Notes on Prayer: John 15:7, 16 (continued)

John 15:7-17, continued

The condition for the promise of answered prayer is stated two ways—in verses 7 and 16, respectively. The first involves the verb me/nw (“remain”), which is used repeatedly throughout the Vine illustration and its exposition (vv. 1-16). The importance (and significance) of this Johannine keyword was discussed in last week’s study. The condition requires that the believer “remains” connected and united with Jesus, by a bond that runs in two directions:

    • The believer “remains” in Jesus— “if you would remain in me…”
    • Jesus’ words “remain” in the believer— “…and my words [r(h/mata] would remain in you”

The conditional aspect of this two-fold clause is indicated by the use of the subjunctive, along with the governing particle e)a/n (“if”)— “if you would…”. On the surface, the idea that Jesus’ words remain in the believer would seem to refer, rather simply, to observance of Jesus’ various teachings, keeping them in one’s mind and heart. However, while not entirely invalid, such an interpretation is off the mark in terms of the Johannine theology and the context of Last Discourse. It might seem to be confirmed by the parallel, in the central exposition of vv. 9-14, with the statements regarding the ‘commandments’ (e)ntolai/) of Jesus, as though this referred to specific teachings given by Jesus to his disciples. But, again, I would maintain that this is incorrect.

The disciple will, of course, pay special attention to all that Jesus said and did, following both his teaching and his example. But the emphasis here in the Last Discourse is actually quite different. A proper understanding depends on the significance of the term e)ntolh/, as it is used in the Johannine writings. As I have previously discussed, while e)ntolh/ is typically translated as “command(ment)”, it more properly denotes a duty placed on a person—something that the person is obligated to fulfill or complete. While it can be used in reference to the requirements and regulations in the Torah, it gradually ceased to have this meaning for believers. Some early Christians sought to substitute a collection of teachings by Jesus (such as in the Sermon on the Mount), resulting in a new kind of Torah, but even this came to be at odds with the early Christian religious worldview—at least as it is expressed at key points in the New Testament Scriptures.

To understand the Johannine view of the term e)ntolh/, our best (and clearest) guide is the declaration in 1 John 3:23-24:

“And this is His e)ntolh/: that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed), and (that) we should love each other, even as he gave us (this) e)ntolh/.”

It is a single duty (or ‘command’), which is also two-fold—that is, it has two components (trust and love), each of which is binding for believers. It may be said fairly that this dual charge is the only binding ‘commandment’ for believers in Christ—and that all other right moral and religious behavior stems from this one dual command. The interchangeability of the singular e)ntolh/ and plural e)ntolai/ in the Johannine writings tends to confirm this point.

The Love Command

Here in the Last Discourse, it is the love-component that is emphasized, reflecting a view of the so-called “love command” that was widely held among early Christians. This “love command” derives primarily from Jesus’ own teaching, exemplified in the Synoptic tradition by the famous saying of Jesus in Mark 12:30-31 par (cp. the ‘Golden Rule’ in Matt 7:12 par). Early Christians came to view this “love command” as effectively summarizing the entirety of the Old Testament Law (Torah), with the single command, as an expression of the way in which believers are committed to following the teaching and example of Jesus himself, coming to take the place of the myriad of Torah regulations. We see this tendency (and principle) stated in several different lines of early Christian tradition: in the writings of Paul (Gal 5:6, 13-14; Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13; 16:14, etc), the letter of James (2:8ff, cf. also 1:25ff), and in the Johannine writings.

In the Gospel of John, the “love command” is presented as a direct, precise command (e)ntolh/) given by Jesus to his disciples—it introduces the Last Discourse (13:34-35), and runs throughout the Discourse as a central theme. Consider how it is emphasized here in 15:7-17, especially in the middle expository portion covering vv. 9-15:

    • Verses 9-12: Love (a)ga/ph), the significance of the “love command” —as the bond between believers and Jesus (and with God the Father)
    • Verse 13: The example of love in the person of Jesus
    • Verses 14-15: Those who follow Jesus’ example are beloved (“dear ones,” filoi) to him (and to God the Father)

The fundamental importance of the “love command” is illustrated by the careful thematic structure found in verses 9-10, which takes the form of a chiastic outline:

    • The Father has loved me (Jesus, the Son)
      • I have loved you (believers) in turn
        • e)ntolh/: “remain in my love”
          • you will remain in my love if
        • you keep my e)ntolai/ (love)
      • as I have kept my Father’s e)ntolai/ (love)
    • I remain in His (the Father’s) love

The ‘command’ —indeed, the ‘commandments’ [plural], and the “words” of Jesus (v. 7)—are all contained and embodied in the single comprehensive dynamic of love. This is not simply a command to love, though it may be expressed that way; rather, it is the very love that unites Jesus (the Son) with God the Father. The Father loves the Son, and the Son, in turn, loves the other “offspring” (children) of God—those believers who come to trust in Jesus as God’s Son. It is through the bond of love that we are united with Jesus, abiding and “remaining” in him, even as he “remains” in us. Since Jesus, as the Son, also abides in the bond of love with God the Father, when we “remain” in the Son, we “remain” in the Father as well (and He in us). This is the essence of the Johannine theology, particularly as it is expressed and expounded in the Last Discourse.

The Spirit

If the bond that unites with Father and Son is defined in terms of love, it may equally be understood in terms of the Spirit—the presence of the Holy Spirit in and among believers. It may be better to keep the idea of a bond associated specifically with love, since love (a)ga/ph) is expressed repeatedly as a binding requirement (e)ntolh/) in a way that the Spirit is not. The Spirit instead is a presence—the abiding presence of Jesus the Son, and, through the Son, the presence of God the Father as well. Through the Spirit, Jesus continues to speak and instruct his disciples. This is another way to understand the words of Jesus “remaining” in his disciples: through the Spirit who “remains” (that is, abides) in us (14:17). It is not simply a matter of the Spirit enabling Jesus’ disciples to recall and retain the things he said during his earthly ministry, though that is part of the picture (14:26). Rather,—and this must be emphasized—Jesus continues to speak to believers through the Spirit. Insofar as the Spirit “remains” in us, Jesus’ words—especially the ‘command’ to love—remain in us as well.

The identification of Jesus’ words with the Spirit of God is made clearly, and directly, in the statement of 6:63b: “the words [r(h/mata] that I have spoken to you are (the) Spirit and are (the) Life”. The term used here, as in 15:7, is r(h=ma, which properly means “utterance” (i.e., something spoken). However, it can also be used in a more general sense, and, in the Johannine writings, the noun r(h=ma is largely interchangeable with lo/go$. The “utterances” (r(h/mata) of Jesus cannot be reduced simply to a specific set of teachings, things he said during his earthly ministry; they are also a living word (r(h=ma), even as Jesus himself is the living Word (lo/go$) of God. And it is this living Word—which includes all of his “words” —that “remains” in us through the presence of the Spirit.

The role of the Spirit, in terms of the references to prayer in the Last Discourse, will be discussed further in the concluding study in this set. Next week, our study will cover three areas:

    • An examination of the closing reference to prayer here in verse 16
    • A survey of the remaining references to prayer in the Last Discourse, and
    • A consideration of how the various conditional statements relate to the promise of our requests (prayers) being answered by God

(For further study on the New Testament view of the Old Testament Law [Torah], and its significance for believers in Christ, you may wish to consult my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament” —especially the articles and notes on “Jesus and the Law” and “Paul’s View of the Law”.)

Notes on Prayer: John 15:7, 16

After a short hiatus this Christmas season, the Monday Notes on Prayer returns as a regular feature. Previously, we had begun a study series on references to prayer in the Last Discourse of Jesus (John 13:31-16:33). Our first studies examined the reference in 14:13-14, along with a study on the idea of prayer “in Jesus’ name”, considering the meaning of that expression in the context of the theology (and Christology) of the Johannine Discourses. This week we will move ahead in the Last Discourse to the section covering 15:7-17.

John 15:7-17

Before proceeding, it may be helpful to revisit the structure of the Last Discourse, to see where 15:7-17 fits into this overall framework.

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

John 15:1-16:4a, the second Discourse-division, is at the center of the Last Discourse complex, set in between the two (roughly parallel) divisions focused on the departure of Jesus. 15:1-16:4a emphasizes the place of the disciples (believers) in the world, following Jesus’ departure.

The first half of this particular discourse (vv. 1-17) involves the illustration of the Vine and Branches, an expository message that may be outlined as follows:

    • llustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • The Illustration (vv. 1-3)
      • Application:
        —Remaining/abiding in Jesus (vv. 4-9)
        —Love and the Commandments (vv. 10-11)
        —The Love Command (vv. 12-15)
      • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 16-17)

There are a number of other ways one might divide this material, and it is possible to demarcate verses 7-17 as a unit—representing the exposition of the main illustration in verses 1-6. This alternate way of dividing the passage is useful for our study here, since the section of vv. 7-17 both begins and ends with a statement regarding prayer:

Verse 7:
“If you would remain in me, and my words [r(h/mata] remain in you, (then) you may request what ever you would wish (for), and it will come to be (so) for you.”
Verse 16:
“…(so) that you…should bear fruit, and your fruit would remain, (so) that whatever you would request (of) the Father in my name, He would give to you.”

The distinctiveness of vv. 7-17 as a unit is confirmed by the clear and careful thematic structure of the passage. Note, in particular, the following chiastic outline, focusing on the framing portions of vv. 7-8 and 16-17:

    • my words remain in you”, implying acceptance and obedience to Jesus’ words (v. 7a)
      • Promise of answered prayer: ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you (v. 7b)
        • emphasis on the disciples bearing fruit (v. 8a)
          • on being/becoming Jesus’ disciple (v. 8b)
          • on Jesus’ gathering out [his disciples] (v. 16a)
        • emphasis on the disciples bearing fruit (v. 16b)
      • Promise of answered prayer: the Father will give you whatever you ask [in Jesus’ name] (v. 16c)
    • these things” that Jesus gives to his followers as a duty (v. 17)

In the central portion of verses 9-15, Jesus expounds further what it means to be his disciple. This is expressed through three distinctive themes: (1) remaining in Jesus (using the verb me/nw), (2) keeping the “commandments” of Jesus, and (3) the principal idea of love. All of these are important components to the theology of the Johannine writings. This set of three items can actually be reduced to two, since the emphasis on the “commandments” and the theme of love are so closely interconnected as to be essentially the same.

1. “Remaining” (vb me/nw)

In the immediate context of 15:1-16:4a, this refers to the illustration of the Vine (in vv. 1-3ff). The only branches that bear fruit are those that remain in the vine; at the same time, branches that do not bear fruit are cut off, so that they truly are no longer part of the vine. This imagery, however, reflects a wider use of the verb me/nw in the Gospel of John. The verb is a key part of the Johannine theological vocabulary. It occurs more often in the Gospel (40 times) and Letters (27 times) than in the rest of the New Testament writings combined (51 occurrences total). Even in places where it seems to be used in a common, ordinary sense in the narrative (1:38-39; 2:12, etc), the verb carries a deeper meaning.

In the context of the Johannine theology, the verb me/nw serves as a defining term for the believer’s trust in Jesus. As the Gospel narrative indicates at a number of points, there were people who exhibited a certain kind of “trust” in Jesus, but then fell away, or whose initial belief did not lead to true, lasting faith in Jesus as the Son of God. The trust possessed by the true believer remains.

There are two aspects of this meaning of the verb me/nw: (a) continuance, and (b) an abode. The believer’s trust continues, in that it lasts “into the Age (to come)”, an idiom that is used in the Gospel to express the idea of eternal life. The believer, even in the present Age, possesses this eternal Life of God, coming to possess it through trust in Jesus, though, in truth, the believer only comes to faith in Jesus because he/she already belongs to God. There is a strong sense of election in the Johannine writings, with the concept of disciples being chosen (“gathered out”) by Jesus; and yet, at the same time, this choosing reflects their identity as God’s children, those who belong to Him as His own offspring (te/kna).

The second aspect of the verb me/nw is that of abiding—that is, in a dwelling-place or abode. This aspect featured prominently in the earlier section of the Discourse (14:1-14) that contained the first two sayings on prayer (vv. 13-14). Indeed, it is the aspect that comes to dominate the thought expressed in the Discourse, with emphasis being given to the idea that God will come to take up His abode in and among believers, through the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit represents the presence of both Father and Son, though it is the Son’s presence that has priority, since it is through the Son that we experience the presence of the Father. This is a key component of the Johannine theology, and it is expressed in the Last Discourse, utilizing the verb me/nw, in 14:10, 17. The verb is especially prominent here in the Vine illustration of 15:1-3ff, occurring repeatedly (11 times), in vv. 4-7, 9-10, 16. It is also central to the sayings on prayer in vv. 7 and 16 (cf. above), where it is emphasized as the requirement, or condition, for the promise of prayer being answered by God:

“If you remain [mei/nhte] in me, and my words remain [mei/nh|] in you…” (v. 7)
“that you…should bear fruit, and your fruit would remain [me/nh|], (so) that…” (v. 16)

The conditional nature of these clauses is indicated by the subjunctive form of the verb.

2. The “Commandments” and Love

Verse 17 emphasizes the need to keep the ‘commands’ (e)ntolai/) of Jesus, the things he has ‘commanded’ (e)nte/llomai) his disciples. The same point is made throughout verses 9-15, in the central expository section of the passage. The customary translation of the noun e)ntolh/ as “command[ment],” however, is somewhat misleading, especially in the context of the Johannine Discourses. The fundamental meaning of the noun (and related verb) more properly refers to something (i.e., a duty, obligation, mission) placed on (i.e., given to) a person to complete. Jesus uses it a number of times in reference to the mission he was sent to earth (by God the Father) to complete (cf. 10:18; 12:49-50; 15:10). The use of the plural e)ntolai/ does not refer to the commandments of the Law (i.e., the Torah regulations, etc), nor even to specific teachings of Jesus. This last point requires some further explanation.

It certainly is true that the disciple of Jesus will follow his teaching and example. This idea is central to the theology of the Johannine Discourses. Jesus (as the Son) does and says all that he sees/hears the Father doing/saying, and those who believe in the Son (Jesus) will likewise do the same with regard to what he does and says. However, this cannot be reduced to a concrete set of “commands”, in a manner similar to the Torah regulations, that are then to be obeyed by believers. The true significance of the e)ntolai/ (or the singular e)ntolh/) for believers, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings (and here in the Last Discourse), is defined by two key themes:

    1. The singular ‘command’ of Love (a)ga/ph), and
    2. The continuation of Jesus’ presence through the Spirit

Because of the great importance of this subject, both for the statements on prayer in vv. 7, 16 and the exposition in vv. 9-15, it is necessary to devote a full study to it, which we will do in next week’s Monday Notes on Prayer.

 

 

 

Notes on Prayer: John 14:13-14, etc (continued)

John 14:13-14, continued

A major aspect of the references to prayer in the Last Discourse involves the expression “in Jesus’ name” and what this signifies in the Johannine context. This context is related to the wider early Christian tradition, but the Johannine Gospel give to the tradition a distinctive theological emphasis, along with a new and deeper meaning. The early tradition may be summarized according to three points: (1) disciples of Jesus acting and gathering “in his name”, i.e., as his representatives (Mk 9:37-39 par; Matt 7:22; 18:20; Lk 24:47; Acts 3:6ff; 9:15, etc); (2) speaking/praying “in Jesus’ name” as an extension of the apostolic witness (Acts 4:17-18; 8:12; 15:17; 2 Thess 1:12; Col 3:17; James 5:10-14, etc); and (3) the ritual dimension of being baptized “in(to) Jesus’ name”, that is, into the (religious) identity of being believers in Christ (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 1 Cor 1:13ff; 5:4, etc).

The Johannine development of the early tradition is significant, and must be studied carefully. I offer here an exposition, according to a number of key points.

1. To begin with, references to the name of Jesus in the Gospel of John are primarily related to trust (pi/sti$, vb pisteu/w) in Jesus. This can be seen most clearly in the confessional statements presented (and/or composed) by the Gospel writer—1:12; 2:23; 3:18; 20:31 (cf. also 1 John 3:23; 5:13). Jn 3:18 is part of a discourse by Jesus, but corresponds precisely (and is formulated according to) the Johannine theology. Trust in Jesus is defined by the expression “in his name”, using either the preposition ei)$ (“into”) or the more conventional e)n (“in”). This very much follows the early tradition (Acts 2:21; 4:12ff; Rom 10:13, etc), but with a more precise definition.

2. According to the ancient Near Eastern worldview, the name of a person represents and embodies the nature and character of the person. Thus, to trust in Jesus’ name fundamentally means to trust in the person of Jesus. There is nothing specifically Johannine about this, except insofar as the theology of the Johannine writings presents a distinctive portrait of who Jesus is. For more on the ancient background of names and naming, as it relates to the Gospel and early Christianity, cf. my prior series “You Shall Call His Name…”.

3. The Johannine Gospel and Letters, perhaps more than any other writings in the New Testament, emphasize trust in Jesus in terms of his special (and unique) identity, represented by the two titles “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) and “Son of God”. These titles are joined together in the key confessional statements of 11:27 and 20:31 (cf. also 1:34 [v.l.] and 1 Jn 3:23; 5:20), and it is clear that the identity of the (true) believer in Christ depends on the proper (Christological) view of what it means to call Jesus by these titles (cf. especially the discussion running through 1 John).

4. It is the title Son of God that is most pertinent for the Johannine theology and the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel. Throughout the Gospel Discourses, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son” —primarily in the discourses of chapters 5 and 6, but also in the opening sections of the Last Discourse (14:13, cf. also 13:31), and the great Prayer-Discourse (17:1). The statements in 3:16-18, while part of the Nicodemus discourse (of Jesus), are also formulated in accordance with the (Johannine) theology of the Gospel writer.

5. Central to the Johannine Christology, in this regard, is the special relationship between Jesus (the Son) and God the Father. The Father-Son relationship runs through the Gospel Discourses, and is established from the beginning, in the Prologue (1:1, 14, 18). Key statements occur within the chapter 3 discourse-episodes (vv. 16-18, 35-36), and are central to the Discourses of chapter 5 (vv. 17-27, 36-37) and 6 (vv. 27, 37ff, 57). Again this theological theme dominates portions of the Sukkot-discourses (8:16-19, 27-59; 10:15-18, 29-38), and features in the transitional episodes leading into the Passion narrative (and the Last Discourse)—12:26-28, 49-50; 13:1ff.

6. The theological dimension of the Father-Son relationship, within the Johannine Discourses, is based upon two lines of illustration. First, a son naturally imitates the behavior of his father; a dutiful son, in particular, consciously follows his father’s example, which often extends to a period of apprenticeship in his occupation. A number of times in the Discourses, Jesus refers specifically to how he, the Son, does and says what he sees/hears the Father doing/saying (5:19, 36; 8:28, 38ff; 10:37; 12:50; 14:10ff; 15:15). In this regard, the Son (Jesus) speaks and acts in His Father’s name (5:43; 10:25).

Second, is the image of a father providing for his son, giving to him, both in terms of instruction/guidance, but also covering the aspect of inheritance—the son as heir to the father. The Discourses also build upon this idea, emphasizing how the Father gives “all things” to the Son (3:34-35; 16:15). This includes the duty that the Father has given to him, to complete in his time on earth (5:36; 10:18; 17:4ff), and also the power to complete the work–specifically, the life-giving power that belongs to God (5:19-21ff; 6:27ff, 57; 14:10; 17:2). Jesus’ own disciples, those who come to trust in him, were also given to him by the Father (6:37, 44ff, 65; 10:29; 17:2, 6-19ff). All of this can be summarized, in the concluding Prayer-Discourse, by the key references to the name of the Father—which was given to Jesus (the Son), and who, in turn, has given it (i.e., made it known) to believers; note the important statements in 17:6, 11-12, 26.

7. According to the ancient significance of names and naming (cf. above), for Jesus to make known the name of the Father is essentially the same as making known the Father Himself. This is possible, again, because Jesus himself is the Son of the Father, the Son of God. The Son manifests the Father in his own person, because he represents the Father, speaking and acting just as the Father does (with the Father’s authority). He also shares in the Father’s own nature and character, possessing the same power and ability, indicated especially by (a) his life-giving power, and (b) the presence of God’s Spirit. The last point will be discussed further in the upcoming studies.

8. Jesus’ possession of a Divine name is a theme found in the Christ-hymns of Philippians (2:6-11) and Hebrews (1:2b-4), discussed in recent daily notes. In these passages, the “name” of Jesus in not simply “Jesus (Yeshua)”, but a name belonging to God Himself. The context in Hebrews suggests that the “name” is the specific title “Son (of God)”, in the developed Christological sense of the title that is evident throughout both Hebrews and the Johannine writings (cf. above). In the Philippians hymn, the “name” appears to be the divine name YHWH, as represented by the title “Lord” (ku/rio$). A similar dynamic occurs in the Gospel of John, where Jesus possesses the Divine name of God the Father.

Significantly, in Philippians and Hebrews, this Divine naming is associated with the exaltation of Jesus, following his death and resurrection. This reflects the exaltation-Christology of the earliest believers, to which a pre-existence Christology is balanced in the hymns (cf. also Col 1:15-20). What is distinctive in the Johannine Discourses, is the fact that Jesus is clearly identified as the Son of God, and possesses the Divine name, prior to his resurrection—that is, during the time of his earthly ministry, and even stretching back to his pre-existence, before the very creation of the world. In my view, this demonstrates an even more developed Christology within the Johannine writings that goes beyond what is expressed in the other Christ hymns.

9. Finally, along these same lines, we must note one aspect that is truly distinctive—if not unique—to the portrait of Jesus in the Johannine Discourses. It is evinced by the famous “I am” sayings of Jesus that occur throughout the Discourses—6:35ff; 8:12 (also 9:5); 10:7-9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5, cf. also 6:20; 18:5. As nearly all commentators recognize, this “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) usage intentionally alludes to ancient religious tradition, associated with the self-revelation of God—and, specifically, to the tradition involving the interpretation of the Divine name YHWH in Exodus 3:14 (LXX). In the Discourses, Jesus is identifying himself with God, even as the Son identifies himself with the Father, and the Logos is identified with the Creator God in the Prologue (1:1ff). Moreover, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, trust and belief in Jesus (= in Jesus’ name) entails a recognition of Jesus as the Divine “I am”. This is expressed rather clearly by the sayings in 8:24, 28 and 13:19 (cf. also 8:58). As is typically the case, the Gospel of John presents early Christian tradition—here, the idea of Jesus possessing the Divine name—with greater theological precision and depth of meaning.

This study, it is to be hoped, will aid greatly in our understanding of the key lines of Johannine thought, regarding the “name of Jesus”, as we continue through the remaining references to prayer in the Last Discourse.

 

Notes on Prayer: John 14:13-14, etc

John 14:13-14, continued

Last week, we began a study on the references to prayer in the Last Discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of John (13:31-16:33). The first such references are the twin sayings of 14:13-14. There are two aspects of these sayings which need to be examined further: (1) the relationship between God the Father and Jesus (the Son), and (2) the precise meaning and significance of prayer “in Jesus’ name”.

Before embarking on a study of these aspects, it is worth surveying the basic outline and focus of these sayings, as they fit a basic pattern. Similar sayings occur elsewhere in the Last Discourse; we shall examine these in turn, but let us begin by citing them here (alongside the dual-saying in 14:13-14):

“any(thing) that you would request in my name, this I will do…
if you would request any(thing of) me in my name, I will do (it)” [14:13-14]

“any(thing) that you would request (of) the Father in my name, he shall give to you” (15:16)
“any(thing) that you would request (of) the Father in my name, he will give (it) to you” (16:23)
(cf. also 14:26)

There are two formal components to these sayings: (a) the promise that the request made by Jesus’ disciples will be answered, and (b) that the request is made “in Jesus’ name”. Each of these components is attested elsewhere in the Gospel Tradition, and in themselves are not unique to the Gospel of John; it is the specific combination that is distinctive of the sayings in the Last Discourse.

The first component (a)—the promise of answered prayer—is found in simple form in 15:7 and 16:24:

    • “whatever you would wish (for), request (it) and it shall come to be (so) for you” (15:7)
    • “(make a) request, and you will receive” (16:24)

There is a Synoptic parallel for the latter, which has an extremely simple, proverbial character, typical of many of Jesus’ sayings:

“(make a) request, and it will be given to you…
every(one mak)ing a request receives (it)” (Matt 7:7-8, par Lk 11:9-10)

There is also a general similarity to the longer Johannine form (15:7) in Matt 21:22 (cf. also Mark 11:24):

“and all (thing)s, whatever you would request in speaking out toward (God) [i.e. in prayer], (if you are) trusting, you will receive.”

In Matt 18:19, there is a different saying which also relates to the Johannine sayings (above):

“if two of you should give voice together [i.e., speak in agreement] upon earth about any deed, that which they would request, it will come to be (so) for them (from) alongside my Father in the heavens.”

The second component (b) of the saying-form (noted above) also has Synoptic parallels. Note, in particular, the saying in Matt 18:20, and its conjunction with the earlier prayer-saying in v. 19:

“For (the place in) which two or three have been brought together in my name, there I am in the middle of them.”

There are other references to Jesus’ disciples speaking and acting “in his name” —Mk 9:37-39 par; Matt 7:22; Lk 6:22; cf. also Mk 13:6 par, and the commissioning-traditions in Lk 24:47; Matt 28:19; [Mk 16:17]. In the Gospel of John, outside of the Last Discourse, the emphasis is on Jesus (the Son) acting in the name of the Father; however, cf. the confessional statements in 1:12; 2:23; 3:18; 20:31 which record the principal early Christian (and Johannine) understanding of trust in Jesus defined as being “in his name”.

Turning again to the twin sayings in Jn 14:13-14, there is an interesting point of difference when compared with the sayings in 15:16 and 16:23. In Jn 14:13-14, prayer is apparently being made to Jesus, and it is he who acts in response to the request; by contrast, in the other two sayings, prayer is directed to the Father, who is the one answering. This seeming inconsistency has troubled commentators at times, and doubtless explains why some manuscripts of 14:13 specify “the Father” as the one to whom the request should be made. However, the interchangeability of roles is of fundamental importance to the Johannine theology, with its unique emphasis on the relationship between Father and Son—especially the key theme that the Son (Jesus) follows the example (and instruction) of his Father, in all that he says and does. Put another way, as the Son, Jesus possesses the same authority and divine/creative power that belongs to the Father; thus, he is able to fill the Father’s role, for example, as the one who hears and responds to prayer.

The same interchangeability is seen in the passages of the Last Discourse that refer to the sending of the Spirit/Paraclete; these will be discussed in an upcoming study. Moreover, this tendency is not limited to the Johannine tradition, but, instead, reflects the early Christology, as it developed among the first generation(s) of believers. As a simple example, the title ku/rio$ (“Lord”), as a divine title, could be applied equally to God the Father (YHWH) and to Jesus; we see evidence of this all throughout the New Testament. Similarly, in the Pauline letters, the (Holy) Spirit can be called the “Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of [Jesus] Christ”, interchangeably; this is very much like the situation in the Johannine writings, and can be seen elsewhere in the New Testament as well.

The context of 14:13-14, in which Jesus (the Son) is the one who hears and answers prayer, implies the exaltation of Jesus, and his place alongside God the Father in heaven. And, indeed, it is the departure of the Son, back to the Father, that is the central theme of the discourse-segment of 14:1-14 (cf. the previous study). From his place at the “right hand” of God, the Son acts in the Father’s place, with His authority. In certain lines of early Christian tradition, we find the specific idea of Jesus making intercession for believers to the Father (e.g., Rom 8:34; Heb 9:24; 1 John 2:1). This relates to the motif of Jesus as a high priest (cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), and assumes his place in heaven, i.e., the heavenly sanctuary, in the presence of God Himself. In any case, the prayer saying in Jn 14:26 alludes to intercession, and includes the role of both Father and Son in responding to believers’ prayer.

In next week’s study, we will look in detail at the second main aspect noted above—that is, the precise meaning and significance of the prayer-request being made in Jesus’ name.

 

Notes on Prayer: John 14:13-14

John 14:13-14

Some of the most important references to prayer in the New Testament are found in the great Last Discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The Johannine writings never use the common Greek terms for prayer (proseuxh/, vb proseu/xomai); instead, the idea of prayer is expressed by the verb ai)te/w, emphasizing making a request of God.

There are significant critical issues surrounding the origin and composition of the Johannine discourses. On the one hand, they are unlike anything we see in the Synoptic Gospels; in addition, they evince a language and style that is distinctly Johannine, and very close, for example, to that of First John. At the same time, there are Synoptic parallels for certain sayings and traditions in the Gospel of John, and there is clear evidence that the discourses, at the very least, are rooted in authentic historical tradition. Thus, the arguments regarding the Discourses—whether they are primarily Johannine compositions, or accurate reflections of Jesus’ own words throughout—run both ways. And, indeed, both aspects must be kept in mind with any study of the Gospel of John.

The great “Last Discourse”, set (in the narrative) on the eve of Jesus’ arrest, actually represents a complex of inter-related discourses, spanning more than three chapters (13:31-16:33). It may be outlined as follows:

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

The first Discourse/division (14:1-31), the first of two on the primary theme of Jesus’ departure, may be outlined in further detail:

    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
        • Initial statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 1-4)
        • Question by the disciples [Thomas] (v. 5)
        • Jesus’ response: I AM saying (vv. 6-7)
        • Question by the disciples [Philip] (v. 8)
        • Jesus’ response: I AM saying (vv. 9-11)
        • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 12-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
        • Instruction to the Disciples: Love and the Commandments (vv. 15-24)
          —Initial statement: Promise of the Spirit (vv. 15-17)
          —Instruction: Relation of the Disciples to Jesus and the Father (vv. 18-21)
          —Question by the disciples [Judas] (v. 22)
          —Jesus’ response: The disciples and the world in relation to Jesus and the Father (vv. 23-24)
        • Exhortation for the Disciples: Farewell Promise of Peace (vv. 25-27)
          —Initial statement: Promise of the Spirit (vv. 25-26)
          —Exortation: Jesus’ gift of his Peace (v. 27)
        • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 28-31)

The first sayings on prayer are in 14:13-14, which forms the conclusion of the first section, on the relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14). The basic Johannine discourse format is clear: Jesus makes an initial statement (vv. 1-4) which his audience (here, his close disciples) fails to understand (v. 5); Jesus responds in turn with an exposition of the true and deeper meaning of his words (vv. 6ff). Sometimes this discourse-format is expanded to include multiple exchanges between Jesus and his audience, and, indeed, we see this at several points in the Last Discourse. Even within this first section, there are two questions by the disciples, which lead to two different “I Am” sayings by Jesus in response (vv. 6-7, 9-11).

The substantive message of the first section involves the idea of Jesus leading the way for believers to the Father. As his exposition makes clear, this is not to be understood in traditional religious terms, nor in the special sense of a metaphysical translation to heaven (though that will take place in the future). Rather, the “way” to the Father comes through trust in Jesus and through union with him. Trust leads to union, and this essential union is realized through the presence of the Spirit, which is the Spirit of both Father and Son, and represents the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers. Through this union with Jesus, believers already are in the presence of God the Father, and have access to Him.

This theological and Christological outlook, which is hardly unique to the Last Discourse, but is woven throughout the entire Johannine Gospel, informs the sayings on prayer. There are two sayings on prayer in vv. 13-14, virtually identical in form and meaning, and separated by a key phrase re-emphasizing the relationship between God the Father and Jesus (the Son). I give the translation as a chiasm, to outline this structure:

    • “and any(thing) that you should request in my name, this I will do,
      • (so) that the Father should be given honor in the Son;
    • if you request any(thing of) me in my name, I will do (it).”

The granting of the request has, at its heart, the purpose of giving honor to the Father. The verb doca/zw is an important part of the Johannine vocabulary, occurring 23 times in the Gospel, and 13 times in the Last Discourse and Prayer-Discourse (13:31-16:33 and chap. 17). The Passion-focus of this usage begins to take on prominence in 12:28, and continues through the Last Discourse. By fulfilling the duty and mission placed on him (e)ntolh/) by God the Father, through his sacrificial death and resurrection, the Son (Jesus) gives honor and esteem to the Father. According to the narrative setting of the Last Discourse, the moment of Jesus’ death is drawing near, and so the moment of the Son bringing do/ca (“esteem, honor, glory”) to the Father is also at hand.

But the specific setting here within the discourse is of Jesus’ departure, the return of the Son back to the Father, which implies a post-resurrection context. It is perhaps worth asking how granting the requests of his disciples gives honor to the Father. The answer, I believe, is two-fold. First, it is predicated upon the special relationship between Father and Son; as a dutiful and faithful son, everything Jesus does is to the honor of his father. This is a principal Johannine theme, and is central to the Christology of the Gospel. Secondly, it involves the significance of the request being made in Jesus’ name (“in my name”, e)n tw=| o)no/mati/ mou). As we shall see, this is no superficial designation, as though we were simply to tack on the phrase “in Jesus’ name” to our prayers. Instead, the phrase cuts to the very heart of our identity as believers in Christ, and of our relationship to the Father through him. This will be discussed further in the following studies, as we proceed through all the key references in the Last Discourse.

As these studies will appear on Mondays during the weeks of Advent and Christmas, and will focus on the idea of Jesus’ name, you may wish to explore my earlier Christmas series “You Shall Call His Name…”, which deals with the significance of names and naming in the ancient Near East, and the importance of this within the Gospel Infancy narratives (Matt 1-2; Luke 1-2).

 

Notes on Prayer: Philippians 2:1-4

Philippians 2:1-4

Paul frequently uses the language of prayer in the exhortatory sections of his letters, framing the exhortation to believers in terms of a wish or request which he would make to God. The customary verb for prayer in the New Testament is proseu/xomai, a compound middle deponent verb from eu&xw + the prefixed preposition pro/$ (“toward”). Fundamentally, in a religious context, it means “speak out toward (God)”. However, when referring to a specific request made to God, often the noun de/hsi$ is used, even as Paul does at a number of points in his letters—see especially here in Philippians (1:4, 19; 4:6). At 4:6 he uses proseuxh/, related to the aforementioned verb, together with de/hsi$; the former denotes the act of speaking to God, the latter the specific request(s) being made. In 1:9, Paul clearly states that he prays to God on behalf of the Philippian believers, with his specific request—the goal and purpose of his prayer—being:

“…that your love would go over (and above), more and more, in (deep) knowledge and all insight”

This love which is manifest in wisdom and understanding—the true knowledge of God—is characteristic of the believer who is complete; and it is Paul’s fervent wish that all believers would come to be complete in Christ (cf. verses 10-11). It is not just a question of the character and development of the individual believer, but also of believers in community, united together as the body of Christ. This is realized in the Spirit, but the goal is for such unity to be demonstrated within the local community—the congregation or local group(s) of believers—as well. Paul’s experience in founding and guiding congregations, however, had taught him all too well that it can be a most difficult (and at times painful) process to see this ideal of unity in the Spirit realized within the local congregation at a practical level. He very much has this challenge in mind as he begins his line of discussion in chapter 2.

Though prayer is not mentioned, as such, in 2:1-4, there can be no doubt that Paul’s exhortation here is fully in keeping with the prayer-request expressed in 1:9ff. He re-emphasizes his wish for unity among believers in 2:1-2:

“(So) then, if (there is) any calling alongside in (the) Anointed, if any impulse of love alongside, if (there is) any common bond of the Spirit, if any entrails (of compassion) and (feeling)s of mercy, you must make full my delight, (in) that you should be of the s(ame) mind, holding the s(ame) love, like souls (united) together, being of one mind…”

Paul understood that the sort of unity he desires for believers requires a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests for the good of others. This kind of self-denial, an attitude of meekness and humility, is part of the active work of the Spirit in and among believers (the “fruit of the Spirit”, Gal 5:22-23ff), but it requires a receptivity on the part of the believer, a willingness to be guided and transformed by the Spirit of God and Christ (Gal 5:16, 25, etc). For this reason, Paul introduces in verse 3 the ideal of a unifying humility among believers in Christ:

“…(with) nothing (done) according to selfish work [e)riqei/a], and not according to (a desire for) empty esteem [kenodoci/a], but with a lowliness of mind [tapeinofrosu/nh] (you should) be (one)s leading (by) holding others over themselves”

The syntax of the last phrase, in particular, is difficult to render literally in English; but the goal clearly is for believers to conduct themselves in a manner that puts the interests of other believers (in the community) over their own. This point is elucidated in verse 4:

“…(with) each (person) not looking at the (thing)s of himself [i.e. his own things], but (instead) each (person should look at) the (thing)s of others.”

How often do we pray in this manner—for the needs of others rather than our own needs? It is, however, a fundamental principle of Christian prayer in the New Testament, as discussed in recent notes in this series. A prayer for the needs of others more properly reflects the Spirit of God at work in us (cf. the previous study on Rom 8:26-27), and we can be confident indeed that such a prayer, under the guidance of the Spirit, will be answered by God.

This brief study on Phil 2:1-4 is preparatory, in certain respects, to a series of daily notes I am now beginning on the famous “Christ hymn” of 2:6-11. I recommend that you follow along with these notes, as they will help to expound and illustrate the teaching and exhortation Paul gives here in vv. 1-4. Verse 5 is transitional in this regard, and this is where the series of critical and exegetical notes on the passage will begin.

Notes on Prayer: Romans 8:26-27

Romans 8:26-27

Paul mentions prayer numerous times in his letters, but specific teaching on prayer is surprisingly rare; indeed, there are relatively few teachings on prayer in the New Testament as a whole. One of the key Pauline references is found in Romans 8:26-27, set at a climactic point within the structure of the main body of the letter, the probatio (1:18-8:39), in which Paul expounds his central proposition (1:16-17) using various lines of argument. The probatio can be divided into four sections, the first three of which I summarize as:

    • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God)
    • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin

This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows (for more on this outline, cf. the article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”):

    • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
      8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
      8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
      8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
      8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
    • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

As indicated above, the primary theme of chapter 8 is the new life in the Spirit that believers experience, representing the culmination of the “salvation history” or “order of salvation” that Paul lays out in the probatio of Romans. In verses 12-17, believers are identified as the children (“sons”) of God, an identity that is realized through the Spirit (cp. Gal 4:6). In verse 18, this discussion shifts to the future aspect of our Christian identity, comparing the situation for believers currently (whether understood as Paul’s time or our own) in the world, with what awaits the faithful in the Age to Come.

In verse 26, as noted in the outline above, Paul shifts to discuss briefly the salvation believers experience, already in the present, through the Spirit. If ultimately we shall realize it in glory, even now we still experience this work of the Spirit in the midst of our human weakness, as Paul begins in v. 26:

“And even so, the Spirit also takes hold opposite together with (us), in our lack of strength [a)sqe/neia]…”

The noun a)sqe/neia is usually translated “weakness”, but literally means “lack of strength”, being “without strength”. I have translated the compound verb sunantilamba/nomai in an extremely literal manner: “take (hold)” [lamba/nw] “opposite” [a)nti/] “(together) with” [su/n]. A useful image might be of two people lifting a large object, holding it together from opposite sides. This effectively summarizes the helping/guiding work of the Spirit for believers in all aspects of our lives (8:9ff), insofar as we allow ourselves to be guided (Gal 5:16-25). Prayer certainly would be included as part of this daily life that is (to be) aided and directed by the Spirit, and it is the area that Paul specifically mentions here.

In a prior study, I pointed out how, in Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Luke 11:1-13, the coming of the Spirit is presented as the ultimate goal and purpose of the disciples’ prayer (v. 13). Much the same point is made by Jesus in the Johannine “Last Discourse”(14:13-17, 25ff; 15;16, 26; 16:23-26). In this regard, it is worth considering again the interesting variant reading in the Lukan Lord’s Prayer (v. 2), in which the Kingdom of God is effectively identified with the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. The petition for the coming of the Kingdom is transformed into a request for the Spirit to “come upon us and cleanse us”. If the coming of the Spirit is the answer to prayer, what role does the Spirit play in the prayer of believers once it is present working in and among us?

In Romans 8:26, Paul provides something of an answer to this question, giving us a rare and precious glimpse of how the Spirit works within the believer. As I mentioned above, such descriptions are rare in the New Testament, and even here the language and imagery lacks precision; however, the basic idea comes through:

“…for th(at for) wh(ich) we should speak out toward (God), according to (what) is necessary, we have not seen [i.e. we do not know], but the Spirit it(self) hits on it over (us), with speechless groanings”

Paul’s syntax is a bit tricky to translate literally, but I have attempted to do so above, as cumbersome as it might seem it modern English. Let us elucidate the vocabulary:

“speak out toward (God)” —this is the verb proseu/xomai, the regular verb used for prayer in the New Testament; it quite literally indicates a person speaking out, uttering a prayer or petition that is directed “toward” (pro/$) God.

“according to (what) is necessary” —this translates the expression kaqo\ dei=; the impersonal verb dei= (3rd person singular) means something like “it is necessary”, referring to something which needs to be done; here it more accurately connotes the right and proper way in which something should be done.

“we have not seen” (ou)k oi&damen)—in Classical and New Testament (Koine) Greek, the verb ei&dw (“see”) is more or less interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”), along with the concepts of seeing/knowing. The New Testament Scriptures make fine use of the dual-concept, especially in the Johannine Gospel. To say “we do not see (clearly)”, essentially means “we do not know”, even as in English idiom.

“hits on it over (us)” —this is a literal translation of the compound verb u(perentugxa/nw; the verb e)ntugxa/nw means “hit on (something)”, in the sense of realizing and dealing with something that one encounters, particularly dealing with issues related to an encounter with another person. The prefixed preposition u(pe/r (“over”) indicates that this is done on behalf of someone. In a technical sense, the compound verb can connote interceding on a person’s behalf.

“speechless groanings” —the noun stenagmo/$ means a “groan” or sigh (the related verb stena/zw was used earlier in v. 23), while the adjective a)la/lhto$ literally means “without speaking”, i.e. without speech, speechless, sometimes in the sense of “unspeakable”. Before offering an explanation of what Paul exactly is describing, let us proceed with the continuation of his statement in verse 27:

“and the (One) searching the hearts has seen [i.e. knows] what the mind(-set) of the Spirit (is), (in) that [i.e. because] he hits upon it over (the) holy (one)s according to God.”

In other words, the Spirit does its work on behalf of believers (“holy ones”) according to God (kata\ qeo/n). This expression is sometimes glossed in translation as “according to God’s will”, which is accurate enough (cf. the following thought in vv. 28ff); however, I feel it is better to keep more closely to the literal wording (“according to God”). Since the Spirit itself represents the active presence and power of God, it acts according to God’s own power and purpose. This belief follows the well-established line of Old Testament and Jewish tradition; what is unique for early Christians is the idea that the Spirit of God is also the Spirit of Jesus Christ—Christ (the Son) and God the Father being united in one Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:17; 15:45). Thus, the work of the Spirit, interceding before God on behalf of believers, is simultaneously performed by the exalted Jesus himself, envisioned as standing “at the right hand of God”. Attempts to draw clear theological or metaphysical distinctions between the exalted Jesus and the Spirit go far beyond the New Testament evidence, and are generally ill-supported by the Scriptures themselves.

The characterization of God as “the one searching the hearts” draws upon a familiar Old Testament and Jewish idiom (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 7:11; 17:3; 139:1; 1 Cor 4:5; Rev 2:23); in Acts 1:24 and 15:8 the idea is expressed through a specially-coined theological term, “heart-knower” (kardiognw/sth$). In searching the hearts of believers, God finds his own Spirit speaking on their behalf, and instantly recognizes its thought and will as his own. Paul uses the noun fro/nhma, which I translate as “mind-set”, that is, a way of thinking, a tendency or inclination of thought and feeling. This word occurs just four times in the New Testament, all here in chapter 8 of Romans. In the previous three occurrences (vv. 6-7), Paul contrasts the “mind-set” of the Spirit with that of the flesh—part of the Spirit-vs-flesh dualism that we find throughout his letters (esp. Romans and Galatians). The mind-set of the “flesh” is hostile to God, opposed to His will, and leads to death for the human being. The believer is saved from this; the Spirit leads to life, and yet there remains a conflict with the flesh that the believer must deal with on a regular basis (vv. 9-13, etc). This conflict is part of the “groaning” we experience in the present, as we live within the current order of creation (vv. 18-25).

Paul touched upon some of these same themes earlier in 1 Corinthians (2:6-16), only he there described the work of the Spirit in a different manner—instead of God searching the hearts of believers, it is the Spirit who searches the depths of God, and making the “deep things” available as a gift to believers. The emphasis in 1 Cor 2 is on wisdom and revelation, rather than prayer; yet, there can be no doubt that the same essential dynamic is involved—whereby the Spirit of God is at work, manifesting His own presence and power, in and among believers.

Let us attempt now to clarify what Paul is describing in vv. 26-27. The basic premise in v. 26 is that human beings, without the guiding presence of the Spirit, are not able fully to understand how they should pray. Jesus himself offered instruction on prayer to his disciples, including a pattern in the Lord’s Prayer, but this represents only a beginning—just like all of the teaching of Jesus we have recorded in the Gospels. The fullness of his instruction comes through the presence of the Spirit, through which he continues to instruct believers on a daily basis. So it is that we must be instructed in prayer by the Spirit of God and Christ. Paul indicates that this Spirit-guided instruction takes place in a manner that transcends a message in words, stating that it occurs “with speechless groanings” (stenagmoi=$ a)lalh/toi$), which might also be rendered “with unspeakable groanings”.

Many commentators have noted a general parallel with the gift of tongues, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians. While some in the Corinthian congregations were apparently enamored with the display of this gift in a public worship setting, Paul argues strongly that it is more appropriate in a setting of private prayer, where the individual believer is speaking directly to God (14:1-19). In that passage, the gift of tongues functions as a special kind of prayer-language, which likewise transcends ordinary intelligible words, spoken out by a person’s spirit as it is touched/inspired by the Spirit of God. The situation in Rom 8:26-27 is somewhat different, though not entirely unrelated. Paul is describing not a special gift, but something common to all believers, insofar as we all are guided by the Spirit. This guidance in prayer is “without speech”, functioning at a primordial level that goes beyond simple language. It is a stirring, a vibration, an energy that touches our deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

As believers, are we receptive to this stirring, this “groaning” of the Spirit within us? Are we willing to let it guide us in our prayer as we speak out to God in different ways? This is just one part of the larger, continual challenge we face—of allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit, to “walk about” in it at all times. The need of praying “in the Spirit” was understood and appreciated by the New Testament writers, even if they did not express it so clearly or vividly as Paul does in Rom 8:26-27. It is certainly stated in Eph 6:18 and Jude 20, and we may assume it as part of the wider concept of worshiping God in the Spirit (cf. Phil 3:3; Rev 1:10, etc; also John 4:23-24). We may also assume that Jesus’ time spent in prayer also took place in the Spirit—in any case, this would definitely be part of the Lukan portrait of Jesus’ ministry (cf. 4:1, 14, 18; 10:21). All of this to say that we should be ever cognizant of the importance of our prayer being guided by the Spirit, those wordless groanings which allow us to touch the depths of God, and which help our own way of thinking to be conformed to God’s own thought and mind.

Notes on Prayer: 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

In last week’s study, we explored the New Testament references dealing with prayer for healing (from illness or disease). It was noted, somewhat surprisingly, how rare such references are. There is only one passage (James 5:13-18) which clearly directs believers to pray for healing, and essentially promises an answer to such prayer. However, to this must be added another passage, which, it would seem, provides an example where God does not answer a request for healing or deliverance from physical affliction. This is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. It is a passage that continues to be much debated, both in terms of its precise meaning and the wider implications related to prayer and the Christian life.

To begin with, we must look at 2 Cor 12:7b-10 within its overall context in the letter. It is part of the “catalog of hardships” in 11:21b-12:10, in which Paul details various sufferings he has endured as a minister of the Gospel. This, in turn, is part of a larger discussion in which he argues against certain ministers (from outside of his apostolic circle) who were exerting an undue influence on at least some in the Corinthian congregations. The particular line of argument runs through chapters 10-13, one of the harshest and most polemically tinged sections in all of Paul’s surviving letters. He compares himself with these ‘foreign’ ministers, in the hopes of restoring a damaged relationship with the Corinthians churches. Throughout the letter, Paul argues strongly that he deserves recognition as a leading minister and missionary (apostle) who played a central role in the very founding of the congregations, and in their subsequent early growth. The feeling on his part is that others have usurped his proper place in relation to the Christians of Corinth, and this is expressed, with special force and verve in chapters 10-13 where he attacks certain ‘false apostles’ (11:13) who have actively worked to undermine his relationship with the believers there.

One of the arguments used in chaps. 10-13 involves the suffering and hardship Paul has endured as an apostolic missionary (11:23b ff). He ties this to the faithfulness he has shown in his ministry work, with its resultant successes and accomplishments (vv. 21b-23a, etc). Modern readers will likely find Paul’s self-effacing comments here (in vv. 21b, 23a; 12:2, 5ff) most unconvincing, and rightly so; their purpose is largely rhetorical. Paul was genuinely proud of what he had endured (and accomplished) as a minister of the Gospel, and frequently speaks of “boasting” of this in his letters. However, the thought that he expresses in 12:5-10 is also genuine. Paul was fully aware that his ministerial accomplishments were primarily the result of the power of God (and Christ) working through him.

This brings us to the illustration in 12:7b-10. In verses 1-10, he contrasts the special blessing given to him (by God), in the form of unique divine visions (vv. 1-6), with a special affliction, also given to him by God (vv. 7-10). He frames this contrast in terms of the motifs of strength and weakness (a)sqe/neia). That God gave to him an affliction, as a counter to the blessing, is stated clearly in verse 7:

“…and in the overcasting [i.e. surpassing] (nature) of the uncoverings [i.e. revelations]. Through (this), (so) that I should not lift myself (up) over (others), a sharp (stick) [sko/loy] was given to me, in the flesh, a messenger of (the) Satan, so that he should ‘strike me on the ear’, so that I should not lift myself (up) over (what is proper).”

The key expression is sko/loy th=| sarki/, a skólops in the flesh”. The relatively rare noun sko/loy (skólops) indicates an object, usually made of wood, with a rough, sharp, or jagged edge. It can refer to a pointed stake, a splinter, or the “thorn” of a plant—thus the common English rendering “thorn in the flesh”. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament, and it is equally rare in the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX Num 33:55; Hos 2:8 [10]; Ezek 28:24; Sirach 43:19). In Hos 2:8 [10] and Ezek 28:24 the reference is to a thorny bush, while Num 33:55 refers to both ‘splinters’ in the eye and larger ‘thorns’ that prick the body.

Commentators have long debated just what Paul is describing through this expression. There have been three main lines of interpretation:

    • That it refers to some kind of temptation to sin, often assumed to be of a carnal/sexual nature
    • That it refers to a physical ailment
    • That it is comparable to the earlier references of persecution mentioned earlier in the passage

In my view, the first and third options are both quite unlikely, for different reasons. While some commentators may wish to shield Paul from the idea that he was seriously tempted toward (carnal) sin, preserving him as a paragon of virtue, there is no reason to think that he did not experience temptations of this sort. It is simply that here the context does not suggest anything like temptation to sin. As far as identifying the sko/loy with some form of persecution, Paul had already dealt with that aspect of his hardship/suffering (in some detail) in vv. 23b-26. Here, he is clearly referring to a special sort of affliction, unique to him, that would correspond to the special blessing he had received in his person (in the form of revelatory visions).

The best explanation is that the sko/loy refers to some kind of persistent physical ailment, perhaps involving the eyes (which would provide a clear parallel with his visions). While we cannot entirely rule out a psychological or spiritual affliction, the characterization of the sko/loy as being located “in the flesh” suggests something physiological. This is fully in accord with the idea that the ailment is a “messenger of Satan”, since, according to the worldview of the time, ailments and illnesses of all sorts were generally attributed to the activity of evil/malevolent spirits. As previously noted, the healing miracles of Jesus (and the apostles) were closely connected with exorcism miracles—both going hand in hand. Here, the “messenger” is said to “hit (him) on the ears” (vb kolafi/zw), a Greek idiom that could be used figuratively for any sort of abuse or ill-treatment. In the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 14:65, par Matt 26:67), as also by Paul in 1 Cor 4:11, it is used in the more concrete (literal) sense of striking someone with the hands (i.e. boxing, punching, slapping) upon the face or head.

Paul states that this affliction was given to him (or allowed) by God so that he would not “lift himself (up) over” (vb u(perai/romai), which I have translated literally above. Paul uses it twice in the verse, and I have filled out the idiom two different ways: “lift myself (up) over (others)” and “lift myself (up) over (what is proper)”. In popular English idiom, we might say that the affliction serves to “keep (Paul) in his place”. He criticizes the ‘false apostles’ for vaunting and elevating themselves over others, and, in his polemic, studiously avoids doing the same thing himself, even as he lists out here his many gifts and accomplishments. Along with these accomplishments, however, was this humbling affliction, serious enough that Paul would ask the Lord repeatedly to have it removed:

“About this I called the Lord alongside three (times), so that it might stand away [i.e. be removed] from me” (v. 8)

Here “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$) would seem to refer to Jesus Christ, even though it was more customary to pray to God the Father, “through” Christ, or “in his name” (cf. 1:5, 20, etc). However, it would not have been unusual for early Christians to direct prayers and personal requests to Christ, especially in the case of Paul, who attested special communication with the risen Jesus (e.g., Gal 1:11-12, 16; 2:2, and here in 12:1-2ff). The verb parakale/w (“call alongside”) is not a regular verb for prayer in the New Testament, though clearly the sense here is of a prayer or petition to God (or to Christ). Apparently, Paul’s request was not answered, in the sense that the ailment was not removed; the answer that was given to him (by the Lord) is of a very different sort:

“And he said to me: ‘My favor [xa/ri$] is sufficient for you—for my power is made complete in your lack of strength [a)sqe/neia, i.e. weakness]’.” (v. 9a)

The verb a)rke/w denotes the idea of being content or satisfied with something—i.e., Paul must be content with the fact that he has this particular ailment, and that the favor of God (and Christ) continues to work through him in spite of this. Indeed, Paul’s weakness (lit. “lack of strength”) is itself a special kind of blessing, as it means that God’s own power (du/nami$) is manifest more clearly in Paul’s person, since it is not being communicated to others as a result of Paul’s own strength and ability. In its own way, this truth was a special revelation given to Paul, and communicated to all believers (in turn) through his writing. Indeed, it may be regarded as a far greater revelation than those heavenly visions vouchsafed to him earlier. Paul seems to recognize this fact, as he states in v. 9b:

“(With ut)most pleasure, then, will I rather exalt in my lack of strength [pl.], (so) that the power of (the) Anointed should set up (its) tent [i.e. dwell/rest] upon me.”

I translated the verb kauxa/omai in the more fundamental sense of “exalt”, though it is typically rendered as “boast”, and is part of Paul’s distinctive language of boasting. He often freely boasts/exalts in what he has accomplished as a minister of the Gospel (cf. above), but here, in light of his rhetoric and the line of argument he is using, he is much more cautious, emphasizing how he prefers to boast/exalt in his own weakness (“lack of strength”) since it brings out all the more clearly the power of Christ that is at work in him. The exact wording of the Lord’s message to him utilizes the important verb tele/w (“[make] complete”): “my power is made complete in your lack of strength”.

This may not be a welcome response for those requesting healing from God for certain physical ailments. And yet, it is important to emphasize again the relative lack of references in the New Testament regarding prayer for healing. Even in James 5:13-18, as also in 3 John 2, the emphasis is on prayer for the health and well-being of another believer, not for oneself. In one of the few instances where a believer does pray for relief from a physical ailment (apparently), here in our passage, the believer was not delivered from the suffering caused by the ailment. Even if Paul’s affliction, his sko/loy, was not dire or life-threatening, it was serious (and/or irritating) enough that he asked three times for it to be removed. It would seem that, after this, Paul ceased to ask for healing from his affliction, realizing that it served a greater purpose for him in God’s eyes. Note, for example, how Paul brings the illustration back into the wider discussion of his suffering as a minister of the Gospel, in verse 10, and the message of how all such affliction only serves to glorify the power of Christ that is at work in him (and in all faithful believers).

As we consider the wider application of this passage, in terms of prayer for healing, I would conclude with three main points:

    • There is nothing wrong with believers praying for healing or for relief from physical ailments. The overall witness of the New Testament certainly allows for it under the wider heading of requests we would make to God “in Jesus’ name”. In addition, there is the example of James 5:13-18, with the promise that prayer in Jesus’ name, made in full trust of Christ, can and will bring healing.
    • At the same time, request for physical health and healing should in no way take precedence as the focus of our prayers. Rather, giving honor to God and the work of His Kingdom—the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the Spirit—must be the primary emphasis in our prayer. This is confirmed by the Lord’s Prayer itself, and is supported by the New Testament witness at every turn.
    • It is more important, especially for those gifted as ministers or leaders in Christian communities, to pray for the healing of others, rather than for oneself. This is fully in accord with the main principles of the Gospel, and emphasizes the self-sacrifice that is essential for the faithful servant of Christ. The one faithful to the call of ministry is willing, even pleased, to serve in the midst of suffering and hardship (which includes physical ailments and illness). While one may still pray for healing and relief personally, it is more important to recognize (with Paul) the revelation expressed in 2 Cor 12:9—that Christ’s own power is made complete in our weakness.

 

Notes on Prayer: James 5:13-18

The recent notes and studies on Hezekiah’s prayer (see the previous study in this series) dealt with the subject of praying for healing/deliverance from illness or disease. This is a longstanding aspect of human religious experience. There is a natural tendency to turn to God (or a particular deity) when one is faced with illness, and especially so if the condition is life-threatening (as in the case of Hezekiah). Even persons whose religious commitment or devotion is minimal are likely to petition God for healing in such circumstances. This continues to be true today, even with our much increased understanding of the scientific physiological causes of disease (and resultant treatment). The current pandemic, however, afflicting people in different parts of the world, has highlighted the limitations of even the finest examples of modern medicine, and brings to the fore a renewed interest in the religious phenomenon of prayer for healing.

Like the psalm that follows the prayer of Hezekiah (in the Isaian version, 38:9-20), and attributed to the king, there are a number of Psalms which are framed as petitionary prayers to YHWH for healing (from life-threatening illness, and/or related dangers). You may wish to consult, for example, my earlier studies on Psalms 6 and 30. In such Psalms, a lament for the suffering one faces alternates with thanksgiving for the deliverance God brings (or will bring). Mixed in with the petition is an appeal to God, based on the fact that the sufferer (the protagonist of the Psalm) has remained faithful and devoted to YHWH, repenting of any sin and disavowing association with any wickedness. The protection God provides the righteous, according to the principle of the covenant-bond, would include rescue/deliverance from any life-threatening danger.

When we turn to the New Testament writings, it is interesting to note how little is said regarding healing from illness—and of prayer for healing, in particular.

To be sure, there are many incidents of healing recorded in the Gospels and Acts. A number of healing miracles performed by Jesus are recorded, some of the episodes being told in a most memorable fashion, often tied to important sayings and teachings of Jesus. Healing miracles were especially characteristic of the Galilean ministry period, according to the narrative structure of the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. Luke 7:21-22 par, cp. 4:18-19ff). In addition to the specific miracles recorded in the Synoptic tradition, we have the key summary statements in Mark 1:34; 3:10 par, etc. Given the close association, in the thought-world of people at the time, between evil spirits and illness/disease, it was natural that miracles of healing were related to exorcism miracles, being performed equally (and at the same time) by Jesus (cf. especially the tradition in Mark 3:22ff par). His disciples were given authority over the evil spirits, so that they could perform the same sorts of healing miracles (Mk 3:15; 6:7, 13 par). This continues among the apostles and early Christian missionaries in the book of Acts (cf. 3:1-16ff; 4:30; 5:15-16; 8:7; 9:32-42; 14:8-10ff; 20:7-12; 28:8), where miracles were performed ‘in the name of Jesus’. Healing miracles were also part of the manifestation and work of the Spirit among believers, at least in the Pauline congregations (according to 1 Cor 12:9, 28ff).

In spite of all this, the recorded miracles of healing are not specifically tied to prayer by the person afflicted. Prayer is mentioned in the exorcism miracle tradition of Mark 9:14-29 par (v. 29), but as a requirement for the person performing the healing (i.e. Jesus’ disciples). The context of the Synoptic narrative tradition in Mk 1:35ff par would suggest that Jesus’ ability to perform healing miracles was connected in some way to his time spent alone in prayer. But nowhere do we see prayer enjoined on the person who is afflicted—i.e., that they should pray for healing, and thus be delivered from affliction. The closest we come to this, perhaps, is in the exchange between Jesus and the blind beggar in Mark 11:47-52 par (cf. also the exchange with the crippled man in John 5:6ff). However, the point is that trust in God (and in Jesus) results in healing, not prayer per se (cf. Acts 14:8-10).

More to the point, nowhere in the New Testament does the author direct or encourage believers to pray for healing when they are afflicted by illness. The inclination to pray to God in such instances was so commonplace (and natural) that perhaps there was no need to mention it; however, given the tendency toward superstition and quasi-magical ritual in such matters, one might expect some direct teaching on the subject. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, there is no petition for healing and physical health as such, unless it is to be subsumed under the request for ‘deliverance from evil’ (Matt 6:13); given the close connection between evil spirits and disease, this is certainly possible. The best support for the idea of praying for healing is found in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in the “Last Discourse”, if we view requests to the Father “in my name” as a more generalized extension of the apostolic healings peformed ‘in Jesus’ name’ (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24ff; cp. Acts 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10ff, 30; 16:18; 19:13ff); requests for healing would thus be rightly included among believers’ prayers to God.

There is, however, little evidence on this point in the remainder of the New Testament writings. Paul refers repeatedly to prayer for deliverance, but typically in the context of rescuing he (and other ministers) from dangers and obstacles in proclaiming the Gospel (Rom 1:10; 15:30; Phil 1:19; Col 4:3; 2 Thess 3:1, etc), and not for healing from illness or disease as such. There is really only one passage in the New Testament that ties together prayer and healing from disease, giving specific direction for believers in the matter: James 5:13-18.

James 5:13-18

The teaching in this passage is relatively straightforward, even if we do not have complete information on the details of the prayer/anointing ritual that are being referenced.

“Does any(one) among you suffer bad(ly)? He must speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray]. Does any(one) have a good impulse? He must make music (to God).” (v. 13)

Two general conditions are described here: (1) suffering some kind of trouble or affliction (not necessarily illness or disease), as indicated by the verb kakopaqe/w (“suffer bad[ly]”); and (2) the opposite, where things are going well for a person, so that one “has a good impulse” (eu)qume/w, in English idiom we might say “is in good spirits”). One is to “speak out toward” God, making a request in prayer, when suffering affliction.

“Is any(one) among you without strength [i.e. sick/weak]? He must call alongside the elders of (the ones) called out (to assemble) [i.e. the congregation], and they must speak out toward (God) over him, rubbing [him] with oil in the name of the Lord.” (v. 14)

Quite often, sickness is defined by the term a)sqenh/$ (lit. “without strength”); here the denominative verb as)qene/w (occurring 33 times in the NT) is used, meaning “be without strength” (i.e. “be sick, weak”). This refers specifically to someone who is sick or weakened by illness, disease, or a debilitating condition. Such a person ought to call on leading ministers (“elders”) of the congregation, and it is they who will pray to God, anointing (lit. rubbing) him with oil reserved (and consecrated) for just such a ritual purpose. All of this is done “in the name of the Lord”, that is, in Jesus’ name, in accordance with early Christian tradition (cf. above).

“And the (word) of trust, spoken out (to God), shall save the (one) being wearied (by sickness), and the Lord shall raise him (up); and, if he would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s, they shall be released [i.e. forgiven] for him.” (v. 15)

Interestingly, here it is not the trust/faith of the sick person, but of those ministering to him, that leads to healing. The trust of the sick person certainly is implicit in the process, at least insofar as he/she has trusted enough to call on the elders for help. Some allowance would doubtless be made for the person’s weakened condition; in such instances, it is necessary for the rest of the community (esp. the leaders of the congregation) to give their strength (of faith) to the person in his/her weakness. The trust of the ministers is expressed through their prayer, spoken out (loud) to God. This verse would seem to promise that such a prayer will be answered, when performed in the proper context of the community, where it is done “in Jesus’ name”.

On the latter point, there may certainly be a tendency to treat prayer “in Jesus’ name” as a quasi-magical formula, which, in turn, would lead to a superstitious sort of Christian practice. It may be debated the extent to which a magical healing-formula is in view here in the letter of James, any more so than in the early apostolic miracle-traditions in the book of Acts (cf. above). In the best sense, we are dealing not with a specific formula, but of trust in the divine power of Jesus Christ that is at work, in and among believers, through his Spirit (which also the Spirit of God). This seems to be specified here by the expression eu)xh\ th=$ pi/stew$ (“[word] of trust spoken out”). Ultimately, it is the power of Christ himself (“the Lord”) that raises the person back to health.

The verse here also makes a rather clear association between sickness/illness and sin, though recognizing (as elsewhere in the New Testament), that such illness is not necessarily the direct result of sin. Thus, there is the conditional statement here, using the subjunctive (and introduced by the conditional particle e)a/n): “if any one would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s”, i.e., if the person has been committing any sins that may have led to his/her illness. The promise is that, through the prayer of trust, such sins will be forgiven (lit. “released”). In all likelihood, there is a similar connection between sin and illness in 1 John 5:14-17, a passage for which a precise interpretation has been notoriously difficult (and controversial). I discuss it at length in prior notes and studies. Whatever else one may say about the 1 John passage, it deals with the issue of the prayer by the community for a person who has sinned, and who may be suffering (illness?) as a result.

“So (also) you must give out an account as one to (each) other of the sins (you commit), and you must speak out (to God) over (one an)other, so that you may be healed. The request (to God) of a just (person) has much strength, being at work in (him).” (v. 16)

The connection between sin and illness is further extended here, with an instruction intended to prevent such sickness from occurring, and to bring about regular and timely healing of illness, before it reaches the point where it is necessary to call on the elders. This involves the public acknowledgement (i.e. confession) of sin, done on a regular basis. Admittedly, this is an aspect of early Christian practice that has largely disappeared from congregation life over the centuries, and is practically non-existent in most modern day churches. One expects that it would be most difficult to restore the practice, even if one believed that it should be restored (a point that can be debated). It does, however, reflect a sense of cohesive congregational unity that can be judged as quite healthy, on the whole. Like most aspects of communal Christian life, it requires that the practice be rooted in genuine trust, love, and the guidance of the Spirit. This latter point seems to emphasized here in the closing statement, regarding the strength of a just/righteous person’s prayer, based as it is upon the power of God/Christ that is “working in” (vb e)nerge/w) the believer—which we must identify with the Spirit, though it is not stated so in the letter. We might fill in the translation as “(God’s power) being at work (in him)”. On the role of the Spirit, as superseding any specific congregational ritual or practice, this point will be discussed in detail in an upcoming study.

From a Christian standpoint, the just/righteous (di/kaio$) person means, primarily, one who trusts in Jesus; yet the author concludes the discussion with an example of an earlier kind of “righteous one”, from the Old Testament (vv. 17-18)—the prophet Elijah, whose miracle-working power is attributed to his faith and earnest prayer to God. The illustration is taken specifically from the tradition in 1 Kings 18. Elijah was not especially associated with prayer in the Old Testament narratives, but this aspect became more prominent in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., 2/4 Esdras 7:109; m. Taan. 2:4; b. Sanh. 113a; j. Sanh. 10, 28b, etc; cf. Davids, p. 197).

Apart from this passage in James (and the possible context of 1 John 5:14-17, cf. above), there is only one other instance in the New Testament where health and healing are connected with prayer—in 3 John 2. There the sentiment is expressed in the most general manner: it is a wish for health and wholeness (in the body), even as things go well for the person in their soul.

To the relative paucity of references to prayer for healing, we must also add one famous passage where God does not answer a faithful believer’s fervent prayer for healing from a troublesome ailment. This, as you may guess, is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” illustration in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. It will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.

 

Notes on Prayer: Isaiah 38:1-8ff

Isaiah 38:1-8ff

In the previous study of this series, we looked at the prayer of Hezekiah in Isaiah 37:15-20 (= 2 Kings 19:15-19); today we will examine another instance of prayer, also involving Hezekiah. This time the situation is that of a grave illness experienced by Hezekiah, one which was life-threatening, putting him in danger of death. Such was a relatively common occurrence in the ancient world, when life-spans were considerably shorter, mortality rates much higher, and medical knowledge regarding disease treatment and prevention quite limited by comparison with what is available to us today. Even so, the current pandemic being experienced widely, if to varying degrees, around the world can serve as a reminder that the modern age is not without its own dangers from life-threatening disease.

Hezekiah’s prayer, in this instance, is for healing—surely one of the most common occasions for prayer to God, both in Hezekiah’s time, and even now today. Here is how the historical tradition is recorded in the opening narrative of Isa 38:1-2 (the parallel version in 2 Kings 20:1-2 is virtually identical):

In those days, YHWH-is-(my)-strength [„izqîy¹hû] became weak (with illness) to (the point of) death, and YHWH-saves [Y®ša±y¹hû], son of Amôƒ, the spokesperson (of YHWH), came to him and said to him, “So says YHWH (to you): ‘Give instruction to your house(hold), for you are dying and will not live.'” And „izqîy¹hû turned his face around to the wall and made a petition to YHWH…

In verse 1, I have translated the YHWH names (= Hezekiah, Isaiah), rather than simply transliterating them in English, as a reminder that they are YHWH sentence/phrase names, and indicate how deeply religious devotion to YHWH was woven into the fabric of Israelite society at the time. The name Hezekiah (WhY`q!z+j!, „izqîy¹hû) means something like “YHWH is (my) strength”, or “YHWH gives strength”, possibly in the wish-form, “(May) YHWH give strength”. Similarly, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y®ša±y¹hû) has the meaning “YHWH is (my) salvation”, or “YHWH saves”, “(May) YHWH save”. These names, in their proper meaning, are significant in terms of the subject and action of the narrative—that is, prayer to YHWH for salvation and strength (i.e. healing) from illness.

The prophet Isaiah—the term ayb!n` literally referring to a spokesperson (for God)—comes to Hezekiah announcing to him that he will die, and will not recover. The implication is that this announcement reflects God’s will and decree regarding the fate of Hezekiah—i.e., this is when his life will end. Faced with the prospect of certain death, Hezekiah makes a plea or petition to YHWH. The verb ll^P*, in the reflexive Hithpael stem, often denotes the specific idea of seeking a judicial ruling (arbitration) on behalf of another person. It came to be used in the sense of the religious devotee seeking arbitration from God Himself (as judge) with regard to a certain situation or set of circumstances (such as a life-threatening illness).

Even though a designated prophet of YHWH had announced that he would not recover, Hezekiah still makes his case to God (the Judge) that he should be healed and allowed to recover. The substance of this petition is given in verse 3:

And he said, “Oh, YHWH, (I would ask that you) remember (the way in) which I have walked about before your face [i.e. before you], in firmness and with a whole heart, and th(at) I have done (what is) good in your eyes!” And „izqîy¹hû wept (with) great weeping.

The opening word aN`a* and the particle an` (attached to the verb rkz) are both particles of entreaty, which are nearly impossible to translate literally in English. I approximate the sense above with “Oh, … (I would ask that you)…”. The basis of the appeal is ethical and religious, rooted in the fundamental idea of faithfulness (to God) and covenant loyalty. According to the ancient concept of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, i.e. covenant bond), especially in terms of a suzerain-vassal agreement, the faithful/loyal vassal is promised protection by the sovereign, which extends to anything that might threaten his life. The king Hezekiah, portraying himself as a loyal vassal of YHWH, asks God to “remember” (vb rk^z`) his years of faithfulness and devotion (to the covenant). This is expressed two ways:

    • The idiom of “walking about” (vb El^h* in the Hithpael reflexive stem), as a reference to a consistent pattern of behavior, over a period of time; the sense of covenant loyalty is further defined by the expressions
      (a) “in firmness” (tm#a#B#), the noun tm#a# connoting a person who is trustworthy and reliable
      (b) “with a whole heart” (<l@v* bl@B=), corresponding to the English idiom “whole-hearted”, though we might also say “with a pure heart”
    • Doing “th(at which is) good” in God’s eyes, more properly implying upright and moral conduct; this alludes primarily to the requirements and regulations of the Instruction (Torah), which effectively represent the terms of the covenant between God and Israel.

This appeal to one’s own faithfulness and righteousness may be somewhat disconcerting to us as Christians, as it seems to resemble, at least on the surface, the sort of prayer uttered by the Pharisee in the parable of Luke 18:9-14 (vv. 11-12). There are other instructions in the New Testament warning against relying upon one’s own righteousness for receiving help/salvation from God. A simple appeal for mercy from God, asking for His favor, would seem to be more fitting (from a Christian standpoint). And, indeed, a heartfelt appeal to God for mercy, more akin to the utterance of the toll-collector in the Lukan parable, is perhaps implied by the notice of Hezekiah’s great weeping that accompanied his prayer.

However, from the standpoint of Israelite religion during the kingdom period, it was the covenant framework which defined how the people (and the king, in particular) related to God. And this covenant between Israel and YHWH was very much understood in terms of the religious and cultural conventions of the time, including the form and function of the ancient Near Eastern “binding agreement”, with its strong ethical-religious and judicial aspects. Any appeal to the covenant would, by its nature, have to be expressed in both ethical-religious and judicial terms.

We find many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, including a number of instances in the Psalms which evince the covenant setting, and also a royal background roughly comparable to the context here in Isaiah 38. There are quite a few Psalms in which the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem) makes a judicial appeal to God, affirming and defending his faithfulness, and asking God to act on his behalf.  Often the appeal involves deliverance from one’s enemies/adversaries, which can include rescue from the great enemy of all—Death itself. In several Psalms, it is deliverance from a life-threatening illness that is in view; see, for example, Psalm 6 (discussed in an earlier study), as well as the more recent study on Psalm 30. As it happens, the Isaian version of the narrative regarding Hezekiah’s illness, also includes a psalm of this sort (see below).

Following Hezekiah’s prayer, a new word comes to Isaiah, from YHWH, announcing that the king’s fate is changed:

And there came to be a (new) word of YHWH to Y®ša±y¹hû, saying: “You must go and say to „izqîy¹hû, ‘So says YHWH (the) Mighty (One) of David your father: I have heard your petition, (and) I have seen your tears; (now) look! I will again (put) upon your days [i.e. the days of your life] (an addition of) fifteen years'”. (vv. 4-5)

The heartfelt prayer of Hezekiah, with its implicit covenant appeal, results in a change of the divine decree. God has answered his servant’s prayer. Apart from what this means for the individual, in the wider (historical and literary) context of the narrative the change in fate has significance for the community as well. Hezekiah’s illness (with its threat of death), the focus in chapters 38-39, is set parallel to the terrible danger (and threat of destruction) facing Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion (chapters 36-37). The two are clearly tied together, with the one (Hezekiah’s illness) serving as a symbol for the other (the Assyrian invasion). This is stated precisely, even in the immediate context of our passage, as the prophetic word of YHWH continues in verse 6:

“And, from (the) palm [i.e. hand] of (the) king of Aššûr I will snatch you away, and this city, and I will give (my) protection over this city!”

The righteous/faithful king Hezekiah, who turns to YHWH in prayer and supplication in his time of need, stands for the people as a whole—the faithful remnant of Judah—and the city of Jerusalem. The two go hand in hand—the chosen one (king) and chosen city (Jerusalem)—and both symbolize the faithful ones of God’s people, those who are to be saved and delivered from the danger of death and destruction.

Hezekiah appears to have held a special position in the Isaian tradition, beyond that which we see in the Prophetic/Deuteronomic line of tradition in the book of Kings. There, too, Hezekiah stands as something of a model for the faithful king, loyal to YHWH in the manner/pattern of David (cf. especially the notice in 2 Ki 18:3-7). However, Hezekiah seems to have an even greater significance in the book of Isaiah, especially if, as many commentators believe, it is his reign that is in view in the prophecies of chapters 7-9. At the very least he represents (and symbolizes) the salvation of Judah/Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat, and his recovery from illness clearly is symbolic of the city’s deliverance.

This greater prominence of Hezekiah in the Isaian tradition is also reflected in the psalm of thanksgiving (for deliverance from illness) in Isa 38:9-20. It is not found in the parallel version of 2 Kings, which likely means that it was not part of the original literary work, but was added/included by the author/editor of Isa 36-39. The similarity with Psalms such as 6 and 30, which also deal with the idea of recovery from a life-threatening illness, was noted above. There are a number of themes, images, and points of emphasis in common. I will be discussing this in more detail in the upcoming Saturday Series study (on Isa 38-39).