Laying Out the Case for Praying to Saints

This is the first in what will probably be a two-part series. Today, I’m going to lay out the affirmative case for why praying to the Saints is Biblically grounded; tomorrow, I’m going to address some of the common objections. If you have any questions or concerns about this, let me know, and I’ll do my best to answer.

A. The Living and the Dead Remain Part of One Body: A Lesson from Romans
Paul says in Romans 8:38-39 that, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And if we remain “in Christ,” we remain one Body, since Romans 12:4-5 tells us that “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one Body, and each member belongs to all the others.” So all of us, both here and abroad, both living and dead, are part of one Body, and we all “belong to one another.” Just because we’re in the Church militant, and they’re in the Church sufferring or Church triumphant doesn’t mean we’re not all tasked with looking out for one another.

B. We Should Intercede for One Another: The True Meaning of 1 Timothy 2
Some Protestants try and deny the intercession of the Saints on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” But this seems to me the most egregious use of proof-texting, taking a verse wholly out of its context, and severing it even from the second half of the sentence. The passages actually reads (1 Timothy 2:1-6):

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.

So Paul begins by asking for intercession! Clearly, in context, it’s obvious that Christ’s unique role of mediator refers to His dying for our sins: He alone can pay the eternal debt owed His Father. Reading it to mean that there is only one “intercessor” between God and men makes nonsense of the passage: particularly since the Holy Spirit is also described as interceding for us (Romans 8:26). Yet even with the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ interceding for us, we’re still called to intercede for one another: Paul asks as much in Ephesians 6:19-20. And in the verse immediately prior (Eph. 6:18), he instructs us to “always keep on praying for all the saints.” Not simply the Saints still on Earth. All the Saints.

C. The Dead Can See Us: The “Great Crowd of Witnesses” from Hebrews 12
Hebrews 11 is a great chapter of the Bible, talking about those who lived by faith, in chronological order: Abel, the author talks about Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, the Jews who trusted Moses, the Jericho marchers, and Rahab. He then says, in Hebrews 11:32, “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets,” and proceeds to summarize in broad strokes the faith-inspired deeds of these later generations of faithful Jews, while reminding us that “the world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:38). It’s a fantastic salvation history, showing how these pre-Christian Jews put their trust in Christ, whether they knew it or not. If it weren’t itself inspired Scripture, it would still be worth including as an Introduction to the Old Testament at the front of people’s Bibles. Then, he says, in Heb. 11:39-40, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” That’s the idea from A., above – we’re all in this together. But he doesn’t stop there, and the next thing he says is soaked in the Holy Spirit (Heb. 12:1-2):

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us
throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let
us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on
Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him
endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the
throne of God.

Beautiful words, and worthy of prayerful consideration for a lot of reasons. For now, it suffices to note that the whole litany of Saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 are considered a “great crowd of witnesses” watching a race: our race.

GotQuestions, in an attempted refutation of this notion of praying to Saints, says “The Bible gives absolutely no indication that Mary or the saints can hear our prayers. Mary and the saints are not omniscient. Even glorified in Heaven, they are still finite beings with limitations. How could they possibly hear the prayers of millions of people?” This is clearly wrong. If they can’t observe us, they’re not witnesses. So either Hebrews is right, or GotQuestions is. And given their respective track records, I’ll take the former. In fairness, the mistake the author is making is a basic one: he assumes that time in Heaven works the same way that time on Earth works. This is sort of the “Heaven is a place in the clouds where people play harps” view of the afterlife which seems hard to shake. So the problem is really with the view of the afterlife, the subtle assumptions about what those in Heaven are bound by. I think that it’s safe to say that the “great crowd of witnesses” isn’t up there trying to learn English so that they can figure out what they’re witnessing.

D. The Dead Continue to Pray for the Living: Lazarus and Dives
In Luke 16:27-28, part of the parable of Lazarus and Dives, the rich man (“Dives”), who is in agony in Hell, prays to “father Abraham” (cf. Luke 16:24), who is in the Limbo of the Fathers, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham refuses the request, because “they have Moses and the Prophets,” not, interestingly enough, because he’s incapable of raising Lazarus from the dead (Luke 16:29). But even if, arguendo, Abraham is incapable of performing this miracle, we still see Lazarus aware of the state of his brothers and wanting to intercede for them. If this is true of Lazarus in Hell, how much more true of the Saints in Heaven?

E. Angels Intercede for Us
It’s worth briefly noting that in Matthew 18:10, Jesus makes it clear that we have guardian angels looking out for us, when He says, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Their angels. That means you’ve got angels in Heaven looking upon the Father and interceding on behalf of you, specifically. These angels (finite beings they are) are able to being always in the presence of God while still aware of what’s going on in your life: Heaven clearly doesn’t play by the same rules Earth does. And what’s more, this angelic intercession doesn’t offend the dignity or sovereignty of Christ at all. He’s the One who tells us about it!

F. A Glimpse Into the Process of Intercession
Finally, there are two parts of the Book of Revelation which warrant mention. Revelation 5 mentions the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, receiving the prayers of the saints from the elders (Rev. 5:6-8):

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of
the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven
horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the
earth. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the
throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four
elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding
golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

This, by the way, is where that “sitting on clouds playing harps” image comes from. Except they’re not sitting on clouds, of course – they’re worshipping the Paschal Lamb. I’m a bit unclear on who the “elders” are: whether they’re Saints in Heaven themselves, or whether they’re Heavenly beings. It’s also not stated whether the “prayers of the Saints” are those of the Saints on Earth, in Heaven, or both. Revelation 8:3-4 might shed some light on both questions, since there, “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” So angels are (at the very least) involved in the intercessory process somehow, and the prayers are of “all the saints,” not just those living or those dead.

What’s also clear is that some sort of intercession is going on. Christ, who “lives to intercede” for us to the Father (Hebrews 7:25), Himself receives prayers from other intercessors, these elders. And note: the elders and the angels are also finite beings (regardless of whether the elders are human or angelic). They’re not gods, but they’re still capable of taking all of the prayers everywhere, in every language, those expressed mentally or verbally, and gathering them up. They’re laid before the Son, and offerred as sacrifices to the Father (hence the incense). 1 Corinthians 6:3 makes it clear that in our glorified state, we will be superior to the angels. So if angels are capable of receiving our prayers and interceding for us to the Father, how can we conclude otherwise for humans? At the very least, one would have to conclude that the messenger angels who deliver our prayer-mail to God can also deliver it to the Saints we’re asking for intercession.

G. Conclusion
I think that from the Biblical evidence, it’s clear that as members of the Body of Christ, we have an obligation, whether living or dead, to pray for one another and to intercede for all the Saints, as well as various other subjects of our prayers (those in authority, for example). We have an obligation to pray for the dead; they, as members of the Body of Christ, have an obligation to pray for us. It’s ok to ask that they pray for specific things, just as Paul asked us to pray for certain things in Ephesians 6:19-20. It’s not really different from a sports player trying to “pump up” the crowd, or get them to cheer a certain thing: these are our “great cloud of witnesses” and they’re rooting us on to God. It’s also clear (as Part F suggests) that the process of prayer is much more complex than it seems on the surface. Rather than prayer simply being between me and God, there are clearly a host of heavenly beings who are involved in offerring that prayer, in some brilliant Divine plan. Assuming that Saints or angels can’t help because they’re finite misunderstands the much-bigger-than-us nature of prayer.

Hopefully, this lays out the groundwork for why praying for and to the Saints is Biblical. Obviously, this doesn’t extend to worshipping the Saints, but I don’t think anyone reading this blog is of at particular risk of that (hypothetical) sin. Feel free to ask any questions you’re struggling with in the combox, and in part 2, I’ll try and answer both the usual problems people have with this concept, and anything y’all might bring up.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent post as usual.

    My two cents:

    (1) For Revelation 5:8 you had said: “I’m a bit unclear on who the “elders” are: whether they’re Saints in Heaven themselves, or whether they’re Heavenly beings. It’s also not stated whether the “prayers of the Saints” are those of the Saints on Earth, in Heaven, or both.”

    You probably have thought more about this since 2010, but since you recently linked to this article I think you’ll agree that the Elders are in Heaven, and the “Saints” mentioned here are Christians on earth. So the text is to be understood as “the Elders in heaven receive and relay the prayers of the Saints on earth”.

    (2) You have recently written an excellent post on Onias and Jeremiah explicitly interceding for the believers on earth:

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