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Praying in the Spirit

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What does it mean to, “pray in the Spirit” in Jude 20?

The book of Jude is one of the shortest in the New Testament, and ironically, one of the most likely to produce questions. There are all sorts of strange passages that most of us never come across unless we’re really sticking to our bible in a year plan. Our question is rooted in one of those parts that we might skip over at the end of Jude if we aren’t paying close attention.

So what does it mean to pray in the Holy Spirit? 

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that has been a source of a lot of discussions. We usually come to passages like this and wonder if it refers to speaking in tongues or not. Those from a charismatic perspective see a connection here with Paul’s words to the Corinthians, or they reflect on the way that the Spirit caused the apostles to speak in tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13, 1 Corinthians 14:14-16). Often times, people will also point out that Paul commands the church to, “Pray in the Spirit” at the end of Ephesians 6:18. In one sense, I think those of a charismatic bent are right to affirm that this is part of what Jude is getting at, sometimes when the Bible describes, “Praying in the spirit,” it’s accompanied by tongues. 

But I think it’s important to recognize that tongues is only one of a long list of things that happen when the Spirit is at work in the New Testament:

- Simeon is in the Spirit when he blesses the new-born Christ (Luke 2:27).

- Paul decides to visit Macedonia in the Spirit (Acts 19:21).

- Believers are said to be in the Spirit because of their salvation (Romans 8:9).

- John receives his vision of Christ’s return while he is in the Spirit (Revelation 1:10). 

With all of this in mind, New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham, points out that in the Bible, “Praying in the Spirit includes, but is not restricted to, prayer in tongues.” It’s easy to look at Jude as seeking to capture something from all of the passages above. 

The unifying thread is dependence, in every case we see people relying on the Holy Spirit to save, lead, and strengthen them in the face of the challenges in front of them.

That dependence is exactly what Jude’s readers so desperately need. If you look at the rest of Jude’s letter, you’ll notice that he starts by describing the letter he wishes he could write, a happy one that celebrates the salvation that he and his readers share. However, false teachers have crept into the church, so the letter Jude actually writes is full of warnings and suggestions for how to avoid error (3-5). It’s in the face of these challenges that we find the command to pray in the Holy Spirit: “build yourselves up in the most-holy faith; pray in the Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Jude basically says: 
spirit-filled prayers of dependence are one of the ways that God will help them combat false teaching, 
it’s how God will build them up in the true faith, 
it’s how God will give them the strength to wait for Christ’s return. 

Interestingly these are all things that we’ve just seen the Holy Spirit does elsewhere in the New Testament. The church Jude is writing to needs to depend on the work of the Spirit to help them weather this crisis. But they don’t just need the Spirit to do one thing, they need the Spirit to do a little bit of everything we see him do in the Scriptures. 

Jude is calling the church to the sort of prayer that will draw them to exalt Christ like Simeon, to make decisions led by the Lord like Paul, and to await the return of Jesus with patience like John on Patmos. 

This sort of prayer will often take different forms: it may look like speaking in tongues or asking for wisdom and discernment. But they all have one unifying theme: dependence. This is the sort of prayer that strengthens our love of Jesus, the kind of prayer that helps us stay faithful until His return. All of these are the work of the Spirit, all of these things are meant to strengthen the church up so that we, like Jude’s readers, can stand against false teaching. 

Jude’s command wasn’t just needed in his day, it’s needed in ours. May we be a people who pray in dependence on the Spirit to guide lead us home. 

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