Jesus’ prayer for the Church in John 17 is one of the most famous prayers in the Bible. Its pleas for unity among Christians, in particular, are a heart-stirring call to repentance and reconciliation among the many Christian denominations and divisions. In preparing for preaching on part of that prayer this Sunday, I came to see it from three levels: whole-gospel, whole-chapter, and the specific verses.
in the context of the whole gospel
The bulk of Jesus’ early teachings are recorded as “the sermon on the mount.” This can be found particularly in Matthew 5-7, though Luke 6, 11, & 12 also contain pieces of it. These teachings are tough moral lessons that generally take the Old Testament Law and ratchet it up a notch until it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to keep. Yet it’s what Jesus commands us to do.
On Jesus’ last evening as a free man, after eating the Passover meal with his disciples, he shared some final teachings, often known as the Upper Room Discourse. Our primary source for these teachings is John 13-16. (The other gospel books mainly just deal with the institution of the Lord’s Supper.) In these teachings, Jesus gives his disciples the “new” commandment to love one another just as he has loved them. He talks about his impending death and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In all this, he tells them how to carry out his commands.
After Jesus gave those teachings, he prayed, and that’s what’s in John 17. Ultimately, he’s praying that God will enable his people to carry out his commands.
in the context of the whole prayer
The prayer of Jesus in chapter 17 of the gospel according to John is often known as the High Priestly Prayer. This is because, quite simply, this prayer is when Jesus most self-consciously takes on the role of a High Priest. In Leviticus 16, Moses records God’s instructions for how the high priest of Israel was to lead worship on the Day of Atonement. He had to prepare himself in a certain way, and pray for certain things in a certain order. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 matches that order of prayer. Quite simply, as High Priest, Jesus prays first for himself, then for his family (more specifically, his disciples), and finally for all God’s people. The neatness of this parallel is pretty cool:
- John 17:1-5 = Prayer for self = Leviticus 16:3-10
- John 17:6-19 = Prayer for family/disciples = Leviticus 16:11-14
- John 17:20-24 = Prayer for all God’s people = Leviticus 16:15-16
- John 17:25-26 = summary of prayers = Leviticus 16:17
And then, just as the High Priest would follow up with one final sacrifice and the sending out of the scapegoat, Jesus went on to become our sacrifice on the cross.
to recap so far
From the whole-gospel context we’ve learned that Jesus’ prayer is about enabling God’s people to carry out his commands.
From the whole-chapter context we’ve learned that Jesus’ prayer was about making atonement for God’s people.
What did Jesus pray for us?
First of all, in verses 20-21, Jesus prays for our unity:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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.
This is probably the most memorable verse among Christians today. The intimacy of the inner life of the Trinity is the model for the intimacy intended between Christian believers. No small hope! We see it true in Acts 4:32, but not so much today.
Secondly, in verses 22-24, Jesus prays about glory:
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 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. 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.
Multiple layers weave through these verses. One layer is that, by the intimacy he prays about, Jesus is not ashamed us to consider us his family. Another layer here is that Jesus wants us to be able to enjoy the glory of divinity forever, just as he does in eternity.
In both this and the previous part of his prayer for us, Jesus comments that his glory shining through our unity will be a sign to all the world of God’s love. This is getting beyond anything remotely possible for us as human beings and into the supernatural. How can a group of mere mortals ever live in such peace and harmony? Add on top of that the conclusions the previous context studies have shown us: this prayer is also about enabling us to live for Christ, and making atonement for our sins. So that’s at least three impossible things he’s praying for us to do:
- Let the glory of God shine through our unity,
- Enable us to follow Christ’s law of perfection,
- and live a life in full atonement to a holy God!
How can any of this be possible?
Hints about this were dropped in some of Jesus’ teachings in the preceding chapters of the gospel of John – Jesus said it is “better” for us for him to go away. The solution to this mystery is the Holy Spirit. You see, simply having Jesus around would wear us out; no matter how inspiring he is as a preacher and teacher, we would never be able to live up to his standards of perfection; he demands love beyond our capacity as sinners! But in his visible absence, the Holy Spirit came in and accomplished what Jesus, as the God-Man, could not do: actually make us holy by infusing us with the life-giving presence of God.
We particularly celebrate the reality of this event on this Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost, the ten day period in which the disciples awaited the Holy Spirit coming in power. Hence this Sunday’s collect: O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
And so what now?
The most direct application of these prayers of Jesus come to us in his concluding words, the last two verses of John 17:
O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.
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.
Two main dynamics run through this: knowledge and declaration. Just as the beginning of the gospel of John observes, the world does not know (or recognize) Jesus as God. But his disciples, including us, do know Jesus, thanks to his teaching and the continuing witness of the Holy Spirit. The more closely we stick to God, the better we know him.
And then there’s the declaration, or the “making known” part. Jesus made the Name of God known to his disciples, and us as well. He’ll continue to make it known, but how? Yes, through the witness of the Holy Spirit, as everything else above, but also through us. We’re called to make known the Name (or powerful presence) of God, as well as the love that we share.
When you know something really important, you feel an obligation to tell someone.
When you really love something deeply, you naturally want to tell people about it.
That is precisely what Jesus is describing in his disciples: people who know and love him so intimately (both in heart and mind) that it shines forth in how they live (in unity with one another) and how they interact (as witnesses to the world). That’s what a Christian is; that’s who we’re called to be.