Previously, we considered two rebuttals that some Protestants make against Catholics’ use of Revelation 5:8 in support of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints. And we saw how both don’t work.
But there are other counter-arguments that a Protestant may spring on you. Let’s look at them here.
Here is the passage again:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8).
One counter argues that the text says nothing about the elders hearing (or knowing) the prayers of Christians on earth. It only says that the prayers of the Christians are present before the throne in the form of incense. Let’s call this the “No Hear” counter.
Another rebuttal, which we’ll call the “Still Not Justified” counter, is that even if we grant that the elders “hear” (have knowledge of) the prayers and take an active role in interceding, it still doesn’t justify us praying to the saints in heaven.
Let’s consider each counter in turn.
The “No Hear” counter
The key thing to remember here is that the elders are priests. This is strongly suggested by the number twenty-four, meant to call to mind the twenty-four divisions of Levitical priests (1 Chron. 24-25), and by the offering of incense, which was a priestly duty (Exod. 30:1; Num. 7:84-86; 16:8, 10-11).
Priests “act on behalf of men in relation to God” (Heb. 5:1) in imitation of Jesus, the true priest, “who always lives to make intercession” for those “who draw near to God through him” (Heb. 7:25). Since the elders are priests, we can conclude that they take an active role in presenting these prayers to Jesus. And if that’s true, then they must “hear” (have knowledge of) the prayers. It doesn’t make sense that they would be presenting prayers to Jesus without knowing what those prayers are.
This active role of the elders is made even clearer when we read Revelation 5:8 alongside Revelation 8:3-4, where an angel performs the same task as the elders: mixing the prayers of the saints with incense upon the golden altar before the throne. But John includes an extra detail: “The smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (v.4). If the elders perform the same task as this angel, then the elders must have just as active a role as this angel does in presenting the prayers of the saints to Jesus. And if they have an active role, then they must “hear” (have knowledge of) the prayers.
Even if we conceded for argument’s sake that the elders don’t actually know what the prayers are, clearly they still take an active role in presenting them to Jesus. And as we’ll see below, if that’s what they’re doing, it seems fitting to make an explicit request that they continue to do so.
The “Still Not Justified” counter
There are two reasons a Protestant may give in arguing that we’re still not permitted to pray to the saints even if Revelation 5:8 is taken to reveal that the elders intercede for us.
One is that there is no evidence that the Christians on earth request the intercession of the elders in heaven. The other is that the passage in question has no explicit instruction for Christians to make their requests known to the saints in heaven.
Concerning the second reason, it’s true that this passage doesn’t explicitly say to request the prayers of the saints. But that doesn’t mean we can’t infer from the text that we can make our requests known to them.
For example, nowhere does the Bible give explicit instruction to pray to the Holy Spirit. But given that Paul says that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26-27), we can infer that it’s appropriate to pray to him. This is something that many Protestants agree with.
We can take a similar approach with Revelation 5:8 and the intercession of the saints. When Revelation 5:8 is combined with other things the Bible teaches, we can infer that it’s good and appropriate for us to ask the saints to pray for us.
The Bible approves of requests made to other Christians for intercessory prayer. For example, Paul asks the Romans to pray for him to God on his behalf: “I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf” (Rom. 15:30). He then informs the Romans about that which he wishes to obtain from their intercession: “That I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints” (v.31).
If it’s acceptable to request other Christians to intercede for us for some specific purpose, and the saints in heaven are Christians who are not only able to intercede for us but in fact do intercede for us, then it’s reasonable to infer that we’re justified in making our requests known to them.
With regard to the first reason—that the text doesn’t say the Christians on earth actually make their requests known to the elders in heaven—it’s true that the practice was not common around the end of the first century, when John had that vision. The early Christians would have known that deceased saints could pray for them, as indicated in 2 Maccabees 15:12-14 (Maccabeus has a vision of the deceased Jeremiah interceding for the people of Israel). But the practice of asking the saints in heaven to pray for them wouldn’t become common until after the early Christians reflected upon the implications of the revelation given in Revelation 5:8. That said, the absence of explicit biblical example for a practice does not mean the practice is wrong—as Protestants, who have many such practices, should know well.
In summary: we know that that the elders are priests, which means they take an active role in presenting the prayers of Christians on earth to Jesus. And just because the text doesn’t explicitly say that the Christians on earth made their requests known to the elders in heaven, it doesn’t follow that we’re not permitted to do so. Especially since the Bible does encourage making prayer requests known to other Christians—a group that, of course, includes the saints in heaven.