On page 63 Bonhoeffer transitions from a focus on “prayer” to a focus on “intercession” – prayer offered on concerted behalf of others (my distinction). He first points out that our intercessions should be tied to “the words of the Bible”. This can take many forms: We can draw from prayers of the Psalms; we can draw from prayers written elsewhere in the Bible, such as Ephesians 1:15 – 23 and 3:14 – 21; we can intercede based on Biblical promises and instruction; and we can intercede according to intercessory patterns that we see in the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Habakkuk).
Bonhoeffer writes, “A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed…Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 64.
Intercessory prayer is more than checking someone’s name off a prayer list; this is not to say that we shouldn’t pray short prayers for others, but it is to say that short prayers do not always have the characteristics of intercessory prayers and that short prayers are usually not intercessory prayers. At the risk of simplification, a “one and done prayer” is not an intercessory prayer. We need short prayers so that we can pray for many people by name, but we are also called to sustained intercessory prayer for others. However, short prayers for individuals prayed consistently over the course of months and years may take the form of intercessory prayer – they are seeds that are planted and that, having been watered and nourished consistently, grow into sustained intercessory prayers.
Here is an example of how what begins as a short prayer can transition into sustained intercessory prayer: I come to a new place of work. I begin praying for my coworkers by name. Due to the number of coworkers I have limited time to pray for them (though hopefully I also pray for them during the day as I work with them), so my prayers are necessarily short. As weeks turn into months and as months turn into years I continue my “short prayers”, however, the short prayers take on new characteristics as link after link in the chain of prayer is forged – there is greater depth, greater care and concern, greater love, and greater insight; there is also greater sustained commitment and identification on my part with the people I’m praying for.
Some elements of intercessory prayer are: Identification with the person or people prayed for; sustained commitment to intercede until answered; praying based on the Bible – having the Word of God as the foundation of intercession, the form of intercession, and the appeal of intercession – the latter means that we appeal to God on the basis of His promises and His Word. Intercession may involve fasting, whether a long period or dedicated short periods. Intercession always includes putting the interests of others before our own. As we learn to intercede we learn to listen to the Holy Spirit as He directs our prayers.
How vital is intercession? In addition to Bonhoeffer’s words that, “A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed…Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day”; the Holy Spirit intercedes for us (Romans 8:26) and our Lord Jesus, our Great High Priest, “always lives to make intercession” (Hebrews 7:25). Intercession is the work of God and when we enter into the koinonia of intercession we enter into the koinonia of the Trinity. Our intercessory prayers transform us into the image of Christ, living intercessory lives; and the more we live intercessory lives the more we will find ourselves living in intercessory prayer. The Cross is the great intercessory proclamation and manifestation of the cosmos – with Christ proclaiming that He and He alone is the Great Intercessor; He invites us to know Him in His sufferings, His resurrection, and His intercession.
All Christians have work to do, and a work that all Christians can do, a work that we should all do, is the work of intercession. The only barrier to intercession is self, the great open door to intercession is Jesus our High Priest.
What does intercession look like in our lives today?