March 9, 2003
In the June 2, 2000 issue of Gospel Minutes David Thurman wrote: "As Stephen was facing imminent death, he called on the Lord by praying to Jesus. Some might argue that this was an extreme case or that Stephen was inspired. But if we do what inspired men did in serving God, how can we be wrong? Stephen prayed to Jesus in this account" (page 4).
In the months and years since the above appeared in print, I have read with interest the unbelievable debate that has been waged over this statement by brother Thurman. I have also noted with sadness the abuse that has been heaped upon this good man for daring to voice a view which differs from that of a certain element within Christendom. Some have even gone so far as to accuse him of being a "false teacher" and an apostate. Why? Simply because his interpretation of this passage, and his perception of this matter, differs from theirs. How tragic.
The question is really a rather simple one: Does Acts 7:59 suggest Stephen prayed to Jesus? The definition of the word "pray" is --- "to implore, beseech, entreat, supplicate; to ask very earnestly." It is an act of communication between man and deity; between one who is finite and One who is infinite. It is the creature addressing the Creator. This raises a vital question --- Did Stephen address himself to deity that day? I believe he did. After all, most disciples of Jesus Christ firmly believe in the deity of the Son of God. And there is no question that Stephen addressed himself to the ascended Savior. Thus, by definition, Stephen prayed. The problem for some, however, lies in the fact that he clearly addressed himself to JESUS, which certain disciples feel a Christian is not permitted to do. We must pray only to the Father, and never to the Son .... or, so we are told by those who embrace this position. It seems, however, that Stephen was unaware of this restriction.
Some have argued that the common Greek word for prayer is not employed in this passage, and thus Stephen did not technically PRAY to anyone that day .... and certainly not to Jesus. He just "called upon" Jesus, or implored or entreated or supplicated Him, but he did NOT "pray" to Him. Yes, we can get technical, if we like, but the fact is clearly stated in the text that Stephen addressed himself to Jesus, regardless of how one chooses to characterize the exact nature of that address to deity (and, again, I'm assuming we all accept the deity of the risen Lord!!!). If it makes one feel better to believe that this does not constitute "official prayer," then so be it. But, again, prayer, by definition, is man communicating with deity --- and that is exactly what Stephen did that day. The part of the Godhead to whom he addressed himself was clearly the risen Savior, and not the Father.
The KJV, interestingly enough, has confused this issue somewhat by adding to the text of Acts 7:59. It reads, "And they stoned Stephen, calling upon GOD, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." The word "God" is NOT in the biblical text. It is an unwarranted addition by mere men. Note the comment of Adam Clarke in his commentary on the book of Acts: "The word 'God' is not found in any MS or version, nor in any of the primitive fathers except Chrysostom. It is not genuine, and should not be inserted here" (volume 5, page 735). It is clearly an addition to the text, and misleads the reader. There is absolutely NO authority for such a flagrant addition to Acts 7:59, and such is inexcusable. It surprises me that more people aren't rising to condemn the KJV for clearly ADDING to God's Word in this passage. After all, the defenders of the KJV quickly condemn other translations, calling them "perversions," for less than this --- why not be consistent, and do the same with the KJV?
Some have suggested that the NIV has just as flagrantly added the word "prayed" to the text of Acts 7:59. The word so translated by the NIV translators is "epikaleomai" which literally means "to call upon." Although not the common word in Greek for "prayer," it was/is understood to be an acceptable synonym. Bauer (Arndt & Gingrich) points out that it is a "calling upon" or an "appeal to divinity," and Acts 7:59 is given as an example of this usage (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, page 294). Although the wording may be somewhat different (due to the emphasis upon the nature of the appeal), nevertheless this is still a case of men appealing to or calling upon deity --- and by definition that is "prayer." This has been clearly understood by reputable scholars for centuries, as even cursory research will quickly reveal.
In Kittel's massive and classic Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, for example, he writes: "Often in the NT the believer calls on God or Christ, or the name of God or Christ, in prayer" --- and Kittel gives Acts 7:59 as an example of this "calling upon" deity in "prayer" (volume 3, page 497). On page 500 he further remarks, "The directing of prayer to Jesus is a mark of faith in the Messiah." The Greek "epikaleomai" is clearly understood by the best Greek scholars to be synonymous with the concept of "prayer." And, further, Acts 7:59 is viewed as a perfect example of a man "calling upon" in prayer that part of the Godhead which is the Christ. Thus, the NIV was perfectly within its rights, according to accepted Greek usage, to translate this word as "prayer."
It should also be pointed out that the NIV does not stand alone with this translation of "epikaleomai" as "prayer." Many other translations do the same. Note just a few examples:
More examples could be given, but these few illustrate that numerous translations understood the Greek word "epikaleomai" to be a reference to "prayer." Such an understanding is completely consistent with the meaning and usage of this word.
Not only was/is this the understanding of Greek scholars and biblical translators, but it was/is also the understanding of many highly respected biblical commentators as well. Adam Clarke wrote: "Here is a most manifest proof that prayer is offered to Jesus Christ" (Clarke's Commentary, volume 5, page 735). Herbert Lockyer, in his book All The Prayers of the Bible, listed this particular prayer of Stephen. He then commented, "Praying to the Lord Jesus to receive his spirit, he re-echoed the Master's last prayer on the Cross" (page 232).
F.F. Bruce, in his commentary on Acts, wrote: "Whereas Jesus commended His spirit to the Father, Stephen commended his to Jesus. This is surely an early, if tacit, testimony to the Christian belief in our Lord's essential deity" (page 171). On the next page, Bruce notes: "And having prayed thus, says Luke, 'he fell asleep.'" Dr. William Carver, in his book The Acts of the Apostles, declares "...he prayed" (page 78). Dr. Adam Adcock, in Acts Analyzed, writes: "Just before Stephen 'fell asleep,' he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'" (page 84).
Even within our own fellowship in Christendom, and especially among those often considered among the "greats" of the Restoration Movement, we find this view that Stephen indeed prayed .... and that his prayer was directed unto Jesus. H. Leo Boles, in his commentary on the book of Acts (published by Gospel Advocate), writes: "As Stephen prayed, he was stoned" (page 119). On the next page he declared: "Stephen's prayer was made to Jesus to receive his spirit." David Lipscomb, in his work Acts of the Apostles, stated: "They stoned Stephen, Stephen praying and saying: 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'" (page 87).
I hope this brief examination will prove useful, and that it might further serve to silence the harsh, judgmental spirits of some among us who seem to feel "called of God" to "mark and maim" all those on earth with whom they personally differ on certain matters of perception or practice. Unity and harmony among brothers and sisters will never be achieved if every differing perception becomes the basis for renewed efforts at evisceration of spiritual siblings. May we rise above such legalistic lunacy.
From a Missionary in Brazil:
I am a missionary working in Brazil. I grew up and was baptized in the Church of Christ and we have been supported by Churches of Christ in the fifteen years or so I've been here. We do consider ourselves just Christians. As a matter of fact, most of the churches here don't even have a sign on them.
I have really gotten a lot out of your articles. I especially liked The Law According To Pa. That one brought tears to my eyes. I am teaching at a church retreat this weekend and would like to use that story to illustrate how I do not think God reacts negatively or harshly to our worship when it is done with a sincere heart. Thankfully, we are not fighting any "worship wars" here now. But, I can see we might have some friction in the future and I hope to head it off with a little preemptive positive teaching on the subject. I would like to have your permission to translate the story into Portuguese. I will try to stay as close as possible to the literal meaning of the story. If that would be all right I would sure appreciate it.
God bless and guide you and your family, and thanks again for some really helpful insights.
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