If Jesus Christ is now engaged in this high priestly work of intercession on our behalf and on behalf of the world, it stands to reason that we too, having been raised up and seated with him (Ephesians 2:6), will also find ourselves joining him in that work. As we “set our minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), we will be drawn into his work of intercession, assuming a priestly, standing-in-the-gap posture for others.
But what might that look like in our lives? And what might characterize the intercession to which we may be called, particularly in the realm of prayer?
1) Intercession as Participation
Christ, our Great High Priest is always the principal actor in intercession. As the church father Ambrose insisted, “Unless He intercedes there is no intercourse with God either for us or for all saints.”1 Our intercession, then, is simply a participation in the ongoing intercession of the ascended Christ.
It is so important to grasp this. It means that ultimately the burden of intercession is not ours, but his. We are therefore never called to bear the burden of intercession alone, but to piggyback on Christ’s intercession, to be co-laborers with him, through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26–27) in his ongoing intercession in heaven.
What I experienced that evening in Michigan brought this truth home to me in a powerful, dramatic way. In reflecting on what happened, I realized that as I cried out, I was caught up in something much bigger than I was and something I hadn’t initiated. For just a few moments I had experienced, in a small measure, something of the depth and intensity of Christ’s intercession. In some mysterious way, I believe I was caught up in the intercession of the Son at the Father’s right hand.
Of course, I don’t usually experience the reality of the ascended Christ’s intercession in such a dramatic fashion. Often when I intercede for others, I feel very little. But that doesn’t discourage me as it once might have. Realizing that my intercession is a participation in Christ’s intercession, I find myself simply inviting Jesus to pray in and through me for that particular person or situation. I also invite the Holy Spirit to join me to Christ and to come as the spirit of intercession to show me how to pray for others and to pray in me on their behalf. And he does! As Paul reminded us, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
Sometimes, however, we forget this and we mistakenly take the burden of intercession on ourselves—as if somehow it depends on us or we have to “make it happen.” Then we feel guilty when our passion and fervor subsides or we fail to pray for others the way we know we should. So we need to remind ourselves that our intercession, as significant as it is, is always secondary to Christ’s. When we realize we are called to intercede with him rather than for him, then we discover that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:29).
Early in her ministry, Amy Carmichael (1867–1951), who spent more than fifty years as a missionary in south India, was given a deep burden for young girls who were dedicated to the Hindu gods and given to temple priests to earn money through prostitution. But as she began to expose this practice and take action in seeking to rescue these temple children, there came a point when the opposition—both human and demonic—became so intense she was ready to give up. Even some of her fellow missionaries stood against her. “You can’t ‘rock the boat’ like this,” they warned. “If you keep it up, the government authorities will make us all leave.”
As a result, Amy was ready to give up. “Lord,” she cried, “this burden you’ve put on my heart for these girls—I can’t carry it anymore.” Then one day she came to realize whose burden it really was. Here’s how she describes it:
At last a day came when the burden grew too heavy for me; and then it was as though the tamarind trees about the house were not tamarind, but olive, and under one of these trees our Lord Jesus knelt alone. And I knew that this was His burden, not mine. It was He who was asking me to share it with Him, not I who was asking Him to share it with me. After that there was only one thing to do; who, after seeing Him kneeling there, could turn away and forget? Who could have done anything but go into the garden and kneel down beside Him under the olive trees?2
The ascended Christ is looking for those who will join him in his great high priestly work. Seated with him at God’s right hand, we are called to participate in the work that he is doing, not initiate the work or take the burden on ourselves. Realizing this changes our attitude toward intercession.
2) Intercession as Identification
As we said earlier, the ascended Christ who intercedes for us is one who fully identifies with us in our humanity. He became flesh and blood, shared in our weakness, and experienced temptation. He even bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24) and, though he knew no sin, he was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Because Christ goes to such great lengths to identify with those for whom he intercedes, we too, when we join with him in his intercession, will also find ourselves joined to those with whom we are called to intercede. We will identify ourselves with them to the point where we are willing to confess their sins on their behalf and even acknowledge the extent to which we have participated in those sins ourselves.
Like Nehemiah did, for example, when he heard the news that the walls and gates of Jerusalem were in ruins. He “sat down and wept” and for days he “mourned and fasted and prayed” (Nehemiah 1:4). Although Nehemiah was indeed a righteous man, in his prayer of confession he acknowledges the sins of his people as if they were his own: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you” (Nehemiah 1:6–7 NIV).
Similarly, Daniel also pleaded with God on behalf of the people “in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3 NIV). Few were more righteous than Daniel, yet he prayed, “We have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled” (Daniel 9:5 NIV). Both these great intercessors identified themselves with the people they were praying for. They not only prayed, “Lord, forgive them.” They prayed, “Lord, forgive us.”
Following my experience at the conference when God placed a burden upon my heart for the deep conflict at the seminary, I often found myself doing the same thing. I could no longer point my finger at other members of the faculty and self-righteously blame them for our problems. I saw, as never before, that the very attitudes I despised in others were lodged in my own heart as well. At one prayer meeting in particular, I suddenly found myself weeping and confessing the sins of the seminary on behalf of the seminary, even while I confessed them as my own sins.
Several years later something similar happened when I was praying for one of my teenage sons. He had said, in relation to some who were in authority over him, “I’ll submit to them outwardly, but I’ll never do it from the heart.” His attitude saddened and disturbed me, and so I began to pray that God would change his heart.
But one day as I was praying for him, the Lord said to me, “Where do you think he learned that attitude? Like father, like son! You do the very same thing in relation to certain people in your life. Outwardly, you smile and are agreeable with them, but inwardly, your heart is seething with anger and rebellion. Before I change that attitude in your son, I first want to change it in you.”
Intercession sometimes leads to such deep identification. Our prayers to change others may cause us to change too!
3) Intercession as Sacrifice
In the hymn “Arise, My Soul, Arise,” Charles Wesley’s poetic description of Christ, our Great High Priest, conveys that his intercession is intense, persistent, costly, and sacrificial:
Five bleeding wounds He bears, received on Calvary.
They pour effectual prayers; they strongly plead for me.
“Forgive him, oh, forgive!” they cry . . .
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”3
If we join in prayer with Jesus, our Great High Priest, we may be led to such persistent, costly intercession as well. At daybreak, Jacob tenaciously clung to the angel he had wrestled with all night and cried, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). An intercessor, one who stands in the gap, is like that. Except intercessors don’t cry, “I will not let you go until you bless me,” but “I will not let you go until you bless them”—that family member, or relative, or friend, or congregation, or age-group, or people-group, or city, or nation, or whatever it is Jesus seems to have laid upon their heart.
Intercessors stand in the gap for others, pleading to God on their behalf. “Lord, have mercy on them,” they implore. “Don’t hold it against them. Change their hearts. Cause them to turn to you.”
Like Jacob, intercessors are stubborn and persistent. “Lord, I’m not going anywhere,” they pray. “I am digging in my heels. I will stay here until this situation is resolved . . . until this person comes to know you . . . until this congregation is renewed . . . until the church is planted . . . until that unreached people-group hears the gospel. Lord, I will not let you go until you bless them.”
And make no mistake, joining with Christ in intercession for others is costly business. In fact, Oswald Chambers maintained that this is the primary way in which we participate in Christ’s sufferings.4 We may find ourselves distraught over some person or situation, agonizing in prayer over it; at times even, like Nehemiah and Daniel mentioned above, being led to fast on account of it.
That’s what happened to me the summer following my experience at the conference in Michigan. I knew there were numerous references in the Bible that commended fasting. As a United Methodist pastor, I also knew what an important part fasting had played in the life of John Wesley and the early Methodists. When I was ordained, I had affirmed the nineteen historic questions that Wesley had put to his lay preachers. The sixteenth question reads, “Will you recommend fasting and abstinence, both by precept and example?” Yet, I must confess, I had never done either.
During the summer after the conference, that changed. I was moved to fast not only on account of myself and my own spiritual life, but also on behalf of the seminary. Since that time, as I’ve been impressed to pray for persons and situations, sometimes God puts within me a desire to fast for them. I don’t understand exactly how it works, but I believe that when we are willing to identify with others even to the point of sacrificing on their behalf (whether through fasting or some other means), God’s presence and power is released in greater measure in their lives and circumstances.
As we open ourselves to the Spirit of Christ and identify with others, we are drawn in toward suffering and sacrifice on their behalf. And much to our own amazement—knowing how self-centered we tend to be—we finding ourselves joyfully engaging in this form of redemptive suffering.
A few years before his death, Baron Friedrich Von Hügel (1852–1925), the great spiritual director and writer, wrote in a letter to his niece about his years of faithful intercession (often in the wee hours of the night) on behalf of one of his daughters:
I wonder whether you realize a deep, great fact? That souls—all human souls—are deeply interconnected? That, I mean, we cannot only pray for each other, but suffer for each other? That these long, trying wakings, that I was able to offer them to God and to Christ for my https://www.seedbed.com/wp-content/themes/Newspaper-child—that He might ever strengthen, sweeten, steady her in her true, simple, humble love and dependence upon Him. Nothing is more real than this inter-connection—this gracious power put by God Himself into the very heart of our infirmities.5
Such intercessory prayer grows out of our union with the ascended Christ in his work of intercession. Paul informed the Colossian believers that Epaphras was praying that way for them. “He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12 NIV). We may be called to such sacrificial prayer wrestling on behalf of others as well.
4) Intercession as Battle
Like it or not, all Christians are engaged in spiritual warfare—a violent battle with Satan in which we seek to reclaim enemy territory that rightfully belongs to Christ. As it did for Epaphras, prayer can involve wrestling. For, as Paul reminded us, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” but against “the powers of this dark world” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12 NIV). Intercessory prayer is our primary offensive weapon. Engage in it with any degree of seriousness and you will soon find yourself in the heat of the battle.
Our ascended King Jesus, and Great High Priest, is engaged in it too! Ever since he sat down at the right hand of God, the writer of Hebrews tells us, echoing Psalm 110:1 again, he “has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet’” (Heb. 10:13). As he waits, he wrestles in prayer on our behalf. He intercedes on behalf of the church and the world. When we join him in his intercession, we wrestle with him as he fights against his enemies.
From the world’s point of view, intercessory prayer appears weak and ineffective. If you want to change a person or situation, doesn’t it make more sense to take a direct, hands-on approach? But as Paul pointed out, the weapons of our warfare are spiritual, not worldly. They have divine power to demolish strongholds and to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:3–6).
Nonetheless, Christ’s enemies are stubborn and resistant. They submit and yield territory only when they are forced to. So as we engage in the battle of intercession, we must be patient and persistent. Often, as we pray for persons or situations, there is no apparent change in them. Sometimes they even seem to get worse! After a while it is easy to stop praying. But if we keep praying for them on the basis of faith in what the Spirit of God is doing, eventually it begins to make a difference.
I have been challenged and encouraged as I engage in the battle of intercession for others by a statement of Oswald Chambers:
When we pray for others the Spirit of God works in the unconscious domain of their being which we know nothing about, and the one we are praying for knows nothing about . . . We may have spoken until we are worn out, but have never come anywhere near, and we have given up in despair. But if we have been praying, we find on meeting them one day that there is the beginning of a softening in an inquiry and a desire to know something. It is that kind of intercession that does most damage to Satan’s kingdom.6
We must not lose heart, and we must persevere in prayer in spite of what we see. In another of his wonderful hymns, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” Charles Wesley encourages us in the battle with these words: “From strength to strength go on. Wrestle and fight and pray. Tread all the powers of darkness down. And win the well-fought day.”7
As we patiently engage in the battle of intercessory prayer through the power of the Holy Spirit, slowly, but surely and amazingly, God works. Yes, little by little, Christ’s enemies are being made into a footstool for his feet.
These are the lessons I’ve been learning about joining with Jesus, our ascended Lord and Great High Priest, in his work of intercession. What have you been learning? What burdens for intercession has God placed on your heart? Who has he called you to pray for? Above all, I trust you are discovering in your life what I continue to discover in mine: When we intercede, Christ intervenes!
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1. Quoted in Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), 193.
2. Amy Carmichael, The Gold Cord (New York: Macmillan, 1932), 31.
3. Charles Wesley, “Arise, My Soul, Arise,” Wesley Hymnbook, ed. Franz Hildebrand (Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1963), 84.
4. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1963), 258.
5. Douglas Steere, ed., Spiritual Counsel and Letters of Baron Friedrich von Hügel (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1961), 78.
6. Oswald Chambers, If Ye Shall Ask (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1938), 102–3.
7. Charles Wesley, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 513.