The word “mediator” generally has two meanings. In the primary sense it refers to a principal who intervenes between opposed parties in order to reconcile them. Regarding our redemption, the only person who fits this definition is Jesus Christ. Jesus alone effectively interposes between the estranged parties, God and the entire human race. Only Jesus was capable of achieving a reconciliation with God. As Paul writes, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). This is the belief of most Christians. It has always been the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
There is, however, a less strict sense in which Christians from the earliest times have understood the idea of mediation. This is the idea of a subordinatemediation by which we participate in the mediation of Jesus Christ. It is a mediation that is effective through, with, and in Christ. The subordinate mediator never stands alone, but is always dependent on Jesus. Let’s examine the biblical foundation for this understanding, with a special reference to 1 Timothy 2:5.
In interpreting any passage of Scripture, certain principles must apply. For example, the Bible has one divine author but many human authors. The individual books of the Bible form a harmonious whole, each part agreeing with what came before and what followed. Thus, for example, a teaching in Genesis will not be contradicted by anything in John’s Gospel, or vice versa. In addition, the body of truth revealed in the Bible as a whole frequently sheds light on understanding a specific biblical book or text. In this way, subsequent books expand our knowledge and understanding of Genesis.
In attempting to interpret a particular Bible passage correctly, it is imperative to begin by considering the passage in its context. Paul’s first letter to Timothy 2:5 shows how these principles apply. If we consider this verse—”For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”—apart from its context, it is easy to misinterpret. Doesn’t “one mediator” mean just that—one, no exception? If this is so, asking for the intercession of saints seems anti-biblical.
However, this interpretation is inaccurate. The passage is not isolated. It is a verse in a larger book called an epistle. What, then, is the correct meaning of Paul’s teaching? How does this passage fit in with the whole picture presented in the Bible?
Let’s consider these questions by first examining the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2:5. Is Paul rejecting the idea of mediators subordinate to Jesus? Actually, the opposite is true. Chapter two of 1 Timothy opens with the following exhortation: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1–2).
Supplications, prayers, and intercessions are acts of mediation. Paul is instructing Timothy that Christians are to assume the role of a subordinate mediator between God and those listed (namely, “all men, for kings and all who are in high positions”). The theological principle that Paul uses to buttress his command is the passage already quoted in verse five—the one, primary mediation of Jesus.
As a practical matter, the vast majority of Christians pray for one another. They often establish prayer groups for just that purpose. How, then, is it different to ask the Christians in heaven to pray for us on earth? Many people have benefited from the fervent and persistent prayers of a loving parent or grandparent. Once that person is in purgatory or heaven, are we to suppose that they no longer care about our welfare, or that God would be offended if we asked them to intercede for us? This idea certainly does not find a basis in 1 Timothy 2:5.
Most Christians who reject praying to saints likely base their opposition on the desire to emphasize the sublime and infinite capacity of Jesus’ unique mediation. This commendable motivation leads, unfortunately, to an inadequate understanding of the awesome power of Christ’s mediation. In other words, it conflicts with important biblical lessons.
One significant theme that runs through the books of the Bible is the idea of covenant. The covenant is God’s faithful oath by which he makes us his people, his family. Surely, the Bible’s many examples of God working mighty deeds through imperfect men reflect God’s power rather than detract from it. The Bible demonstrates that the loving Father chooses to engage his weak and sinful children in the family business, which is the salvation of souls. Thus, Paul, following his plea for “supplications, prayers, [and] intercessions,” instructs Timothy that this mediation is pleasing to God: “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:4).
In the Old Testament we are presented with the example of Abraham’s mediation for the people of Sodom, which God approved and to which he responded. In the International Critical Commentary on Genesis (1910), theologian John Skinner writes, regarding the Old Testament story of Joseph, “The profoundly religious conviction which recognizes the hand of God, not merely in miraculous interventions but in the working out of divine ends though human agency and what we call secondary causes, is characteristic of the Joseph narrative” (487). Moses, David, the prophets, and the Levitical priesthood all clearly performed roles of mediation.
In the New Testament, Jesus gathered the apostles and assigned them roles of mediation. He instructed them to evangelize and baptize (Matt. 28:18–20), to forgive sins (John 20:23), and to celebrate the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23–25)—all actions of mediation. Paul concluded his teaching in first Timothy by connecting Jesus’ mediation to Paul’s own apostolate, which was also a role of subordinate mediation: “For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim. 2:7).
The truth of Christians participating in the one mediation of Jesus Christ is abundantly clear in the practice of the early Church. “A phenomenon of great significance in the patristic period was the rise and gradual development of veneration for the saints, more particularly for the Blessed Virgin Mary,” writes respected Protestant patrologist J.N.D. Kelly. “. . . Earliest in the field was the cult of martyrs, the heroes of the faith whom Christians held to be already in God’s presence and glorious in his sight. At first it took the form of the reverent preservation of their relics and the annual celebration of their ‘birthday.’ From this it was a short step, since they were now with Christ in glory, to seeking their help and prayers, and in the third century evidence for the belief in their intercessory power accumulates” (Early Christian Doctrines , 490).
A touching example is expressed in the ancient account of the martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna, who was 86 years old at the time of his death. “When [Polycarp] finally had finished his prayer, in which he remembered everyone with whom he had ever been acquainted, the small and the great, the renowned and the unknown, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, and the moment of departure had arrived, they seated him on an ass and let him into the city” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 8:1). After his martyrdom we learn of the reverence that was paid to his remains. “Then, at last, we took up his bones, more precious than costly gems and finer than gold, and put them in a suitable place. The Lord will permit us, when we are able to assemble there in joy and gladness; and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom” (ibid., 19:1).
Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Lectures, which were composed around the year 350, wrote the following: “Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep; first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplication God would receive our petition” (23:9).
Augustine preached twice weekly from the time of his ordination in 391 until his death in 430. He had this to say on our subject: “Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. For it is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended” (Sermons 159:1). In his work Against Faustus, written around the year 400, he states, “A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers” (20:21).
The effectiveness of a Christian’s subordinate mediation rests solely on the one mediator, Jesus Christ. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. . . . If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:5, 7). Christians are formed into an extraordinary solidarity with one another in this oneness with Christ. (Consider Col. 1:18; Gal. 3:28; Rom. 7:4, 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 6:15, 10:16, 12:12, 12:27; Eph. 4:11–12, 4:16, 5:23; and Heb. 10:10.) This relationship provides the potency that makes Christians’ intercessions for one another effective, whether on earth or in heaven.