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Praying to Jesus: From Jewish Messiah to God Incarnate

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For untold millions of Christians, asking the "Lord" for guidance, help, and even salvation is a complex and confusing business. Evangelicals often pray the "sinner's prayer," asking Jesus directly to come into their hearts (Revelation 3:20; Romans 10:13). Alternatively, they might call upon God to save them "in the name of Jesus." I remember growing up in an evangelical Christian tradition and hearing prayers that began, "Heavenly Father, we thank you for [fill in the blank] ... for sending your son, Jesus Christ, into the world ... and we are grateful that you shed your precious blood for our sins...."

The switch from talking to God about Jesus to praying to God as if he were Jesus, or talking to Jesus as if he were God, was often seamless, in a single prayer. During my first semester teaching my historical Jesus course at Notre Dame, I remember being surprised when some of my Roman Catholic students would refer to Jesus as God without blinking an eye, as in, "Dr. Tabor, what about that time God walked on the water and calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee?" It took me and any non-Catholics in the class a second or two to realize that they were referring to the gospels narratives about Jesus. But had they used the term "the Lord," there would have been no problem, since the word "Lord" in English can easily mean God, Jesus Christ, or both and is commonly so used in our culture. I remember the popular evangelical song from the 1960s, "I know the Lord will find a way for me...." It really did not matter if one was referring to God or Jesus, and dozens of Christian hymns, both formal and informal, have the same ambiguity:

Jesus, Thou art all compassion,

Pure unbounded love Thou art;

Visit us with Thy salvation;

Enter every trembling heart.

Jesus, the very thought of Thee

With sweetness fills the breast;

But sweeter far Thy face to see,

And in Thy presence rest.

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,

...

Hide me, O my Savior ...

... O receive my soul at last.

O Christ, more love to Thee!

Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.

This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee

More than friend or life to me,

All along my pilgrim journey,

Savior, let me walk with Thee.

Close to Thee....

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;

For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.

My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;

If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.

My faith looks up to Thee,

Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine!

Now hear me while I pray, take all my guilt away,

O let me from this day be wholly Thine!

Part of the confusion is that the God of the Hebrew Bible, who mostly goes by the name "Yahweh"/"Yehovah," is referred to as "the LORD" (the use of all caps indicates the name but is missed by most readers) in most popular English translations of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament -- Catholic, Protestant, and even Jewish. (There are a few mainstream exceptions, including the American Standard Version, which uses "Jehovah," and the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which uses "Yahweh.") This translation practice is an ancient one and is even found in some copies of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where "יהוה" ("YHVH") is rendered as "ΚΥΡΙΟΣ" ("Lord"). (A few such Greek manuscripts in fact write the name in Hebrew characters, "יהוה," which were then confused for the Greek letters "ΠΙΠΙ," leading some who were unlearned to conclude that the name of the Hebrew God was "Pipi.")

The problem comes with the New Testament, in which Jesus is also commonly referred to as "the Lord." Often only the context is all we have to go on to sort out whether one is referring to God or Jesus -- and many would say that since Jesus is God, why would it matter? But for others, the distinction between God the Father and Jesus the Son of God is an important one. I will never forget my 90-year-old mother, who was raised in a solid Trinitarian evangelical tradition, saying to me, "Well, I surely don't think Jesus is God! God is God, and Jesus is the Son of God. He was divine, but he was not God. Jesus prayed to God just as we all do. He did not pray to himself!" -- thus settling the issue in her mind.

So far, as the Jesus movement goes, our earliest evidence for this practice of conflating the name of God (i.e., Yahweh/Yehovah) with that of Jesus -- that is, calling them both "Lord" in an interchangeable way -- goes back to Paul. Even though Paul clearly distinguished between the "One God, the Father" and the "One Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 8:6), when he uses the word "Lord," things are not always so clear -- especially when he quotes the Hebrew Bible in passages that refer to Yahweh/Yehovah.

Paul writes to the Jesus' followers at Rome that if they confess Jesus as Lord and believe that God has raised him from the dead, they will be saved. He asserts that for Jew or Greek, "the same Lord is Lord of all" -- clearly referring to Jesus -- and ends with a quotation from Joel: "For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:9-13; Joel 2:32). The problem is that in the passage in Joel, the Hebrew text clearly says, "Whoever calls upon the name of Yahweh will be saved," but Paul clearly has no problem in identifying "Lord" here with Jesus. In fact, Paul regularly quotes passages from the Hebrew Bible that clearly refer to Yahweh/Yehovah and applies them directly to Jesus as the "Lord." Just one chapter earlier, in Roman 9:33, Paul conflates quotations from Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16 that clearly refer to Yahweh/Yehovah and applies them to Jesus as the rejected "stone" or "rock" of offense to those Jews who did not accept him as Messiah and Lord. In Philippians 2:10-11 Paul equates confessing Jesus as Lord and the entire human race "bowing the knee" to him, whereas Isaiah 45:22-23 proclaims that such devotion is reserved for Yahweh/Yehovah alone. Here the work of David Capes, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul's Christology (J. C. B. Mohr, 1992), is absolutely groundbreaking.

But Paul goes much further than this. Not only does he urge his followers to "call upon the Lord" (i.e., Jesus), but he claims that he has two-way conversations with Jesus and receives "words" of revelation directly from Jesus. The following are a few passages from his earliest letters, which most scholars consider to be authentic Paul:

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 Corinthians 1:2)

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

(This phenomenon of two-way conversations with Jesus as "Lord" become somewhat common in later materials -- for example, Paul at his conversion according to Acts [9:4-6], Ananias [Acts 9:10-16], and Peter [Acts 10:14].)

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord.... (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.... (1 Corinthians 11:23)

For I did not receive it [his Gospel message] from man, nor was a taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:12)

If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Corinthians 14:37-38)

I discuss Paul's sense of his own authority and special calling more fully in my book Paul and Jesus. My own view is that he considered both his calling as an apostle and his revelations to be so beyond the ordinary, surpassing any of the original apostles, that he would not have expected any follower of Christ to carry on this high level of intimacy directly with "the Lord Jesus."

It is true that New Testament texts outside Paul's letters also witness to the practice of praying to Jesus, just as Jews would pray to God alone. Jesus himself, in the gospel of John, invites his disciples to ask him for whatever they need (John 14:13). Stephen, at the moment of his death, cries out, "Lord Jesus receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59). In the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks directly to the churches and is worshiped as "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (Rev 22:13), designations that in the Hebrew Bible belong to Yahweh/Yehovah alone. (See Isaiah 44:6.) What one must recognize is that these writings come several decades after Paul. There is no doubt that it was Paul's equating Jesus with Yahweh/Yehovah as "Lord," as well as his claims to having such intimate two-way communications with Jesus, that paved the way for Christians subsequently to develop their own versions of this kind of Christ devotion that blurred any distinction between "God and his anointed one," as the pre-Pauline Jewish followers of Jesus (James, Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, et al.) understood things.

Later Christian devotion to Jesus pales into insignificance anything found in the New Testament. Augustine's prayer pretty much sums it up for the ages in terms of Christian devotion and prayers to Jesus -- and makes clear why Jews and others of the Hebrew faith could not bow the knee to any human being, whether Moses, one of the Prophets, or even the Messiah:

You are Christ, my Holy Father, my Tender God, my Great King, my Good Shepherd, my Only Master, my Best Helper, my Most Beautiful and my Beloved, my Living Bread ... my Entire Protection, my Good Portion, my Everlasting Salvation.

Christ Jesus, Sweet Lord, why have I ever loved, why in my whole life have I ever desired anything except You, Jesus my God? Where was I when I was not in spirit with You? Now, from this time forth, do you, all my desires, grow hot, and flow out upon the Lord Jesus ...

O, Sweet Jesus, may every good feeling that is fitted for Your praise, love You, delight in You, adore You! God of my heart, and my Portion, Christ Jesus, may my heart faint away in spirit, and may You be my Life within me! May the live coal of Your Love grow hot within my spirit and break forth into a perfect fire; may it burn incessantly on the altar of my heart; may it glow in my innermost being; may it blaze in hidden recesses of my soul; and in the days of my consummation may I be found consummated with You!