In his profoundly helpful book Wisdom Words, pastor Harold Burchett teaches us that praying is a lot like breathing. In order to have the strength to continue breathing, one needs to breathe. So also the strength to pray comes from praying. Now if personal prayer is breathing for oneself, then intercession is like breathing for others.
In any church there are several people barely breathing spiritually. Yes, we can teach them “to breathe” through solid exposition of Scripture. That is an essential part of the resuscitation process. But the other (often missing) part is that they may need someone to breathe for them for a while.
This can easily become the overlooked and missing element of pastoral ministry—the priority of intercession. And like lifeguarding, one needs a working set of lungs before successfully engaging those lungs in the resuscitation of others. A wheezing asthmatic lifeguard is not particularly faith-building.
I believe Paul’s prayer life may give us an insight into what the apostles meant when they declared that their biblical priorities were to: “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:4) As we study the prayers of Paul, isn't it striking how little is written about his own communion with God? Based on what we see of his prayers in Scripture he “devoted himself” to praying for others. Without a doubt this included worship (Acts 13:2) and communion with God (his own spiritual breathing). But it also clearly involved breathing for others. This is the life of intercession.
In Ephesians we see Paul demonstrating the priorities of Acts 6:4 by combining teaching with intercession as his pattern of ministry. He teaches (Ephesians 1:3-14) then he intercedes (Ephesians 1:16-19). He teaches some more (Ephesians 2:1-21; 3:1-13) and then he intercedes some more (Ephesians 3:16-19).
We might say that if the logs on a fire pit are like the Scriptures being taught, and the fire is like the Spirit’s powerful ministry, then intercession is the means God uses to bring the two together in believers’ lives.
This is absolutely essential — As essential as the ministry of the Word. Why would we ever try to practice one without the other?