Day 11 – What is Intercession?
Effective Prayer Podcast, by Colin Dye
The common understanding of the word intercession is quite simple. It means praying for someone else; praying for someone other than yourself. But that can just suggest that intercession is like any other prayer, the only difference being that you are praying for others, but this, in my opinion, dilutes the strength of this word “intercession,” because intercession is the strongest form of praying. It is a unique type of praying. The principle of intercession is that we stand between God and another person, representing them and pleading their cause. In other words, it is similar to the role of an advocate or a mediator.
Now in Bible times, advocates and mediators knew the culture and the temperament and the opinion of both parties; they knew where both parties were coming from, and they were able, therefore, to represent them both. They came alongside both parties.
Now they didn’t need to manipulate their way into the presence of whoever they were interceding or coming before, whether it’s the king or some ruler or authority or an official; they were already known to him. The same is true of us. We know the one before whom we come in intercession. He is God our Father. We have an intimate relationship with Him, and we therefore can come boldly to stand before God and represent other people.
I want to take you to some Old Testament teaching on intercession. That’s where it begins. Exodus 33:11 through to 34:30. It’s a very long passage, but you will want to study it in depth afterwards, but I am referring to it. Here we have the Lord speaking to Moses face to face, and we’ve got this intercession period after Moses has come down the mountain and he’s seen them make this golden calf and Moses begins to intercede for them because God says, “I am going to destroy these people.” And there are a number of points out of Moses’ intercession that are typical of all biblical intercession and I want to point them out to you.
First of all, we must appreciate that Moses had a face-to-face relationship with God. It says that, verse 11, “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” So when Moses came before God, he had such a relationship with Him that He could go right into His presence, speak to Him face to face and represent other people.
And also as you look through this passage you find again the key theme of this passage of intercession is glory; he asks for God’s glory, he wants to see God’s glory; he wants God to be glorified. The whole purpose of his prayer, “Lord, if you destroy these people, then they will say you are unable to deliver them. We are your people; Your name is identified with us. This will bring shame to You, and God, I don’t want that to happen. I want You to go with us. Who else do we have but You? You are the only one that distinguishes us from them.”
All of this is pleading for God’s glory to be seen, and then quite literally in verse 18 he says, “Please show me Your glory. Please show me Your glory.” And so the Holy Spirit is showing us, like He taught us through the prayer of Jesus in John 17, that the whole motivation of our life of intercession must be that God should be glorified, that God’s power and presence be manifested.
He was given a task to perform. That very much is true as a principle of intercession. Very often when you come to speak to God, He will give you something to do. Moses had specifically to deal with the situation and speak to the people. There was a task to perform. We also learn that Moses had to persist in this intercession. It was not just something that would happen once; he had to keep on this one, keep on interceding. The Hebrew verb there that is used is describing persistent intercession.
We also see in his intercession that he called on the name of God. That’s how he did it; he called on the name of God. We also see that there was an enormous personal cost. That’s very true of intercession. It is a costly business. That’s why there are so few real intercessors in the churches today, and God calls us all to be intercessors, but very few will pay the price to shut themselves away in the presence of God, to walk with Him, to stand with Him, to spend time in His presence, to persevere.
And the pain of this personally is enormous. Not that you take too much on yourself, but as you intercede, you’re caught up in the emotions of God and God’s feelings for His people, and the burden of intercession has a price. It is costly.
And then finally we see that Moses was transformed as a byproduct of this. Oh yes, Moses himself was changed. His face became radiant.
And those are some basic principles for intercession.
Now I want to come in more detail to the word itself. We’ve come across it before when we looked at the Old Testament teaching on prayer—paga. It’s the Hebrew word usually translated “intercession.” Now it is difficult to translate it literally and precisely. It carries the meaning of standing between or coming before or approaching with violence, and so one of the ways that we can understand what this word means when it applies to prayer is to see how this word is used in other situations.
Now it is translated in other ways in the Bible when it’s not talking about prayer, but that will help you understand a lot when the Bible uses this word about prayer, and one of the ways it is translated is by the word “boundary.” Boundary. Paga is a boundary. Joshua 19:11, “Their border went toward the west and to Maralah, went to Dabbasheth, and extended along the brook that is east of Jokneam.” The border, the boundary; the boundary between tribes.
Now the tribe could go to their paga, their boundary, and go no further. Many tribal struggles, and even today struggles in the world are to do with boundaries, are to do with borders. Many of the wars and fighting in Europe right now are to do with ethnic boundaries and borders. People want to push back a boundary or mark out a boundary.
Now this suggests to us that when we are interceding, when we are engaged in paga praying, we are praying at the front line, we are right on the very edge of things. That’s why it’s an exciting ministry. It also reminds us that when we are praying, we are pushing back the boundary. You see, the devil wants to limit us, but when we intercede, we are dealing with the devil’s boundaries, we are pushing back his limitations, we are saying we will not be confined by the devil’s tactics, but we will come right to the very edge, and then we can go no further because we’ve reached our paga, the boundary that God has set.
And that is the great, exciting thing about intercession. You can push and push and go further and further and you can see how far you can go, and then there comes an end where God steps in and says, “That’s that paga.”
Let me tell you a story about this. Some time ago, I was traveling back from a conference with a number of the trainees from our Joshua training program, and we were in different cars, and somebody in a another car, a driver, knocked down a man in the road—an elderly gentleman—and it was the, uh, the elderly gentleman stepped out, but whose fault it was I can’t remember, but anyway, he was knocked down.
And I had just got back from the conference myself and had two or three people with me and we were having a drink before people were going to get back to their own homes, and the phone rang, and here was the driver of the car saying, “It’s terrible. It’s terrible. I’ve knocked him down. He’s taken…he’s in intensive care. It’s a terrible situation. Please pray. I’m going to be in big trouble.”
And so we began to pray immediately, and as we prayed (there were three of us) we all saw the same thing: death. And one person in the little prayer group said, “I see death. Finished. The man is dead. He’s going to die. There’s nothing we can do.”
I said, “Wait,” I didn’t use the term, but I am using it now for teaching purposes, “is this our paga? We’ve seen death. Does that mean we’ve reached the limit? What can we do? Is He going to give us power to push back death?” So we began to pray.
They said, “No, no. It’s death. It’s gone. It’s finished.”
I said, “No, wait. We haven’t asked God what the paga is.”
And he wouldn’t listen. It’s amazing when you intercede how you’ve got to have unity, so I said, “If you don’t flow with this, just be quiet, because I’m trying to hear from God,” and we prayed and I had the witness that we could push death back, and I had the faith that we could push death back to the point this man at least would find Christ, that he would not die and go to hell—assuming that he was not a believer.
So we began to pray and pray, and as we pushed back, we realized not only could we push back death temporarily, we could push back death…well, I was going to say permanently, but the man would have to die eventually, but not of this condition. So we had…and beyond that, and we pushed further and we discovered that we had authority to pray that the man would make a full and complete recovery, and to the glory of God, he did. To the glory of God, he did. And he was so critically ill in hospital, but God restored him.
Now there is a modern-day example. Let me take you to a Bible example of this principle of paga. Genesis 18—now this full passage is from verses 16 through to verse 33. You can look at the whole passage yourself, but basically here is God is going to visit Sodom in judgment, but He comes to Abraham and says, “Should I hide from Abraham what I’m doing?” Verse 18, “Since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” No, no, no. So God speaks to him, verse 21, “I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it,” and so forth.
Now then, in verse 23, what does it say? “And Abraham came near.” Abraham came near. What is he doing? He is approaching God for the purpose of intercession, and now how does he intercede? “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?”
You see, Abraham knew Lot, his nephew, and the nephew’s family, were living in Sodom, and so he says, “Lord, are you going to destroy the righteous?” Now this guy, Lot, was pretty backslidden, and what was he doing living in Sodom anyway? When he left Abraham he pitched his tent toward Sodom, and how he’s living in Sodom—a wicked city. Nevertheless, he’s a righteous man.
And God says, “No, I wouldn’t destroy it. I wouldn’t do that. I’m the judge of all the earth. I will do right.”
And so Abraham begins. What is he finding? He’s trying to find the paga, so he says, “Suppose there were fifty people?” He is sensing the paga.
“Will you destroy the place for that?”
The Lord said, “No, I won’t do that.”
And so the Lord says, “If I find fifty righteous people there, I’ll save the whole city for their sake.”
And Abraham pushed further and he said, “Lord,” here we are, verse 27, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose there were five less than fifty. Would you destroy all of the city for the lack of five?”
So He said, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.”
And Abraham speaks again—he’s pushing the limits further back, “Suppose there were forty?”
“No, not for forty.”
“Suppose there were thirty?”
“No, I wouldn’t destroy it for thirty.”
“Suppose there were twenty? Ten?”
“No, not for the sake of ten people will I destroy the city. I will save the city for the sake of ten people.”
Verse 33, “So the Lord went His way as soon as He had finished speaking with Abraham.”
What happened? Why did the Lord end the conversation? Because Abraham reached the paga. He reached the boundary.
But He also heard Abraham’s prayer, because He rescued Lot and destroyed the city and Lot’s family.
So this is how we pray. It’s an astonishing partnership. We cooperate with the Lord. We work with Him, and we come, speak to Him, and time and time again we come to a place where we push, push, and the Holy Spirit says, “That’s it. There’s the limit.” It tells us a lot about intercession. We must find the paga and go right to the very limit of everything that God will promise us to do.
Now, the next way in which paga is translated in the Old Testament not to do with prayer, but in the way it is translated in another context, but it teaches us about prayer, is it is used of violence. Paga is used in the Scripture to describe violent meetings. Judges 8:21, “Zebah and Zalmunna said, ‘Rise yourself, and kill us; for as a man is, so is his strength.’ So Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and took the crescent ornaments that were on their camels’ necks.” What a violent encounter. There, the word paga is used; a violent meeting. Sometimes it ended in death.
Second Samuel 1:15, “Then David called one of the young men and said, ‘Go near, and execute him!’ And he struck him so that he died.” The word paga is used. So this word, then, shows us that when we pray with paga praying, it is a violent kind of prayer. It shows us that intercession is not a cozy, quiet activity, a tea-and-cookie kind of meeting. Not at all. Not at all.
Paga praying is often loud praying, strong praying, praying which has an element of violence. In Jeremiah 7:16 the word paga is contrasted with other forms of prayer. First Jeremiah was told not to palal—habitually pray for the people; then he was instructed not to cry loudly for them. Next, he was told not to sing praises about them. Finally, as the end of the matter, Jeremiah was commanded not to paga for them. He must not wrestle violently with God on their behalf. Let’s read it, Jeremiah 7:16, “Therefore do not pray [palal] for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them, or make intercession to Me; for I will not hear you.”
So we see that throughout all that process God was talking about different kinds of praying, and He is ruling them all out one-by-one, one-by-one because the time had come. Judgment was going to happen. God was abandoning His people because of their sins.
Another way paga is used is of begging. It’s not, perhaps, the best translation of it, but let’s use it anyway. It’s used to describe the strongest form of asking. It’s often translated as entreating, so when you want something very, very badly, you entreat, you ask, but it is asking with a real passion.
Genesis 23:8, “And he spoke with them, saying, ‘If it is your wish that I bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and meet with Ephron the son of Zohar for me.’” He was entreating. Abraham was entreating the sons of Heth to paga for a cave in which to bury his wife, Sarah. And in Ruth 1:16, Ruth told Naomi not to paga her to turn back. Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.”
So Naomi wanted to send Ruth back, as she was going back to her homeland, but Ruth said, “Do no entreat me. Do not beg me to go back.” That’s what Naomi was doing, saying, “Please, Ruth, go back. I’ve got nothing for you. Even if I had any more children, would they become…are you going to wait ‘til they grow up and then marry them and you’d be my daughter-in-law again? No.”
And she said, “Don’t tell me not to…please don’t entreat me not to go. Please don’t entreat me not to go back. I want to stay with you.” So it is a strong form of asking.
So of course when we come to intercede with God, it’s a strong form of asking, begging. It’s not quite like the word of a beggar, but it’s coming with a real plea. Pleading is probably a better word. Pleading, pleading, pleading with strength.
Now, I told you before that the prophets were the great intercessors of the Old Testament, and these prophets, by their anointing, had right of access to the presence of God, and we see in Genesis 20:7 that the ministry of prayer was linked to the ministry of a prophet, “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you will die, you and all who are yours.” So here we have Abimelech instructed by God to ask Abraham to intercede for him, because Abraham is a prophet. And so we find reference after reference to, in the Old Testament, to the prophets being intercessors.
Now, have a look at Jeremiah 27:18, another strong verse where God speaks to the people who are calling themselves prophets and He said, “But if they are prophets, and if the word of the Lord is with them, let them now make intercession to the Lord of hosts, that the vessels which are left in the house of the Lord, in the house of the king of Judah, and at Jerusalem, do not go to Babylon.”
So Jeremiah was prophesying that all the vessels of the temple will be taken to Babylon, the false prophets were saying, “No, they won’t,” and God says, “Well if they are prophets, as they claim to be, let them pray that it won’t happen. We will see who is the real prophet or not, because it’s going to happen.”
But I mention that to show you that the prophets were those who had received the word of the Lord and therefore should also be interceding. And so this shows us that when we intercede, we don’t just do it because we feel like it or think it’s a good idea. We need to wait for the word of the Lord to come, and when the word comes, it is part of our prophetic function to pray that word into existence and into reality and into fulfillment. So God commands us about the matters that need to happen and then gives us His Spirit to enable us to pray and to see them fulfilled.
Now we come onto intercession in the New Testament. The word in the New Testament is enteuxis, which is usually translated “intercession,” but it was a word used in everyday language. It described a petition being brought to a king by another person, and it was used by the church and by the New Testament to describe paga praying. I suppose it’s a slightly gentler word than paga, its meaning in the Greek, but nevertheless it occurs repeatedly in the New Testament to describe intercession.
It is used of the Lord Jesus—Hebrews 7:25, Romans 8:34—He is described as the intercessor, the one who ever lives to make intercession for us. It is used of the Holy Spirit—Romans 8:26-27—the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of supplication, the Spirit of intercession.
Have a look at Acts 25:24, because that is an everyday use of the word enteuxis. Here we have, “And Festus said: ‘King Agrippa and all the men who are here present with us, you see this man [he’s talking about Paul] about whom the whole assembly of the Jews petitioned me, both at Jerusalem and here, crying out that he was not fit to live any longer.’”
This is when the Jews were trying to deal with Paul and get rid of him, and they were loudly entreating the Roman authority, saying, “This man is causing trouble. Get rid of him. We want to press a charge against him.” It was really a loud kind of activity, not some orderly petition. It was a loud interceding, and everybody was interceding together with Festus to get rid of Paul.
This shows us that there is a link between New Testament intercession and the idea of violence and the idea of strength and force that we read about in the use of the word paga.