The third word that Paul uses in 1 Timothy 2:1 when he is urging every type of prayer is unique. Warning, I’m going be a grammar snob at this point because there really isn’t another way to do this. The word translated as intercessions is a noun. Nouns are (humming school house rock in the background): persons, places or things. My 10 year old, just butting herself into my odd little grammar place, tells me, “they’ve added ideas to that list, Dad.” [Insert Eye Roll at way uncool Father] As a noun, in all of the bible, this word is used only in 1 Timothy. So how do we get at its meaning? Our methodology to this point is broken. I’m going to follow two paths. The first path is a purely secular path and how you would get the meaning of any word. I’m going to look in a big dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary, but something called The Greek-English Lexicon of New Testament and other early Christian Literature or BDAG for short which is an acronym of the four generations of scholars who have led the project. The big dictionaries give you meaning, but they also trace for you the various uses of the word in question so you can get a feel for the context. The second path is to jump the grammar category and see if there is a verbal form of the noun that is used in the Bible. This second path captures some of the thoughts behind our earlier use of the Psalms. Does the Holy Spirit have a peculiar definition or a specific way of using this word or closely joined words. (In English for example we use the word snorkel as a noun meaning that bent tube thing you can breathe through under water. The verb of snorkel is – He snorkeled in the Caribbean – which means the act of using the snorkel. You can think of a bunch of other similar words. Same concept in Greek. Languages are constantly innovative and amazing things, taking nouns and creating verbs and other items, like google and googling. Okay, I’ll get back on topic.)
Looking in BDAG our word intercession is found consistently in papyri (ancient paper, not the fun font to put on all our Christmas program notices) and in other Greek sources like Plato and Plutarch. When you went to the King or other ruler you brought your petitions or requests. And these are where we find it on the papyri. “Paul, a petition for a million denarii from your most exalted excellency, on behalf of your loyal subjects in need of a new bath-house.” So, over time, as the word became attached to requests from Kings (who sometimes styled themselves as God-Kings), a petition took on the character of prayer. But since it was brought by a specific person, usually the person closest or considered closest to the King you were petitioning. And it was typically brought on behalf of someone else, the petition-prayer became an intercession. Hence, another big dictionary (Louw-Nida), after examining all the words in the language occupying a similar usage, defines it as “to speak to someone on behalf of someone else – ‘to intercede, intercession.’” BDAG puts the first definition as petition or request the second definition as prayer and then qualifies that to definition 2a as intercessory prayer. The dictionaries hone us in on a specific type of prayer. In a list of what could be synonyms, the specific flavor is what distinguishes the word use.
So, does the bible use a verbal root of this same word? Why, yes it does. In two places really close Paul uses verbal versions of this word.
Romans 8:34 – Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Romans 8:26 – Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
The way that Paul thinks about this word is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit do for us in our weakness. Christ, performing the role of Great High Priest, intercedes for us with the Father. The Holy Spirit, when our supplications, our “Oh Crap I need this” prayers, are way off the target, and when our “quid pro quo” prayers are writing checks that can’t be cashed, The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with the words.
So, now we have a really good idea of what intercessions really means. Paul is urging Timothy, the pastor of a congregation toward intercessions. I would also assert that Paul is urging all mature Christians toward intercessions “for all people”. What follows this section is qualifications for ordained ministry. This, prayer, is what Christians would call the priesthood of all believers. I want to pause for a second and reflect on the gravity of this. You, Mr. and Mrs. And Miss and Ms. Christian, are to be like Christ and the Holy Spirit are for us. You are to make intercession for “all people” with God. With that as the context, hear these verses, let them resonate.
James 5:16 – Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
1 Peter 1:9 – But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Exodus 19:6 – and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
You, Mr. and Mrs. and Miss and Ms. Christian, are the priests of this world. Priests make intercession. If you don’t know, haven’t heard, or have forgotten, this is a called the priesthood of all believers. It might be an inappropriate theological use, but prayer is the sacrament of the universal priesthood. And it is not just a feel-good, everybody is included, participation ribbons for everyone with a clap from the helicopter parents inclusion. St. Paul, as the first piece of advice, urges supplications, prayers, intercessions. You are to be mature enough in your faith that you are not just saying “Oh Crap, Jesus take the wheel.” Mature enough not just to be praying for ourselves and praying for our role in the kingdom, but mature enough also to be praying for others on an intercessory basis. Some that will request them and others that will not. (Pause for an Oh, Crap, and pause again for the Spirit to clean that up.)
This is not something outsourced to the pastor or the pastoral public ministry. This is the core function of the priesthood of all believers. “First of all, then, I urge…” Why? “that we might lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified. This is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:3-4)” Your intercession for the world, for all people, is both for your benefit here and now, but mostly for their benefit eternally. Problems in evangelism are always first problems of prayer among the people of God.
I will want to add some personal experiences, notes, pitfalls and the like here. I’ll do that when I continue. If you want to catch up on prior posts of this sequence.
Part 1 of this Series
Part 2 of this series