Intercession, Part 1

The Rationale and the Power of Intercession

by Bob Bradley
April 4, 2008

Texts: Genesis 18: 23-33; Exodus 32: 7-14; Psalm 106:23; Ezekiel 22: 28-31

The best way to study theology is to make the Word of God your textbook. The Bible has some truly remarkable things to say about God, and about the nature of the relationship between God and men. The book of Genesis presents God as the uncreated Creator, the One who called the universe into being from nothing. Light and matter and space sprang into being at the sound of His voice. With the power of His voice He imposed order on the cosmos He had called into being. And, having imposed order, He brought forth life in all its abundance.

At the apex of all living things is man, expressly made in the image of God. Scientists estimate that the human brain has from 100 trillion to 10 quadrillion synapses (cell connections), giving it almost unlimited storage capacity. And this is to say nothing of the complexity of the processing mechanisms which transform this information into conscious awareness, feelings, perceptions, and decisions. The intricacy of the human brain is staggering. The most advanced computers cannot even begin to approximate its power and versatility. And yet, compared to the infinite God, man is puny and insignificant. There is just no comparison between finite man and our infinite God, with the God-ordained exception that man is created in the image of God. It should be noted, before we go any further, that the Bible declares God to be limitless and infinite. God’s infinitude is clearly stated in Psalm 147:5 and inferred from Isaiah 40: 25, 28, and Psalm 139: 6, 17, 18.

The primary drama of the Scriptures is the unfolding story of God’s initiatives to communicate his heart to man. The impetus necessarily had to come from God. Finite, sinful man could not bridge the chasm. God reached out to man in dreams, visions, and theophanies (visual appearances in which God took the form of a man or an angel). God also initiated the process of formulating the holy writings which were early on recognized as a revelation of His heart and of His truth. In spite of the fact that God revealed Himself tangibly to Abraham and Sarah (remember the three men who appeared out of nowhere in front of Abraham’s tent?), to Hagar, to Jacob, to Moses, to Manoah and his wife, and others, the ancient Hebrews understood that these visible appearances were an accommodation to their frailty. The law of Moses made it abundantly clear that God was pure spirit, and was not to be represented by any physical likeness or symbol: No images, no statues, no drawings, nothing!

Very early in the history of God’s communication with men, strange and unusual references were made to someone who would come and be God’s agent, God’s special emissary in the reconciliation of man. Eve was told that one of her descendants, although painfully bruised in the heel, would crush the head of the serpent (Satan). Abraham was promised that his “seed” (descendant) would bring blessing to the whole world. Jacob, prophesying just before his death, declared that rulership would come from the tribe of Judah. Moses was told that he would be superseded by another prophet, raised up from among their brethren, who would speak the very words of God. Beginning with Psalm 2, where God declares that His Anointed One will be opposed by the rulers of the world, but will ultimately prevail, the Psalms literally explode with mysterious prophetic statements about a descendant of David who will suffer greatly but will rule forever. The book of Isaiah puts the capstone on this prophetic structure by declaring that the son who is given will not only inherit the government, but He will bear the very names of God (Isaiah 9:6).

To make doubly sure that we do not miss the wonder of this Incarnation, this visitation by God Himself in human garb, Isaiah chapter 40 is supremely explicit. Predicting the ministry and message of John the Baptist, the meaning of John’s message is expanded by the prophet. In verse 9, Jerusalem is to cry out to the cities of Judah, Behold your God. In context, this is clearly a reference to the ministry of Jesus. The name of God in this phrase is Elohim, the most common Hebrew designation for God. But in verse 10 we have the striking linkage of two names for God, which produces the most reverent and awesome name for God of which the Hebrew language is capable. Behold, Adonai Yahweh shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him….

As you probably know, the divine name, Yahweh, was considered to be too holy to pronounce, so the Hebrews substituted Adonai, or Lord, when Yahweh appeared in the text. Here Adonai and Yahweh are linked together so that in effect the text is saying Yahweh, even Yahweh will come with a strong hand…. Our English translation Lord God misses the power of the Hebrew. Because this holiest name of God is used in the context of Messiah’s visitation, it has to refer to Jesus. And look at verse 11: Here is a reference to the gentle, shepherding ministry of the Carpenter. The message is clear, stunning, and mind-blowing: Jesus the son of Mary is Yahweh! Almighty God, infinite and transcendent, has bridged the abyss between God and man. No wonder John the Baptist said he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal! This identification of Jesus as Yahweh in no way undercuts the doctrine of the Trinity. The Eternal Son, who is of one essence with the Father and who has always been face to face with the Father, unashamedly said All things that the Father has are Mine(John 16:15). All things” would clearly include the honor of the Divine Name.

Nothing in the New Testament can be clearer than the fact that Jesus, as man, had perfect access to His Father’s throne and to His Father’s power. Although He was God incarnate, it was His perfect submission to His Father that gave him such unlimited access to His Father’s heart. At His baptism, the voice from heaven said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3: 17). This delight of the Father in His Son meant that Jesus always received what He asked from the Father. There was only one exception – in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was not able to obtain release from the awful pit of darkness and separation from His Father that loomed before Him. The Father’s denial, and Jesus’ embracing the dreadful consequences of that denial, opened the door for all of us to be heard by the Father, provided our prayers are in accordance to His will. In other words, the prayer life of Jesus, which was the source of all His power, is also birthed in us, because we are members of His body. It’s really not accurate to think that we get a prayer life just like Jesus’ prayer life, but rather that the resurrected Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, births His own prayer life in us. As we grow in the exercise of this prayer life, we grow in the ability to discern the Father’s will and to obtain what we ask.

In John 15: 7, 8 Jesus makes the dramatic statement that that if we abide in Him, and His words abide in us, we will ask what we desire, and it will be done for us. Note that He didn’t say, You will receive what you desire, provided of course that what you ask is in the Father’s will. Clearly, abiding in Him and letting His words abide in us brings us to a place where we discern the will of God before we ask. But this observation does not seem to do justice to the words you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. The word desire seems to incorporate some freedom, some latitude. Jesus seems to be saying that abiding brings us to a place where we not only discern God’s will, but that we have some discretion in what we ask God to do to bring His will into effect. If this is a permissible interpretation of these verses, and I submit it as a personal conviction only, we have here an incredible concept, namely, that we get to bring some creativity into the very expression of God’s will through prayer. In other words, we get to participate both in the broad scope and in the details of the expression of God’s will! I must emphasize, however, that any creativity we express in prayer is inspired by God, and does not catch Him by surprise!

I can hear the wheels grinding in some of your minds: This sounds exciting, but it’s really on the edge of theological error. Don’t you realize that God’s will is sovereign, and He has ordained what He is going to do from before the creation of the universe, before the creation of time? How can you suggest that we believers can actually affect the expression of His will?

The sovereignty of God and the limited but real freedom of man stand as a paradox - a situation where two seemingly true facts or concepts are utterly contradictory, and seem to be incapable of reconciliation. It is not my intention to get involved in complicated theological issues. Our topic is intercession, not abstract discussions of theological paradox. But, when we begin to take a serious look at what the Bible teaches about prayer and intercession, we are immediately confronted with some challenging questions. So let’s tackle them!

God calls us to prayer and intercession. The Scriptures supporting this statement are too numerous to list. If you have read this far, you are obviously interested in learning more about prayer, and becoming more effective in prayer. You could undoubtedly quote a number of verses that invite us to call on the Lord for our own needs and for the needs of others. But, because God is sovereign, completely in control of all He has created, we have to ask the question, How can God really change things in response to prayer? Isn’t everything predestined, or at least foreknown, right down to the twitch of a gnat’s eyebrow? And this is followed by a second question, Isn’t the real value of prayer just to get us concerned with the issues that concern God? In other words, isn’t prayer really just for our spiritual benefit and growth?

Scripture, however, does not support the passive views of prayer that are implied in the above questions. In Ezekiel 22: 30, 31 God says So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none. Therefore I have poured out My indignation on them…. Exodus 32: 10-14 gives the dramatic account of an intense discussion between God and Moses:

God said, "Now therefore let Me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them." Then Moses pleaded with the Lord His God, and said, "Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people?…Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self…." So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.

If language means anything at all, these two passages, among others, indicate that God’s decisions are affected by praying, interceding saints. So, if we are going to be Biblical, we must find a way to reconcile the sovereignty of God with the fact that He permits the prayers of His people to affect His decisions. And before we move on, I must point out that the Bible nowhere even hints that prayer functions primarily as a weight-lifting machine to develop spiritual muscle.

When we talk of the sovereignty of God, we must realize that God is free to do anything He chooses to do. However, He does have the self-imposed limitation that His actions must be compatible with His character. God has the power to give a certain amount of freedom to men without jeopardizing His own freedom. In other words, God has sufficient power to let men make choices, and to incorporate the implications of those choices into the expression of His perfect will. We see this in the preceding illustrations from Exodus and Ezekiel. God takes action (shows mercy) on the basis of Moses’ prayer, and He also takes action (lets judgment fall) because no one is found to intercede in the passage from Ezekiel. These observations lead us to ask, How can this teaching that our prayers affect God’s decisions be reconciled with the fact that God’s purposes are eternal, formulated before time began?

Whenever we try to reconcile the difficult issues involved in Divine Sovereignty and human freedom, we must remember that we are finite and time-bound, and that God is infinite and timeless. Nevertheless, there are certain analogies and insights that can help us in our attempt to develop greater understanding. We must always remember that any model we use to facilitate our understanding is imperfect and approximate at best.

Some years ago, I made the delightful discovery of a little book by Andrew Murray entitled With Christ in the School of Prayer. Murray’s parents were Scottish missionaries to South Africa in the early 1800’s. Murray was educated in Scotland and Holland, and then returned to South Africa to spend the rest of his long life as a pastor and evangelist to the Boer (Dutch) immigrants. At an early age Murray began to write devotional books, and he became one of the best known Christian writers of his age. Murray develops a theme in With Christ in the School of Prayer that has been a great help to me, not only in furthering my understanding but also in stirring up my prayer life.

In answer to the question about how man can have any freedom when the future is ordained by God from before the beginning of time (Ephesians 1: 4, 5), Murray points out that in the essence of His being, God is timeless (John 8:58; Malachi 3: 6, Rev.1:8). Thus there is no past, present, and future with God - just an eternal now. When the Scriptures speak of God’s past decisions, and the working out of those decisions in the present and the future (predestination), God is accommodating Himself to the limitations of our understanding. With Him,

Eternity is an ever-present Now, in which the past is never past, and the future always present….This perfect harmony and union of Divine Sovereignty and human liberty is to us an unfathomable mystery, because God as the ETERNAL ONE transcends all our thoughts….

Murray suggests that God knows our future, not because He has unalterably dictated the future, but because He is actually in the future, observing our choices and incorporating them into His eternal plan. As a Calvinist, Murray proposes that God does indeed give man a significant measure of freedom, without sacrificing His sovereign purposes. (Not all theologians agree that the timelessness of God helps resolve our problem with the paradox of Divine Sovereignty and human freedom, but I find Murray’s insights helpful.)

However, Murray applies his insights primarily to the questions surrounding intercessory prayer. Murray proposes that God actually takes action, in response to intercession, that He would not otherwise take. In other words, intercession has the power to change God’s mind. Murray raises the question of how this can be when God’s purposes were formulated before the foundation of the world. His answer is that God incorporates the prayers of His people into His eternal will. He knows the past, present, and future perfectly, and so it is no problem for Him to include your current intercessory prayer - yes, your future prayer, too - into His eternal will and purpose. To put it another way, before time began God observed your intercessory prayer, and determined that your prayer, offered according to His will and through your relationship with Jesus, would be answered. And, the answer would be part of the expression of His eternal purposes for the universe. (Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, 1953, Fleming H. Revell and Baker Books, Family Christian Press, pp. 96, 97).

Going back to God’s interaction with Moses, someone could object, Yes, but wasn’t God being manipulative with Moses? God knew all along that He would listen to Moses’ request, and not destroy the people. So when God said 'Now, therefore, let me alone that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them,’ wasn’t God being insincere? Certainly, God was provoking Moses to an intercessory response. But to see God as being manipulative would, I believe, be a mistake. That would be like seeing God as manipulative because He didn’t destroy Nineveh as He threatened to do. Jonah did not preach “Unless you repent, Nineveh will be destroyed,“ but rather “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” It was the repentant response of the Ninevites, and the intercessory response of Moses, that in both cases prompted God to cancel His threats. For God not to have made the threat, as an honest expression of His anger, would seem to have been insincere. In both cases, He made the threats, and He obtained the obedient response that enabled Him to cancel the threats.

God had to play out the drama. He could hardly start the conversation with Moses by saying, Moses, I am going to let these people off the hook because I foresee that you are going to pray for them. God enters into time and space with us, provokes us to action, and as we respond He works out His eternal purpose. Would God have destroyed Nineveh if the people had not repented? Unquestionably! Would God have wiped out the Israelites if Moses had not pleaded for them? No doubt about it!

The key, of course, to our having such influence with God, is that we are in abiding union with His beloved Son. Remember that the Scripture presents our Lord, now exalted to the right hand of the Father, as giving Himself to intercession (Romans 8: 34; Hebrews 7:25) Also remember that we as believers are made to sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph.2:6) and that we have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16).

The logic of these Scriptures is inescapable. We are called to join our Lord in His intercessory ministry. And, because He is sitting at the right hand of the Father, what He is now doing is of unspeakable importance. We are invited, yes, even urged, to join Him!

Chapters 14 through 16 of John give us give us the longest single recorded teaching of Jesus, with the exception of the Sermon on the Mount. I want to give you a greatly simplified outline of these three chapters, and show that there is one unifying theme that holds them together. I love chapter 14, with its incredible statement by Jesus, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father.’” The theme of chapter 14 seems to be that if we really believe in Jesus’ union with the Father (v. 11), the door is opened so that “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do (v.13).” And then Jesus immediately repeats Himself in verse 14, just to make sure we get it. I would suggest that the theme of chapter 14 is that believing in Jesus’ union with the Father releases us to receive whatever we ask.

After describing the great intimacy with Himself and the Father that is offered to those who keep His commandments, Jesus opens chapter 15 with the statement (v. 7) “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” Here again is the theme of unlimited answers linked to knowing and abiding in Him, and keeping his commandments. Finally, in chapter 16, after discussing the ministry of the Spirit, who will glorify Jesus, we have the same theme repeated: “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name He will give you (v.23b).” So in each of these three chapters we have the theme of magnificent answers to prayer, given to those (chapter 14) who believe in Jesus’union with the Father; to those (chapter 15) who abide in Him and honor His words; and to those (chapter 16) who receive the ministry and revelation of the Spirit. And if we study these chapters carefully, we will come to the inescapable conclusion that bearing fruit is the result of “abiding” and “asking” (intercession). (Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved).

It is not likely that we will make a serious commitment to intercession until we begin to understand how much influence we can have with God. Many believers pray very little, other than brief “help me” prayers, because they do not really understand, and in some cases do not really believe, how much God is willing to do through their prayers. Intercessory prayer is not easy, and in order to avoid turning back at the first sign of potholes in the road, we need to have our minds saturated with the great promises and principles of prayer that are taught in the Word. In a follow-up letter to this one, I will deal with principles of intercession, and talk about some of the difficulties that are usually encountered. In the meantime, seek His face, abide in His Word, and rest in His grace to you!

Your brother in learning to intercede,

Pastor Bob

On to Part 2!

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