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Christ’s Intercession: Exposition

I have been reading William Symington and John Owen on the doctrine of Christ’s intercession lately, and I am going to summarize some of my conclusions, first by reflecting on what it is in a series of questions and answers (this post), and then by making some applications concerning how this doctrine can/should encourage us (next post).

What is a brief definition of Christ’s intercession?

John Owen defines Christ’s intercession as “his continual appearance for us in the presence of God, by virtue of his office as the ‘high priest over the house of God,’ representing the efficacy of his oblation, accompanied with tender care, love, and desires for the welfare, supply, deliverance, and salvation of the church” (Exposition of Hebrews, vol. 5, p. 541).

Where in Scripture is Christ’s intercession taught?

It is affirmed in Romans 8:34, I John 2:1-2, Hebrews 6:19-20, 7:25, 9:25, and Isaiah 53:12; it is portrayed during Christ’s earthly ministry in John 17 and Luke 22:32; and it is prefigured in the Old Testament in Zechariah 1:12-13, 3:1-5, Micah 7:9, and Leviticus 16. The overall most important and extended treatment in Scripture is Hebrews 7.

How does Christ’s intercession relate to his atonement?

They are the two correlate components of his priestly office and stand together in an indissoluble and inseparable connection, serving the same great end of the salvation of sinners (cf. the close association in I John 2:1-2, Hebrews 9:24-26). William Symington helpfully compares the relation of intercession to atonement to the relation of providence to creation: the former continuously sustains the effects of the latter. To put is most simply: Christ’s intercession applies the benefits of his atoning death continually to believers. Or as Bavinck puts it, “in his intercession his sacrifice continues to be operative and effective” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 478). Or Crump: “Christ’s final sacrifice not only provides the presupposition for his prayers, but also their content” (quoted in O’Brien’s commentary on Hebrews, 277).

For whom does Christ intercede?

For believers only, and for each and every believer. Symington: “as it is unreasonable to suppose Christ to make atonement for any for whom he does not intercede, so it were preposterous to allege that he intercedes for any but those whose sins he has atoned for, or that the matter of intercession includes anything not purchased with his blood” (On the Atonement and Intercession, 269). In other words: limited atonement —> limited intercession.

Where does Jesus intercede for us?

In the heavenly court room of God the Father, before His immediate presence, typified by the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. Hebrews 6:19-20: “… the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.” Hebrews 9:24: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”

What does the intercession consist of?

It consists of three things: first, Christ appears before the Father on our behalf, as our representative (Hebrews 9:24); second, he presents the merit of his atoning death as the legal basis of his representation; third, he earnestly pleads and prays to the Father for the salvation and good of believers (cf. Owen, Exposition of Hebrews, vol. 5, p. 541).

What more specifically is the content of Christ’s intercessory prayers?

Christ prays for the salvation of the elect (Psalm 2:8), their furtherance in grace (John 17:11, 17, I John 2:1), their protection from all evil (John 17:15) and especially the accusations of Satan and devils (Zechariah 3:1-5), the restoration of broken communion between them and God (Micah 6:7, Isaiah 54:7-8), their deliverance from temptation (Hebrews 2:18), their daily cleansing and washing from the polluting effects of sin (I John 2:1, Hebrews 10:22), the sanctification and cleansing of their service and worship (Ephesians 2:18, Hebrews 4:14-16), the giving of the Spirit to them (John 14:16), their unity (John 17:20-22), and their final perseverance unto glory (Luke 22:32, John 17:24, Romans 5:10, Hebrews 7:25).

What is the manner in which Christ intercedes?

Christ prays with skill, since he knows each believer and his/her needs intimately; he prays with holiness, in accordance with his holy desire for their sanctification; he prays with authority, more as a claimant justly demanding his right than a begger seeking an unmerited favor; he prays continually, since he “ever lives to make intercession for them;” he prays with efficacy, since the Father hears and loves him; and above all, Christ prays with compassion, tenderness, and sympathy, for these things belong to the very nature of intercession. It is virtually impossible to imagine someone interceding for another person in a cold or indifferent manner.

What is the result of Christ’s intercession?

The continual washing and cleansing of believers through the application of the benefits of his atoning death, and thus the continual restoration of their fresh, unhindered, and unpolluted fellowship with God, worship of God, and service to God.

How is Christ uniquely suited to be our Intercessor?

Christ can intercede for us better than any human or angel, and in a way that the Father and the Spirit are not suited to do, because He alone is the God-man who has purchased our redemption with his blood. As God, he has divine power and resource in his prayers; as man, he is intimately and experientially acquainted with all of the difficulties and temptations of human experience (Hebrews 2:17-18, 4:14-16); and as the one who has purchased our redemption with his blood, he has an infinite claim on and interest in the objects of his intercession.

Why is Christ’s intercession a neglected doctrine?

We Protestants have tended to focus on the (rightly central) cross because that is where most of our soteriological battles have been fought. While rightly placing the cross in the center, we must also consider the full compass of Christ’s saving work (incarnation, sinless life and ministry, atoning death, burial, resurrection, further 40 day ministry, exaltation, kingly rule and intercession, second coming). Symington: “there is a disposition in many to regard what Christ has done, to the neglect of what he is doing. Not that we would have men think less of the former, but more of the latter” (idem, 299).

How literally should we understand Christ’s intercession?

We cannot know, since it takes place in heaven, which is a realm to which we have no access. The debates among Roman Catholic theologians concerning whether Christ’s intercession is vocal or merely through signs, for example, seems to me to border on unwarranted speculation. Nor does the encouragement and consolation which we are to receive from this doctrine depend on the answer to such questions.

How is Christ’s intercession not inconsistent with the dignity and honor of his divinity and exalted rule?

His intercession is not for himself but out of pity for others; it is a duty appointed to him by the Father (Hebrews 5:5, 10); it is authoritative and efficacious, not servile; and it is simultaneous to his kingly majesty (Psalm 110, Revelation 1-3). Christ does not alternate between his heavenly priestly ministry and his heavenly kingly ministry: they are both the functions of his exalted majesty and life. He intercedes from his throne.

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6 Responses

  1. Gav,You've got a great blog too!

    limited atonement —> limited intercession

    How do you interpret the apostolic injunction that intercession be made on behalf of all men (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:1)? Why would we be commanded to intercede for all when Christ himself does not intercede for all? I suppose you would have to qualify 'intercession' to account for this. But even so, it seems that Paul ties our intercessory prayers to both Christ's intercessory prayers and His atoning work. God 'desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all.' Therefore, as you say, these two correlate components (atonement and intercession) to Christ's priestly office cannot be separated. It seems to follow from this that because we are commanded to intercede for all men, Christ died for all men.

  2. Drew, I am glad you have stumbled onto the Ortlund family blogs!!
    In answer to your question I guess I would say that Christ's intercession is different from ours in that He is God. The fact that his priestly work is the ground for our intercession in I Tim 2 should not be taken to entail, in my opinion, that there are no differences between our intercession and his.
    Those are my thoughts – but what do you think?
    Next time we are in California we should hang out.

  3. Gav,
    It still seems strange to me that we would be commanded to do something that God Himself does not do, especially in light of Ephesians 5:1 — 'Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children'. I agree that there are differences between our intercessory prayers and Christ's, but they seem to me to be a matter of degree rather than scope.
    That's all I got. We absolutely need to hang out. It's been too long.

  4. Well, you have raised a good point. To follow up just a bit further: I think that Christ's intercession is a very different kind of thing from human intercession, in both degree and scope and other ways. Christ prays to the Father alone; we pray to each member of the God-head. Christ prays from heaven; we pray from earth. Christ prays from his own merit; we pray from his. And so forth. It doesn't seem strange to me that Christ would pray for just the elect when we pray for all, just as God decides to save only a subset of those whom the church evangelizes. We proclaim to all, but God only works faith in some.We are imitators of God in his communicable attributes – holiness, love, etc. We are not his imitators in every respect. For example, God alone is Eternal, God alone is Final Judge, and God alone is Sovereign King. If Christ prayed for all, then it would be difficult to avoid universalism, since Christ's prayers are always effectual.
    Anyway, those are my thoughts after continuing to reflect on your question – thank you for indulging my rambling on!

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