Few promises mean more to hurting people than, “I’m praying (or I’ll pray) for you.” We long to have someone “put in a good word for us” before God. In fact, I’ve even people whose faith is fragile or apparently non-existent seem to often appreciate the thought behind a promise of prayer, if not necessarily the prayer itself.
However, the sad fact is that promises made aren’t always promises kept. Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might want to publicly reflect on their own failures to keep their promises to pray for someone or about something. Others’ more recent prayer requests crowd out previous ones. Or prayer promisers simply become too busy or distracted to keep our promise.
That’s one reason why some of the most faithful “prayers” that I know keep lists of prayer requests. They keep track of people’s requests for thanksgiving and intercession, not only so that they can remember for whom they’ve promised to pray, but also so that they can appropriately respond when God answers those prayers.
Hebrews’ original readers and hearers understood the great value of having someone intercede for them before the living God. The Jewish faith that some of those Jewish Christians were reevaluating saw priests as necessary intercessors between a holy God and God’s sinful people.
However, Hebrews 7 notes that there were numerous problems with both priests and the priesthood. Since I spent quite a bit of time during last week’s Epistolary Lesson Commentary on Jesus as our great high priest, I’m going to some liberty in this commentary by drawing a parallel between the “priests” of which this Lesson speaks and people who intercede before God on behalf of others.
In verse 23 its Preacher says, “There have been many of those priests.” One historian counted 83 high priests from the time of Aaron to the end of worship in the temple. On top of being mortal, Judaism’s priests were also so spiritually fragile that they had to repeatedly intercede before God on their own behalf. So they had to repeatedly perform sacrifices, day after day, week after week, year after year, as long as they lived (26).
Human intercessors share those priests’ fragility. Even as Christians know that we should be faithfully praying for and about people and things, we fail. What’s more, sin so infects the whole world that we must keep praying about old problems while constantly having to pray about nearly countless new ones. Add to that God’s adopted children’s need to pray for ourselves, including confessing our sins, and we have enough to keep prayers at least figuratively busy praying during every waking hour.
On top of that, it’s not just priests, pastors and other leaders who keep dying. Faithful “prayers” keep dying as well. Ann was perhaps the most diligent “prayer” I knew. When she promised to pray for someone, she kept her promise. Ann kept a veritable book of others’ prayer requests. But though countless people interceded for her well-being, Ann’s big but weakened heart eventually wore out long before anyone for whom she so faithfully prayed were ready to give her up.
Only one Intercessor never forgets to pray or dies. In fact, only one “Prayer” has no character flaws or moral failures. Jesus will never have to be suspended, deposed, or even hospitalized. Nothing can keep Jesus, by his Spirit, from always being there for God’s adopted sons and daughters, full of sympathy, grace, and mercy.
So God’s people can ask others to pray for us as well as promise to pray for others. We can even ask for and receive forgiveness when we break our promises to intercede for others. In Christ, after all, God has given us a new kind of access to God.
In fact, Hebrews’ Preacher insists that God’s Son doesn’t just intercede for us. Jesus “lives to” (25) intercede for his adopted siblings. It’s not just his part-time job. Intercession is, arguably, one of the ascended Christ’s most central purposes. While intercession is often a kind of “side job” for most Christians, we might argue that it’s now once of Christ’s highest priorities.
This Jesus trudged through what Tom Long, to whose commentary on Hebrews in the Interpretation Series I owe a great deal for this and other Commentaries, calls “the muck and mire of human life.” He experienced nearly every test, underwent almost every trial, and endured virtually every temptation people have ever experienced. The ascended Christ knows with what those for whom he intercedes are dealing. As a result, says the Preacher in verse 25, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him.” Jesus saves his adopted siblings both in every way necessary and for all time.
So those who preach and teach Hebrews 7 as well as those who hear us can stop worrying about how to save each other and ourselves, our country and world. We can even stop worrying about whether or not we’re saved. Jesus has saved us completely.
By sinning against God and each other, God’s beloved sons and daughters had created a gap between God and us that’s vaster than the Pacific Ocean. Yet God has graciously bridged the immense gap we’ve created by coming to us in Jesus Christ. All God’s people need to do to cross that gap is to come with faith to God.
But, of course, we don’t naturally either want or know how to do that. So God gives people not just Jesus, but also the Holy Spirit who equips us with both the faith and the desire to come to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet since the Scriptures make explicit claims about the need for that faith in Jesus Christ, Christians are deeply concerned about the lasting fate of people who don’t come to God through such faith. Perhaps that’s when God’s children especially need to know and remember that God is far more patient and persistent than the most stubborn unbeliever.
So as long as people breathe, we can pray that they’ll faithfully receive Christ’s completed work of salvation, both now and always. And, perhaps, know that Christ too is interceding for them before the Father.
Verse 27 says Jesus “sacrificed for” our “sins once for all.” So in the midst of our bloody history, God has done once and for all what God’s adopted sons and daughters have refused to do: stopped the bloodshed. Even as we continue to spill each other’s blood as well as harm the creation Jesus came to save, God has in Christ done what needed to be done.
Why, then, aren’t God’s beloved people done spilling blood yet? Why are some Christians dreading spending time at the upcoming holidays with people whose views about the pandemic and efforts to mitigate it differ from ours? It’s not just that some people haven’t yet come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It’s also that those who have faithfully come to God have not always lovingly and peacefully lived for God.
That’s another reason why God’s adopted sons and daughters thank God that Jesus, according to verse 25, “always lives to intercede for” us. While Jesus’ sacrifice saves his adopted siblings completely and once and for all, he’s still, in a sense, working for us.
Christians tend to emphasize Jesus finished work of saving us from our sins. It’s easy to forget that Jesus is still on the job for us, helping us when we’re tempted, equipping us for obedience and sympathizing with us when we suffer.
At least some other “prayers” are no longer available because they’ve died or forgotten their promises to pray for us. Jesus is always available to God’s people because he’s forever on the job. We might even imagine Jesus enjoying few things more than praying for his adopted brothers and sisters. It’s as if he’s dedicated the whole time until he returns to helping us by interceding for us.
So God’s people know that even when we can’t pray for ourselves, Jesus cares enough about us to pray for us. Even when we don’t know exactly what to pray, Jesus somehow prays for us. Even when God’s people are sleeping or too busy to pray, he cares enough about you to pray for us. Even after we’ve sinned for the 100th time in a day, Jesus cares enough about us to pray for us. Even when God’s children are wrestling with fear and doubts, Jesus prays for us.
I don’t know and can’t explain just how one member of the Trinity can intercede for his adopted brothers and sisters before another member of the Trinity. But God’s adopted children can take great comfort in it.
However, Jesus’ constant intercession for us also challenges us. After all, we no longer need priests to pray for us. But the prayers of God’s people are among the greatest gifts we can offer each other.
Mary Craig’s book, Blessings: An Autobiographical Fragment, deals in part with her experiences after her second son was born with a disability. She describes some of the letters she received afterward.
“No one in their right mind could say that they were happy for us, but almost everyone I had ever known … felt compelled to write, to express deep feelings, or even to apologize for the fact that they did not know how to,” Craig writes.
“One letter that moved me to tears said simply: ‘We just don’t know what to say, except that you have our love and prayers . . .’” Craig adds, “The letters, representing as they did, so much human feeling, so much anguished groping for words, said more than the spoken word ever could.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 24, 2021
Hebrews 7:23-28 Commentary