Father, as we read your Son's prayer for himself and his apostles, please teach us what your priorities are and help us to pray in line with them. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Please turn back with me to John 17. We've reached a momentous moment in John's Gospel… In John 13-16 Jesus has been giving his disciples an intensive and heartfelt teaching session to prepare them for his departure when he will die on the Cross, rise again and return to the Father. And the time has come. John 17.1:
"When Jesus had spoken these words [to his apostles on earth], he lifted up his eyes to heaven [to his Father in heaven]."
What follows is a unique window into Jesus' relationship with the Father – we are granted backstage VIP access to Jesus' prayer life. But as we go 'backstage' and hear Jesus praying to his Father, we find we can't quite get our bearings – we find ourselves enveloped in a sea of mystery. Jesus' prayer is as mysterious as mist in its content. He says, verse 2:
"Glorify the Son, that the Son may glorify you."
What can this possibly mean? His prayer is more timeless than mountains in its reach throughout history. He prays in verse 5:
"glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed."
His prayer is also more cosmic than Star Wars in its scope. He speaks in verse 6 of people "whom you gave me out of the world". And he says of them in verse 16 – "they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world". And his prayer is somehow as intimate as marriage. He says to his Father (v.10) – "all mine are yours and yours are mine" and (v.11) – may they "be one, even as we are one".
However, in the midst of all the mystery, a clear theme runs through chapter 17. It's this: Jesus is praying for his Father to be honoured by completing his plans for history. Firstly…
1. Jesus prays that he will finish his mission on earth (v.1-5)
a) Jesus prays for himself to be glorified
In these verses, we see the words 'glory' and 'glorify' appear again and again. Verse 1:
"…the time has come; glorify your Son, so that the Son may glorify you."
"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."
Jesus is praying for glory – for himself to be glorified. But what does the word 'glory' actually mean? Well, when Manchester United fans chant: "Glory, glory, Man United…", they are desperate for their team to be 'glorified' – to be known as the best team in the world – to receive all the honour and respect (they think) their team deserves. It's similar in the Bible. 'Glory' means God's power, fame and honour. So when Jesus prays to be glorified, he is praying for everyone to see his real power, fame and honour.
- Jesus will be glorified by his death and resurrection
But how will Jesus be glorified? What needs to happen? In John 12.23-24 we read this:
"And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man [that's a title for Jesus] to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.""
Here the word glory is connected with Jesus' death. The moment Jesus is 'glorified' is when he dies on the Cross. Now turn back to our passage in John 17.5. Jesus says;
"Father, glorify me in own your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed."
So here the moment when Jesus is 'glorified' is when he returns to being in the presence of his Father in heaven. So, putting all the pieces of the jigsaw together, when Jesus is praying for glory in chapter 17, he is praying for himself to die on the Cross, rise from the dead and return to the Father. In short, he is praying he will finish his mission on earth.
But notice that Jesus doesn't just say "This will happen" – he prays that it will happen! For sure, the events of Jesus' death, resurrection and return to the Father are certain. They are hardwired into God's plans for history. These events are spoken about in the Old Testament and Jesus is determined to fulfil them… But they are not 'automatic' like stops on the Tyneside Metro: 'Jesmond, next stop: West Jesmond, next stop: Ilford Road.' 'Jesus dies, Jesus rises again, Jesus returns to the Father…' No! It's not automatic! At this crucial point, Jesus needs to rededicate himself to his Father's plan. Jesus pours out his heart to his Father – and says: 'Father, make this happen! Father, finish your plan for me! Give me strength to finish my work!'
Now I know that the whole question of God's sovereignty and human responsibility can tie us up in intellectual knots, because we can't reconcile the two seemingly contradictory doctrines as being both true. But they are both true! We see from Jesus' prayer here that they are! And we see this in the rest of the Bible too! As I read the Bible, I never see God's control of history used as an excuse not to pray – or to evangelise. I cannot see it anywhere in the Bible. As I read the Bible, I see many examples of people praying to God as the one who is powerful and in control of history - and I see these people pleading with God to complete his plan for history – and they spread the good news of the Kingdom.
b) Jesus prays this for his Father's glory
But why is Jesus so set on glory through his death, resurrection and return to the Father? Is Jesus a glory hunter, desperate to achieve recognition for himself, like all of us are by nature? Have a look again at verses 1-2.
"Father, the time 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."
So Jesus is no selfish glory-hunter, but a generous glory-hunter. He asks the Father to glorify him, so that he might glorify the Father. You see, before the beginning of the world, God the Father gave Jesus authority to offer eternal life. But in order for Jesus to be in a position to offer eternal life, he must first be glorified – he must die, be raised from the dead and ascend into heaven. Then Jesus can offer eternal life. Then he can glorify his Father fully. So, in other words, Jesus is praying this: 'Father, fulfil your promises. May I die, be raised from the dead and go up to heaven. Then I can offer eternal life to those believing in me. Then everyone will see how great you are.'
And, verse 3, eternal life is all about knowing God. That doesn't mean knowing information about God (like we know information about Teresa May, for example), but knowing him personally by believing in Jesus. If you wouldn't say you're a Christian here this evening, welcome. Can I ask you: Is there something that you feel your Christian friends have which you don't? If so, could it be that they know God as a person and you don't… yet? The early church leader Augustine wrote this: "You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you." Go to Jesus if you want know God personally forever!
Firstly, Jesus prays that he will finish his mission on earth. Secondly…
2. Jesus prays that the apostles will finish their mission on earth (v.6-19)
The big idea here is that Jesus is passing on the baton to his apostles. And from my schoolboy athletics career (!) I can still remember the golden rule for 4 x 100 relays: don't drop the baton! Whatever you do, don't drop the baton!
a) Jesus taught the apostles the words of the Father (v.6-8)
In v.6-8, we see that Jesus has safely handed the baton of God's words on to the apostles! There has been a top-quality changeover!
"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. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 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."
It's common to hear people today driving a wedge between Jesus' teaching and the teaching of his apostles: 'Yes, Peter said x in one of his letters, but he was a fallible human being just like the rest of us. Jesus was silent on the subject.' And there's a lot at stake here: is the apostles' teaching authoritative for us today? Well, the starting point is surely to look at how Jesus himself views the apostles. Look at verses 6-8. From a human perspective, Jesus says that the apostles have obeyed God's Word. They have accepted God's words. They have believed God sent Jesus. (Yes, they sinned – even badly like Peter, but they did stick to the Gospel.) From a divine perspective, Jesus says that the apostles have been given to Jesus out of the world from the Father and they belong to him. Jesus is giving us assurance that the apostles' teaching, which we read in the rest of the New Testament, is reliable and authoritative, because the apostles themselves are trustworthy.
b) Jesus prays for the Father to protect the apostles in the world (v.9-16)
Next Jesus prays for them. In verse 9, in saying that he is not praying for the world, he's not saying he's anti the world – we'll see next week that his big long-term plan is for the world to believe the Father has sent him through the witness of the church – but the role the apostles play is crucial – if they drop the baton, the Gospel will be lost – so Jesus focusses on them. Up until this point, Jesus himself has been looking after them and keeping them safe. Verse 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's Judas], that the Scripture might be fulfilled".
But now it's time for him to leave them (v.13-16):
"But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 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. 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."
Jesus' key prayer is for their spiritual protection. And how that prayer is needed! Think about it for a moment… after Jesus dies, rises again and goes to heaven, God's great plan for history will rest on the shoulders of these 12 minus 1 disciples - 11 sinful people with failures in their discipleship just like ourselves! It's like Usain Bolt passing on the baton to a team toddler of toddlers who have just learnt how to walk! No wonder Jesus prays for them! Jesus' key prayer in the preparation for the baton changeover is for their spiritual protection. Firstly, positively to keep them in the Lord and the Gospel. Verse 11:
"Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one."
The apostles need to stay faithful to the Gospel – in order to present a united witness to Christ – to preserve the clear message of Christ. Secondly, Jesus prays for spiritual protection in a negative sense – to keep them from Satan:
"I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one."
Jesus does not ask for protection from persecution for the apostles (indeed in chapters 14-16 he has told them to expect it!), rather he asks for their spiritual protection. So they don't end up like Judas, walking away from the faith. The apostles needed prayers for protection from the devil – and so do we today…
The problem for us is that we just don't think we're in a spiritual battle. Our culture is materialist – not just in the more obvious sense of wanting just a little more money and possessions to feel secure and happy – but also more fundamentally in terms of believing that nothing outside of the material world exists. So talking with our friends about the supernatural is weird, talking about a personal God you can talk to is very weird, but talking about the Devil / Satan as a real spiritual person is absolutely bonkers! And that's the air we breathe! And that's the wind which blows into our church communities. That's why the church in the West is so lacking in prayer. That's why we're keen to strategise, plan and act for God's glory (which is good) – but at the same time we're so slow to ask him for his protection. It's because, deep down, we don't think we're in a spiritual battle. In 1 Peter 5.8, the Bible says this:
"Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."
So, how is Satan attacking you at the moment?
- Is he making you feel like you're a useless failure as a Christian, taking your eyes off the Cross?
- Is he distracting you from regular daily prayer? Or giving you convenient excuses not to pray? Or bullying you with thoughts that prayer is just a waste of time?
- Is he tempting you to hold on to a grudge against someone at work?
- Is he encouraging you to become arrogant, so that you value your own opinion too highly and don't seek advice from others as your make important life decisions?
- Is he discouraging you in your evangelism, making you think there's no point, because no-one will believe the Gospel anyway?
- Is he making you feel disillusioned with the church community, so you are drifting spiritually and cutting yourself off from the support of the church family?
- Is he causing you to become foggy on key central Christian truths like the fact the God made everything, sin is serious, hell is real, the Cross was necessary, the resurrection of Jesus is historical and that Jesus will return to wrap up history?
Friends, we need protection! We need to pray: 'Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from the evil one.' Satan is real. And Jesus prays for his disciples to be protected from him. We need protection too. And as we pray, let's be reassured that the Lord who kept the apostles faithful in their generation is able to protect us from spiritual danger too.
c) Jesus prays for the Father to set the apostles apart for mission (v.17-19)
Finally, Jesus prays for the Father to set the apostles apart for mission. He officially 'commissions' them for service as apostles. In the Bible, 'sanctify' can have two meanings: The first is to become more like Jesus in character. The second is to be set apart for God's service. I think both are in view in Jesus' prayer in verses 17-19, though in context, more weight falls on the second. Verse 17:
"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."
Jesus calls God to set the apostles apart for the mission he has called them to… And that's where we come up to draw breath! Jesus has prayed that he will finish his mission on earth. He has prayed that the apostles will complete their mission on earth. What impact will the apostles have as Jesus sends them into the world? And what will that mean for the church and the rest of mankind down the ages? And for us? Well, come back for the finale next week! Let me pray.
Father, please may your control of history move us to prayer, just as it led Jesus to pray. Please help us to trust and believe what the apostles recorded for us in the Bible. Please lead us not into temptation and deliver us from satan. In Jesus' name, Amen.