I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

Those who deny their neighbors prayers of intercession deny them a service Christians are called to perform. … Intercessory prayer is a gift of God’s grace for every Christian community and for every Christian. Because God has made us such an immeasurably great offer here, we should accept it joyfully. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

zebra longwing butterflyIntercessory prayer simply is praying on behalf of others and we find it throughout Scripture. After Israel’s shameful behavior with the golden calf, for example, Moses interceded for a sinful people before an angry God who was ready to wipe them out. The man pled for mercy rather than condemnation. Later, he interceded for his sister Miriam when God struck her with leprosy after her opposition to Moses’ leadership. When the Israelites again rebelled, refused to enter Canaan, and talked of choosing another leader to take them back to Egypt, Moses again interceded for the Israelites.

Abraham prayed for Ishmael, Sodom and Abimelech; Samuel prayed for Saul and the people of Israel; Daniel prayed for Jerusalem; Job prayed for his family and friends; Stephen prayed for his executioners; Paul prayed for the churches at Corinth and Ephesus; and Jesus prayed not only for his disciples but also for the people who crucified Him. There was, however, nothing weak or wishy-washy about any of these prayers; they were specific, heartfelt and urgent pleas.

While reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about intercessory prayer in a recent Lenten devotion, I felt them convict me. I have a list of people for whom I regularly offer prayers. Unfortunately, unless there is an urgent need, my prayers are often more perfunctory than earnest and more superficial than thorough. I confess to thinking of praying for others as more of an obligation than a gift from God. Bonhoeffer’s words point out that we are part of a community and, therefore, are touched by everything that touches our brothers and sisters. When they hurt, we hurt; when they mourn, we mourn; when they hunger, we hunger; and when they are joyful, so are we. His words reminded me that we should approach intercessory prayer not as a duty but rather as a privilege, not half-heartedly but enthusiastically.

It is an honor to thank God for the people for whom we pray and to bring them into His presence with our prayers. There’s no need to worry about having the right words, the Holy Spirit will see to that, but we must offer our prayers with the faith, joy, fervor and love of a true member of the Christian family!

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better. We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father [Colossians 1:11 (NLT)]

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It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (NLT)]

lake lucerne sailboatThe anchor, the Christian symbol of hope, is the most prevalent of all the Christian symbols found in the Roman catacombs. In fact, all of the symbols, paintings, mosaics, and reliefs found in the miles of labyrinth-like narrow tunnels and thousands of graves in the catacombs reflect hope in some way. Instead of the dark funereal images you might expect in an underground cemetery, the white walls of the Christian catacombs feature living things like flowers and birds along with Bible stories expressing hope in God’s plan of salvation. Prominent themes from the Old Testament include Daniel emerging untouched from the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego exiting unharmed from the fiery furnace. Frequently depicted are the stories of Noah, who escaped from the flood, and Jonah who was delivered from the sea monster. Continuing the theme of deliverance are many images of the good shepherd so frequently mentioned in Psalms. New Testament stories usually showed Jesus raising the dead (with over fifty representations of Lazarus), healing people, and feeding the multitude. The art of the catacombs is all about man’s hope in God’s deliverance, provision, and plan of salvation.

As I read about the displays of hope found in this ancient place of grief and death, I thought of my mother’s final days. I was only fifteen when I sat at her hospital bedside. Even though she knew her end was near, my mother had no tears. Instead of worry or fear, she radiated a sense of peace and hope. I recall my father reaching under the plastic of her oxygen tent, brushing back her hair, caressing her face, and saying, “You look like an angel tonight.” Indeed, no angel could have been more beautiful that she was that night. My mother smiled back at him and said in a voice filled with hope, “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll be with them!” She could say those words so confidently because my mother was a believer and, like those early Roman Christians, she knew Jesus and trusted the promises of God.

The stories and symbols found in those ancient catacombs remind us that, for a Christian, death is not something to fear. Going beyond the here and now, Christian hope reaches past the grave into the glorious tomorrow promised by God! Death, for a Christian is not an end but a beginning; it is like emerging from the trials of a lion’s den, fiery furnace, or whale’s belly unharmed. When that last breath is taken, the Christian simply pulls up anchor and sets sail for a new land—one where tears, pain, and sorrow are replaced by peace, joy, and praise. That is the hope seen in the art found in the catacombs of Rome and the hope I saw firsthand in a Detroit hospital room nearly sixty years ago.

Death to the Christian is the exchanging of a tent for a permanent palace. Here we are as pilgrims or gypsies living in a frail, flimsy home subject to disease, pain and peril. But at death we exchange this crumbling, disintegrating tent for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [Billy Graham]

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. [Romans 8:23 (NLT)]

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