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Jesus in Early Christian Prayer

April 24, 2013

In previous postings I gave concise summaries of the thrust of my recent guest lecture in Rice University and one of the two lectures in Houston Baptist University.  In this posting I want to summarize the other HBU lecture:  “The Place of Jesus in Earliest Christian Prayer and its Import for Early Christian Identity.”  

In a number of NT texts, Jesus is pictured as the heavenly intercessor or advocate on behalf of believers.  This is a well-known emphasis in the epistle to the Hebrews, of course (e.g., 2:14-18; 4:14–5:10; 7:15–8:7; 9:11-22; 10:11-14).  But this idea is also reflected as early as the passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans (8:34), where Jesus is “he who also intercedes for us.” Here, Jesus intercession seems to function primarily in establishing believers as acceptable to God.  Paul’s brief and compressed reference to the idea suggests that he regarded it as already familiar among his intended readers, suggesting that it was “common property” among various types of early Christian circles.  This appears confirmed in the reference to Jesus as “advocate with the Father” of/for believers in 1 John 2:1.  Likewise, the reference in John 14:16 to “another advocate” (there identified as the Holy Spirit) seems to allude to the notion that the risen Jesus is advocate.  Jesus’s advocacy to God on behalf of believers, and the Spirit’s advocacy of Jesus to believers.

In some other NT texts, Jesus is portrayed as teacher and role model of prayer for believers.  The Gospel of Matthew has distinctive references to Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray (Matt. 6:5-8), followed by the Matthean version of “the Lord’s Prayer” (6:9-13), which clearly functions as a model for prayer.  But, among a number of other NT references, in the Gospel of Luke there is a particular emphasis on Jesus as pray-er/praying, a number of the references distinctive to Luke (e.g., 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28-29).  As well, Luke has a number of prayers ascribed to Jesus (10:21-23; 22:32; 23:46).  In the Gospel of John also, Jesus both prays and teaches his disciples to pray, and in other NT texts as well we have references to Jesus as praying.

Jesus is also pictured as recipient of prayers in some NT texts.  Mainly, of course, the NT depicts prayers as addressed to God.  But in several cases Jesus is recipient or co-recipient.  The most common instance seems to have been the corporate acclamation/invocation by which the corporate worship event was constituted, which involved a “calling upon” Jesus.  Likewise, in early Christian baptism, one called upon Jesus, invoking him over the baptized person.  Indeed, in 1 Cor. 1:2 Paul refers to fellow believers simply as those who everywhere “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Perhaps our earliest reference, however, is 1 Thess. 3:11-13, where God and Jesus are jointly called upon to enable Paul to re-visit the Thessalonian church.  Other instances can be cited (e.g., 2 Thess. 2:16-17), and in 2 Cor. 12:6-10 Paul refers to his repeated appeals to Jesus to relieve him of the “thorn in the flesh.”  The oft-cited “maranatha” in 1 Cor. 16:22 indicates that the liturgical invocation of Jesus was praticed in Aramaic-speaking circles of believers as well as in Greek-speaking circles.

Jesus is also depicted as the basis for Christian prayer.  As noted, prayer is dominantly addressed to God in NT texts.  But it is also true that prayers are typically offered with reference to Jesus, e.g., “in his name” and/or “through” him (e.g., Rom. 1:8; 7:25; Col. 3:17; Eph. 5:20).  These texts likely reflect actual prayer-practices, in which Jesus’ status with God was invoked as a distinctive basis for prayer.

In all these ways, earliest Christian prayer reflects distinctive features, giving to early Christians a distinctive religious identity.  The programmatic and singular place of Jesus was without parallel or precedent in the Jewish matrix in which earliest Jesus-followers emerged.  So in that Roman religious environment, early Christian prayer-practice reflected sense of having a particular and distinguishing identity.

(A version of this lecture will be published in a multi-author volume arising from a research project on “Prayer and Early Christian Identity” based in Oslo.)

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  1. Ivan permalink

    Dr. Hurtado:

    How do the statements in the opening letters of Paul play into this. For example, texts which speak about the Father being the “God” of Jesus. For example, 2 Corinthians 1:3. Seems that YHWH is not only the “Father” of Jesus in some familial sense, but also his “God.”

    • Yes. Paul prefers to use “God” for “the Father”, and his reverential title for Jesus is “Kyrios” (Lord). He shows strong awareness that God and Jesus are two, but he also includes Jesus with God in worship and other actions that link them uniquely, even spectacularly.

      • Dr Hurtado
        It would be very interesting if You very shortly could give examples of any of these spectacular links as You say Paul makes between God and Jesus. You certainly have lots of articles about this on this blog, but I’m a fairly new reader here, so I would appreciate some short examples.

      • As I’ve published on the matter a lot, I rather hope that it’s not too much to ask anyone seriously interested in the matter to read what I’ve published. There is a constellation of devotional actions that reflect the striking inlusion of Jesus: the rite of initiation (baptism) performed by invoking Jesus, the common/sacred meal as one where Jesus is the presiding figure, the invocation of Jesus as “Lord” to constitute the worship-gathering, the ritual confession of Jesus as “Lord” as the mark of early Christian identity, the singing of hymns/odes about Jesus as a central feature of early Christian worship, prayer through him and sometimes to him (either singly or jointly with God).

      • Ivan permalink

        Since texts like 2 Corinthians show YHWH is the God of Jesus, would Jesus’ inclusion and reception of such worship be qualified with an awareness and acknowledgement that YHWH is the God/Deity of Jesus?

      • In 2 Cor 1:3 we have an instance where Paul refers to “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” reflecting the distinction Paul makes between “God” and Jesus. Yet in the preceding verse, Paul also links God and Jesus as joint-sources of the “grace and peace” prayer-wish, reflecting how Paul links them both in his devotional practice. For further discussion of how “God” and Jesus feature in relation to each other in NT texts, see my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), esp. 49-71.

  2. Interesting that you make a clear distinction between God and Jesus.

    • I distinguish “God” and Jesus in discussing the NT and earliest Christian faith precisely because the NT texts do so. See, e.g., the greetings in Paul’s letters: “Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Two figures, distinguished but uniquely linked.

      • Yes, NT distinguishes between God and Jesus. Jesus as the Messiah has a special place. Paul says that he is an image of God.

      • Yes (micaelost), but from our earliest texts onward, Jesus is Messiah-and-more, or more than known versions of messianic expectation of the time. In particular, and most remarkably, he was included as co-recipient with God of the sort of devotion/reverence that was otherwise given to, and reserved for, the one God in Jewish tradition. So, there was a real “mutation” or significant innovation in the typical Jewish “monotheistic” tradition of the time.

  3. Ali Hussain permalink

    Excellent ! , thank you sir . Just love to read your posts . Your blog is bringing scholarship to public , my knowledge has increased a lot by reading your posts .

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