Questions From Readers

Does Stephen’s exclamation at Acts 7:59 indicate that prayers should be directed to Jesus?

Acts 7:59 says: “They went on casting stones at Stephen as he made appeal and said: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” Those words have raised questions in the mind of some, since the Bible says that Jehovah is the “Hearer of Prayer.” (Psalm 65:2) Did Stephen really pray to Jesus? Would this indicate that Jesus is the same as Jehovah?

The King James Version says that Stephen was “calling upon God.” Understandably, then, many draw the conclusion reached by Bible commentator Matthew Henry, who said: “Stephen here prays to Christ, and so must we.” However, that viewpoint is erroneous. Why?

Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament makes this honest admission: “The word God is not in the original, and should not have been in the translation. It is in none of the ancient [manuscripts] or versions.” How did the word “God” come to be inserted into that verse? Scholar Abiel Abbot Livermore called this “an instance of the sectarian biases of the translators.” Most modern translations, therefore, eliminate this spurious reference to God.

Nevertheless, many versions do say that Stephen “prayed” to Jesus. And the footnote in the New World Translation shows that the term “made appeal” can also mean “invocation; prayer.” Would that not indicate that Jesus is Almighty God? No. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words explains that in this setting, the original Greek word, e·pi·ka·leʹo, means: “To call upon, invoke; . . . to appeal to an authority.” Paul used this same word when he declared: “I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 25:11) Appropriately, then, The New English Bible says that Stephen “called out” to Jesus.

What prompted Stephen to make such an appeal? According to Acts 7:55, 56, Stephen, “being full of holy spirit, gazed into heaven and caught sight of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at God’s right hand.” Normally, Stephen would have addressed his requests to Jehovah in the name of Jesus. But seeing the resurrected Jesus in vision, Stephen apparently felt free to appeal to him directly, saying: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Stephen knew that Jesus had been given authority to raise the dead. (John 5:27-29) He therefore asked Jesus to safeguard his spirit, or life force, until the day when Jesus would raise him to immortal life in the heavens.

Does Stephen’s brief utterance set a precedent for praying to Jesus? Not at all. For one thing, Stephen clearly distinguished Jesus from Jehovah, for the account says that he saw Jesus “standing at God’s right hand.” Also, these circumstances were exceptional. The only other case of such an utterance being directed to Jesus is that of the apostle John, who similarly addressed Jesus directly when he saw Him in vision.​—Revelation 22:16, 20.

Although Christians today properly direct all their prayers to Jehovah God, they too have unshakable faith that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) As it did Stephen, so faith in Jesus’ ability to raise his followers from the dead can help and sustain us in times of trial.