Standing in the Gap for God’s People Today 

Some Christians think that the most important thing in life is to be sure that they go to Heaven when they die. But if that is so, why did two of the greatest men in the Bible – Moses in the Old Testament and the apostle Paul in the New Testament – both clearly express their willingness to be blotted out from the Book of Life? What could possibly be more important than having a guaranteed place in Heaven?

Moses – A Hero to Stand in the Gap

These two heroes of the faith believed that there was indeed something more important. Let’s explore this further by looking at an event in the life of Moses. The story is found in Exodus 32. Moses had been up on Mount Sinai for several days receiving God’s Law, but while he was gone the people got impatient and decided to make an idol – a golden calf-and they worshiped it.

Then this is what happened:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. … 

I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now, therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people … ?” And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people ….

On the morrow Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin – and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.”

Exodus 32:7-11, 14, 30-32

The Extent of the Offense

When we consider the full story up to this point, we can see how ungratefully the people behaved. God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, had drowned their enemies (Pharaoh’s army) in the sea while taking them across on dry ground, had provided water, manna, and even quail in the wilderness, and had made a covenant to give them the Promised Land and make them a holy nation. But while Moses was up on the mountain, the people became impatient and behaved as though God did not even exist.

No wonder God was so angry!

Moses, too, was in a rage. As soon as he came down off the mountain and “came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables [on which God’s Law had been written] out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf which they had made and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:19, 20). His rage did not end until three thousand of the most unrepentant offenders were slain (Exodus 32:28).

The Extent of the Sacrifice

But, if Moses was so angry, why did he beg God to forgive the people – or if God wasn’t willing to forgive, then offer to have God blot his name out of the Book of Life instead? Was this some rash, ill-considered declaration? Didn’t Moses realize the terrible seriousness of his offer? What was going on?

I think Moses did understand the seriousness of his statement. The Lord meant everything to Moses. After God delivered the people from Pharaoh’s army, Moses publicly sang this song: 

“The Lord is my strength and my song, 
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him, 
my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 

Exodus 15:2

Indeed, Moses’ entire life had been given over to serving the Lord. For him, there was nothing else of meaning in this life and certainly no hope for a life hereafter apart from the Lord.

Moses knew the gravity of what he was saying. Certainly when Paul said a similar thing, he was fully aware of the eternal consequences: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren” (Romans 9:3) – if it would have accomplished their salvation. He so loved his Israelite kinsmen that he would have made the supreme sacrifice in order to stand in the gap.

Before he went back up the mountain, Moses told the people, “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30). The idea of vicarious atonement is found from the very beginning of the Bible. And although, as Psalm 49:7 points out, no mere man can atone for his own sins, let alone the sins of his brother, God was teaching his people to expect a Messiah, a holy Lamb who would qualify as the Redeemer. (Some commentators read Exodus 32:32 to mean, “If you don’t forgive the people, then blot me out of the book as well.” Even this interpretation shows Moses’ willingness to identify with the people, asking God to forgive them or condemn him along with the rest-he was that serious about standing with the people and pleading on their behalf.)

But the most convincing demonstration of the magnitude of Moses’ offer was God’s response. He did not accept Moses’ sacrificial offer (“Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.”-verse 33), but God’s heart was touched by Moses’ plea and his anger softened. He agreed to spare the nation, though he did punish the guilty parties for the sake of their own training, and he substituted his own guiding presence with an angel to go before them on the journey.

Moses stood in the gap. A gap is a breech in the defense system, a hole in the wall. God never asked for us to pour cement or bricks or rocks into that hole. The entire call in the Scripture is for a man to stand in the gap.

We offer to suffer in place of others

We cannot be the atonement for sin as Christ was, but we can play a Christ-like sacrificial role. As Paul said, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). That means that my body – and I must take this very literally – becomes part of the defense system. Now the enemy is going to have a go at me. And as long as I stand there, those that I protect – maybe my own children, my church, my nation, maybe the suffering church in Russia, in China, in Iran – will be protected, but I will get the blows.

This is why I think it is so important that we do not ascribe blame to the suffering church around the world, as though their suffering resulted from their own sin. They may be suffering for our sins, not in the sense of the cosmic redemption that Christ accomplished but in the sense that Paul mentioned in Colossians, of completing in their flesh what is necessary for the spread of the gospel, the growth of the church, and reconciliation of sinners.

We plead with God on behalf of others

When Moses appealed to the Lord to forgive the people, you can almost hear the hesitation in his voice: “If thou wilt forgive their sin – and if not ….“ as if he realized their sin was too great to forgive without proper atonement. Moses realized that God might not forgive the people simply because he asked for it; so he offered the greatest sacrifice he knew, his own relationship with God and his hope of eternal salvation.

Moses himself could not atone for the people; that is why Jesus had to come. In God’s plan there had to be a sacrifice so great that on the base of that one sacrifice alone every sin could be forgiven. But it was a personal sacrifice, God’s own Son: a person, a body, standing in the gap for us. In Jesus’ case it was someone who had never sinned, yet who became sin on behalf of others. And that is why God could accept that sacrifice.

But Moses was Christ-like as he offered himself to be an atonement. I’m not suggesting that we should make a similar offer. Calvary has already happened; the price has been paid. But Moses understood what the real spiritual battle was all about, that something had to happen to bridge the gulf between a holy God and sinful man. Someone had to stand in the gap. Someone had to give himself. That is intercession.

Intercession is a duty and privilege

Earlier in the chapter Moses demonstrated this form of intercession, of standing in the gap, that is our duty and privilege:

But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” (ESV translation)

Exodus 32:11-13

Moses seemed to employ three approaches as he pleaded for the people.

He appealed to God’s sense of reason by saying, in effect, “You have gone to such great effort to deliver this people, why waste it all now?”

He appealed to God’s public relations by pointing out that if God destroyed the Israelites, the heathen would think him cruel since they would never understand God’s justification.

He appealed to God’s integrity by reminding him of his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to bless their descendants.

Prayer is what you do for yourself. I think that’s easy. You pray for blessing, protection, health, and all that. But intercession is where your entire effort is for others. In a similar circumstance, when God was very angry because of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham interceded for the people, pleading with God to save the city if there could be found fifty who were still righteous, then forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten. And God agreed to save the city if only ten righteous people could be found (Genesis 18:27-33).

Willing to pay the price

But what gives any person the right to try to bargain with the Almighty God? I believe you can reason with God, provided you yourself are willing to pay the price. In Moses’ case we see that he was willing to sacrifice his own salvation. His attitude was a willingness to give his own life. He was not speaking in rebellion. He was not threatening: “God, if you wipe out these people, you won’t have me either.” He was just acting on his tremendous insight into the way God had required a sacrificial lamb – eventually his own Son – to take away the sin of the world.

The price

God did not require Moses’ life or wipe his name from the Book of Life. Moses was not the sinless One, so that would have done no actual good in providing remission for the sins of the people. But apparently God did allow Moses to pay a symbolic price of atonement just as he had instituted the sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament to symbolically foretell the coming of the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

Moses’ greatest desire in his whole life was to walk in the Promised Land. But God did not let him do it. There were apparently two reasons for this. One, Moses struck the rock in anger because of the people’s complaints about water, when God had instructed him to speak to the rock (Numbers 20:8-12). The second reason, recorded at several points in Scripture, was that God made Moses the partial bearer of the people’s sin of rebellion (cf. Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:23-29; 4:21). There is an acute pathos about this.

Moses’ one great commission was to take the people to the Promised Land, but he was unable to see its victorious conclusion. It was the burden he bore vicariously for the sin of the people for whom he gave his life, a graphic picture of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and Jesus Christ on the cross. It was the suffering of a hero standing in the gap.

The results

God’s response was remarkable, something you seldom hear of or read about. It is found in Exodus 32:14: “So the Lord changed his mind” (TEV). All God is waiting for is for a person to step into the gap and say, “God, let’s reason together. What will happen to your great name? How will the enemy talk about you? They will say God failed because his people failed. How about your promises? God, there must be another way.”

An intercessor will only reason with God when he or she knows God very personally, knows God’s promises, his character, the ways he has dealt with his people in the past. God himself invites us into this intimate relationship: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

The reward

After this incident of lsrael’s great idolatry and Moses’ intercession we find recorded the most profound encounter between a man and God to have occurred since the Garden of Eden. Again Moses was up on the mountain with God, and Moses said:

“… show me now your ways, that I may know you and find favor in your sight …. “ And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “I pray, show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’; … But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

(Exodus 33:13, 17-23)

What a reward! You see, God loved Moses. The fact that he placed some of his righteous indignation about the people’s sin onto Moses’ shoulders did not mean that God hated Moses. Moses had found favor in God’s sight. God even gave him the privilege of sacrificial suffering. Shortly before Moses’ death the Lord took him to a high mountain on the other side of the Dead Sea on Mount Nebo, which is presently Jordan, and from there he could look over all of the Promised Land. “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there” (Deuteronomy 34:4).

Centuries later when the fullness of time had come and Jesus, the perfect atonement for sin, was on the scene, this burden was removed from Moses’ shoulders. One day Jesus took some of his friends – Peter, James, and John – up on a mountain. There he was transfigured before

them-and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. What were they doing there? Luke 9:31 records that they were talking about the work he was going to accomplish on Calvary.

What did Moses know of that? He knew a lot. He had been called to stand in the gap for a time, to receive the blows of sin on behalf of the people. He understood that the day had to come for Christ to be the perfect atonement. And that was why Moses was finally permitted to stand on that mountain with Jesus. He was finally in the Promised Land.

Participating in the struggle of the ages

All the attacks of Satan before the transfiguration were his efforts to prevent Jesus from being born in Bethlehem or from reaching the cross. All the attacks of Satan after Jesus rose from the dead have been against the church to thwart the purpose of God in spreading the gospel to every people. Satan hopes thereby to prevent Christ from returning in victory.

We are not here for our own benefit. We are here to take an active part in this great struggle of the ages. Our task is to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to establish its principles and rescue people from the devil’s grasp by telling them of God’s saving power. To that end we are to become intercessors, and in so doing we may have to stand in the gap on behalf of people who otherwise would perish, people who need protection, people whose protection has been taken away because of persecution, people who have grown weak because of personal sin. 

Intercession is just the opposite of fatalism. Too many Christians today are fatalistic: “What will be, will be.” They even claim their passivity is a surrender to the will of God. Nonsense! A thousand times a day we act to have our own will done. But when we think we cannot have any influence on decisions we say, “Well, the will of the Lord be done.” We need to become fighters for God, to stand up for righteousness against injustice and immorality. We must have a relationship with God in which we talk things over with him; we must have insight into God’s ways and his desires.

While in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1955, I visited a small Moravian church with about forty young people in attendance. Things were very restrictive at that time. Many believers had been forced out of their jobs or denied education because of their faith. They were looked on as unpatriotic.

After encouraging these believers, I was given a small gift and told to take it back to my home in Holland. It was a small, silver lapel ornament in the shape of a cup. “This,” I was told, “is the symbol of the church in Czechoslovakia. We call it the cup of suffering. Now you tell them about us and remind them that we are part of the Body of Christ, too, and that we are in pain.”

As I have worn this pin, many around the world have remembered to intercede for these and other believers behind the Iron Curtain. Maybe we have been privileged to stand in the gap on their behalf Does such intercession have any benefit in our modern world? I believe it does. Though conditions are still very restrictive and precarious, there has been much change for the better.

In 1987, for instance, a number of religious prisoners were unexpectedly released in the Soviet Union, cutting almost in half the numbers of believers known to be in prison for religious activity. The Soviet government promised to permit the printing of 100,000 Bibles inside the Soviet Union and the shipment of an additional 100,000 Bibles from the outside. Konstantin Kharchev, the chairman of the Soviet Council for Religious Affairs, has stated that excessively restrictive laws need to change. Possibly for the first time he has admitted officially that the government was responsible for closing thousands of churches. (For more information, read Chris Woehr, “Soviet Official Claims Conditions for Christians to Improve, Prisoners Will Be Freed,” in Open Doors News Service, Sept. 10, 1987, pp. 2, 3.) The prayers of Believers around the world are being answered.

We praise God when his light breaks into the shadows of sin and suffering. But Satan is determined to keep people in darkness and 66 percent of the world’s population continues to live under conditions that restrict their free exercise of worship and belief as we know it. Heroes of the faith are still needed to stand in the gap. Will you be one?

This article is excerpted from A Time for Heroes, Chapter 2, by Brother Andrew with Dave and Neta Jackson, published by Servant Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA, © copyright 1988 by Open Doors International.

Top image credit: Illustration of Moses standing in the gap for the people of Israel in the wilderness, © from Used with permission.

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