Historically very sincere and intelligent Christians have come down on either side of these questions with varying degrees of dogmatism. Our purpose is to examine the most commonly asserted arguments both for and against, and carefully consider what is and what is not supported by the evidence.1
THE UNDISPUTED NEW TESTAMENT MODEL FOR PRAYING:
Prayer in relation to the Triune Godhead: (a) addressed to God the Father (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2; John 15:16; 16:23; Eph. 1:3; 3:14; 5:20; Col. 1:3; 3:17; Jas. 1:5); (b) in the name of Jesus (Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:17; cf. John 14:6, 13, 14; 15:16; 16:23, 24, 26; 1 Tim. 2:5; 1 Pet. 2:5);2 (c) the Spirit makes intercession (Rom. 8:26-27).
The Example of Jesus: addressed his prayers to the Father (Matt. 11:25-26; 26:39-44; 27:46; Luke 10:21; 23:34, 46; John 11:41; 12:28; 14:16; 17:1, 5, 21, 24, 25; cf. Heb. 5:7). Obviously he would not have prayed to himself. But neither did he pray to the Holy Spirit. The Instructions of Jesus: taught others to pray to the Father (Matt. 6:6, 8, 9; 7:11; Luke 11:2, 13; 18:7, 13; John 15:16; 16:23).3
THE JOHN 14–16 PASSAGES:4
Contextually Jesus is speaking directly to his immediate apostles, and not everything he says or promises on this occasion is universally applicable (e.g. 13:14; 14:25-26; 16:13). John 14:13-14 says, “And whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask [me?] anything in my name, I will do it.” There is a textual variant in v. 14, and some manuscripts include the word “me” and others do not. While the UBS Greek NT committee gives its inclusion a “B” rating, a definitive case about praying cannot be made based on whether or not the word was in the original. For inclusion of the word “me,” see ESV, NASB, NCV, NET, NIV, NLT, NRSV, HCSB. For omission of the word “me,” see ASV, KJV, MEV, NKJV, NLV, RSV, TLB, YLT.
Were the disciples to ask the Father in the name of Jesus, or ask Jesus in the name of Jesus? If they were to ask Jesus, was this to be a prayer to him after his ascension, or a face-to-face request prior to his ascension? The only certainty here is that Jesus is involved in the response – in conjunction with the Father (15:16) and the Spirit (16:13) – irrespective of the one to whom the request is directed.
In John 15:16 we read, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.” John 16:23-24 states further, “And in that day you will ask me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” The expression “in that day” refers to Christ’s impending resurrection (vv. 16-22). The apostles had become so reliant on Jesus, he now instructs them to direct their petitions to the Father in his name.
John 16:26 says, “In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you.” Again, “in that day” is a reference to Christ’s forthcoming resurrection (vv. 16-23). Before “that day” Christ does pray for them (17:1-26), and after “that day” Christ continues to intercede (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 1 John 2:1). It is difficult to find any clear modification of the New Testament model for praying in these passages.
RELEVANT TEXTS BEYOND THE GOSPELS:
In 1 Timothy 1:12 Paul writes, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry.” If the apostle had said, “I thank Ananias for having taught me the gospel,” would it ever be mentioned in a discussion about praying? Is Paul expressing internal gratitude or voicing an actual prayer? Does this written statement provide sufficient proof that the well-established model for praying in the New Testament should be altered?
In 1 Timothy 2:5 we read, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” In prayer do we communicate to Jesus or through Jesus? Either way, is Jesus on the receiving end? While Jesus, as mediator, grants us access to God (Heb. 4:16; 10:19), should we then be content to simply direct our prayers to him instead of to the Father?
Note 1 Thess. 3:11, “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you”; and 2 Thess. 2:16-17, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work.” Although these passages are sometimes labeled “prayers,” they are actually recorded statements expressing the collective desire of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy for divine providence. Do these affirmations provide sufficient proof that the well-established model for praying in the New Testament should be altered?
In Revelation 5:8-10 the Bible says, “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy …’” In this literary sea of metaphors, “the prayers of the saints” are brought before the Lamb; thus praying to Jesus could be inferred. Nevertheless, unless clear teaching occurs elsewhere in scripture, should we be quick to embrace a doctrine or practice that is only or primarily found in such a highly symbolic narrative? In 8:1-4, “the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” What literal doctrine or practice on earth are we willing to base on this symbolic text?
OTHER RELEVANT TEXTS AND OBSERVATIONS:
What about the prayers addressed to “the Lord” (Matt. 9:38; Acts 1:24; 2 Cor. 12:8; cf. Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16)? Is the title “Lord” in these passages applicable to Jesus (Acts 1:6, 21; 2:36; etc.) or to God [the Father] (Acts 2:20, 25, 39; 4:24; etc.) or to both (Acts 2:34; etc.) or to the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18) or to all three? Is the Aramaic expression maranatha in 1 Corinthians 16:22 an exclamatory “prayer” or an emphatic “assertion”? Grammatically it could be either marana-tha, meaning “O Lord come,” or maran-atha, meaning “Our Lord has come.” Whichever position one wishes to take, scholarly support can be found.
What about conversations within a vision? In Acts 7:59-60 we read, “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on [God] and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Since Stephen actually saw Jesus (v. 55) and then spoke to him (vv. 59-60), would this be comparable to someone conversing with Jesus while he was on earth? Does this establish a precedent for praying to Jesus in normal circumstances?
In Acts 9:10-16; 22:17-21 Ananias and Paul speak to the Lord and are spoken to by the Lord. Both of these conversations took place during a supernatural visionary experience. Do they provide a pattern for praying under normal circumstances? Revelation 22:20 says, “… Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” The revelation to John is visionary (1:10; 4:1-2; 9:17), in the context of which he also speaks to a heavenly “elder” (7:13-14) and a “mighty angel” (10:9). Does the unusual circumstance of a dialogue within a heavenly vision establish a precedent for normal prayer on earth?
Jesus is deity (John 1:1; 10:30; 20:28) and is therefore worthy of worship (Matt. 2:2, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17; Mark 5:6, 22; Luke 8:41; 24:52; John 9:38; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:8-14; cf. John 5:23). While this impressive collation of scripture references seems to provide a powerful testimony about worshiping Jesus (inclusive of prayer?), we need to be careful about assuming that all of these accounts of “worship” necessarily involved a recognition or understanding of Christ’s divine nature. After all, it took the Lord’s own apostles quite some time to figure this out (John 20:28). If simply paying homage or earnest respect was the intent of those who did not yet comprehend the deity of Christ (e.g. Mark 5:22; 7:25), not all of these examples convey what many have assumed. Worship that is insincere (Mark 5:6; 15:19), or blindly offered in ignorance (Acts 10:25; 14:18; 17:23), or misdirected (Matt. 15:8-9), is not the same as properly acknowledging and venerating deity.
More importantly, we must not be imbalanced (and therefore unbiblical) in our perception of Christ. Is he divine or is he human? Jesus Christ is fully divine (John 1:1; 20:28), and he is also fully human (John 1:14; Heb. 2:9-18; 5:7; 10:5, 20). To exclusively or primarily emphasize one to the virtual exclusion of the other is not biblical (cf. 1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 7). After his resurrection and ascension, and in view of the coming judgment, Jesus has not ceased being a “man” (Luke 24:39; Acts 17:31). At the end of time, the Father-Son relationship remains intact, all “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11), while Jesus forever remains subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:23-28). The affirmation in 1 Timothy 2:5 is, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
While Jesus is certainly worthy of worship due to his inherent divinity (Rev. 5:8-14), there is still a clear biblical distinction between God the Father and God the Son, and Christ’s brotherhood with humanity must not be ignored (Heb. 2:11-18). We should honor Jesus’ repeated and consistent emphasis on exalting the heavenly Father in view of his own subordination (John 4:34; 5:19, 30; 6:38; 7:18; 8:29; 14:13, 28; et al.). Accordingly, biblical instruction regarding prayer (to the Father in Jesus’ name) remains unchanged.
In my humble opinion the controversy and division over this issue is most regrettable. It appears that many on both sides have expressed certainty without sufficient biblical grounds, and at times have even grasped at straws to construct a seemingly definitive (sometimes emotive) case from the unprovable. While I am fairly confident in my own understanding, I hesitate to be dogmatic for the following reasons. First, the deep respect I have for good brethren with whom I disagree, and the well-reasoned arguments they present. Second, my awareness of my own limitations and fallibilities. Finally, and most importantly, much of the information is just not as clear and straightforward as I would prefer.
While there are some New Testament passages that seem to suggest praying to Jesus, the overwhelming weight of biblical evidence unquestionably affirms praying to the Father in Jesus’ name. May we pray to Jesus? Perhaps. Should we pray to Jesus? Probably not. Should we publicly pray to Jesus in our church assemblies with brethren who are sensitive to this matter? No.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 For reasons in favor of praying to Jesus, see James L. Gardner, “Should We Pray to Jesus?” in The Patience of Hope: First and Last Things in Thessalonians. Ed. David L. Lipe. Henderson, TN: FHU, 2014: 384-89; also Wayne Jackson, “May a Christian Address Christ in Praise or Prayer?” <https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1024-may-a-christian-address-christ-in-praise-or-prayer>. For reasons against praying to Jesus, see Gary Workman, “Jesus and Prayer,” in The Person and Life of Christ. Ed. Eddie Whitten. Bedford, TX: Brown Trail Church of Christ, 1983: 115-30; also Robert R. Taylor, Jr., “Shall We Pray to Jesus?” Taylor Publications, 2011. What about the testimony of ancient ecclesiastical writers? In support of praying to Jesus, bro. Jackson cites Joseph Bingham (Dictionary of Christian Antiquities 1:576ff.), who “introduces passage after passage from the early ‘church fathers’ which demonstrate that the primitive church unhesitatingly offered worship to Christ, in both hymns and prayers.” Against praying to Jesus, bro. Workman cites Everett Ferguson (Early Christians Speak 143-44), concluding: “A perusal of history reveals that uninspired writers of the early centuries did not think it was proper to pray to Jesus” (116).
2 Further on the significance of “the name of Jesus,” see John 1:12; 2:23; 3:18; (15:21); 20:31; also John 14:26. Jesus himself operated in “the name of the Father” (John 5:43; 10:25; [12:13]; 17:6, 11, 12, 26).
3 While the “model prayer” is addressed to the Father, some would point out that it is a brief but not comprehensive model; additional passages (e.g. Jas. 5:14) add other details.
4 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the NKJV with added words and/or textual variants [in square brackets], emphasis added with bold type, and capital letters modified to lower case when the translation does not require capitalization.
Related Articles: Jason Hardin's When We Pray in Jesus' Name
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Image credit: http://blogs.nsb.org/jonathanalexander/files/2014/01/praying-hands.jpg