Do we really know what it is, or are we just guessing?
Let’s begin with the Old and New Testaments and look at key words.
The Old Testament
The noun for “prayer, petition, and intercession” is tepilla (pronounced t’peal-lah) and is used 77 times. The verb for “pray, intercede” is palal, and it is used 84 times.
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The New Testament does not have a noun or verb for intercession or to intercede as such, but the concept is found in the Latin verb intercedo, which literally means “to go between” or “to come between.” The preposition inter means “between,” “among,” “amid,” and the verb cedo means “go” or “proceed.” So intercession means to come or go between two parties. Christ stands between God and man. He is the mediator.
Therefore the closest concept we have of a “go-between” is the Greek noun mesitēs (pronounced meh-see-tayss and used 6 times), which is usually translated as mediator. Mes– means “among” or “in the middle” and –tēs means “he who” or “anyone who.” So it literally means “he who (stands) among” or “in the middle” in the sense of “stands between.”
Let’s look at the six scriptural references in the NT to mesitēs.
In Gal. 3:19-20 (twice) Moses was the human mediator between God and the people.
In 1 Tim. 2:5 Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind.
Heb. 8:6 says that Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind and oversees the superior New Covenant.
To repeat, Heb. 9:15 says that Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, so that those who are called may receive an eternal inheritance, to set them free of the sins committed under the first covenant.
Heb. 9:24 again says that Jesus is the mediator of the better covenant and of the sprinkled blood—his blood.
In light of these usages, BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, defines mesitēs thus: “one who mediates between two parties to remove a disagreement or reach a common goal, mediator, arbitrator.”
Overview of Intercession
Now let’s look at intercession more broadly than just Hebrew and Greek words. It is about people, Ultimately Jesus stands in between God and humanity and prays or petitions God for them.
While Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the commands of God, the people rebelled and forged a golden calf. God was about to wipe them out, but Moses interceded for them. God’s reputation was at stake. Would he want to appear like a failure before the Egyptians, whom the Israelites had just left? No, of course not (Exod. 32:11-14).
In Num. 14:13-19, the people rebelled and asked God for a leader to take them back to Egypt. Moses pleaded with them not to rebel, because the way forward led to the promised land, where there was milk and honey. God threatened to wipe them out and build a new nation with the descendants of Moses. But Moses interceded for them, and God relented.
In Josh. 7:3-13, a soldier took some of the spoils of war when God said to eliminate the whole people. The Israelites lost the battle. Joshua fell down on his face and pleaded with God to spare the Israelites. Had God abandoned them? What will the neighboring tribes of Canaanites think? God told Joshua to get up and listen. God was about to reveal to him why they lost. They judged Achan, and God relented. They were victorious. Joshua had stood in the gap and interceded for the people.
In the sin offering, the priest was to sacrifice the animal and make atonement for the people. He was the mediator or intercessor between God and the offerer (Lev. 5:10).
In Lev. 16:21, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest stood between God and the people. He was to lay his hands on the goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion in the people—all their sins—and put their sins on the goat’s heads.
Before the exile, one of the biggest problems of the ancient Israelites, as they lived in the promised land, was marriages that took them away from following God, so they bowed to the Canaanite deities. Ezra, on his return to Judea and Jerusalem, observed the Israelites making the same mistake. He interceded for them in a beautiful prayer of intercession, standing in the gap between God and the wayward people (Ezr. 9:5-15).
In 1 Sam. 7:5-11, Samuel interceded for the Israelites, as they were about to face the Philistines. The Israelites won, because God caused thunder that put fear in their enemies.
In 1 Kings 13:1-6, a man of God prophesied judgment on King Jeroboam and against the altar he had set up at Bethel. The king stretched out his hand against him, but it became shriveled. The king implored the man of God to intercede so that his hand would be restored. His prayer was answered.
In Dan. 9:4-19, Daniel interceded in behalf of his people. Jerusalem lay in ruins, and who would rebuild? Have the people repented? “Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act!” (v. 19).
James reminds his readers that Elijah was a man of like passions—a human being, in other words. He prayed that it would not rain, and it did not, for three and a half years. And he prayed again, and it rained (Jas. 5:17-18). This kind of prayer is petitionary more than intercessory, but maybe we can say that Elijah was the mediator and judge between God and the Israelites.
David took a census that he should not have done. God judged him and told him to pick his punishments: three years of famine, three months of being pursued by his enemies, or three days of plague. He chose the latter, but then interceded when he saw the people falling (2 Sam. 24:17). God relented, when David stood in the gap between judgment and the people. Such is the responsibility of the king over his people. The people stand or fall as the king does. Solidarity.
In 1 Kings 8:33-51, Solomon dedicated the temple with prayer. In the middle of his long prayer, a beautiful one, he shifted gears and interceded for the people and their future sins. He asked God to forgive them and send rain of blessing to water the crops; he also prayed God would protect them during war. The king stood in the gap between God and his people.
Abraham prayed for his nephew Lot (Gen. 18:23-32), so he would be spared God’s judgment. He even interceded for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God assured Abraham that God was acting justly (v. 25).
David prayed for his sick child by Bathsheba, though God did not answer his prayer, since judgment fell on him (2 Sam. 12:16).
David prayed for his son Solomon (1 Chron. 29:19).
Job interceded for his children (1:5).
The psalmist prayed for the people (Pss. 20:1-5; 25:22).
A psalmist prayed for the nations (Ps. 67:1-5)
Now let’s shift gears to the NT.
Christians are called to pray for their persecutors (Matt. 5:44). This is petitionary prayer, but in one sense they stand in the gap between God and them, so it is intercessory.
The church is to pray the Lord of the harvest to send out missionaries (Matt. 9:38; Acts 13:3; Heb. 13:18). The ones who pray petition God to be merciful and send out the messengers of salvation, so the petitioners are also intercessors.
Jesus prayed for Simon, Simon:
31 “Simon, Simon, watch! Satan has demanded to sift you (all) like wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you (singular) so that your faith would not fail. (Luke 22:31-32, my translation)
Peter’s faith did not completely and irreversibly fail him, so Jesus’s prayer was answered.
In Acts 7:60, Stephen prays for forgiveness over his people, while they were stoning him.
In Acts 8:15 Peter and John came to Samaria and prayed for the people to receive the Holy Spirit.
Peter prayed for the deceased Dorcas, who was raised up (Acts 9:40). He stood in the gap between her and her death and God.
The church prayed for Peter to be released from jail, which happened (Acts 12:5, 12). This is also the church standing in the gap between Peter’s and their enemy, Herod, and asking God to free their lead apostle.
Paul prayed for the father of the leading man of the island of Malta, and God healed him (Acts 28:8).
Paul asked the Romans to stand in the gap and pray for him, that he would be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and the offering would be well received by the people there (Rom. 15:31-32).
In Eph. 3:17-19 Paul prays a great prayer for the Ephesians: Christ would dwell in their hearts through faith; they would be rooted and established in love, to have the power and ability to grasp, with the Lord’s people, how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, to know this love that surpasses knowledge.
In Eph. 6:19-20 Paul asks the church to intercede for him or petition God, so that Paul would speak the mystery of the gospel fearlessly.
In Col. 1:9-12, Paul prays another great petition, in an act of intercession, and he stands between the Colossians and God. The Colossians are to be filled with the knowledge of his will through all wisdom and understanding, and many other great blessings.
Paul commands the Ephesians to pray for all people, particularly political leaders, so that Christians could live in peace (1 Tim. 2:1-3). In v. 5 Paul said that Christ is the mediator between God and humankind, so Paul also asks the Ephesian Christians to be the mediator in prayer between God and the people and politicians.
Paul prayed for Timothy constantly (2 Tim. 1:3).
Paul prayed for Philemon (4).
In James 5:14, the elders of the church are supposed to pray for the sick, which means they stand in the gap between their sicknesses and their answered prayer. They petition as intercessors.
James 5:16 says that the church is supposed to confess their sins to one another, so that the people would be healed.
What is the purpose of intercession?
Many of these verses were unpacked in the previous section.
To avert judgment (Gen. 18:23-32; Num. 14:13-19)
To escape from danger (Acts 12:5, 12; Rom. 15:31)
For God’s blessing: In Num. 6:24-26, Moses prayed a blessing on the Israelites, as he stood between God and them. See also Eph. 3:14-17.
For the Holy Spirit’s power (Acts 8:15-17; Eph. 3:14-17)
For healing: Elijah prayed for the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-23); see also Acts 28:8; Jas. 5:14-16.
For forgiveness (Ezr. 9:5-15; Acts 7:60)
For the ability to rule well (1 Chron. 29:19; 1 Tim. 2:12)
For Christian growth: in Php. 1:9-11 Paul prays that the people would grow in love and discernment. See also Col. 1:10-11.
For effective elders-leaders-pastors: (2 Tim. 1:3-7)
For effective mission work (Matt. 9:38; Eph. 6:19-20).
For the salvation of others: In Rom. 10:1-4 Paul prays to God so that his fellow-Israelites would be saved.
We must pray to God so that other people would praise God (Ps. 67:3-5).
This section requires much study, particularly John 17:6-26, in Jesus’s Great High Priestly Prayer.
Christ prayed for his followers (Luke 22:32; John 14:16; 17:6-26).
Christ prayed for his enemies, while he was on the cross (Luke 23:34).
Christ continually makes intercession and petitions God for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:24; 9:24; 1 John 2:1). He stands in the gap between God and us.
The Spirit intercedes for us, as well (Rom. 8:26-27).
How does this post help me know God better and pray more effectively?
You now have a clearer picture of how to pray. You don’t need to whine and beg God out of desperation. No. Stand confidently before his throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). Jesus intercedes for you, so that you can stand before God’s throne. Ask confidently. Stand in the gap between God and lost humanity, with all their problems and brokenness and sin. Pray for their salvation. Pray the Lord of the harvest to seen missionaries—you—to the lost, the last, and the least. Prayer changes you, yes, but it also opens the door for God to work and change people’s lives and their and your circumstances. God will intervene on your behalf while you intercede for yourself and others.
At that link, look for the NIV Study Bible, Mounce, and BDAG.