What should be our relationship to the saints in heaven? Should we honor them? Should we ask for their intercessions?
What is a saint? In the New Testament, the Greek word “hagios” is translated holy or saint. It means holy or most holy thing. It is applied to Christians throughout the New Testament (e.g. Act 9:13, 32, 41, 26:10, Rom. 1:7, 8:27, 12:13, 15:25, 26, 31, 16:2, 15, 1 Cor. 1:2, 1 Cor. 6:1, 2, 14:33, 16:1, 15, 2 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 8:4, 9:1, 13, 13:13, Eph. 1:1, 15, 18, 2:19, 3:8, 18, 4:12, 5:3, 6:18, Phil. 1:1, 4:22, Col. 1:2, 4, 12, 26, 1 Thes. 3:13, 2 Thes. 1:10, 1 Tim 5:10, Phm. 1:5, 7, Heb. 6:10, Heb. 13:24, Jud. 1:3, 14, Rev. 5:8, 8:3, 4, 11:18, 13:7, 13:7, 10, 14:12, 15:3, 16:6, 17:6, 18:24, 19:8, 20:9). When we become Christians we are sanctified (Greek hagioazo, the verb form of hagios). Sanctification is a process which continues throughout our lives as Christians here on earth. Paul tells the Christians at Corinth and Rome that they “are sanctified in Jesus Christ, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2, Romans 1:7). The saints on earth are saints in the making, while the saints in heaven are perfect, no longer struggling with sin, since they are in the presence of God.
All Christians ask other saints to pray for them. Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Coptics, and all other groups that broke from the Church before the 1500s seek the intercession of saints in heaven and of the saints on earth. Some of the more recent groups of Christians, however, see no problem with asking other Christians on earth to pray for them, but never ask those in heaven to intercede for them. The Bible tells Christians to pray for each other. The saints in heaven don’t start disobeying this command once they get to heaven. They continue to pray for us still here on earth.
No Christian can say that they don’t need the saints, including those in heaven. Christians “are all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). The body of Christ is made of many members: “For the body also is not one member, but many. If the foot should say: Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body: Is it therefore not of the Body? And if the ear should say: Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body: Is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were the eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God hath set the members, every one of them, in the body as it hath pleased him. And if they all were one member, where would be the body? But now there are many members indeed, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not thy help. Nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:14-21). A saint does not cease being a member of the body of Christ when he goes home to his heavenly reward, and no Christian can say they don’t need that person (“the eye cannot say to the hand”). We are more radically joined to the saints in heaven and to those on earth than our fingers are joined to our hands.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he tells Christians to intercede for each other: “I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men: For kings and for all that are in high station: that we may lead a quiet and a peaceable life in all piety and chastity. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, Who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God: and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus: Who gave himself a redemption for all, a testimony in due times. Whereunto I am appointed a preacher and an apostle (I say the truth, I lie not), a doctor of the Gentiles in faith and truth. I will therefore that men pray in every place, lifting up pure hands, without anger and contention.” (1 Cor. 2:1-11). Unfortunately some Christians start reading this statement starting at verse 5 where it says “For there is one God; and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus” and totally miss the point. The point is not that Christians cannot intercede for each other; Paul just asked them to do exactly that and said it is good and acceptable in the sight of God. The fact that Jesus is our one Mediator is used as a reason to show how we are able to intercede for each other. And as we shall see, saints don’t stop interceding when they make it to heaven. Whenever Jesus is described as our Mediator (Greek mesites) in the Bible, it is talking about how, by His shedding of blood on the cross, men were once again able to be reconciled with God (Gal. 3:19-20, 1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). Because we are in the one Mediator, Jesus Christ, we are able to intercede for all men, and are commanded to do so. Of course, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26-27) and so does Jesus (Rom. 8:34, Heb. 7:25, 1 John 2:1), but that doesn’t relieve Christians of the obligation to intercede for other men as Paul asks in 1 Tim 2:1.
Those in heaven do know what is happening on the earth and they do care. Jesus gave us two parables to demonstrate this. He explains these parables like this: “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7) and “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10). How often do people on the earth repent? Suppose Billy Graham has a stadium crusade with 100,000 in attendance. This event is broadcast all over the world by television. Tens of thousands, even millions of people could repent upon hearing him preach. Those in heaven would know about each and every repentant sinner. How do they know who really repents? We don’t know for sure, but Scripture gives us some hints that those in heaven do not have the limitations those on earth have now. “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor 2:9). “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Rachel was long dead (see Gen. 48:7) and departed from the earth during the Babylonian exile when Jeremiah wrote: “Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, [and] bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they [were] not. Thus saith the LORD; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.” (Jeremiah 31:15-16). The Lord answered her prayer. Again when Herod slaughtered the innocents, Matthew tells us: “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping [for] her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not” (Matthew 2:18). In the story about Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, we see that even the rich man in hell showed concern for the people still living. Wouldn’t the people in heaven show more concern? Wouldn’t they pray for us? Jesus tells us to careful what we do to little children since they have their guardian angels interceding to the Father for them. “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).
The word “pray” simply means to ask. It comes from the Latin word “precari” meaning “request.” The main definition according to Webster’s Collegiate dictionary (and any other good dictionary is “ENTREAT, IMPLORE -- often used as a function word in introducing a question, request, or plea <pray be careful>.” When we “pray” to the saints in heaven, we merely ask them for a request so they can pray to God along with us. We pray to God as an expression of our adoration of God and offer prayers of praise and thanksgiving, intercession and petition. We honor the saints, but we don’t give them the worship due to God alone.
In the Old Covenant the Jews were awaiting the Messiah so that they could go to heaven. In the temple they prayed and sang Psalms to angels who were the only saints in heaven then (see Daniel 4:13) with the possible exception of Elijah (2 King 2:11) and Enoch (Gen. 5:24). Here are a couple of examples.
“Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless ye the LORD, all [ye] his hosts; [ye] ministers of his, that do his pleasure” (Psalm 103:20-21).
“Praise ye the LORD. Praise ye the LORD from the heavens: praise him in the heights. Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts” (Psalm 148:1-2).
In the New Covenant we find the human saints (Rev. 5:8) in heaven and the angel saints (Rev. 8:3-4) in heaven offering to God the prayers of those still on earth: “And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four [and] twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.” (Rev. 5:8) and “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer [it] with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, [which came] with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand.” (Rev. 8:3-4). If we aren’t permitted to direct our prayers to them, where do they get our prayers? Those prayers are those of the saints on earth since the saints in heaven no longer need prayers.
Why not just pray to the Father in Jesus’ name? We do pray directly to God. But we also realize that our prayers are more powerful when joined with others. As Jesus tells us, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:19). All prayers are not the same. We know “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). Those saints in heaven have already been made perfect (Heb. 11:40, 12:23). On earth the saints continue to sin: “For a just [man] falleth seven times” (Proverbs 24:16). Sin effects the effectiveness of our prayers: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear [me]” (Psalm 66:18) and “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22). We seek prayer partners in the presence of God who have ceased from all sin, along with prayer partners on earth.
When we pray and worship, we are not only with God, but also with the angels and human saints in heaven. After describing the Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11, Paul (or the author of Hebrews) tells us: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2). When we are looking to Jesus and have our eyes on Jesus we are surrounded by these saints in heaven. Is it polite to ignore them as they cheer us on? “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than [that of] Abel.” (Heb. 12:22-24). Notice that in our worship and prayer, we don’t just come to Jesus, but to innumerable companies of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect (i.e. the saints in heaven).
Some will argue that the Bible forbids contact with the dead since necromancy is forbidden in Deut. 18:10-11. If one reads the context, one will see that this is forbidding contacting the dead as through a medium as at a séance. Moses died (Deut. 34:5), but that didn’t stop Jesus from communicating with him and Elijah at the mount of transfiguration. (Matt 17, Mark 9, Luke 9). What was Jesus talking to these “dead” guys about? They were talking about our salvation, i.e. His “exodus” (Luke 9:31). The saints are not dead; they are more alive than we are. The Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection. Jesus told them, “Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection. Now that the dead are raised, even Moses shewed at the bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.” (Luke 20:36-38).
Should we honor the saints in heaven, or should all of the honor and glory go to God? God receives more honor and glory by raising up honorable children. Jesus became man to share His glory with us. Jesus told this parable: “And he spoke a parable also to them that were invited, marking how they chose the first seats at the table, saying to them: When thou art invited to a wedding, sit not down in the first place, lest perhaps one more honourable than thou be invited by him: And he that invited thee and him, come and say to thee: Give this man place. And then thou begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when thou art invited, go, sit down in the lowest place; that when he who invited thee cometh, he may say to thee: Friend, go up higher. Then shalt thou have glory before them that sit at table with thee. Because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-11). Jesus tells us to humble ourselves so that we may “have glory.”
Paul promises glory and honor to those who live the Christian life: “But according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest up to thyself wrath, against the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God: Who will render to every man according to his works. To them indeed who, according to patience in good work, seek glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life: But to them that are contentious and who obey not the truth but give credit to iniquity, wrath and indignation. Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that worketh evil: of the Jew first, and also of the Greek. But glory and honour and peace to every one that worketh good: to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For there is no respect of persons with God.” (Romans 2:5-11). Peter promises Christians: “And when the prince of pastors shall appear, you shall receive a never fading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:4).
Paul writes to the Corinthians: “And those [members] of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely [parts] have more abundant comeliness.” (1 Cor 12:23) and “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26). Christians must rejoice when other Christians are honored. The Ten Commandments tell us to worship only God. The first commandment describing our duties to other men tells us to “honor your father and mother.” Scripture is clear that we don’t give the same level of honor to everyone: “Let the presbyters [priests] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17).
In our society, we honor sports stars, politicians, military heroes, actors, musicians, singers, and almost everyone except those who are examples of the Christian life. Don’t we have things backwards? The Bible tells us to imitate these other Christians. Paul tells the Corinthians: “Wherefore, I beseech you, be ye imitators of me as I also am of Christ. For this cause have I sent to you Timothy, who is my dearest son and faithful in the Lord. Who will put you in mind of my ways, which are in Christ Jesus: as I teach every where in every church.” (1 Cor. 4:16-17). Later he tells them: “Be ye imitators of me, as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that in all things you are mindful of me and keep my ordinances as I have delivered them to you.” (1 Cor. 11:1-2). Paul tells the Thessalonians: “For yourselves know how you ought to imitate us. For we were not disorderly among you. Neither did we eat any man's bread for nothing: but in labour and in toil we worked night and day, lest we should be chargeable to any of you. Not as if we had not power: but that we might give ourselves a pattern unto you, to imitate us.” (2 Thes. 3:7-9). Paul tells the Thessalonians: “For yourselves know how you ought to imitate us. For we were not disorderly among you. Neither did we eat any man's bread for nothing: but in labour and in toil we worked night and day, lest we should be chargeable to any of you. Not as if we had not power: but that we might give ourselves a pattern unto you, to imitate us.” (2 Thes. 3:7-9). The book of Hebrews tells us: “Remember your prelates who have spoken the word of God to you: whose faith imitate” (Hebrews 13:7).