Learning From Jesus’ Prayer
Our Lord Jesus Christ loves prayer. He was praying at his baptism, and at his transfiguration. He prayed alone and he prayed with his disciples. He prayed for the children, for his disciples, and for the church. He taught his disciples how to pray. He prayed blessings on the food he fed to 5000 and to the 12 in the institution of the Sacrament. He even prayed as he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead – though not for himself, but for the benefit of those listening in on his prayer.
In John 17 we have recorded for our us Jesus’ “Great High Priestly Prayer.” Our text, this morning, is a portion of it. This prayer is the longest prayer of Jesus recorded. And while the “Lord’s Prayer” is the prayer he has given us, his people, to pray. In the High Priestly prayer, he prays for us, his people. Here, especially he prays for his disciples – though later he will include also those who would come to believe in him - including you and me. Nonetheless, we can learn so much from Jesus’ prayer, and even this first portion of it.
As portions go, it is rich fare. Each phrase and word of it loaded with deep meaning worthy of our attention. One famous preacher said he could never preach this text, for it was too deep and full of meaning, and yet insisted that, on his deathbed, someone read him Jesus’ prayer from John 17 three times. We could read it many more times and still not exhaust its teaching. But this morning, we will make a go at it.
Consider with me this morning, as we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest just a portion of Jesus’ great prayer for his people.
A handy little aphorism I’ve found myself repeating lately, is that “Everything Jesus does, he does for you.” Jesus is born for you. He suffers for you. He dies for you. He is buried for you. He is resurrected for you. He even ascends into heaven for you! And he will come back, some day, for you – and for all of his people.
Here again, we see it is true. Jesus prays – for you.
Indeed he prays for all of us. Beginning with his disciples. But what he prays for them applies to us as well. The content of his prayer, and even the fact that his prayer is recorded by John for us to read and learn from- Jesus prays not for his own benefit, but for that of his people. It is an act of love that Jesus prays for you. And who better to pray for you than Jesus himself, the one in whose name we pray to the Father, and without him, not a single word of ours would be acceptable to the Father.
One thing that might strike us about the way Jesus speaks here, and in the Gospel of John in general, is that it sounds very strange to our modern, western ears. The line of reasoning is sort of hard to follow, because it’s non-linear. Rather than going from point A to B to C, with an introduction and a conclusion, Jesus seems to wander – dwelling on certain points, then repeating them later in a different way. He strikes themes, sort of chews on phrases, and speaks of things in poetic fashion. This is certainly not because he is confused or means to be confusing. But it can be a challenge for us.
Jesus prays about the hour that has come. Of course, here he means the time – the completion of his earthly mission – including his arrest, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. In all of this, Jesus prays, God would glorify him. It is indeed a great mystery that even though Jesus is the Son of God from eternity, and thus is worthy of all honor and glory for that fact alone – he is glorified particularly by his work of salvation for us – and most especially in his suffering and death. It is a strange kind of glory, this theology of the cross. It is backwards from the world’s glory. But it is precisely divine. And by thus accomplishing his mission, the Son brings even more glory to the Father.
Jesus, who has been given all authority, wishes to use that authority to give eternal life to all that the Father has given to him. Notice the prevalence of the word “gift” and “give”. 17 times in this chapter alone, emphasizing the giving nature of our God – everything is a gift from him.
And perhaps chief among those gifts, given from the Father to the Son, and from the Son to his people – is his word. A word which is believed – and that faith itself a gift. A word that creates certainty that Christ is sent from the Father.
A close study of this reading draws us into ponder the two natures of Christ – true God, and true Man. As true God, he had glory before the world began. As true man, he receives glory from the Father. And through his word Jesus reveals the glory of the Father to us. He is true man for us, and he is true God, for us.
It also prompts us to recall the two states of his work for us – the state of humiliation, in which he sets aside or doesn’t fully exercise his divine attributes of power and knowledge and such – and the state of exaltation, in which he gradually and then fully exerts these divine attributes again. Jesus knows he will return to the Father in a glorious ascension to the throne of heaven, and rule all things for the good of his people. His time of humiliation is ending. His time of exaltation is beginning. He is humiliated for us. He is exalted for us.
He prays for those that belong to him, but not for the evil and unbelieving world. Jesus knows who belongs to him and who does not. This doesn’t mean he desires only SOME to be saved. But it is a comfort to those of us who do believe, that he knows us, prays for us, and keeps us in his care.
And here’s another observation: He is also glorified in them, his people. So not only is he glorified from eternity as the Son of God, not only is he also glorified by accomplishing his saving work, but he is also “glorified in them”. That’s not to say that they give him glory by a bunch of good works done in his honor. Rather, it is to say that he is glorified in them by his work in them – work of justification and sanctification.
It was in the 5th century that the church father Clement of Alexandria remarked that in this prayer Jesus was acting as our high priest. And so we have called this his “High Priestly Prayer”. You may, of course, consider that the Old Testament priests made the sacrifices, and that the high priest, of course, made the most important annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Jesus is our High Priest by virtue of him making the highest sacrifice of all – himself – his own precious blood of the covenant, shed for the remission of all sins.
But it is also the high priest’s role to represent the people before God in prayer. To pray on behalf of, and for, all the people. So Christ does here, for us, in John 17. And so he continues to do seated at the right hand of the Father. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” 1 Timothy 2:5 Or we might say here is only one High Priest between God and man, and that’s Jesus Christ.
We need his mediation because we can’t come to God on our own. We need his glorious work, because we are so caught up in our poor self-glorification. We need his priestly sacrifice for our sins, and his priestly prayer for all blessing. We need forgiveness for our flagging and failing prayer life, for shallow and selfish prayers, and for stronger faith to cling to his promises. If we had to rely on our prayer for salvation, we’d be far from the kingdom. But we can, and we do, rely on Jesus – and on his prayer, for the Father has great joy in answering his Son.
And Jesus continues to bring our prayers to the Father, and so we pray our prayers, “in His name”. He continues to pray the same things for his church as he does in John 17: Steadfast faith, unity in the truth, glorification of his name through more coming to believe on his name.
Yes, dear Christians, our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for us, and prays for us to his Father, who is our Father. And we have nothing to add but the word of faith, which says, “Amen”.