In Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), Ed Komoszewski and I argued that one evidence that Jesus is God is that he is properly the object of prayer (John 14:14; Acts 1:24-25; 7:59-60; 9:14; 22:16; Rom. 10:12-13; 1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor. 12:8-9; Rev. 22:20-21; see pp. 47-53). In previous editions of his book Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu Books, 1998, 2000), Greg Stafford had argued, against this traditional Christian argument, that Jesus is not the proper object of prayer (see especially 2nd ed., pp. 583-86). Ed and I took issue specifically with one of his Stafford’s arguments in support of that standard JW position: Stafford had argued that when Stephen “called upon” Jesus to receive his spirit while he was being stoned to death (Acts 7:59) this was comparable to Paul appealing to Caesar, and therefore not really prayer (585). Ed and I pointed out (Putting Jesus in His Place, 299) that the verb “to call upon” can have a political/legal context (as in Paul appealing to Caesar) or a spiritual/religious context. The latter, not the former, is obviously applicable in the context of Stephen calling on Jesus to receive his spirit. Another writer who had critiqued Stafford’s handling of biblical passages concerning prayer to Jesus was James Stewart, who wrote an online piece examining the textual critical issue of the inclusion of “me” in John 14:14 (“If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it”).
Somewhat surprisingly, in the third edition of Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended Stafford drops his objections to Jesus being properly the object of prayer. Stafford now concedes that Jesus receives, hears, and answers prayer:
“According to the Bible, the Son does hear and respond to our prayers (John 14:13-14). Therefore, no Christian should feel uncomfortable addressing Jesus directly, either as Jesus taught in John 14:13-14 or as Stephen did according to Acts 7:59” (302).
This statement represents a clear change from Stafford’s earlier position (which, again, was and is the standard JW position). Oddly, though, in a footnote Stafford refers readers to the now missing appendix E on John 14:14 from the second edition, in which Stafford had laboriously sought to deny that we may direct prayers to the Son: “For more on the biblical teaching of praying and appealing to Jesus, see Appendix E on pages 583-586 of my Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended….” (302 n. 2). Does he suppose that we have forgotten his earlier view?
As recently as June 2008, Stafford apparently still denied that Jesus was the proper object of prayer, and had intended to include a version of that same appendix in the third edition of his book. Perhaps wrestling with this issue was one of the reasons behind the delay in the book’s release. In any case, Stafford now clearly allows that Christians may properly approach Jesus directly in prayer and that Jesus both hears and answers prayer. One would think this significant change in position would merit some sort of acknowledgment from Stafford that his older doctrine has had to be modified, but to the contrary, Stafford cites his second edition polemic against praying to Jesus as if his position had remained entirely unchanged.
One may state the traditional Christian argument for the identity of Jesus as God from his reception of prayer as a simple syllogism:
- The only proper recipient of prayer is God.
- Jesus is the proper recipient of prayer.
- Therefore, Jesus is God.
I should mention that in Putting Jesus in His Place, Ed and I put this and numerous other lines of evidence in a larger, cumulative-case argument, so that we were not treating this piece of evidence in isolation. Still, the above deductive argument is, we think, a good one. Until recently, Stafford has sought to refute this argument by objecting to the second premise: in his older view, Jesus was not the proper recipient of prayer. Now that Stafford has conceded this second premise, one might suppose that he would have to admit that this argument wasn’t so bad after all. Not so: Stafford now argues that Ed and I are in error in affirming the first premise (with which Stafford himself used to agree).
Ed and I had made the statement, “One basic functional definition [of deity, god, or God] is that a deity is an object of prayer. Any being (real or imagined) perceived to have a supernatural or spiritual nature and to whom devotion is expressed and requests are made is in practical terms one’s deity” (Putting Jesus in His Place, 47). Stafford criticizes this statement, complaining that we “provide no historical discussion or even any modern source for [our] ‘functional definition’ of ‘deity, god, or God’” (Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended, 3rd ed., 301). Notice that Stafford does not deny that this functional definition can be supported, only that we didn’t make such documentation explicit. The fact is that various sources do define prayer as communication with a deity or god:
- “an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought” (Merriam-Webster)
- “a reverent petition made to God, a god, or another object of worship” (Free Dictionary)
- “the act of communicating with a deity” (Princeton)
- “the act of addressing a god or spirit for the purpose of prayer or petition” (Wikipedia)
- “A practice of communication with one’s God” (Wiktionary)
In any case, in the Bible, the only legitimate object of prayer is the one true God, whom the Old Testament calls Yahweh (Jehovah). We cited quite a few biblical texts in support of this point, which is the first premise of the argument as stated above (Gen. 4:26; 1 Chron. 16:8; Ps. 65:2; Is. 44:17; 45:20-22; Joel 2:32). Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, Jehovah alone is the only proper recipient of prayer—and the only deity who really is there and able to answer prayer. So confident of this point was Elijah, the prophet of Jehovah, that he challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest in which “the god who answers . . . is indeed God” (1 Kings 18:24 NRSV). Of course, we know that Jehovah won that contest!
Until recently, Stafford agreed with the first premise of the above argument. Now, however, he dismisses the premise. While he implicitly admits that the premise holds true in the Old Testament, Stafford contends that “God can designate someone else to ‘hear’ and to ‘respond’ to prayers that are directed to such agents but because they are God’s agents who only express his will” (301). Stafford alleges that Ed and I fail “to accept the biblical teaching considered earlier, namely, that God has appointed someone (his most beloved Son) to hear and to respond to our prayers in some sense” (303). Here again, Stafford’s assertion is rather odd, because he has not actually demonstrated from even one biblical text that God had appointed Jesus to hear and respond to prayers as God’s agent. Instead, Stafford deduces that this must be the explanation for prayers directed to Christ, since on other grounds he has already determined that Jesus is not God but only God’s agent. There is no biblical passage teaching that God has assigned to Jesus, as his created agent, the responsibility of hearing and answering prayers on God’s behalf. No such statement appears anywhere in the Bible.
If God had assigned to Jesus, as a creature, the task of receiving and answering prayers as God’s agent, this would be surprising in at least two ways.
1. As Stafford himself seems to concede, it would be unprecedented. No creature in the Old Testament hears and answers prayer on God’s behalf, and in fact the Old Testament everywhere assumes that Jehovah is the only proper recipient of prayer, as has been documented.
2. If God had assigned to a creature the task of hearing and answering prayers as his agent, this would be surprising because it would be inexplicable. Although the idea of the infinite Creator of the universe hearing the prayers of all people (silent as well as audible!) at all times is rather mind-boggling, it is still rationally explicable, because an infinite, transcendent Creator possessing omniscience would presumably have no difficulty hearing (and keeping track of!) all prayers at all times. But this is truly an astonishing activity to suppose any creature capable of performing, even for a minute or two, let alone constantly, at every moment of every day (which is clearly what would be required). If Christ is merely a creature, no matter how great a creature (and undoubtedly Stafford views Christ as a wondrously great creature), it is simply inexplicable how he could hear the prayers of all people who pray to him. As Ed and I pointed out, “Only the transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent God can hear the prayers of all people and respond to them as he chooses” (Putting Jesus in His Place, 47).
I should emphasize here that the really astounding problem for Stafford’s view is not so much that God might answer prayers through Jesus acting as his agent, but that Jesus himself should receive and hear all of the prayers himself. In our book, Ed and I even acknowledged that God is free to choose to answer prayers through created agents: “God may choose to answer prayers through creatures acting as his agents, but that is for him to decide” (ibid.). Stafford ignores this acknowledgment and critiques our position as if we have no awareness of God’s freedom to act through agents. This is a fatal error in his critique. Our position is, not that God cannot delegate certain responsibilities to created agents, but that there are some things that only God can do, and hearing the prayers of all his people is one of those things.
If Jesus can receive and hear all of his people’s prayers, then it would seem that there is nothing Jesus cannot do. Thus, Stafford’s concession implies some astonishing conclusions about Jesus Christ that Stafford’s agent Christology seems ill-equipped to handle.
According to Stafford, in speaking of the reception of prayer as a function of deity Ed and I are defining God in an improper manner. “Bowman and Komoszewski define what it means to be ‘God’ but not in terms of what is done by God. . . . Rather, Bowman and Komoszewski attempt to define what it means to be ‘G-god’ by what is done to God, in this case, prayer.” Stafford’s criticism here illustrates the dangers of treating one aspect of the biblical evidence for the deity of Christ in isolation. We were quite clear in Putting Jesus in His Place that there were multiple streams of evidence for the identity of Jesus as God and that the honors Jesus receives (including prayer) represent just one stream of that biblical evidence. As anyone who has read our book knows, we “define” God in several converging ways, including (among other ways) both what is done by God (his “deeds”) and what is done toward God (his “honors”). Prayer is a perfect example. Jesus both receives the divine honor of receiving prayer and performs the divine deeds of hearing and answering prayer. For example, when Jesus says, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14), we see Jesus receiving divine honors (as the proper object or recipient of prayer, “If you ask me”) and performing divine deeds (as the one who hears the prayer and “will do” it). For largely pedagogical reasons we chose to discuss prayer under the heading of honors instead of deeds, but we could have discussed it under the heading of deeds, or under both headings for that matter.
Finally, John 14:14 directly conflicts with Stafford’s agency Christological explanation of Jesus’ role in answering prayer. Stafford’s position is that believers may approach Jesus in prayer because Jesus acts on Jehovah the Father’s behalf, as his agent. In other words, believers may ask Jesus to do something, on the authority of Jehovah whom Jesus represents as his agent, and Jesus, acting in that capacity as God’s agent, will do it. But there is a key phrase in Jesus’ statement that undermines this theological interpretation: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (emphasis added). We are so used to hearing prayers ending perfunctorily in the words “in Jesus’ name” that we are likely to miss the point. Jesus here specifically invites his disciples to pray to him, Jesus, in his name, on his own authority—not, as one might have expected, on the authority of the Father.
Stafford might reply that the preceding verse establishes that Jesus was offering to answer prayer on the Father’s behalf: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). But there is no Son-as-agent principle here. Jesus promises in both verses that he will do whatever the disciples ask in his name. In verse 13, Jesus describes the result (not the condition) as the glorification of the Father in the Son. This is not the Son as a created agent acting only to bring glory to the Creator. Rather, as we see throughout the Upper Room discourse and prayer in John, this is the Father and the Son as two divine persons who are intent on glorifying each other and being glorified in each other (John 13:31-32; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5).
In conclusion, Jesus’ promise to receive and answer our prayers illustrates all five of the streams of biblical evidence for the deity of Christ discussed in Putting Jesus in His Place:
- Honors: Jesus is the proper recipient of prayer, a supernatural, transcendent person to whom we may rightly bring our petitions.
- Attributes: It is only because the Son is exactly like his Father, sharing in his divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, that the Son has the ability to back up his promise to do whatever we ask in his name.
- Names: Those who truly know the Son as their Lord and God (John 20:28) will be perfectly free to pray to the Son in his own “name,” knowing that because the Father and the Son are “one” (John 10:30) whatever glorifies the Son glorifies the Father and vice versa.
- Deeds: Jesus actually hears all of the prayers of his people and answers them.
- Seat: Prayer directed to the Son is directed to one who is intimately alongside the Father in divine glory (John 1:18; 17:5) and thus sits on the very seat of God’s throne, from which he has the authority—not as God’s created agent, but as God’s eternal Son—to receive and answer our prayers.