After the death of Judas the disciples decide that a replacement must be chosen to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Two men are nominated, Barsabbas and Matthias. Luke then writes:
And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen (exelexō)… (Acts 1:24)
Since Luke referred earlier to “the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen (exelexato)” (Acts 1:2), we can probably infer that the “Lord” addressed in verse 24 is Jesus. But we note that in this passage the choosing of apostles is closely associated with the moment of the ascension. In fact, it could be argued that the description of the apostles as those “whom he had chosen” before the ascension in verse 2 deliberately anticipates the need to choose a replacement apostle immediately after the ascension. The narrative context will be important.
(In a previous post on this subject I leant more towards the view that “Lord” refers to God, on the grounds that Peter later says that he had been chosen (exelexato) by God to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. Under that interpretation what follows is redundant.)
The grammar of praying to God and speaking to Jesus
Things now get a bit technical. The grammatical form of verse 24 needs to be considered carefully:
And having prayed (proseuxamenoi), they said, “You, Lord…”.
It’s usually assumed that the aorist participle (“having prayed”) and the main verb (“they said”) refer to the same act of speaking—in effect, ‘they prayed, “You, Lord…”’. That is, they prayed to Jesus.
But the grammatical construction doesn’t really support this. We would expect something more like: “they prayed, saying…” (cf. Matt. 26:39, 44). The construction is also different in the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer: ‘When you pray, say, “Our Father…”’ (Lk. 11:2). This obviously demands a more systematic analysis, but it’s enough to highlight the problem.
In any case, there’s a more positive point to make…
Elsewhere in Acts the aorist participle of proseuchomai always refers to prayer that precedes another action in the aorist: having prayed, they laid hands on them, they sent them off, they committed them to the Lord, they said farewell to one another, he healed him (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 14:23; 28:8; 21:5-6).
These two observations combined seem to me to suggest quite strongly that what Luke means in 1:24 is that the disciples first prayed to God and then spoke to the Lord Jesus seated at the right hand of God.
It seems a daft distinction at first sight, but in the context of the ascension narrative it may make very good sense.
The rest of the New Testament
In the rest of the New Testament the person to whom prayer (proseuchē, proseuchomai) is directed is often not specified, but when it is specified, it is always prayer to God. For example, Paul exhorts the church in Rome to be “constant in prayer”, but later appeals to them to “strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf” (Rom. 12:12; 15:30).
Nowhere is the church explicitly instructed to “pray” to Jesus. The assumption must be, I think, that prayer is always to God, but in the name of Jesus—that is, an appeal to God on the strength of Jesus’ death and exaltation. Likewise, the suffering church may call out to the risen Lord, “who is at the right hand of God”, and he intercedes before God on their behalf (Rom. 8:34; cf. Heb. 7:25).
I’ll look at the matter of calling on the name of the Lord Jesus in a follow-up post.
Ah, but this Lord is omniscient!
A final detail needs to be considered. The Lord to whom the disciples speak is described as one who knows the hearts (kardiognōsta) of all. In Acts 15:8 God is said to be kardiognōstēs, so it could be argued that the disciples ascribe to the Lord Jesus the omniscience of God.
Equally, of course, this could be taken as evidence that the “Lord” in question in 1:24 is God rather than Jesus, but my argument here is based on the assumption that the “Lord” is the ascended Jesus—a human person, a “man attested to you by God” (Acts 2:22), elevated to an extraordinary position of authority at the right hand of God, as Lord and Messiah.
There seems to me to be a simple explanation for Luke’s language. First, it needs to be stated that “knowing the hearts of all” does not mean “knowing everything”. Acts 1:7 suggests that Luke was aware of the tradition that the Son did not know the timing of the coming kingdom (cf. Matt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32).
In his Gospel Luke attributes knowledge of the human heart to Jesus (Lk. 5:22; 9:47) and Jesus attributes such knowledge to God (Lk. 16:15). The reason that Jesus knows the heart, however, is likely to be that “hidden things” have been “handed over” (paredothē) by the Father to the Son (Lk. 10:21-22). It is not a direct explanation, but it is the nearest we have to one.
Communicating with the risen Lord
So in this opening chapter, I suggest, we have the disciples first praying to God and then speaking to the recently ascended Jesus about a problem that directly concerns him. They know that he is the “Son of Man… seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Lk. 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; 7:56). They know that he has been given oversight of their mission. They assume, therefore, that he is in a position to hear and answer them, as a direct extension of his earthly ministry.
On other occasions in Acts the risen Jesus communicates with the disciples and apostles through the medium of heavenly visions (Acts 9:10; 10:9-16; 18:9; 26:19). But in this instance the response is conveyed (uniquely) through the casting of lots—perhaps because the Spirit that gives visions to the church has not been poured out yet (Acts 2:17). The “lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26).
The paradigm is simple and consistently applied. Jesus has ascended into heaven and is now in the presence of God. The disciples naturally continue to pray to God as they have always done, but they have the further option of speaking directly to their living master, who communicates with them, notably through visions.
Prayer to God and communication with the ascended Lord Jesus remain fully distinct; they are two quite different activities and should not be confused. There is certainly no basis for the argument at this stage that the disciples prayed to Jesus and therefore must have thought of him as being God.
The later post-Jewish church may have developed strong theological grounds for collapsing the apocalyptic narrative. I keep saying: this is not an anti-Trinitarian argument. But the task of the narrative-historical approach must be to interpret according to the contemporary Jewish or Jewish-Christian worldview.