A Difficult Puzzle
As a small boy, in my native Czech Republic town, I visited a typical, beautifully constructed European Catholic church. People were kneeling and praying in front of the statues of Mary and many other saints. By each statue was written in Latin “Ora pro nobis” (meaning, “pray”—or “intercede”—“for us”). I was puzzled. Later I learned that every day, the prayers of millions of Christians are directed to these saints, who are considered as intercessors. This picture from my childhood raised many questions in my mind: Is not Jesus sufficient? Why pray to so many? Does God need to be pleaded with because He is angry with us?
The belief that saints are praying for humans in heaven is related to the crucial understanding of the biblical teaching of what happens after death: “An initial question regarding the prayer of saints in heaven for the sake of others (intercession) has to do with our knowledge about the condition of the Christian dead. Do they now live with Christ and, if so, are they aware of the situation and needs of people still on earth? If these questions are answered in the negative, it is more difficult to claim an intercessory role for them and to justify calling upon their help in our prayers.”3
In Roman Catholicism, there are many intercessors: “One basic theological and liturgical conviction which has carried the Catholic tradition holds that Jesus Christ alone is never merely alone. He is always found in the company of a whole range of his friends, both living and dead. . . . Saints show us how the grace of God may work in a life; they give us bright patterns of holiness; they pray for us.”4 The New Testament, however, plainly claims that there is only one Intercessor between God and humans—the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:3–6).
Many biblical scholars and theologians confirm the biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is our Intercessor, but what does it mean? What does the Bible want to convey by this terminology? What difference does it make for our everyday problems that He “always lives to intercede” (Heb. 7:25) for us?
When we imagine the work of a mediator or intercessor, we have in mind two antagonistic parties with a go-between seeking to reconcile them by changing their mutual hatred, misunderstandings, presuppositions, feelings, and attitudes toward each other. This popular model is built on the intense work of the intermediary, who seeks to reconcile both parties. The middle person has to plead with those involved to heal the broken relationship and restore the damaged communication and friendship.
What Christ’s Intercession Doesn’t Mean
It is necessary to underline what the intercessory ministry of Jesus Christ in the heavenly sanctuary does not mean. It does not imply that Jesus has to (1) plead with the heavenly Father or beg Him to forgive our sins; (2) appease an angry God; (3) change the Father's attitude toward us; or (4) reconcile God with humanity. Jesus and the heavenly Father are not involved in a celestial arm-wrestling match to ascertain who is stronger to show either favor or anger toward humans.
Reasons for these conclusions are plainly explained in the Scriptures:
1. Jesus does not need to beg our heavenly Father to love us. He Himself declared: “‘In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God’” (John 16:26, 27).
2. Jesus does not need to change the Father’s attitude toward us. “‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’” (John 3:16). Christ died for us because the Father loves us.
The divinity and humanity of the person of Jesus Christ, this oneness of His Being as God and human, are the essential preconditions for His mediation. He came to save fallen humanity. The incarnation of Christ and His atoning death on Calvary are foundational qualifications that opened the way for His intercessory ministry. The Cross was a necessary prerequisite for His salvific mediatory work for humanity (Rom. 3:23–26). His victory over sin (Matt. 4:1–11; Rom. 8:3) and His voluntary and substitutionary death for us qualified Him to be our Intercessor.
Christ’s Twofold Ministry
Christ’s role as Intercessor is twofold: (1) revealing and ministering the mysteries of God’s goodness and richness to humankind; and (2) presenting our existential needs to God and securing our salvation. In other words, His intercessory ministry is both a revelatory and redemptive process for humanity, forming one unit that cannot be separated. Alister McGrath correctly explains that “the presence of God in Christ is intended to mediate between a transcendent God and fallen humanity. This idea of ‘presence as mediation’ takes two quite distinct, yet ultimately complementary, forms: the mediation of revelation on the one hand, and of salvation on the other.”7
When the New Testament uses the term translated as “mediate” (Gal. 3:19, 20; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), it denotes what God is doing for humans through Jesus Christ. He came from above to be with us, Emmanuel (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:20–23)―a movement from God toward humanity, not the reverse. He came to live among us as a fragile human being to reveal God’s values, truth, and teachings—and how God hates sin and evil. He never stands on the side of the oppressor but on the side of the oppressed; and in our suffering and distress, He suffers with us (Isa. 63:9).
Jesus is the best self-revelation of God, He is the revealer of truth because He is the Life, the Truth, and the Way (John 14:6). He is not only revealing God and proclaiming the Word of God, but He is also Himself the revelation and the personified Word of God, God in the flesh (John 1:1–3; Col. 2:9). In His humanity, He was exegeting, i.e., giving a right interpretation of the true character of His heavenly Father (John 1:18). On this existential knowledge depends eternal life (John 17:3). He wants to break the circle of lies about the Godhead and rebuild a loving and trusting relationship between Himself and humanity.
In sharp contrast, Jesus Christ also came to defeat Satan and unmask his work (John 16:11; 1 John 3:8) so we can understand the character of our enemy (Matt. 13:25, 28, 29), which is full of deception, violence, and death (John 8:44; 2 Cor. 11:14).
The Scriptures certainly attest that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf before the heavenly Father (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 9:24) and that He is our Advocate (1 John 2:1). The movement is clearly that of uplifting believers in God from Earth to the heavenly Father.
What Does Jesus’ Intercessory Ministry Mean to Us?
On the basis of the previous biblical and theological observations, four aspects of Christ’s intercessory ministry emerge:
1. Christ meets the Father to help. Jesus Christ and the heavenly Father meet together to help humans with their everyday problems and enable them to be victorious Christians. All heaven (the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit) is united in helping us in our struggles with sin, Satan, and temptations because without Their assistance, we are powerless and cannot resist evil, we cannot change, and we cannot spiritually grow (John 15:5; Phil. 4:13).
The first tangible result of that meeting after Christ’s ascension was the sending of the Holy Spirit and giving Him to the believers (Acts 2). Everett Ferguson rightly states: “God gives help in living out one’s salvation (Phil. 2:12) in the Christian way of life. The Holy Spirit provides the link between baptism and the Christian life. The Holy Spirit not only sanctifies (1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Pet. 1:2) but also gives new life in baptism (John 3:5) and takes up residence in the one converted (Acts 2:38; 5:30; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 6:19). The Holy Spirit provides the continuing present benefits of God’s one-time action in the cross and the one-time commitment in baptism (there is ‘one baptism’—Eph. 4:5). He is the power of the Christian life.”11
Through Christ’s mediatory work, our Intercessor needs to perfect even our best actions that spring from our gratitude to God’s kindness (Rev. 8:3, 4). For example, our prayers, worship, obedience, our best praises coming from gratitude to God, all need His purification.
Ellen White powerfully comments on this aspect: “Christ, our Mediator, and the Holy Spirit are constantly interceding in man's behalf, but the Spirit pleads not for us as does Christ who presents His blood, shed from the foundation of the world; the Spirit works upon our hearts, drawing out prayers and penitence, praise and thanksgiving. The gratitude which flows from our lips is the result of the Spirit striking the cords of the soul in holy memories, awakening the music of the heart.
“The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary; but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor who is at God's right hand presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned.
“O, that all may see that everything in obedience, in penitence, in praise and thanksgiving must be placed upon the glowing fire of the righteousness of Christ. The fragrance of this righteousness ascends like a cloud around the mercy seat.”14
Jesus Christ as our Intercessor helps His followers to be connected with Him and be active in His church. “To be in the church is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church.”15 Ferguson fittingly comments: “One is not ‘in Christ’ because of being ‘in the church,’ but one is ‘in the church’ because of being ‘in Christ.’ . . . To be saved is to be in Christ, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the church.”16 Jesus gives to His followers the Holy Spirit to be His faithful witnesses: “‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’” (Act 1:8).
2. Christ saves completely. Jesus Christ justifies and saves (Zech. 3:1–7; Rom. 8:1). As a result, we identify with Him (Rom. 6:1–4; Eph. 2:4–10). He is our Substitute and Representative because He died for our sins (1 Cor. 1:30; 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:21). His substitutionary death brought victory over the evil forces and Satan. He defeated death (Rom. 6:24; 1 Cor. 15:21, 22, 26, 54, 55), which is why He can now give His followers eternal life (John 5:24, 25; 11:25).
According to Hebrews 7:25, Jesus “is able to save completely.” Our Intercessor saves all who come to Him as they are, confessing their sins. Christ as our Intercessor reflects the Old Testament function of the priest and high priest, who made an atonement for the people (Lev. 16:19, 30) and reconnected the sinner with the holy and gracious God. But Jesus gave Himself as an ultimate sacrifice for us (Heb. 9:25, 26, 28) and His blood purifies us from our sins (Heb. 9:12; 5:9; 1 Peter 1:18, 19). We are perfect in Him, and Paul very strongly emphasizes our dwelling in Christ (Rom. 6:23; 12:5; 1 Cor. 1:30).
Jesus Christ identifies with us, one to one, and this identification is so close that it is compared to the most sensitive part of our body: the pupil of our eye. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: . . . ‘whoever touches you touches the apple of his [the Lord’s] eye’” (Zech. 2:8). “‘The King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”’” (Matt. 25:40, NLT). Additional biblical examples demonstrate how Jesus is closely uniting Himself with His followers: “He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied” (Acts 9:4, 5). “‘He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me’” (Luke 10:16).
Because Jesus Christ is our Intercessor, we can come to Him with full confidence, assurance, and boldness (Heb. 3:6; 4:16; 1 John 2:28; 4:17). We can come to Him without fear, doubt, or wavering; for in Him, we have hope (Heb. 6:19; 1 Peter 1:3). He is highly and uniquely qualified to be our Intercessor since He is one of us, our older Brother, and He was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15; 2:17, 18). He is the source of salvation for everyone who comes to Him (5:7–9, 16), and there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:1).
3. Christ changes and transforms. Salvation means healing (Ps. 6:2; 41:4; Jer. 17:14; Hosea 14:4) and transformation (Rom. 12:1, 2; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Thess. 5:23, 24). Jesus Christ did not come to save us “in” sin but “from” sin (Matt. 1:21). He desires our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3, 4; Heb. 12:14) by our walking humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8), persevering (Rev. 12:14), and living with eyes fixed on Him (Heb. 12:1, 2). In this way, we will more and more reflect the character of God (2 Cor. 3:18). Hebrews 4:16 eloquently spells out why the intercessory ministry of our High Priest is needed for us: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” As broken and fragile human beings, we are constantly in need of Jesus and totally dependent upon Him. We are crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:5, 6) to live a new life (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 1:15–21). Being a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) does not mean that we no longer have a sinful nature (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 7:14–20), but that our sinful desires are under the control of His Spirit (Rom. 6:11–14), and then Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21). Our sinful nature will be changed only at the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:50–54; Phil. 1:6; 1 John 3:1–3).
Jesus proclaimed: “‘Without me you can do nothing’” (John 15:5, NKJV). Paul confessed: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). To fight against temptation, overcome sin, have a successful fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7), and bear lasting good fruit is an impossibility without Christ, without His Spirit. Only Christ is able to keep us from falling (Jude 24) because His intercession breaks the power of sin, gives freedom, and liberates from addictions and slavery to evil. He saves us from the consequence of sin—eternal death, but He also enables us to live a new life according to His will (Eze. 36:26–29; Rom. 8:13, 14). Only He can transform by His grace so that we may replicate His loving, compassionate, and serving character. He wants to change us by the power of His Word, Spirit, and grace to rid us of selfishness, self-centeredness, self-justification, and striving to be the strongest. “Godly love is at war with the survival-of-the-fittest principle.”20 He desires that we be governed by the fruits of the Spirit against which there is no condemnation (Gal. 5:22, 23).
4. Christ vindicates/defends His people. Jesus Christ vindicates His children against the accusations of Satan. The Book of Job gives insight into Satan’s charges against God’s followers (Job being a typological figure for them), and how God stands against Satan and for them (Job 1:8, 9; 2:4; 42). It is plainly explained in the Book of Revelation, where His victory on the cross is described: “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short’” (Rev. 12:10–12).
Jesus Christ as our Intercessor vindicates His people in front of the whole universe (Dan. 7:9, 10; Eph. 3:10, 11). He is both our Advocate and Judge at the same time, so we can look forward with bold assurance and without fear to the day of judgment (1 John 2:28; 4:17). For who He is, for what He accomplished, and for what He does, He deserves to be eternally praised (Rom. 9:5; Rev. 5:9, 10, 12, 13).
Even more intensely will the Holy Spirit be with His people and carry them through the last short period of time when they will live without the intercessory ministry of Christ, since it will no longer be necessary because He has saved them completely, begun in them the process of powerful transformation, and vindicated them in front of the universe (Matt. 25:1–10; John 15:5; Rom. 8:14; 1 Thess. 5:23, 24; Heb. 12:1, 2; Rev. 3:10). During this short period of time before the second coming of Christ, between the close of probation and our glorification, the true believers will still need to be covered by the results of the Cross, the atoning merits of Christ, because of our sinful natures. We will still have a need for a “constant dependence upon the atoning blood of Christ.”21
One can observe an incredible pattern in the whole Bible regarding God’s intercessory ministry. It is very positive toward His people because He is for them, never against them, and wants to save. This crucial role of Jesus Christ’s is indispensable as the following statement indicates: “What does intercession comprehend? It is the golden chain which binds finite man to the throne of the infinite God. The human agent whom Christ has died to save importunes the throne of God, and his petition is taken up by Jesus who has purchased him with His own blood. Our great High Priest places His righteousness on the side of the sincere suppliant, and the prayer of Christ blends with that of the human petitioner.”22
Ellen G. White further explains the vast efficacy of Christ’s intercessory ministry: “All blessings must come through a Mediator. Now every member of the human family is given wholly into the hands of Christ, and whatever we possess—whether it is the gift of money, of houses, of lands, of reasoning powers, of physical strength, of intellectual talents—in this present life, and the blessings of the future life, are placed in our possession as God's treasures to be faithfully expended for the benefit of man. Every gift is stamped with the cross and bears the image and superscription of Jesus Christ. All things come of God. From the smallest benefits up to the largest blessing, all flow through the one Channel—a superhuman mediation sprinkled with the blood that is of value beyond estimate because it was the life of God in His Son.”23
We can come to Him with full confidence because whatever He does is for our salvation. In His actions He wants to be transparent to us as well as to the whole universe. He has been a great Communicator with His created beings from the beginning, because He wants everyone to understand who God is, His character, purposes, and will. He does not hide His purposes from His created beings; on the contrary, He opens Himself and His thoughts, feelings, actions, and the future to everyone who wants to know and understand.
Christ’s intercessory ministry is twofold: He reveals God’s character and His values to humanity, and presents our needs, struggles, and issues to God. The triune God closely collaborates in this double mission.
A decision for Jesus Christ means complete salvation—eternal life (Heb. 7:25), and He is always ready to help (1 John 1:8, 9). The following summarizes the four main functions of Jesus Christ as our Intercessor:
1. On Jesus Christ’s return to heaven, He and the heavenly Father met together to help humans in their everyday struggles with evil. The first tangible result of that meeting on our behalf was that the Holy Spirit was given to believers (Acts 2). All heaven is united in helping us in our struggles with sin, Satan, and temptations (John 15:5; Phil. 4:13). Jesus prays for us (John 17; Luke 22:32), and our best—and worst—is covered by Christ’s perfect life and atoning sacrifice. We are enabled through His power to witness to others.
2. Jesus Christ saves completely and identifies with us when we give our life to Him (Zech. 2:8; Matt. 25:40, 45; Acts 9:4–6). He saves, justifies, sanctifies, and changes believers into His image (Zech. 3:1–7). Because of His goodness (Rom. 2:4; Eph. 1:7), we identify with Him (Rom. 6:1–4; Eph. 2:4–10).
3. Jesus Christ’s intercessory ministry transforms His followers into His likeness, they grow in Him and His grace, and become more and more like Him (2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; 3:18).
4. Jesus Christ vindicates us against the accusations of Satan (Rev. 12:10–12; Job 1:8, 9; 2:4; 42). He personally stands up against them; and because He is the Victor, our victory is secure in Him when we accept Him as the Lord of our life.
Knowing this magnificent work of Jesus Christ “for” and “in” us, one cannot do otherwise than give Him glory. Doxology is the only proper response to His kindness: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:20, 21).
Jiří Moskala, Th.D., Ph.D., is Dean and Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES