Discussing Acts 7:59-60
with Jehovah's Witnesses

© Spotlight Ministries, Vincent McCann, 2003
www.spotlightministries.org.uk


The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Jehovah's Witnesses deny that prayer should be made to Jesus Christ. Two examples are as follows:

"Prayer is part of our worship and for this reason should be directed only to the Creator, Jehovah (Matt. 4:10)" (The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life, 1968 ed., p. 152).

"Though some claim that prayer may properly be addressed to others, God's Son, the evidence is emphatically to the contrary." (Insight on the Scriptures, vol. 2, p. 667).

However, despite these denials, Acts 7:59-60 records Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, crying out to Jesus before he dies. A straight reading of this text would lead the vast majority of readers to conclude that Stephen’s words were an obvious prayer to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Watchtower‘s own New World Translation (NWT) of the Bible, translates this text in the following way:

"And they went on casting stones at Stephen as he made appeal and said: 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then, bending his knees, he cried out with a strong voice: "Jehovah, do not charge this sin against them."

A point worth mentioning with this passage is its parallel with Luke 23:34, 46, which records Jesus’ prayer to the Father from the scene of crucifixion:

"And Jesus called with a loud voice and said: "Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit."" (Luke 23:46, NWT, emphasis added).

Compare:

"And they went on casting stones at Stephen as he made appeal and said: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (Acts 7:59, NWT, emphasis added)

and:

"But Jesus was saying: 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.'"(Luke 23:34, NWT)

Compare:

"Then, bending his knees, he cried out with a strong voice: "Jehovah, do not charge this sin against them" (Acts 7:60, NWT)

As Luke was the writer of both Acts and the Gospel of Luke he obviously wanted us to see the parallel. Jesus prayed to His Father and Stephen prayed to Jesus.

Should there be any doubt in the minds of Jehovah’s Witnesses that Luke 23:34, 46 be considered as an actual prayer of Jesus, the Watchtower publication Should you Believe in the Trinity? clearly lists it as one of "Jesus’ own prayers" (p. 18).

Despite the clarity with which Acts 7:59-60 speaks, as the concept of praying to Jesus goes against Watchtower theology, Jehovah’s Witnesses have to reinterpret this verse in other ways.

The most common way that Watchtower apologists seek to explain away the prayer of Stephen is to point out that in the context of Acts 7 Stephen was seeing a vision of Jesus, so on this occasion, it was appropriate to speak to Him. It is claimed that because Stephen could see Jesus, when he spoke with Him, it wasn’t necessarily a prayer. However, this claim is countered by examining the context more carefully. Although Stephen does indeed see a vision of Jesus in verse 56 he doesn’t cry out to Jesus until verse 59. In between seeing Jesus in verse 56 and crying out to Him in verse 59 Stephen is "driven out of the city" and stoned by a hostile mob (verse 58), suggesting that the vision of Jesus had passed.

Another objection that Watchtower apologists bring against this passage involves an attempt to contrast verse 59 with verse 60. The NWT immediately seeks to make a distinction between "Jesus" in verse 59 and "Jehovah" in verse 60. But it should be noted that there is no legitimacy for adding the word "Jehovah" here as the Greek word is kurios (Lord) a common title for Jesus. In fact, the Greek word kurios appears in verse 59: "Lord (kurios) Jesus receive my spirit", and in verse 60: "Jehovah (kurios), do not charge this sin against them." Furthermore, a consistent reading of verse 59-60 would also suggest that Stephen continued to pray to Jesus. There is nothing to suggest that Stephen went from directing His words to Jesus in verse 59 and then suddenly changes them to the Father in verse 60 (For an in depth response to the Watchtower‘s inclusion of the name "Jehovah" in the New Testament see: http://home.europa.com/~lynnlund/itmidx2.htm).

Watchtower apologists further try to create a distinction between verse 59 and 60 by saying that Jesus simply "made appeal" (NWT) to Jesus in verse 59, but only began prayer proper in verse 60, to Jehovah the Father, because he was "bending his knees" (NWT) which would indicate a praying position. Prior to this, in his appeal to Jesus, Stephen did not bend his knees. But again, such an interpretation, although imaginative, does not bear up to scrutiny and is simply exposed as a desperate attempt by those who do not want to approach Jesus in prayer. There are a number of grave difficulties for the Watchtower apologist who seeks to maintain this view. These are outlined as follows:

Firstly, and most importantly, Jesus Himself recognized that the disciples would sometimes stand when praying:

"And when you [i.e. the disciples] stand praying, forgive whatever you have against anyone..." (Mark 11:25, NWT, emphasis added).

Secondly, even the Watchtower itself admits that the actual physical position one assumes when praying is not important. The Watchtower publication Aid to Bible Understanding outlines the numerous acceptable Biblical postures believers assume in prayer: standing, kneeling, bowing, extending the arms, sitting and prostrating (Aid to Bible Understanding, pp. 162-163). With specific reference to Christian postures for prayer the Aid book explains:

"...Christians adopted many of the customs and practices of the Jewish synagogue of which God did not disapprove, and the same attitudes and postures of prayer are mentioned in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Nowhere do they give support to the facial or bodily attitude of assumed piety and sanctimoniousness, making any given posture essential, such as placing the palms together or clasping the hands when offering prayer, as many of the artists of Christendom have depicted. In fact prayers can be made silently and completely without outward manifestation,..." (Aid to Bible Understanding, p. 163, emphasis added).

Thirdly, another reason why Stephen fell to his knees in verse 60 could well have been because he was being weakened by the stoning he was receiving from the hostile mob, who’s ferocity in stoning him intensified because they heard him praying to Jesus!

Next, some comment on the Greek word for "appeal" at Acts 7:59 is worth mentioning. The Greek word used in Acts 7:59 is epikaleo and is defined by Vine in the following way:

"to call upon," has the meaning "appeal" in the Middle Voice, which carries with it the suggestion of a special interest on the part of the doer of an action in that in which he is engaged. Stephen died "calling upon the Lord," Acts 7:59. In the more strictly legal sense the word is used only of Paul's "appeal" to Caesar, Acts 25:11,12,21,25; 26:32; 28:19. (Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, unabridged ed., p. 66)

Examples of ‘calling upon’ (epikaleo) Jesus are found in Acts 9:1-21; 22:16 and 1 Corinthians 1:2. This same word is used at Romans 10:13 of Jehovah in the NWT:

"For "everyone who calls upon (epikaleo) the name of Jehovah will be saved". (NWT)
Such Old Testament passages as Psalm 145:18, in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) also exhort believers to "call upon" (epikaleo) Jehovah.

At times, the Watchtower appear to have accidentally admitted that Stephen’s words to Jesus can be recognized as a prayer. For example, the New World Translation, 1950 edition, has a footnote at Acts 7:59:

"And they went on casting stones at Stephen as he made appeal [b] and said: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (footnote b: "invocation; prayer").

Similarly, the New World Translation Reference edition (1984) carries a footnote on verse 59 which gives alternate meanings of Stephen‘s appeal as: "invocation; prayer."

Also, the Emphatic Diaglott by Benjamin Wilson was published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society as a reference book to the Greek text of the New Testament. Again, as in the previous references, the Diaglott carries a revealing footnote by Acts 7:59, with reference to the phrase "receive my spirit", which states:

"59. Dexai may also be rendered sustain or support. Booth, in his Lexicon of Primitive Greek words, gives this as one of the significations of the word. The prayer of Stephen then would read, "Lord Jesus, sustain my spirit," or "assist me to suffer" (p. 427 of 1942 ed., emphasis in original, emphasis in bold is added).

Finally, it is worth mentioning how the Watchtower actually define what prayer is. The Aid book states, in its section on "Prayer":

"Prayer involves devotion, trust, respect and a sense of dependence on the one to whom the prayer is directed." (Aid to Bible Understanding, p. 1329).

In the light of the above, ask yourself: Does Stephen’s situation in Acts 7 fit the criteria for prayer in the Aid book? Stephen was certainly putting his "trust" in Jesus to receive his spirit. Would this not require "a sense of dependence on the one to whom the prayer is directed."?

The clear testimony of Acts 7:59-60 is that of a prominent early Christian, from a Jewish monotheistic background, praying to the Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, this is the first recorded instance of a Christian martyr‘s dieing words. Stephen’s final words were of dependence and trust in the Lord Jesus: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." If you a Jehovah’s Witness reading this article, if you knew you were about to die, could you, along with Stephen, cry out to Jesus "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."?




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