Spiritual Perspectives

“Stephen’s Final Prayer" (A Review)
Gary W. Summers

     On July 1st, 2005, brother Wayne Jackson wrote an article, titled, “May a Christian Address Christ in Praise or Prayer?”  On May 21st of the following year I wrote a response in Spiritual Perspectives.  I made it clear that the disagreement was not one of a personal nature; many have benefited over the years from brother Jackson’s Christian Courier.    However, since he had taken the time to write on the subject, a refutation was in order.  I closed my article by noting that brethren have always had no problems in addressing our prayers to “our Father,” “God,” or “Lord”—and that we would have no problems in our assemblies if we continue that practice.  If someone wants to pray to Jesus privately, he is certainly able to do so, even if he is incorrect.  But at least he will involve no one else in his practice.


     In August of this year, the Christian Courier published a special issue with most of the articles advocating praying to Jesus.  Let’s begin with the final comments on page 32.  We read that the publishers had decided to address “a brewing controversy” (32).  One of the main articles within is titled, “The Praying to Jesus Controversy,” in which it is asked: “What is the origin of this simmering division: emotion or scripture [sic]?”  Brother Jackson laments that we do not need another issue over which to divide, and every sane brother would agree.  However, the way to avoid strife has already been stated; apparently that approach does not work for those at the Christian Courier.


     Division can be avoided if everyone will just agree with brother Jackson.  Those who do not probably are not exercising “a moderate measure of common sense” or combining “Bible knowledge and a familial temperament” (16).  By making statements such as these, it is easy to observe that those who hold the “praying to Jesus” view exercise common sense and have a familial temperament while those who hold the majority view are shrill, emotional, fanatical, and unable to reason themselves out of a paper bag.


Who Appeals to Emotion?


     What is interesting about this implied charge against opponents is that it is brother Jackson who appeals to emotions.  He includes an excerpt from something that Wendell Winkler taught at the Polishing the Pulpit program on September 27, 2004. His topic was “Lord Teach Us to Pray.”  He acknowledged that we usually pray to the Father through Jesus, but then he says that we need to be careful about telling someone they can not pray to Jesus.  Using himself as an example, brother Winkler acknowledged that after the Lord’s supper He thanked the Father for His unspeakable gift, and he also thanked Jesus for being willing to die for him.  Then he asked, “Is there anything wrong with that?” (15).  Are we now taking a different approach in studying the Bible?  For years, we have been saying that we need authority for what we teach and practice (Col. 3:17).  Are we going to abandon that in favor of requiring proof that something is wrong?


     A question was raised from the audience concerning praying to the Holy Spirit.  Brother Winkler confessed that there were times during his illness that he did not know what to say, which is understandable.  He asks: “Would I have sinned against God if I had said to the Holy Spirit: ‘Intercede for me, please’? Do you think I’ve sinned if I make that statement?” (15).  Well, what person in the audience is going to jump up and say, “Yes.”  Most have marveled at brother Winkler’s ability to present outstanding lessons from God’s Word, and he did suffer a great deal from cancer.  But these things do not mean that he was right or wrong in his thinking on this subject.  How is this different than a denominational person (having endured similar health problems) saying, “I sometimes play the piano and sing hymns at home.  Is anyone going to tell me that’s wrong?”  What about someone who says, “While I was sick, my daughter came in and led prayer for my family over me every day. Do you think I sinned in letting her do so?”


     So why did brother Jackson include this text from brother Winkler?  While it is true that he addressed the subject briefly, he made only one appeal to the Scripture, and even in that one he appealed to himself as an expert witness.  He said concerning the words of the first martyr at his death, “Brethren have tried to explain that every way in the world, saying that wasn’t a prayer. If that wasn’t a prayer, I don’t understand prayer” (15).  If brother Jackson did not include this page for its emotional value it possesses, what was the purpose?  It is not brimming with Bible knowledge, which brother Winkler usually possessed.


Stephen’s “Prayer”


     The text in question is Acts 7:59: “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” 


     Is it not interesting that a short sentence of five words (six in the Greek) should elicit such controversy?   However, if these five words constitute a prayer, then what about Stephen’s final words, which were, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”  If verse 59 contains a prayer, why does not verse 60?  However, brother Jackson discusses, verse 59 and calls it “Stephen’s Final Prayer.”  Hmmm.


     Jackson provides 5 reasons why Stephen’s words constitute a prayer.  The first of these contains no point of disagreement regarding the Greek verb meaning to make a request (30).  Berry’s Interlinear uses “invoking.”  No one disputes that Stephen is making a request.  Jackson quotes Mounce as saying it is a prayer, but this begs the question.  Mounce is giving an interpretation—that the request is a prayer.  The text does not use the word prayer


     Second, Jackson claims: “The present tense suggests the petition was repeated” (31).  While such might be a possibility, surely no one would want to argue that every present tense implies repetition.


     Third, it is claimed that the middle voice indicates Stephen’s intense personal need at this time (31); everyone can surely understand this point, but it does not advance the case for Stephen’s words being a prayer.


     Fourth, Jackson claims: “The term frequently is employed of an ‘appeal to God in prayer’ as here,” and he appeals to Kittel & Friedrich (31).  Of course, the reader sees the use of the term frequently implies that at other times the word is not used in connection with prayer.  In fact, of the 32 times the word is used in the New Testament, at most one could claim 10 such instances, but most of these involved calling on the name of the Lord as it pertains to salvation (Acts 2:21; 22:16; Rom. 10:12, 13, 14).  In those instances, calling on the name of the Lord refers to the salvation process and becoming a Christian.  The Acts 7:59 text is the only recorded instance of specific words being uttered in connection with calling upon God.  Jackson’s case on this point has been somewhat overstated.


     The fifth point is as follows:


Several recent translations render the expression, “he was praying” (cf. NIV, Williams, Good-speed, Weymouth, McCord) (31).


     This is a strange “evidence” for Jackson’s case, since he already pointed out that the verb literally means “calling upon.”  He failed to mention the New Living Translation along with many of the other paraphrases he listed, which actually is recent (2007).  Charles Williams’ translation was 1937, although there is a newer Montreal edition (2005).  Goodspeed’s version was originally published in 1923.  Weymoth’s translation was also known as The New Testament in Modern Speech or The Modern Speech New Testament.  Weymouth compiled it and used it in the 1800s; he died in 1902, according to Wikipedia.  His version was edited and first published in America in 1903—just two years after the American Standard Version.  Brother McCord’s translation is dated from 1987.


     Many of these are more paraphrases than translations, including the NIV, whose “dynamic equivalence” theory of translation makes it difficult to determine when it is accurate and when it is a paraphrase.  [See “A Review of the NIV,”]  Hugo McCord’s translation is well done for the most part, but it is not without flaws, and this is one of them.


     Many other more recent translations than some of the versions cited keep the verse literal.  Among them are the New American Standard Bible (1995 edition), and brother Jackson’s favorite, The English Standard Version of 2001.  Perhaps this “proof” was only mentioned as informative rather than convincing.


     The final effort to sway the audience to Jackson’s point of view is to furnish a few quotations.  First cited is M. R. Vincent, who commented on Acts 7:59: “An unquestionable prayer to Christ.”  However, this is an opinion—not part of the word study. He had previously dealt with identifying Jesus as the recipient of the request.  A. T. Robertson made the same assessment, but as with Vincent, this is an assumption.  Neither one made any effort to prove it was a prayer; that conclusion was simply their assessment.


     Finally, H. Leo Boles is referenced as referring to what Stephen said as a prayer no less than five times, which is absolutely true.  However, did Boles mean to say by what he wrote that Christians should pray to Jesus?  Did Boles himself address his public prayers to Jesus?  Now that would be information that was relevant.  If Boles did hold that view, the important thing would not be his position on the topic, but the reasons that he had for having arrived at that view.  In his Gospel Advocate commentary on Matthew, he does not speak about addressing Jesus in prayer; he only comments on how the addressing of God in the Christian era differs from approaching Him under the law.


Wrong and Sinful?


     Some today are teaching that praying to Jesus is wrong and sinful, brother Jackson laments.  However, a more fundamental question is, “Is praying to Jesus authorized for Christians today?”  The question is not, “What happened while Jesus was upon the earth?”  The Bible leaves no room for doubt as to the way He was regarded.  Jesus was worshipped (Matt. 8:2; 9:18).  He made it clear that He was Deity and had the power to even forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12).  He even identifies Himself as the I AM who spoke to Moses at the burning bush (John 8:58; Ex. 3:14).


     Thus, this “controversy” does not involve who Jesus is or if He is worthy of praise or worship.  “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessings!” (Rev. 5:12).  Those who reject praying to Jesus (and if we made a list, it would be quite lengthy) are attempting to show respect for what our Lord taught, when He said to address prayer to the Heavenly Father (Matt. 6:9; cf. John 16:23).  Why should it matter to Christians if we pray to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit?  They are all Deity, and they have all played a part in our salvation.  We have no vested interest in selecting one over the other—except that Jesus said to pray to the Father, and we want to do only what we are authorized to do.


     Did Stephen pray to the Lord?  Consider two other texts.  In Matthew 14 Jesus came walking on the water to the boat, and Peter told Him to bid him to come to Him on the water, which Jesus did (v. 29).  After Peter looked at the effects the wind was having on the water, he took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink.  He cried out, “Lord, save me!”  The Lord rescued Peter.  Would we classify this as a prayer?  While Jesus was on the cross, the thief said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).  Are all of these prayers, direct address, or urgent requests?


     And what about the blind man near Jericho?  He first cried out for mercy (Luke 18:35-39).  Jesus asked him what he wanted Him to do for him, and he answered, “Lord, that I may receive my sight” (Luke 18:40-41).  Jesus granted his request.  Was this a prayer or a conversation?  All of these involve direct address, and a request, but none of these constitute prayers as we usually think of them.  In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists the following two definitions first for the word pray:


1. To utter or address a prayer to a deity or other object of worship. 2. To make a fervent request; plead; beg….


     Of course, the important thing is that the same definitions and concepts were around in the first century as well as today (Luke 14:18-19, et al.).  In torments the rich man looked up to see a great man of faith and the friend of God.  He addressed him: “Father Abraham,” and asked for relief which was denied (Luke 16:23-24).


     Was his request a prayer to Abraham?  Many are likewise unconvinced that what Stephen said constitutes a prayer, but even if it could be so categorized, it furnishes no pattern for us—unless we also see Jesus and can talk directly to Him.


New Testament Prayers


     What would be profitable would be to see what the early church did by way of addressing prayers.  A brief prayer is found in Acts 1:24-25, which begins, “You, Lord….”  Nothing stated shows conclusively whether the Father or the Son is being addressed.  However, in Acts 4 is a recorded prayer, and we do know to whom it is addressed: “Lord, You are God, who made the heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them” (Acts 4:24).  If this were all, the point might yet be disputed, but Acts 4:27 removes any doubt: “For truly against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontus Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together….”


     If anyone doubts that there is a heavy emphasis on the Father in the New Testament, he should simply look up and see how many passages contain that appellation.  Ephesians contains 8; Colossians 6, 1 John 12, and most of the other books contain several.  In addition to those instances, the thought of John 15:23 is repeated in Ephesians 5:20 (to be examined later).  On two occasions, Paul mentions that by the Holy Spirit we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).  Notice that we do not cry out, “Jesus!”


     Where is the example of anyone praying to Jesus in the New Testament?  Stephen seems to be the only text that can be cited, and the problems in making such a claim have already been dealt with.  Brother Jackson closes his comments about Stephen by trying to assert that a supernatural appearance does not make a sinful action all right and then rather peculiarly tires to parallel an incident concerning John and the angel to Stephen and Jesus.


     When John fell down and worshipped the angel, he was rebuked for doing do—twice (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).  The fact is, however, that such a practice had never been allowed, and no time ever existed when it was permissible.  People made requests of Jesus constantly while He was on earth; so Stephen, upon seeing Jesus, did not do anything that had not already been done.


     This “controversy” does not need to exist.  Many of us over the decades have traveled the country over and have never heard anyone leading a prayer addressed to Jesus.  Nor is there any reason for anyone to insist on this idea now.  In fact, it would disturb most brethren in many congregations.  As it was pointed out previously, no compelling reason exists for making such a change.  Why is it that brethren are always desirous of introducing something that would wound someone’s conscience (weak or otherwise)?  It is certainly not necessary to address public prayers to Jesus; so why insist that it be done?  Who is the one causing “controversy”?


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