David Z. from East Asia asks:
I heard someone say we should never pray to Jesus since that’s not the way it’s done in the Bible. Is this true?
We posed the question to Graham Cole, prolific author and professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
Many Christians pray to Jesus. But are they right to do so? It’s certainly a good question. I believe there are at least two sound reasons to pray to Jesus—-one theological and one scriptural.
The theological reason is that prayer is talking to God. And if Jesus is, as the Scriptures present him, the one person who is truly God and truly human—-the second person of the Trinity now incarnate—-then how could praying to this Jesus be wrong in principle? Great ones of the past and present have so argued (e.g., John Owen in the 17th century and J. I. Packer today). The same argument applies to praying to the Holy Spirit.
The scriptural reason is that there are biblical precedents for praying to Jesus. Think of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. In Acts 7, while being stoned to death, he sees the risen Christ standing at the right of the Father in the stance of an advocate (v. 55). Others-centered to the end, Stephen asks his Lord to forgive those killing him (v. 60): “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” The parallels between the way Stephen dies and Jesus himself are not be missed (e.g., compare Acts 7:60 and Luke 23:34). There is further evidence provided in 1 Corinthians, where Paul describes Christians as those who call on the Lord’s name: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). Jesus is explicitly in view here. Indeed, the letter concludes with an appeal to Jesus: “Our Lord, come (maranatha)!” (1 Cor. 16:22) In fact, the biblical canon ends on the very same note: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)
The writer to the Hebrews adds to this picture in depicting Jesus as our great high priest who represents us to God and God to us. It is to Jesus in this office or role that we can go to find help, and prayer is the means by which we can so approach him: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Interestingly, though, there are no prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, which underlines his ministry of pointing away from himself to Christ (John 14-16).
Weight of Emphasis
Even though there are sound reasons for praying to Jesus, a caveat is needed. This qualification arises from carefully reading Scripture from Genesis to Revelation to discern where the accents fall. My wife is a fashion designer and tells me you need to listen to the fabric talk. For example, you don’t sew leather with an ordinary needle. Leather is tough material, so you need a special needle; otherwise, the needle will break. The responsible Bible reader listens to the Scriptures talk and talk in its own terms as its storyline unfolds from beginning to end. What does such listening reveal?
By the time we’ve finished listening to the entire story we find that Jesus is the one mediator between God and ourselves. He’s the go-between in God’s plan. Paul captures this idea well in his first letter to Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). As we saw above, the Book of Hebrews captures this same idea in presenting Jesus as our great high priest set over the household of God.
It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father in his name: “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). In praying to the Father, Paul, too, adopts the protocol that befits the presence of great majesty: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father” (Eph. 3:14). He was mindful, though, that this can only happen through the Son and with the enablement of the Holy Spirit: “For through him [Jesus] we both [Jew and Gentile believers] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). The Holy Spirit’s role is to give us such an affection for the Father and the Son that we’re motivated to approach the Godhead in this way. Prayer to the Father, it must be acknowledged, is where the weight of emphasis falls in the New Testament revelation.
If the fundamental blessing of the gospel is our justification, then the preeminent one is our adoption. We are children of God and joint heirs with Christ. Paul puts it magnificently: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:4-7). Abba, a word Jesus himself used in his own prayer life (Mark 14:36), is intimate but reverent. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Christian as a child of God is caught up in the communion of the Son with the Father.
We see two important truths, then, in prayer to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. First, Christian praying is Trinitarian praying. This is deeply important, for much Christian praying in my experience is Unitarian: “Dear God. . . . Amen.” Unitarian praying makes it hard to see why there’s any real difference in praying to the God of the Bible as opposed to praying to the God of, say, the Qur’an. Second, Christian praying exhibits the very structure of the gospel. Jesus stands at the center as the mediator, the Father as the addressee, and the Spirit as the enabler.
So can you pray to Jesus? Of course you can. But let me suggest if this is the predominant way we pray we may lose something of enormous importance. We may lose sight of the glorious gospel with the Father as the architect of our salvation, the Son as the achiever, and the Spirit as the applier.