Rabbi, Teach Us To Pray - Part 1
April 01, 2020
Service of the Heart: The intense connection between prayer and sacrifice
If any of you have ever taken on the task of reading through the Bible, you understand what I’m about to speak of. Things are great in Genesis with the beginning of the human race and then the beginning of the Hebrew race. Exodus is a good read too for the most part because it tells the story of Moses and the deliverance of God’s people, the journey to Mt. Sinai where God gave Moses the law, the building of the tabernacle, and the glory of God filling it at the end.
But when you get to Leviticus, the book of God’s law and rituals, watch out. I’m guessing many give up trying to get through it. It’s hard even for me. It even begins with something not only foreign to us but revolting…
Leviticus 1:1–9 (ESV) — 1 The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. 3 “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 Then he shall kill the bull before the Lord, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, 7 and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 And Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
Leviticus begins with laws and practices regarding the sacrificial system.We have a hard time with that because we look at it through modern Western eyes (we talked about that last time). We don’t have time to go into why the spilling of blood was needed to atone for sins or make people and places clean, but just know it’s gruesome and shocking because it’s supposed to be. It highlights the seriousness of sin and the holiness of God.
In ancient Jewish life, the sacrifices reminded God’s people daily of their sinfulness and his holiness, with the priests’ jobs revolving around slaughtering, flaying, skinning, and butchering animals. Certain parts were burned on the altar as an offering to God, while other portions were cooked and eaten. The author writes,
“In modern Western culture most of us have no qualms about processing meat, but it would seem bizarre and foreign to those in our society to do so as an act of worshiping a deity.”
We Christians are familiar with sacrifices as they relate to sin and forgiveness, but Eby says for the Jews they were much more than that. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, more so translated as offering, is korban such as in the verse…
Leviticus 1:2 (ESV) — 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock.
Korban has the basic meaning of drawing near. Sometimes Israelites made an offering (korban) to draw near to God because sin had drawn them away. Sometimes they made an offering (korban) to draw near to God as a simple act of devotion or gratitude.
Along with their sacrificial duties, priests were tasked with lighting the menorah, removing ashes, offering up incense, and such. The Bible describes these things using the Hebrew word avodah (uh-vad-uh) which means work or service.
So offerings were made by priests as an act of service, with service (avodah) meaning labor performed in the temple rituals and such, including housekeeping duties.
Eby explains that Scripture uses this term (avodah, service) in other ways as well…
Deuteronomy 10:12–13 (ESV) — 12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?
The word serve in this verse is a form of avodah. So serving in an ancient Jewish context was closely identified with priests offering sacrifices and such in the temple. But at the same time, Scripture requires God’s people to serve him with their hearts. Eby asks…
What does it mean to serve God with our hearts? If service in the Temple means offering sacrifices, then what type of service would we do in our own hearts? The ancient rabbis pondered this question and concluded that the phrase [“serve with your heart”] must refer to prayer.
Eby goes on… p. 5, paragraphs 1-4.
In 70AD the beautiful and massive temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground by Roman soldiers. Sacrifices could no longer be made. The Jewish religious leaders at the time assured God’s people that the sacrifices would continue in spirit through their prayers.
Just as the daily sacrifices in temple drew God’s people close to him, our daily prayers draw us close to God. It’s an act of love, devotion, and service to him.
But how do we tend to see it? As a discipline, a habit, a law even. My prayer life has always waned when I’ve come to view it as a chore. If we’re not careful we’ll approach prayer the way the Israelites approached temple sacrifices in the days of the prophet Hosea. They were going through the motions of offering sacrifices but their hearts were far from God. That’s why God said…
Hosea 6:6 (ESV) — 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
It’s the attitude of the heart behind the sacrifices made on God’s altar that mattered most to God. It’s the same way with prayer.
Eby brings out that incense was also a part of offering sacrifices as well. The aroma of incense was pleasing to God. Look at the connection King David makes…
Psalm 141:2 (ESV) — 2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
We see this idea again in Revelation…
Revelation 8:3–4 (ESV) — 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
Prayer is like burning incense, with its aroma reaching all the way to God’s throne. That image grips me.
All this makes me think of what Paul wrote to the Romans…
Romans 12:1 (ESV) — 1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Paul was a devout Jew who came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah (a Messianic Jew!), so there is no doubt sacrifice here echoes the OT sacrificial system.
NT Wright, my all-time favorite New Testament scholar writes…
Here Paul uses a vivid, indeed shocking, idea: one’s whole self (that’s what Paul means by ‘body’) must be laid on the altar like a sacrifice in the Temple. The big difference is that, whereas the sacrifice is there to be killed, the Christian’s self-offering is actually all about coming alive with the new life that bursts out in unexpected ways once the evil deeds of the self are put to death … Christian living never begins with a set of rules, though it contains them as it goes forwards. It begins in the glad self-offering of one’s whole self to the God whose mercy has come all the way to meet us in our rebellion, sin and death. Within that, it involves the renewal of the mind so that we are enabled both to think straight, instead of the twisted thinking that the world would force upon us, and to act accordingly.
Let’s close with Eby… pp. 8-9
Hebrews 10:19–22 (ESV) — 19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
The big take-away for us here is…
Prayer is a form of sacrifice, sacrifice of the heart.
Looking at prayer through Jewish eyes gives us a transformative perspective, doesn’t it?
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