When Jesus Prays
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 17:16–17:26
In 2 Timothy 3:16, we read that “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Those words imply that God has chosen to reveal Himself through a written Word...a Word that is to be heard, read, studied, obeyed, and shared. In the very first article of our church’s statement of faith, we say that...
We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.
And while it is true that every breathed-out Word of God is holy, there are some passages of Scripture that help us to ascend higher and to see farther...texts that allow us to peer into the very “holy of holies” of the Divine Presence. The 17th chapter of John’s Gospel is one of those.
It is here that we find the Lord Jesus Christ in prayer...engaged in conference with the Heavenly Father. Not only is this the longest recorded prayer of Jesus, but it is such an intimate conversation that we may feel as if we are eavesdropping and listening in on their most personal conversation. For it is here that we find the real “Lord’s prayer.”
From at as least as far back as the 16th-century, John 17 has been referred to as Jesus’ “high priestly prayer,” because it is filled with mediation and intercession. As we read it, we recognize that we are standing on holy ground, for it is here that we sense the heart of our Savior unlike any other place in all of Scripture. The Scottish Reformer John Knox said that it was “the place where I cast my first anchor.”
The past four chapters of John’s Gospel (13 through 16) have covered but a single evening. It would be the last time that Jesus would spend with His disciples before facing “the hour” of His Divinely-ordained destiny. Fully aware of the fate that awaited Him and not shying away from the mission for which the Father had been preparing Him from “before the foundation of the world,” Jesus devoted Himself to preparing His men for His departure. Soon they would be endowed with “power from on high” and be sent into the world to carry the message of eternal salvation that Jesus was surrendering His life to provide.
But first He must commune with the Father. We should not assume that the events about to transpire “drove” Jesus to prayer. To the contrary, it was because of His intimate relationship with the Father and His habitual life of prayer that led naturally to His calling out to the Father at this critical hour. The scene before us in John 17 gives us a brief but sacred glimpse into the prayer life of our Lord.
When Jesus prayed, for what—or perhaps we should ask, for whom—did He pray? What were the things that most prominently occupied His mind, knowing that His remaining time on earth was brief? From this chapter we are able to detect at least three subjects that lay heavy upon His heart. These three areas of concern have been likened to concentric circles which begin with begin with a nucleus in the first five verses and expand outwardly.
At the very center, Jesus prays for Himself...specifically for His pre-incarnate glory to be displayed. We see that in verses 1 through 5. And then, in verse 6 through 19, Jesus prays for His disciples, those eleven men who have followed Him faithfully for more than three years and are now filled with sorrow (cf. John 16:6) because He was about to leave them. And finally, in verses 20 through 26, we find our Lord praying for those who will in time follow Him as a result of the witness of the disciples.
So as we walk step by step through this remarkable prayer, we, first of all see that...
Jesus prays for His glorification (17:1-5).
Look with me at verses 1 through 5. Having concluded His time of personal instruction with the disciples, we read...
1 “When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
No change of setting is mentioned, implying that Jesus—without another word—likely knelt in the presence of His men, “lifted his eyes” heavenward, and entered into conversation with His Heavenly Father. Once again He refers to “the hour”—now imminent—of His certain death (cf. John 2:4: 7:6, 30: 8:20; 12:23; 13:1). But it was also “the hour” in which He would be raised to glory and ascend to exaltation. Fully submitted to the will of His Heavenly Father, nevertheless His human nature recoiled from the prospect of what lay immediately before Him. And yet He pressed on, knowing that He must fulfill the purpose for which He had been sent into the world.
This first section of Jesus’ prayer contains two related imperatives that are to be understood as requests. In verse 1, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” Please note that His request is not merely a self-centered plea that He be “glorified”—although, as the Son of God, He had every right to pray that way—but rather that through His being “glorified” the Father would ultimately be the One who would receive “glory.”
That would, of course, be achieved not by the fact of Jesus’ dying, but through the work of redemption His death would provide and the affirmation of that work when He would be raised from the dead.
The fullness of Jesus’ finished work, as alluded to in verse 4, would result in “eternal life to all” who the Father would give Him. But what did Jesus mean by “eternal life?” In verse 3, He makes clear that it is something more than an endless existence of life as we now know it. It is to be understood life that is defined by its “qualitative” rather than its “quantitative” nature. Jesus defines “eternal life” as “know(ing) the only true God and Jesus Christ whom (God has) sent.” If anyone is to experience the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks, we must “know” God according the parameters He has set, and not by any conceived standard of our own. We do not come to God on our own.
Verse 5 gives us the second imperative or request, and it is an extension of the first: “And now, Father glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” Down to verse 24, Jesus will again make reference to His preincarnate glory, when He speaks of the Father’s “love” for Him from “before the foundation of the world.”
We are reminded here of the “kenosis” of our Lord Jesus as Paul describes it in Philippians 2(:5-11). It is there that we read of “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” We must never allow the sacred truth to slip far from our conscious awareness that in Jesus Christ, God became a man in order to come to earth to save a sinful lot like us.
And that same Philippians 2 passage adds that because of Jesus’ willing obedience to the Father’s eternal decree, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Now only hours before He would face the cross, it is this very thing for which Jesus prays. Soon His work of providing the final sacrifice for sin will be finished. So, here in these first five verses of John 17, we find Him longing to bring “glory” to the Father, as well as for the full manifestation of His own “glory”...the “glory” that was His from before creation...the “glory” that affirmed His place of equality with the Father.
The “glory of God” was the nucleus of Jesus’ prayer...its centermost feature. And while, you and I cannot pray the same prayer that we find our Savior praying in John 17, God’s “glory” should and must be the focal point of our prayers as well. Apart from keeping God as our focus, our prayers become little more than expressions of “needs” and “wants” voiced to a God with whom we have little-to-no relationship. God is not a “heavenly vending machine,” as we may sometimes suppose, dispensing answers when we deposit a prayer. He is a God who is absolutely holy and righteous and who deserves our utmost attention and thoughtful prayers.
As the next “concentric circle” of our Lord’s prayer is revealed, we also observe that...
Jesus prays for His disciples (17:6-19).
How Jesus loved His men. He had prayed for them before He chose them (cf. Luke 6:12-16). He had prayed for them during His three-plus years with them. And here we find Him praying for them at the end of their time together.
Each of them had left behind their prior lives and livelihoods in order to follow Him. Soon He would be entrusting to them the fulfillment of His mission to reach to world with the message of the Gospel of God’s saving grace. In verses 6 through 19, He continues to speak with the Father:
6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
This is the most lengthy portion of Jesus’ prayer, which goes to demonstrate just how concerned He was with their well-being and their faithfulness in fulfilling the task with which they would be charged. They have received from Him what they need to know, but they will not fully comprehend what He has told them until He has been raised from death and ascended to the Father.
There is a very clear line of demarcation that Jesus draws in verses 9 and 10. His work of intercession is said to be exclusively on behalf of those who have “received” His Word and “believed” in Him. Very clearly He states, “I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” It is in reference to those who belong to Him that He adds, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.”
In the first part of His prayer, Jesus prayed for the resumption of His preincarnate “glory,” and here we are told that in some way He has already experienced a sense of “glory” through those who have aligned themselves with Him. How important these eleven men were and would be in assuring that the Gospel would be spread to all people. Perhaps we need to consider that more than we do.
In the introduction to his book, Lifestyle Evangelism, Joe Aldrich tells a fictional story that some of you may have heard me share before. I’ll quote how he tells it:
There is a legend which recounts the return of Jesus to glory after His time on earth. Even in heaven He bore the marks of His earthly pilgrimage with its cruel cross and shameful death. The angel Gabriel approached Him and said, “Master, you must have suffered terribly for men down there.”
“I did,” He said.
“And,” continued Gabriel, “do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?’
“Oh no,” said Jesus, “not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”
Gabriel was perplexed. “Then what have you done,” he asked, “to let everyone know about your love for them?”
Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, and John, and a few more friends to tell other people about Me. Those who are told will in turn tell still other people about Me, and My story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe. Ultimately, all of mankind will have heard about Me and what I have done.”
Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical. He knew well what poor stuff men were made of. “Yes,” he said, “but what if Peter, James, and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? What if way down in the twenty-first century, people just don’t tell others about you? Haven’t you made any other plans?”
And Jesus answered, “I haven’t made any other plans. I’m counting on them.”
While we might debate some the theological points of this legendary tale, it nevertheless makes the point that, on a human level and aside from the absolute necessity of the role of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was placing the future ministry of the cross into the hands of these fallible men. Therefore, there are three requests that He makes to the Father on their behalf.
We find the first of these in verse 11, where Jesus prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Proverbs 18:10 tells us that “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.”
The Lord will more fully develop the subject of unity in the next section of His prayer. Here the emphasis on “safeguarding” their relationship and identification with the Father and the Son. As verse 13 reveals, such security would be a source of “joy” to them.
The repeated references to “the world” would again alert them to just how formidable the opposition toward them and their message would be. Verse 14 serves to remind them that if the world hated Christ, it will also hate those who were His (cf. John 15:18).
One of their number had already forsaken Jesus. He is here referred to as “the son of destruction” (“απωλεια”), a term used throughout the New Testament in reference to the final judgment and eternal damnation. But nothing related to the death of Christ happened by “chance.” Even Judas’ betrayal had been foretold in Scripture (cf. Psalm 41:9). The unfolding drama of our Lord’s passion would transpire fully in line with the preordained plan of a sovereign God.
The second request of Jesus on behalf of His disciples is seen in verse 15. It begins as a negative statement in order to emphasize the request in a positive manner. Jesus says, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” As with the first request, this one asks for protection. There it was “Keep them in your name,” and here it is “Keep them from the evil one.” The influence of both “the world” and the devil do not evaporate when we repent of sin and trust Christ. As long as occupy these bodies of flesh in which remain the vestiges of a fallen nature, we will be susceptible to the lure of sin and experience its deadly consequences.
You and I know that to be true, don’t we? But what a joy and grace when believers realize that Jesus Christ is praying for them. It is something that “the world” knows nothing of because it does not know Christ. Those of the world would not have an intercessor, a mediator, “an advocate with the Father” (cf. 1 John 2:1) as the disciples would have. Jesus could have requested that the disciples be “take(n) out of the world,” but that was not the Divine plan. Instead, He promises to “protect” and “preserve” His own. They would be “in” the world, but they would not be “of” it.
That brings us to Jesus’ third request in His prayer for them. In verse 17 where His request is, “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.” Notice that He doesn’t say, “Your Word is true.” It is, of course true, but the emphasis here is that the Word of God “is truth.” “Truth” is a noun, not an adjective. It is not a description but rather an assertion of what’s God Word is. It “is truth.”
The word “sanctify” (“‘αγιαζω”) means “to set apart” or “to regard as sacred.” The idea of “sacrifice” or “a giving over of oneself” is implied. The dangers of the impending moment were great. Verses 18 and 19 indicated that just as Jesus Himself had been set apart and sent into the world by the Father, so His disciples would be set apart and sent into the world by Him. “Sanctification” basically means to live according to Scripture...and it always involves a mission. We are all here for a purpose. It has been said that “We must work as if everything depends on us, and we must trust as if everything depends on God.” Soon the disciples would understand that.
Jesus has prayed for His glorification, and He has prayed for the protection and sanctification of His disciples. Before He concludes there is one more circle for which He prays—the outer one that continues to widen with every succeeding generation. In verses 20 through 26, we see that..
Jesus prays for His Church (17:20-26).
It is here that our Lord’s prayer becomes intensely personal, for it is here that we find Jesus praying for us. Let’s read verses 20 through 26:
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
This original band of disciples would be the first generation of witnesses to the Gospel message. Through their testimony of Christ to the world, many would come to “believe in (Him) through their word” and the New Testament Church would be born.
Casting His gaze well into the future—and doing that for nearly twenty centuries now—Jesus is able to see all who are His, not just through foreknowledge of being able to see who would come to Him in faith, but according to the foreordained plan of the eternal God. On that night, as He prayed, Jesus had on His mind everyone who would ever personally belong to Him.
Here in this final section of His prayer, our Lord offered two specific petitions. He, first of all, prays that all believers “may...be one.” “Unity” would be a factor that would distinguish the followers of Christ. It was meant to be observable, and yet it was not to be confused with uniformity, unanimity, union, or any other similarly-sounding word that meant something different. It would be, as D.A. Carson has expressed it, “not achieved by the lowest common theological denominator, but by common adherence to the apostolic gospel, by love that is joyfully self-sacrificing, by undaunted commitment to the shared goals of the mission with which Jesus’ followers have been charged, by self-conscious dependence on God Himself for life an fruitfulness.”
Back in verse 12, you may recall, Jesus had earlier prayed for this “unity” when He prayed that His disciples “may be one,” even as He and the Father were “one.” That request is reiterated here in verse 21. Here a statement of purpose is attached, namely, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” We find the same phrase repeated in verse 23. As His followers lived in harmony and fellowship with one another, “the world” would be able to see a visible demonstration of the reality of Jesus Christ. You may remember that earlier Jesus had said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (cf. John 13:35). It was in this way that they would display His “glory” to “the world.”
Notice all of the purpose-clauses (“‘ινα”) found throughout this paragraph. I count no fewer than seven “that” or “so that” statements in verses 20 through 26. You and I need to constantly bear in mind that in the eternal plan of God everything that happens serves a purpose. There are no extraneous movements in the providences of God. And especially is that true in His plan of redemption fulfilled in His Son.
There is a second petition offered by Jesus on behalf of those who would come to “believe in (Him) through (the) word” of the disciples. We find it in verse 24: “Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” When Jesus says that He “desires,” the verb that He uses (“θελω”) means “to will.” Would it not, therefore, be appropriate within this context to say that what we find here is an expression of Jesus’ “last will and testament”?
Perhaps you have drawn up your will, wherein you have stipulated your final wishes. Here we are told that it was Jesus’ “desire”—His “will”—that the ones for whom He would give His life “may be with (Him) where (He is), to see (His) glory that (had been) given (Him) because (the Father has) loved (Him) from before the foundation of the world.” As the objects of His love toward those who are His, this is therefore Jesus’ great “desire”...that we will be with Him where He is, and that we will see His “glory.”
Would any among us dare to presume that God would not respond to the request of His beloved Son? After all, this was the expressed purpose for His coming...and it is the very reason for the salvation of sinners.
These two final requests actually come together to teach us that believers are not just the objects of God’s love, but that God transforms those who are His so that they will love one another (cf. John 13:34-35).
I cannot think of any time when I am more humbled than being in the presence of someone praying audibly for me. At no other time do I feel the weight of accountability, while at the same time the peace of security, that comes when someone places his hand upon my shoulder and lifts my name and my needs to the Heavenly Father. Some of you know just what I mean. But when I read this passage, I find myself in an even greater sense of awe. Just to imagine that when Jesus prays, He is praying for me! And not only for me, but for all of those who make up His Church.
Robert Murray McCheyne was a Scottish preacher who died at the age of twenty-nine. Even at that tender age he was regarded as a Godly evangelical pastor and a man of fervent prayer. He is quoted as having said, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me.”
And indeed He is. We have His word on it, right here in John 17. Jesus’ prayer draws to a close with verses 25 and 26. It is, in effect, a presentation of His earthly work to the Father. “O righteous Father,” He prays, “even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I have made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” And with these words of humble submission to the will of the Father, Jesus’ prayer of intercession concludes.
Chapters 13 through 17 comprise a lengthy portion of John’s Gospel that Merrill Tenney has labeled “the period of conference.” It begins with Jesus kneeling at the feet of His disciples and modeling the role of a servant, and it ends with Him kneeling before the Father with His eyes focused upward. While upholding His Deity, His humanity is prominent as He willingly yields to the will of the Father to the point of death.
Earlier in His ministry, and as recorded by Matthew (6:7-13) and Luke (11:1-4), Jesus provided instruction for His disciples on how they should pray. Traditionally, we have come to refer to those passages as “the Lord’s prayer.” In reality, however, what we see in John 17 is a better example of how our Lord prayed. What we have looked at today is not a paradigm by which we are to model our prayers. It is rather an intimate look into the mind and heart of Jesus. It reveals to us what was most important to our Savior during the final hours of His earthly life.
Therefore, while you and I can pray with the heart of Jesus, His prayer is differentiated from how we should be praying. For instance, you and I must consistently be praying prayers of confession because we are sinners by nature and by practice. Daily we stand in need of cleansing. None of that was true of Jesus. He was the only One among us who knew no sin. That is, in fact, what qualified Him to be our sin bearer (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). You will not find one word of confession falling from His lips. Never—not once—did He ever fall short of God’s “glory.”
What we can glean from this prayer, beyond the recognition that it is indeed “holy ground,” is that we have been blessed beyond measure...not just by the prayer of Jesus, but by the finished work He provided for us through His sacrificial death and bodily resurrection from the grave.
- • In verses 1 through 5, we are reminded that we share His life, because He has granted us the privilege of “know(ing) the only true God, and Jesus Christ” whom He sent.
- • In verses 6 through 12, we are assured that we know His name. That is, we possess an intimate awareness of who God is...His nature and character and authority. And because they are related to Him by faith, believers can rightfully address Him as “Father.”
- • In verses 13 through 19, we are told that we have His Word, given to us by none other than Jesus Himself. It is that Word by which we are kept and sanctified by Him.
- • And in verses 20 through 26, we are promised that we see His glory. What a precious guarantee is ours because Jesus prays for us and has “sealed the deal” through His death and resurrection.
F.F. Bruce has summarized this chapter with these words:
By worldly standards of success Jesus had little to show for his mission. He had come to make the Father known, but the vast majority of his hearers refused the knowledge which he offered them. The merest handful of men and women—a very unimpressive company at that—had recognized him as the sent one of God and had come to know the Father in him. Yet to them his mission on earth was confidently entrusted, as he dedicated them to the Father to this end.
The mission of Jesus continues, and it will continue until His return. Until then, He continues to entrust it to those who are called by His name. Does that include you? If so, then be greatly encouraged today that He is still praying for you. Even now He sits at the right hand of the Father interceding on behalf of all who are His (cf. Romans 8:34).