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The Great High-Priestly Prayer

Category Articles
Date April 15, 2010

The seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel constitutes such a deep and rich passage that no summary of it can ever quite do it justice. It is quite difficult to discern a clear structure in this prayer. It is like a spiral staircase, going round and round, revisiting themes and developing them further. It is true that Jesus prays first for himself, then for the apostles, then for all the other believers, but this division is not as clear or watertight as we sometimes imagine. Attempting to deal with this chapter is like being permitted to handle the crown jewels.

The Son of God prays publicly to his Father

This has been called the Great High-Priestly Prayer of Jesus. It is Jesus entering the Holy of Holies, not the innermost division of the earthly tabernacle or temple, with the physical ark of the covenant or the physical mercy-seat, but the eternal Son of God entering into innermost communion with the eternal Father and – this is the point we need to see – doing so as the great high priest for all the people for whom he came to offer his own blood. The Day of Atonement was the great day of the year for the people of the old covenant, a day of the highest drama. Here in this passage is the parallel for us as new covenant believers. We will never get closer to glory in this present life than we do here in being able to read John 17. Here the curtain is lifted, for these twenty-six verses, on the precious and intimate communication between the Father and the Son, which the Holy Spirit has preserved for our blessing.

In this connection, it does indeed seem that Jesus spoke this prayer quite deliberately and intentionally in the hearing of his disciples, especially the beloved apostle John, who faithfully took these words down. It was a prayer, in one sense, uttered in the most holy place, but at the same time it was a prayer that was proclaimed to the men who would be the foundation stones of the church. Jesus does not retire somewhere; he goes nowhere, but lifts up his eyes and speaks audibly to his Father. It was a prayer which was at the same time a sermon, a preached prayer.

A Prayer bathed in Love

Don Carson says that ‘this Father-Son relationship is bathed in unfathomable love’ (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, Crossway, p.95). Although love is not mentioned until verse 23, we need to see that this passage climaxes with love and that love is a great theme of this passage.

Jesus says ‘Father’, and we must see this address as something uniquely sacred. It is true that Jesus teaches us to call God ‘Our Father’. It is true that after his resurrection Jesus will speak of God as ‘my Father and your Father’. We will come and see what great privileges are bestowed upon us. But this prayer is not like the Lord’s Prayer, a model for us to follow. Here the Son addresses the Father in the context of that unique and eternal relationship. The Son was the Son before he became incarnate, before he became Jesus. And from everlasting, Father and Son have been joined in a bond of love. Twice in John’s Gospel, in 3:35 and in 5:20, we read that ‘the Father loves the Son’, and then we come to John 15:9: ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you’ and the three statements at the conclusion of this prayer. Additionally, in John 14:31 we read ‘I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.’ Indeed we can go further and see that the fact of the Trinity means that love, real, active, given and received, is something that is exercised by God, indeed defined by God.

The great truth that God is one God, and yet Three Persons, makes it possible for the statement ‘God is love’ to have meaning. A Unitarian, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Muslim, can never begin to approach the concept of the love of God in the way that we must, as we see the love given and received by the Father, the Son and indeed the Spirit.

But when we have thoroughly digested this we need to look at verse 23: ‘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.’ This is the great and almost incredible truth – the Father loves believers just as he loves the Son. The great love and goodness of God to his people is all grounded in the love which the Father had for the Son before the foundation of the world. God’s love for his people is the extension of the Father’s love for the Son. We also see how this love from God to his people becomes the measure of our love for one another. A practical question: how do we stir up love in the church? Not only by reflecting on God’s great love for us, but by going even further and seeing the love the Father has for the Son. See the Father-Son-believer triangle of love that is described throughout these chapters. This is what we have been caught up into!

A Prayer leading to Glory

How does this death show the love of the Father for the Son? Perhaps the fact of the crucifixion itself obscures, in our own minds, the love of the Father for the Son. By what distorted, even perverted kind of logic can the cruel death of Jesus upon a Roman cross ever be a demonstration of the Father’s love for the Son?

To understand the answer to this question we need to see that love is not the only powerful theme in this prayer – no less great is the theme of glory. Let’s go back even further. Don Carson goes on to reminds us how John begins his Gospel by talking about glory ‘we have seen his glory’ (1:14) and comes back to it again and again. This can be linked to Exodus 32-34 where Moses was seeking God’s glory. So in this great prayer, Jesus is answering Moses’ own prayer, ‘Show me your glory’. In Exodus 33:19 the prayer of Moses of the previous verse is answered. God will cause all his goodness to pass before Moses; this goodness is God’s glory.

Now, in the glorifying of Jesus, God’s goodness will come upon his people in a great shower of blessing. From John 12 the occasion of the glorifying of Jesus becomes clear; it is going to happen through his death. Here is the hour that Jesus’ whole life and ministry has been moving towards. This is the hour of glory for the Saviour. He had spoken of this hour in John 12:27-28: ‘Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour!” But for this purpose I have come to this hour. “Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”‘ When will this happen? The answer – when Jesus has made his soul an offering for sin. Then both the Father and the Son will be glorified; the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father.

The Father loves the Son and consequently he desires that all will honour the Son. He loves the Son and consequently desires that every knee will bow to him. Take the fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation. In Chapter 4 the Father is on the throne, receiving glory, honour and praise. In Chapter 5 the Lamb approaches the throne, opens the scroll and is himself the object of the same glory, honour and praise as his Father. The whole thrust and direction of this prayer is that believers might see the glory of God in Christ. This is seen especially in verse 24, ‘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.’ What will be the business of eternity? What, indeed, is this Christian life which begins here on earth and carries on beyond the grave? Is it not this – knowing God, which means knowing Jesus Christ whom he has sent?

Paul says in Philippians 3:10 ‘I want to know Christ’, and we might reply, ‘But Paul, you do know him! Who could know him better than you?’ ‘But I want to know him better and better’, says Paul. My very heart and flesh cry out for the living God, and that means that I’m crying out for Christ.

A Prayer that is answered Today

What is the Lord’s Supper all about? It is Jesus Christ drawing us into this rich fellowship with himself and his Father. He eats and drinks with us, which in itself is a mark of this fellowship – but he tells us that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood, so that we see that by his death, his death for us, and by that means alone, we are brought into this eternal fellowship with the Triune God. The broken body and the shed blood – this is the measure of his love for us, and this is the basis of our love for one another! How fitting that this prayer was spoken so close in time to the Supper that the Lord had instituted. How right, therefore, that we should consider it so close in time to our own observance of that same Supper. In one sense, two thousand years of history vanish at a stroke. The bread and wine set before us speak of the same sacrifice as did the bread and wine which were set before the disciples. The prayer spoken and preached by Christ then is the prayer that needs to be spoken and preached today. The love of the Father, and the seeing of Christ’s glory – this meal shows how these things are real and true right now.

But the meal itself is a symbol of a deeper reality. Last and best of all, do we see who is praying here, and do we see the assurance that this prayer will be answered? ‘For what Jesus here asks, Jesus obtains. Yes, brethren, this prayer was answered, is being answered still, and will continue to be answered, until the last vessel of mercy is gathered home.’ (Charles Ross, The Inner Sanctuary, p.201). How will the Father, who is one with the Son, refuse the prayer offered by his Son? Here is our own deepest assurance and comfort – Christ was heard, and so as we cast ourselves upon him, we know that his prayer will be answered for our sakes. It was for our sakes that he came into this world, made this prayer, and offered himself up as the Lamb that was to be slain.

His prayer is being answered now, in the world, as men and women receive the redemption which Christ has purchased. Christ is glorified on the earth as men and women believe in him and are brought into that loving unity of fellowship with Father and Son which is the heart of his prayer and the centre of our own lives and experience.

Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church. He is one of the speakers at the Banner of Truth Youth Conference in April 2010 in Leicester.

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