When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
None of us like unpleasant shocks, and so God kindly and thoroughly prepared his people for the coming of his beloved Son. The death of the Jesus the Messiah was clearly predicted as well as being symbolized in the Old Testament in number ways, as his resurrection and his ascension were also prophesied. Now let us proceed:
1. WE HAVE BEEN PREPARED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT FOR THE HIGH PRIESTLY MINISTRY OF CHRIST.
It is not that out of the blue they discovered that he who had prayed with them and for them intended to continue to pray for them after he had entered heaven. “Wow! He is going to go on interceding for us! Who’d have thought it”” No. Old Covenant light has been cast on this subject, that our Lord Jesus would be active in a great High Priestly work at the right hand of God. Broadly speaking, this reality was presented to the Old Covenant people in two ways.
First, the priesthood of Jesus had been pictured in the Old Testament, particularly in the actions of the high priest on the great Day of Atonement. The duties of the high priest on that day were threefold: he made atonement, then he made intercession, and then he pronounced a blessing on the people. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest did two things. First he began by offering a sacrifice for himself because he was a sinner. He also offered a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Then he took a censor (like a pan with a handle), shovelled some coals from the altar into it, and scattered some incense like frankincense on top of the live coals. The result of that was the most holy place was filled with sweet-smelling fragrance. Second, he went across the Holy Place and entered the Holy of Holies pulling aside the veil that separated the two rooms carrying a basin containing the blood of the sacrifice. There he sprinkled some of that blood on the mercy seat which lay on the top of the ark. All those activities pointed to the Messiah, what Christ would do as our priest. He didn’t offer a sacrifice for himself because he was sinless, but he did offer himself on behalf of others, a sinless substitute for a sinful people. Because he had done this, he could enter the holy presence of God with the blood of sacrifice. Remember he did this wearing a breastplate bearing the names of the people. Atonement had been made for all those on his heart, all who were joined to him for ever and he could then enter the presence of God with them. This was a sign, God was telling them of what the Messiah himself would actually do.
Second, the priesthood of Jesus had been prophesied in the Old Testament. The clearest prediction is found in Psalm 110:4 where the psalmist says concerning the Father’s promise to Jesus, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” The teaching of this psalm is expounded in the Book of Hebrews. Then Zechariah said in chapter 6 and verses12 and 13: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. It is he who shall build the temple of the LORD and shall bear royal honour, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.’” So there are these actions and prophecies that spoke of the ministry in heaven of Christ our great High Priest.
When the risen Jesus had been walking on the road to Emmaus for an hour with Cleopas and his companion then these were the truths that in all the Scriptures our Lord would have been speaking about to them, about the Day of Atonement when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and the presence of God, and the prophecies of Psalm 110 and Zechariah chapter 6. In other words, we are to be conscious of where Jesus is today because he has prepared us for this in the Scriptures not only those very clearly of the New Testament, but even the Old Testament. Readers of that Testament should have been prepared for this. Grace has taught those of us who are his people who the Lord Jesus is, where he is at this moment, and we know what he is doing there, and we know the implications of these facts for ourselves. Hebrews 4 and verse 14, ‘Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT WE ARE TOLD TWICE, EXPLICITLY, THAT THE LORD JESUS IS NOW MAKING INTERCESSION FOR US.
In Romans 8 and verse 34, “Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” And Hebrews chapter 7 and verse 25, “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Now is that reiterated fact anything of a surprise to you? Do you think, “Fancy that, that Jesus prays for his people.” No you don’t because the Lord Jesus whom you know and love during his life on earth was a man of prayer, and you can’t imagine him ceasing from speaking to his Father about those his Father gave him to seek and save. In fact John chapter 17 records his great prayer in the Upper Room. We refer to it as his High Priestly prayer, and there he prayed for many good things for them all, that they would be holy men, and that they would be united men, and that they would be glorified men. He prayed that God would comfort them, and give them joy and eventually be with him where he was and see his glory. He interceded for them, for his apostles in particular, but then also for all those who believed through their teaching. So you meet a praying Christ in the gospels right up to the night before he was crucified. He often spoke to his Father, and he spoke to him about his people. So even his praying in the Upper Room should prepare us for the exalted praying High Priest because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
3. WE KNOW THAT THE LORD JESUS PRAYED IN PARTICULAR FOR ONE CHRISTIAN.
I am saying that Jesus’ praying was not simply for the whole body of his people alone. It was not for the general protection and growth of the entire church, the long and the short and the tall. It is that, of course. I do believe that right now the Son of God is interceding for this meeting and all such congregations everywhere in his church, that this message should come to us not in word only but in power and in the Holy Ghost and with much assurance. But he also prays for individuals, for Christian boys and girls and men and women going through difficulties and having deep longings. It was for particular babies whose mothers brought them to Jesus asking him that God would bless them in their lives. It was for individual Christians. Our Lord knew Peter’s future – as he knows what the rest of this year and next year is going to be like for you and me. Peter was going to be entering a fearful trial. Like Satan had asked God in the Old Testament is he could put Job to the test, in the New Testament Satan had asked God if he could put Peter to the test. Peter was shaken at the news, but Jesus reassured him, “But I have prayed for you that your faith doesn’t fail.” So here is an example of a single Christian facing a tough time, experiencing a time of failure, and the Saviour praying for him, and that prepares us for what the same risen Jesus is doing now for me and you.
It was a day before the cross, but still Jesus was not so self-preoccupied as to forget about Peter’s trials. Can you hear the Lord praying with power for Peter? Mentioning him by name; telling his Father what was to happen to Peter; beseeching his Father to keep him and restore him. He tells him, “It’s all right Peter, even though the Prince of darkness is going to shake you and sift you. I’ll let it happen, but at the same time I’ll be praying for you so that you won’t be destroyed.” You see my argument developing? Jesus in the Old Testament is predicted to be a great High Priest. The apostles specifically tell us that he lives to make intercession for us now. He prayed for his people when he was on earth, and he is the same yesterday and today and for ever. So if Jesus in his former state of humiliation had confidence that the one thing that would keep Peter would be his praying, then now that he is risen as the conqueror of death and is raised to the right hand of God, surely he hasn’t ceased in his loving concern for those he died for, and isn’t his intercession for us today vastly more effectual?
4. HOW WE ARE TO RECKON ON CHRIST’S INTERCESSION.
i] Consider his position. Think where that prayer is going on. Our Lord is now ascended, back where he’d always been, where the prophet Isaiah saw him, “High and lifted up.” His train once again fills the temple. He is once again surrounded by seraphim who cover their faces, who cover their feet and who fly while crying to each other their appraisal of him, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” His position speaks of his exaltation and his intimate relationship with God the Father, as his eternal and only begotten Son. His position speaks of his power, as the omnipotent Creator and Sustainer of the universe. His position speaks of his great glory, this One who is terrible in majesty. This one is our Intercessor! This is our Advocate. The one who has a name above every name is there representing our case and our needs before the tribunal of God. He is the one who does not slumber or sleep who persistently and ceaselessly defends us against the accusations and assaults of Satan.
ii] Consider his permanence. Remember the great words of Paul concerning this fact. The apostle says of Jesus, “he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” The letter to the Hebrews says of him, “he continues ever, in an unchangeable priesthood.” Because Jesus Christ never dies, because he continues forever as the eternal Son of the living God, he’ll never lay aside his priestly office. He will never renege on his vocation. He’ll never grow weary. He’ll never become fed up of interceding for you with your continued falls and the same cold old sins. He’ll never be so full of some huge exciting events, revivals and reformations, somewhere else, 5,000 miles away, that he’s too busy to pray for you. He will continue to pray for you without interruption as though you were the only person in the whole world. When you have grown weary, he won’t tire. When you have failed, he will not fail. When you are inconsistent, he remains the one who prayed for Peter. When you’re distracted, he is attentive. When you’re weak, he remains strong. When you’ll waver, he remains resolute.
There is no-one like him and you’ve never met any person you can compare to Jesus. Though there are times he’s mystified you, he’s never betrayed you or abandoned you. You’ve had friends, loved ones, family members who at times have dashed your hopes by their inattention and their lack of commitment. Your husband has let you down; your parents have let you down. They haven’t come up to your expectations. Such is never the case with the Lord Jesus Christ. He keeps his promises. He tells us to be faithful and he sets the example for what he demands from us by being ever faithful, ever sure. What he says, that will he do. “I have prayed for you . . .that your faith may not fail.” This is his permanence.
iii] Consider the reasons he has to receive an answer for his intercession. Why should he be sure that our faith will not fail, that God will grant him what he asks for? It is because the Lord Jesus is the full and comprehensive answer for our guilt, weakness and shame. He has propitiated all the wrath of a sin-hating God, so that, as Toplady says, the terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do. ‘My Saviour’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.’ The storm of God’s anger towards all that’s been cruel and mean in me has been appeased on Golgotha’s hill, and there is now great peace and affection between God and myself. God is eternally satisfied to look on the risen exalted Christ at his right hand and then pardon me comprehensively for all my blameworthiness. My eternal divine satisfaction is there before God. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God on my behalf is comprehensive atonement. Nothing has been overlooked; nothing has been omitted; there is no sin too foul to be washed and cleansed by the death of Christ. The cross is totally acceptable to God. Jesus has suffered the just punishment for my sins in my place. Let my conscience be satisfied with the work of Christ. If God is satisfied with it then let your conscience be satisfied. Atonement for those same sins God will not demand a second time. It is all forgiven. It is all pardoned. The slate is absolutely clean. The debt has been comprehensively discharged. There is not a penny left to pay. So when Satan came and tossed Simon Peter all about, and raised the issue of his swearing and cursing and denying his Saviour, then let Peter remember when he didn’t know whether he was on his head or his feet that there was a great friend and powerful intercessor at God’s right hand who would still save him to the uttermost. Do not despair! One lives in the presence of God who loves you and is determined to take you, a sinner, where he is.
If a man has given you a million pounds, would he begrudge you a further 50p. for the parking meter? Of course not. In like manner, if God has gave his Son up for you, what good thing will he withhold from you? Ask him for the 50p, in other words pray about the little trials we individually experience, the courage to go to the dentist, wisdom in planning the party, a parking place, patience with influenza . . . Of course, God will never withhold any good thing from those who trust his Son. It is the constant pledge of the Intercessor, Jesus the High Priest, sitting there at his right hand on our behalf that makes God our loving attentive Father. Jesus not only shed his blood for the remission of our sins, but the effectiveness of that shed blood continues to this day, and it will continue for evermore. What he did on the cross two thousand years ago he continually keeps before his Father in heaven on our behalf. Are there many times when you can do little more than hang your head in silence, dumb and sad before God? I tell you that you have a Friend in the throne room of the royal palace of heaven. He has been enthroned there by God at his right hand. He could not be any nearer God, and he is there for us, to pray for us, to obtain mercy for us, that we may also find grace to help in time of need. He doesn’t just pray for us when we are good.
iv] Consider what Jesus prayed for. He didn’t ask for many of the things that we might have asked for. He didn’t pray that Satan would leave Peter alone; Satan was permitted to make this attack. Jesus didn’t pray that Peter would never sin. Permitting the temptation was God’s way of showing Peter he could only survive in life by the Lord. His wits and personality alone would be the end of Peter. Jesus didn’t pray that Peter would have a rich and easy life, with one spiritual success after another. Jesus only prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. If Jesus Christ is the all-wise God, and this is what he prayed for Peter, then we can deduce that saving trust in God must be the most important thing for us to have. Saving faith is the very thing Satan was trying to destroy in Peter. If Peter were to stop believing, then he’d no longer belong to Jesus. This is what Satan always wants to take away from us, the faith in Christ that makes a believer a believer. The point of Satan’s attack on a believer is to pull out the plug of faith, to disconnect us from God. Our faith joins us to the Lord. Saving faith is a connecting grace, the point of contact between the believing soul and the living Christ. If, therefore, Satan could manage to pull out that plug then we are lost men.
This is the prayer that Jesus loves to pray for all his disciples – the Saviour’s prayer for a sinner’s faith not to fail. Jesus is busy praying this way for us right now. The Bible says that Jesus Christ ‘is at the right hand of God . . . interceding for us’ (Rom. 8:34). It says that he ‘is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’ (Heb. 7:25). Jesus Christ is the infinite intercessor; he lives to pray for us. Yet you understand that there are some things about his intercession we do not know and hesitate to ask. It is sinful to speculate about things which are not revealed to us concerning this sacred reality. There are hundreds of millions of Christians in the world today each of them with individual needs, and the voice of the real man Christ Jesus, though glorified, could not be articulating each of their names, aloud, individually and continuously. So we must think of his human nature enlightening and illuminating – from his experience as a man ‘ Christ’s divine nature who knows each of them personally. It is the divine nature of God our High Priest who is commanding the Spirit to go forth and help each one of the millions of Christians extant at this moment.
v] Consider the encouragement of an interceding Saviour. Ed Clowney told me one summer day when John Murray was writing his commentary on Romans the two of them talked together, and John asked Ed how were things, and Ed told him how he was concerned about his oldest daughter who had wandered from the Lord. Then John Murray prayed with him, and his prayer was characteristically full of the themes of the compassion and sympathy of our great High Priest. Ed told me how moving it was, and that he walked in the strength of that prayer for some time. Then he said to himself, ‘You are inspired by a man praying for you, but the Son of God intercedes for you each day.’ Some time later that daughter returned to the Lord.
If only we could personally hear Jesus whispering our worthless names into the ears of his Father, and we could listen in awe to what he was saying to him so tenderly about us and our struggles and needs, then what courage we’d take to live for him through every trouble in life. Jesus is praying for us, that our faith will not fail. He is praying maybe about our chronic pain, that in our physical weakness we will not stop trusting in the goodness of God. He is praying about the way we miss so much the one we were married to for so many years, or he prays about our troubled marriage, that in our alienation we won’t stop trusting in his love. He’s praying about our financial situation, that in our urgent concern about paying the bills we won’t stop trusting in God to provide. He is praying about our secret discouragement, that in our night of dark despair we won’t stop trusting him to lead us into the light. He is praying about our wandering into sin, that we’ll never stop trusting in his forgiveness. Jesus is praying for everything we need.
Surely these prayers will be answered, just the way God answered the prayer that Jesus prayed for Peter. The apostle’s faith didn’t fail. Although he turned away, he also returned, trusting that his sins had become forgiven sins, and Peter went on with God. The same thing will happen in our lives. The Son of God is interceding for us with the Father. How can his petition fail? Jesus prays more wisely, more frequently, and more efficaciously than anyone. He prays more for us than we ever pray for ourselves. Therefore, although we may go through many difficult trials and even fall into wicked sin, as Peter did, we will not be lost. King David did a reprehensible act, but because the Messiah would pray for him then his faith did not fail. Psalm 51 is the fruit of Christ’s intercession. Whatever desperate situation you bring to him, with all of your complaints and objections, the Saviour of sinners says, ‘but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.’ [Dick Gaffin pointed out the following truths in a sermon on Hebrews],
That is the application, not that we can relax and let him go on praying for us. He is praying, and so we pray; he ever lives to display his concern for us, and so we are concerned about ourselves and one another. You remember how the writer to the Hebrews applies this in chapter 4 and verse 14, ‘Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.’ You have every reason to hang in there. The writer has already exhorted them about this three verses earlier, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebs 4:11). And in the previous chapter he says, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebs. 3:12). And again he says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God” (Hebs. 12:15). Can you hear the note of warning, the urgency with which he speaks to them – and they were living in times of great spiritual revival?
What is the apostle doing? It is very important to see how everything in Hebrews as in all the rest of the Bible comes to a very clear and single focus. That focus is Jesus Christ. When we ask how in the world can we bruised reeds hold fast, notice that the writer doesn’t point us to ourselves and our own resources. He doesn’t point us to the Christian community and all the resources that are undoubtedly there in the wise men and women to support us in our Christian confession. Notice that he doesn’t even point us to something God has given to us, or done in us as believers. Instead he points us to Christ. He points us to the Son of God.
Now that, you see, more than anything else is what we need to take hold of in this theme of the exaltation of Jesus Christ. The secret, if you will, of holding fast our confession is to hold fast to Jesus Christ. The secret of holding fast our confession is not something finally that we do, but what Christ has done and continues to do. By now it should be clear, then, that when the writer commands us to hold fast our confession, he is not talking about some document, some written confession, as important as that may be in its place. But he is talking about the Lord Jesus Christ. To hold fast your confession is to hold fast to him, the one who has ascended and gone through the heavens.
Jesus Christ is alive. That is the heart of the gospel. That is not just something we celebrate on Easter and then forget about. Jesus Christ is alive today, in the sanctuary of heaven for the church, at the right hand of God, and that is the exciting truth that the writer of Hebrews wants us to get hold of. Our Saviour presented himself to his Father as he took our sin and hung in the anathema on the cross. He is now presenting himself before our heavenly Father as our righteousness. Jesus Christ is the seal, the living exhibition of that perfect righteousness which God the Father declares to be ours. The righteousness that we need is a righteousness that continues to exist, a righteousness that is established where it really counts – in heaven. And that is why we can be so confident today, if our faith is in Jesus Christ, that our sins are forgiven, because Jesus Christ, the righteous one, is there in heaven, in the sanctuary, on our behalf.
Why does Jesus Christ have to pray for us? Have you ever thought about that? Why does he need to? Why is it necessary for Christ to pray? Think about all that he has done. Why, after all that he’s accomplished in suffering and dying for us, can’t he just sit back, so to speak? Why can’t he relax and delight in the joy that’s been set before him? I will tell you why. The reason that Christ is so active on our behalf is because he knows the desperateness of our situation. He knows the wilderness of this world that we have to walk through, past Doubting Castle, and on to confront Giant Despair, and then Vanity Fair, and then listening to Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and then meeting fierce Apollyon in the Valley of the Shadow, and finally the great river we must cross, over which there’s no bridge. He knows all about that journey because he’s taken it himself. He’s gone that way before us; he has been tempted, the writer tells us, in every way just as we are.
So he holds us fast in his intercession. He never stops being concerned about us until we arrive in his presence. He doesn’t intercede for those who have not yet been born. He doesn’t pray for those who are now glorified in his presence who have receive the crown of righteousness. But he loves his own in the world and he loves them to the end. We must believe that. He is one with us in our journey. He’s been tempted, really and truly, just like you and me in every respect, but with one important difference – he never yielded to temptation. He overcame temptation, and so he is equipped and “able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebs. 2:18). It’s not that misery loves company and Jesus says, “Yes it is hard. I fell so often too. How can you overcome temptation?” No! He comforts with his wisdom and power over sin.
Jesus knows the darkness and the wilderness. He knows the stresses and temptations that you and I are exposed to. He knows it by his own intimate experience. He knows this one great truth better than anyone here, the certainty of our salvation does not cancel out the seriousness of our present dangers. He knows that only those who endure to the end are going to be saved. And he knows that enduring to the end is not something that happens automatically. He knows that for us to endure to the end will not happen without prayer. In particular, it will not happen without his intercession.
The writer would have us remember this precious truth: our Lord did not die for us and then abandon us. He knows that we need him, and he knows that we need him now. He knows, for instance, that today that great roaring adversary of the church, Satan, is prowling around like a roaring lion and he wants to devour every one of us. There is not a little lamb here that Satan wouldn’t like to tear in pieces. So Jesus is interceding for us. He is praying for us, that in the midst of the struggle in which we find ourselves Satan will not be able to do what he wants to do. And as he prays our heavenly Father delights in that prayer, and protects us.
It doesn’t matter how complicated, how desperate, perhaps even hopeless your life has become. No matter how overwhelmed you may feel by your problems, if your trust is in Jesus Christ, you can be sure that he is praying for you now and through that prayer he will provide for you the resources to bring you relief or enable you to carry on.
The most important thing that you and I need to learn about prayer is this: first of all and ultimately, intercession is not just something we do but it is what Jesus does for us.
There is an incident recorded at the end of Acts 7, in verses 54-56. It is a dramatic and evocative example of this reality – Jesus Christ praying for believers. The situation is one in which Stephen is before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish officials of his day. He has been summoned before them because of the tensions that have been created by his preaching of the gospel, because of the anger and alarm that has resulted among the existing religious and civil authorities. In other words, the situation is one in which Stephen is holding fast his confession.
As Stephen finishes what he has to say, the anger within the Sanhedrin turns into a murderous fury. But as their blood lust begins to unleash itself on him and Stephen is stoned, we are given the full picture of what took place there: “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” The Son of Man is standing at the right hand of God. Everywhere else in Scripture, when mention is made of the Son of Man in heaven, he is always pictured as sitting at the right hand of God. But here the Son of Man in heaven at the right hand of God is not sitting, but standing.
What can this mean? It means that there are really two courtrooms involved here. One of them is on earth. And there justice is going to grind on to its sickening miscarriage. In that situation, that courtroom on earth, Stephen stands up for Jesus. But because of that, in the courtroom in heaven, the place where that justice is being rendered that really counts, Jesus stands up for Stephen. The judge becomes the advocate. The king becomes the intercessor. And, really, we shouldn’t be surprised at this because Jesus is simply making good on that promise he’d made already during his earthly ministry, not just Stephen, but to all his disciples, to the whole church. “Whoever confesses me before men,” Jesus has promised, “I will also confess him before my Father in heaven” (Mt. 10:32). There can be no greater source of confidence for the church today than this.
4th August 2013 GEOFF THOMAS