The Believer’s Potential and Pathway for Ministering Healing to the Nations
by: John Dawson
First Peter teaches us that there is an important purpose for our unity. Believers are like living stones being built together as a spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5). The purpose of this structure is to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to a holy creator. The writer then goes on to liken the redeemed in Christ, both Jew and non-Jew, to the Jewish priesthood.
What did he mean by that? What did the priests do that models for us something of our responsibility today? Essentially, the priests were intercessors. They made atonement for the land. They stood in the gap (Ezek. 22:30) between God and human beings and mediated on behalf of the people who needed atonement for sin. They presented sacrifices for both the sin of the nation and the sins of individuals.
“Isn’t that all in the past?” some ask. “Didn’t the Reformers point out that the priesthood of all believers under the new covenant negates any need for a human priesthood?” The answer: Yes. The Reformers did protest the exclusive prerogative of a religious hierarchy, but they were not against prayer. They called for every believer to approach God personally, experience salvation through faith in Christ alone, and then walk with God in daily conversation, which included interceding for others. Calvin, Zwingli, Luther, and Knox were men of prayer who cried out to God for spiritual breakthrough in their generation just like Ezra, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the other great reformers described in the Scriptures.
The essential difference between us as New Testament priests and the Old Testament priesthood is that the ancient priests looked forward by faith to the atonement Messiah would provide, while we look backward—two thousand years to the same hinge point of history. They presented the blood of animals, a physical sacrifice, in contrast to the priesthood 1 Peter describes, which offers up a spiritual sacrifice—making claim by faith on the shed blood of Jesus as the final atonement for sin.
It is important to realize that priestly mediation is part of the ongoing ministry of Jesus. He is our “great High Priest” who ever “lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 4:14; 7:25). The fact that a perfect sacrifice was made for our sin more than two thousand years ago did not automatically resolve everything, but rather secured the grounds (through Christ’s cross) for all reconciliation. So, the ministry of reconciliation is ongoing. Or to put it another way, the blood has been made available; however, the blood must still be applied. We must make a conscious choice to believe in the power of Christ’s atonement, receive His indwelling presence, and turn from sin.
Interceding for our nation, city, people group, family, or generation also involves a deliberate choice to face the reality of sin, “undercover” sin, to identify with it in confession, and then to appropriate the delivering grace of God by faith. Satan always attempts to keep hidden the defilement of the land through historic sins. Further, the Enemy struggles to keep the church from its priestly role of asking for forgiveness and leading the way in repentance. This is why Paul exhorts, “first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men” (1 Tim. 2:1). The majority of a population may be continuing in their sin; however, a righteous remnant, interceding on their behalf, can bring down mercy on the undeserving. We must never underestimate the power that is released when united believers intercede in humility. The Old Testament restoration books demonstrate how a believing remnant can set in motion the healing of even a divided, shattered, dispossessed nation. Most important was the heart attitude of these intercessors as they prayed the prayer of identification.
Because of “our sins, and . . . the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us” (Dan. 9:16).
“I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned” (Neh. 1:6).
“O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God: for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty” (Ezra 9:6, 7).
Humility and genuine brokenness released God’s favor, for He “resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Consider how the high priest went into the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement, without arrogance, humbly and even at the risk of his life, genuinely identifying with the sin of the people. Of course, that model was fulfilled in the Person of Jesus, but the spirit of intercession still seeks those who will stand before God in prayer on behalf of those who either cannot, do not know how to, or will not pray for themselves.
Believers as Reconcilers
The ministry of reconciliation is directed in 2 Corinthians 5:18–21; calling each believer (a) to reach with love to all humankind and (b) to intercede for all, irrespective of their readiness to receive grace. All such outreach or intercession finds its fountainhead and authority for action in the cross of Jesus. At the cross, mercy triumphed over justice. At the cross, a mighty flood of reconciling grace was released into the Earth. At the cross, we ourselves were recipients of such mercy that it changes the way we view those who have sinned—whether against God, against themselves, or against us.
Today we live in a wounded world. The Cold War is over, the great transnational ideologies have either failed or proven to be weak. Communism has collapsed, and even the fervor of religious fanaticism has been unable to bring regions and peoples together. Into the sociopolitical vacuum have rushed older claims of nationality, language, religious schism, and tribal identities. Old hatreds are back with a vengeance; ancient fault lines that were briefly covered over once again exposed. Racial strife among the immigrants of new world cities, people group wars in the postcolonial states of Africa, and ethnoreligious convulsion in East Europe are all symptoms of the foundational conflicts that this generation receives as a legacy of the past.
What an exciting time then to be a believer in Jesus, an intercessor involved in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation! We have the answer! (2 Cor. 5:18). It is only when we are reconciled to God the Father that all “otherness” of different gender, race, or culture may become an attraction rather than a source of insecurity and division. This is why Jesus gives the ministry of reconciliation to the redeemed in Christ, the living church. A pagan world will never succeed with truly healing peacemaking. There is only one Prince of Peace.
Even now a wave of repentance and intercessory understanding is spreading through the world’s prayer movements, addressing the foundational sins that have hindered the progress of the gospel for centuries. Examples abound (see John Dawson, What Christians Should Know About Reconciliation [Ventura, CA: International Reconciliation Coalition, 1998]) as arenas fill with gathered Christians, weeping with repentance as people flood platforms to confess not only their personal sins, but also the sins of their group against other groups. The result: leaders from estranged people groups reconcile and embrace one another, paving the way for God’s healing love to invade nations as Satan is robbed of ancient strongholds and a spiritual harvest is triggered. What sort of obstacles does this order of prayer and intercession, confession, and repentance surmount?
The Wounds of the World
When we study human conflict, we see that Satan’s method of getting one group to abuse another is rooted in the hardheaded collision of self-righteous people within each group. Take some truth, polarize the people with different sides of that truth, tempt them to unrighteous judgment, and then watch them wound one another with rejection, harsh words, and injustice. The cycle seems endless, since even as two individuals can hurt each other through selfish and unjust behavior, it is equally common for wounds to be sustained by a nation or people within a nation. Animosities and bitternesses can fester unresolved for generations.
At a 1995 global conference, Christian delegates from more than forty nations identified fourteen different categories of deep-rooted systemic alienation between peoples and elements of society—“wounds of the world”—which call for reconciliation ministry:
1. Indigenous peoples to immigrant peoples (such as the aboriginal peoples to European Australians)
2. Residual antagonisms, when there is justice under the law, but wounds continue (for example, between black and white Americans because of the legacy of slavery, or between the hearing and hearing impaired because of a perception of society’s continuing insensitivity)
3. People group conflicts (such as the Kurds versus the Turks or the Hutus versus the Tutsis)
4. Nation-state rivalries (such as the border disputes between Pakistan and India)
5. Independence movements (for example, the Timorese resistance to Javanese Indonesians as a result of colonialism)
6. Civil wars (as in Bosnia)
7. Alienation between generations (such as a generation returned from war dealing with the countercultures of their teenage children)
8. Societal conflicts (for example, leftists versus rightist ideologies on the environment or abortion)
9. Gender-based abuses (such as the forced prostitution of Korean, Chinese, and Filipino women by the Japanese military during the 1940s)
10. Industry, trade, and labor disputes (such as migrant farm workers versus agri-business enterprises)
11. Social class divisions (such as those caused by the Indian caste system, socialist governing elites, land and business dynasties, or aristocratic cultures)
12. Interreligious conflicts (as between Christians and Jews)
13. Inter-Christian conflicts (sectarian divisions)
14. Christianity to peoples (when elements of Christian civilization have misrepresented God’s character, putting a stumbling block between those peoples and their Creator; an example is the impact of the Conquistadors on Amer-Indian peoples)
How do we respond to such deep, gaping, sometimes ancient wounds? The answer lies in the humility of Jesus expressed through His body, the church.
A Model for Reconciliation
Even though the Judeo-Christian ethos present in a few national cultures gives us some basis for hope that reconciliation can occur through governmental or societal entities, reconciliation ministry is primarily the responsibility of the living church. There is, after all, no substitute for the atonement Jesus provided for sin. Just as during seasons of revival in the past, the church always placed great emphasis on open acknowledgment of sin and called for changed attitudes and just actions, so today’s believers are being called to demonstrate a model of reconciliation for the troubled world of the new century. What is that model? The biblical pattern for experiencing spiritual recovery involves four actions: confession, repentance, reconciliation, and restitution. In the context of healing the wounds of the world, this means:
• Confession: Stating the truth; acknowledging the unjust or hurtful actions of myself or my people group toward other people or categories of people.
• Repentance: Turning from unloving to loving actions.
• Reconciliation: Expressing and receiving forgiveness and pursuing intimate fellowship with previous enemies.
• Restitution: Attempting to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed and seeking justice wherever we have power to act or to influence those in authority to act.
Sometimes we can begin this process by organizing events and ceremonies in which representatives of offending or offended subcultures have an opportunity to express regret or extend forgiveness. (Examples abound here, too: see source mentioned earlier in this article.) Of course, in initiating such acts, we recognize that the issues involved are complex as today’s generation accepts the task of honoring righteous ancestors while seeking forgiveness for ancestral sin. But honesty dictates that we embrace both the guilt and the grandeur that has attached itself to our various cultural, ethnic, or national identities. In such representative intercession, a fundamental and pivotal point of understanding is essential. It is that, even though each person stands alone before God and is in no way guilty for the sins of their ancestors or any other group, each willing intercessor is volunteering to open himself or herself before God to experience godly sorrow and to confess the sins of the people or the land as one who willingly identifies with either or both. This is where reconciliation begins.
The reconciliation prayer movement has found a momentum far beyond human promotion, growing rapidly into a worldwide network of culturally diverse, praying servants from all streams within the church. They unite as ambassadors of reconciliation, willingly leading the way in public confession, repentance, and reconciliation at “solemn assemblies” and other special events. How?
A reconciliation initiative is launched when people who trust each other form an alliance around a major reconciliation issue and determine to take action together. Like-minded people find each other and learn from other reconcilers in a network. Identificational repentance is proving to be the key to opening doors that have been closed for centuries. People are taking prayer journeys where historic oppression or massive killing has ruled regions and cultures—at such scenes as ancient massacres, slave trading, or war.
Such intercessory repentance does not mean that God puts the guilt on the intercessor. We are not individually guilty for what our people group did or for what our parents did. But He is waiting for the “royal priesthood,” which is the redeemed in Christ, to openly confess the truth of a matter before Him and before people, just as the ancient Hebrew priests once did over the sins of Israel. Such an open acknowledgment of the wounding injustices against people breaks open a flow of grace and healing.
Some occasionally object to this practice, or seem bewildered by it, suggesting that only the Old Testament concerned itself with the national or corporate sins (as with Israel). In tandem with this opinion, they suppose the New Testament only relates to a personal salvation, and that being born into a spiritual kingdom renders all such issues as repentance in behalf of people groups, nations, classes, or cultures to be meaningless or presumptuous. “Why even try to heal society?” they ask; or, “Who do I think I am, repenting for my nation, the sins of my ancestors, the failures of history?”
The Example of Jesus
But we do see that Jesus did concern Himself with corporate entities as well as with personal ones. To begin, He ministered to His people group as a culture with a particular history. He wept over Israel’s sins and wounds. He identified with them. He was absolutely rooted in their story, as the elaborate genealogy introducing Him in Matthew 1 reveals. Indeed, He was totally engaged with individuals, both with their immediate personal needs and with their eternal salvation, but He also dealt in terms of corporate, national issues.
The most striking example of Jesus’ dealing with a corporate entity among His people is found in Matthew 23:29–32. Notice:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt.”
Here, Jesus ascribes unresolved corporate guilt to a multigenerational, vocational cast—the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus indicates that the proof of their unresolved guilt was that they took a position of self-righteous accusation toward their forefathers rather than humbly identifying with them. Because of this, all opportunity for cleansing was lost; and the weight of unrepented sin rested upon their shoulders.
In contrast to these, compare the righteous, amazing example of identificational repentance in the example of Stephen (Acts 7). Even more radically than the great intercessory examples of Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel, and Jeremiah, Stephen totally identified with his people group, even as some of their number engaged in the act of killing him. He did not say “You Jews,” but rather he said, “Our fathers would not obey.” Stephen remained constant in this spirit of humility until, falling on his knees as stones rained upon him, he cried out, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin”—the last words he uttered before he died (Acts 7:60). Truly this is the power of the Cross at work in the early church. They showed us the way.
What was effective then is even more important in today’s missionary endeavors. Intercession is more than prayer; it is living out the mediating, reconciling life of Christ in a wounded, bitter world with no answers for the broken relationships that torment all cultures. This is a day of God’s favor, a fulfillment of that which was prophesied long ago. “You shall be named the priests of the LORD, they shall call you the servants of our God” (Is. 61:6).