John 17 records the prayer of the Son of God to His heavenly Father. In the gospels, it was recorded that Jesus often departs by Himself to the hills or solitary place to pray; but here is a detailed account of His prayers to His Father before He departs from His disciples.
A commentator had expressed that we are on ‘holy ground’ just like Moses was before the burning bush. Here is God the Son revealing what was upon His heart to the Father and certainly, what was upon His heart before going to the cross must be very significant for Him to articulate in His prayers.
Some may look at this as a pattern for prayer for believers; however this is not like the Lord’s prayer which the Lord Jesus taught His disciples – it is in fact a revelation of what is so very central and important to Him and to His Father (including the Holy Spirit). What is central and important to Him must also be important to us.
The prayer centres on the eternal plan of salvation of the Triune God; this was agreed upon by the three persons of the Godhead even before the creation of the world. The Triune God knows that fallen humanity was condemned to death (physical and spiritual) in the first Adam; only a plan initiated by the Triune God in love is the only hope for mankind. So the Father decides to send His Son to put on flesh (for God is immortal and cannot die) to live a holy, sinless and godly life as a human and to die as a ‘sacrificial lamb’ (a substitute) for the sin of fallen humanity. Jesus, the second Adam, is to reverse the fall of humanity and to recreate a new humanity when He destroys the work of the devil and brings back the lost to the light and the kingdom of God.
Jesus began His prayer by lifting HIs eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (vv 1-3).
“I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (vv 4-5).
The ‘hour” refers to the impending death on the cross, leading to the resurrection and the ascension of the Son of God. The Son’s desire to be obedient to the Father in love is clear; it is later expressed in “Not my will but your will be done”. Glorification of the Son refers not only to the work that Jesus will do on the cross in death but also to God’s vindicating exaltation of the Son that will follow it. The vindication will testify to the cosmic importance of Jesus’ death. In raising the Son, God testifies to and gives evidence for the plan that sent the Son to die. He reveals how great and significant the Son and his work are. This is but the realisation of a plan worked out long ago.The glorification of the Son takes place now, just as the bestowal of the Son’s authority over all people took place long ago in eternity past. The purpose of such authority was that eternal life might be given to all those whom God had given to the Son. Thus Jesus really is praying for the working out of the plan that God made long ago to save through the Son.Notice that the plan includes eternal life which the Son has authority to give and eternal life is knowing God the Father and God the Son – it has to do with a living relationship with both the Father and the Son, effected by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is defined not only for its endless duration but also for its abundant quality represented in a relationship with the Triune God.
The work of Jesus in God’s eternal plan of salvation culminates with the cross. Jesus refers to this as a completed work although at that point, He has not gone to the cross. Only one thing remains in the completion of the work: that the Son be restored into God’s own presence with the glory that the Son possessed before the world was made. Jesus is not elevated in glorification and ascension to new heights; rather, He returns to the exalted position that He had even before the creation of the world. The authority that Jesus has is authority that He always had. The role that Jesus will receive after His death is an authority that He possessed before “the Word became flesh.” What Jesus prays for in glorification is the affirmation of the union that Father and Son always have had, as well as the completion of a work planned long ago.
Jesus now turns in His prayer to those whom the Father gave to him to effect their plan, to this key group of initial disciples who would constitute His apostles. He is about to pass major responsibility on to them so that they can reach others. The first part of Jesus’ work with them is accomplished – He has manifested God’s name (HIs character, power, and plan) to them and they have kept His word. They recognise that everything that Jesus has been given is from the Father; their belief honours Jesus and affirms the plan of God. Now Jesus prayed for them and not for the world – He desires that they have a quality relationship with God. Jesus will not be physically ministering in the world anymore, but these disciples remain to do His work as Jesus returns to the Father. Hence Jesus requested the Father to keep them and to help them continue God’s continuing work and to remain as one.
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (vv15-19) The request to sanctify them is a call to dedicate them to God’s service and mission, to set them apart for God’s work, which is a continuation and outworking of God’s eternal salvation plan for lost humanity. They need to be equipped for the sacred duty of mission – it is their work in the truth; the Word of God is truth and this would direct them into authentic life and mission – Jesus is sending them into the world. Jesus has come to bring the message of God’s way and plan of salvation – the apostles’ embrace of God’s way resulted in their separation from the world- hence Jesus’ prayer for protection for them from the evil one. Here is a reminder that God’s work and mission involve spiritual warfare and the enemy, with the world, would oppose this work and would hate God’s disciples. Jesus Himself had consecrated Himself and dedicated Himself to God’s plan of salvation and now He requires His disciples to dedicate themselves to continue this work of salvation. Jesus’ dedication is seen in His offering of Himself to sacrifice and die for the sake of His followers; we are reminded of His teaching on the need for a grain of wheat to die to be fruitful, and His example of servanthood in the washing of the feet of His disciples.
Notice the significance of the truth and the central aspect of the Word of God in the fulfilling of God’s work; without proclaiming the whole truth (not distorted truth or gospel plus or gospel minus) based on God’s revelation in His Word, there is no spiritual fruit that will last eternally and no true conversion and repentance.It is imperative that God’s work must be done in God’s way and by God’s truth and Word.
Jesus’ prayer for their oneness and unity has its root in their union with Him and the Father; the disciples will be united to one another in God, just like the union that the Son has with the Father. This is not a surface or superficial ecumenism; it is a relationship that is rooted in allegiance to God and they, the disciples, are not to ‘create’ the unity but to preserve it and to keep it because of the reality of their oneness in the Triune God. The degree of this unity would be qualified by the quality of the relationship of various ones with the Triune God. Jesus’ prayer ultimately is about how His work with the disciples is part of God’s eternal plan of salvation worked out long ago. The gift of eternal life leads to the life of mission in service to God.
God willing, we will consider the remaining part of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in another subsequent sharing.
Jesus now turns HIs attention to those disciples who will come to faith through the mission of the apostles for whom He has just prayed (from verse 20). His prayer is that the Father would accomplish His eternal plan of salvation through the impact of all believers’ ministry. This prayer extends to encompass all believers who belong to Jesus through all time (i.e. it includes the saints of old, ourselves and all those who would believe subsequently).
Jesus’ basic request calls for a spiritual union that makes all disciples one as the Father and the Son are one. This union involves not only disciples being with one another but also their being “in Us”, a union with the three Persons of the Godhead. This is not a structural institutional union but a visible union of spirit, grounded in disciples’ mutual allegiance to God and His Son – and such a union would impact the world to believe that Jesus was sent by God and He is indeed the Son of God. The implication is that not all ‘so-called believers” or all ‘self-proclaimed churches’ belong to this union – it is basically the “invisible church” which comprises all true born-again Christians who love God and are committed to Him, and they are from all generations from the Old Testament, stretching to those at the second coming of the Lord Jesus. So although Jesus did not pray directly for the world in 17:9, the work of the believers is aimed very much at the world as they seek to draw others into the blessing of knowing God – the mission is to draw others into ‘sacred space and community’. A key means of accomplishing this mission is a genuine oneness grounded in the spiritual relationship that Christ has given to the disciples, a theme raised originally in John 13:34-35.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21)
Many may declare what they have done in the name of Jesus and these may include ‘apparent supernatural deeds’, but Jesus would say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt . 7:23). Here is a clear warning that only those who are truly united with Christ, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, are indeed one with the brethren and one with the Triune God.
It is the reciprocity of relationship and union, “I in them and you in me,” that allows the disciples to be completed in oneness. John 17:3 looks to the attainment of a state of oneness and points its eyes eventually to the completion of the promise in the end. The disciples will be united in love, purpose, and abiding relationship with God. Jesus wants to finish well the task that they have started here. The unity will be a testimony to the world and the spiritual realm that the Father sent Jesus into the world to redeem it and to call out a special people for His love, a love that God gives to them just as He does to His Son.
Jesus’ final request is that the promise be completed one day to the point where the disciples can come and be with Him in heavenly glory – He asked that they may behold the glory that the Father has given to Him a divine love whose roots go back to the foundation of the world! God’s love for His Son did not start with the incarnation but reaches back into the divine planning made long ago.
The ongoing work in the meantime alludes especially to the Spirit’s work that Jesus outlined in John 14-16. This work to coe will enable the disciples to reach out in mission and claim those who will be disciples after them. The result is a love relationship, that is passed on from the Father, through the Son, and into and among the disciples. In that love is a union between Jesus and the disciples. It is the quality of this relationship and its visibility that Jesus prays for most of all. He prays because this was the plan all along, to restore people to an enduring relationship of quality with God.
It is a tremendous privilege as a church and a people of God to have Jesus prayed for us in John 17. Note also the greatness and glory of the love relationship between God and believers which would come to pass and be consummated when Jesus comes again (and it would surely come to pass). We are part of God’s vast and awesome eternal plan – the kingdom has come, the kingdom is coming and the kingdom of God would surely come!
In John 17:21, Jesus prays to the Father for His church that she will display a unity before the world in some way similar to the union the Son has with the Father in the unity of the indivisible Trinity. The Father and the Son are distinct, as is evident in this prayer in which the Son addresses the Father; yet they are one. Their oneness does not erode the distinction, nor does the distinction sever their oneness. In verse 21, He speaks of the unity of the church – “they they may be one” – and the union of the Father and the Son becomes the template for the unity of the church. -“just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” Those who were to believe in Jesus through the testimony of the apostles would be in the Father and the Son.
He adds the prayer “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one” (vv 22-23). The unity of believers for which Jesus prays is also grounded in the union the church has with Christ Himself. The unity of believers cannot offset their own particular distinctiveness. It is founded on the fact that the Son is in them. Hence this unity is grounded in the union of the church with Christ and thus it follows that individuals who claim to be believers or institutions which claim to be the church but are not united with Christ in union with Him cannot belong to Him and cannot be one with Him.
Union with Christ is right at the centre of the Christian doctrine of salvation. In order to have eternal life and to partake of its blessings which are given by Christ, it is of absolute necessity that we be united with Christ. If we will have life from the Son, we must have the Son; that is, we must be made one with Him. If there is no union with Christ, there is no communication of life and salvation from Jesus.
Union with Christ in justification
Justification is received only by faith and is grounded on what Christ did once for all in His death and resurrection. Adam was head of the first humanity of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole humanity into sin, ruin, death and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as head of a new and recreated humanity of which we are part by grace through faith. He did it on our behalf, for us – and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with HIm as the head of the new renewed humanity. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.
Union with Christ and sanctification
Believers, justified in Christ, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin. This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in His resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with Him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. (Rom. 6:3-4)
Union with Christ and resurrection
The resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of His church is one reality (1 Cor. 15:12-19). If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers If there is no resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised Himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised – and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at His return (vv19-23).
The resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the latter occurs in union with the former. We see that resurrection of believers is tied up with union with Christ – hence our resurrection is in Him.
The basis of our union with Christ: The Incarnation
The basis of our union with Christ is Christ’s union with us in the incarnation (John 1:14). We can become one with Him because He first became one with us. By taking human nature into personal union, the Son of God has joined Himself to humanity. He now has a human body and soul, which He will never jettison (but after the resurrection, He has a resurrected body).This becoming flesh was not a transformation into something other than who He eternally is. He remained unchanging. He was still the Word, and remained so even as the disciples saw His glory (John 1:1-4). He added humanity and lived and acted as man, yet He remained God.The Word Himself takes the initiative, comes into this world and takes flesh into union.
Christ’s union with us in the incarnation is the foundation for our union with Him, both now and in the eternal future. It is a pledge of our sonship, for our common nature with Christ is the pledge of our fellowship with the Son of God; and clothed with our flesh He vanquished death and sin together that the victory and triumph might be ours.
So the incarnation should not be seen as merely a means to salvation. Rather, salvation finds its ultimate fulfillment in the union of humanity with God seen in the incarnate Christ. The incarnation was the means to atonement and all that followed it; the atonement was the means to the elevation and fruition of humanity in the renewed cosmos over which Christ rules, and we in Him.
God’s historical covenants are centred in union with Christ
We cannot be God’s people in ourselves, since we are by nature sinners and deserving of God’s wrath. Hence our election before the foundation of the world is in Christ, and so our whole salvation is in Christ too. In becoming man, Christ took our place and bore our sins in His body on the tree, rising for our justification and ascending in our flesh to the right hand of the Father. Thus, all of God’s historical covenants are centred in Christ and fulfilled by Him; they are centred in union with Christ – it is in union with Him that He is our God and we are His people.
The Christian faith can in fact be summed up as a series of unions: there is the union of the three Persons in the Trinity, the union of the Son of God with our human nature, the union of Christ with His church, the union established by the Holy Spirit with us as He indwells us. Both the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit together, distinctly but indivisibly, bring about our union with Christ.
The role of the Holy Spirit in union with Christ
The Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus after His glorification. The Spirit would come to indwell believers and unite them to Christ (John 14:16-23). Jesus goes on to say that when the Spirit indwells His disciples, they will then know for themselves that Jesus and the Father are in each other. On top of that, they will also know that Christ is in them, presumably by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the agent of the indwelling; He indwells countless people, who remain individuals, although relational individuals, individuals in communion, in union with God the Spirit, indwelt by Him
Further, Jesus enlarages on what He has just said; in verse 23, having affirmed that the one who loves HIm will be loved by Him and His Father, He added,”….. my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Here both the Father and the Son will come to the one who loves Jesus; the context points to the activity of the promised Holy Spirit who will indwell the beloved believer – the Father and the Son are also indivisibly present in him. The beloved disciple will have intimate communion and union with the whole Trinity, in the person of the Holy Spirit – what a privilege and honour!