Editors' note: This is the first post in a new series exploring key doctrines of the Christian faith, and their practical ramifications for everyday life.
Jesus intercedes for believers. This is a classical, if often neglected, part of Christian theology. Intercessory prayer was a part of Christ’s earthly ministry (John 17, Luke 22:32), and the Scriptures teach that he now intercedes for us from the throne of heaven in his exalted life above (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25, I John 2:1). But what does this mean? And what value is it in our daily life?
To provide help understanding Christ’s intercession, and its practical ramifications, I corresponded with D. A. Carson, cofounder and president of The Gospel Coalition and research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
What is Christ's intercession, and where is it most prominently taught in the Bible?
Christ’s intercessory ministry is most explicitly set forth in Hebrews 7:25. On the basis of his once-for-all cross work, and his own everlasting resurrection life, Christ lives perpetually to intercede for us. This is frequently referred to as Christ’s high priestly ministry. The relevant themes are perhaps strongest in Hebrews, though other passages spring to mind. For example, John 17 is often designated Jesus’ “high priestly prayer.” Although that is not the explicit designation made by John, certainly John 17 finds Jesus praying for his people—that is, in this chapter he is engaged in intercession for them.
It is possible to think of Jesus’ high priestly ministry in broad terms. We might begin with the images provided by Old Testament precursors. The OT high priest, for example, was responsible on the Day of Atonement for taking the blood of bull and goat into the most holy place and sprinkling it on the Ark of the Covenant. As high priest, Christ brings his own blood into the presence of the heavenly tabernacle. But the trajectories of Scripture are complex and interwoven: Jesus is not only the high priest, but the sacrificial Passover lamb, the Davidic king, the true temple, the true Israel, and much more. That means that Jesus cannot be high priest in exactly the same way as the OT high priest: in the OT the trajectories run separately (though they are intertwined), while in the New Testament so many of these trajectories frequently interweave in such a way that they all point to Jesus. That means that the relationship between types in the OT does not always work out in the NT. So, for example, Jesus is the true tabernacle (John 1:14), the true temple (John 2), the true priest, and the true sacrifice. These images can be configured in various ways: in Hebrews he takes his blood into the heavenly temple to present it to God, in which case he is the high priest but not the temple. High priest and sacrifice, high priest and temple, high priest and king—Jesus is all of them, yet the configurations are various. So talking about Jesus’ high priestly ministry soon becomes very rich, highly intertwined with many OT and NT themes, largely circulating around the cross.
When we focus on the intercession of Jesus our high priest, however, the themes become much more focused. Even so, we should distinguish between Jesus’ pre-cross prayers for his people, offered in the light of his impending atonement, and what Hebrews 7:25 refers to, which clearly envisages Jesus’ intercession for all of his people in the wake of the cross. That is what I shall focus on in the rest of my remarks.
How does Christ's intercession relate to his atoning work on the cross?
In its context, Hebrews 7:25 pictures Christ’s intercession as taking place in the wake of the cross. Christ’s sacrifice is once-for-all—it does not have to be repeated, unlike the annual sacrifices of Yom Kippurim. Moreover, unlike OT high priests, Jesus has a permanent high priesthood: he lives forever, and death cannot remove him from office. In the broader context, his priesthood is superior because it is in the line and likeness of Melchizedek, not of Aaron. Unlike other high priests, he is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (7:26), so he does not need to offer sacrifices for his own sins before he offers them for the sins of others (7:27). For all of these reasons, and more, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him” (7:25), precisely “because he always lives to intercede for them” (7:25). In other words, the complete salvation of his people turns on the efficacy of his perpetual intercession, and the efficacy of his perpetual intercession turns on the once-for-all sacrifice he has offered, and on his own everlasting life.
The words of Charles Wesley’s Arise, My Soul Arise remind us that there is, if possible, an even tighter connection between Jesus’ death and his intercession. We might want to revise slightly the words in the second stanza, but the words in the third stanza disclose the connection I am talking about:
Arise, my soul, arise! Shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears.
Before the throne my Surety stands;
My name is written on his hands.
He ever lives above, for me to intercede,
His all-redeeming love, his precious blood to plead.
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.
Five bleeding wounds he bears, received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, oh, forgive!” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die.”
What is the content of Christ's intercession (what does he actually say)? What is its result (what does it actually do)?
In Wesley’s imaginative reconstruction of what Jesus actually says in his intercession, disclosed in the stanza just quoted, Jesus offers ongoing prayers for his people, to the end that God will continue to forgive them, on the ground that his own sacrificial death has completely satisfied God’s demands. The next stanza makes this clear:
My God is reconciled; his pardoning voice I hear.
He owns me for his child; I can no longer fear.
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba Father!” cry.
In broad sweep, this is the glorious image that the language of Jesus’ heavenly intercession demands. But two cautions must be inserted:
(a) Strictly speaking, the language of “reconciliation,” found in the first line of the last stanza of the hymn, runs the other way in the New Testament: we are reconciled to God; God is not reconciled to us. On the other hand, Christians have rightly become accustomed to speaking of God being reconciled to us poor, rebellious image-bearers, since the thought is found in the New Testament, even though in different words. If the cross propitiates God by bearing away his judicial wrath, then by the same token God becomes reconciled to these rebels, even though NT reconciliation terminology never works exactly that way.
(b) The image cast up in the hymn is in danger of introducing a major theological misunderstanding. It is utterly mistaken to picture God the Father standing over us in judgment and potential wrath, while the Son, far more loving and approachable, speaks to his Father in our behalf and cajoles him into begrudging forgiveness. The truth is more complex, and more glorious. After all, the cross was the Father’s plan, and Jesus goes to the cross to perform his Father’s will. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. We must never think of God in tri-theistic terms, with the Son talking his bad-tempered Father into forgiving sinners. The triune God is one in his purposes and designs. He simultaneously stands over against us in wrath (we are all by nature children of wrath) but also stands over against us in love. The plan of redemption is as much the Father’s design as the Son’s. In other words, the image of Christ’s intercession must not be teased out to suggest that he is talking the Father into doing something the Father doesn’t want to do, or that he has to remind the Father of the significance of the cross because otherwise the Father might forget. The entire intercessory ministry of the exalted Christ is by the design of the triune God, and its purpose is to lay out, in the boldest terms, how the safe status of Christ’s blood-bought people, of all those whom the Father has given to the Son, depends, now and forever, on Jesus’ once-for-all atoning sacrifice, on the utter satisfaction it provides.
For those involved in pastoral counseling, when might Christ's intercession be a useful doctrine to which to refer?
The intercessory work of Christ is invaluable to every Christian, for it makes clear that our ongoing acceptance before God is finally grounded in the utter sufficiency of the cross. Good works doubtless must flow from the believer’s life (that is another topic), but the sole and sufficient ground of our acceptance before a holy God, and thus the guarantee that we will inherit the new heaven and the new earth, is the cross of Christ. These important truths are especially needed when believers slip backward to a kind of works theology that tells them they are not good enough to be forgiven, or that surrounds them with crushing despair because of moral defeat. There is more to offer in counsel to such brothers and sisters, of course, but there is seldom less.
Suppose believers are struggling with a besetting sin and/or an afflicted conscience. How might a greater acquaintance with Christ's intercession help them?
Besetting sins and afflicted consciences defeat us in a variety of ways. Where there are afflicted consciences, one must first ask if the conscience is weighed down by real guilt (in which case, part of the remedy is repentance) or by false guilt (for example, one feels guilty or inadequate over conduct that the Bible does not denote to be sin). In any case, besetting sins and afflicted consciences have this in common, that they often destroy our confidence before God—our confidence that we have been forgiven, that we are accepted in the Beloved, that the debt has been paid. (Of course, the New Testament also envisages some instances where ongoing and unconfessed sins are a mark of spurious conversion, in which case the wise counselor will focus more attention on the holiness and justice of God before fastening on the cross and intercessory ministry of the resurrected and exalted Savior.)
In all such instances, to understand the nature of Jesus’ intercession breeds quiet confidence, the assurance which, according to 1 John, brings with it our own effective prayers.