In a comment on an old post looking at a review by Larry Hurtado of Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus, Marc Taylor maintains that “Dunn’s assertion that certain prayer words are not used in reference to the Lord Jesus is without merit.” He lists four passages in Acts and a handful from Paul and James in support of his claim. The debate is an interesting one. Here I want briefly to review the Acts texts and propose a different model to account for the data.
A general pattern of prayer to God
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to their Father in heaven. For example, they are taught to pray, “Father, hallowed be your name… lead us not into testing” (Lk. 11:2-4). They are to pray steadfastly, confident that “God will give justice to his elect” (Lk. 18:1-7). On the Mount of Olives Jesus prays to his Father and then urges his disciples to rise and “pray that you may not enter into testing” (Lk. 22:39-40). Notice the consistent eschatological orientation of this prayer. After the resurrection Jesus does not promise to answer their prayers to him; rather, they will receive the Spirit from God (Lk. 24:49).
Most of the references to prayer in Acts are of a general kind: the disciples “were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14; cf. 2:42; 6:4). Peter and John pray that the disciples in Samaria will receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-15; Peter prays for Tabitha (Acts 9:40); Paul prays with the Ephesian elders and for a man sick with dysentery (Acts 20:36; 28:8). The assumption is probably that such prayer is directed to God—so, for example: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” (Acts 16:25).
Visions of the risen Lord
We certainly see in Acts the disciples and Paul interacting verbally with the risen Lord Jesus in visions. At his martyrdom Stephen sees the heavens opened and he cries out to the “Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God”. He asks the “Lord Jesus” to receive his spirit and not to hold this sin against his persecutors (Acts 7:56-60). Both Paul and Ananias engage in conversation with the risen Lord Jesus in the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:4-19 (cf. 22:6-10; 26:14-18). Similarly, when he is praying in the temple, Paul falls into a trance, and Jesus speaks to him about the need to get out of Jerusalem (Acts 22:17-21).
These experiences appear to constitute an alternative channel by which the risen Lord, seated at the right hand of God, related to his disciples and apostles with particular reference to their mission and suffering. It is quite different in its conception from the relationship of the disciples to God the Father through prayer.
Prayer to Jesus?
Marc highlights four passages, however, that may fall outside this pattern.
And they prayed (proseuxamenoi) and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen (exelexō)… (Acts 1:24)
It is possible that this “Lord” is the Lord Jesus who first chose disciples for himself, but in Acts 2:39 it is the “Lord our God” who calls people to himself, and Peter says that he had been chosen (exelexato) by God to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles: “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice (exelexato) among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7). 1 Samuel 16:7 and Romans 8:27 perhaps suggest further that it is God who knows the hearts of all. But taken in isolation, I’m not sure that the ambiguity of this passage can be resolved.
While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:2–3)
Here the reference to prayer, along with fasting, would appear to fit the “general” category of prayer to God (cf. Lk. 2:37; 5:33-35). But does the preceding reference to the disciples “worshipping the Lord” suggest that in fact prayer to Jesus is understood here?
The word for “worshipping” is leitourgountōn, which means “serving”, typically in a religious context—it is used frequently in the Septuagint for the service that the priests perform in the temple (cf. Heb. 10:11). This is a different idea to that signified by the more common word for worship proskuneō, which has connotations of prostration.
Didache 15:1 makes reference to the leitourgian of prophets and teachers, which alerts us to the fact that Luke highlights the fact that there were “prophets and teachers” at the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1).
The “service to the Lord” in this passage, therefore, most likely refers to the activity of the prophets and teachers, which led to the Spirit’s instruction to set apart Barnabas and Saul. This may well have been a “service” to the Lord Jesus, but the fasting and prayer of the whole community—not just of the prophets and teachers—remains categorically different. Bauckham misses this point when he argues that leitourgountōn is “suggestive of the centrality of Jesus as object of religious devotion” and here refers to “prayer in the broadest sense with Jesus as its focus”.1
A similar distinction probably holds in the third passage that Marc cites:
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:23)
Paul and Barnabas appoint elders (perhaps by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and commit them to the “Lord in whom they had believed” (presumably the Lord Jesus). But the prayer with fasting would accord with the general pattern. There is a restricted set of “services” which the church performs on behalf of, or for the sake of, the risen Lord. But this is against a backdrop of singing songs and praying, with fasting, to God.
“When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’” (Acts 22:17–18)
This final passage, to my mind, fits the emerging pattern very well. Paul is praying (to God) in the temple—as Peter would have been praying to God on the roof (Acts 10:9). He then falls into a trance in which Jesus speaks to him. The text does not suggest that he is praying to the Lord Jesus, who appears to him in response.
To sum up
So I think we have a more complex situation than is suggested by the argument that Dunn is mistaken in claiming that prayer is not addressed to Jesus in Acts:
1. In general terms the worship and prayer of these communities was directed towards God.
2. The disciples and apostles on exceptional occasions interacted verbally with the risen Lord through visions.
3. A specific set of “services”, notably prophecy and teaching, were done for the risen Lord Jesus, having to do specifically with the administration of the mission which he had entrusted to his disciples.
4. This pattern preserves the distinction between God and the Lord Jesus who has been raised from death and seated at his right hand. Both the visionary encounters with the risen Lord and the prophetic “service” to the Lord presuppose the eschatological narrative about kingdom and vindication, which is the point I made in the original post.
5. It came up in the comments below with reference to Acts 22:17-18 that in verse 16 Paul is instructed by Ananias to be baptized, “calling on his name”. To call on the name of the Lord has to do with salvation (cf. Acts 2:21); it is to identify with, or seek help from, the one who will deliver his people from the wrath to come. In that respect it cannot be taken as paradigmatic for prayer generally. It explains Paul’s baptism, not his praying in the temple.
- 1R. Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (2008), 129.