With Prayer in the School of Christ: Higher Education and the Knowledge of God

Part 4 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

Through the supernatural intimacy of Abba prayer and the supernatural power of Kingdom prayer the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the school of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

“The disciples had been with Christ, and seen Him pray.  They had learnt to understand something of the connection between His wondrous life in public, and His secret life of prayer…  And so they came to Him with the request, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.”

-Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, 1895 [1]

Jesus invested over half of his last lecture praying with his disciples and teaching on prayer (‘The Gospel of John,’ 2003)

While Jesus of Nazareth never established a brick and mortar school in the modern sense of the word, the discipleship movement he founded was a collegial learning community indistinguishable from other forms of first-century higher education.[2]  Like Greco-Roman Liberal Arts Education, Jesus sought to lead his disciples into liberating truth. He told his students, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).  Like Jewish Rabbinic educationRabbi Yeshua’s “curriculum” centered on the discipline of studying his teachings and interpretations of Torah. John, one of his closest friends, records that he taught his students, “If you hold to my teaching, then you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).

Like both the liberal arts and rabbinic tradition, Jesus reserved his most intimate apprenticeship for leaders in training. Mark tells us that, “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles–that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach” (3:14). His pedagogy was highly relational and centered on the creation of a learning community where master and disciples lived in close proximity to one another and forged a friendship. (John 15:13-15).

The Distinctive Practice of Prayer 

What distinguished the School of Christ from other first-century higher education was Jesus’ unique emphasis on the discipline of prayer. Luke records no less that nine specific occasions when Jesus prayed with and/or modeled prayer for his students (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28; 10:17-21; 11:1; 22:39-46; 23:34,36). At least twenty-percent of Jesus’ parables and a significant portion of the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 6:5-15) centered on prayer. Jesus devoted nearly half of his “last lecture” (John 13-17) to teaching his students about prayer (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26) and praying together with his students (John 17:1-26). While prayer was part of all Jewish education, this overarching commitment to prayer goes far beyond any Rabbi of his day.[3]

For Jesus prayer and education were inseparable, because education and the knowledge of God are inseparable. Jesus taught his students that true spiritual life is found in knowing God (John 17:3). This emphasis was consistent with the Hebraic concept that to know is to experience. Whereas the object of the Greek education was to ‘know thyself’–the desired outcome of Hebrew education was the knowledge of God.[4] Jesus’ learning outcomes demanded that his students encounter God not merely intellectually, but experientially as well. This experiential knowledge of God was to be sought not only through the discipline of study (as important as this might be), but in prayer as well. Through prayer, Jesus’ students experienced God both as Father and as King.

Education and Contemplative Prayer: Abba Intimacy

Jesus modeled a lifestyle of intimate prayer right up to the end (The Garden of Gethsemane, 'The Passion of the Christ,' 2005)
Jesus modeled a life of intimate prayer right up to the end. (‘The Passion of the Christ,’ 2005)

The Lord’s Prayer grew directly out of Jesus’ practice of regularly praying together as a learning community, and illustrates at least two elements of Jesus’ “experiential” approach to knowing God. After years of teaching and modeling prayer, Jesus’ students finally ask their Rabbi, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus’ responds with a teaching we have come to know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Like Jesus’ other educational practices, the Lord’s Prayer builds upon the the Rabbinic prayer tradition in order to recast it in bold new directions. The core components of the Lord’s Prayer would be very familiar to Jesus’ students. On one level, “The prayer is thoroughly Jewish”[6] and “could easily have appeared without change in Rabbinic literature.”[7] However, another level, the Lord’s Prayer highlights at least two unique aspects of prayer in the school of Christ.[8]

First, in teaching his disciples to address God as Abba, Jesus’ rooted the practice of prayer in his desire for his students to know the extravagant love of God the Father. While the fatherhood of God is absent from the Torah, it is clearly evident in the Psalms and Prophets, and later Rabbinic writings.[9] Jesus drew upon this Rabbinic tradition, deepening it in a manner that would have been nearly unthinkable for most Rabbis of his day. This emphasis runs throughout his teachings, and is particularly evident in his approach to prayer.[10]

In this brief prayer, Jesus initiates his students into an intimate address of God as Father that must have been as breathtaking as it was formative. Renowned Near Eastern Studies scholar Joachim Jeremias discovered that “In the literature of Palestinian Judaism no evidence has yet been found of ‘My father,’ being used by an individual as an address to God… We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way in his prayers.”[11]

It is an astonishing choice of words. Abba implies a close, personal and familial relationship. To “address God in such a colloquial way, with such intimacy, is hardly known in the Judaism of Jesus’ time… What others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy.”[12] What’s more, he taught his disciples to do the same. As New Testament scholar Joel Green asserts, Jesus’ teaching on prayer “begins and ends with references to God as the Father of his disciples.”[13]

Prayer was a critical educational practice, because in prayer students encountered genuine knowledge of God the Father. After the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this experiential intimacy with the Father became even more pronounced for Jesus’ students (Romans 8:15; Galations 4:6). As Singaporean theologian Simon Chan affirms, “Intimacy with God is what characterizes a life of prayer.”[24]

Education and Answered Prayer: Kingdom Inbreaking 

Jesus prays in public for the demonstration of kingdom power he has already obtained in private prayer (The Raising of Lazarus, ‘The Gospel of John,’ 2003)

Second, Jesus’ educational emphasis on prayer was intricately connected to his students experiencing the kingdom of God breaking into the world. Jesus’ central public teaching was his pronouncement that the much anticipated kingdom of God—“God’s reign redemptively at work among men”—was at hand, [17] so it is not surprising that the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer carry tremendous eschatological weight.

To ask that the Father’s name be hallowed, that his kingdom come, and that his will be done on earth as it is heaven are three different ways of asking the same thing.[14] “The God whom the disciples are taught to address with the name ‘my own dear Father’ (abba) is besought to reveal himself as Father once and for all at the end of time. The eschatological thrust of the petition is clear.”[15] “By addressing God as Father, and instructing his disciples to do likewise, Jesus renews and reframes the prophetic vision” for his students.[16] They were to repent and trust the Father who had created and sustained Israel as his kingdom was breaking into the this present evil age, in such a way that God’s name would be hallowed, and his will done on the earth as it is in heaven

Jesus taught his students how to enter into the coming of the kingdom, not only through faith, repentance, and prayer for “private” experiential knowledge of God, but also to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of the Father God of the kingdom. Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry was a sign that the Messianic kingdom of God was breaking in upon the world (cf. Matthew 12:28).[19] He rarely proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom without also demonstrating the kingdom rule of God through miraculous answers to prayer (cf. Matthew 9:35-10:1).[18] Jesus believed that in fulfillment to the prophet Isaiah’ prophecies, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him not only to preach the gospel to the poor, but also “to proclaim release for the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind” (Is 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19). Through the Spirit who was “upon” Jesus, God was exerting his “authority to rule” in order to bring about the will of God upon the earth that the Father intended in the heavens.[20]

Through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world. He modeled, mentored and coached his students into an increasing participation in supernatural answers to prayer. Jesus used answered prayer both to build the faith of his students (Luke 7:11; John 14:11); and to test their level of faith (Matthew 14:16).  He pressed his students to grow into a confidence that no prayer was too big for God (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26).  He taught them that certain kinds of spiritual resistance could be overcome only through prayer (Mark 9:29). He assured them that miraculous answers to prayer they experienced in his earthly ministry would continue in the new era of the Spirit (John 14:12).

After their remarkable “graduation” ceremony from the School of Christ at Pentecost, Jesus’ students continued to advance the kingdom of God by praying for power of the Spirit to be released in supernatural answers to prayer (Acts 4:30-31); and built others’ faith in the kingdom of God by answers to prayer that demonstrated that the kingdom (rulership) of God was indeed breaking into the world. (Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 2:4).

Through both the intimacy of “Abba Prayer” and the supernatural power of “Kingdom prayer” the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the school of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God. Even in the midst of tremendous pressures of leadership, nothing could distract Jesus’ alumni from devoting themselves to the two key disciplines he had carefully cultivated within them: a very Rabbinic commitment to the ministry of the word, and a profoundly experiential life of prayer (Acts 6:4).  [21] His graduates not only knew about God and his word, they had experienced the Father God of the kingdom.

 The Oxymoron of a Prayerless Christian College

“My house shall be called a house of prayer!” (The cleansing of the temple, ‘The Gospel of John,’ 2003)

What would Jesus make of the experiential prayer practices of twenty-first century colleges and universities, especially those espousing to be “Christian”? I can’t say for sure, but it is difficult to escape the persistent image of a certain carpenter’s willingness to use a whip of cords to overturn (tuition) tables. Is it really that far fetched to imagine Jesus charging contemporary Christian higher education with the indictment, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den.”

If we’re honest, the thought of re-integrating prayer into our learning communities sounds almost as impossible as it does absurd. There are countless historical factors (the East-West Schism, the Enlightenment, the German university model, etc.) and practical considerations (accreditation, curriculum, measurement, etc.) for how and why prayer is not currently part and parcel with higher education in the tradition of Jesus.  But are they good enough reasons not to try? Like us, Jesus could have settled for contemporary educational models relying solely upon the study of the Scriptures and Liberal Arts. He didn’t. Will we? If we are truly seeking to develop two-handed warriors distinguished by a commitment to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit, the issue could be life or death.

The Desperate Need for a More Experiential Faith

It has been forty years since J.I. Packer warned the church, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of him.” [22] Today, we may be danger of producing students who possess neither. If Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean’s sobering research on the sorry spiritual state of today’s youth is to be believed, we are facing a generation of students who know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:9) and are therefore bored out of their minds. And who can blame them.

We have managed to take a spiritually intimate and supernaturally powerful approach to education and made it about as compelling as a “whatever.”  [23] Contemporary Christianity offers little of the “personal relationship with Jesus” students were promised in their youth groups and virtually no power whatsoever.  In a generation hungering for intimacy (especially parental intimacy) at an unprecedented level, can Christian higher education offer students pathways to encounter the Father’s transforming love? In a generation flocking to supernatural movies, television shows, and video games, can Christian higher education help students experience the kingdom of God breaking into the world in ways that defy all natural explanation?

Jesus would say that we can, but only if we summon the courage to cultivate educational communities of prayer. A recommitment to biblical literacy alone will never be enough to rescue a generation from “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” [23] They need the experiential knowledge of God. We need to be able to offer students the power of answered prayer to break through the insipid deism of a materialistic worldview. We need to be able to offer students the intimacy of reflective prayer to encounter the love of the Father and evoke genuine love of God in return.  Half measures won’t cut it.

What on earth does prayer have to do with higher education? Nothing?  Everything?  You decide. As for me, I can only cry out, “Lord, teach us to pray!”

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Next post in the series: Saint Patrick and the Liberal Arts: The Missional Future of Christian Higher Education

 

See also: 

The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer, by N.T. Wright


Notes


[1] Murray, Andrew. 2007. With Christ in the School of Prayer. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007).  Originally published in 1895, Murray’s work is a classic text for those seeking to grasp Jesus’ educational emphasis upon prayer.

[2] I am deeply indebted to Michael J. Wilkins for much of my understanding of the similarity between discipleship in the schools of Jesus, the Rabbis, and the Greeks.  The concept of disciple in Matthew’s Gospel as reflected in the use of the term mathetes. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1988); Following the master: a biblical theology of discipleship. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992); Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel(Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1995).

[3] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian origins: diversity, continuity and transformation. (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 2003).

[4] Marvin R. Wilson, Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 288.

[5] The Lord’s Prayer is most likely a shortened version of the Shemoneh Esreh, eighteen benedictions every post-exilic Jew prayed nearly every day (also known as the Amidah.) Shortened forms like the one Jesus offers his disciples were normally used when there wasn’t time to recite all eighteen stanzas. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer, a contemporary of Jesus, taught an abbreviated version of the Shemoneh Esreh very similar to Rabbi Jesus: “May your will be done in heaven above, grant peace of mind to those who fear you [on earth] below, and do what seems best to you. Blessed are you, O LORD, who answers prayer.” David Bivin, “Prayers for Emergencies,” Jerusalem Perspective 37 (Mar./Apr. 1992), 1-17.

[6] Wilson, Our Father Abraham, p. 118.

[7] Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 358.

[8] Bradford H. Young, The Jewish Background of the Lord’s Prayer (Austin, TX: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984).

[9] Psalms 2:7; 89:26; Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Jeremiah 3:4,19; Malachi 3:10. See, N. T. Wright, Jesus and the victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 265. See also, Scot McKnight, A new vision for Israel: the teachings of Jesus in national context (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62-63.

[10] See The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32. Also, Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament, 3B (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2007), p. 1062.

[11] Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 57. The assertion is as true today as it was when when Jeremias first made it.

[12] James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Penn: Westminster, 1985), p. 21. See also Dunn, The partings of the ways: between Christianity and Judaism and their significance for the character of Christianity. (London: SCM Press, 1991), p. 170ff.

[13] Joel B. Green, The theology of the gospel of Luke. New Testament theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 111.

[14] James D. G. Dunn, The Christ and the spirit: collected essays of James D. G. Dunn. 2, Pneumatology. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans. 1998), p. 137-8; R. P. Menzies, The development of early Christian pneumatology (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1991), p. 184n

[15] John P. Meier, A marginal Jew: rethinking the historical Jesus. Anchor Bible reference library (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 297. See also, Scot McKnight, A new vision for Israel: the teachings of Jesus in national context (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62-64.

[16] Marianne Meye Thompson, The promise of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 73-75.

[17] George Eldon Ladd, A theology of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 108.

[18] Wilkins, Following the Master, p. 114-117.

[19] Colin Brown, Spirit, The Holy Spirit. In C. Brown, (Ed.), The New international dictionary of New Testament theology, 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1978),p. 696; Edward J. Woods, The ‘finger of God’ and pneumatology in Luke-Acts. Journal for the study of the New Testament, 205. (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 153-4.

[20] Ladd, Theology of NT, p. 18

[21] David Michael Crump, Jesus the intercessor: Prayer and Christology in Luke-Acts (PhD Dissertation: University of Aberdeen, 1988).

[22] Knowing God (London: Evangelical Press, 1970), p. 16.

[23] Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: what the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[24] Simon Chan, Spiritual theology: a systematic study of the Christian life. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 132.