On Praying to Jesus

by Nathan Ward

If you haven’t yet, you will likely encounter a person who believes Christians should not pray to Jesus. The position is often accompanied by what seems like reasonable logic, at least on a surface level. We ought not to pray to Jesus, it is said, because he is our mediator — and if he is our mediator, he cannot also be the object of our prayer. Likewise, we ought not to pray to Jesus because, when he taught his disciples how to pray, he prayed to the Father, not to himself. It is best, then, to only pray to the Father through Jesus the mediator.

On one level, there is something sensible about this line of thinking. The problem with it is that it doesn’t hold up in the face of Scripture at large.

Jesus taught us to pray to him.

In John 14:14, he encouraged the apostles to ask him for things in his name. Someone might respond by pointing out the textual variant that omits “me” and says that it makes better sense to ask the Father in his name (as Jesus also teaches in John 15:16; 16:23-24). The problem with this is threefold. First, the textual evidence itself is strongly in support of “me” being included. Second, even without the “me,” Jesus is still clearly the one being asked (“If you ask … I will do it”). Finally, however odd it might seem to us to ask him in his name, the idea of asking God in God’s name is well attested (cf. Psalms 54:1; I Chronicles 16:8 [LXX]).

Jesus’ apostles prayed to him.

In Acts 1:24–25, the disciples pray to the Lord for a revelation of who he has chosen to be the twelfth apostle in Judas stead. While true that Jesus is not specifically named in the prayer, he is identified as the Lord twice in the chapter (Acts 1:6, 21), including in the immediate context of the prayer. Likewise, the word Luke uses for “you have chosen” is the same word he earlier uses of Jesus choosing the original twelve (Luke 6:13). Their prayer to the Lord to show who he has chosen to be an apostle is most naturally read as a prayer to Jesus.

Stephen prays to Jesus.

In Acts 7:59-60, Stephen is being stoned and calls out to Jesus. Although the word “prayer” is not used here, he is calling out to his deity at the moment of death: if this is not prayer, then I don’t know what prayer is. Most significantly, he says two things here that parallel Jesus’ prayer to the Father at his death, both of which Luke also records in his gospel. Stephen is clearly applying Jesus’ prayer to the Father to himself, and he prays it to Jesus. This is either an act of blatant idolatry and blasphemy or the acknowledgment that Jesus is the fitting recipient of Stephen’s dying prayer, just as the Father was the fitting recipient of Jesus’ dying prayer.

Paul prays to Jesus.

Paul was afflicted by some sort of physical pain that he appealed to the Lord about (II Corinthians 12:8-10). Again, the Lord is not initially named, but it is clear by the response of the Lord and Paul’s expression of confidence at the end that the Lord is in fact Jesus here (“my grace and power” given Paul by the Lord wind up being “the power of Christ”).

In addition to the Thorn in the Flesh incident, Paul indicates that he thanks Jesus in prayer (I Timothy 1:12) and he also prays to Jesus to return (I Corinthians 16:21).

John prays to Jesus.

John continues the practice of praying to Jesus at the end of the final book of the New Testament. His prayer is simple, but that does not thereby render it less of a prayer (see also Nehemiah 2:4-5 for brevity in prayer). Like Paul in I Corinthians 16, John prays for the Lord’s return (Revelation 22:20).

The Psalmist prays to Jesus.

Psalm 102 is clearly a prayer. Not only is it indicated as such in the historical superscription (“A Prayer of One Afflcited…”) but it begins with “Hear my prayer, O LORD,” going on to speak of the Lord’s creation of the universe. Not only does the New Testament clearly teach that Jesus was the agent of Creation, which would make the connection implicit (John 1; Colossians 1; Hebrews 1), but the author of Hebrews explicitly says Psalm 102 is about Jesus (Hebrews 1:10-12).

Everyone prays to Yahweh.

This instance of the Psalmist unwittingly praying to Christ brings us to the fact that nearly every major prayer of the Old Testament is to Yahweh (=LORD; =Jehovah). Moses, Hannah, David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, and more (including most of the Psalter) pray to God by his revealed covenant name.

This is significant since the New Testament repeatedly applies Yahweh passages to Jesus. This happens in two ways: specific citations of Old Testament Scripture are applied to Jesus (e.g., Isaiah 40:3 and Mark 1:3; Joel 2:32 and Acts 2.21 and Romans 10:13; Isaiah 6:1-10 and John 12:40-41; Isaiah 44:6 and Revelation 1:8,17; Zechariah 12:10 and John 19.34 and Revelation 1:7; Psalms 68:18 and Ephesians 4:7-10; etc.) and clear allusions of what Yahweh does are applied to Jesus (the one who “will give rest,” “who is your life,” “to whom salvation belongs,” etc.). As if this is not enough, Paul asserts that every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Given the Old Testament background of Philippians 2 (cf. Isaiah 45:22-25), it is clear that Paul’s point is not that people will confess Jesus is master, but that they will confess he is Yahweh.

Though I have known Christians to take issue with praying to Jesus, I have never known one to complain about praying to Yahweh (or “Jehovah” or “the Lord”). Yet it is clear they are one at the same. My point is not to deny that the Father is also Yahweh God, but to emphasize that we divide God up far more than he divides himself. In John, Jesus says in the same breath that another helper is coming and that he himself is coming to the disciples (John 14.16-18). In Romans, Paul interchangeably speaks of the Spirit, the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9-10). By contrast, we come dangerously close to being tri-theists rather than monotheists who believe in a triune God — and both Testaments repeatedly affirm that God is one.

Calling on the name of the Lord.

Praying to Yahweh brings to mind the Old Testament passages that speak of calling on his name for salvation. Again, the word prayer is not used, but again, if calling on a deity’s name for salvation is not prayer, I do not know what prayer is. This is significant, because calling on the Lord’s name is also applied to Jesus in the New Testament. After Paul’s incident on the road to Damascus, Ananias receives a vision from Jesus to go teach him. In this vision, he refers to Christians as people who call on Jesus’ name (Acts 9.14) and he encourages Paul to do likewise (Acts 22:16). Indeed, Christians are fundamentally people who call on the name of the Lord Jesus for salvation (Romans 10:12-13; I Corinthians 1:2). In all cases, it is clear that the Lord upon whom one calls is no other than Jesus.

But what about the Model Prayer?

So why, then, doesn’t Jesus teach us to pray to him? It is certainly true that Jesus does teach his disciples to pray to the Father, both in the Model Prayer and in the Farewell Discourse, but it is not true that Jesus does not teach us to pray to him as well. Not only is it clear in his teaching (John 14:14), but in the behavior of the early Church: praying to Jesus — whether seeking guidance, offering thanksgiving, making petitions, or appealing to him for salvation, for his return, or in death — was a common part of the Christian life.

The Model Prayer is not exhaustive in its scope, and no one would claim otherwise. That means, practically speaking, that it does not exclude everything not found therein. If the Model Prayer is an exhaustive model of all praying, then it not only limits to whom we may pray, but it also limits about what we may pray. In that case, we would not be able to pray for the sick, each other, our enemies, government officials, or any general giving of thanks at all. Yet it is clear from the rest of the Bible (e.g., James 5:14,16; I Thessalonians 5:18; I Timothy 2:1-2; Matthew 5:44) that these are perfectly legitimate subjects of prayer. Likewise, it is clear from the rest of the Bible that Jesus is a legitimate object of prayer.

But that doesn’t apply to us.

Opponents of praying to Jesus often cite a perceived special relationship the apostles had that allowed them such a conversation with Jesus that no longer applies to us or a special circumstance the person found himself in that would negate it from being an example for us to follow.

Even if it were admitted that there was something different about, say, Stephen’s experience in death (since he saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at God’s right hand) or Paul’s experience with this thorn in the flesh (because Jesus seems to answer him directly), that still only address a small fraction of the overwhelming evidence in the Bible that supports praying to Jesus. If these were the only examples — if only Stephen and Paul prayed to Jesus only once each only in special circumstances or only with a special response — such an argument may have some traction. But it fails to account for Paul’s more general giving of thanks to Jesus, John’s prayer to Jesus for his return, the apostles’ prayer for direction, and the general depiction of Christians as those who call on the Lord Jesus’ name for salvation — not to mention the equating of Jesus with Yahweh to whom all believers have always prayed.

This particular argument against praying to Jesus becomes dangerous: picking and choosing which apostolic models are for us to follow and which we can’t even remotely think about following because the apostles, after all, were so incredibly unique. On what basis can we consistently draw such a line? Quite often, this sort of reasoning only winds up mirroring our preconceptions: tossing out things we disagree with and keeping things we agree with. (And trying to apply this thinking to the Farewell Discourse being specifically for the twelve and not for us would create the exact same difficulty: on what basis do we single any individual teaching out as something that only applied to them and not to us?)

The need to acknowledge and thank God.

A colleague of mine likes to point out that the fundamental sin of all sins is the failure to honor God or give him thanks, and that all other sins spring forth from that fundamental failing (Romans 1:20-21).

With that in mind, is Jesus God or isn’t he? If he is — and not just God, but Yahweh God who suffered with us to die for us — how can we not offer him our endless thanks, starting in this life? Once that is seen clearly, the question is not whether we can pray to Jesus, but whether we can afford not to.

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