One of the very encouraging developments during the vacancy has been the increase in attendance at the Wednesday prayer meeting and at other gatherings for prayer. From the early days of the rebuilding of the congregation, begun under George Philip’s ministry in 1956, the intercessory prayer meeting, at the time held on a Saturday evening, has been foundational to the church’s development after years of decline. Well over fifty years later, the appetite for meeting together to pray for so many different people and situations has not diminished, as is evident in our having to put out each week on a Wednesday more and more chairs to accommodate those attending. Not that we should focus on numbers – in any case, for perspective, there are congregations within the city with larger prayer meetings! But what is particularly pleasing is the willingness of so many of all ages to engage with us in intercession.
In one sense, a letter on intercessory prayer in Sandyford in the Congregational Record is not just in the literal sense preaching to the converted but even to evangelists, as so many have prioritized intercessory prayer in their personal and family life and have encouraged others to do likewise. However, given the large number of folk who have joined us recently, the rationale and the nature of the intercessory prayer meeting may be less familiar.
What is Intercessory Prayer?
An intercessor is essentially someone who ‘stands in for another’. It is probably easier to define the term by reference to so many illustrations in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, all who have been greatly used by God have learned the secret of standing in for others. In the Old Testament, Abraham pleaded for Ishmael, for Sodom and for so many others; Moses on the mount cried out for his people, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice himself (‘But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written’ (Exodus 32: 32); Samuel equated any lack of intercession with betrayal of God, though in Samuel’s case there is the additional burden of the ordained priesthood, (‘As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you’ (I Samuel 12: 23 )).
In the New Testament, Christ’s followers have been given a priestly role (I Peter 2:5), which includes standing in for those who are in need of God’s intervention. When Peter was put in prison, ‘the church was earnestly praying to God for him’ (Acts 12:5); Paul, on numerous occasions, never ceased to remember those to whom he was writing in his prayers (see, for example, Romans 1: 9-10; Ephesians 1: 15-16; Colossians 1: 3; Philippians 1: 3-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; 2 Timothy 1: 3; Philemon: 4).
Qualifications of the Intercessor
The relief and the challenge come from the fact that the effectiveness of our prayers is in one sense not dependent on ourselves. However, James, who encourages all to whom he is writing to ‘pray for one another’, suggests ways in which our prayer life might be enhanced. The main qualification he lists is gender, class, and gift unspecific. No degrees or certificates are required; no social conditioning. Intercession for others is not the province of an ecclesiastical elite (though there are many challenges to those in leadership to set an example – the biographies and diaries of some who have influenced the church significantly over the last 200 years draw attention to the priority of prayer in their ministry). In fact, one of the most powerful intercessors in the Old Testament prayed, not from a cathedral, but from a dunghill! (Job 42: 10-16)
The person who prevails with God (‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective’ (James 5:16)) has been ‘accounted’ right by God, through faith in Christ, but also actively cultivates a right relationship with Him in following his commandments. The challenge to all professing Christians is that effective intercession is influenced by how we live (Psalm 68:16). In fact, it is a way of life.
What to pray for?
One of the dangers is of adopting a shopping-list mentality. In our Wednesday group we do have a place for the telegram prayers in the last 5 minutes of the meeting when we can bring to God many of the requests which have not been articulated during the meeting. However, some of the most effective prayers in the Bible show the relationship between intercession and worship and confession. For example, Daniel’s penitential prayer on behalf of his people is steeped in an appreciation of the character and attributes of God (Daniel 9: 4, 7, 9, 15) and has, as its goal, God’s glory (16-19). Jehoshaphat’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 20, which was much recalled in the lead up to the General Assembly in 2011, focuses from the outset on the sovereignty of the LORD over the nations, on his almighty power and on his faithfulness to his promises. Not that we should imitate these prayers in rote fashion. God looks on the heart; the most meaningful contributions in a prayer meeting can often be a less than articulate utterance.
While intercession is primarily on behalf of another and keeps us from self-centred praying, there is a sense in which we need also to remember ourselves. Not in the sense in which Burns’s Holy Willie illustrates:
But for Thy people’s sake destroy them, An‘ dinna spare. But, Lord, remember me an’ mine. Wi‘ mercies temporal and divine, That I for grace an’ gear may shine' […].
Rather, as Christ prayed for himself that He might glorify the Father (John 17: 1-5), so we should pray at the outset that we might bring glory to God, which is the ultimate aim of true intercession.
The vast range of subjects of intercessory prayers in the Bible include both local and global issues, church family, friends, neighbours, family by birth, those outside Christ, the disadvantaged, the poor, the suffering, and the nation and governments (how often we neglect to pray for those ‘set in authority over us’!).
But not just for friends and family. How easy it is just to pray for the people we like. The example of Job is most challenging: he prayed for those who had spoken very ill of him, who had accused him of hypocrisy and self-interest. How greatly God honoured him! How can we pretend to love yet be unwilling to pray for those who treat us badly? The widening of our prayer vision is very helpful spiritual therapy for ourselves.
One of the most frequent illustrations of intercession is for those ministering the Word of God. If the apostle Paul could feel it so necessary to ask for prayer for his ministry (e.g. Ephesians 6: 19; I Thessalonians 5: 25; 2 Thessalonians 3: 1; Colossians 4: 3) how much more should we cry out to God that He will give impact to the preaching on Sundays and on Wednesdays, both in Sandyford and elsewhere.
At times, intercessory prayer focuses on crises in the life of the church. Next month, the General Assembly faces such a challenge in the debate on the report of the Theological Commission. The Kirk Session would urge all readers of the Congregational Record to remember in prayer the commissioners in debates which may have significant impact on the future of the denomination. How vital the intercession of the people of God in these times! As A. W. Tozer warned many years ago, in his characteristically metaphorical style, that the lack of intercession may inevitably have dire consequences:
The neglected heart will soon be a heart overrun with worldly thoughts; the neglected life will soon become a moral chaos; the church that is not jealously protected by mighty intercession and sacrificial labours will before long become the abode of every evil bird and the hiding place for unsuspected corruption. The creeping wilderness will soon take over that church that trusts in its own strength and forgets to watch and pray.
To help identify needs for private intercessory prayer, a prayer diary has been drawn up with 28 groups, one for each day of the 4-week month, with each group made up of members and those who regularly meet with us. As applicable, the 29th, 30th and 31st are given to wider issues. A list of ministries and of other Christian work for which we pray as a church is also included. For a copy of this diary please ask one of the elders. One of the problems with the production of this booklet, which is also an encouraging sign of God’s goodness, is that the edition revised in September 2011 needs substantial updating. In addition, Patrick Smith makes available, in hard copy on Wednesdays and electronically (Patrick Smith [ email@example.com]), a 2-page bulletin of the latest prayer news.
The Privilege of Intercession
It is undeniable that intercessory prayer is not easy; it challenges our comfort zone. At whatever stage we are at there is so much to distract us and to discourage us from praying. However, we should not forget the immense privilege of being partners with the One who created the universe and whose power can solve even the most intractable problems and transform lives and situations beyond our imagining. Whereas only the High Priest could approach the mercy seat on earth with trembling and in fear of death, we can draw near to the heavenly mercy seat at any time in the confidence that Jesus, our Great High Priest, is there interceding for us and wanting us to engage with him in his intercession. In his prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed not just for his disciples but for all who would come after them. We have been experiencing in the unity of the congregation in our time of vacancy part of the fulfillment of that prayer. With the best of intentions we can sometimes assure people of our prayers, and then forget them. Jesus never forgets us. As Thomas Goodwin, one of the much neglected Puritan writers, said, ‘Once Jesus takes you into his prayers he never leaves you out’. What an encouragement to all of us and what an incentive to follow our model intercessor and stand in the gap for so many near and far who desperately need our prayers.
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock, Session ClerkView All Letters