My conviction that I should write on this subject has been confirmed by two things. First, I recently finished reading a book describing some of the sufferings and brutal imprisonment endured by believers belonging to the many house churches in China.
Second, in my daily reading I have just read Psalm 74 where the writer pleads with God (v. 19): ‘Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people for ever’.
The psalmist was concerned for the safety of God’s people and that he should help those experiencing affliction. He was exercising the privilege of intercession.
How should we react?
Only God knows to what extent the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ and its members practise intercessory prayer – but I fear it does not get the priority it ought. I remember vividly sitting in church the first Sunday morning after the start of the Gulf War. I was anxious about it and sensed that others felt the same.
I waited expectantly as the service began, hoping that the opening prayer would reflect our confidence in God’s sovereignty in the affairs of men – that we would intercede for those caught up in the war and for the interests of our Saviour’s kingdom and people.
It did not happen. I suddenly felt that I was in a Christian ghetto, living in a troubled world as if its troubles were of no concern.
The following Sunday in Northumbria, I was drawn to preach on Psalm 11:3,4: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them’. It was right to ask ourselves, ‘How does God want us to react and pray in this time of national and world crisis?’
What intercession means
Nearly all exhortations to pray in the Bible relate to intercessory prayer – for kings and all in authority; for all God’s people and the spread of the gospel; for specific individuals, not least those who suffer and are persecuted. What, then, does it mean to intercede?
Firstly, intercession is drawing near to God on behalf of others. It is part of our amazing friendship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.In praying for others we are helped and guided by what God has revealed in the Scriptures to be his will – and by the knowledge we have of his character, especially as it is declared to us in his Son.
We may not always know what to ask for, but we can always state the need and leave it with him. When we intercede we so identify and involve ourselves in other people’s situations that we are saying ‘help us’ as much as ‘help them’.
Intercession in worship
Secondly, intercession is fundamental to our corporate worship. This is specially the case on a Sunday and at our church prayer meetings. Those who have the privilege of leading the corporate worship of God’s people have considerable responsibility here.
The content of our prayers, and the manner in which we pray, will educate – or fail to educate – God’s people in how they should pray, both privately and when they come together to pray.
I benefited from such example soon after I became a pastor. My wife and I were on holiday and went to a well-known church with an equally well-known minister. What happened that evening has influenced the way I have tried to lead others in prayer ever since.
Although we arrived early, we could not get into the main church building but had to listen in an overflow hall. I never caught sight of the preacher (it was before the days of closed-circuit television).
What I remember most was the way the minister prefaced his intercessory prayer by mentioning the things for which he wanted us to pray. I recall him sharing the distressing circumstances of someone in the fellowship who had asked for the congregation’s prayers. In a few sentences he described how he believed we should pray.
Although I had never met the person we prayed for, I found myself identifying with them with feeling and sympathy. As the minister prayed I sensed that the whole congregation was similarly involved. That prayer gave me a delightful awareness of belonging to God’s family.
When we lead in intercessory prayer, part of our preparation ought to be taking note of the news headlines and asking ourselves, ‘What does the Bible have to say on this issue? How does it relate to the interests of our Saviour’s kingdom?’
Answering those questions takes time and thought – but what a difference the answers make to the relevance and focus of our prayers!
Similarly, those who lead prayer meetings should list affairs and events in the contemporary world that ought to prompt prayer. If the leader fails to do so, we should not hesitate to pray about such issues ourselves.
If we feel that something important might be missed, we can put the details on a piece of paper and hand it to the leader before the meeting begins.
I have been in prayer meetings where the major concerns have related only to the local church and the physical needs of its members. Now, that is understandable because the prayer meeting is the opportunity for casting such burdens upon God. But the world outside and the needs of the nations should be equally on our hearts.
The same principle applies to our private and personal prayers. Here in particular is where we may pray for individuals, family, friends, neighbours and people whose needs we know. We cannot pray every day for everyone we know – but keeping a prayer diary will allow us to spread our intercession for individuals over a week or a month.
Besides listing people’s names we can list countries, churches and situations where God’s help is urgently required. I invariably listen to the radio each morning – the BBC News provides a daily agenda for praying for the world.
It is significant that the ministry of intercession is one that our Lord Jesus continues in heaven now on our behalf. We are never nearer his heart than when we bear up others in our prayers – interceding for the well-being of his flock and enlightenment for the world.
Derek Prime ministered as a pastor for 30 years in Norwood and then Edinburgh. He is a well-known conference speaker and writer of Christian books