Monday, July 06, 2015

The Lord's Prayer List (John 17:6-9)


In Matthew 10, when Jesus sent out His disciples on a mission, He said to them, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (10:16). Now, you do not have to be a zoologist to know what this means. The odds are not in our favor in the world. There are no “attack sheep.” Wolves devour sheep. Why couldn’t He have said, “I send you out as bunnies in the midst of other bunnies”? Throughout Scripture, God’s people are likened to sheep, gentle and peaceable creatures, following the loving leadership of the Good Shepherd. The unbelieving world around us, fallen and corrupted by sin, is never portrayed in friendly images. This is hostile territory, and the hostility is often aimed directly at those of us who are the people of the Lord’s pasture and the sheep of His hand (Psa 95:7). Throughout history, Christian people have typically lived as sheep in the midst of ravenous wolves. Christians in America, however, have only recently begun to see the wolves’ fangs. We are experiencing the reality of being sheep in the midst of wolves, and it is discomforting and discouraging. So, what comfort and what courage can be found for us as live as Christ’s sheep in this world of wolves? We can take comfort and courage from this reality set forth in our text today: that the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved you all the way to death on His cross and into glory through His resurrection, and who is sovereign over every minute detail of history, has prayed for you.

I have entitled this message, “The Lord’s Prayer List” for the sake of brevity. I do need to make one qualifier about that before we get into it though. It is one thing to have a prayer list; it is another to pray for someone. Putting someone on a prayer list is of precious little help to them if we are not actively praying for them. So, I do not mean to imply simply that the Lord Jesus has a list of names before Him, but more importantly that He has prayed, and continues to pray, for those individuals.

In verse 9 of our text, Jesus says, “I ask on their behalf.” So, who are these for whom Jesus prays? Before we consider who is included, we discover quickly who is excluded. The next words Jesus says in verse 9 are: “I do not ask on behalf of the world.” Who is “the world” for whom Jesus is not praying? The word “world” in John’s Gospel and indeed in many portions of the New Testament refers not to the physical planet on which we live, nor to the entirety of the human race. It refers to the overwhelming mass of human society in active rebellion to Almighty God. “The world” in this sense refers to those who are described in Ephesians 2 as “dead in trespasses and sin,” who “walk according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air,” that is, the devil. They live according to “the lusts of the flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind,” and are “by nature children of wrath.”

The world, as the term is used here, refers to what we see championed and celebrated all around us, and increasingly so in these days. It is the world described in Romans 1 as those who suppress the truth of God in their unrighteousness, who are given over by God to the lusts of their hearts and their degrading passions, and their depraved minds. These are those whom Paul says there do not acknowledge God, and “do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful,” who not only do these things, “but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” If you want to read something that is more relevant than the daily newspaper, I suggest reading Romans 1 with an eye on our contemporary culture. These are not the ones for whom Jesus is praying.

Now, this does not mean that He never has or never does pray for the world. It simply means that He is not praying for them here, in this text, in this prayer, in these words which were spoken at this critical hour. Remember the scene. The Last Supper is behind them, and Gethsemane is before them. Soon Judas will come with the arresting mob to apprehend Jesus, which will set off the final events leading up to the cross. In less than 24 hours from when Jesus speaks these words, He will be in the tomb. His disciples will be scattered, hunkered down, cowering in fear. But, knowing that His followers were in the world as sheep in the midst of wolves, Jesus prayed for them. And you and I are included in that prayer. Later, in verse 20, Jesus will say, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word.” Every genuinely born-again Christian who has ever lived or ever will can find themselves represented in these words, for we have come to faith in Christ through the word that was first preached by His Apostles. If you are a follower of Christ today, then you are on the Lord’s prayer list, and He has prayed for you.

Let’s look at our text and see how Jesus describes those for whom He prays, ourselves included.

I. He prays for the recipients of His divine revelation.

Former President Ronald Reagan has become known in some circles as “The Great Communicator.” Some years ago, former Senator Fred Thompson wrote an opinion piece in the New York Daily News explaining why Reagan earned this moniker. Thompson said that Reagan’s “reputation as The Great Communicator boils down to three basic traits: he was simple; he was clear; he was sincere.”[1] For the same traits, and infinitely more, we could find overwhelming agreement with the assertion that the Greatest Communicator in all of history was Jesus Christ. The funny thing about communication, however, is that it requires two parties. There is the sender – the one who is communicating; and the receiver – the one to whom the message is being communicated. Often times, in the memorable words of Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.” Like in football when a pass is incomplete, sometimes the quarterback misses the intended receiver, and other times the intended receiver misses the ball. When Jesus is speaking, the problem is never on the quarterback’s end. His message is delivered with perfection. But the intended receivers often fail to grasp the message. Jesus is not here praying for those who missed the ball. He is praying for those who received the divine revelation He communicated.

In verses 6 and 8, Jesus speaks of the content of His communication. He says to the Father in verse 6, “I have manifested Your name.” From ancient times, the Hebrew people understood that to speak of “God’s name” was to speak of “God’s nature.” When Moses stood before the burning bush receiving His commission from God, he asked the Lord what to do in the event that his fellow Israelites wanted to know who this God is who has spoken to Moses, and what His name is. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. Thus you shall say … , ‘I AM has sent me to you” (Ex 3:13-15). His name is the revelation of all that He is in all of His glorious attributes. He is Who He is. The Psalmist said, “Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the LORD, our God” (Psa 20:7). Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runs into it, and is safe.” The promise for God’s people in heaven is that “they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4). So, throughout Scripture, God made Himself known to His people by many names, each one emphasizing some aspect of His character. Jesus says that He came to manifest the name of God in the world. For Jesus to manifest the name of His Father was to make the Father known in the fullness of His nature and character. Because of what Christ has communicated in His person, His words, and His works, we can truly know what the real nature of God is like.

In verse 8 He says, “The words which You gave Me I have given to them.” So He came not only to communicate God’s nature, but also God’s Word – His truth, His will, His plan for humanity and the world. Earlier in John 12:49-50, Jesus said, “For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.” In other words, all of Jesus’ words are God’s words—not some of them; not the ones you like most; not just the ones that accord with your personal tastes and preferences; but all of them. When Jesus speaks, God Himself is speaking. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the eternally divine Word of God that was made flesh to dwell among us (Jn 1:1, 14). As the writer of Hebrews put it so well, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature …” (Heb 1:1-3). God has spoken to us fully and finally in Jesus. Jesus reveals the Father’s name to us – His true nature and character – because He is the exact representation of His nature. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. And if you want to know what God has said, listen to Jesus.

Now notice here how Jesus explains how this revelation was received. Of course, as we survey the Gospels (and indeed all of history), we will discover that by and large this revelation which Jesus communicated was not received. But there were some who did receive it, and through them, many others have as well, including those of us here today who are followers of Jesus. Jesus says in verse 8, “the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them.”

What does it mean to “receive” this divine revelation? Jesus explains how it all works here in the surrounding context. He imparted the revelation, and the disciples received it as they came to understand it. In verse 8, He says that they “truly understood that I came forth from You.” They understood that this was central to all of Jesus’ claims, and if true, this meant that He spoke with the unprecedented and unparalleled authority of all of heaven and earth. And not only did they understand it, Jesus said that they believed it. In verse 8 He says, “and they believed that You sent Me.” They had their momentary lapses of faith as well all do, and plenty of moments where their density of understanding was apparent, but here was a group of people who had unreservedly committed themselves by faith to following Jesus as the one who came from the Father and revealed the Father to them.

Having understood and believed the divine revelation that Jesus communicated to them, He says that they have come to know. In verse 7, He says, “Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You.” Their faith was growing into a rock-solid confidence that Jesus was Who He claimed to be, and was carrying out the Father’s mission for which He had been sent into the world – a mission that would culminate over the weekend ahead as He died for sin and conquered death by His resurrection. There is this notion in the minds of many people that there is a difference between “faith” and “certainty.” Well, surely in some contexts, we can say that we “believe” something that we do not know for “certain,” but friends when we are talking about issues of life and death, and heaven and hell, we better not be talking about blind faith. Around the world over the last 2,000 years, the decision to follow Jesus has often been followed by suffering and even death for the sake of His name. Moreover, if we are wrong about Jesus, then what becomes of us in this world is the least of our concerns, because there will literally be an eternal hell to pay for the error. So, when we talk about believing in Jesus, there better be a pretty strong dose of certainty involved in that. Certainty is usually a work in progress, as Jesus indicates it was here for the disciples. They “have come to know,” He says. But faith always moves in the direction of knowledge. John Calvin wrote, “Nothing can be known aright of God but by faith,” and “in faith there is such certainty that it is justly called knowledge.”[2]

But it does not end with knowledge. Sadly for too many who profess to be Christians, it does end there, but it shouldn’t. Jesus said that they didn’t just understand, and believe, and know, but they kept the Word. The Greek word that is used here in verse 6, when Jesus says, “they have kept Your word,” has a broad range of meaning. It can refer to guarding or protecting something, as it does in verse 11 of this same Chapter. But in contexts related to God’s Word, it has the sense of obeying. It is translated throughout the New Testament with English words like “heed” and “observe.” It means to do more than hear and believe, but to act on what you have heard and believed. This is why James admonishes us to prove ourselves to be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers (Jas 1:22). This is how we know we have received the Word: it moves beyond hearing, through understanding and believing, to knowing, and to obeying. It has been said that belief produces behavior, but it is also true that behavior proves belief. When we act in obedience to the Lord’s word, we demonstrate that we have received it, understood it, believed it, and know it.

Friends, there is a glorious reality at work here in the prayer of Jesus that, if we are not careful, we can miss easily. These men who were with Jesus when He prayed, His apostles, repeatedly did not understand, did not believe, did not know, and did not obey. The same is true for all of us. So, why does Jesus speak of us in His prayer to the Father in this way? The answer is anchored in the glorious realities of what Jesus came into the world to do for us. He came to be our intercessory High Priest – to represent us before the Father. And when we come to faith in Him, the Bible says that we are “justified,” that is, we are counted righteous before God. So, my friends, what a wondrous truth this is for us rest in, that no matter how fickle, how feeble, how fragile or frail we are in our understanding, our belief, our knowledge, or our obedience, when the Lord Jesus presents us before the Father, He presents as those who have received the word and kept it, understanding, believing, knowing, and obeying it. He is able to do this because He has granted to us His own merits in exchange for our sin. We are not presented before the throne of God covered in our own faults and failures, but in the perfection of Jesus Christ. He prays for us here in this passage this way because He prays for us perpetually before the throne of grace in these very terms. As Hebrews 7:25 says, “He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” 

So, Jesus’ divine revelation to humanity begins with Him communicating a message about the name of the Father and the Word of God, and comes full circle to completion as those who receive it then understand it, believe it, know it, and obey it. And when He prays for us, He prays for us as the recipients of His divine revelation.

II. He prays for the objects of His sovereign grace.

Some people walk around as though they think themselves to be God’s gift to the world. Such a mentality misses the mark two ways. First, it overvalues one’s self, for there is only one individual who could rightly be called “God’s gift to the world”: the Lord Jesus, of whom it is written, that God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son. But secondly, and ironically, it also undervalues one’s self. How does it do that? If you are a follower of Jesus, the fact is that God loves you too much to give you to the world. He loves you so much that He has removed you from the world and given you to Jesus. Verses 6 and 9 explain this in terms of God’s sovereign grace.

In verse 6, Jesus says that He is praying for those whom the Father has given Him out of the world. “They were Yours,” Jesus says, “and You gave them to Me.” In verse 9, He says, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.” The objects of His sovereign grace belonged to the Father from the beginning of time, and were given to Jesus, and still belong to the Father. Before you or I had been born, and before we had ever done anything right or wrong, good or bad, God had chosen some from among the world to give to His Son, that they might be belong to God forever. Many Christians (and many non-Christians, for that matter) misunderstand this doctrine of election, or predestination, as it is often called. The Bible uses both terms, so it is no problem to use either of them. But problems arise as we define and apply these terms. Some believe that God just capriciously and haphazardly chose some to save and some to damn. This is not what Scripture teaches. What Scripture teaches is that we are all sinners deserving eternal wrath and separation from God. God does not choose who to condemn, because all have earned condemnation because of sin. And sin so radically corrupts us that none of us would choose to turn from it and come to God on His terms. Therefore, because God both desires and deserves the unending praise of all nations, He has sovereignly chosen, by His grace, to redeem and rescue some from the world, that they might be His forever. From before the foundation of the world, they were chosen, not on the basis of anything that did or didn’t do, but simply because of God’s sovereign grace.

Some will say this is unfair. Perhaps it is, but if it is, it is gloriously unfair, because the only people who do not get what they deserve in the end are those who are among God’s elect. For sinners to be condemned is fair. Even those in hell will realize the fairness of the judgment. But, for some who deserve such condemnation to be ransomed by God’s sovereign saving grace is gloriously unfair. Rather than prompting us to be proud and boastful that we were chosen by God, it should humble us. We did nothing to earn or deserve it, and we never would have chosen it for ourselves. We were the objects of infinite mercy and pity. Left to our own choosing, we would have chosen to remain part of the world, and dug in our heels in rebellion to God. But thank God, we were not left to our own choosing, but to His.

Rightly understood, the doctrine of election should not only humble us, but also encourage and assure us. As we go through life, even as Christians, we will falter in our faith and obedience. We may wonder if we have been severed from Christ because of such lapses. This reality that from eternity past we belonged to God, and have been given to Christ, assures us that our relationship with Him is not based on our doing but His, and His by sovereign grace. Sadly, many Christians do not rightly understand this, and therefore, they question the doctrine of election, or else their own salvation, because they wonder how they can ever know whether or not they are elect. There is no reason to wonder or fear. Our response to God’s saving grace is the evidence of our election. How do we know if we belong to Him and have been give to Christ out of the world? The answer to that question is another question: How have we received the divine revelation that Christ imparts? If we have understood, believed, come to know, and obey Him and His Word, then this is the evidence of our election. Because of the sinful corruption of our hearts, if we had not been set apart by God for Himself, we would have never responded in this way.

And so, when Jesus prays for His own, He prays for those who belong to Him, and belong to the Father through Him, because they have been eternally set apart from the world and given to Him for this purpose. As Carson writes, “However wide is the love of God (3:16), however salvific the stance Jesus toward the world (12:47), there is a peculiar relationship of love, intimacy, disclosure, obedience, faith, dependence, joy, peace, eschatological blessing, and fruitfulness that binds the disciples together and with the Godhead.”[3] And it is in the context of that relationship that Jesus prays for His own. They belong to Him, because they were given to Him by the Father, that they might be forever united with God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for eternity. When Jesus prays for you, He prays for you as the objects of His sovereign grace.

He does not pray for the world in this way; only His own who are the recipients of His divine revelation and the objects of His sovereign grace. If you belong to Christ by faith, then He has prayed for you and ever lives to intercede for you before His Father on these terms. But if you do not belong to Him, then you are excluded from this prayer. You belong to this world – a world that is under condemnation because of unbelief and rebellion (Jn 3:18). Jesus cannot pray the prayer that He is praying here for the world. Again, quoting from Carson,

The world can be prayed for only to the end that some who now belong to it might abandon it and join with others who have been chosen out of the world. … To pray for the world, the created moral order in active rebellion against God, would be blasphemous; there is no hope for the world. There is hope only for some who now constitute the world but who will cease to be the world and will join those of whom Jesus says, “for they are yours (v9).[4]

Moments before Jesus prayed this prayer, He said to Simon Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31). Peter is no different from any other Christian. Just as he desired to do with Peter, so Satan also seeks to devour and destroy you in this fallen world. He has aligned all of the forces of this fallen world in a war against God and His representative people. We are truly sheep in the midst of wolves. What hope does a sheep have when surrounded by wolves? Only this: that the Good Shepherd has prayed for us, and that He perpetually presents us before His Father as those who have received His divine revelation and who are the objects of His sovereign grace. This Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, says to us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32).

[1] Accessed June 30, 2015.
[2] Cited in Robert Mounce,  “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10;Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 601.
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentaries: Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1991), 560.
[4] Ibid., 561. 

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