John 17 The Lord's Intercessory Prayer - "That They May be One"
The Time of His Prayer The Lord's prayer to the Father is a fitting conclusion to the teaching He gave to His disciples in the upper room on the eve of His crucifixion. It was after speaking words of comfort and instruction to them that He then turned and addressed the Father on their behalf. If the Lord and His disciples left the upper room halfway through the discourse, as may be indicated by His statement: "Arise, let us go from here" (14:31 NKJV), then His prayer was spoken under the light of the moon in the open air before He and the disciples crossed the Kidron valley and made their way into the garden of Gethsemane (18:1). However, it may be that He was only giving them notice to prepare for departure which would mean that He spoke this prayer before leaving the upper room.
This high priestly prayer of the Lord Jesus is unique to the account of John's gospel. The other three, Matthew, Mark and Luke all relate how and what He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, but make no mention of this prayer, yet considering the proximity in time to these occasions of prayer we cannot help but wonder at the distinct change in the demeanour of the Lord; it was a transition from joy to sorrow. While on both occasions He intimately addresses His Father, the reason for the difference in how He felt has to do with the subject and focus of His praying. In Gethsemane He was overwhelmed with deepest sorrow in anticipation of His suffering (Luke 22:42-44), whereas in this prayer He was filled with holy serenity in anticipation of His glory (5).
The Theology of His Prayer As we read and 'listen' to the words of our Lord the unity of the Father and the Son in nature, purpose and action becomes very apparent and the evident central truth of this prayer is that the Father is the source of the Son's authority, glory and mission. The Son has been given by the Father 'authority over all flesh' and the right to impart eternal life to 'as many as' He 'had given Him' (2) and He anticipates glory upon the completion of His mission as the sent one of the Father (2, 4, 5). The mission of communicating the revelation given in the Son will continue through His apostles and people (18, 22) with the same divine objective "that they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me" (21).
The Theme of His Prayer The primary thing before the Lord Jesus as He prays is His glorification, that is the theme on His heart in all that it means for Him, His Father and His people. He prays for it personally (1-5) and then in view of it He prays for His own disciples (6-19) and for all future believers (20-26). He has glorified His Father and finished His work and thus He requests that the Father glorify Him (1) with the glory that was His before the world existed (5). In anticipation of this He is desirous that His disciples be preserved and sanctified to fulfil their mission as He fulfilled His (11, 18) and, as already observed, that all believer's will be one, as He and the Father are one, so that through their earthly testimony the Father and the Son will be glorified (22-23) just as the Son in His earthly testimony glorified the Father (4). And, not only did He request and look forward to His glorification in the fullness of His Father's presence, He also desired that His people be ultimately with Him to see His glory, the glory given to Him by His Father who loved Him 'before the foundation of the world' (24).
Threefold Division 1. The Lord Prays for Himself (1-5) 2. The Lord Prays for His Disciples (6-19) 3. The Lord Prays for All (Future) Believers (20-26)
1. The Lord Prays for Himself (1-5)
The Arrival of the Hour and His Glorification (1-3) The Lord lifts up 'His eyes to heaven' (1) in an attitude of reverent prayer to speak to His Father and considering all the attendant circumstances, it is reasonable to suggest that it was with a longing for 'home' or to use the Lord's own words, His 'Father's house' (14:2). As already mentioned, what He prays is a fitting conclusion to all that He has been teaching to the disciples about the necessity of His departure and their future. The 'hour' (1) that has been anticipated throughout His ministry (2:4; 7:30; 8:20) has now arrived (12:23, 27; 13:1) and what He had already stated to the disciples (13:31-32) He now requests of the Father. It is an hour of suffering that will lead to His ultimate glory (5).
The Lord often prayed (Matt 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12), but the record of what He prayed is limited, thus John 17 is particularly special and exceedingly sacred as we are allowed to 'listen in' to this intimate communication from the Son to the Father whom He addresses by name six times (1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25) as not only Father but also 'holy Father' (11) and 'righteous Father' (25). As believers we do well to learn from our Lord. When we address the Father it should always be in the recognition of who He is and with the reverence that His name demands and deserves.
The way to glorification, according to the record of John, was through this hour of suffering (12:23, 27) in which the Lord Jesus 'became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross' (Phil 2:8). He in no way viewed the Cross with all that it meant for Him as a defeat, rather His voluntary submission to 'the suffering of death' (Heb 2:9) would be His greatest triumph that was going to bring Him unto the highest glory and clothe Him with the splendour of eternal majesty. He would be glorified by the Father for His obedience, and by His obedience to the death of the Cross He would glorify the Father. All of this is what He anticipates and the reason why He asks: "Father, the hour is come; glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son also may glorify Thee" (1). Moreover, the Father had 'given Him power over all flesh' in order that He would secure eternal life by His death and impart this gift to those whom the Father had 'given Him' (2). The Lord Jesus knew His absolute authority and final destiny from all eternity (13:1,3) and not only as Saviour does He impart eternal life to the believer, He will also as judge, appoint eternal death to the unbeliever (5:22, 23, 27-29).
The focus of John's gospel is that eternal life is in the Son of God (1:12; 3:36; 3:16) and according to the Lord's words here, He imparts it to 'as many as' the Father has 'given Him' (2). It is John who records the Lord's meeting with Nicodemus during His first visit to Jerusalem in the early days of His public ministry. It was to this man, 'a ruler of the Jews' (3:1) that Christ revealed the great truth:
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (3:16).
This summary declaration of the gospel promises that whosoever believes in the Son is assured of eternal life (3:16). However, during His private ministry to His own disciples, and now in personal prayer to His Father the Lord Jesus focuses upon the believing community in contrast to the unbelieving world (15:18-21; 17:6, 16) and the 'given ones' of the Father are the sum total of those who believe in the Son (20, 24). In the Father's eternal purpose and prerogative He gave all believers to the Son, who in time imparts the gift of eternal life to them. The Cross is the means by which the Father through His Son has provided, secured and assured this divine blessing (3:14-15) and it is upon receiving the Lord Jesus that an individual becomes a believer (1:12; 3:36) and part of the 'many' who constitute the believing community. The message of John's gospel is that the Father is the source of the whole plan of salvation; He initiated it (3:16-17) and He is active in its fulfilment through the Son (6:44, 45; 14:6) and by the work of the Spirit (3:8; 16:8-11). There is no hidden agenda or contradiction in all of this. God gave and sent His Son for the benefit of the world (6:51) and those given to the Son (2) and drawn by the Father (6:44) are the whosoever that accept the revelation God has given in His Son and believe in Him (5:24; 6:45; 1 John 5:11-12).
Furthermore, eternal life is defined by the Lord as knowing "the only true God and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent" (3). The Son, Jesus Christ, revealed the Father, the only true God, and believers are brought into relationship with the Father through Him. While eternal life is imparted by the Son and possessed by the believer, its experience is the enjoyment of knowing relationship with the Father through the Son.
The Fulfilment of His Work and His Glorification (4-5) The Lord Jesus glorified the Father by His faithfulness on earth and through finishing the Father's work (4). He speaks of everything as fully accomplished and by this statement He not only refers to His life and service up to the time of this prayer, but also to what He was about to do by His supreme act of obedience to the Father's will in the completion of the greatest work of all - the work of propitiation. The Lord Jesus could 'not fail nor be discouraged' (Isa 42:4) and His request to be glorified with the eternal glory which was His before the world was (5) confirms the certainty of, and His confidence in the outcome of the Cross by which He finished perfectly and completely His Father's work.
2. The Lord Prays for His Disciples (6-19)
He Prays for Their Preservation (6-16) The Lord now prays particularly for His disciples. As the eleven were the sole recipients of His ministry in the upper room (13:31-16:33), so now they are the subject in His prayer. "The men which Thou gavest Me" (6) are His chosen apostles who had and would continue to fulfil a unique role and ministry and were in need of all that He asks the Father for them. Of course the eleven were representative of the wider community of disciples and thus what the Lord desired for the eleven He desired for all. He first expresses the reason why He prays for their preservation and sanctification in verses 6-11a. He had fully made known to them the Father's name (6) and they had received (8), known (7, 8), believed (8) and kept (6) the testimony of Christ which was the word (6) and sayings (8) of the Father.
The name of the Father represents all that He is in Himself; it is the revelation of who He is (Exodus 3:13-15; 34:5-6; Isa 57:15). The Son manifested (6) and declared (26) the glory of the Father's name as He made known His nature, character and power and the disciples accepted His revelation believing that the He was the sent one of the Father (8). Therefore it was by their recognition of, and faith in His person that the Son was 'glorified in them' (10). They honoured the Son even as they honoured the Father (5:23).
The Lord Jesus was leaving the world to return to the Father (14:1-6) and these men continued to need the divine preservation He had given to them on behalf of His Father. He had made known to them the Father's faithfulness as He sustained and maintained them in the Father's name while with them in the world (12), but now that His work on earth was done He commended them again to His Father's keeping (11). Regarding the Father's name, F.F Bruce states the following in his commentary on John:
'The Father's name is his character, which Jesus has manifested to the disciples pre-eminently in his actions and words there in the upper room' (13:1-16:33).
The Lord Jesus had disclosed and declared the Father's name by word and deed to the disciples. They had learnt through Christ of the Father's faithfulness, holiness and love and now He is asking the Father to preserve the disciples by His power and in conformity with His character so that they may be one as the Father and the Son are (11, 21, 22 - 23). The reason why the believing community should be one is because they have been united to the Father and Son by a shared life (3) and love (23) and the Lord Jesus prays that these qualities will demonstrated in a united joy (13), glory (22) and purpose (18, 21, 23).
Judas was lost not because of any failure on the part of the Lord, but because he was the 'son of perdition' (12) and thus destined for judgment as he by his own will and actions fulfilled what was written in scripture, predictively not prescriptively. Furthermore, Judas was part of the unbelieving antagonistic world which is dominated by the 'evil one' (15 NKJV). As the world hated the Son (15:18) so it hated the disciples because they were not of the world as He was not of the world (14, 16). And, just as the evil one had used Judas to betray Jesus so the disciples would continue to be the focus of satanic attack. Also, the Lord not only desired their preservation from these sources of danger, but He desired too that the disciples would know in this world the same joy He had known in fulfilling the Father's will and abiding in His love (13; 15:9-11). His final words to them before engaging in prayer to His Father were:
"These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (16:33).
He Prays for Their Sanctification (17-19) The Lord promised them that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth concerning the things of the Son which are also the things of the Father (16:13-15). It would be through the operation of the Spirit that they would know the dynamic power of the truth in their lives and testimony. Here then the Lord prays: "Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth" (17). He desired that the truth, the Father's word would set His disciples apart for the Father's glory in this world and consecrate them to fulfil their mission of proclaiming the message that 'the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world' (1 John 4:14). The Son sanctified Himself for His greatest work (19); He set Himself apart in unstinted and unreserved dedication to His Father which means that He consecrated Himself to offer Himself in sacrifice for the Father's glory. The Lord Jesus did not do this merely as an example to His disciples, but as their Saviour His sacrifice secured their salvation, enabled their sanctification and therefore through them the saving grace of the Father would be extended to the world as they proclaimed the saving message of the gospel to others who would also believe in the Son of God (20).
3. The Lord Prays for All (Future) Believers (20-26)
The Ultimate Purpose - Unity (20-23) Others then would believe as a result of the apostles' testimony just as they had believed the testimony of Jesus (20) and His desire before the Father is that all believers, wherever they are in the world, will be united in the fullness of the life and love that is realized in the Father and the Son with the result "that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me" (21) and "that the world may know that Thou hast sent me and hast loved them as Thou hast loved Me" (23).
The Lord Jesus had given to His apostles the glory that the Father had given to Him (22). He had faithfully revealed the Father and made known His name (6, 26). The fullness of this revelation would now be reached by His Cross and resurrection and the apostles' mission was to communicate this glory by the gospel that others too would receive the knowledge of it. The desired outcome of this was a united believing community who not only shared in the life and love of the Father and the Son, but also manifested the same by word and deed in testimony to the world. The Lord Jesus emphasized His desire for the oneness of His own three times in this prayer:
"And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, as We are (11) ... Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word; that they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me (20-21) … And the glory which Thou gavest Me I have given them; that they may be one, even as We are one: in them, and Thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that Thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as Thou hast loved Me" (vs 22-23).
Notice the progression in what the Lord says. First of all He states the reality of the oneness between Himself and the Father: "That they may be one as We are" (11). Then He says "that they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee that they also may be one in Us" (21). "As we are" is now explained: "As thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee." Also, "one, as We are" is not simply one like Us, but "one in Us" and this is further amplified by: "I in them, and Thou in me" (23). Thus, believers are 'in' the Father and the Son because the Son is 'in' them and the Father is 'in' the Son. Regarding this truth F.F. Bruce helpfully points out:
The eternal relationship between the Father and the Son is a relationship of mutual love, perfect harmony and united purpose and these have been expressed by revelation and demonstrated in action through the coming into the world of the Son of God. Believers are brought into relationship with the Father through the Son and this relationship is to be expressed and demonstrated to the world by the believing community through their mutual love, complete harmony, united purpose and unified action so 'that the world may know' that the Father sent the Son and has loved them as He loved Him (23).
This unity then is not achieved because believers subscribe to a common cause, rather it is because they share a common life (3) and it can only be realized by a common faithfulness and obedience to the will and word of the Father revealed through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Ecumenism that seeks to find unity by cooperation and compromise between professing Christians from across the religious spectrum has nothing whatever to do with what the Lord is expressing in these words to His Father. Unity can only be found in knowing the Father, the foundation of which is the truth revealed in and by His Son. It is the expression of an internal reality, not an external cooperation. Also, tragic has been the failure of true believers to demonstrate this unity. The ideas and actions of men have over the centuries clouded the truth of God and divided His people. How unlike Christ we can be and how sad that believers often hinder the progress of gospel by their conduct and put people off Christianity by their divisions.
The Ultimate Goal - Glory (24) The Lord not only deservedly desired the glory that was His 'before the world was' (5), He also wants His people to be present with Him to behold His glory and therefore realize the fullness of the Father's eternal love for the Son (24). What a blessed anticipation for every believer in Christ.
The Ultimate Experience - love (25-26) The world remained in ignorance (1:10) because 'men loved darkness rather than light' (3:19), yet the joy of the Son was "I have known Thee, and these have known that Thou hast sent Me" (25) and He desired "that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them" (26). Christ had and would yet again make known the Father's name. He would do this by His Cross, exaltation and the coming of the Spirit so that the Father's love would abide in each believer (Rom 5:5) and among the believing community (Col 2:2) as He Himself would (Eph 3:17; Col 1:27; 3:11). The ultimate blessing for the believer is the enjoyment of relationship with the Father (3) and the appreciation His love both in the assurance it gives and the obedience it demands (1 John 4:5); it is the privilege and responsibility of every believer to reciprocate this love to others (13:34-35). This is the evidence of Christ in the heart and life of the believer and the reality of His presence among His people.
All scriptures, unless otherwise indicated, are from the King James Version.