The Apostle Paul begins all of his letters with a greeting, often calling on God and Jesus together as the joint source of blessing. These greetings may seem rather commonplace but they reveal an important development in early Christian prayer. In Honoring the Son, Larry W. Hurtado investigates the devotional practices of the early church and what they tell us about the place of Jesus in early Christian worship. In this excerpt, Hurtado examines the role Paul plays in showing us the unprecedented nature of prayer in early Christian worship.
It is important to observe that the prominent place of the risen Jesus in early Christian devotion as reflected in the Pauline Letters and some other early texts did not typically involve any displacement or replacement of God. Jesus was not reverenced at God’s expense, so to speak. Nor was Jesus reverenced as a second god. Instead, what we dominantly see from our earliest texts onward is a distinctive “dyadic” devotional pattern, in which Jesus is included along with God as recipient, and Jesus’ divine status is articulated with reference to God. As I shall note, typically in early Christian texts, worship and prayer were directed to God, either simply or through Jesus and/or in Jesus’ name. Even when Jesus is the explicit recipient of cultic devotion, it seems typically to have been intended as responding to God’s exaltation of Jesus, and so as constituting also worship of God. Nevertheless, in its historical context, particularly the noted ancient Jewish concern to avoid compromising God’s uniqueness by including any other figure as a recipient of worship, the place of Jesus in earliest Christian devotional practice is remarkable.
Paul’s “grace and peace” salutations at the beginning of his letters likewise typically invoke God and Jesus together (e.g., 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2) as the joint sources of the blessings, as in this example in 1 Corinthians 1:3: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (similarly, Rom 1:7; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2). The equally typical “grace benedictions” that conclude Paul’s letters feature Jesus even more prominently, as in 1 Corinthians 16:23: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you,” and similarly in Romans 16:20; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18; Philemon 25. These salutations and benedictions are widely thought to represent Paul’s use of early Christian liturgical formulas, and so are to be taken as reflective of a corporate devotional practice that involved appeals to and invocation of the exalted Jesus.
To characterize the evidence of the place of Jesus in early Christian prayer practice more broadly, Jesus is posited in various early Christian texts as the unique intercessor/advocate before God on behalf of the elect, as the teacher and role model of prayer, as the recipient of prayer (as we have noticed, with God or alone), and as the efficacious basis of Christian prayer. Note, for example, Paul’s encouragement to believers that no one can condemn them in God’s sight, for Christ is “at the right hand of God” and there “intercedes for us” (Rom 8:34). Collectively, these ideas and practices are unprecedented and unparalleled, especially the evidence of direct appeals to Jesus in the corporate worship setting, and they gave early Christian prayer a distinctive character marked and shaped by the exalted Jesus.