The Intercessory Work of Christ
The intercession of Christ is efficacious. It is not like our prayers that are often of necessity uncertain and conditional. Rather, Christ blesses his church effectively as the characteristic feature of the time between his ascension and his return.
Christ, having ascended to the right hand of the Father, blesses his church by his presence in heaven and by the Holy Spirit who he has sent. In this he sends us help when we need it, conveys the blessings of the covenant, and enables us to experience and enjoy union and communion with him.
The Ascension and Christ as Priest
Luke records Jesus’ parting words and gesture at his ascension. There at Bethany “lifting up his hands he blessed them. And as he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51). His final act was the priestly act of benediction (Num. 6:24). This priestly act is thus characteristic of his continuing ministry thereafter. In parting from them he blesses them. Being parted from them he blesses them and continues to do so. As the author of Hebrews states it Jesus, the Son of God has “passed through the heavens” and so is able to send us grace and help in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16). His continuing priestly ministry following his ascension is threefold: intercession, benediction and communion.
First, it is important to understand what Christ’s intercession is not. He does not plead on our behalf before a reluctant Father: this would have, among other things, enormous consequences for the Trinity. Nor is it to be equated with the kinds of intercession we make here and now. When we pray there is an element of uncertainty; we ask God to heal x, but he may have determined that x die a slow and painful death. The ascended Christ’s intercession has no caveats. It is to be compared with the high priest in the Old Testament, who entered the holy of holies once a year, wearing the prescribed breastplate, containing twelve jewels representing the twelve tribes of Israel. In his representative capacity he was, so to speak, bringing the twelve tribes with him into the sanctuary of God. In an analogous way, Christ, having passed through the heavens, brings us his people with him into the presence of God, the right hand of the Father, and he does this since he himself not merely represents man but is man himself and continues to be so for ever. In his incarnation he, the Son of God, permanently united to himself our nature, our flesh and blood, and so carries it before the Father on a permanent, everlasting basis. As the Westminster Larger Catechism 55 puts it, his intercession is “his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven.” The ascended Christ’s continuing intercession is his constant presence with the Father as man. Thus, in the words of Charitie Lees Bancroft, “When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the wrong within, upwards I look and see him there, who made an end of all my sin.”1
Given that Christ’s intercession consists in the effective bestowal of the blessings of God’s covenant, we should see his prayers during his incarnate ministry in that light. Certainly, these were the prayers of one who was truly and fully man. He lived in dependence on his Father, sustained by the Holy Spirit, facing suffering, bereavement, the trials of living in a fallen world and all the frustrations and disappointments that go with it. That was foreshadowed in the Old Testament where the suffering servant of Isaiah, ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, expresses disappointment, even depression, at the apparent failure of his mission. He is reassured that God has appointed him for salvation not only of Israel but of the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:1-6). We can be sure that he remembers these human struggles and that it informs his continued work on our behalf.
Secondly, the benediction characteristic of the ascended Jesus’ continuing ministry also differs from prayer. While intercessory prayer is the expression of a desire that this or that happen, if it be God’s will, a benediction is a declaration of a state of affairs that actually exists and a bestowing of the reality of that state of affairs on those to whom it belongs. There is none of the hesitation or uncertainty that there is with our own intercessions. We do not have access to the fine details of God’s eternal will. We cannot be sure whether this or that possibility is something he has planned. Sometimes we are unsure of the correctness of a particular course of action. In the case of the ascending and ascended Christ, this uncertainty is entirely absent, for as king he has ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things (Eph. 4:8-10). Christ’s priestly benediction grants to his people all they need for salvation both in this life and in what follows; in it he guards, protects, and nourishes his church, governs the world and brings his sovereign judgments to bear on its inhabitants. This includes all entailed in the author of Hebrews’ description of him as our forerunner (Heb. 6:19-20), foreshadowed in John 14:1-3. He has gone before, we follow: we follow because he has gone before: in going before he brings us there by the Holy Spirit whom he has sent. Indeed, all that occurs consequent to the sending of the Spirit – his blessing of his church, his ministry to its members, his witness to the world – is entailed in this.
This is why Paul can say, in a celebrated passage, that God works all things together for the good of those that love him, who are the called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). This is because Christ has been raised from the dead, is at God’s right hand, is for us in every way so that no one can lay a charge against us (Rom. 8:29-34). While he may chastise us as he sees fit, he will do so for our good (Heb. 12:3-11) so that it is to be seen in the overarching context of his continuing ministry of benediction. This is the characteristic feature of his ascended rule as our great high priest.
Third, there is union and communion. Jesus refers to his ascension immediately after the bread of life discourse, which has often been associated with the Eucharist (John 6:47-58, 62).2 From this, and from the fact of communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper – evident elsewhere in the New Testament beyond this one passage – it follows that the ascension and the Eucharist are closely linked. Calvin saw this clearly. Jesus is absent from us. Yet we feed on his body and drink his blood. How? Through the Spirit (John 6:63) who lifts us up to heaven. The Supper is to be observed from Christ’s ascension to his parousia – the precise time that he is at the right hand of the father, removed from our sphere but present by the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, the author of Hebrews writes that we have come now to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, to an innumerable company of angels, and to Jesus (Heb. 12:18-24). The bodily ascension of Jesus is the basis for our communion with him – according to both natures – through the Holy Spirit, who unites things separated by distance, as Calvin was fond of saying. The Eucharist is for the church until Christ’s parousia. It is coterminous with his ascended ministry. So long as he intercedes for us and blesses his church, so we feed on him in the Eucharist. It points to our destiny, union with God in Christ: the ascended Christ has sent the Spirit to unite us to him and thus to the Father. It is the ascension that makes room for this to occur. As Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7).
- Wilhelmus a Brakel, “The Work of Christ’s Intercession Considered”
- John Flavel, “The Intercession of Christ Our High Priest”
- Robert Letham. The Work of Christ. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993, 105-123, 155-157.
- H. Henry Meeter. The Heavenly High Priesthood of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1916.
- Thomas F. Torrance. Theology in Reconciliation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, 139-214.
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