The Saints and the Body of Christ

In my last post I covered the Catholic understanding regarding Christ as our sole mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), and why we believe this is not contradicted by our understanding that we can ask the saints for their prayers.  The context of that passage after all is intercessory prayer.  Because we are united to Christ, we can indeed intercede for one another.  The concept of intercessory prayer is accepted by all Christian groups and is not seen as contradicting the fact Christ is the one mediator between God and man.  I’m certain none of us can imagine a scenario where we would ask another Christian to pray for us and to receive a response “you shouldn’t be asking me because you can go directly to Jesus!”  Yet when we speak to the idea of asking those saints in heaven to pray for us, that is quite often the response from some – you don’t need them; don’t you know you can go directly to Jesus?  From the Catholic perspective this distinction makes no sense.  This is of course dependent upon a correct understanding of what Catholics mean when we speak of praying to the saints and other concepts that have already been covered here.

The idea we can ask those on earth to pray for us but not those in heaven is problematic for another reason.  It contradicts what Scripture teaches us about the one body of Christ.  St. Paul speaks to the concept of the body of believers as being the body of Christ throughout his writings.  One of the more prominent passages is this:

“As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.  But God has so adjusted the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  (1 Corinthians 12:20-26)

This translation says that there may be no “discord” in the body.  Other translations say that there may be no “division” or “schism” in the body.  The body of Christ is truly one, we can’t say we “have no need” of other Christians, and we suffer and rejoice together. 

So from the Catholic perspective, when someone professes we don’t need the saints in heaven because we have Jesus, that would be contrary to Scripture that teaches us “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” While there is nothing without Christ, He has seen fit to gift us to each other in his one body.  To profess we don’t need each other is not Biblical.  That would include the saints in heaven, for there is no division within the one body of Christ.  When someone wants to profess we can ask others on earth to pray for us but it would be wrong to ask a saint in heaven, we view that would be contrary to Scripture because that creates a division in the one body of Christ that Scripture says does not exist.

The most common objection to the Catholic viewpoint on this would be that when St. Paul writes of the body of Christ, he is speaking only of those on earth.  But is what Scripture teaches?

The first thing to note is St. Paul quite prominently teaches that there is only one body of Christ.  This can be found in verses like Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 1 Corinthians 12:20, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 2:16, Ephesians 3:6, 1 Corinthians 10:17 and Colossians 3:15.

But is there anything in Scripture that teaches the body of Christ is not limited to just those on earth?  As Catholics we would say yes.

We can begin with Romans 8:38-39 where St. Paul says “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Death certainly does not separate us from the love of Christ.  Why would we think it would separate us from the love of each other in the body of Christ?

In 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 Paul writes “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.”  In this passage we see no distinction in our union with Christ between those on earth or those who have died in him – we both live with him.  It is important to note in the New Testament when referring to those who have died in Christ, the term “sleep” is often used as a metaphor for physical death, especially in regards to those who have died in Christ.  This is to convey the understanding that death was not permanent and conveyed the hope of the resurrection of the body.  (1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Matthew 27:51-52, Acts 7:59-60, 1 Corinthians 15:6, John 11:11-15).  Some want to use these verses to prove those in heaven can’t be aware of our prayers because they are in some sort of comatose state, but Scripture contradicts that interpretation as was discussed here.

In Ephesians 1:9-10 Paul writes “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  In Galatians 4:4, St. Paul lets us know the “fulness of time” occurred when Christ was born.  When St. Paul tells us Christ has united all things “in him,” and that includes all in both heaven and earth, we can know those saints in heaven are indeed part of the one body of Christ.

This view is confirmed in Colossians 1:17-20 where Paul writes about Christ “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.  For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”  In this passage in speaking of the one body of Christ, we see Christ has reconciled all, whether on earth or in heaven.  We are truly joined to those who have died in Christ in His one body. 

And Hebrews 11:39-40 gives us a unique insight into our union with those who are in heaven.  Hebrews 11 gives a great roll call of Old Testament saints.  It speaks to their witness and how they conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight, were tortured, suffered, mocked and scourged, suffered chains and imprisonment, were stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, were destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated. 

And then in Hebrews 11:40 it says that “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  We would certainly understand the perfection of these saints of old comes from their union with Christ.  But the author of Hebrews makes it a point to tell us they are not made perfect apart from their union with us.  We are truly united to those in heaven in the one body of Christ.  And “the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I don’t need you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).  We do indeed need those saints in heaven to help us on our journey to join them, and to request their prayers is a very Biblical practice indeed. 

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