The Christian belief is that Jesus’ death satisfied the wrath of God and the wages of sin. His resurrection defeated death, not only for him but all who call him Lord. The death and resurrection of Jesus finished the 33-year work of cutting a hole in the heavy, suffocating blanket that fell on humanity in response to sin. “It is finished,” in the words of Jesus, and it’s available to anyone and everyone by grace.
That’s a beautiful idea. The trouble is that it tends to stay in the realm of idea, even for those who believe it with every fiber of their being. We can’t seem to drive the story Jesus tells from our heads into our hearts. We sing about it, read about it, listen to it told and retold through a thousand different metaphors. We even taste it in bread and wine, the sensation of grace running through our taste buds. But we just can’t seem to make this story come alive in our bones. We can’t seem to live like we’re free and enjoy today like it doesn’t hold the weight of the world.
For all of us, there remains that nagging part of our lives we withhold from grace, assuming we still have some active role to play. We’re convinced we have to overcome, to change, to mature, to become. We turn grace into a workout plan and Jesus into a personal trainer. He’s here to whip us into shape, but make no mistake, we still have to put in the work to achieve the desired results. The mind longs for grace, but the heart resists it. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”1 We are, it seems, too weak to just receive.
There was something else Jesus said on the cross. Words I imagine he whispered feebly, voice quivering, before he got to that upside-down victory cry. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”2 Where are you, God? I’ve whispered that prayer under my breath, my own voice quivering, more times than I can count. That’s a prayer I can get behind, one I can identify with.
These words weren’t original to Jesus. He’s borrowing from the Psalms, the original hymnal, to pray the words of David that open Psalm 22. Scripture is careful to note, though, that Jesus didn’t pray it in the polished, refined Hebrew it was first written in. Jesus prayed it in Aramaic, the common language of the pubs and schoolyards, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”3 According to New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, by praying this in the Aramaic, Jesus was personalizing it.4 He wasn’t intellectually noting that he seemed to be experiencing something of what David described all those years before. He was crying across history past, present, and future, his voice echoing from beginning to end, “Where are you, God?” What David prayed in Psalm 22, what I’ve prayed so many times before and am bound to pray again, was concentrated and fulfilled in Jesus.
The redemption accomplished by Jesus, no matter how long I believe it, no matter how eloquently it’s remembered and reimagined, just never seems to feel finished. And that admission is the precise point where intercession, the present work of Christ, begins.
"Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”
Interceding. That’s what Jesus is doing right now.
Romans 5 speaks of justification in the past tense, ““Therefore, since we have been justified…”5
Hebrews 7 speaks of intercession in the present, “…He always lives to make intercession for them.”6
And Colossians 3 speaks of glorification as an anticipated future, ““When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”7
Intercession is the present action of Jesus that pulls at this story from both ends: The salvation work accomplished in the past and the glory awaiting us in the future. Intercession, stated as simply as possible, brings forth the image of Jesus praying for us, individually by name. And as he does, he wedges us tightly between forgiveness and glory, making that reality a deep, felt, inner rest and a shelter of security, hope, and delight.
Intercession takes biblical rumors and makes them real within us.
Scripture teaches that God is a loving Father whose interested in the mundane day-to-day of my existence, but Christ’s intercession makes that real to me.
Scripture says that God is love, that the deep longing of his heart is simply to be with me forever with no work left to do, but Christ’s intercession makes that real to me.
Scripture claims that God is ever-running out to meet me, clothing me in royal robes, and welcoming me to the home I wandered away from before I really even knew what I was leaving, but it’s Jesus’ intercession that makes that real to me.
Intercession means Jesus is not cool and reserved. He’s passionate, interested, invested, engaged. Even now, as your eyes scan over these words one evening on your bus ride home or while sipping morning coffee, Jesus is applying the finished work of the cross to you. He’s lavishing you in the Father’s love, assuring you of your forgiveness, binding up your wounds, and breathing courage into your lungs. Intercession means all that.
Jesus is praying for you right now. One of my most frequent prayers is to try to get in touch with his prayers for me. I phrase it this way, “Jesus, if you were to walk in the room right now, what would you want to say to me?” Don’t move on from that too quickly. Stop reading for a minute or two. Ask him. Be still and wait. In my experience, he’s eager to share his heart.
The Soundtrack of Heaven
In Mark 6, hidden between the feeding of the five thousand and his walk on the water, Jesus sent his disciples off rowing through the night to the other side of the lake and went up on the mountainside to pray. It’s a ritual of his, this mountaintop prayer routine. While he’s up there with a view, he sees the night fall on his friends’ little boat, and the wind and waves pick up as the sun goes down.
“After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.”8
Here is a picture of the present work of Christ: In heaven but more interested than ever, laboring in prayer, as we strain at the oars. The wind is against us, but Jesus’ prayers are behind us. Right now, in this very moment, Jesus is at the right hand of the Father interceding for me and you, and His very Spirit within us is interceding for us in holy groans deeper than words.9 So, what does heaven sound like? It sounds like the praying voice of Jesus echoing for you and me. Jesus’ intercession is the soundtrack of eternity.
Eventually, Jesus descends the mountain and walks out on the water. His intercession for us draws him nearer. His prayers on our behalf pull his very presence closer to us, straining at the oars, the wind blowing steadily, violently against us.
When his disciples recognize him, they aren’t immediately comforted. They struggle to recognize God’s presence in such an ordinary place—in the midst of the human experience of struggle, pain, disappointment, grief. It is not those in the boat, but the one walking on water who speaks the first word: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”10
When Jesus’ intercession drew him near to the straining disciples, near enough to be noticed, recognized there in the ordinary place, he carried a simple message, “Take courage, I’m here with you. I’ve always been with you. You’ve just finally noticed.”
Here is the felt experience of the intercession of God on my behalf, of discovering the presence of God in the ordinary place of strain and fear—courage. We are filled with courage, not by calm seas and easy rowing, but by discovering the heart of God in the midst of the choppy waters, as we strain against the oars, as the wind whips against our cheeks and the cold rain has us squinting to see some sign of shore. The felt experience of Christ’s prayers for me and for you is Immanuel—God with us.
Prayer doesn’t begin with us. It begins with Jesus. His prayers always precede our prayers.
Take a Walk
There’s actually not much more to it than that.
Take a walk and look around, in the hustle and bustle of busy city streets, the suburban sprawl of cookie-cutter houses and strip malls, or the rural hills of farmland and countryside. Here and now, Jesus is interceding for you. He’s applying the felt effects of His salvation work to you in this very moment, in this ordinary place. You and I stop praying, we get distracted, we turn our attention to other things. Jesus never does.
Where do you notice a gap between your belief and experience? Do you feel unloved, unknown, unforgiven? Do you feel restless and discontent, exhausted and unsustained, forgotten and unseen, addicted and incomplete? Ask Him for more. Don’t make commitments to yourself or even to God to try harder, do more, or get it together. Ask Him. Ask Him to close the gap, to intensify His intercession in that particular area, and to invite you to join in obedience at the invitation of the Holy Spirit.
When He does, when you get that warm sense of being loved, whole, free, content, joyful, sustained, forgiven, seen, or known, thank Him for it. Give the gift back to God in gratitude.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 255-56.