39. The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus: Part III (John 17:20-26)
In the last few weeks, a lawsuit has gone to trial over the possession of the 77-acre Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco, Texas. You will recall that this compound was burned to the ground, with the loss of many lives, including leader David Koresh and many of his followers. Several factions have laid claim to the property and are now fighting it out in the courts.
This seems to be a modern-day example of what Gamaliel said nearly 2,000 years ago. The story is recorded in Acts 5. Peter and John had healed a lame man on their way to the temple, attracting a great deal of attention and affording them the opportunity to preach the gospel, which included the proclamation that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Soon, people were bringing their sick from the surrounding towns so that the apostles could heal them. This caused great concern on the part of the Jewish religious leaders, who thought they had neutralized the threat Jesus posed by putting Him to death. Now, it seemed as though things were going from bad to worse. And so they arrested the apostles of our Lord and put them in jail for preaching in the name of Jesus. The next day, when they were to appear for trial, it was discovered that they were not in their cell. (The truth was that an angel had released them and instructed them to return to the temple and to resume their preaching of the gospel.) It soon became known that the apostles were once again in the temple, and so they were brought before the Sanhedrin and rebuked for failing to obey their command to cease preaching in the name of Jesus. The apostles made it clear that they must obey God rather than men.
When the apostles indicated that they would not be silenced, and then proceeded to start preaching the gospel to them, the religious leaders were furious. They wanted to kill the apostles, as they would soon kill Stephen (see Acts 6:8–8:1). Then, a sensible leader named Gamaliel spoke out:
34 But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to the council, “Israelite men, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with men, it will come to nothing, 39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.” He convinced them, 40 and they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them (Acts 5:34-40).
Gamaliel spoke words of human wisdom, based upon experience and observation. Various movements had come and gone in Israel, as Gamaliel noted. Specifically, he names two men who had led revolts. Both men were killed, and when they died, their movements died with them. Gamaliel saw a principle in this, which we might sum up in these words: “Leaders may arise who are capable of gaining a following, but when they die, their movements tend to die with them.” To Gamaliel, this was very likely the case with Jesus. He had gained a following, including a dedicated core of men who had become His disciples. But the Jews had succeeded in putting Jesus to death. If Jesus was like these other men, then it would not be long before His disciples would scatter, and the movement would die. If, perchance, the movement was of God, then it would not die, and it could not be overcome. To resist a divinely-inspired movement would be to oppose God, a terrifying thought to Gamaliel and apparently to his colleagues.
Until now, I have never thought of Gamaliel’s counsel in relation to the Upper Room Discourse of our Lord, and especially in relation to the Lord’s high priestly prayer in John 17. Would we not agree that Gamaliel was right in what he said? Wasn’t the natural tendency of the disciples to disband and give it up after the death of Jesus? Is this not precisely the reason our Lord teaches His disciples the material found in the Upper Room Discourse? Does this not underscore the importance of our Lord’s teaching concerning abiding in Him (John 15)? I believe it helps to explain our Lord’s prayer for the protection and preservation of the disciples. We can easily see why our Lord prays for the unity and continuity of His band of disciples after He is gone.
We have already noted that the first five verses of chapter 17 focus on our Lord and His relationship with the Father. He prays for the Father to restore to Him the glory that He had formerly enjoyed in heaven, before His incarnation. Verses 6-19 contain our Lord’s prayer for His disciples, whom He is about to leave behind in a hostile world to carry on the ministry He began. His prayer for them is that the Father will keep them from the evil one. Now, in verses 20-26, our Lord turns His attention to those who will become believers down through the ages of church history until He returns.112 Let us listen to our Lord’s prayer for us, like a child who overhears his parents as they pray for him. Let us keep in mind that this prayer is the expression of our Lord’s love and concern for each of us who trusts in Him.
The Circle Expands
20 “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.”
Verses 1-5 concern the Father and the Son. Verses 6-19 pertain to the Father, the Son, and the eleven disciples of our Lord. Verses 20-26 widen in focus, to include all those who will subsequently come to faith in Jesus Christ. We are tempted to say that these verses pertain to us, but of course they include a much broader group than that. They encompass the time from the moment Jesus spoke these words to the present—nearly 2,000 years now, and counting.
I believe it is worth noting that our Lord’s words are carefully chosen so that they can include a great multitude of believers over a considerable period of time. While His words allow for these things, they do not necessarily indicate or suggest them. The disciples were inclined to think that our Lord would commence His reign in their lifetime. Even after our Lord’s death and resurrection, they were still thinking in terms of the near future: “So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6).
Jesus does not wish to give them the false impression that His return is immediate, but neither does He intend to convey the fact that it is at least 2,000 years away, and for good reason:
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time? 46 That slave whom his master finds doing this when he returns will be blessed. 47 I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But if that evil slave says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves and to eat and drink with drunkards, 50 that slave’s master will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee. 51 The master will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:45-51).
Our Lord desires us to conduct ourselves as though His return were imminent, even though it may not happen in our lifetime. The language of this text and others is sufficiently broad enough to allow for a long period of time before His return, but not specific enough to require a delay. I believe our Lord wants us to think in terms of “sooner,” rather than “later.”
Those who believe113 are described as having come to faith through the testimony (literally “word”) of His disciples. Certainly there were those who came to faith apart from the disciples, people like the woman at the well (John 4), for example. What our Lord emphasizes is the fact that in the future, men will come to faith through the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16-17; 10:6-15). The gospel is declared, defined (e.g., Acts 15), enscripturated,114 and defended (e.g., Galatians) by the apostles. Because it is through the Word of God that men are saved (see 1 Peter 2:22-25; James 1:21), subsequent believers can be said to have become believers through the word of the apostles.
Jesus does not petition the Father to save these people. Those who will come to faith have already been given to Him as a gift by the Father (see verses 2, 24). Our Lord prays that all those who believe may be one. This is not mere organizational unity; it is an organic and functional unity. It is the same kind of unity that the Father has with the Son. As the Father is “in” the Son, and the Son is “in” the Father, and thus the two are one, so all believers are “in” Christ. Because of their unity with the Son, they are also one with the Father, and one with each other.
This unity is both positional and practical. It is also supernatural. It is for the practical outworking of this supernatural unity that our Lord prays here. The unity of those who are believers in Jesus Christ should be visible to the unsaved world. As the world beholds this unity, they see the presence and the power of the resurrected Christ in His church. Put another way, as believers abide in Christ, Christ abides in them, and the fruit that is produced is a demonstration of our Lord’s presence and power. This is a testimony to the world that Jesus really was sent from the Father, and thus that He really is Who He claimed to be—the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
Present Glory Promotes Unity
22 The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.
Much of verses 22 and 23 is a repetition of verses 20 and 21. In both places, Jesus prays for unity among believers. Again, in both places, this unity is based upon the unity that exists between the Father and the Son. Further, the purpose for demonstrating this unity is so that the world may know that the Father sent the Son. Two new elements are introduced, however, which are very significant. We shall therefore focus our attention on these new elements, which further expand upon the petition of verses 20 and 21.
The first additional element is that of the “glory” which the Father gave to the Son and the Son has given to believers in Him. What is the nature of this “glory”? It cannot be the glory which our Lord had with the Father before the foundation of the world, the glory which the Son set aside at His incarnation. This is the “glory” which our Lord has just requested from the Father: “And now, Father, glorify me at your side with the glory I had with you before the world was created” (verse 5).
This is the glory which our Lord prays that His saints might behold, by coming to be with Him in heaven: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory that you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (verse 24).
How can our Lord speak of a “glory” He has already given to His own if He does not yet have it Himself? How can He speak of giving them the “glory” on earth which they can only behold in heaven? We must conclude, then, that the “glory” of which our Lord is speaking is not His “future glory,” but another “glory.”
We may begin by asking this question: If Jesus can say, ‘I have given them the glory that you gave me,’ then what is the nature of the glory which the Father gave the Son? The answer to that question is straightforward: the glory the Father gave the Son was the glory of the humility of the incarnation, culminating both in the glorification of the Son at the crucifixion and in the glory of his resurrected and exalted state. Believers have seen something of this glory, except for the glory Christ now enjoys; and that, too, they shall one day see, since Jesus prays to that end (17:24).115
Jesus purposed to glorify the Father through His incarnation, earthly life and ministry, and through His death, resurrection and ascension. The earthly sufferings116 of our Lord are part of His glory (John 12:23; 13:31-32; 17:1). And it is this glory—the glory of servanthood and of sacrificial service—which our Lord has given to His disciples. As Jesus was glorified by His coming to this earth, being rejected by men and put to death, so His disciples are also given the same glory, the glory of suffering for the sake of Christ:
7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold—gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away—and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:7).
12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? 18 And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? 19 So then let those who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator as they do good (1 Peter 4:12-19).
Our Lord’s earthly glory through His sufferings was consummated in His death on the cross. No wonder He instructs His disciples to take up their cross: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; see also Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). It was His glory to suffer and to die, and it is our privilege and glory as well, to “take up our cross,” whatever that may mean for us personally. This is the way that the Apostle Paul saw it:
20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me; yet I don’t know what I prefer: 23 I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, 24 but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body. 25 And since I am sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for the sake of your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that because of me you may swell with pride in Christ Jesus, when I come back to you (Philippians 1:20-26).
This puts our suffering for Christ in a whole new light. It is for His glory. It is also for our good. But the words of our Lord’s prayer indicate that it is also our glory. No wonder Paul writes these words:
10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
The second new element in our text has to do with the intended impact of the believers’ unity upon unbelievers. Jesus prays, “I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me” (verse 23, emphasis mine). The first half of the intended result of Christian unity is repeated from our Lord’s earlier words in verse 21. Christian unity will show the world that God the Father sent the Son. But here Jesus goes on to say that Christian unity is also intended as an expression of the Father’s love for those who trust in Jesus. This love which the Father has for Christians is the same love which He has for His Son. The Father loves the Son, and because Christians are “in the Son” by faith, the Father loves us just as He loves the Son.
The unity of the believers reflects the Father’s love. Let’s consider the relationship between unity and love for a moment. In Ephesians 5, Paul is instructing husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (5:25). Having described how the Lord Jesus loved the church (5:26-27), Paul now instructs husbands to love their wives as their own bodies:
28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife; and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Ephesians 5:28-33).
Remember as well the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, 34; Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). The assumption underlying all of this is that we do love ourselves. We love our own bodies. As members of the body of Christ, we are joined not only to our Lord, but to the Father, and to one another. Our unity should express itself in love toward one another. And since this is a divine love, it reveals God’s love to the world. Men should see God’s love in action, as Christians love one another, because they are one with one another, and with God.
This is a marvelous thought, but also an awesome responsibility. The standard for our love is incredibly high. It is not a merely human love, a love like that expressed by unbelievers. It is not just a romantic love, like we see portrayed on movie and television screens. It is the love of God for our Lord and for us, a love which will prompt one to lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
Prayer for the Presence of His Own
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory that you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”
When Jesus told His disciples He was going away to a place where they could not follow Him, they may have wrongly concluded that He did not want them to be with Him any longer. This conclusion would be completely wrong. Jesus very much wants them to be with Him, and that is precisely what He prays for in verse 24. The reason that they cannot be with Him is because He is going to the Father in heaven, and they have work yet to do on earth. They will thereby experience the glory of identifying with Him as the suffering Savior. They will not behold His heavenly glory until they are in heaven with Him. This is what Jesus asks the Father to do—to bring His disciples to be with Him in heaven, so that they can behold His heavenly glory.
Peter, James, and John—the inner three—were given a glimpse of this glory at the transfiguration of our Lord. Before too long, the Apostle John will have a vision in which he will behold even more of our Lord’s heavenly glory, which he describes for us in the Book of Revelation (see, for example, Revelation 1:9ff.). Paul also seems to have been given a glimpse of this future glory (2 Corinthians 12:1ff.). But for all of our Lord’s disciples and us, the full display of His glory will not come until we are taken up into heaven. As the words of the song put it, “Oh, that will be, glory for me.” And so it will. This glory that we will see is yet another demonstration of the Father’s love for the Son (John 17:24).
The glory which the Father gives the Son is a token of His love for the Son. We should all be able to relate to this. A young man loves a young woman very much, and he asks her to marry him. He buys the most beautiful ring he can afford, as a visible demonstration of his love. And when the young woman accepts her beloved’s proposal of marriage, she puts on that ring. And, without exception, she will find a way to move her hands in such a way as to draw attention to that ring. She wants everyone to see it and to comment about how beautiful it is. Why? Because the ring is a token of her beloved’s love for her, and she is proud of it. That is the way it is with our Lord’s glory. It is a token of the Father’s love for Him. And so He desires for all those He loves to be with Him and to see His glory, which is an indication of the Father’s great love for Him as the Son.
The Unknown God
25 “Righteous Father, even if the world does not know you, I know you, and these men know that you sent me. 26 I made known your name to them, and I will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them, and I may be in them.”
In the introduction to this Gospel, John wrote, “No one has ever seen God. The only One, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18). Our Lord’s mission in life was to make the Father known to men. That He has done. He has yet another mission to accomplish by His death:
14 “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God (John 3:14-18).
Soon, our Lord will have completed His mission of providing an atonement for sin. But at this moment, He is dwelling on the fact that He has revealed the Father to men. His disciples have gotten the message; they have come to believe that the Father did send Jesus down to earth from heaven. In contrast to Jesus and His disciples, the world has not come to know the Father in Christ. In spite of all the proofs of His identity (only a few of which signs John presents in this Gospel), many still reject Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ words indicate that having made the Father’s name known to His disciples, He will continue to do so. This is the ministry of which He has spoken in the Upper Room Discourse. In the future, our Lord will make the Father known to the disciples through the Holy Spirit. In this way, they will enter into the unity for which He has prayed (see also 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:3) and enjoy the love which the Spirit produces (see Romans 5:5; 15:30; Galatians 5:22; Colossians 1:8; 2 Timothy 1:7).
There are many lessons to be learned from our text. Let me conclude by pointing out a few.
First, Jesus informs us in our text that there are two glories. I have heard it said many times, and I know I have said it myself: “Suffering, then glory.” I believe there is much truth summed up in this statement.
7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. 12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 13 But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, “I believed; therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak. 14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:7-18, emphasis mine).
11 This saying is trustworthy: If we died with him, we will also live with him. 12 If we endure, we will also reign with him (2 Timothy 2:11-12a).
Like our Lord, we must suffer in this life, so that we many enter into the glories of heaven.
There are some Christians who seek to avoid the necessity of our earthly glory through suffering. They seem to believe that Jesus did all the suffering for us, leaving us with nothing but glory. In so doing, they deny a very clear biblical truth—that in His earthly suffering, our Lord gave us an example:
19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may leave sin behind and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:19-25).
There are those who would tell us that if we but had enough faith, we would not need to suffer now, and that we may experience heaven’s glories now. They believe that on the cross, Jesus defeated all suffering and sickness and sorrow so that if we but claim His blessings by faith, we will obtain them in this life. It is these last words, “in this life,” which are troublesome. This is the ever-popular error of “realized eschatology,” the belief that what God has for us in heaven, He has for us now. Peter, along with the other apostles, sees it another way:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold—gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away—and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith—the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3-9).
1 So, since Christ suffered in the flesh, you also arm yourselves with the same attitude, because the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin, 2 in that he spends the rest of his time on earth concerned about the will of God and not human desires. 3 For the time that has passed was sufficient for you to do what the non-Christians desire. You lived then in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, carousing, boozing, and wanton idolatries. 4 So they are astonished when you do not rush with them into the same flood of wickedness, and they vilify you. … 12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? 18 And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? 19 So then let those who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator as they do good (1 Peter 4:1-4, 12-19).
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but also we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, inwardly groan as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance (Romans 8:18-25).
By our sufferings for His sake, we identify with our Lord and experience a deeper fellowship with Him:
8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I might gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because of having my own righteousness derived from the law, but because of having the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).
In one sense, it is proper to speak of suffering, then glory. In another sense, it is not accurate, because it implies that suffering is not itself glory. Consider these words of D. A. Carson, who comments on our text:
… the text is telling us that our true glory is the way of the cross. That way is vindicated by the glory of triumph later; but already we have something of Jesus’ glory inasmuch as we, like him, are to endure the enmity of the world and walk as suffering servants. This is our glory, not our shame. W. Barclay comments, ‘We must never think of our cross as our penalty; we must think of it as our glory. … The harder the task we give a student, or a craftsman, or a surgeon, the more we honour him. …So when it is hard to be a Christian, we must regard it as our glory, as our honour given to us by God.’117
From our Lord’s words in our text, as well as from other texts in the Bible, we can safely say that there are at least two “glories.” There was, for our Lord, the glory of His humiliation at the incarnation and of His sacrificial service in His life and death on earth. But there is also His “future glory,” the glory that will be restored to Him, with interest, because of His obedient service and sacrifice (see Philippians 2:5-11). We should likewise look upon our earthly trials and difficulties as our present “glory,” while we anxiously await our future glory in heaven with Him.
This recognition that there are two glories solves what has been a real mystery for me. I have always been troubled by these words, written by Paul: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NASB).
In the light of our Lord’s words in John 17, I think I am finally beginning to understand Paul’s words above. Paul is writing about the great glory of the New Testament ministry which God has given him, the apostles, and us under the New Covenant, a ministry of the Spirit. He contrasts the glory of his apostolic ministry “in the Spirit” with the previous but inferior glory of Moses’ ministry “of the Law” under the Old Covenant. The ministry of Moses was glorious, but it was a “fading glory.” That is why he placed a veil over his “glowing” face. That glowing face grew dim over time, because that glory faded. Paul says that the glory of New Testament ministry is unfading. And every time the gospel is proclaimed, and people trust in Jesus as the Messiah, the veil is removed. With “unveiled face,” we are transformed from glory to glory. I think he is saying that we are being transformed from this present glory (of suffering for Christ’s sake) to the even greater glory of Heaven. We are being transformed from the earthly glory of suffering for Christ to the heavenly glory of reigning with Christ.
I wonder how many of us are really ready and willing to speak of suffering as glory. Jesus did. The apostles did. I think that tells us how our thinking should change in regard to suffering for Christ’s sake.
Second, Jesus’ words remind us of the importance of Christian unity. One can hardly overlook the emphasis which our Lord places on unity:
Seven times in this prayer Jesus prays ‘that they may all be one’ (vv. 11, 19; twice in 21, 22, 23, 24), and four of the seven are prayers that his followers may be one. It is clear that Jesus was very concerned with what they would be in the days ahead and that he was particularly concerned that they should be united. It is clear throughout the New Testament that unity among the believers is thought of as extremely important (which is natural enough following the last prayer of Jesus for them), and it is also clear that the early Christians found it difficult to maintain unity.118
This time Jesus prays that his followers may be ‘perfected into one,’ where the verb for ‘perfected’ is interesting. It derives from a root that conveys the idea of ‘end’ or ‘aim’; to reach that aim is to be perfected. The point of this verb in this place is that it draws attention to the truth that unity is a necessary part of the perfection at which Christians aim. When we become followers of Jesus we are not embarking on a quest for individual blessing and happiness. These good gifts may well come to us, but our aim is to realize our salvation in the fellowship of Christ’s people. We belong together in the church of God.
John Wesley reports that ‘a serious man’ once said to him, ‘The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion. Therefore a man must find companions or make them.’ This is an important aspect of New Testament Christianity. It is not a faith that can be lived out in solitude. Someone has defined religion as what a person does with his solitariness. This may fit some religions, but not Christianity. We who follow Christ must bear in mind that Christ was one with the Father and in that spirit he expects his followers to be one with him and one with each other.119
As I seek to take our Lord’s words literally and seriously, I come to the following conclusions:
1. To the degree that I practice “rugged individualism,” I violate Christian unity.
2. To the degree that I neglect or violate true Christian unity, I reflect badly on my Lord.
3. To the degree that I violate True Christian unity, I hinder the gospel.
4. To the degree that I violate true christian unity, I deny the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-14; Galatians 2:11-21; 3:26-29; Ephesians 2:11-22).
5. To the degree that I violate Christian unity, I hinder the praise of God (see Romans 15:5-13).
Having stressed the importance of Christian unity, I must also state what I do not mean to say. I do not mean that Christian unity is evidenced by uniformity, and that all Christians should look and think alike. If I understand 1 Corinthians 12 correctly, unity is best demonstrated in diversity, not in uniformity (or conformity). The importance of Christian unity is not a mandate for overlooking sin (see 1 Corinthians 5) or serious doctrinal error (1 Timothy 1:20; Titus 3:10-11).
It does seem to me that homogeneous grouping in churches does violence to the doctrine of Christian unity. From a purely secular, marketing mentality, “birds of a feather do flock together.” People do feel more comfortable around others who are just like them. But God has not called us to comfort. God has called us to conform to the image of His Son. What a testimony it is when a church has a mix of races, cultures, and social strata. Here is where the world can behold true Christian unity and stand in awe. Let us be careful not to compromise biblical standards or doctrine in an effort to appear formally united, but let us strive to practice that organic and functional unity which God intended for us to demonstrate, to His praise and glory, and to our good.
One more comment about Christian unity. Christian unity is not merely to be practiced in a particular church, or even in a particular city. The unity of which our Lord speaks is surely as wide as the world—it is a global unity. In the last few days, we have witnessed the terrible plight of many in Central America due to a disastrous hurricane. As members of the body of Christ, we are one with those Christians who are suffering in far away places. And it is because of this unity that we, along with many other churches, have contributed a substantial sum of money, sending it in care of a particular church in the disaster-torn area to minister to the saints (and through these saints, to others) there. We need to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, and minister to those in need, whether they are in our church or across the ocean. You will remember that one of the first ways the Gentile saints gave expression to their unity with their Jewish brethren was by sending a contribution to them in their time of need (see Acts 11:27-30; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8 and 9).
Third, our Lord’s prayer in John 17 surely has something to teach us about prayer. Let me mention a few lessons on prayer from this, our Lord’s prayer.
1. Our Lord prays for Himself, that He will fulfill God’s mission and ministry.
2. Our Lord prays for others, because He loves them and cares for them.
3. The primary goal of our prayers, like His, should be the glory of God.
4. Since earthly suffering can be glory, our prayers should not be obsessed with the termination of our suffering, but with the realization of God’s purposes in our suffering, for His glory.
5. Our prayers should seek our protection from Satan, the evil one, who seeks to destroy us.
6. Our prayers should seek to gain a proper perspective of the present, in the light of eternity.
7. Our prayers should look to, and ask for, the time when we will dwell for all eternity with Him.
8. Our requests in prayer should include a request that demonstrates Christian unity through us, in every way possible.
9. Our prayers should recognize God’s provisions through His Word and His Spirit.
Finally, our Lord’s prayer reminds us that our faith should be proclaimed and practiced:
The truth of the gospel, announced without the demonstration of the power of the gospel in transformed and loving lives, is arid. It may be beautiful in the way that the badlands can be beautiful; but not much grows there. On the other hand, the demonstration of love within a believing community does not by itself proclaim the source or cause of that love. Attractive in its own right, like a luxuriant south sea island, nevertheless such love does not call forth disciplined obedience or informed belief, and cannot of itself call others to true faith. It is merely a place to rest. The multiplying witness Jesus has in mind is both propositional and exemplary, both confessional and demonstrative. It is a witness of word and of love.120
112 I should point out that these divisions are not really water-tight. For example, it would seem that “these men” in verse 25 refers specifically to the eleven disciples. Nevertheless, the general distinctions in these three sections of chapter 17 seem to be valid.
113 It is interesting, and perhaps significant, that the verb rendered “believe” is in the present tense, rather than the future tense. Jesus is, of course, speaking of those who will come to faith at a future time, but the emphasis seems to be that those who become believers should keep on believing. Faith is not just a one-time event, but an ongoing process.
114 It is the apostles who, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote the Gospels and the New Testament Epistles. These inspired authors include more than just the eleven disciples, and thus I am inclined to think of those referred to in verses 6-19 as being more than just the eleven. At least some others like Paul and Barnabas and James will also be called apostles (see Acts 14:4, 14; Galatians 1:19).
116 I understand our Lord’s earthly sufferings to be plural, rather than merely singular (the cross). From texts like Philippians 2:5-7 and Hebrews 2:14-18; 6:7-9, it seems that our Lord’s entire life involved considerable suffering. Would you not consider it suffering to leave heaven and all of its glory to dwell in a fallen world, among sinful men?
Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)