH, is God alone. He is the creator of heaven and earth; He is the one true God, and He has covenanted with His people. Our appropriate response, then, is twofold: first to "hear" Him (v. 4), then to "teach" His ways (v. 7).
"Hear," in contemporary parlance, might be translated, "Listen up!" --i.e., obey! "Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey..." (v. 3). God's revelation and our recognition of who He really is compels obedience. If knowledge of God is our greatest good, then obedience is our highest virtue, and teaching/study is our essential task. Why? Because as the famous rabbi Akiva noted, "Study leads to practice [the doing of a thing]" (Kid. 40b).
2 We are to impress the Lord's revelation upon our own hearts/minds (synonymous in Hebrew) (Deuteronomy 6:6). Further, we are commanded to "Teach these things diligently to your children..." (v.7). Apparently, this capacity to teach others the ways of YHWH endeared Abraham to the Lord. "I have chosen [or known] him that he will instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right..." (Genesis 18:19).
3 The Psalms speak eloquently of the great love the Jewish people had for the Torah, the Word of God. "Happy is the man...whose delight is in the teaching of the Lord, and he studies that teaching day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2 JPS). "The teaching of the Lord is perfect, renewing life" (Psalm 19:7 JPS).
Unlike us, the Jews did not think of Torah as "Law." YHWH was not the big I.R.S. agent in the sky, capriciously issuing harsh legalistic dictates from above. Rather, YHWH was the teacher and Torah was His revelation. It was God's gracious gift of guidance, direction, and instruction--pointing us ever toward life and away from death. It is in this sense, also, by the way, that Jesus (e.g., Luke 16:17) and Paul (e.g., Romans 7:12,14) speak so highly of God's revelation at Sinai.
4 "But," you protest, "we are a 'New Testament' church and therefore the Shema is not our greatest commandment. Our great commission is not to study, but to evangelize!" (Matthew 28:19). Whoops! Back to square one. Never forget: Jesus was himself a Jew, a rabbi, who taught Jewish people in the Hebrew language using well-known rabbinic teaching techniques. And his followers, including the Apostles, were all Jews and were all Jewish. They did not forsake their Judaism to follow Him; they forsook themselves to embrace Him as the promised Messiah and to follow Him as their Lord.
Considering all this, as well as the fact that much of the New Testament was written by these men, we must always be alert to the Hebrew text and context of our Christian Scriptures. In Matthew 28:19-20, for instance, Jesus' emphasis is actually upon learning. "In your going," He says, here is what's important, here's what I really want you to do: "Make disciples...baptize them...and teach them." In Greek (mathetes), as well as in the Hebrew (talmidim) behind the Greek, the meaning of disciple is clear: a learner, a student, one who is taught. Paul's early rabbi, the great Gamaliel, was noted for having 500 talmidim. He, like the rabbi Jesus, was heeding the longstanding slogan of the Great Synagogue: "Raise up many disciples" (Avot 1:1).
As the Church, we are to be witnesses of the risen Lord, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. But in our going, what matters to Jesus is that we make students or learners of all the pagans (goyim), i.e., all the other nations in the world. He emphasizes this in Jewish fashion, by repetition: "Teach them to obey all that I have taught" (v. 20). Teaching and obedience, once again, are inseparable priorities, just like in the Shema.
5 The early Church understood Jesus' charge to them. When they gathered, as Jewish believers, at the conclusion of Shabbat, teaching was the first priority (Acts 2:42). The Apostles would give ongoing guidance, direction, and instruction (not mere "doctrine" [KJV]) to those in the community of the faithful.
6 Paul exhorts a cherished disciple, Timothy, to remember that inspired Scripture "makes us wise for salvation," and therefore its first priority is to be "useful for teaching" (II Timothy 3:15-16). Timothy's own gift of teaching is not to be neglected, but is an important element of his ministry, encourages Paul (I Timothy 4:13).
7 Finally, Paul's own commitment to teaching and discipling is abundantly attested to in Scripture. His skills in "rightly dividing the Word of Truth" reflect his rabbinic training and Jewish orientation. The vignette in Acts 20:7-12 is a personal favorite of mine because it reveals much about the attitude toward study and teaching in the early Church.
Paul joins the saints at Troas shortly after sundown on Saturday evening (the first day of the week by Jewish reckoning). Because of their intense desire for teaching, he speaks until midnight (v.7)--a six-hour sermon! Young Eutychus, despite his exposure to the night air, falls asleep in the window and slips to his death three stories below (v. 9). The impressive thing to me, however, is not that at Paul's hand his life is renewed (v. 10); but that Paul and the saints immediately return upstairs to get back to business--study. Paul instructs them for another six hours, until daylight! (v. 11)
O that the Church today had that kind of intensity for learning, where study and teaching would take precedence even over miracles! But the greater truth is that the teaching of the Lord renews life (Psalm 19:7). It is accompanied by signs and wonders because the Word of God is powerful; properly understood and obeyed, it will never return void but always yields a bountiful harvest.
FORM OF WORSHIP
We can see, therefore, that our biblical heritage evidences a high regard for study. To the Jewish people of Jesus' day, it was more than a duty. It was a priceless heritage and an awesome privilege. Before reading the Word of God, the Jew would pray, "Praise the Lord to whom all praise is due. Praise the Lord to whom all praise is due forever and ever. We praise You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who chose us among all people to reveal to us Your Torah. We praise You, O Lord, Giver of the Torah." Study, to the Jew, was an act of worship--the highest form of worship. The sanctity of the Bet Midrash (House of Study) exceeded even that of the synagogue, according to the rabbi. "Greater is the study of the Torah than the rebuilding of the Temple" (Meg. 16b), said another rabbi.
Why the premium upon study? Because it is through the renewing of our minds that we become transformed vessels for true service, fully equipped to do God's will. Our minds, therefore, are important. We were created by God with our minds, and as creator, He wants dominion over them. He commands us to worship Him with our minds, and empowers and quickens our submitted minds to understand the revelation of Himself in His word and in His Word made flesh. And through this renewal process, we are liberated to life--as He promised we would be. "If you abide in my teachings..." (John 8:31-32).
WHICH IS BETTER?
Which, then, is better? Thirty minutes of prayer or three hours of study? The very question betrays our Western bias. There should be no dichotomy between the two. Both are essential, interrelated, and complementary. Both are expressions of worship. But the worship by the mind must not be neglected or negated. To do so is to deny the clear biblical witness and to displease our Lord who earnestly desires that we add to our faith, knowledge.
Let us, then affirm the whole of our Hebrew heritage. To our houses of prayer, corporately and individually, let us also add houses of study. Let us study the Word of God with due diligence and reverence, as a high form of worship of the Most High God. And if we should hear the view that "Thirty minutes on your knees in prayer is time better spent than three hours of study," let our response be: "Why not spend three hours on your knees in study?!"
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As founder and President of The Center for Judaic-Christian Studies in Austin, Dwight A. Pryor often speaks at churches and conferences across the U.S. His own graduate studies in philosophy and Hebrew studies have equipped him to work with Dr. Roy Blizzard and the members of The Jerusalem School.
Dwight has become a popular Bible teacher, noted for his capacity to effectively communicate a Hebrew perspective to the Body of Christ.
Yavo Digest, Vol 1, No. 4, 1987
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Last update 18 April 2020