Dr. Steve Hankins, Seminary Professor
Christ, Our Great Model Intercessor
Our Lord Jesus Christ is always our first example in all things. He is the Great Intercessor for us through prayer, as evidenced by His climactic prayer to the Father recorded in John 17 at the end of the His Upper Room Discourse just before His arrest and crucifixion. He prayed for His disciples then, and in so doing prays for us now. In that prayer, He prayed that we would abide in love and unity as believers. He prayed that we would remain in the world, but not be crushed into its mold or be overcome by its darkness. He prayed that we would provide the light of the gospel for the lost world, just as He had done during His incarnate ministry.
Now, Christ’s never ceasing ministry for us is one of intercessory prayer, as He sits at the right hand of God the Father. He defeated death and sin, rose from the grave, and ascended to the throne of God for His present ministry. As the writer to the Hebrews stated it, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” When we fail and commit sin, He is our advocate, the One through whose blood we have daily forgiveness as we confess our sins. John wrote, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2). Christ intercedes for us moment by moment that we may have daily mercy for our sins.
Christ also intercedes for us that we may have the grace we need for all of our physical and spiritual weaknesses, for our spiritual growth, and for our service for Him. Paul assures us that through Christ’s intercession for us at the throne of grace God will impart all we need, just as II Corinthians 9:8 says, “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things may abound to every good work.”
Christ’s never stops thinking of us. He never stops praying for us. What great confidence we derive from this reality and what a compelling example He has set for us. We, like Him, are to pray for others, constantly, that they may “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18). That men be restored in His image was His great redemptive purpose and is His daily ministry ambition at the right hand of the Father. It should be our ambition for others as we come to the throne of grace.
The Importance of Intercession
The frequency with which Paul mentioned his intercessory prayers for the believers he served underscores the importance of this spiritual ministry. He wrote concerning the Roman believers in Romans 1:8, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all.” To the Corinthian saints he penned, “I thank my God always concerning you by Christ Jesus” (I Corinthians 1:4). He said concerning his heart for the Philippians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and in all judgement” (Philippians 1:9). The wide-ranging intercessory nature of his prayers for the Ephesians and all other believers is revealed in his words in Ephesians 3:14-15, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” Encouraged by the spiritual reputation of the Colossians, he said to them, “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Colossians 1:9). The spiritual well-being and progress of fellow believers was always on Paul’s mind when he prayed.
Paul taught that the ministry of intercession was an essential part of prayer. When praying, believers are to offer praise and thanksgiving to God in worship. They are to pray for the advancement of the Christ’s kingdom and the fulfillment of His will in the world through their obedience and His sovereign actions. They are expected to pray for their physical and material needs. They are to confess and repent of their sins, seeking forgiveness for them. They are to pray to escape temptation and sin in the both near and far future. All of these emphases are presented in the Lord’s pattern prayer recorded in Matthew 6:9-13. As believer’s we are taught by the Lord Jesus himself that the second great commandment is to love others as ourselves. Implicit in this great commandment is an additional element of prayer, not explicitly mentioned in the Lord’s pattern prayer but certainly a part of His will being done on earth as it is in Heaven. As Paul wrote in I Timothy 2:1, “Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men” (italics added).
Transformation of Heart is the Heart of Intercession
Christian compassion makes concern for the physical well-being of our brothers and sisters in Christ natural and an appropriate subject of our prayers for them. As John wrote to Gaius in III John 2, “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” John hoped that Gaius would experience physical health that equaled his spiritual health.
Christ’s great concern for the physical health of men, women, and children during His ministry sets a great example for our appropriate concern for believers. The bodies of believers are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Men serve through their bodies by presenting them as living sacrifices, according to Romans 12:1 in order to glorify God through their bodies, just as Paul taught in I Corinthians 6:19-20. So, a part of our praying for others should be for their physical health.
But what dominates in the descriptions of prayers in the New Testament for other believers is for their spiritual growth and prosperity. When Paul described his prayers for the Ephesians in 1:16-19 of his letter to them, he prayed that their spiritual understanding would grow (vv. 17-18) so that they would comprehend the richness of the benefits of being in Christ (v. 18), and they would grasp the great spiritual power made available to them as believers through Christ (v. 19). Later in chapter 3:14-21, he prays for them to be strengthened in the inner man by the Holy Spirit (v. 16), that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith (v. 17a), that being rooted and grounded in love they would understand the incomprehensible love of Christ (vv. 17b-19a), and that they would be filled with all the fullness of God. To this he added a promise that the power of the Holy Spirit in them would make this all possible for the glory of God in the Church through Christ (vv. 20-21).
When Paul describes his prayer for the Philippian believers in 1:9-11 of his letter to them, his focus in on their hearts. He prayed that their love would abound more and more in all knowledge and discernment (v. 9), that they would approve always what was best spiritually (v. 10), in order that they would be sincere and without offense until the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness (vv. 10-11).
The Apostles prayers for the Colossian saints described in 1:9-12 of his epistle to them are similar to those for the Philippians and the Ephesians. He prayed that their spiritual understanding and wisdom would abound (v. 9), that they would live in a manner pleasing to God in every way, increasing in the knowledge of God (v. 10), and that they would be filled with His glorious power (v. 11a). This power would be manifested as they lived lives full of endurance, longsuffering with others, joyfulness in all circumstances, and thanksgiving while serving for His glory (vv. 11b-12).
The Colossians also had the great benefit of a pastor, Epaphras, who faithfully prayed for them just as the Apostle Paul did. His biography is brief in the New Testament, but dominated by a description of his fervent, agonizing prayers for the Christians in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. He prayed for their spiritual stability, maturity, and ongoing obedience as believers (Colossians 4:12-13).
Like Christ we must be intercessors for grace and mercy for others. We are compelled by His example and we are compelled by His commands. Our purpose in intercessory prayer, above all else is to pray that men and women will be transformed into the likeness of Christ by the power of the Spirit of Living God. This is praying for their sanctification which is the will of God for every believer, according to I Thessalonians 4:3. Paul offered his classic prayer for the sanctification of others in I Thessalonians 5:23-24. This should always be ours for our brothers and sisters in Christ as we intercede for them: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.”
Moses Kim, Assistant Coordinator of Outreach & Evangelism
I will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but that I may love Thee, O my God. For love of Thy love do I it, recalling, in the very bitterness of my remembrance, my most vicious ways, that Thou mayest grow sweet to me,—Thou sweetness without deception! -Augustine, Confessions (20)
I confess to you my sins—my lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and boastful pride of life (1 Jn. 2:15-16)—not because my salvation depends on it, but to enjoy a sweeter relationship with You. Why would I try to nullify Your grace by putting myself under the law (Gal. 2:21)? By my daily confession I seek to exalt my Savior all the more and to rely on the same grace to live for You.
Even though You have sought me as a Good Shepherd (Lk. 5:4-7), my love for the world often surpasses my love for You. O Lord, You have searched me and known me and have shown me the wickedness of my heart (Ps. 139:1). I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me (Ps. 51:3). They are sin because they are against the Perfect and Righteous God (Ps. 51:4). I attempt to add to Your unchanging truth through my deeds and out of my pride I seek to counsel the Sovereign Lord (Pr. 30:6). As Your sheep I hear Your voice (Jn. 10:27), but so often I turn around to seek after my own interests, not those of Christ Jesus (Php. 2:21).
Almighty God, who could stand before You if You were to mark all the iniquities (Ps. 130:3)? What would I do if I were judged by my own righteousness? It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31) who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28)!
But Father, I see Your promises in the Bible and I do believe them. I hear the sweetest sound that saved a wretch like me. I am saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), so I will only boast in Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14). You have removed the heart of stone from my flesh (Ezek. 36:26) and opened my eyes so that I may behold wondrous things out of Your law (Ps. 119:18). I know that Your wrath will not come upon me (Eph. 5:6), for I am Your child (Jn. 1:12) and Your slave bought with price (1 Cor. 6:20). Why would I seek to continue in my sin and re-submit myself to the yoke of sin from which Christ has freed me (Rom. 6:1-2; 1 Jn. 2:1)?
Gracious God, You said that You are opposed to the proud, but give grace to the humble. So I humble myself in Your presence—my laughter turns into mourning and my joy to gloom before my sins (Jas. 4:6-10). I am hungry for the Bread of Life (Jn. 6:35) and thirsty for the Fountain of Living Water (Jn. 4:14). I come to You, O Christ, to eat and drink without money and without cost, for I desire to spend all You have given me to delight myself in You (Isa. 55:1-2).
Search me and know my heart, O God; try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way (Ps. 139:23-24). As You search my heart, do not give me over to my lustful and depraved mind (Jer. 17:10; Rom. 1:24, 28), but make me more like my Savior as I behold His glory (2 Cor. 3:18). Keep deception and lies far from me—not only from outward lies of the world, but also from my own deceitful heart (Pr. 30:8; Jer. 17:9).
I come to You to find rest for my soul, for I am weary and heavy-laden (Matt. 11:28-30). I come to You because I know that I have peace with You through my Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1-2). I come to You to behold the beauty of my Lord and to meditate on who You are (Ps. 27:4). I desire to walk with the Spirit as I live by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25), so that I may live a life pleasing to You (Eph. 5:10). I am not capable of doing anything apart from You (Jn. 15:5). But I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (Gal. 2:20).
God, I love You, because You have first loved me (1 Jn. 4:19); and I want to love You more. Help me to love You with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind (Lk. 10:27).
In Christ’s Precious Name I pray—amen.
Dr. Layton Talbert, Seminary Professor
The Westminster Catechism created what has become one of the most well-known definitions of prayer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies. It is simple, memorable, succinct, portable, and covers most of our praying.
My only quibble with this is that it seems to overlook the very dimension of prayer I’m specifically focusing on in this post. Indeed, this definition does not seem to include prayer passages like these: Psalms 8, 15, 23 (vv. 4-5), 32, 42, 45 (vv. 6-7), 48, 63, 65, 66, 67, 73, 76, 77, 92, 93, 94, 104, 131, 145. Every one of these passages are prayers. Many of these psalms are occupied purely with praise; some are psalms of complaint, or questioning, or resolve. But none of them offer up any requests to God at all; and yet they are clearly prayers, conversations with God—some of them being extended conversations which occupy the entire psalm. That’s an awful lot of biblical praying for a definition of prayer to leave out.
But there is another historic definition of prayer. Though not nearly so old, it nevertheless comes from a long-time classic, 19th-century Bible dictionary by Matthew George Easton. And it provides a broader framework for the more specific catechism definition: Prayer is converse with God; the intercourse of the soul with God, not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him—whatever the nature of that address may be.
The definition is clearly drawn from an older conception of the conversational nature of prayer that shows up much earlier in the literature. In fact, it even shows up in Charles Hodge’s 1865 Systematic Theology. That’s significant because Hodge adhered loyally to the Westminster Catechism. And yet, he begins his discussion of prayer not with the Catechism’s definition, but with this one: “prayer is converse with God.”
Granted, the language is a little bit dated; we’d say it more like this: Prayer is conversation with God, the communion of the soul with God…in direct address to him. It’s this conversational nature of prayer that I’m focusing on here. And by “conversational” I don’t mean laidback or irreverent or casual. But I do mean familiar, relational, personal communication that covers all the same kinds of conversations we have with people we see and hear every day.
One way to go about identifying “kinds” of prayer would be to explore the various words for prayer used in the Bible. But using vocabulary words as an organizational rubric for discussing kinds of prayer is prone to leave too much out. There are lots of prayers in the Bible where a specific technical term for prayer doesn’t even occur.
So I want to propose another organizational approach by building on the basic premise that prayer is conversation with God. Based on the kinds of conversations we can have with other people (who are, themselves, in the image of God), some prayers are supplication (asking)—including confession (asking forgiveness), petition (asking for some divine favor for ourselves), and intercession (asking on behalf of others). Some praying focuses on worship—including both adoration (for God’s glory) and thanksgiving (for God’s gifts). But there is a third category of praying that I will call simply communion—simply fellowshipping with God. About what? About anything and everything you care to talk to God about: fears, questions, uncertainties, joys, experiences.
It is the concept of prayer as communion or fellowship that I especially want to commend as a means of increasing our intimacy with God in prayer. John writes that the apostles have declared what they themselves saw and heard so that we might share in their fellowship with the Father and with the Son (1 Jn 1:1-3). Fellowship is more than conversation; but there is no meaningful “fellowship” where there is no conversation.
In the prayers of those who pray most and best, petitions proper, I venture to say, occupy only an inconsiderable place. Much of prayer expresses the fullness of the soul rather than its emptiness.… Prayer at its best is … conversation with God, the confidential talk of a child who tells everything to his father…. (James Stalker, “Christ at Prayer” in Imago Christi: The Example of Christ).
Stalker notes the example in the Confessions of St. Augustine, written “in the form of a prayer, from beginning to end; yet it narrates its author’s history and expounds his most important opinions. Evidently the good man had got into the habit of doing all his deepest thinking in the form of conversation with God.”
One of my favorite prayer quotes underscores this dimension of prayer as conversation:
Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you, tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell him your dislikes, that He may help you conquer them; talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them; lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved tastes for evil, your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere, how pride disguises you to yourself and others. If you thus pour out all your weaknesses, needs, troubles, there will be no lack of what to say. You will never exhaust the subject. It is continually being renewed. People who have no secrets from each other never want for subjects of conversation…. Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved intercourse with God.
This widely quoted appeal is attributed to a 17th century French Catholic mystic named Francois Fénelon who, interestingly, had a profound influence on A. W. Tozer. Why, you might ask, would I quote a Catholic on prayer? One simple reason: because I haven’t found a Baptist who says this, or says it this well. Fénelon’s theology was probably defective on important points (though to his credit he was condemned by the Pope for some of his writings:). But when it comes to articulating this biblical philosophy of prayer as conversation, he’s spot on. It is profoundly scriptural counsel. The psalmists themselves model this kind of praying. It is a kind of praying that can transform a duty (and prayer is a duty) into a delight, a rite into a genuine relationship.
*If RSS feed is not working for you, please add it to your app or software manually by adding this url:
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.