6. The Present Work of Christ in Heaven (Part 4)
Article contributed by www.walvoord.com
The Work of Christ as the Great High Priest in His Sacrifice
The false doctrine of perpetual offering by Christ’s presence in heaven. Another point of view which has been advanced by some Protestants is a variation of the Roman view. Adherents of this position deny that Christ today is offering a sacrifice in heaven, but they affirm that Christ’s sacrifice is essentially one of life and that in this sense Christ is now offering His life on our behalf in heaven. This concept is expanded by pointing out that on Calvary Christ gave His life for us and that in heaven He is living for us to make intercession. Hence, the presence of Christ in heaven is held to constitute a sacrifice which continues in some sense His sacrificial work.1
The objections to this theory are just as real as those against the Roman position. In brief, this viewpoint of a heavenly sacrifice destroys the objective reality of Christ’s one act of dying on the cross and minimizes its transcendent importance. It should be obvious that the work of Christ on the cross has to do with our guilt of sin, whereas His work in heaven is entirely different. Their viewpoint would make the work of Christ on the cross only one phase of a broad sacrificial ministry. Second, this theory of heavenly sacrifice would destroy the substitutional character of the work of Christ on the cross. In the Scriptures, Christ’s death on the cross is represented as one of bearing the sins of the world in His sacrifice. In thus bearing the sins of the world, He is temporarily estranged from God and cries out that God has forsaken Him. He also states at the conclusion of His work on the cross, “It is finished.”
By contrast, the heavenly intercession of Christ is not a distinctive event accomplished in one day and is not substitutional. It is part of the exercise of privileges obtained through His previous act of dying on the cross. It claims the merit of this sacrifice in its application to the individual believer. While this Protestant viewpoint is less serious an error than the Roman Catholic position, it is, nevertheless, destructive to a proper view of the atonement and the humiliation of Christ on the cross.
The orthodox view of the offering of Christ. The proper Christian doctrine of the offering of Christ is the doctrine of the Scripture that Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin on the cross and that this offering was complete at the moment of His death. On the basis of this accomplished sacrifice, Christ can forever intercede for those who trust in Him and in this way fulfill His complete work as a priest. This view is the only one which fully satisfies all the related Scripture, gives to His work of sacrifice its proper place, and gives a suitable distinction between the sacrifice and the intercession which follows.
Christ as Our Great High Priest in His Intercession
How shall intercession be defined? In its theological significance, intercession is the entire work of Christ in His present work of mediation in heaven. The work of intercession presents believers to the Father as the objects of the Father’s grace, and concerns their entire need. In its Biblical usage, the concept of intercession has particular reference to the work of Christ on behalf of the believer’s weakness and temptation with the end in view of preventing sin. As such, intercession is to be contrasted in its Biblical connotation with advocacy (1 John 2:1) which deals especially with the problem of sin in the believer’s life after the sin is committed. Both Biblical intercession and advocacy are included in the theological term intercession,.
The difference of opinion relative to the nature of intercession hinges largely on the question of whether intercession is both vocal and real as some Lutheran theologians hold, or the opposite view that intercession is merely the presence of God in heaven. The proper Biblical definition seems to be between these two extremes, and the Bible’s presentation of intercession would lead to the conclusion that intercession is real though not necessarily vocal, that is, in actual words.
In attempting to clarify this difficult problem, there is further complication due to the fact that the nature of intercession has sometimes been confused with propitiation, and some have held that intercession is merely continuous propitiation. Tait points out, for instance, that intercession was little discussed until it became involved in the Arian controversy in the East and the doctrine of continuous propitiation in the West.2 The proper Scriptural doctrine seems to be that propitiation was wrought by Christ in His one act of dying on the cross to satisfy all of God’s just demands for the sinner. Like redemption and reconciliation, it is therefore a finished work, the benefits of which can now be extended to those who trust in Christ. Intercession, on the other hand, is a continuous present ministry of Christ, which is a function of His office of priest and is based on this finished sacrifice.
The theory that Christ’s intercession is His presence in heaven. Both Milligan and Swete hold that the intercession of Christ consists in a continuous presentation of the glorified life of Christ and therefore, does not involve the element of vocal prayer. Swete writes, “For the intercession of the ascended Christ is not a prayer, but a life. The New Testament does not represent Him as an orante, standing ever before the Father, and with outstretched arms, like the figures in the Mosaics of the catacombs, and with strong crying and tears pleading our cause in the presence of a reluctant God; but as the throne Priest-King asking what He will from a Father who always hears and grants His request. Our Lord’s life in heaven is His prayer.”3 In other words, Swete holds that the presence of Christ in heaven in itself constitutes intercession, and, therefore, he denies that intercession as such is either real, that is, actual prayer, or vocal, that is, expressed in words.
The theory that Christ’s intercession is real and vocal. In contrast to the view of Swete and Milligan is the Lutheran position that the intercession of Christ is vocalis et realis, i.e., real and vocal. The Lutheran view is that Christ in heaven offers real intercession and that this is characterized by the same qualities found in all prayer. Reformed theologians other than Lutherans took a middle view between the two extremes, affirming on the one hand that intercession is not necessarily vocal, as the presence of Christ in heaven is sufficient, but holding on the other hand that such intercession is real and effective. They also separated propitiation from intercession, supporting the idea that propitiation was finished on the cross, but that intercession is continuous. Those who follow closely Biblical usage will probably agree with the reformers as against the Lutheran view.
Intercession as revealed in the Scriptures. Only two direct references to intercession of Christ are found in the New Testament (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25). These passages in themselves do not settle the controversy as they simply state that Christ makes intercession for us and that this intercession is continuous in that He “ever liveth.” In both cases the Greek word is entugcano. There are, however, two other instances where a noun form enteuxis is used, (1 Tim 2:1, 4:5 ), in which instances the word is translated intercession and prayer respectively, being used for the prayers of men to God. It is significant that the same word, which is used of Christ’s intercession in its verb form, is used of the prayer of men in its noun form. This would imply a close resemblance and would justify the conclusion that the intercession of Christ in some sense is similar to that of human prayer and, therefore, more than mere presence in heaven.
This conclusion is confirmed by the reference in the Scriptures to the intercession of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26-27. The intercession of the Spirit is prompted by the fact that believers do not know how to pray as they should and the Holy Spirit therefore presents their petitions. If it may be concluded from this that the Holy Spirit is engaged in real intercession, it would imply that the intercession of Christ is equally real.
Some problems remain, regardless of which view is taken. It may be conceded that the Father does not need to be reminded by the Son of any needs of saints on earth as the Father is equally omniscient and is fully mindful of all the facts which are on the heart of the Son and, like the Son, desires the same end. While this is true, it is nevertheless recorded in the Scriptures that the Son, while on earth, prayed to the Father with all that characterized prayer, even though the Father knew what the Son would pray from all eternity past. The prayer of Christ on earth is further characterized by human factors as is illustrated in Hebrews 5:7 where in reference to Christ it is stated: “Who in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear.” While it may be assumed that Christ is not now praying with the same importunity and characteristics which prevailed during the period of humiliation on earth, it is nevertheless true that, if prayer was necessary while He was on earth, it is not improper to hold that Christ may be engaged now in intercession which is also real.
Accordingly, it may be concluded that while intercession may not necessarily take the form of words and may not carry out all the forms of human expression used on earth, the fact that similar words for intercession are used both for the intercession of Christ and the prayers of men implies that the reality of intercession is more than the presence of Christ in heaven. Intercession, therefore, may be considered an act not merely an inevitability due to the nature of His person and circumstances, but an active presentation in some form of the needs of believers on earth. While the nature of communication between two glorified omniscient beings, such as the Father and the Son, is beyond human powers to understand, the fact that this is inscrutable and beyond our comprehension is not necessarily an argument against its reality. The conclusion therefore is that the intercession of Christ is (1) real; (2) more than mere presence of the life of the glorified Man; (3) may be vocal, but not necessarily; (4) involves active communication between the Son and the Father.
The results of the intercession of Christ. For those prepared to enter into its wonderful truth, the fact that Christ intercedes for His own in heaven is another guarantee of the security of the believer. While the hope of the believer for eternal salvation rests essentially on his possession of eternal life and the finished character of the death of Christ, it is undoubtedly strengthened by the fact of the intercession of Christ. In His intercession in heaven Christ sustains the believer and keeps him from many of the spiritual dangers of life. Such intercession pleads the fact that the believer is in Christ and a partaker of His righteousness. The work of Christ in intercession also pledges the ultimate sanctification of the believer and all that is necessary to effect this end. The doctrine of intercession taken as a whole makes clear that salvation is progressive. While the ultimate purpose of God is sure from the beginning in all of its time factors, salvation is a work of God for man through Christ which once begun is carried on triumphantly to its conclusion in eternity.
The intercession of Christ is also most significant as providing the secret for keeping the believer from the sin of the world. The nature of Christ’s intercession is indicated in His prayer in John 17:11, 15 in which He prays that believers might be kept from evil. Undoubtedly many a spiritual triumph and many a godly life are explainable not by human factors, but by the faithfulness of the Son of God as He intercedes for His own.
The intercession of Christ is also vitally related to the matter of the believer’s fellowship with God. By preventing sin, a basis for continued fellowship is provided. When a believer does sin, Christ in His advocacy provides a way for restoration. On the divine side, adjustment is always made immediately when the believers sin. God is never out of adjustment in His part of His relationship to the believer. On the experiential side, however, that is, the human side, fellowship is conditioned on the believer’s response to the pleadings of God, his confession of his sin, and his resulting restoration through the sanctifying blood of Christ. Accordingly, the continued fellowship of the believer according to 1 John 1:5—2:2 is based on the blood of Christ and conditioned on confession of known sin.
The doctrine of intercession emphasizes the great truth that Christ never ceases to intercede for His own. While human prayers on earth are limited in both extent and power, the intercession of Christ knows no limits within the will of God. As an infinite person Christ is able to concentrate His intercession wholly on each individual believer without any diminution or detraction from the needs of any other. In effect, the believer is assured of the intercession of Christ in such a manner as would be true if Christ centered all His love and all His intercession on that one believer. Whatever may be the limitation of human prayers, the believer is assured that there is One who never ceases to pray to him and his needs and that this Intercessor has all power and favor with the Father and, accordingly, “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20).
The Royal Priesthood of the Believer
As an important corollary of Christ in His office and work as priest, the priesthood of individual believers is revealed in Scripture. Frequent mention is found in the Bible of the believer’s work as a priest under Christ the High Priest (Rom 12:1; Heb 13:15-16; 1 Pet 2:5; Rev 1:6; 5:10 ; 20:6 ). Other passages may be added to these basic texts which relate to exhortations to pray and similar doctrines. The priesthood of the believer is one of the important areas of spiritual life presented in the Bible and one of the great truths reclaimed in the Protestant Reformation. The work of the believer priest, like the work of Christ, is divided into two areas, one the believer’s sacrifices and the other the believer’s intercession.
At least four sacrifices are mentioned as belonging properly to the believer priest. The first of these, which is the foundation for others to follow, is that of the sacrifice of our body mentioned in Romans 12:1. In contrast to animals of sacrifice in the Old Testament who gave their lives in death in their sacrifice on the altar, the believer is exhorted to give his body in a living sacrifice. Such a sacrifice is regarded as holy and acceptable to God because of the fact that the believer has been cleansed by the blood of Christ. It is also a reasonable sacrifice, that is, one which can be properly expected, in view of all that God has done on behalf of the believer. This foundational exhortation obviously enters into any true exercise of priestly function on the part of the believer in Christ and until the individual has surrendered his heart, mind, and body to the Lord as a living sacrifice, there can be no proper exercise of his priestly prerogatives. From this experience of yieldedness flow all the possibilities of usefulness and joyous experience of the Christian life.
A second sacrifice which the believer priest can offer to the Lord is the sacrifice of praise (1 Pet 2:5, 9; Heb 13:15). Just as the altar of incense lent its fragrance to the air of the tabernacle and later the temple and gave itself wholly to the recognition of the perfeetions of God, so the believer as a priest should be offering constantly to God a sacrifice of praise. Such praise involves recognition of the nature of God and His wonderful works and especially His grace manifested to those who have trusted Him. Such a sacrifice is of course possible only for a believer who has offered himself to God first and who has experienced a life of yieldedness which knows the joy of the Holy Spirit and has spiritual understanding of the gracious dealings of God. Such a sacrifice of praise has depth and meaning only as the believer priest recognizes the perfections of God and devotes his heart and mind to worship, adoration, and praise. This work of the believer priest on earth will undoubtedly be continued in heaven and constitutes a major aspect of his experience in eternity.
A third sacrifice is that indicated in Hebrews 13:16, namely, a sacrifice of good works or doing good. This is an all-inclusive sacrifice and comprehends all the service rendered to God in the path of His divine will. The whole Christian life in a sense is a sacrifice of good works. In a similar way the Levites performed their function in the Old Testament as they assisted the priests. Though not specifically offering sacrifice and doing priestly works, nevertheless, they offered in a sense a sacrifice of good works to God. Likewise the present work of a believer priest, though not always engaged specifically in intercession or sacrifices of a priestly character, is nevertheless that of offering a sacrifice to God whenever he is accomplishing God’s will in his life. Such a point of view adds dignity to even the humble tasks which are insignificant in their character and, though in some particulars may not seem to resemble a priestly ministry, nevertheless contemplates the Christian life as one fundamentally fulfilling the will of God rather than self-satisfaction.
The fourth sacrifice mentioned in Hebrews 13:16 is that of the sacrifice of substance. This sacrifice has in view the fact that all earthly goods are a solemn trust which should be used to the glory of God. The New Testament saint, while not obligated to keep the details of the Mosaic law in which God required Israelites to give a specific portion of their wordly goods, should nevertheless according to the Bible offer his sacrifice of substance (1) systematically, (2) regularly (1 Cor 16:2), (3) proportionately (1 Cor 16:2, (4) sacrificially (2 Cor 8:2), (5) liberally (2 Cor 9:6, 13), (6) cheerfully (2 Cor 9:7), (7) trusting God to supply his own needs (2 Cor 9:8).
In addition to offering the four sacrifices outlined in the Scriptures, the believer priest should offer intercession to God. This aspect of his priestly work involves all his work in prayer, regardless of its particular character. In view of the individual’s position in Christ which has constituted him a member of a royal priesthood, he may pray in Christ’s name (John 14:13-14). He also has the right to bring his own personal needs to God and expect God to supply (Phil 4:6-7, 19). The believer priest, however, should not be occupied only with his own needs, but also with the needs of others (Eph 6:18). His prayer should be characterized as being continual, i.e., uninterrupted (1 Thess 5:17). As priests, believers have the right to enter into the heavenly holy of holies (Heb 10:19-22) and there may plead their case and intercede before a mercy seat made gracious by the shed blood of Christ. In offering his sacrifices and intercession, the believer priest is fulfilling in large measure his total effective ministry for God in this world. The fulfillment of his priestly responsibilities is integral in any vital Christian experience and effective witness for God.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 This view is supported by Henry B. Swete in his work, The Ascended Christ, and also by William Milligan in his book, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Christ.
2 Tait, The Heavenly Session of Our Lord, pp. 149-51.
3 Swete, The Ascended Christ, pp. 95-96.