The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (John 17)
The story is told of a preacher who was shaking hands at the door of the church after his Sunday morning sermon. One outspoken member of the congregation thanked the pastor for both messages. “But I only preached once this morning,” he gently corrected. “Well, pastor, I meant the one you preached and the one you prayed.”
Some preachers seem to find it easier to pray their sermons than to preach them. (I can well remember amusing myself by timing them from week to week.) I would hope this is not because it is easier to say some things with ‘every head bowed’ than with people looking you straight in the eye. And lest we parents feel too smug here, we often pray little sermons to our children. For example: “Dear Lord, help little Sally not to leave her bed unmade and to be more respectful of her mommy and daddy.”
Another misuse of prayer is what I call the ‘evangelistic prayer.’ This is often prayed at church, but the most striking form of it is the restaurant version. Someone, normally with a booming voice, prays at sufficient volume for the entire restaurant to overhear. Usually every fork clatters to the plate, waitresses freeze in place, and all conversation stops. The prayer always includes a concise presentation of the gospel.
I have always been irritated by such forms of prayer for it appears they were not intended for God at all. Having said this, I must recognize that some of the prayers of our Lord were addressed to the Father, but were intended to be overheard. Among other examples I would include the prayer of Jesus for the raising of Lazarus (John 11:41-42) and this prayer in John chapter 17.
The high priestly prayer of Jesus serves as a fitting conclusion to the upper room discourse of chapters 14-16. In verse one of chapter 17 John informs us that this prayer is to be understood as a kind of conclusion to the Lord’s teaching in chapters 14-16. “These things Jesus spoke; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, he said …” (John 17:1a). It is my personal opinion that this prayer, the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayers, was intended to be overheard by His disciples. One purpose of this prayer was to bring comfort and hope to the troubled hearts of the disciples. It may have been more effective at the moment than all the teaching of chapters 14-16. While a measure of assurance resulted from the words of our Lord in chapters 14-16 (cf. 16:29-30), much more comfort and faith would be gained in the light of their fulfillment (John 13:19; 16:4). This prayer must have done much to calm the troubled hearts of the eleven.
Let us look carefully at this prayer, then, to find the comfort that it afforded the disciples. And let us remember that it was not only a prayer for the eleven, but for Christians of every age (John 17:20).
The Prayer of Jesus for Himself
There is one word that dominates Jesus’ prayer for Himself in verses 1-5—glory. It occurs in some form five times in these verses. Initially, it seems unfitting for Jesus to pray that He might receive glory for Himself. Looking more closely we find there are several observations concerning this request for glory which put the matter in a different light.
(1) Jesus requested that He be glorified in order to bring further glory to the Father. Jesus’ petition was not to receive glory independently from the Father, but to be glorified to the praise of the Father. “… Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son, that the Son may glorify Thee” (John 17:1 b). “And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, …” (John 17:5). Satan wanted to usurp God’s position and glory (Isaiah 14:12-14). He wanted to receive glory independently of God. Jesus prayed for glorification in order to exalt the Father.
(2) Jesus requested the glory which rightfully belonged to Him. “And now glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:5). When the second person of the Godhead left heaven to become God incarnate, He temporarily set aside His glory (Philippians 2:5-8). This ‘kenosis’ was illustrated by the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13. Our Lord did not lay aside any of His deity, but rather added perfect humanity to His deity.157 When the work of the cross was completed the glory which was momentarily laid aside was given back to Him. This, in part, is that which Jesus requested in His prayer.
(3) Christ’s glory was earned at the price of the cross. In addition to the restoration of the glory which our Lord possessed prior to His incarnation, there is additional glory which was earned by His earthly life and ministry. He had glorified the Father by His earthly life of obedience and submission (John 17:4). He was glorified, along with the Father in the salvation of men by His work on the cross (John 17:2-3). It is because of Christ’s willingness to set aside the glory that was rightfully His in order to save sinful men that the Father gave Him even greater glory.
“Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
What a beautiful commentary these verses in Philippians chapter two provide on the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus prayed to be glorified so that the Father would receive glory (Philippians 2:11). Jesus received the glory that was already His (Philippians 2:6), but because of His work on the cross (Philippians 2:7-8) was given an even greater glory (Philippians 2:9-11).
The matter of suffering and glory must be kept in proper perspective. The Christian experience is not one of grim determination which causes one to face a life of suffering and sorrow with glory to follow later. The Christian life is the abundant life (John 10:10b). It is one of joy and peace.
Nevertheless, trials (James 1:2-4,12), persecution (John 15:18ff.; 2 Timothy 2:12) and suffering (Philippians 1:29) are an inseparable part of the Christian experience. In times of difficulty, our faith is deepened (James 2:3), our fellowship with God is enriched (Philippians 3:10) and we experience deep joy in the midst of difficulties (John 17:13; 1 Peter 4:13; 2 Corinthians 12:10). In suffering and adversity we come to appreciate God as our great reward, as well as our rewarder.158 When all of our human resources have been spent, we find our sufficiency in Christ alone (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The suffering of this life takes many forms. It may be that of opposition from friends and loved ones (Matthew 10:34ff.; 1 Peter 4:4). It can be a physical or mental experience. It may involve setting aside temporary pleasures for eternal rewards (Hebrews 11:24-26). It may be the normal failures and frustrations of our humanity (Romans 7:15ff.; 8:18ff.) as we attempt to live in a way pleasing to God and as we await our final glorification.
We should not only say that Christian suffering leads to glory, but that in many cases suffering is glory.
“By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:24-26).
We are told that Moses considered the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt (verse 26). Moses came to view his sufferings as glory. So also the sufferings of the Savior were a part of His glory as well (John 12:27–28).
The Christian life is a mixture of the bitter and the sweet. We have a good measure of life’s pleasures and fulfillments. There are also the bitter experiences of suffering and sorrow. These the Lord sweetens with His presence and peace, blending the bitter and the sweet in such a way as to bring about His glory and our good (Romans 8:28). There is no lifestyle more desirable than that of the disciple. There is none more difficult. But He gives greater grace to meet life’s trials and provides His strength for our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).
It must also be said that suffering is not the only way to bring glory to God. To believe this would be to become Christian masochists. Our Lord glorified the Father by His words and works, by revealing Him to men (John 1:14; 17:4). We glorify God by our faith in Him and our obedience to His Word. The disciples brought glory to our Lord before they experienced suffering for His sake (John 17:10). In short, we bring glory to God when He manifests Himself in our lives, whether in times of triumph or trial, of success or suffering.
The prayer of our Lord reveals that He has already glorified the Father by His earthly life and ministry (verse 4). But now the hour of His death had come (verse 1). As He had glorified the Father by His life, now He prays that He might do the same in His death.
Here is the touchstone for many Christians today. Are we as willing to live for the glory of God as we are to die for it? A willingness to do either will free us from much of the agony we experience in facing the future. The joy of the apostle Paul in the face of his sufferings in that Roman jail was that which resulted from his willingness to live or die, to prosper or to perish, for the glory of God and the progress of the gospel (Philippians 1:18-26).
Have you ever made this commitment, my Christian friend? It is the dedication of which the apostle Paul spoke in Romans chapter twelve, verses 1 and 2. Have you asked God to glorify Himself through you? It may mean suffering, it may mean success. Most likely it will mean both. That is the commitment a true disciple of our Lord must make. It is such unconditional surrender to the purposes of God which brings Him glory and results in our good.
The Prayer of Jesus for His Disciples
From His request concerning Himself our Lord quickly turned to the needs of His disciples, for it is in them that He had been glorified (verse 10). And it was in them our Lord would be glorified after His resurrection and ascension.
The request of the Lord Jesus was founded upon several factors.
First, He accomplished His earthly task of revealing the Father to the disciples (verse 6-8). It is interesting to note how positively the faith of the disciples is stated. I believe the perspective of the Savior throughout this prayer is from the other side of the cross. Our Lord assumed the fact of His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. From the other side of the cross the disciples would be fully assured concerning all Jesus said and did to reveal the Father to them.
Second, our Lord assumed the consummation of His ministry in the work of the cross. Our Lord prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as we are” (John 17:11b). The request of Jesus is based upon the name which the Father has given to Him. In Philippians chapter two we are told that, as a result of His humiliation and obedience unto death, the Father gave Him a name above every other (Philippians 2:9). That name, I believe, is the name Jesus (Philippians 2:10). Jesus (or its Old Testament counterpart, Joshua) meant ‘Yahweh is salvation.’
The name of a person in the days of our Lord represented a person’s character. The character of our Lord in His earthly life and ministry is well depicted by the name, Jesus. It is on the basis of our Lord’s character as God’s Savior for man that this prayer of our Lord is grounded.
Third, our Lord’s prayer is based upon the fact that those for whom He prayed were true believers: “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine (John 17:9). The disciples were believers because they belonged to the Father and were given to the Son (17:6,9-10). They were believers also because they came to faith in the person of Jesus Christ as the One sent from God (17:8).
The Lord’s petition on behalf of His disciples was that the Father keep them: “Holy Father, keep them in Thy name …” (John 17:11b). This keeping was done by the Lord while He was with His disciples (verse 12), but now He is returning to the Father (verses 11,13). The keeping of the disciples has several facets:
(1) The keeping for which Jesus prayed involved the eternal security of His followers. Our Lord had already spoken to His disciples concerning the frailty of their faith under fire (John 13:38; 16:31-32). Praise God that our future does not rest upon the strength of our faith, but in its object. Keeping is God’s work, not ours. It is ours to abide (chapter 15), and His to keep.
Judas was not an exception to the rule. Our Lord did not fail to keep Him. He was the ‘son of perdition’ (verse 12). He was never saved (John 13:10,11), so he was not lost out of the keeping hand of God. His destruction was a fulfillment of his character and destiny, as well as of prophecy (verse 12).
(2) The keeping of the disciples involved giving them joy in the midst of the world’s hatred and opposition, verses 13-14. They were not of the world, just as the Savior was not. Consequently, the world would hate them and oppose them. The Father’s keeping included joy and steadfastness in this opposition.
(3) The keeping of the Father included protection against the attacks of Satan, verse 15. “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.” Our Lord’s prayer does not guarantee that we will be kept from Satan’s attack (Ephesians 6:10ff.; 1 Peter 5:18-9), but that we will be preserved in times of Satanic opposition. God does not promise we will avoid testing, but that we will endure it.
(4) The keeping of the Father includes the sanctification of the believer. “Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). This sanctification is a far cry from mere separation. This spacial view of holiness was held by the Pharisees. They were only concerned with external separation (cf. Mark 2:15-17). Their ideas stemmed largely from a misconception of Old Testament sanctification. God, however, is not impressed with externalism, but with the condition of the heart (cf. Matthew 6:1-18; 23; Luke 16:15).
The legalistic forms of Christianity of our present day equates sanctification with mere separation. We think we are holy ‘because we never allow ourselves the occasion to be in the world. We hide behind church walls as though the church building was a fortress against worldliness. We spend all of our time in church activities so that we cannot be among the lost. This is not sanctification. There is a great difference between being ‘in the world’ and being ‘of the world.’ Dr. Billy Graham once defined it as the difference between isolation and insulation. What a difference there is.
There is no better illustration of sanctification than that of our Lord Jesus Christ (verses 16-19). Our Lord was physically untouched by man’s sin in the sanctity of heaven. There, God was untouched by the sins of men. But He left the blessedness of heaven in order to remove the blemish of sin from men. Even as the Holy God was no less holy for entering a sinful world, neither are we for living in the world. This is our calling (verse 16).
If our sanctification is not synonymous with separation, what is it? We can see it best defined in the work of our Lord. “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). Our Lord was not sanctified by separation, but by dedication and obedience to the will and the work of the Father. Ultimately, this sanctification took Him to the cross of Calvary. And it was this work of the Son which assures the sanctification of every saint.
We are sanctified by the work of Christ on the cross. We are also sanctified by the Word of truth (verse 17). As we trust in the Lord Jesus and devote our hearts to do His will we can live holy and blameless lives in the midst of a sinful world.
The Prayer of Jesus for All Believers
The petition of the Lord Jesus for all believers primarily concerns Christian unity:
“… that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me” (John 17:21-23).
It is vital that we recognize the vast difference between unity and uniformity. Unity is best demonstrated in diversity; uniformity is threatened by diversity.
Our Lord chose as disciples men who were radically different in temperament, personality and political philosophy. It was because of their glaring differences that their unity was so evident.
In the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches that diversity is not opposed to unity; it is essential to it. How could the body function rightly if every member were an eye, or an ear, or a mouth? True unity demands diversity, and diversity displays true unity. Marriage could be used to further illustrate this principle.160
I say this because some churches seem to be trying to turn out ‘cookie cutter Christians’ who look alike (dress codes), think alike (credal codes, often concerning non-essentials) and act alike (codes of conduct). Sad to say, such legalism does not display true unity, nor does it constitute true spirituality. It simply teaches Christian conformity. But when the peer group changes, so does creed and conduct. This is all too frequently seen as our young people go off to college. We have not taught them to think, but to conform.
If unity is not to be found in uniformity, it is to be seen in union. “I in them, and them in Me that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst love Me” (John 17:23). The unity of the trinity is unity of being, of essence and of purpose. We are the children of God by faith if we dwell in God and He dwells in us (verse 23); there is then essential unity, between the believer and God, and also between one believer and every other.
Our unity, then, does not lie in nonfundamental (I did not say unimportant) factors, but in being a true believer. Unity should not be hindered between two believers who hold differing views concerning the details of our Lord’s return, or concerning the doctrine of eternal security, important as it is. Too many Christians think of unity only in terms of those who think and act alike. Often unity is expressed only within a church or a denomination, if at all.
Notice that unity is a vitally important matter. In the last moments of our Lord’s earthly ministry, He prayed for it. It is the way Christians are identified in a world where everyone ‘does his own thing’ and values personal independence and liberties above all else (verse 23). Here is the mark of the Christian community—unity.
In verse 24 the Lord prayed for reunion. He will shortly be led away to His trial and execution. After His ascension He will no longer physically walk among His people, until they are reunited with Him. It is for this reunion that our Lord prayed. “Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
Finally, in verses 25 and 26, Jesus prayed He might continue to minister to His own, even in His physical absence. “O righteous Father, although the world has not known Thee, yet I have known Thee; and these have known that Thou didst send Me; and I have made Thy name known to them, and will make it known; that the love wherewith Thou didst love Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:25-26).
His work of revealing the Father was done, and the disciples had come to know God through His life and ministry. And yet He desired to continue to reveal Himself in them and to abide in them. This I take to be the substance of His request in verse 26.
It is a great prayer which our Lord allowed His disciples to overhear in their hour of anxiety and distress. It is little wonder that the Spirit of God has preserved it for us as well.
Before we leave this prayer of our Lord, let us focus our attention on it so far as we are instructed by this prayer about prayer.
(1) The Presuppositions of This Prayer. A prayer such as this one cannot be made apart from several premises. First of all, it assumes the sovereignty of God in the salvation and keeping of men. True believers are those who belong to the Father and are given to the Son (verses 6,9-10). Their salvation is procured by the work of the Son (verses 2-3) in which we believe (verses 6-8). Once saved by God, men are kept and preserved by Him also (verses 11-19). There is no more comforting thought than that our salvation rests securely in the hands of God.
Also, this prayer assumes the sufficiency of the work of the Son on the cross, procuring and securing their salvation. All that our Lord requested is promised on the completed work of Christ on the cross (verses 11,12). The Savior is not a mere man, but the Son of God. Who else can claim to have been with the Father in eternity past (verses 5,24)? Who else but the Son of God can claim that everything which belongs to the Father is also His (verses 9,10)?
(2) The Power of This Prayer. While we are not specifically told so, this prayer must have had a tremendous impact on the hearts of the disciples. We can assume, since this prayer has been preserved for us, that it was intended to bring peace and assurance to our troubled hearts. If we believe in the One Who prayed it and in the sufficiency of His work at Calvary, what right have we to worry and fret?
I would like to go one step further by suggesting that we may not have realized the value of praying for others in their hearing. Numerous times I have gone to the bedside of those facing surgery and found that a prayer of assurance and protection brings peace of heart and soul.
I would suggest that this prayer provides us with an excellent model for prayer on behalf of another Christian. It seeks the glory of God, even at the price of personal suffering, assured that what is for God’s glory is ultimately for our good (indeed, our best). It confidently petitions for divine protection, not from suffering, but from Satan, spiritual collapse, and opposition. It seeks a greater unity among true believers, and looks ultimately for a reunion with our Lord.
While we do not know the precise program of God for our lives, or others, we are assured of the fact that God’s purposes will be achieved: His glory, our good (Romans 8:28ff.), our sanctification and union with our Lord and other Christians.
(3) The Price of Prayer. Let us not leave this prayer of our Lord without seriously considering the price of it. Every request which our Lord made on our behalf necessitated the personal sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. Apart from His finished work in His death, burial and resurrection and ascension, these words would be mere wishful thinking.
The price He has paid for man’s salvation is one none of us could have paid. It was paid once for all, and never needs to be paid again (Hebrews 9:24-28). But there is a sense in which our prayers have a price. Can we pray that God will minister to others without a commitment to minister in any way we can? Every prayer has a price tag. Let us be mindful of our responsibilities when we pray.
157 “The Lord had become flesh: a real human baby. He had not ceased to be God; He was no less God then than before; but He had begun to be man. He was not now God minus some elements of His deity, but God plus all that He had made His own by taking manhood to Himself.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 50. I would highly recommend your study of the entire chapter, “God Incarnate,” pp. 45-56.
158 “In Hebrews 11:6 we’re told that God is the ‘rewarder of those that diligently seek Him.’ And in Genesis 15:1 God said to Abraham: ‘I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.’ Somebody said the difference between Patrick Henry and the average American today is that Patrick Henry said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ and the average American today just says, ‘gimme.’ Sometimes we make a Santa Claus out of the Lord. We want the gifts and not the Giver, we want the blessing more than we want the Blesser. We need to get over the ‘gimmes.’ The Christian life ought to follow the pattern of the Lord’s prayer. It begins with His name, His kingdom, His will and then ‘give us this day our daily bread.’” Vance Havner, “Things I’ve Learned in the Night,” Moody Monthly, June, 1974, p. 29.
159 One should probably use caution in making too much of the distinctions between verses 6-19 and 20-26, as though the first section was only for the eleven and the remainder exclusively for believers of a later time. In fact our Lord prayed for unity among the eleven (verse 11) as well as for all believers (verses 21-23).
It may be best, then, to understand verse 20 as saying, in effect, “This prayer is not only for the eleven, but for all true believers.” In this case there is little distinction made as to the benefactors of this petition, and simply a change of emphasis in the requests which are made. Verses 6-19 deal more with protection, 20-26 with unification.