Intercession Prayers and Prayers for the Departed
Is it biblical to ask the departed saints to pray for us?
Is it biblical to us to pray for the souls of our departed?
Lets start by examining what the scripture says about this:
Acts of the Apostles 4: 12, says: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” The scripture also says, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2: 5).
So if there is no intercessor or mediator between God and men other than Lord Jesus Christ, then how can we ask St. Mary or St. Thomas to pray for us?
Is it Biblical to pray for each other?
Even those who teach that we should not ask St. Mary or other saints to intercede for us, do pray for others and even ask others to pray for them. When a pastor prays for the healing of a sick man, what is the role of the pastor between that sick man and God? The sick man can pray for his own healing, right? So when a pastor prays for the healing of another man, the pastor is indeed a mediator or intercessor between the sick man and God.
In the same epistle where St. Paul teaches us that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and men, he also asks us to make supplications and intercessions for all men, especially for kings and for those in authority. In 1 Timothy 2: 1-3 we read: “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”
Again in James 5: 14 – 16, we are instructed to pray for each other. There are specific instructions in this scripture that the elder of the church should pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. We can see in this passage that through the intersession prayers of others, the Lord will forgive the sins of the sick person.
In Lamentations 2: 18-19 we see the exhortation to give oneself no relief but to pray for life of young children, who faint from hunger at the head of every street. In Numbers 11: 1 – 2, we see the people crying out to Moses and Moses interceding to God on behalf of the people and God answering those prayers. In Genesis 18: 16-33, we can see Patriarch Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah.
In light of the above verses we can learn that it is absolutely biblical to intercede for others and to ask others to intercede for us. So if it is biblical to intercede for others or be a mediator between others and God, then how are we to interpret the scripture: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2: 5). Lets tackle that at the end of this article.
We have seen above that I can ask you to pray (intercede) for me and you can ask me to intercede for you. We have seen that in both the New and Old Testament, there are many examples of intersession prayers. So then what is the big deal about asking St. Mary the Mother of Our Lord or St Paul the Apostle of the Lord to intercede for us?
Those who oppose the teachings of Orthodox Church, answer this question by saying that you and I are alive where as St. Mary and St. Peter are dead. They teach that it is ok for you and me who are alive to ask each other to intercede for us, but it is not ok for us to ask St. Mary or St. Peter who is dead to intercede for us. In order to prove their case they often quote Psalm 115: 17, which says: “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence.”
We should not stop at verse 17 but we should continue to read verse 18. In Psalm 115: 18 it says: “But as for us, we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forever.” Please note it does not say that we will bless the Lord from this time till we are dead, but it says we will bless the Lord from this time and forever. The keyword here is “forever”. So from this verse it is evident to us there are some people who bless the Lord forever and not just till the death of their physical body.
So from Psalm 115 17-18, we can learn that the dead do not praise the Lord, but we who don’t die will bless the Lord forever.
Lets explore who are dead who are these people who don’t die.
In Genesis 2: 16 – 17, we see God giving a specific instruction to Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He even describes the consequence of doing that, we read: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Here we can see the scripture is very specific. It says that Adam will die on the very day he eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. But in the scripture we can see Adam continuing to live in his physical body for many years after he ate the forbidden fruit. So what does God mean when He tells Adam that he will die on the very day he eat the forbidden fruit. We can see that God is not referring to the death of the physical body, but the death of his spirit or soul. So even though Adam’s physical body continued to live even after he ate the forbidden fruit, his spirit died the very day he ate the forbidden fruit.
In Matthew 22: 32 the Lord says: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob. God is not the God of the dead, but the living." At the time of Jesus , Abraham, Issac and Jacob were all physically dead. So what does our Lord mean when He says that God is not the God of the dead, but is the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Here again the Lord is not talking about physical death but about spiritual death. Again in Matthew 17 1- 13 we read regarding the transfiguration of our Lord on the mountain. In verse 3 we read about Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah. The scripture clearly talks about Moses's physical death, here we see him talking with our Lord after his physical death.
In Luke 9: 59-60, we can see a man telling Jesus that he wanted to first take care of his father and after he had a chance to bury his father he will come and follow Jesus. Jesus tells him “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." What does Jesus mean when he says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”. He does not mean that a dead corpse should literally bury another dead corpse. He is referring to the spiritually dead, one who loves another thing or person (even his own father) above the Lord. For we are commanded: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20: 3) and “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5). This man by loving his own father more than the Lord, was at the risk of becoming spiritually dead.
In John 11 : 25 –26, we see Jesus saying: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” So we have to ask the question, did St. Mary the Mother of our Lord , St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Thomas the Apostles and the other saints believe in Jesus when they were physically alive. The answer is “Yes”; none of the Christian denominations will disagree. So if they believed in Jesus when they were physically alive, then they shall never die, though they may die, they shall live.
We can now understand the full meaning of Psalm 115 17-18. We can see who are those who are dead and do not praise God and we also see who are those who don’t die and bless the Lord forever. We saw that in the case of Adam, he was spiritually dead, while physically alive. We see Moses was spiritually alive, while physically dead. Adam remained spiritually dead even after his physical death, till Christ offered the ultimate sacrifice and gave him life. We also see how the saints are very much spiritually alive even after their physical death. So we see that spiritual death has nothing to do with physical death. In Psalm 115, verse 17, the reference is to the spiritually dead, irrespective of their physical status (dead or alive) and verse 18 is about the spiritually alive, irrespective of their physical status (dead or alive).
When we are exhorted by St. Paul, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men. We need to pray for all men that are alive in Christ, irrespective of their physical status.
In God and in His Church there is no division between the living and the departed, but all are one in the love of the Father. Whether we are physically alive or whether we are physically dead, as members of the Church we still belong to the same family, and still have a duty to bear one another’s burdens. Therefore just as we here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another’s prayers, so we pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for us.
Orthodox are convinced that Christians here on earth have a duty to pray for the departed just as they have every right to ask the departed to pray for us. We are confident that the departed are helped by such prayers, just as we are helped by the intercessions of the departed saints. If we are asked precisely in what way do our prayers help the departed? What exactly is the condition of souls in the period between physical death and the Resurrection of the Body at the Last Day? The answer is, we don’t know. Just like we don’t know how our prayers for a man who is physically alive will help him. When we pray for the healing of a man, we know our prayers help him. In some cases the man is healed and in some cases he is not healed, but irrespective of him receiving physical healing, our prayers help him, we just don’t know precisely how.
When St. Anthony of Egypt was worrying about this in the desert, a voice came to him, saying: “Anthony, attend to yourself, for these are the judgments of God, and it is not for you to know them.”
Departed saints interceding for us
Where does prayer come from? Does prayer come from the body or from the spirit ? We see in Matthew 15:8, the Lord saying, “These people honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me”. In John 4: 24 we read: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” So in prayer and worship, the status of the body is not important, the body could be dead or alive, as long as you are spiritually alive you can and will worship and bless the Lord forever.
In Hebrews 11:4, we read: “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.” We read about the voice of Abel’s blood crying out to the Lord from the ground in Genesis 4:9-10. Thus if righteous Abel could cry out to the Lord after his death after offering his sacrifice, we can be sure the Christian saints who are justified by the perfect sacrifice can cry out to the Lord even after their physical death.
So when 1 Timothy 2: 5 says that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and men, how do we reconcile this with what we saw above. Jesus is the only mediator between God the Father and men. Men who are alive in Christ, irrespective of they being physically alive or dead can pray for each other to Christ our Lord. Our departed saints intercede for us to Christ.
Mother of our God Jesus Christ, Apostles, Evangelists, Martyrs and all the Saints, can and will cry out to the Lord for us even though they are physically dead. In fact in private an Orthodox Christian is free to ask for the intercessions of any member of the Church, whether canonized or not. It would be perfectly normal for an orphaned Orthodox child to end his evening prayer by asking for the intercessions not only of the Mother of God and saints, but of his own mother and father.
As Orthodox Christians we invoke in prayers not only saints, but the angels. The angels ‘fence us around with their intercessions and shelter us under their protecting wings of immaterial glory.