Our class was recorded Sep 4, 2019, and starts at 12:23 in the video below. Feel free to follow along by clicking through the slideshow above.
I love starting each morning with a good cup of coffee and the word of God. For several years I’ve tried to read a few chapters each day, making my way back through the Bible’s story of redemption by the end of the year. And on days when my reading is shortened or pushed to later in the day (or the next!), I feel a bit off.
It reminds me of what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2Co 4:16 NKJV). Despite everything else going on in the world around him, Paul knows why he does what he’s doing, and the One he’s doing it for.
With a little unpacking, he even tells us how that renewal comes about: the glorious light of the gospel of Christ is a treasure that God himself stores up within us, in our hearts and our bodies (2Co 4:4-7). It is his overwhelming power, shining through his word that renews our inner humanity. In short, the gospel belongs in our heart.
In fact, if we look back through Scripture we should begin to notice just how important this is to God:
God’s own power for daily living, and daily renewal is opened up to us through the power of his word. What is perhaps surprising, though, is what Paul commands the church to do in order to get the word into their hearts: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16).
Catch that? Paul says we need to learn to sing. That’s how we treasure up God’s word, how God writes it on our hearts, how we keep it on the tip of our tongues, how we meditate on it all the day, and how we walk daily in the grace of Christ. That doesn’t mean we shelf our Bibles; it means we learn to sing the Word! Understanding the role of song and prayer helps us in two important ways.
First, it helps us go back and look at what the early church actually did. Kind of like last week, it shifts our question from, What should the church do? to What did the church do? What did daily devotions look like in the early church? Here’s a quick outline:
If we were to picture the shape of daily prayer, it might look a bit like this, with the Lord’s Prayer at the center, the canticles connecting the gospel to the big picture of the Bible, the Psalms making up the largest biblical cycle of songs, and our own human hymns pointing us back to the Bible:
The earliest model for praying these prayers and singing these songs was a twofold pattern. This is actually the closest to what I do daily, and it looks a bit like this:
By the end of the fifth century this morning-and-evening pattern expanded in many places to include prayers at midday and at night, kind of like this:
The second way this helps us is in shifting our focus and reordering our priorities in our daily times with God. When we open our Bibles each day, it is not primarily about receiving information or intellectual knowledge. It is instead about growing toward and knowing more of the One who speaks to us through his word (2Pe 3:18).
Quite simply, the example of the early church points us back to praise. As the apostle Paul said, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1Th 5:16-18). Or as another Paul once said, “what is fundamental to the early understanding of daily prayer is that the real aim is unbroken communion with God,” all else is merely “a guide and aid towards the practice of ceaseless prayer” (Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church, p. 151). So even if we look at the second-, third-, and fourth-century Christians and say, Thanks, but no thanks, their example still helps us envision older and better ways to incorporate song and prayer in our daily walk with God.
What follows, then, is a simple presentation of these four times of daily prayer, using the fourfold pattern outlined above. After each one, I’ll also offer a class video and slideshow to walk through “a psalm, a hymn, and a spiritual song” used at that time of day by the early church. But as we go along, don’t forget why it all matters. Like the apostle Paul said to the early church: The gospel belongs in your heart. Teach one another that good news with every song you sing and every prayer you pray. Live out God’s own wisdom and grace. Grow more into him, and you will find your strength for the day.