The practice of praying to the saints is one that seems to go quite a ways back in Church history. Protestantism has held from its inception that praying to the saints is not only worthless in that those who have departed from us don’t hear our prayers, but misdirected because our prayers should only be in communion with God through Jesus the Messiah. Towards the end of Tim Staples’ talk he brings this topic up which will complete this series of posts.
What the Scriptures Say
Tim mentions this topic as a part of the close of his discussion when he was at this point coming to grips with adopting Catholicism. At the 68:35 mark he says:
…My roommate was out and I remember just collapsing on my bed and I slid down to my knees and looked up to the ceiling and for the first time in my life, I prayed to a saint. I knew intellectually praying to saints, of course, Hebrews 12:1, Matthew 17:1-3, Revelation chapter 5, Revelation chapter 6, it’s all over the New Testament. I knew praying to saints was real. But I’d never done it. I knelt in exhaustion and I looked up to the ceiling and I said ‘Mary…’
The practice of praying to saints is largely understood as asking the departed to intercede for us as we would ask our fellow believer’s on earth to intercede for us. This practice isn’t isolated to the Catholic tradition as a few other traditions make this a part of their framework as well. The question I have most is a matter of what Scripture says and what Tim, and subsequently Catholic apologetics, bring up in its defense.
The first reference Tim states is Hebrews 12:1 which reads:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us1
The primary problem with using this verse to substantiate prayer to saints is that this verse doesn’t talk about praying to saints in any way. Put in context it should be noted that the writer to the Hebrews is exhorting the believers to run the race of faith as their predecessors had already done, going back to Creation. He concludes by illustrating them as a crowd of spectators at this point who would be cheering us on. I doubt the author had any idea that this would somehow be interpreted as justification for praying to saints, especially in light of verse 2 which reads:
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
If this passage had anything to do with prayer then it would only exhort us to focus our prayers on Jesus, but my argument is that this passage has absolutely nothing to with prayer but instead has everything to do with looking to the greats of our faith who have passed on before us as examples and encouragement for ourselves, the ultimate of which is Jesus. Paul Ellingworth, in his Hebrews commentary, writes:
V. 2 will apply explicitly to the readers what was doubtless implicit, but not expressed, in chap. 11, namely that the goal of their journeying, the fulfilment of their faith, was to be found in the person of Jesus.2
While Hebrews comes up short in light of exemplifying prayer to saints, Matthew 17:1-3 doesn’t do much better. It reads:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
The transfiguration narrative has Peter, James and John accompanying Jesus up a mountain where He is transfigured before them and at that time Moses and Elijah appear. The three disciples are obviously aware of this somehow as Peter then asks Jesus if he should go about putting up tents for them to stay in. But where is prayer here? At best this can only be used to substantiate that those who have passed before us are alive and in communion with Jesus to some degree. But no Christian would argue this.
Some might turn to the passage in Luke where, in Luke 9:28, it states specifically that Jesus went up to pray. But it never says that Jesus prayed to anyone but The Father. Again, if we are looking to these passages to example or substantiate praying to the saints, this is another dead end. But Tim did mention a couple chapters in Revelation.
I’m figuring Tim has his mind on Revelation 5:8 and Revelation 6:9-11. Revelation 8:3-4 is another often cited passage regarding the topic of prayer to saints. Revelation 5:8 reads:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The saints here should be linked with the saints in Revelation 6:9-11 which reads:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
The question that should be asked here is who are the saints praying to? The answer is they are praying to God. The next question is why? Is it because they were petitioned to by their fellow man? I don’t think so, the text doesn’t allow for it. Furthermore they are praying for themselves in that their blood would be avenged.
There is no example in these passages of Christians on earth praying to any other Christian who has departed. What’s more is that of the several commentaries I read in regard to Revelation 5:8, 6:9-11, 8:3-4 they are all in agreement that these saints are not limited to those who have already been martyred but that this is figurative of the Christian body who have undergone and are presently going through persecution of various sorts. For the final Scripture, Revelation 8:3-4 reads:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
While I don’t believe the idea of praying to saints is as grim as some make it out to be in that they suggest it has to do with conversing with the dead in the form of the occult, I do not find it a biblical practice by any stretch of the imagination. Of all the passages Tim Staples cited in regard to knowing intellectually that praying to saints was real, not one actually addresses the topic in any meaningful sense so as to give us a picture that the practice is valid. It would only make sense that Paul would not only mention but exhort such a practice if it were valid seeing as how he petitions Christians to pray for him in Colossians 4:3, he states that he continually prays for other Christians in Colossians 1:3, 2 Thessalonians 1:11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:1 and he petitions that Christians pray for all people in 1 Timothy 2:1-2. Not once does he, or any other writer in the Bible, suggest we pray to other people in order that they pray for us.
- All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society. ↩
- Ellingworth, P. (1993). The Epistle to the Hebrews: A commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (637). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press. ↩
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