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).

Notes on Prayer: Isaiah 37:15-20

Isaiah 37:15-20

Isaiah 37:15-20 records the prayer of Hezekiah, king of Judah, in response to the Assyrian invasion that took place (under Sennacherib) in 701 B.C. Nearly all of the Judean kingdom fell to Assyria (46 cities and towns are mentioned by Sennacherib in the Assyrian annals), a fact confirmed very much by the context of chapters 36-37 (discussed in the recent Saturday Series studies); cf. especially the notices in 36:1f, 19; 37:11-13, and here in the prayer (v. 18f). There is a parallel version of chapters 36-39 in 2 Kings 18:13-20:19, which raises the strong possibility that both accounts derive from a common (literary) source. The parallel version of Hezekiah’s prayer is in 2 Kings 19:15-19; there are number of variants between the two versions, most of which are quite minor.

Hezekiah’s prayer is a request for deliverance from military attack and destruction (including the horrors of siege warfare), and yet, it is worth noting that the actual petition for deliverance occurs only at the very end of the prayer (v. 20). The rest of the prayer is focused on God (YHWH), and the honor that belongs to Him. This raises an important point, regarding prayer, that is often ignored or neglected by the general populace (including many Christians) today. The tendency is to move immediately to the particular need or concern a person has, without spending any time addressing God with the honor and respect that is due to Him. Such a tendency runs against Jesus’ express instructions in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:8-13 par), where the petitions regarding personal and communal needs are only made after those which focus on God, His person and His kingdom.

The prayer of Hezekiah needs to be understood within the overall context of chapters 36-37. The threat to Jerusalem is established in 36:1, followed by the taunt-discourse of the Rabshakeh (a high Assyrian official serving in a diplomatic capacity) in vv. 4-20 (cf. the recent Saturday Series study). This discourse introduces a number of themes that are central to the prophetic message in the book of Isaiah. Especially significant is the issue of placing one’s trust in God, in the face of overwhelming danger, rather than relying on other means. The choice is between a political solution—viz., an alliance with Egypt, peace negotiations with Assyria—and trusting on YHWH alone for deliverance.

The message of the Rabshakeh is essentially repeated (in summary form) in 37:10-13, and this second message is properly what Hezekiah is responding to in vv. 14ff. Having received the message, warning of horrific destruction if Jerusalem does not surrender, Hezekiah, it is said, “went up (to) the house of YHWH” (that is, the Temple complex) and spread out the scroll containing the message before YHWH. In so doing, he effectively presented the danger—but, more importantly, the oppressive wickedness of the Assyrians—before God. This is the setting for his petition and the prayer that follows.

Verse 15

“And YHWH-is-(my)-strength made a petition [i.e., prayer] to YHWH, saying…”

I have fully translated the name „izqîy¹hû (WhY`q!z+j!) rather than transliterating it in English (i.e. Hezekiah). Not that this is so important for an understanding of the prayer per se, but simply as a reminder of how the idea of faithfulness and devotion to YHWH was woven into Israelite society during the kingdom period; many names were YHWH-sentence/phrase names. We are not accustomed to names like this in Western society, and they may seem strange to our ears, but the people of the time would immediately have heard and understood their meaning. It is a kind of distortion of the text of Scripture when we transliterate such  names. The idea of trust in YHWH, so essential to the message and theme of the passage, is built into the very name of Hezekiah, filling the role (at least in the book of Isaiah) as the faithful ruler who represents the remnant of people that are to be saved.

Verse 16

“YHWH of (the heavenly) armies, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of Yisrael, (the One) sitting (upon) the Kerubs—you (are) He, (the) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God], you apart (from all others), for all (the) kingdoms of the earth! (It is) you (who) made the heavens and the earth.”

The prayer begins both with praise to YHWH and with a confession of belief in Him as the one true God and Creator, Sovereign ruler over all the world. His power and rule over all the “kingdoms of the earth” implicitly establishes a contrast between YHWH as King and the wicked tyrant Sennacherib; this contrast is brought out more clearly in the Isaian oracle and taunt (parallel to the Rabshakeh’s taunt) that follows in vv. 21-35.

That YHWH is to be identified as the Creator is clear from the very use of the ancient expression “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies” (toab*x= hwhy), which is presumably based on the idea of El-Yahweh as the one who brought the heavens (and the heavenly/divine beings) into existence; He rules them and has control over them, and they act/fight on His command. For more on the meaning and background of the tetragrammation-name hwhy (YHWH/Yahweh), cf. my earlier article and the recent notes on Exodus 3:13-15. It is also stated here quite clearly that YHWH is the One who “made the heavens and the earth” (cf. the same of the Creator °E~l in Genesis 14:19, etc).

The rule of YHWH as King is symbolized by His ‘throne’ in the Temple sanctuary, flanked as it is by fabulous winged beings (Kerubs, the precise meaning of bWrK= remains uncertain), in a manner typical of kings’ thrones in the ancient Near East (including the Assyrian empire). The might of YHWH extends over all the (human) kingdoms of earth; He truly is the “Mightiest One”, an expression which is a relatively literal rendering of the intensive (or comprehensive) plural <yh!ýa$ (°Elohim, i.e. “God”).

By this point of time in the Prophetic tradition (7th century B.C.), Israelite monotheism had moved strongly in the direction of absolute monotheism—i.e., no other gods exist. While not stately clearly or definitively here, the idea is certainly expressed that YHWH is God “apart from” (db^l=) all others (cf. below).

Verse 17

“Stretch (out) your ear(s), YHWH, and hear; open your eyes, YHWH, and see! See and hear all (the) words of Sennacherib, which he sent to defame (you the) Mightiest, (the) Living (One)!”

Hezekiah calls on YHWH to see and hear what is going on in the current crisis. However, the focus still is not on the immediate need for rescue/deliverance; rather, his appeal is for YHWH to avenge His own honor. The reference, of course, is to the Assyrian message in vv. 10-13, but also (in context) to the taunt-speech of the Rabshakeh earlier in 36:4-20. The purpose of that message was practical—an attempt to gain a peaceful surrender of Jerusalem—but the ultimate effect, in terms of the Prophet tradition, was to insult (i.e. blaspheme) YHWH, the one true God. I have rendered the verb [r^j* as “defame” —that is, to cast blame or reproach upon a person undeservedly.

As I discussed previously, the first half of the Rabshakeh’s message (vv. 4-10) largely echoes the judgment-oracles of the prophets (including Isaiah) against the kingdoms of Israel/Judah, in the sense that the Assyrian conquests are part of God’s decreed judgment, and no attempt to avert it (through diplomatic means, etc) will succeed. It is in the second part of the taunt (vv. 12-20), however, that the message becomes truly insulting to God, suggesting that it is foolish to trust in YHWH, that He cannot protect Jerusalem from destruction, and that there is no possibility for the city to be saved. It is this that Hezekiah presents before YHWH (in the parallel/summary version of 37:10-13), and he calls on God to act in defense of His honor, preserving His name in the face of the tyrant’s boasts. The Isaian taunt-oracle in vv. 21-29 effectively gives YHWH’s answer to Sennacherib.

Verse 18

“Surely, YHWH, (the) kings of Aššur [i.e. Assyria] have made desolate all the (place)s on earth and their lands”

Hezekiah admits the military might of the Assyrians, and their conquests—how they have “made desolate” (vb br@j*) the lands of the surrounding territories. There is almost certainly a bit of wordplay here between the root brj I and that of brj II (meaning “kill/slay [with the sword]”). There is also a dual use of the noun Jr#a# (“earth, land”) which is almost impossible to render effectively in English. A consistent translation would be “…all the lands and their lands”, which sounds quite silly; as an alternative, I make use of the two main denotations of the noun (“earth” and “land”) with the rendering “…all the (place)s on earth and their lands“.

Verse 19

“and have given their ‘mighty (one)s’ in(to) the fire—for they were no (true) Mighty (One)s, but (instead) a piece of work of (the) hands of man, (made of) wood and stone, and (so) they destroyed them.”

Hezekiah also admits the Assyrian boast that the gods of the surrounding nations were unable to protect them from conquest. This is true since, from the Israelite monotheistic (and Prophetic) standpoint, those deities are not true gods at all—that is, they do not exist. This premise is expressed in the standard polemic of the prophetic writings, to the effect that the “gods” of the surrounding nations can be reduced to nothing more than the images used to represent them. Such a caricature of polytheistic religion may not accurately represent what those peoples actually believed, but it demonstrates the essential reality of their religion when compared with the truth of YHWH as the only living God (v. 17). The polemic against idolatry is strongly rooted in the Deuteronomic line of tradition (cf. Deut 4:28; 28:36, 64; 29:16-17), but it is also found in the Isaian oracles (e.g., 2:8; 17:8), becoming even more prominent in the so-called Deutero-Isaian poems (40:18-20; 41:6-7, 21-24, 28-29; 44:6-8, 9-20; 45:16-17).

Verse 20

“And now, YHWH, our Mightiest (One), bring us salvation from his hand, and (then) all (the) kingdoms of the earth will know that you, YHWH (are the One)—you apart (from all others)!”

It is only at the very end of the prayer that Hezekiah actually makes his petition for the city to be rescued from the king of Assyria. Even here, however, this request is couched in the continued appeal for YHWH to defend His own honor. By turning back the Assyrian attack, all of the nations will realize that the God of Israel is the true God, unlike the false (non-existent) idol-deities who could not save their cities and territories from destruction. The exclusivity of YHWH as the only (true) God is affirmed here by a repetition (in abbreviated form) of the wording in verse 16 (cf. above). YHWH is God “apart from” (db^l=) all others.

The effectiveness of Hezekiah’s prayer is indicated by the answer that God gives to it, through the prophet Isaiah, in verses 21ff. This will be discussed further in the upcoming Saturday Series study.


June 7: Luke 11:2, 9-13

Luke 11:2, 9-13

In our study of how the traditions regarding the Spirit of God developed in the New Testament, among early Christians, we have been considering the evidence from the historical traditions preserved in the Synoptic Gospels. As we move from the core Synoptic Tradition to its (later) developments in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we find an increasing number of references to the Spirit—most notably in the Lukan Gospel. This has already been discussed in a previous note (on Lk 4:1, 14ff)—the way that the references to the Spirit at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry have been developed and adapted, with an eye toward the role of the Spirit in the larger narrative of Luke-Acts.

A similar sort of example can be found in chapter 11 (vv. 1-13), where the author has brought together several different traditions—sayings and parables—on the subject of prayer. This is typical of the thematic and “catchword” bonding by which Gospel traditions often came to be combined together. In the Lukan Gospel, the journey to Jerusalem provides the literary framework within which a large amount of material has been included, as though it were simply a record of all that Jesus taught along the way. The fact that much of this material is found in different narrative locations in the other Gospels makes clear that the Lukan arrangement is literary, rather than historical and chronological. In 11:1-13, the unifying theme is prayer; at least three different tradition-units make up this pericope:

    • A version of the “Lord’s Prayer” (vv. 2-4), following the narrative introduction in verse 1
    • The Parable of the man who calls on his friend in the middle of the night (vv. 5-8), and
    • A short block of sayings—at least two distinct traditions (vv. 9-10, 11-13)—part of the so-called “Q” material, also found in Matthew (7:7-11)

The emphasis in vv. 5-13 is on the assurance that God, as the “heavenly Father”, will answer the prayers of His children, and that they should not be afraid to petition God in their time of need. In particular, let us examine the sayings in vv. 9-13—the first of which is virtually identical with the Matthean version:

And I say to you: you must ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened up to you; for every (one) asking receives, the (one) seeking finds, and to the (one) knocking it is [or, it will be] opened up.” (vv. 9-10)

Luke has apparently made no change to the “Q” tradition, other than perhaps the inclusion of the introductory phrase (in italics). The situation is different with regard to the tradition in vv. 11-13; it is instructive to compare the Lukan and the Matthean (7:9-11) versions phrase by phrase:

    • “Or, what man is (there) out of [i.e. among] you” (Matt)
      “And for what father out of [i.e. among] you” (Lk)
      It is possible that Luke has glossed “man” as “father” to make the immediate context of the illustration more clear, but it would also be appropriate to the overall context of vv. 1-13, which is framed by references to God as the heavenly Father (vv. 2, 13). It also establishes a precise contrast between an earthly father and God the Father, which is very much to the point of the illustration. The Lukan syntax would seem to confirm its character as a gloss—i.e., “what (man) among you, as a father…”.
    • “whom, (when) his son will ask (for) bread, he will (surely) not give over to him a stone(, will he)?” (Matt)
      “the son will ask (for) a fish and, in exchange (for) a fish, will he give over to him a snake (instead)?” (Lk)
      The Lukan syntax is simpler, emphasizing that the harmful item (snake) is given in place of (a)nti/) the beneficial thing requested by the son (a fish). The initial pairing in Matthew is bread/stone, rather than fish/snake, but it similarly establishes the pattern for the illustration.
    • “or even will ask (for) a fish, he will not give over to him a snake(, will he)?” (Matt)
      “or even will ask (for) an egg, will he give over to him a stinging (creature) [i.e. scorpion] (instead)?” (Lk)
      Matthew’s second pairing is the first in the Lukan illustration; in place of it, the Lukan version juxtaposes egg/scorpion, which makes for a more extreme (and ridiculous) contrast.
    • “So (then), if you, being evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring” (Matt)
      “So (then), if you, beginning (now) as evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring” (Lk)
      The two versions are nearly identical here; the use of the verb u(pa/rxw (lit. “begin under”), instead of the simple verb of being (ei)mi), would seem to be an indication of Lukan style. Of the 46 occurrences of the verb u(pa/rxw, 31 are found in Luke-Acts, and it is not used in any of the other Gospels.
    • “how much more will your Father, the (One) in the heavens, give good (thing)s to the (one)s asking Him?” (Matt)
      “how much more will your Father out of heaven give (the) holy Spirit to the (one)s asking Him?” (Lk)
      Again the two versions are quite close here, the most notable difference being that Luke reads “holy Spirit” in place of “good (thing)s”. Assuming that we are dealing with a common saying, which certainly seems to be the case, the two versions here cannot both be an accurate representation of the original. Almost certainly, Matthew preserves the original saying (or close to it), which Luke has adapted in light of the special emphasis on the role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts (cf. above). Several manuscripts (Ë45 L, etc) read “(a) good spirit” instead of “holy Spirit”, most likely in an attempt to harmonize the two versions.

The Lukan reference to the holy Spirit as the “good thing(s)” that God will give to His offspring effectively centers the saying within an early Christian context, anticipating the “gift” of the Spirit that will come upon Jesus’ disciples in Acts 2:1-4ff. It serves as the climax to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in this passage, implying that it is the Holy Spirit that will truly be the answer to his disciples’ prayer. In this regard, it is interesting to note a fascinating variant reading within the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer, found in a small number of witnesses. The majority text of the second petition (in v. 2) reads “may your Kingdom come” (e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou), just as in the Matthean version, though Codex Bezae (D) adds e)f’ h(ma=$ (“upon us”). However, in two minuscule manuscripts (162, 700) and in the writings of at least two Church Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus Confessor), we find a very different petition which substantially reads:

“may your holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us”
e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion e)f’ h(ma=$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$

Some commentators have suggested that this is a gloss interpreting the coming of God’s “Kingdom” as a reference to the coming of the Spirit, and that it may have originated as a liturgical adaption of the Prayer in a baptismal setting. Interestingly, an identification of God’s Kingdom with the Spirit, within the narrative of Luke-Acts, may be justified on the basis of Jesus’ answer to the question posed by his disciples in Acts 1:6-8. A more precise Christian identification is made by Paul in Romans 14:17. If we go back to the sayings and words of Jesus, a similar association, between Kingdom and Spirit, can be found in the Matthean version of the saying at Matt 12:28 / Lk 11:20 (cf. the prior note); the Lukan version of this saying, which uses “finger of God” instead of “Spirit of God” occurs just shortly after the section on prayer in chap. 11. We may also note the association made by Jesus in the Johannine discourse of chap. 3 (v. 5).

Though this variant reading in the Lord’s Prayer is certainly secondary (and not original), it provides an intriguing enhancement to a genuine Lukan theme in this passage. It offers a parallel, at the beginning of the section (v. 2), to the reference to the Spirit at the conclusion (v. 13), thus framing the entire pericope, and emphasizing all the more the point that the coming of the Spirit represents the ultimate goal and answer to the prayer of believers. There is a similar connection between prayer and the Spirit running through the Johannine Last Discourse—cf. 14:13-17, 25-26; 15:7ff, 26; 16:7ff, 23-24.

The variant reading itself represents a distinctly Christian adaptation of an established Old Testament/Jewish tradition regarding the role of God’s Spirit in the New Age. Drawing upon the natural association between God’s (holy) Spirit and cleansing, the sixth century Prophets, as part of their overall message regarding the restoration of Israel (and return from exile), emphasize the role of the Spirit that God will “pour out” upon His people, cleansing them and giving to them a “new heart” and a new spirit which will allow them to remain obedient to the Covenant. The Qumran Community further developed this idea, applying it to their own religious identity as the faithful ones of the end-time. The Qumran Community viewed itself as a “community of holiness”, made up completely of “men of holiness”, led by a “council of holiness”, and established by God’s own “spirit of holiness” (1QS 8:20-9:3). The water-ritual for entrants into the Community symbolized the cleansing of the person’s spirit by the “spirit of [God’s] holiness”, so that the individual’s own spirit was made entirely holy (1QS 3:5-9), allowing him to become part of the holy Community. The parallel with early Christian baptism is clear enough, and the variant reading of Luke 11:2, if it indeed stems from a baptismal setting, would indicate that early Christians used similar traditional language, regarding the cleansing role of the Spirit in the Community.

Before proceeding further to consider how this Lukan emphasis on the Spirit reflects the historical traditions surrounding the earliest believers (in Luke-Acts), it will be worth examining one additional Gospel tradition where the Lukan version, apparently, makes reference to the Holy Spirit. In the next daily note, we will look briefly at the saying in Lk 10:21-22 (par Matt 11:25-27).


Notes on Prayer: Acts 4:23-31

Among the speeches (and sermon-speeches) in the book of Acts, that of 4:23-31 is properly not a speech, but a prayer to God. One might even make the claim that it is the earliest Christian prayer on record. Certainly, to the extent that what the author presents in these verses accurately reflects the historical situation, such a claim would be justified. The prayer-speech in 4:23-31 is, however, a literary work more than it is a stenographic record of what was said at the time. It takes the words, thoughts, and sentiments of the early Jerusalem Christians, and presents them as a single voice. This is appropriate, since the narrative in chapters 1-8 repeatedly emphasizes the unity of believers—how they were all of a single mind and purpose, best expressed by the use of the term o(moqumado/n (“[with] one impulse”, cf. 1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 8:6). This unity of thought and purpose is reflected in the prayer of believers, as indeed it should be for us today.

For the Monday following Pentecost (“Pentecost Monday”), I thought it worth providing a study, as part of the “Monday Notes on Prayer” feature on this site, of the prayer-speech in 4:23-31. In doing so, I have adapted an article from my earlier series on the “Speeches of Acts”. In considering the context of Acts 4:23-31, it is best to begin with an outline of chapters 3 and 4, dividing the overall arc into three distinct narrative sections, each of which contains a speech. 4:23-31 belongs to the third (final) section:

    • Introductory/Core Narrative—the healing Miracle (3:1-10)
    • First speech by Peter (3:12-26), with narrative introduction in v. 11 joining to v. 1-10
    • Narrative Summary (4:1-4)
    • Second Narrative (introduction)—Peter and John brought before the Sanhedrin (4:5-7)
    • Second speech by Peter (4:8-12)
    • Narrative Conclusion/Summary (4:13-22)
    • Third Narrative (introduction)—Disciples gather together (4:23)
    • Speech (Prayer) by the Disciples, addressed to God (4:24-30)
    • Narrative Summary (4:31)

Even if 4:23-31 is properly a prayer to God, it very much follows the same sermon-speech pattern that governs the other speeches in the book:

    • Narrative Introduction (v. 23)
    • Introductory Address, with kerygmatic detail (v. 24)
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 25-26)
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 27-28)
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 29-30)
    • Narrative Summary (v. 31)

This confirms the literary character of the prayer-speech, and makes it unique and distinctive among the notable examples of early Christian prayer.

Narrative Introduction (verse 23)—this introduction also joins with the narrative in vv. 13-22, emphasizing succinctly several points which are key motifs in the book of Acts:

    • the disciples are loosed [i.e. set free] from (custody)—the opening participle a)poluqe/nte$
    • they go (return) to “th(eir) own (people)” [tou\$ i)di/ou$]—i.e. their fellow believers, gathered together (implied)
    • they give forth the message (a)ph/ggeilan) regarding what was said and done to them—part of the overall message/proclamation of the apostles

Introductory Address (verse 24)—this follows the same narrative pattern used in v. 23:

    • “and being loosed from (custody), they went…and announced….” (v. 23)
    • “and (the ones) hearing,… they lifted up voice…” (v. 24)

Here we also find the keyword o(muqumado/n (homothumadón), mentioned above— “of one impulse” (or, “of one mind, of one accord”), used numerous times throughout the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:46; 5:12; 8:6) to express Christian unity and solidarity.

Since vv. 23-31 represents a prayer (and not an ordinary speech), the address is not to a surrounding crowd, but to God. Parallels to this prayer in Isaiah 37:16-20; 2 Kings 19:15-19 (Hezekiah’s prayer) have been noted, and the author (or an underlying tradition) may have used the OT passage as a pattern; note also similarities of language in Psalm 146:6; Neh 9:6. The title despo/th$ (despót¢s), “master, ruler”, used in addressing God, is somewhat rare in the New Testament, though by no means uncommon (Lk 2:29; 1 Tim 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18, etc). For the use of this conventional, ritualistic language for God as Creator elsewhere in early Christian preaching, see esp. Acts 14:15.

Citation from Scripture (verses 25-26)—this is from Psalm 2 (vv. 1-2), one of the most popular and often-cited “messianic” Psalms in the early Church (see my earlier study on this Psalm), verse 7 being especially applied to Jesus (in Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and Luke 3:22b [v.l.]). But verses 1-2 also seem early on to have been related to Jesus’ suffering and death, in much the same way that they are interpreted here in Acts 4:25b-26. Cf. on the Exposition below.

The text of Psalm 2:1-2 here matches that of the Greek LXX precisely. However, nearly all scholars and textual critics are in agreement that the sentence which introduces the Scripture (in v. 25a), at least as reflected in the ‘earliest and best’ manuscripts (Ë74 a A B E 33 al), is syntactically garbled, preserving a primitive corruption. This is not so obvious in standard English translations (which attempt to smooth over the text), but is readily apparent in Greek. A literal rendering of the text as it stands (such as in the NA27 critical edition) is nearly impossible:

“the (one who) of our Father through the holy Spirit (of[?] the) mouth of David your child, said…”

The Majority text (primarily much later MSS) reads simply “the (one who) said through the mouth of David your child…” But this is generally regarded as a natural simplification and clarification; for, if it were original, how could the apparent confusion in early, otherwise reliable MSS such as B et al ever have been introduced? There are a number of suggestions to explain the older text, such as mistranslation from an Aramaic original. An interesting theory holds that Acts was left in an unfinished state, and v. 25a had different drafts of the sentence which ended up being accidentally combined; indeed, there do appear to be three distinct phrases jumbled together: (a) “through our father (David)…”, (b) “through the holy Spirit…”, (c) “through David your child/servant…”. I am somewhat inclined to think that tou= patro\$ h(mw=n was originally a reference to God as “the One (who is) of our Fathers [pl.] (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)”, as in Acts 3:13, but was subsequently misread as referring to David. The remaining confusion then has to do with the position (and place) of pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou (“[of] the holy Spirit”), either as a mistaken insertion, or as part of a complicated syntax which scribes found difficult to follow. Perhaps the original text (at least the basic sense of it) would have been something like:

“the (God) of our Fathers, (who) by the holy Spirit, through the mouth of David your child/servant, said…”

For more on detail on the text of v. 25a, see the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament (2d edition), pp. 279-281.

Exposition and Application (verse 27-28)

The key verb from Ps 2:1-2 (suna/gw, “lead/bring together”) is given in emphatic position in verse 27: “For upon truth [i.e. truly] they were brought together [sunh/xqhsan]…”, using the same form of the verb as in the Psalm (cf. also a similar use earlier in 4:5). The expression e)p’ a)lhqei/a$ (“upon truth, truly”) is common in the LXX and is used elsewhere in Luke-Acts (Lk 4:25; 20:21; 22:59; Acts 10:34); here it emphasizes the fulfillment of the Psalm (understood as prophecy). The specific application continues with the next phrase—”in this city, upon your holy child Yeshua whom you anointed…” The use of “child/servant” (pai=$) and the image of Jesus specifically as “Anointed” (xristo/$, here the verb xri/w [cf. Lk 4:18; Acts 10:38]) echo kerygmatic statements in the earlier sermon-speeches (in Acts 3:13, etc). Also expressed previously (cf. Acts 2:23), is the idea that the suffering and death of Jesus took place according to the sovereign will, foreknowledge and (predetermined) plan of God (v. 28). There seems to be a precise fulfillment for each of the four groups mentioned in Ps 2:1-2:

    1. The Nations [i.e. Gentiles/non-Jews] (e&qnh)—in v. 27 the e&qnh are principally the Romans (i.e. Roman government).
    2. The Peoples [laoi/], originally synonymous with e&qnh, but in v. 27 clarified as the “peoples [pl.] of Israel” (i.e. the Jewish people collectively, or generally).
    3. The Kings [oi( basilei=$]—here, king Herod (cf. Lk 23:6-12, otherwise Herod does not appear in the Passion accounts).
    4. The Chiefs/Rulers [oi( a&rxonte$]—i.e. the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who plays a key role in the Passion narrative and early kerygma.

Originally, Psalm 2 was a royal psalm presumably set in the context of the inauguration/coronation/enthronement of the (new) king. The accession of a new king (often a child or young man) was typically an occasion when vassals and ambitious nobles might take the opportunity to rebel and carve out power or territory for themselves. This is the situation generally described in vv. 1-3; God’s response, with a promise to stand by the king and secure his rule, follows in vv. 4ff. The king was anointed (v. 2) and, symbolically, was also God’s son (v. 7)—two titles and expressions which, of course, caused this Psalm to be applied to Jesus from the earliest time.

Concluding Exhortation (verses 29-30)

As this speech is a prayer, the exhortation primarily takes the form of a request/petition to God: “And now [kai\ ta\ nu=n], Lord, look upon [e)pi/de]…” For the expression  kai\ ta\ nu=n, cf. 2 Kings 19:19 [LXX] and in Acts 5:38; 17:30; 20:32; 27:22; or a similar contextual parallel to the imperative e)pi/de, cf. Isa 37:17 [LXX]. There are two parts to the request:

    1. look upon [e)pi/de] their [i.e. the religious leaders’] threatening (words and action)s
    2. give [do/$] to believers [God’s slaves/servants] so that they are able, with all parrhsi/a… —to speak [lalei=n] God’s word (i.e. God speaking through the believers) —to stretch out [e)ktei/en] God’s hand, in order to bring about healing and for there to be “signs and wonders”

They clearly ask to be made instruments of God’s own work and power, with the emphasis that miracles come to be done “through the name” [dia\ tou= o)no/mato$] of Jesus (cf. Acts 2:21, 38; 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10, 12, 17-18). Note also the references again to Jesus as “holy” [a%gio$] and “child/servant” [pai=$], titles characteristic of early Gospel preaching in Acts.

Two other expressions are worthy of special notice:

    • the term parrhsi/a, “speaking out (with) all (freedom/boldness)”, i.e. “out-spokenness”—a key word in Acts (cf. 2:29; 4:13, 31, and again in the concluding verse 28:31); it implies speaking openly, in public.
    • “speak the word (of God)” [lalei=n to\n lo/gon]—a common theme and expression in the book, cf. Acts 4:29, 31; 8:25; 11:19f; 13:46; 14:1, 25; 16:6, 31; and similarly (with variation) in several dozen other verses. Lo/go$, typically translated “word” is perhaps better rendered “account”, as this emphasizes the descriptive and narrative element central to early Gospel preaching and proclamation.

Both of these details appear together again at the end of verse 31 (below).

Narrative Summary (verse 31)

“And (on) making their need (known) [i.e. making their request], the place in which they were brought together was shaken, and they all were filled (full) of the holy Spirit and spoke the word/account [e)la/loun to\n lo/gon] of God with all (freedom/boldness) of speech [parrhsi/a$].”

This verse echoes the earlier manifestation of the Spirit in the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-4); the common elements are:

    • The disciples are all together (in one place) [2:1, the expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/]
    • The manifestation of the Spirit is accompanied by theophanous elements—in 2:2 there is the sound of a mighty wind and appearance of fire; in 4:31 there is shaking (saleu/w), as of an earthquake.
    • The disciples are all filled with the holy Spirit (2:4)

Shaking (or an earthquake) is a common feature of God’s manifestation (theophany) to human beings—cf. Exodus 19:18; 1 Kings 19:11; Isa 6:4; also Josephus Antiquities 7.76-77. This sort of divine appearance in response to prayer may not have a precise parallel in the Old Testament, but it is certainly common enough to ancient religious thought (and experience)—for examples from the Greco-Roman world, cf. Ovid Metamorphoses 15.669-72, Virgil Aeneid 3.88-91 [for these and several other references above, I am indebted to E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Westminster Press: 1971), pp. 226-229].

Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:9-14

This is a special Thanksgiving Day edition of the Monday Notes on Prayer. When we speak of thanksgiving, it is usually meant in the sense of giving thanks to God. The Greek verb for this is eu)xariste/w (and the eu)xarist– word group). It properly refers to showing good favor (xa/ri$) toward someone; however, in a religious context, it is typically used in the sense of a person being grateful (or thankful) for the favor shown to them by God. The majority of occurrences of the verb (24 out of 38) are in the Pauline letters, most frequently in the opening greeting and introduction (exordium) of the letter. The verb is rare in the Gospels; apart from its use in the Last Supper scene (Mark 14:23 par), and in the similar context of the Miraculous Feeding episode (Mark 8:6 par) where there are also eucharistic overtones, it occurs just three times, twice in Luke (17:16; 18:11).

In these notes, we have been studying the teaching and example of Jesus regarding prayer, most recently in the sayings, parables and other details unique to the Gospel of Luke. There are two distinct traditions in 18:1-14—the parable and saying(s) in vv. 1-8 (discussed in the previous study), and the parable in verses 9-14. As it happens, the verb eu)xariste/w occurs in this passage (v. 11), as an example of the wrong way to give thanks to God.

Luke 18:9-14

The narrative introduction to this parable (v. 9) establishes the context for it, with the reason for Jesus’ telling of it. The setting of the illustration itself (v. 10) is simple and straightforward, and it specifically involves prayer:

“And he also said this (illustration) cast alongside toward some (of) th(ose) having persuaded upon [i.e. convinced] themselves that they were just [di/kaio$], and making the remainder (of people) out to be nothing: ‘Two men stepped up into the sacred place to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], the one (was) a Pharisee and the other a toll-collector.'” (vv. 9-10)

The Temple-setting of the parable is fully in accord with the role of the Temple in Luke-Acts, emphasizing it as a place for prayer and worship of God, rather than the (sacrificial) ritual of the Temple-cultus. For more on this, see Part 1 of the article “The Law in Luke-Acts”, and also Parts 6-7 of “Jesus and the Law”. The afternoon hour for public prayer (c. 3:00 pm), tied to the time of the evening sacrifice, features prominently in two narratives (1:10; Acts 3:1; cf. Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:1). As is typically the case, the idiom of prayer is expressed by the verb proseu/xomai, “speak (out) toward”, i.e. toward God.

The two contrasting figures in the illustration are a Pharisee and a toll-collector (telw/nh$). Pharisees are mentioned frequently in the Gospels as opponents of Jesus, or as those discussing/debating points of Law (Torah) with him; they are representative of the religiously devout and observant Jews of the time. The “toll-collector” was a local agent for the Roman administration in the provinces, collecting indirect taxes (i.e. tolls, customs fees, etc). As such, they were traditionally associated with corruption and exploitation, in addition to the ‘impurity’ related to their work on behalf of the pagan government; for faithful and observant Jews, the toll-collector became a stock figure-type representing “sinners” (Mark 2:15-16 par). The telw/nh$ is mentioned most frequently in the so-called “Q” material of Matthew and Luke, and other Lukan passages (Lk 3:12; 5:27-30; 7:29, 34 pars; 15:1; 19:2ff).

In the parable Jesus gives the prayer offered to God by each of these two men, continuing the contrast. The prayer of the Pharisee is as follows:

“The Pharisee, (as) he was standing, spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself: ‘God, I give (thanks) to you for (your) good favor, that I am not as the remaining (one)s of men—(those) seizing (things), without justice, (partner)s in adultery, or even as this toll-collector (here)—(for) I fast twice (during) the Shabbat-week, (and) I give a tenth from all (thing)s whatever I acquire.'” (vv. 11-12)

As is proper in prayer, the Pharisee gives thanks to God (using the verb eu)xariste/w, cf. above), in gratitude for the favor and blessings shown to him. However, the incorrect orientation of his prayer is indicated through a bit of wordplay that is lost in most translations:

pro\$ e(auto\n tau=ta proshu/xeto
“he spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself”

In conventional English, this would be rendered “he prayed these things about himself”, translating the first preposition pro/$ in the sense of “about, regarding”. However, the real implication, based on the actual wording, is that, while speaking toward God, the Pharisee is really speaking toward himself—i.e., the focus is not on God, but on himself. How is this done? First, he separates himself from the remainder (loipoi/, pl. “[one]s remaining”) of humankind; this reflects quite typical (and natural) religious thought—there are the devout and faithful ones, and then all the rest who do not show the same care or concern for God. A similar sort of prayer is recorded in the Talmud (b. Ber. 28b, j. Ber. 2.7d). The Pharisee rightly attributes his religious devotion to God, at least in terms of the form of his prayer (i.e. thanking God for His favor), and properly echoes the traditional idea of Israel (the faithful ones) as the chosen people of God. What is especially bad, in the context of the parable, is the way that he includes the toll-collector standing nearby as a “sinner” merely on the basis of his profession. On this point, compare the Zaccheus episode (19:7ff), and the Synoptic tradition in Mark 2:15-16 par.

The second aspect that is highlighted has to do with the Pharisee’s declaration of his religious devotion, marked by regular fasting and tithing of his possessions. This may be related to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-13), where charitable giving and fasting are two of the three typical religious activities (along with prayer) emphasized by Jesus. There, too, he makes a clear contrast between outward action and inner attitude, things done publicly and in secret. Jesus’ disciples are not to behave in these matters as many other religiously-minded people do. For more, see the earlier study on Matt 6:5-8. In spite of the Pharisee’s customary use of the verb eu)xariste/w, he appears to be emphasizing his own religious devotion rather than the favor (xa/ri$) of God.

The toll-collector’s prayer comes in verse 13:

“But the toll-collector, having stood far off, did not wish not even to lift up his eyes unto heaven, but (instead) struck his chest (as he stood), saying: ‘God, (please) you must be accepting to(ward) me a sinful (man)!'”

It should be noted both the similarities, but also the stark differences, between the Pharisee and toll-collector, in (a) their position as they pray, and (b) the content and focus of their prayer. First, their position. They both are said to be standing, using the same verb (i%sthmi), but described very differently:

    • For the Pharisee, a single word is used—aorist passive participle sta/qei$ (“was standing”)—with nothing, apparently, in his position or posture to indicate humility before God. The circumstantial passive form, rather Lukan in style, suggests that the Pharisee has placed himself in a prominent position.
    • For the toll-collector, an active perfect participle is used (e(stw/$), along with the modifying adverb makro/qen (“[from] far off”), presumably meaning that he stood in the back of the courtyard. Moreover, his attitude toward God is also described vividly in other ways—unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, and beating his chest (as a sign of sorrow). His posture is one of humility and repentance.

With regard to the description of the prayer itself, the situation is reversed: the Pharisee’s is lengthy (by comparison), and the toll-collector’s extremely brief (just three words). They both begin the same way, addressing God—o( qeo/$ (“[O,] God…”)—at which point the prayers diverge. The Pharisee declares his faithfulness and religious devotion. The toll-collector does not feel that he can offer anything comparable, but instead, refers to himself precisely as the Pharisee would regard him, as a “sinner”, or, to be more accurate, as a sinful person (compare Peter’s admission to Jesus in 5:8). Moreover, he offers no thanksgiving to God for the favor shown to him; rather, he fervently implores God to show favor. He uses an imperative form of the verb i(la/skomai, related to the noun i(lasmo/$. These words are extremely difficult to translate accurately, and consistently, in English. The basic idea is religious, and involves God being appeased so as to accept a person (their offering, etc) and treat them favorably. Essentially, the toll-collector is asking God to accept him, to be gracious and show favor to him, in spite of his sinfulness.

“I relate to you (that) this (one) [i.e. the toll-collector] stepped down into his own house having been made right (in God’s eyes), alongside the other (one who was not)—(for it is) that every (one) lifting himself high will be set (down) low, but the (one) lowering himself will be set (up) high.” (v. 14)

The conclusion of the parable is straightforward, and features a reversal-of-fortune motif common to many of the parables (as also in the Lukan Beatitudes, etc). Things were “made right” for the person considered to be a “sinner”, while the “just-ness” of the seemingly devout and faithful person was not confirmed. This reflects two sides of the dikaio– word group and the verb dikaio/w. Just as the two men “step up” into the house of God (Temple), so now they “step down” each into his own house, but with different results. For the toll-collector, things “have been made right” between he and God, while the Pharisee, who considered himself to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes was not declared to be so, as a result of his action and attitude in prayer. The parable concludes with a proverbial saying also found, in a different context, at 14:11.

It seems likely that Jesus was not addressing this parable to other such Pharisees, but to his own disciples, instructing (and warning) them much as he does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-13). The contrast in the parable is extreme—the humble and repentant “sinner” will be accepted by God over the person who is religiously devout—but the main point is actually quite simple: Jesus’ followers (believers) are to behave with humility before God, especially in prayer and other religious matters.

Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:1-8

In addition to the main section on prayer in the Gospel of Luke (11:1-13, discussed last week), there are two parables which deal with the subject. These appear in sequence at 18:1-8 and 18:9-14, likely joined together due to the common theme of prayer. Both of these parables occur toward the end of the Journey portion of the narrative—i.e. the extensive collection of teaching set during the journey to Jerusalem (9:51-18:34; cp. Mark 10:1-34). This framing of Jesus’ teaching is as much a literary device as historical; it is likely that many of the sayings, parables, etc, were originally uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Here, in particular, the two parables may have been spoken by Jesus at different times, and not necessarily right after each other.

Luke 18:1-8

In the Lukan narrative, this parable follows a block of eschatological teaching (17:20-37), some of which is found in a different location (the Eschatological Discourse) in the Gospel of Matthew. This narrative context is important for a proper understanding of what follows in 18:1-8. Even if the parable (as spoken by Jesus) originally did not have eschatological significance, it clearly does in its current Lukan setting. The eschatological context, however, is not immediately obvious in the introduction to the parable (v. 1):

“And he related to them an (illustration) cast alongside [parabolh/, i.e. parable], toward [i.e. regarding] it being necessary (for) them to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] (at) all times, and not to be in weariness [i.e. grow tired] (about it)…”

Contrary to the parable in 11:5-8 (discussed last week), here the point (according to the notice in v. 1) is to be persistent in prayer, described two ways:

    • to pray to God “at all times” (pa/ntote)
    • not to become tired of it (vb. e)gkake/w), lit. be ill/weary/tired in the effort (of praying), and thus stop

The illustration or parable itself is in vv. 2-5. The first character is a judge (krith/$), described as “not fearing God and not turning in (to consider) man” (v. 2). The second verb (e)ntre/pw) is a bit difficult to translate; I have rendered it quite literally as “turn in”, that is turn in toward something (or someone). The middle/passive use (as here) indicates a person turning in to give consideration to something, occasionally in the sense of paying attention or giving respect. In other words, this judge neither fears God nor gives any consideration for other people; the description is similar to that of king Jehoiakim by Josephus (Antiquities 10.283, Fitzmyer, p. 1178). In verse 6, this man is further characterized as being “without justice” (a)diki/a), i.e. unjust, certainly the worst sort of quality for a judge to have.

The second character in the parable is a widow (xh/ra), who is involved in certain legal difficulties (v. 3), presumably as a plaintiff in a court case. This may have entailed action against property inherited from her husband, the sort of thing alluded to by Jesus in 20:47 par. It is this situation which prompts her to approach the judge, her specific request being: “(Please) you must work out justice [e)kdi/khson] for me from my (opponent the one) seeking justice [i.e. a decision] against [a)nti/diko$] (me)”. English translations tend to obscure the relation between the verb e)kdike/w and the noun a)nti/diko$—at their heart, and etymologically, both relate to dikh/ (“justice”, “what is just/right”). At first the judge refuses to consider the widow’s request, but then thinks to himself that, even though he does not fear God or give regard to people’s needs (v. 4, repeating the description in v. 2), yet

“…through [i.e. because of] this widow holding along a beating [ko/po$] for me, I will work out justice for her, (so) that she should not strike me under the eye unto [i.e. at] the completion (of her) coming (to me).”

I have rendered the idiomatic language quite literally, though this can easily mislead the average reader. First, “holding along a beating”, refers to troubling a person with repeated “blows” (noun ko/po$, an act of cutting, striking), here in the figurative sense of continually bothering someone to the point of wearing them down. Second, the verb u(popia/zw literally means “(hit) under the eye”, either in the sense of irritation or an act of violent striking (as in a fistfight). Here the sense is one of annoyance and irritation—with her constant coming to him, in the end, this widow will be so annoying as to ‘batter him under the eye’.

Jesus’ exposition of this parable comes in verse 6: “And the Lord [i.e. Jesus] said, ‘You must hear what this judge without justice relates (to you)'”. The point is made in verse 7, relating the judge’s decision with that of God:

“And shall God (then) not make the working out of justice for his gathered out [i.e. chosen] (one)s, the (one)s crying (out) to him day and night, and (so) bring (his) impulse long upon them?”

This argument is of the qal wahomer (“light and heavy”) type—i.e. from the lighter example to the heavier, a Hebrew expression similar to the Latin a minori ad maius. If a corrupt human being will respond this way to a poor person’s need, how much more will God the Father answer the prayer of his chosen ones (oi( e)klektoi/, “the ones gathered out”). The use of the substantive adjective e)klekto/$ gives this teaching, in its Lukan context at least, a distinctly Christian orientation, referring to believers in Christ as the “ones gathered out” (Romans 8:33; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9, etc). Interestingly, while the adjective is otherwise rare in the Gospels, it is used prominently in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:20, 22, 27 par), and, as such, could imply an eschatological significance here as well (cf. below). The term makro/qumo$ (here in the verb makroqume/w) literally means having a long(-lasting) impulse; in English we might paraphrase by saying that the movement of a person’s heart and mind is turned long and hard toward something (or someone). The word-group is often translated in terms of “patience” or “longsuffering”, but that applies better to human beings than it does to God; rather, the idea here is that His attention is intently fixed on the plight of the Elect (believers). Their severe suffering and distress is indicated by the phrase “crying (out) day and night”; this likely refers to the (end-time) persecution of believers (Mk 13:9-13 par; cf. Rev 6:10), which, according to the early Christian eschatological worldview, begins with the suffering of the first disciples.

The eschatological orientation of the parable comes more clearly into view in the concluding verse 8, which contains two sayings, the first of which properly concludes the parable:

“I relate to you that He will make the working out of justice for them in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei].”

The precise meaning and force of this declaration is uncertain; there are two possibilities:

    • God may seem to delay in acting to bring justice to his people, but, when he (finally) does, he will act quickly.
    • God will act on behalf of his people very soon.

The first option better fits the historical setting of Jesus’ actual teaching; the second is more appropriate to the outlook of the Gospel writer, who is writing after the on-set of suffering/persecution of believers (i.e. in the period c. 35-70 A.D.). However, it is worth noting that, frequently in the New Testament, the expression e)n ta/xei has clear eschatological significance (for examples, cf. Part 1 of the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”). The second saying in verse 8 relates to the (end-time) appearance of the “Son of Man”:

“(But) more (than this)—the Son of Man, (at his) coming, shall he find trust upon the earth?”

This is one of the eschatological Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospel tradition, which early Christians certainly understood in terms of the return of Jesus to earth, the so-called parousi/a (parousia)—his coming to be alongside us. Critical commentators debate the extent to which Jesus intended such a self-identification in the original sayings; I discuss the subject extensively in several different series (cf. articles in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, the current “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”, and an earlier set of notes specifically on the Son of Man Sayings).

Two questions must be asked: first, what is the exact meaning of this saying? Jesus seems to raise the question of whether there will be any real trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) among people when the Son of Man comes. This is certainly being addressed to Jesus’ followers (i.e. believers), and not to humankind at large. The end-time will be one of great testing, involving suffering and persecution of believers; within the context of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, this is part of a period of distress (qli/yi$) that will come upon humankind prior to the end (Mk 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). Under such circumstances, it is possible even for believers (the Elect) to be deceived and to fall away (Mk 13:13, 23 par), and so requires that Jesus’ followers remain vigilant in prayer (cf. Mk 13:33-37 par; Lk 22:40-46 par). Whether his followers—all of them—will remain faithful, trusting in God, is an open question.

Second, we must ask: what is the relation of the saying in v. 8b with what came before in vv. 1-8a. At first glance, the saying seems unrelated, and, indeed, may originally have been uttered by Jesus on a separate occasion. In the Lukan context, it is joined to v. 8a by the coordinating particle plh/n, a specific indication, it would seem, of Lukan style and authorship—it occurs 15 times in Luke, and another 4 in Acts (more than half of all NT occurrences [31]), compared with just 6 in the other Gospels (and only once in Mark). Literally this conjunction means something like “more (than this)”, but the exact force of it can vary considerably. Quite often the meaning is adversative, drawing a contrast with a prior statement; here, this could mean that, yes (on the one hand) God will provide justice for the Elect, but (on the other) will there actually be any real faith present among the Elect by the time the Son of Man comes (i.e. after the period of suffering)? On the other hand, the force of the conjunction could be seen as cumulative, reaching a conclusion, i.e., yes it is true that God will bring justice, but beyond all this is the question of whether the followers of Jesus will remain faithful in the time of distress. I tend to lean toward the latter nuance. In this regard, the saying in v. 8b provides the perfect complement to the stated purpose of the parable—that disciples of Jesus (believers) must remain constantly in prayer through all things, and so demonstrate their/our trust in God (and in Christ), even in the period of great distress and persecution that marks the end-time. This will be considered further when we examine the theme of prayer in the Gethsemane scene of the Lukan Passion narrative (22:40-46).

The parable which follows, in verses 9-14, though also dealing with the subject of prayer, has a very different message and point of emphasis; this will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A (1983).