Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Lord's Prayer (John 17:1-5)


When I first began attending church, every Sunday my pastor would say as he drew his pastoral prayer to an end, “These things we pray in the name of Him who taught us to pray together,” and then the entire congregation would repeat aloud:

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
·        (Matt 6:9-13, KJV)

Those words were entirely unfamiliar to me as a new Christian, so most Sundays I would just sort of mumble in whispered tones until the words of what is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer” became etched on my heart. It is one of the most well known passages in all of Scripture, and this prayer has been recited countless times by countless people through the centuries. As precious and powerful as this prayer is, it is perhaps a bit of a misnomer to call it “The Lord’s Prayer.” This is how Jesus said that we should pray, but it is not a prayer that He Himself prayed. After all, the sinless Son of God could not, and would not, pray that the Father would forgive Him of His debts or trespasses, for He had none. That familiar prayer would be better called “The Disciples’ Prayer.”

The seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel presents us with what may be more accurately called “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is uniquely His. Here we are encounter the profound communion that has eternally existed between God the Father and God the Son. This prayer of Jesus “is the purest and most extensive example in all the Bible of a direct, verbalized communication between two members of the Godhead,” and in it, “the veil is drawn back and the reader is escorted by Jesus Christ into the Holy of Holies, to the very throne of God.”[1]

This is not the only instance of Jesus praying that is recorded in the Gospels, but it is the longest one. It is commonly called “The High Priestly Prayer,” because here we find the Lord Jesus interceding as a High Priest for His people. But in these first five verses, He prays for Himself. So, let us come into this most holy place and eavesdrop, if you will, on this private conversation between God the Father and God the Son and hear how the Son prays for Himself in this true Lord’s Prayer.

I. The occasion of Jesus’ prayer

Charles Dickens’ famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities is probably familiar to us. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens was referring to the era of the French Revolution, but these words more fittingly describe the setting of our text. Verse 1 sets the stage: “Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come.’” Jesus had just finished the lengthy time of teaching with His disciples that we call “The Farwell Discourse,” in which He explained to them that He was returning to His Father. Having completed the work for which He had come into the world, He would return to His home in heaven, to the place and position that had been rightfully His for all eternity. It was the best of times. But it was also the worst of times.

Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has spoken of “His hour.” Prior to Chapter 12, Jesus said that His hour (or “time”) had not yet come (2:4; 7:6, 8; cf. 7:30; 8:20). But with the dawning of this final Passover week, Jesus began to say that His hour had come (12:23; 16:32; cf. 13:1). He says it again here in verse 1 as He prays. “Father, the hour has come.” What is this “hour” of which He speaks? It is the appointed time for His suffering and death, the culmination of His earthly mission to redeem humanity from sin by bearing our sins as a sacrificial substitute to bear the wrath we deserve upon the cross.

Marcus Rainsford was a 19th Century Irish preacher and his monumental work on this chapter, entitled, Our Lord Prays for His Own, is considered the evangelical magnum opus on John 17. Listen to his words about this “hour.”

Many an hour has passed on the dial of time since time began, but no hour like this. It was the hour on which His own and His Father’s heart had been set, and with the issues of which His own and His Father’s thoughts had been engaged from all eternity. It was the hour for which He became incarnate, and for which He came into the world; it was the hour when all God’s waves and billows were to pass over Him …. It was the hour when His soul was to be made an offering for sin; when, having been given by God to us He was about to offer up Himself to God for us.[2]

This is the hour that has come, and this is the hour in which He prays. But what does He pray for? We turn our attention to that question now.

II. The content of Jesus’ prayer

On an occasion such as this, we might imagine that Jesus would have a long list of personal concerns to bring before the Father. Yet, His request is limited to a single petition. In a moment like this, with so many disconcerting circumstances staring Him squarely in the face, Jesus’ singular request from the Father is this: “Glorify Your Son” (v1).

One of the most audacious prayers recorded in all of Scripture is that of Moses in Exodus 33:18, when he boldly requested of the Lord, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” The Lord’s answer was simple: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (33:20). As audacious as Moses’ prayer was, we might be tempted to see the prayer of Jesus as infinitely more audacious. He does not ask to see the glory of God, but to receive that same glory unto Himself. In verse 5, He adds to the request, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself.”

Any man who is merely a man and utters such a prayer would surely be guilty of the highest blasphemy! God said in Isaiah 42:8, “I will not give My glory to another.” Ah, but Jesus, though a man, is not merely a man. As Handley Moule said, “What creature, however exalted, could so call upon the Majesty on high? It is the voice of the Son, but of GOD the Son. On the other hand, it is the voice of God, but of God the SON.”[3] Verse 5 makes that as clear as any verse in Scripture. He says, “Now, Father, glorify Me together Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” Jesus is here claiming that the glory for which He asks is rightfully His, and has been for eternity past. Therefore, this prayer is not ultimately audacious; it is uniquely appropriate.

You recall that John’s Gospel began with that majestic statement, “In the beginning was the Word (the Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Not only did He exist before the world, He made the world! In John 1:3, we read that through this Person called the Word of God, the Logos, “all things came into being … and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” John 1:14 makes it clear that this divine Logos, or “Word,” is the same Person whom we know as Jesus Christ. John writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In Jesus Christ, the infinite and eternal Creator God became a man. Paul described Jesus’ condescension in His incarnation this way in Philippians 2:6-7 – [A]lthough He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped {or “held onto”}, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. [And He was] … found in appearance as a man.”

Prior to His incarnation Jesus possessed in Himself the fullness of all of the attributes of God and the splendor of His visible, brilliant glory. In becoming a man, He “emptied Himself” (to use Paul’s phrase) of that visible, brilliant glory, in exchange for human flesh. He maintained, at least in some measure, the divine qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and sovereignty, and His many miracles were glimpses of those attributes. But now, as He draws His earthly ministry to a close, He asks the Father that the full measure of infinite glory that was rightfully His for all eternity past would be returned to Him for all eternity future. He asks to again be clothed with the splendor which He had exchanged in return for human flesh in order to identify with us, to live for us, to die for us, and to rise for us.

The time had come for the glorious reunion in Heaven of Father and Son, and for the coronation of Christ as King. But there would be no crown to wear apart from the cross to bear. The glory for which Christ prays is ultimately found through the shame of the cross, for here Jesus would complete the mission for which He was sent into the world. Hebrews 12 says that it was “for the joy set before Him” that He “endured the cross, despising the shame.” The joy to which He looked was the glory for which He longed – the glory that was rightly His, which had been willfully forfeited for our sake, and which would be rightfully returned to Him forever upon His triumphant return to His heavenly throne.

In the cross of Jesus Christ, the audacious prayer of Moses and the appropriate prayer of Jesus find their answer. Moses asked God to show him His glory. Jesus asked for the Father to give Him His glory. That glory is seen nowhere more clearly than in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ, by which the human race, which is desperately corrupted by sin, lost in rebellion, and separated from God by a great, impassable gulf of iniquity, is graciously reconciled to God in all of His holiness and splendor.

This brings us to the final aspect of Jesus’ prayer for Himself here in these verses.

III. The purpose of Jesus’ prayer

In the epistle of James, we read, “You do not have because you do not ask.” But sometimes when we ask, we do not receive, so what do we make of that? James answers that as well, saying, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” Selfishness and carnal desire underlie much of what we ask for. Well, Jesus asked for God to glorify Him. That seems very self-centered, does it not? It would be utterly self-absorbed for any of us to ask God to glorify us. So, why is it okay for Jesus to pray this way, but not for us? It is because when we seek our own glory, we seek something less than God desires for us. He wants us to know His glory, and when we ask for our own, we ask for too little, and we ask for it at the expense of His glory. God isn’t going to answer that prayer. But the Father answered Jesus’ prayer for glory because the glory for which Jesus asks is inseparable from His own, and ultimately serves to further the Father’s glory. Jesus says in verse 1, “Glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You.” Everything God does, everything answer to prayer He grants, is driven by His passionate pursuit of His own glory. And nothing brings glory to the Father more than the glorification of His Son.

When we pursue our own glory, we are pursuing something inferior than God, and that is idolatry. When God pursues His own glory, it is not idolatry or megalomania, because there is nothing greater that He can pursue. If God were to pursue anything other than His own glory, He would be an idolater because He would value something inferior over what is ultimate, namely Himself. And so He delights to glorify the Son, because the Son is faithfully committed to glorifying the Father. In the midst of His most critical hour, Jesus cries out for His own glory, that His glory would magnify and amplify the demonstration of the Father’s glory. “Glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You.”

That is the heartbeat of this entire prayer, and every prayer that Jesus ever prayed. It is also the heartbeat of every word He ever spoke and every deed He ever did. But the ultimate display of the glory of the Son, which in turn demonstrates the glory of the Father, is found in the completion of the work for which He was sent into the world. In verse 2, Jesus connects His prayer for glory to the authority that was given to Him by the Father. He says, “glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh.” That means that the Father has given Jesus the authority to be the rightful King over all, and “[e]verything and everyone in the universe is subject to this kingdom, whether the point is acknowledged or not.”[4] And the ultimate reason that the Father has given Him this unlimited authority is specified in verse 2 as Jesus continues: “You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.”

Everything about Jesus’ mission is centered on the authority that the Father has given Him to grant eternal life to human beings. What is “eternal life”? We usually equate it with “living forever in heaven.” It includes that. It is certainly not less than that, but it is a great deal more than that. After all, if “living forever” is all that is meant by “eternal life,” then we could say that even those in hell have “eternal life.” Yet the Bible never uses that phrase to describe the fate of the unredeemed who will endure the eternal torment of hell. It refers only and exclusively to the redeemed. So, Jesus defines eternal life in verse 3: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”

That little sentence is loaded with meaning! For one thing, it categorically denies any and every claim to deity made concerning any person or thing other than the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, the God of the Bible. He is the only true God, all others are false deities. It also categorically affirms that there is no knowledge of the only true God apart from Jesus Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, there are not many paths to God. There is one, and only one: Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn 14:6). But it also explains that eternal life is not something that begins when we die and enter heaven. For those who have come to know the one true God through Jesus Christ, eternal life has already begun. It is not merely a “quantity” of life, but a “quality” of life. To know God in this sense is not to have an academic or intellectual understanding of Him, but to enter into the experience of a personal relationship with Him. It is to live life in relationship to God. This is a life that has a definite beginning – it begins when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. But it has no end. Death itself cannot terminate this life. It endures for all eternity in God’s presence.    

How is it that Jesus can say that He is the only way to know God? It is because only Jesus accomplished what is necessary for us to know God. In verse 4, Jesus says, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” Everything He ever did and everything He ever said was done in complete obedience to His Father. But the final step of obedience remained for the following day. His work would not be fully completed until Jesus laid down His life as a ransom to purchase sinners from their slavery to sin and Satan and reconcile them to God by dying in our place to bear the wrath that we deserve. He was sent to live the life that none of us can live, and to die the death that all of us should die. The merits of His righteous life are granted to those who trust in Him, in exchange for the penalty of our sins which was poured out on Him in His sacrificial death.

When Jesus breathed His last breath on the cross, He uttered, “It is finished!” Yet Jesus was so unswervingly committed to glorifying His Father in the completion of His commissioned task of saving sinners that He can speak of it on the eve before it happens as if it is already a completed work. In His perfect obedience, even to death, even to death on a cross, the Father is glorified because all of His glorious attributes are manifested in His Son. His holiness, righteousness, and justice are displayed in the suffering that Christ had to endure for our sins. His love, His mercy, and His grace are demonstrated in the salvation that Christ makes available to us through His sacrifice.

Why did Jesus pray for His glory, and why did the Father answer? Because Jesus was unflinchingly committed to bringing glory to His Father through the completion of the work for which He was sent into the world – the redemption of lost humanity through His shed blood. Paul said that Jesus “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed upon Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:9-11). Peter says it this way: “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet 1:20-21).

Friends, if the very Son of God must pray, then how much more must we? But we do not pray for our own glory, rather that the glory of the Father and the Son be manifested in and through us. And it will be as we, like Jesus, live in obedience to the Father’s purpose for our lives. As we follow Christ in obedience, we will share in His sufferings. His glory was made known most plainly through the suffering of His cross, and our own sufferings can be a means by which others see His glory in us. As we continue in obedience, even in spite of our sufferings, we demonstrate that the glory of God-in-Christ is greater than anything this world can offer us or take from us. And by faith in Christ, at last we will see that glory face-to-face forever – the glory which the Father has given to the Son, and which the Son has returned to the Father.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 4:1246; John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-21 (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 236 (cf. 239-240).
[2] Marcus Rainsford, Our Lord Prays for His Own (Chicago: Moody, 1950), 36.
[3] H. C. G. Moule, The High Priestly Prayer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 28.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 555. 

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