Editorial Note: This article is adapted from the author's latest book, Christ's Way to Pray: How Christ Prays for Us and With Us. To obtain a copy, call 706- 935-8800, or email [email protected].
Niagara Falls is one of the most magnificent natural wonders in North America. It's an irresistible sight! When I first laid my eyes on it, not only was I enchanted, but I was seized by the spiritual insights it yielded insights that profoundly influenced my prayer life.
On my first visit, I gazed transfixed at the grandeur of its mighty flow. I saw its terrific torrents; I heard its howling thunder and felt its tumultuous power. I could not pull away; I found myself totally overwhelmed by God's abundant love and power.
As I stood praying for guidance and for a prevailing prayer life, God vividly impressed upon my mind that the continuous irresistible flood of Niagara represents Christ's prayers for me. "Yes, Lord," I said, "but this is about Christ's mighty prayers. What about my weak prayers? They are like a few droplets of water, at best only a trickle." Then conviction hit me like a thunderbolt: Why not join your weak prayers to His mighty ones?
Much water and much incense
I always felt that my faith was feeble and my prayers puny, but now the Lord was directing my mind to look not at myself but to the Savior. He was telling me to rivet my unsteady faith to His unstoppable faith, to join my measly prayers with His mighty prayers. Take the plunge, go with the flow, was the conviction of my heart.
This early encounter with God has had a powerful impact on my ministry as pastor and religion professor.
In my pastoral and teaching ministry, the Spirit's conviction to join my poor prayers with Christ's potent prayers led me to study Revelation 8:3, 4. The use of the words censer, altar, incense, prayers, throne, and smoke makes it clear that the subject in this short passage is about prayer. Such activity occurs in the vicinity of the altar of incense before the inner veil, leading directly to God's glory.
It's wonderful to see such unmistakable indicators of what happens to human prayer as it reaches into the heavenly sanctuary.
Here the curtain is pulled aside to give us a rare glimpse of how the prayers of the saints are processed. The angel, who stands by the altar of incense, was given much incense and instructed to offer it with the prayers of all the saints. And he offered up this mixture upon the golden altar, and it ascended right to the throne of God.
This passage in Revelation makes Christ's intercessions in the heavenly sanctuary relevant to our pastoral intercessions for others. It deals with two separate entities that are designed to become one: the incense and the saints' prayers. "Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. And he was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand" (NKJV).
Every time I study this passage, I am reminded of my Niagara Falls experience. The trickle of my prayers mixed with the flood of Christ's prayers sounds like the puny prayers of the saints mingled with much incense of Christ's perfect righteousness and intercession.
Now I can unite my pastoral prayers with the powerful prayers of my greatest Prayer Partner, Jesus. His "much incense" makes fragrant the soiled prayers, tainted with self, that come from me. Now I am irresistibly drawn to come boldly before the throne of grace, knowing that my best prayers and petitions must be consumed by the purging fire of Christ's perfect righteousness and be fragranced by the incense of His intercessions wafting above the mercy seat.
The emblem of His mediation
Even in the earthly sanctuary, the burning incense was to "arise before God mingled with their [people's] prayers. This incense was an emblem of the mediation of Christ." 1 The incense represents at least two things: Christ's perfect mediation and His perfect righteousness. "These prayers [of ours], mingled with the incense of the perfection of Christ, will ascend as fragrance to the Father."2
Here the type of Exodus 30:7 and 8 meets the antitype of Revelation 8:3 and 4. Aaron, the earthly high priest, was to burn incense upon the altar before the mercy seat every morning and evening for "perpetual incense" before the Lord. Jesus, our heavenly High Priest, with His "much incense," perpetually makes intercession for us before the mercy seat.
Aaron was to bum incense on the altar every morning and evening on behalf of the people; as pastors, our prayers for people ascending with the prayers of Jesus must be a daily experience, fresh every morning, carrying us through to the end of each day. This is not to be something sporadic, something that occurs now and then, but is to be something perpetual.
Offering prayer mixed with incense on a daily basis implies not only perpetuity but also priority. Our utmost pastoral priority is to begin and conclude every day with Jesus, continually breathing His spirit of prayer, so that the people of our congregations will clearly know that we have indeed been with Jesus.
E. G. White has described it this way: "The incense, ascending with the prayers of Israel, represents the merits and intercessions of Christ, His perfect righteousness, which through faith is imputed to His people. .. .
"They united in silent prayer, with their faces toward the holy place. Thus their petitions ascended with the cloud of incense, while faith laid hold upon the merits of the promised Saviour prefigured by the atoning sacrifice."3
Paul uses similar powerful imagery to depict divine human cooperation in prayer and witness. He urges us to walk in the love of Christ, who "has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma" (Eph. 5:2, NKJV). Here we have Paul depicting Christ Himself as the burning sacrifice exuding a sweet aroma before God. And in 2 Corinthians 2:14 and 15, he describes us as the aroma of Christ, diffusing His sweet fragrance always and everywhere.
Paul has in mind the powerful analogy of a Roman triumphal procession, where a victorious general would be welcomed by many dignitaries, some carrying censers brimming with sweet burning incense.
It is the same in passages found in Ephesians and Corinthians. Paul makes use of the imagery of burning sacrifice and burning incense, to describe not only Christ's ministry but also our joint role in it. We walk in Christ's ultimately loving act of offering Himself as a "burning" sacrifice.
As pastors and parishioners we walk in Christ's victory march, diffusing the sweet burning incense of our intimate knowledge of Him. When we give ourselves to God through uniting with Jesus' intercessions, we too "present [our] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God" (Rom. 12:1, NKJV). Walking in His love and diffusing His sweet fragrance becomes such an all-absorbing way of life that Paul even talks of us as possessing the aroma of Christ.
Compare this with how John in Revelation 8:3 and 4 aptly describes the "much incense" of Christ's inter cession mingling with the prayers of all the saints and ascending as sweet-smelling smoke before God.
We may wonder why Jesus needs to pray for us and with us before God. Jesus' prayers are not to appease God or to make Him love us as His Son does. The Father's love for us is eternal, and His deep concern for our salvation is inexhaustible. He loves us with the same love by which He loves His only Son. "The Father demonstrates His infinite love for Christ, who paid our ransom with His blood, by receiving and welcoming Christ's friends as His friends. He is satisfied with the atonement made. He is glorified by the incarnation, the life, death, and mediation of His Son."4
Furthermore in doing this, Christ "gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned."5
Christ's prayer vigil
In Mark 14:37 we see Jesus in the Garden appealing to Peter by name to stay awake and pray with Him. Finding His three disciples asleep, He pointedly asked Peter: "Simon, are you sleeping? Could you not watch with Me one hour?" It is significant that Jesus mentioned neither John nor James by name, but only Peter. I believe Jesus singled out Peter because of the recent experience of Jesus praying for him "that [his] faith fail not" (Luke 22:32). Jesus wanted to engage Peter in His prayer life. He needed him and the disciples to "stay here and watch with Me" (Matt. 26:38, NKJV).
The words "watch" and "with Me" are significant here because they refer to the disciples staying awake for the purpose of sharing in Christ's prayer vigil. It is remarkable that the Mighty Intercessor, who prayed many times for His disciples, now needs them to join Him in His own prayer.
What an enormous privilege they squandered, experiencing only the periphery of the experience they could have had. If they had taken advantage of this special occasion, they would have been braced for the terrible trials just ahead of them. Could it be that Jesus counts on us, as His pastors, when He desires to share the heaviest burdens of His prayers? When He does, does He find us awake or asleep?
When the Chief Shepherd lays one of His prayer burdens upon our hearts, it is a holy calling of the highest order. This is a clear indication that He trusts us, as undershepherds, with the burdens on His heart, and that He desires to pull us close to Him in approaching the mercy seat.
It is interesting to note that Peter and John, who failed to join Jesus in prayer at Gethsemane, describe the believers (along with themselves) as priests unto God through Christ. "You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5, NKJV). John writes about this priesthood ministry in Christ, who "has made us kings and priests" to His . . . Father (Rev. 1:6, NKJV).
Priests with our High Priest
Christ our High Priest has made us pastor-priests in Him. He has ordained us to offer sacrifices of prayer and supplications through Him. We are called to enter into this priestly ministry of weeping with Jesus and sharing in His travail for others. "Blessed are they also who weep with Jesus in sympathy with the world's sorrow and in sorrow for its sin.... All who are followers of Christ will share in this experience. As they partake of His love they will enter into His travail for the saving of the lost."6
How does our priesthood as pas tors interface with His high-priestly ministry when it comes to prayer? Such holy participation always ensues from our unreserved submission to Him. For when He sits on the throne of our hearts, His life becomes our life. He lives in us and ministers through us. He loves, cares, sacrifices, affirms, and prays through us. Jesus ever lives to intercede for us. And as He ever lives in our lives, He ever prays in and through our lives. Our pastoral lives become an expression of His pastoral life.
It is our awesome privilege and sacred duty as pastors to serve as priests of intercession, even clothed with Christ's priestly vestments. "As we acknowledge before God our appreciation of Christ's merits, fragrance is given to our intercessions. Oh, who can value this great mercy and love! As we approach God through the virtue of Christ's merits, we are clothed with His priestly vestments. He places us close by His side, encircling us with His human arm, while with His divine arm He grasps the throne of the Infinite. He puts His merits, as sweet incense, in a censer in our hands, in order to encourage our petitions."7
This priesthood of all believers was demonstrated in the experience of Job praying for his children as well as for his critics. He consecrated his children to God and sacrificed and prayed for them regularly (Job 1:4, 5). In fact, Job in his priestly role was a type of Jesus our High Priest praying for us. Job sacrificed and prayed regularly for his children, and so did Jesus when He sacrificed Himself and now lives to pray for us. Moreover, God wanted Job to intercede for His three critics. "My servant Job shall pray for you," God said to them. "For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly" (Job 42:8, NKJV).
Jesus also interceded for His critics and tormentors. In a sense, Job entered the sacred realm of Jesus' travail and intercessions for friend and foe alike. As Christ's pastors, we stand as priests before God in Christ our High Priest.
Like Job, we are called to enter on a regular basis into Christ's holy realm of intercession for others.
Then there was the ministry of Samuel. The Israelites feared for their lives because they had refused to have God rule over them. But when the people asked him to pray for them, Samuel said, "Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you" (1 Sam. 12:19, 23, NKJV). He viewed his priestly prayers for them as so crucial that he considered it a sin against God not to plead for them. As pas tors, we are called to enter the realm of Christ's intercessions for others, even when, or perhaps especially when, they move away from God.
Blot me out!
Perhaps the most powerful exam ple of Christ's intercession is found in the ministry of Moses. God wanted to destroy a stubborn Israel for their great rebellion in worshiping the golden calf, and He assured Moses that He would make a new and mighty nation out of his seed. However, Moses did not think about himself but instead was consumed with concern about the people.
Spontaneously he began to pray to God, reviewing with Him the wonderful promises He had given His people. He went up to the Lord on the mountain to intervene between God and the people because of their sins. In his prayer of intercession, Moses earnestly pleaded with God: "Oh, these people have sinned a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will for give their sin but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written" (Exod. 32:31, 32, NKJV).
In the councils of the Trinity, the Son of God volunteered to give His life for the world. It would be at a tremendous cost: experiencing the second death on behalf of sinful and lost humanity. Moses' offer that his name be blotted out of the book of life was not accepted; Christ's offer was.
Jesus experienced the second death; His name was blotted out from the book of life. And in that generous divine act, neither Moses' name nor any name needs ever to be blotted out. Certainly Moses' earnest intercession, flowing from a heart of love, enters into that sacred realm of Christ's intercession for fallen humanity.
As shepherds under the Chief Shepherd, let us go to Christ as we are. Let us stay long in the embrace of the praying Jesus. Let His compassionate human arm encircle us and our congregations, and let His divine arm connect us with God's throne.
We may plunge the trickle of our prayers with the mighty torrents of His prevailing prayers. Then the "much incense" of His intercession will join with our tainted prayers until they are fragrant to the nostrils of God. He is joining you in prayer right now. We may rest in the arms of the Prince of Peace; rest in the assurance that no power can pluck us out of His hand.
1 Ellen G. White, Temperance (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1949), 43.
2 , Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1900), 6:467.
3 , Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890), 353; italics supplied.
4 Testimonies, 6:364; italics supplied.
5 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, 6:1078.
6 White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1896), 12, 13; italics supplied.
7 SDABC, Ellen G. White Comments, 6:1078; italics supplied.