Intercession, Part 2

The Practice of Intercession

by Bob Bradley
April 16, 2008

Texts: Genesis 32: 24-30; Exodus 17: 8-13; I Kings 18: 42-45; Daniel 9: 1-22; Luke 11: 5-13; Luke 18: 1-8, John 15: 7; Col. 2: 1-3; Col. 4: 12, 13; Ephesians 6: 12-18

This message is intended to be an extension of my recent teaching entitled The Rationale and the Power of Intercession. Due to the breadth of the topic, I wonít be able to do a thorough teaching in this letter, but with the Lordís help weíll cover the most important issues related to the actual doing of intercession. Iím going to organize this message around a series of statements that will introduce each topic. I want the tone of this letter to be very encouraging, but I also donít intend to mince words regarding some of the struggles that are encountered by every believer who gets serious about prayer.

1. Intercession simply means praying for others. It is certainly appropriate to pray for oneself, but intercession means that you focus your prayer on the needs of someone else, either an individual or a group of people. You can intercede for your spouse, for a close relative, for a political leader, for an issue that affects people (for instance, abortion), or for a whole nation. As in the development of any other skill, we learn by doing, and as we grow in the practice of intercession, we gain strength and faith to tackle increasingly difficult assignments.

2. The practice of intercession is the believerís highest calling. Scripture tells us that our resurrected Lord ďalways lives to make intercessionĒ for us (Hebrews 7: 25; Romans 8: 34). When we pray for others, we are doing what our Lord Jesus is doing; in effect, we are yoked together with Him in the most important ministry in the universe. As the old saying goes, Prayer changes things, and the more we grow in prayer, the more we realize that prayer really changes things. The serious intercessor begins to understand that prayer is the primary vehicle by which God achieves His purposes. Of course, in the ultimate sense, God achieves His purposes by determining or decreeing what shall be, but the prayers of His servants are incorporated into His divine decisions and have a profound effect on what God does. Remember Godís reversal of His intention to destroy the Israelites after Moses interceded for them (Exodus 32: 10-14; see my earlier teaching entitled Intercession Part 1: The Rationale and Power of Intercession).

3. The effective intercessor must saturate his or her mind with the Word of God. If we want to pray effectively, we must be led by the Spirit, and the Spirit reveals His mind to us primarily through the Word. It isnít enough to just study doctrine, although correct doctrine is critically important. Remember the Pharisees, who were experts in doctrine and believed all the right stuff — except, of course, the Messianic prophecies, which they couldnít rightly understand because of their proud unbelief. We need to know Godís heart as revealed in the Word, and we need to know Godís passion for reconciling rebellious men to Himself. We donít get this revelation of God by memorizing twenty or thirty verses or reading a chapter a day. We get it by saturating our hearts with His Word. We get it by reflecting and meditating on the Word. We get it by asking Him to speak to us, to correct us, to cleanse us, and to soften our hearts with His Word. If the Word does not search you, humble you, purify you and nourish you, you may be taking your first steps on that slippery path that leads to Pharasaical self-righteousness. An intercessory lifestyle and self-righteousness are less compatible than oil and water. How are you going to pray effectively for a struggling brother if you have an impatient, judgmental attitude toward him?

As we pursue God in His Word and with a humble spirit, certain Scriptures will come alive to us as an expression of His heart toward people. We will begin to see the Scriptural passage not just as a revelation of Godís heart at some given time in the past, but as a current unveiling of His purposes for those in our sphere of influence. Conviction that God wants to do something will grow in our hearts, and we will begin to pray with a stirring of faith. As our sense of Godís desire to intervene grows, we may well find ourselves quoting Scripture to God in prayer, reminding Him that He is committed to His Word, and that we are pressing Him for an answer.

4. Your first ventures into intercessory prayer will probably involve people close to you: family members, friends, and fellow inmates. Some will be unsaved, and others will be believers who have pressing needs. Spiritual disciplines are always developed in our own back yards. If you canít be patient with your wife and kids, your attempts to be patient with people you want to impress will always have an element of hypocrisy, because your public self will not reflect the realities of your private life. The Apostle John puts it succinctly: ďfor he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen (I John 4: 20)?Ē Likewise our intercession for ďimportant issuesĒ will be built on a weak foundation if we have not learned to persist in prayer for those who are in our immediate environment. Intercession is like any other spiritual disciplineóit needs to grow from the center outward.

5. You will need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to know where to focus your prayer. There should be people for whom we pray on a regular basis, rain or shine. But often there are one or more persons in our lives who are in crisis. Their need is urgent, and cannot be put on the back burner. It is particularly here that we need the guidance of the Spirit to know what our priorities should be. Sometimes that priority will only become clear to us as we begin to pray for several crisis situations, and the Spirit will prompt us about our primary focus. Whenever possible, try to pray out loud, if only in a whisper.

6. Getting started is always a challenge, because the Adversary is always ready to distract you. We donít have the time and space to develop a theology of prayer, but there are many excellent books on the topic. One theme that emerges time and again in the classic books on prayer is the fact that God has determined to do nothing significant in the extension of His redemptive plan except by prayer. In other words, prayer is by far the most important factor in all that God does. Our Adversary is quite aware of this fact, and he will do everything in his power to frustrate us as we attempt to pray. The only real threat to his losing his grip on a situation is a believer who gets serious about prayer. Intercessory prayer is not a walk in the park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. It is more like putting on a flak jacket and a steel helmet and walking down a dangerous street in Bagdhad! The Enemyís basic tactics are pretty much the same with everyone. First, he will attempt to distract us with an interruption, or a ďgoodĒ television program, or something interesting to readÖand the list goes on and on. Or, he will prompt us to spend more time than we should on something that is good in itselfóbut it just doesnít leave enough time to pray. Or, we will suddenly and unaccountably feel very sleepy, or start to feel symptoms of digestive distress, or headache, or some other physical distraction. And so far weíre only talking about his basic, introductory tactics! In a couple of pages we will look at his intermediate tactics of temptation, accusation, and intimidation. In all this we need to remember that Jesus is our Elder Brother, that He has been through it all, and that while we may get some cuts and bruises in the struggle, He will preserve us.

7. It is critically important that we learn to worship the Lord, and express devotion to Him, as a daily part of our prayer life. You will be more effective in the long haul if you spend almost as much time in worship as you spend in intercession. In warfare (and intercessory prayer is warfare with a capital W), we must keep our eyes on our Captain and spend time in His presence. By worship, I do not mean Bible study. Rather, I am referring to the expression of affection and adoration to Jesus, using words that are a creative expression of how you feel about Him. If you are alone, you might lift your voice in a spontaneous spiritual song. You might spend a few minutes just meditating upon Him. Of course, you could also sing a hymn or two. The important thing is that you express your heart to the Lord. Without the refreshment of worshipping the Lord, it is easy to become worn out with the effort of intercession. It is possible to get into an aggressive mood in intercession where we rely more on our will power and determination than on the Spiritís guidance. If we allow this to happen, it is a sure ticket to spiritual and mental exhaustion.

Some years ago I was praying daily and vigorously for some serious problems in my job as a staff psychologist at Cal Poly University, Pomona. Some key administrators were treating my office crew and me very unfairly. People are almost always the primary reason for problems, and in this case I was praying for some really difficult people. I knew that I needed to bless these people in prayer, rather than asking God to kick them on the backside. I think that the attitude and content of my praying was basically acceptable to the Lord. I had been well taught by the Word and by some great books on prayer. I felt I knew what to do in prayer, and I was going to do it with all my energy. It was kind of like ďIím armed and dangerous, and Iím going to obtain Godís answer because Iím getting a handle on this intercession thing.Ē I was praying loudly and boldly every day. I was also learning to fast briefly but regularly. But after several months, I began to realize I was getting in a rut. I was wearing myself out, and the answer hadnít come.

And then one day I felt the gentle voice of the Spirit instructing me to open my times of intercession with a few minutes of heartfelt worship. It took a little while to learn this new discipline, but it made a great difference in the way I felt about my intercessory struggle. For one thing, the Lord taught me to pray with real focus and then to put the issue on the shelf emotionally until my next time of prayer. At one point I was ready to walk away from my job, but the Lord taught me to stick it out and fight (in due submission to those in authority) until the changes came. And, over a period of time, God resolved the problems, including some changes in my own attitude, which led to a significant reconciliation with my primary adversary.

I need to make some comments about the Psalms before we leave the topic of worship. In the Psalms God has given us a collection of spiritual songs that are saturated with the anointing of the Spirit. The Psalms have the power to melt our hearts and bring us to a place of submission to God that is the launching pad for all truly spiritual worship. Soak your heart and mind regularly in the Psalms; they will not only lead you into worship but they will give you many wonderful declarations of Godís goodness that will become arrows of warfare in your intercession.

8. Attempts to intercede will be met with increased temptation at every point where you are vulnerable. Because intercession is such a critical component of fruitfulness (John 15), and fruitfulness is such a great threat to our Adversary, any serious attempt to intercede will meet with vigorous opposition. This opposition will often take the form of intense temptation. I think it goes without saying that if you are playing with sin and disobedience you have temporarily disqualified yourself from intercession. Chances are, you wonít even attempt to intercede if you are in a backslidden condition. But there is a profound difference between being tempted, and perhaps experiencing momentary defeat (especially in your mind), and giving way to temptation and savoring it in your mind. Satan is not known as the Accuser for nothing. He will try to ambush your mindóand even your emotionsówith memories of old sins that you have repented of and put behind you. But the overwhelming memory of past sin and mental bondage is his trick to defeat you with a false sense of guilt. He will say, See, you arenít really free. You havenít really repented. You are still polluted in your heart and you are not qualified to pray. This is when we really need to get a grip on verses like Romans 6:11 (Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord).

The great 19th century American evangelist, Charles Finney, wrote a book entitled Revival Lectures. I am going to quote him at length because his observations are so appropriate to our topic of intercession. In his chapter On Being Filled with the Spirit, he made the following observations about Spirit-filled people:

You must expect very frequent and agonizing conflicts with Satan. Satan has very little trouble with those Christians who are not spiritual, but lukewarm, and slothful, and worldly-minded. And such do not understand what is said about spiritual conflictsÖ. And so the devil lets them alone. They do not disturb him, nor he them. But spiritual Christians, he understands very well, are doing him a vast injury, and therefore he sets himself against them. Such Christians often have terrible conflicts. They have temptations that they never thought of before: blasphemous thoughts, atheism, temptations to do deeds of wickedness, to destroy their own lives, and the like. And if you are spiritual, you must expect these terrible conflicts.

You will have greater conflicts with yourself than you ever thought of. You will sometimes find your own corruptions making strange headway against the SpiritÖ.Such a Christian is often thrown into consternation at the power of his own corruptions. One of the Commodores in the United States Navy was, as I have been told, a spiritual man; his pastor told me he had known that man lie on the floor and groan a great part of the night, in conflict with his own corruptions, and cry to God, in agony, that He would break the power of the temptation. It seemed as if the devil was determined to ruin him, and his own heart, for the time being, was almost in league with the devil.

But, you will have peace with God. If the church, and sinners, and the devil oppose you, there will be One with whom you will have peace. You will likewise have peace of conscience if you are led by the Spirit. You will not be constantly goaded and kept on the rack by a guilty conscience. (Charles Finney, Revival Lectures, Fleming H. Revell, Grand Rapids, MI)

The above quote from Finney may seem grim, but I personally know two very godly and prominent spiritual leaders who have had such conflicts. One man was betrayed by the leadership of his church and dismissed. He had a growing family and no financial resources. He had been called to pioneer a unique movement for the purpose of strengthening the Body of Christ. He acknowledges in one of his books that shortly after his dismissal he was seriously tempted to think about driving his car into a concrete abutment. The other man was almost overwhelmingly tempted to commit adultery. He would lie on the floor of his prayer closet and groan for God to break the power of the temptation, which went on for months before release finally came. The first time I heard this man preach he told the story of his awful trial by fire. I was so impressed with his honesty that I said to myself, I can follow this man, and he became my pastor for the next ten years.

Again, it is critically important to distinguish between struggles with temptation and actual sin, where we give in and rationalize our defeat. In the above quotations from Finney we are talking about resisting temptation and turning a deaf ear to Satan, whose accusations are meant to undercut our resistance. At times the temptation may be so fierce that it seems our own heart is in league with the devil, but this is only the way it seems, because of the immense pressure and the persistent accusations of Satan. If, in the heat of the battle, you do yield to temptation, you can go to the Lord immediately (Psalm 32), receive cleansing by faith, and pick up your sword again.

Familiarize yourself with the story of Eleazar, the son of Dodo the Ahohite. Eleazar was one of Davidís mighty men. II Samuel 23 lists thirty-three men, and Eleazar was one of the three greatest fighters among the thirty-three. Many of these men had joined David in the wilderness of Judah in the days he was fleeing for his life from King Saul. I Samuel 22:2 describes them like this:

And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him. So he became captain over them. And there were about four hundred men with him.

During their years of following David the thirty-three became a team of fierce commandos. Each of them distinguished himself in a difficult, dangerous situation. Undoubtedly all of Davidís four hundred men were effective fighters, but the thirty-three were standouts. And the three captains over them were living legends of battlefield courage. They were also men who knew how to depend on God for help. Josheb-Basshebeth killed 800 men at one time. This was a feat that could only have been accomplished by the power of God working with him.

We need to remember that the Philistines were a culturally advanced people with superior weapons. For several hundred years they had attempted to exterminate or enslave the people of Israel. They were ďsea peopleĒ who had come from Crete, and they wanted to expand into the agriculturally rich hill country of Palestineóthe land God had promised His people. Saul wanted to kill David and his small army, but at the same time the Philistines were aggressively pushing inland. So David had two deadly enemiesóSaul, who wanted to murder him, and the Philistines who wanted to exterminate Israel and take over their land. David had been anointed by Samuel to be king of Israel, so he was responsible before God to defend the land God had promised to Abraham. All of Davidís fighting men understood these dire realities. They were fighting for their lives on two fronts, which was the worst of all possible tactical situations.

The Bible doesnít give us the details of Eleazarís incredible stand, (2 Samuel 23: 9, 10 and I Chron. 11: 12-14) so we are free to use our imagination a bit. One day David and his men were out on patrol, and spotted a Philistine raiding party coming deep into the Negev (south) from the coastal plain. David probably had fifty or a hundred men with him. As more and more Philistines came into view, Davidís men realized they were up against a small army. When the Philistines saw Davidís much smaller party, they immediately moved into a level area planted with barley and formed up into battle formation. Most of Davidís men realized that they were hopelessly outgunned, and started looking for a way to retreat. David and Eleazar were together (see I Chronicles 11:12-14), and they realized the gravity of the situation. If they didnít face the Philistines here, there was no other terrain for miles around where they could fight effectively. The Philistines would push on and take a nearby town or two in the south of Judah, and then they could bring in reinforcements and threaten the key cities of Israel.

David and Eleazar were thinking strategically, and they realized that this was a do or die situation. The rest of the men panicked and began a frantic retreat. I can almost hear David say to Eleazar, You take the right and Iíll take the left! Both of them assumed that at least some of their men would follow them. There was a gully that ran parallel to the front of the Philistine lines, and it concealed David and Eleazar as they ran into position on the Philistineís flanks. As both men paused for a few seconds to get their bearings, they realized that their men had not followed them. They were alone, and they were about a hundred yards apart. The Spirit of the Lord came on Eleazar, and with a shout of praise to Yahweh he exploded over the edge of the gully and into the shocked Philistines. David followed Eleazarís lead and waded into the left flank. The Philistines had to turn ninety degrees right or left to face Eleazar or David. In so doing they lost the structure and protection of their battle line. Eleazar and David were fighting like mad men, cutting down Philistines right and left with their wild and lightning fast swordplay.

The Philistines could not use their spears without killing their own men, so they were forced to crowd around Eleazar and David and fight with shield and sword. They couldnít even see Eleazar or David until they were right on top of them. Stepping over the bodies of the men they had cut down, Eleazar and David moved toward the center of the Philistine lines. Both of them were bleeding from superficial flesh wounds, and both of them were fighting completely alone, still separated by more than fifty yards. The panicked Philistines began to retreat toward Eleazarís side of the battlefield, and it was no longer a fight, but a rout. Eleazar began to cut down men in every direction as they attempted to get around him. Exhausted, and with bloody sweat running into his eyes from a cut on the forehead, he shook his head and continued to swing his sword until no more Philistines were standing. About a quarter of the Philistines, most of them wounded, had gotten away, and all the rest of them, hundreds of them, lay dead and dying on the small battlefield. Eleazar looked to the other side of the battlefield and saw David wearily dispatching a few remaining Philistines who were foolhardy enough to challenge him rather than run.

Davidís men who had fled sheepishly crept back onto the battlefield to strip the slain. Eleazarís arms and legs were shaking with fatigue, and he was barely able to stand. Covered with blood but not seriously hurt, he tried to put his sword back into its scabbard. But he couldnít. His hand was locked onto the sword in a tonic spasm of his forearm muscles. And so, sword in hand, he limped over to David and they embraced. David gave all the credit for the victory to Eleazar, but all Davidís men realized that God had intervened dramatically. And Eleazarís name went into the Hebrew writings as the hero of the battle of Pasdammim, the second greatest of all Davidís mighty men.

But there is more to the story! I am convinced that God often observes the principle of a dual witness, first spelled out in the Mosaic law. A man could only be charged with a mortal crime on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. When God wanted to emphasize a principle, he often recorded it twice. So, guess who Davidís number three mighty man was? His name was Shammah, the son of Agee the Hararite. And guess what great feat he accomplished? The Philistines had gathered together into a troop where there was a piece of ground full of lentils. Then the people fled from the Philistines. But he stationed himself in the middle of the field, defended it, and killed the Philistines. And the Lord brought about a great victory (2 Samuel 23: 11, 12). I like to think that Shammah was one of those who retreated on the day of Eleazarís great victory, but this time he said to himself, If Eleazar can do it, I can do it.

God is not into entertaining us with battle stories. The Bible is a spiritual book. The Old Testament recounts historical and physical events to teach us spiritual principles. Let me ask you to reread this section on Eleazar and Shammah and ask the Lord to show you the spiritual principles that His Word is underscoring, and how these principles relate to intercession. Who were the Philistines and what were they attempting to do? Why did God allow these formidable adversaries to invade just at the time David was preoccupied with escaping from Saul? Whom do the Philistines represent in our experience? What are the principles that lead to victory? What is God doing among believers today that parallels what He was doing in Davidís band of warriors? What was Davidís destiny and what is our destiny? Make a list of things you think God wants us to learn from Eleazar regarding intercession and spiritual warfare. And I need to make one final observation. Lest you should think that God just had it in for the Philistines, remember the Cherethites, Pelethites, and Gittites, more than six hundred Philistine warriors and their families who came over to Israel during Davidís kingship. They became worshippers of Yahweh and were honored as Davidís personal bodyguard (see 2 Samuel 15: 17-22).

The key to successful intercession is bulldog tenacity. In Luke 11 Jesus gives us insight into the dynamics of intercession and the power of tenacious asking. The persistent friend gets as much bread as he asks for, although the neighbor was initially very reluctant to help. Again, following the principle of the dual witness, Jesus returns to the theme of intercession in Luke 18, this time with an even more dramatic story. Notice the way Luke summarizes the meaning of the parable: Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1). Clearly, there is a danger of losing heart and bailing out of an intercessory battle before the victory is won. John 16: 23 says Most assuredly I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give it to you. We need Luke 18:1 to help us interpret John 16:23. It is quite apparent that receiving from the Father in Jesusí name is not just a matter of praying once, or praying a formula. It is a process of repeated, tenacious, creative asking until the answer comes. Our Lord is looking for intercessors. Listen to his poignant statement as He closes this parable: Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth (Luke 18:8)?

Just a concluding note: remember to worship, especially when things get tough and you get weary. And remember Eleazar!

(All Scripture quotations are from The New King James Version of the Bible, copyright 1983 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Fighting on in prayer with you,

Pastor Bob

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