Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

VII. The Intercessory Work of Christ

The priestly work of Christ is not limited to the sacrificial offering of Himself on the cross. The representation is sometimes given that, while Christ was a Priest on earth, He is a King in heaven. This creates the impression that His priestly work is finished, which is by no means correct. Christ is not only an earthly but also, and especially, a heavenly High Priest. He is even while seated at the right hand of God in heavenly majesty, "a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man." Heb_8:2. He only began His priestly work on earth, and is completing it in heaven. In the strict sense of the word He is not reckoned among the earthly priests, who were but shadows of a coming reality, Heb_8:4. He is the true, that is, the real Priest, serving at the real sanctuary, of which the tabernacle of Israel was but an imperfect shadow. At the same time He is now the Priest upon the throne, our Intercessor with the Father.


1. THE INTERCESSORY WORK OF CHRIST SYMBOLIZED. While the sacrificial work of Christ was symbolized primarily by the priestly functions at the brazen altar and the sacrifices that were brought upon it, His intercessory work was prefigured by the daily burning of incense on the golden altar in the Holy Place. The constantly rising cloud of incense was not only a symbol of the prayers of Israel, but also a type of the high priestly prayer of our great High Priest. This symbolic action of burning incense was not dissociated from, but most closely connected with, the bringing of the sacrifices at the brazen altar. It was connected with the application of the blood of the more important sin offerings, which was applied to the horns of the golden altar, also called the altar of incense, was sprinkled towards the veil, and on the great Day of Atonement was even brought within the Holy of Holies and sprinkled upon the mercy-seat. This manipulation of the blood symbolized the presentation of the sacrifice to God, who dwelt between the cherubim. The Holy of Holies was clearly a symbol and type of the city four-square, the heavenly Jerusalem. There is still another connection between the sacrificial work at the brazen altar and the symbolical intercession at the golden altar. The fact that the incense might be burned only on living coals taken from the altar of burnt-offering was an indication of the fact that the intercession was based on the sacrifice and would be effective in no other way. This clearly indicates that the intercessory work of Christ in heaven is based on His accomplished sacrificial work, and is acceptable only on that basis.

2. NEW TESTAMENT INDICATIONS OF CHRIST'S INTERCESSORY WORK. The term parakletos is applied to Christ. The word is found only in Joh_14:16, Joh_14:26; Joh_15:26; 1Jn_2:1. It is rendered "Comforter" wherever it is found in the Gospel of John, but "Advocate" in the single passage in which it is found in the First Epistle of John. The form is a passive, and can therefore, says Westcott, "properly mean only 'one called to the side of another,' and that with the secondary notion of counseling or aiding him."53 He points out that the word has that meaning in classical Greek, in Philo, and also in the writings of the Rabbis. Many of the Greek Fathers, however, gave the word an active sense, rendered it "Comforter," and thus gave undue prominence to what is but a secondary application of the term, though they felt that this meaning would not fit in 1Jn_2:1. The word, then, denotes one who is called in for aid, an advocate, one who pleads the cause of another and also gives him wise counsel. Naturally, the work of such an advocate may bring comfort, and therefore he can also in a secondary sense be called a comforter. Christ is explicitly called our Advocate only in 1Jn_2:1, but by implication also in Joh_14:16. The promise, "And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may be with you forever," clearly implied that Christ was also a parakletos. The Gospel of John regularly applies the term to the Holy Spirit. There are therefore two Advocates, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Their work is partly identical and partly different. When Christ was on earth, He was the Advocate of the disciples, pleading their cause against the world and serving them with wise counsel, and the Holy Spirit is now continuing that work in the Church. In so far the work is identical, but there is also a difference. Christ as our Advocate pleads the believer's cause with the Father against Satan, the accuser (Zec_3:1; Heb_7:25; 1Jn_2:1; Rev_12:10), while the Holy Spirit not only pleads the cause of believers against the world (Joh_16:8), but also pleads the cause of Christ with believers and serves them with wise counsel, (Joh_14:26; Joh_15:26; Joh_16:14). Briefly, we can also say that Christ pleads our cause with God, while the Holy Spirit pleads God's cause with us. Other New Testament passages which speak of the intercessory work of Christ are found in Rom_8:24; Heb_7:25; Heb_9:24.


It is evident that this work of Christ may not be dissociated from His atoning sacrifice, which forms its necessary basis. It is but the continuation of the priestly work of Christ, carrying it to completion. Compared with the sacrificial work of Christ His ministry of intercession receives but little attention. Even in evangelical circles the impression is often given, though perhaps without intending it, that the work accomplished by the Saviour on earth was far more important than the services which He now renders in heaven. It seems to be little understood that in the Old Testament the daily ministration at the temple culminated in the burning of incense, which symbolized the ministry of intercession; and that the annual ritual on the great Day of Atonement reached its highest point, when the high priest passed beyond the veil with the atoning blood. Neither can it be said that the ministry of intercession is sufficiently understood. This may be the cause, but may also be the result, of the widespread failure of Christians to rivet the attention on it. The prevailing idea is that the intercession of Christ consists exclusively in the prayers which He offers for His people. Now it cannot be denied that these form an important part of the intercessory work of Christ, but they are not the whole of it. The fundamental point to remember is that the ministry of intercession should not be dissociated from the atonement, since they are but two aspects of the same redemptive work of Christ, and the two may be said to merge into one. Martin finds that the two constantly appear in juxtaposition and are so closely related in Scripture, that he feels justified in making the following statement: "The essence of the Intercession is Atonement; and the Atonement is essentially an Intercession. Or, perhaps, to put the paradox more mildly: The Atonement is real, — real sacrifice and offering, and not mere passive endurance, — because it is in its very nature an active and infallible intercession; while, on the other hand, the Intercession is real intercession, — judicial, representative, and priestly intercession, and not a mere exercise of influence, — because it is essentially an Atonement or substitutionary oblation, once perfected on Calvary, now perpetually presented and undergoing perpetual acceptance in heaven."54 Analyzing it, we find the following elements in the intercession of Christ:

1. Just as the high priest on the great Day of Atonement entered the Holy of Holies with the completed sacrifice, to present it to God, so Christ entered the heavenly Holy Place with His completed, perfect, and all-sufficient sacrifice, and offered it to the Father. And just as the high priest, on entering the Holy Place, came into the presence of God, symbolically bearing the tribes of Israel on His breast, so Christ appeared before God as the representative of His people, and thus reinstated humanity in the presence of God. It is to this fact that the writer of Hebrews refers when he says: "For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us," Heb_9:24. Reformed theologians often directed attention to it that the perpetual presence of the completed sacrifice of Christ before God contains in itself an element of intercession as a constant reminder of the perfect atonement of Jesus Christ. It is something like the blood of the passover, of which the Lord said: "And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you." Exo_12:13.

2. There is also a judicial element in the intercession, just as there is in the atonement. Through the atonement Christ met all the just demands of the law, so that no legal charges can justly be brought against those for whom He paid the price. However, Satan the accuser is ever bent on bringing charges against the elect; but Christ meets them all by pointing to His completed work. He is the Paraklete, the Advocate, for His people, answering all the charges that are brought against them. We are reminded of this not only by the name "Paraklete," but also by the words of Paul in Rom_8:33-34 : "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth? It is Jesus Christ that died, yea rather, that was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." Here the judicial element is clearly present. Cf. also Zec_3:1-2.

3. Not only does the intercessory work of Christ bear on our judicial state; it also relates to our moral condition, our gradual sanctification. When we address the Father in His name, He sanctifies our prayers. They need this, because they are often so imperfect, trivial, superficial, and even insincere, while they are addressed to One who is perfect in holiness and majesty. And besides rendering our prayers acceptable, He also sanctifies our services in the Kingdom of God. This is also necessary, because we are often conscious of the fact that they do not spring from the purest motives; and that even when they do, they are far from that perfection that would make them, in themselves, acceptable to a holy God. The blight of sin rests upon them all. Therefore Peter says: "Unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious, ye also as living stones are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. " Christ's ministry of intercession is also a ministry of loving care for His people. He helps them in their difficulties, their trials, and their temptations. "For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin: for in that He himself hath suffered, being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted." Heb_4:15; Heb_2:18.

4. And in and through it all there is, finally, also the element of prayer for the people of God. If the intercession is of a piece with the atoning work of Christ, it follows that the prayer of intercession must have reference to the things pertaining to God (Heb_5:1), to the completion of the work of redemption. That this element is included, is quite evident from the intercessory prayer in Joh_17:1-26, where Christ explicitly says that He prays for the apostles and for those who through their word will believe in Him. It is a consoling thought that Christ is praying for us, even when we are negligent in our prayer life; that He is presenting to the Father those spiritual needs which were not present to our minds and which we often neglect to include in our prayers; and that He prays for our protection against the dangers of which we are not even conscious, and against the enemies which threaten us, though we do not notice it. He is praying that our faith may not cease, and that we may come out victoriously in the end.


1. THE PERSONS FOR WHOM HE INTERCEDES. The intercessory work is, as has been said, simply the complement of His redemptive priestly work, and is therefore equal to it in extent. Christ intercedes for all those for whom He has made atonement, and for those only. This may be inferred from the limited character of the atonement, and also from such passages as Rom_8:34; Heb_7:25; Heb_9:24, in every one of which the word "us" refers to believers. Moreover, in the high priestly prayer, recorded in Joh_17:1-26, Jesus tells us that He prays for His immediate disciples and "for them also that believe on me through their word," Joh_17:9; Joh_17:20. In Joh_17:9 He makes a very explicit statement respecting the limitation of His high priestly prayer: "I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me." And from Joh_17:20 we can learn that He does not intercede for present believers only, but for all the elect, whether they are already believers, or will believe some time in the future. The intercessor is mindful of each one of those that are given unto Him, Luk_21:32; Rev_3:5. Lutherans distinguish between a general intercession of Christ for all men, and a special intercession for the elect only. For proof they appeal to Luk_23:34, which contains Christ's prayer for His enemies, but that prayer need not be considered as a part of the official intercessory work of Christ. Dabney believes that it was, and that the objects of this prayer were later on converted. But it is also possible that this prayer was simply a prayer such as Christ taught all his followers to pray for their enemies, a prayer to ward off an immediate and terrible punishment for the enormous crime committed. Cf. Mat_5:44.

2. THE THINGS FOR WHICH CHRIST INTERCEDES. Christ has a great deal to pray for in His intercessory prayer. We can only give a brief indication of some of the things for which He prays. He prays that the elect who have not yet come to Him may be brought into a state of grace; that those who have already come may receive pardon for their daily sins, that is, may experience the continued application to them of the fruits of justification; that believers may be kept from the accusations and temptations of Satan; that the saints may be progressively sanctified, Joh_17:17; that their intercourse with heaven may be kept up, Heb_4:14; Heb_4:16; Heb_10:21-22; that the services of the people of God may be accepted, 1Pe_2:5; and that they may at last enter upon their perfect inheritance in heaven, Joh_17:24.


There are especially three characteristics of the intercessory work of Christ, to which attention should be directed:

1. THE CONSTANCY OF HIS INTERCESSION. We need not only a Saviour who has completed an objective work for us in the past, but also one who is daily engaged in securing for His own the subjective application of the fruits of the accomplished sacrifice, Tens of thousands of people call for His attention at once, and a moment's intermission would prove fatal to their interests. Therefore He is always on the alert. He is alive to all their wants, and none of their prayers escape Him.

2. THE AUTHORITATIVE CHARACTER OF HIS INTERCESSION. It is not altogether correct to represent Him as a suppliant at the throne of God, begging favors of His Father for His people. His prayer is not the petition of the creature to the Creator, but the request of the Son to the Father. "The consciousness of His equal dignity, of His potent and prevailing intercession, speaks out in this, that as often as He asks, or declares that He will ask, anything of the Father, it is always eroto, eroteso an asking, that is, as upon equal terms (Joh_14:16; Joh_16:26; Joh_17:9; Joh_17:15; Joh_17:20), never aiteo or aiteso."55 Christ stands before the Father as an authorized intercessor, and as one who can present legal claims. He can say: "Father, I desire that they also whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am," Joh_17:24.

3. THE EFFICACY OF HIS INTERCESSION. The intercessory prayer of Christ is a prayer that never fails. At the grave of Lazarus the Lord expressed the assurance that the Father always hears Him, Joh_11:42. His intercessory prayers for His people are based on His atoning work; He has merited all that He asks, and therein lies the assurance that those prayers are effective. They will accomplish all that He desires. The people of God may derive comfort from the fact that they have such a prevailing intercessor with the Father.