Q&R with Brad – “What’s this about the courts of heaven?”
A friend of mine is becoming very excited by “The Courts of Heaven” theories promoted by Robert Henderson. They’ve obviously been around for a while but I’d not come across them before. I’m not persuaded by it at all, but why do these ‘new truths’ seem to work?
“Courts of heaven” teachers such as Robert Henderson use biblical imagery in order to express spiritual realities as they interpret them. The question, then, revolves around their interpretation of the imagery and how they apply the imagery in practice. Full disclosure: I will first nod to some of the biblical foundations, then push back at aspects of their interpretation, trying to be as fair as possible to a brother in Christ from a stream of Christian faith very different to my own or what you’d see at PTM.
First, to be fair, “courts of heaven” language reflects actual biblical imagery. The Bible describes “the courts of heaven” as the “place” where God dwells, sits enthroned as king, and rules as judge of the nations. We enter the “gates” of heaven’s throne of grace whenever we practice thanksgiving, worship, and intercessory prayer. Psalm 100:4 says, “I will enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” The author of Hebrews sees us all at Mount Zion, where we have come to worship God with the angels and our fellow believers (both alive and departed). Likewise, John paints a picture of God’s throne in Revelation 4-5, where multitudes worship the Lamb at the center of the throne.
Here’s a sample of a courts of heaven hymn in Psalm 82, a chapter that Jesus cites in the Gospels (John 10:34):
- God stands up to open heaven’s court. He pronounces judgment on the judges. 2 How long will you judges refuse to listen to the evidence? How long will you shower special favors on the wicked? 3 Give fair judgment to the poor man, the afflicted, the fatherless, the destitute. 4 Rescue the poor and helpless from the grasp of evil men. 5 But you are so foolish and so ignorant! Because you are in darkness, all the foundations of society are shaken to the core. 6 I have called you all “gods” and “sons of the Most High.” 7 But in death you are mere men. You will fall as any prince—for all must die. 8 Stand up, O God, and judge the earth. For all of it belongs to you. All nations are in your hands.
So Henderson and others in his circles who claim to be apostles encourage their disciples to enter and inhabit those courts in prayer, focusing their attention on God’s rule there rather than constantly focusing on “the battleground.” In other words, they use the imagery of God’s courts to remind us that God reigns and is sovereign over history rather than allowing ourselves to be sucked into our reactive dramas inside the circumstances that swirl around us. So far, so good.
And, as you suggest, such prayer sort of “works.” Perhaps not so much as is advertised … but when people try out Henderson’s approach to prayer–as with ANY method of prayer–if we are acting in good faith, practicing confidence in God, and laying their requests before him, I believe that God hears our prayers and sees our faith and delights to respond. NOT because we’ve discovered some magical technique, but because God is attentive and faithful. God is a kind and loving Father, NOT a divine slot machine in the service of any special spiritual currency.
Where I would offer pushback concerns some of the assumptions and interpretations that I see in that movement. I don’t want to discourage prayer, but I would offer this humble critique.
Literalizing the Courts
1. LITERALIZING THE COURTS: First, remember that “the courts of heaven” is biblical imagery. I appreciate the value of using biblical imagery in prayer (as it was meant to be). When I pray, in my mind, I may imagine the courts of heaven, or the green pastures, or the banqueting table, etc. These images express beautiful spiritual truths. But Henderson et al also seem to literalize the imagery, which wouldn’t be problematic except that such literalism generally slips into viewing prayer as legal technology. I share their genuine desire to see people experience answers to prayer, but they sell the idea of achieving results using their particular formula. Implied: “If you are frustrated by unanswered prayer, you’re doing it wrong. We’ll show you how to do it right.”
And yet Paul, a true apostle par excellence, says, “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8: 26-27). Prayer is not about specific methods or expertise. It’s about the grace of the Holy Spirit at work despite our fumbling. IF the Bible does offer a more effective approach to prayer, it points to a deeper humility, not in better techniques.
I understand the impulse that says, “Lord, teach us to pray.” When the disciples asked Jesus himself how best to practice effective prayer, he offered them (and every Christian) a very simple outline. We call it “the Lord’s Prayer.” The language he used was very direct: “When you pray, pray this: Our Father…” Absolutely anyone can pray without worrying about legal technicalities in the imaginal courts of heaven. “Our Father” is all Jesus thinks you need to know.
Legalizing the Courts
2. LEGALIZING THE COURTS: A second, and I think much more serious issue, is how teachers of the “courts of heaven” use passages about the “accuser of the brethren,” to create a legalized court construct in which certain legal protocols must be obeyed for us to “achieve a breakthrough” in prayer. These legal proceedings all revolve around the “legal grounds” of “the accuser.” They imagine a courtroom in which God is the judge and the enemy is the prosecuting attorney, and that God is only free to act when the accuser’s legal demands are satisfied. I don’t believe I’m painting a caricature of the teaching. The publisher’s description of Henderson’s Operating in the Courts of Heaven says “When you get off the battlefield and into the courtroom you can grant God the legal clearance to fulfill his passion and answer your prayers.” Wow. God needs legal clearance and you can grant it to him. Why does God need legal clearance? Because the accuser of the brethren can legally block it. Really? Let’s actually check the key passage from John’s Revelation of Jesus.
Revelation 12:10, “For the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down from this place, where he stood before our God accusing them day and night.”
First, it’s worth noting that once again, the danger of literalizing the passage to make God beholden to some legal charge upon which Satan can make demands. But what they fail to notice is how this figurative expression tells us that the accuser has already been defeated and deposed. Thrown down. The accuser and his accusations were canceled forever at the cross.
Across Johannine literature, we see that “now [at the Cross] the prince of this world is driven out” and “the prince of this world stands condemned” [by the Cross]. Satan may be a legalist, but he is not the lord of the law. He is a thief (John 10:10) and a liar (John 8:44) whose charges have been exposed and demolished as fraudulent. God owes the accuser nothing. The only “foothold” the accuser holds seems to be our belief and participation in his lies.
As we see in Revelation 12, he has “been thrown down” … At the Cross, his defeat is a fait accompli so that now, the accuser is nowhere to be seen in God’s courts. With the Cross, “it is finished” — In Christ, it’s a done deal. For the accuser, there’s no deal. And therefore, in practice, pray need not become an endless, fine-print legalize renunciations or generational incantations. The imagined control those rituals offer ultimately becomes oppressive because whenever a courtroom prayer doesn’t seem to ‘work,’ then we need to sort through what statute we overlooked and add to our ever-growing list of legal subsections.
How about this instead: the Light of Christ shone in the darkness and the darkness fled. Past tense. So yes, come into the light and glory and grace of God’s courts without fear or any need for a negotiation strategy … because the King and Judge who sits on the throne (a metaphor for how God rules by love) is from first to last, “Our Father.”
Politicizing the Courts
3. POLITICIZING THE COURTS: Many of the “Courts of heaven” teachers also tie and apply their prayer strategy to a politicized faith with a strong triumphalist tone. Instead of Jesus’ demonstration that the “meek shall inherit the earth,” they tend to speak in terms of “taking the seven mountains” or “high places” of influence:
- 1) Education
- 2) Religion
- 3) Family
- 4) Business
- 5) Government/Military
- 6) Arts/Entertainment
- 7) Media
Now, I absolutely believe the kingdom of God is meant to influence every sphere of our lives, permeate this world with grace, fill the world with the light of love, and salt the world with God’s goodness. I pray, “as in heaven, so on earth” every day and I participate in ministries who make that their mission.
I am not aware of Henderson’s personal practice in this regard, but I am directly aware of sickening levels of hateful politicizing among certain of the other “seven mountains” proponents. When it becomes about “taking over” and establishing a theocracy where Christian moralism is enforced through government control, we’re into something “cringey.” I notice then that the language of “spiritual authority in the heavenlies” consistently gets transposed into worldly agendas and ambitions for worldly power by worldly means in the halls of Congress or Parliament. And at that point, they literally demonize (claim demonic possession) of their opponents, describing them, for example, as having a “Jezebel spirit” so they can justify their attacks. It’s ugly and unChristlike.
The worldly ambition for political power (“mandated in the courts of God,” no less!) contravenes the direct mandate of Jesus, whose words have final authority in heaven and on earth:
- 25 “You know that the rulers of the Gentile [nations] lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)
So, I say YES, the courts of heaven is biblical imagery for the reign of God. And I say YES, use that biblical imagery in prayer if it helps you remember that Jesus Christ is Lord. And I say NO, the accuser is NOT there holding God to some legal obligation that requires legal negotiations through formulaic prayers. The accuser and every charge was thrown out of court 2000 years ago.
But most of all, if you move from the imagery of heaven’s courts to the actual and literal referent, the “throne” of Christ was, in reality, the Cross of Jesus Christ. That is the throne was the judgment seat which became the throne of grace when Christ pronounced his final and standing verdict: “Father, forgive them….It is finished.”