What do Protestants have against the intercession of saints? If, during their lives on earth, the saints interceded with God for their fellow men, after they’ve gone to heaven would they be wrapped in holy indifference? Or would their intercession continue?
These are serious questions and the answer of the Bible is just as serious. The only saints who are now in heaven are Enoch, Moses and Elijah, plus a special group of saints who were resurrected with Jesus (Matthew 27:52-53). The resurrected and exalted Saviour is also in Heaven, representing believers from all ages.
Being God, the Lord Jesus is the only Saint who can hear our prayers and know all our needs. By comparison, those we call upon as intercessors cannot hear us and are not aware of us for two reasons: 1) those who are already in Heaven did not become all-knowing, like God; 2) the vast majority of saints are still in their graves, like Abraham and king David, because all who have died know nothing until the resurrection day. The New Testament does not say that any of the apostles or the Virgin Mary have already gone to Heaven. And if they had, what would our reasonable conclusion be?
Angels have more power than humans (Matthew 28:2, Acts 12:7), but not even they are like God. They do not have the right to receive the worship of humans and their entire activity, in heaven and on earth, takes place under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:4, Revelation 22:6). They are our servants (Hebrews 1:13-14), not our intercessors.
The Lord Jesus taught us to address God directly: “Our Father”. When you address your father directly, you show that you trust him. But, if you send someone to ask him something on your behalf—the mayor, a personal lawyer, a neighbour—what is the impression he will get? What will he think of you? That you don’t trust him, that you don’t know him, that you are rather interested in getting something from him than maintaining a good relationship with him, that you trust strangers more than you trust him? Even if the one interceding is your brother, sister or mother, your father would still not be as delighted as if you were to speak directly to him, and not use a mediator. Could it be that he is a distorted, capricious, biased father? Or maybe you think that your brother, sister or mother could manipulate him more efficiently than you could?
Jesus—who, of all humans, is our only mediator (1 Timothy 2:5-6) and who truly intercedes for each and every one of us—taught us to have faith in our Heavenly Father and address Him directly, “in the name of Jesus”. The Father Himself loves us because we believe in Jesus (John 16:26-27).
Jesus’ intercession is not about persuading the Father to take into account and fulfill all that goes on in our minds. He intercedes through the sacrifice He brought, reconciling God with the entire universe, bridging the gap between sinful man and the holy and godly justice (Colossians 1:20; Hebrews 12:24).
Intercession for the saints
There is another kind of intercession, which is less familiar, namely that of the Holy Spirit. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).
In all these cases we are told that the Holy Spirit intercedes for the saints, and those of us who have this Spirit in us also have the desire to pray (Jude 1:20), “praying for all the Lord’s people” (Ephesians 6:18-19). But it is not for the saints in Heaven that we need to intercede. Enoch, Moses, Elijah and others who have ascended there after being resurrected or after their bodies were transformed (Philippians 3:21) are in no danger so as to need our prayers. All through the New Testament the name “saints” refers to all Christians.
This is why to “pray for the saints” means to pray for each other—intercessory prayer. Those who do not care for their brothers are not the sons of the same Father. But the saints’ prayers, both for other saints and for the lost, are most pleasing to God.
In Revelation, the 24 elders surrounding the throne, together with the four cherubs, are seen holding instruments and golden priestly vessels filled with incense. John says these vessels represent “the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 5:8). The 24 elders are dressed as “priests and kings”, because they are the representatives of the saints on earth who, through Jesus’ sacrifice and their faith in Him, have been sanctified as priests and kings. The saints’ prayers are symbolised in this didactic vision (intended to teach us something) by the golden vessels, while the incense represents the perfect merits of Jesus’s sacrifice (Ephesians 5:2). The saints’ prayers—that is, our prayers—would be worthless without this incense of Jesus’ merits.
In one of John’s other visions, the smoke of incense rises from the golden altar to God “together with the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 8:3-4). Therefore, the incense smoke does not represent the prayer itself, but Jesus’s merits, which makes it acceptable before God (Psalms 141:2/140:2). This is the secret the Lord Jesus revealed to us (John 16:23-24).
Does prayer really matter?
I have heard people say that prayer does not make God act in a certain way, does not alter the course of things, but changes us, making us better. Such a reflection ends up discouraging anyone who is praying. If prayer does not have a concrete result—here and now, or at some point in the future—what is the point of praying? Only to feel pious, or to practice auto-suggestion?
God’s word proves that prayer matters. God is good and He cares for us enough to work in our favour even before we pray, and far beyond our prayers. Still, when we become aware of His goodness, when we pray to Him, we give Him the opportunity to intervene and do things He wouldn’t have done had we not prayed. Can someone who does not ask for forgiveness be forgiven by God? Is it enough to surrender your sins to God, without confessing them and without repenting?
The Bible is filled with stories in which God listened to prayers and sometimes even changed His plans in response to them. When Isaac prayed, Rebekah was able to have children, after 20 years of praying. In response to Joshua’s prayer, God made the day longer by arresting the sun’s trajectory across the sky. At Elijah’s prayer He crushed the Assyrian army and prolonged the king’s life by 15 years. But why should I be the one telling you all this? Read the Holy Scriptures and you will find the stories of many prayers that have been answered. Here, on earth, we only see a small part of prayers’ results. How can anyone say prayer does not change anything? God’s plans are not rigid. They can succeed for some, or they can be thwarted (Luke 7:29-30).
When it comes to intercessory prayer, God is all the more willing to listen and intervene. He is already interested in each and every soul, aside from any prayer. But because God promised to listen to prayers (2 Chronicles 7:14, Jeremiah 29:12), our intercession gives God the opportunity to intervene according to His promise. Let’s not forget, the Bible speaks about an open conflict in the universe regarding God’s justice. By our prayers and life we offer Him additional arguments.
Of course, our explanations are limited, but understanding the paradox of prayer matters less when we address an all-knowing Father and One who is certainly more benevolent than we are. Have you ever thought that your prayer could be part of the way the Holy Spirit fulfils God’s will (Romans 8:26, Jude 1:20)? The Holy Spirit prays through us, and if we pray through the Spirit, we pray in the name of the Son (that is, like the Son would have prayed). We are thus no longer mere pagan petitioners, but are part of God’s instruments of grace which He uses to fulfil His own will.
God even listened to pagan prayers, sent through a human mediator (Exodus 8:28-29). How would He then not listen to a Christian prayer directly addressed to the Father in the name of the Son? “God is ready and willing to hear the sincere prayer of the humblest of His children”.
Florin Lăiu is a specialist in biblical languages, and a theologian.