“What is the difference between prayer and intercession?
Much good material has been written on this. Most people would agree that it might be unhelpful to make too dogmatic a distinction as there are many overlaps and grey areas between the two. A person who prays much may also find himself in the place of intercession whether he knows it or not. Intercession is more of “a standing in the gap” on behalf of someone else, some situation or nation.
For me, intercession is the place where your own prayers take on flesh. After a prayer meeting, you can go home and forget the prayers you prayed and carry on with your life. An intercessory prayer will stick on your insides – it will not let you go, it becomes part of your life. Psalm 109:4 puts it well as it literally states:“…but I am prayer.”
Intercession is when you become your prayer. It goes beyond words into a lifestyle.
Isaiah 53, is a prophetic passage speaking of the crucifixion – the ultimate intercession where the innocent Lamb of God took our place and punishment for the guilt of sin.
“Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Ezekiel 22:30 also offers a good description of such intercession which stands on behalf of someone else.
“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so that I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.”
Great intercessors of the Old Testament can be found in Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah, Hannah’s prayer for a child, Nehemiah’s prayer for Jerusalem, Daniel’s spiritual warfare intercession to see the promises of God for his nation accomplished, Moses prayer on behalf of wayward Israel in the desert and many more.
Psalm 106:25 speaks in the same terms about Moses’ intercession:
“So he said he would destroy them– had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.”
And Moses himself comments the event in Deuteronomy 9:25:
“I lay prostrate before the LORD those forty days and forty nights because the LORD had said he would destroy you.”
Jesus’ earthly life as well as Paul’s and the apostles’ were all about crying out to God and living on behalf of others:
“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” Hebrews 5:7
Jesus is still operating in this vital ministry of intercession which burst forth once and for all from the cross and resonates into our present day and circumstances:
“Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Hebrews 7:25
Let me give you three major attributes of intercession.
1. Identification – Sympathéo
You cannot just say words. There is a taking up of a position of identification with the situation prayed for. A missionary paradigm enhances the power of intercession as languages are learned and cultures assimilated in an incarnational process. We have a God who identified with His creation:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise (sympathéo) with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet was without sin.” Hebrews 4:15
Pathos is the Greek word for suffering. Sympathéo – from where we get our English word sympathy, is much more than just a sad feeling for someone; it is an intentional taking on of their pain. Such identification may take the form of fasting, nights of prayer, sacrificial giving and service. It is important to allow the Holy Spirit to lead you into such things as man’s good or guilty intentions will only end in failure and spiritual pride.
2. Suffering – Dolor
Identification will lead us to suffering. Jesus, the “man of sorrows”, knew all about this. We will all need to negotiate our own “via dolorosa” through life as we follow Jesus, carrying our own crosses.
Romans 8:18,26 opens by talking about such suffering, but rather than seeing it as some huge crushing curse, it goes on to show how the Holy Spirit can take our local suffering and give it global, intercessory significance. Who knows what caused David to cry out in his Psalm, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Hundreds of years later his local cry of pain became a cosmic redemption on the Son of God’s crucified lips. Who knows what glory and significance our own groans might carry?
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us… In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”
3. Authority – Exousia
After a cross there is always resurrection. The suffering endured on behalf of others gives a moral and spiritual authority to our lives and prayers. It puts substance into our faith and quality into our character. Each successive event and place of intercession gained builds up our own personal curriculum vitae of credibility before God and men. Desmond Tutu, in his book “No Future without Forgiveness”, commenting about Nelson Mandela’s authority to plead for the reconciliation of a nation, writes the following:
“It would be easy to say that those twenty-seven years were utter shameful waste: just think of all he could have contributed to the good of South Africa and the world. I don’t think so. Those twenty-seven years and all the suffering they entailed were the fires of the furnace that tempered his steel, that removed the dross. Perhaps without that suffering he would have been less able to be as compassionate and as magnanimous as he turned out to be. And that suffering on behalf of others gave him an authority and credibility that can be provided by nothing else in quite the same way. The true leader must at some point or other convince her or his followers that she or he is in this whole business not for self-aggrandisement but for the sake of others. Nothing is able to prove this quite as convincingly as suffering.”
Jesus stood on a mountain before a discouraged band of disciples. Some worshiped when they saw him while others doubted. Doubt and worship form the beautiful vulnerability of the missionary context where the splendour of God and our own inability form a glorious – if not contradictory, alliance.
Jesus spoke these majestic words of authority encouraging a handful of ordinary people to take on the world:
“All authority (exousia) in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” Matthew 28:18-19
His authority was the fruit of His passion, the fruit of intercession.
May we rise to the challenge to bear such fruit in our own lives.