We are studying the Lord’s own prayer. Jesus is only hours from his arrest which will lead to his crucifixion. We are giving an amazing look into the heart of our Lord who is praying moments before the most difficult part of his earthly mission occurs. But Jesus shows another display of his love in that he prays for his disciples, rather than praying for himself. His focus is on the glory of God and the wellbeing of his disciples. As we read let us listen and learn from Jesus’ prayer what he wants for our lives. It is easy to underestimate God’s desire for unity among his people. Yet in this prayer we will see that this is the focus of Jesus.
Who Is Jesus Praying For?
Jesus begins in verse 6 declaring that he has revealed the Father’s name to the people the Father gave him out of the world. It is very important to ask, “Who is this?” Who are the people that the Father gave Jesus out of the world? Many writers and commentators understand this prayer to refer to all disciples. But this is a massive exegetical error upon closer inspection of the text. Verse 12 gives us the first clear picture of who these people are. “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me.” Notice that “the people whom you gave me out of the world” (17:6) cannot be all disciples because Jesus says that he was personally with these people. Further, clarity is given in the rest of verse 12. “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” Now we see that this is referring to his closest 12 disciples, the apostles. Jesus has kept his apostles except for the son of destruction, which is the fulfillment of prophecy. Finally, consider verse 20. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” There are two groups: the people the Father gave to Jesus out of the world and the people who will believe in Jesus through the word of these that were given by the Father to Jesus. From verses 6-19 Jesus is praying on behalf of his apostles. From verses 20-26 Jesus prays for those who will believe in Jesus from the apostles’ teachings, which is all other disciples. Now that we have a proper outline for Jesus’ prayer, let us consider what Jesus desires in his prayer, first for his apostles and then for the rest of his followers.
Jesus Prays For His Apostles (17:6-19)
Jesus begins by noting that the apostles possess the very words of the Father (17:8). Jesus gave the apostles the words that they Father gave Jesus. This is an authoritative statement. Jesus was not taught by the Father. That is not the point. For Jesus to have the words of the Father given to him means that when he spoke, he was speaking the very words of the Father. Jesus now declares that his apostles have those words also. Therefore, when the apostles spoke, they also were speaking the very words of God. The apostles made this argument in many of their writings that their words were the authoritative word of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Ephesians 3:3-5; 2 Peter 1:16-21). This is important for us because when we read the apostles’ words, which are the scriptures that we have in our hands today, we are reading the very words of God. These words are the authority for our lives. These are not man’s words. They are God’s words.
With this in mind, there are three aspects to this prayer. First, Jesus prays for the preservation of his apostles in his absence (17:11). Since Jesus is returning to the Father, then Jesus prays for the apostles to be kept in the power and authority of the Lord. Verse 15 gives greater clarity on what Jesus is praying for his apostles: “That you keep them from the evil one.” This is an important prayer because the devil would attack the faith of the apostles through temptations, trials, suffering, and persecution. The persecution seems to be the weight of Jesus’ concern when we read verse 14. The world is going to hate them because they have the very words of God. The devil is going to attack his apostles. Jesus has preserved them from this up to this point. But now Jesus must go back to the Father and his concern is for the persecutions they would endure for his name. We read about some of these attacks in the book of Acts.
Second, Jesus prays for their unity. Jesus desires that “they may be one, even as we are one.” The need for unity was critical for the sake of the mission given to them to go into the world and preach the gospel. Verse 18 declares this: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Finally, Jesus prays for their sanctification. Sanctification is not a word that we use much today. The idea is to make something holy which in the scriptures means setting something apart as dedicated to the Lord. Jesus prays that the apostles are set apart and dedicated to the Lord and the work that is given to them. Notice that Jesus says it is the words of God that set them apart and prepared them for the work (17:17). This should move us to think about the power of God’s word. Jesus does not say that they were set apart because they saw the Lord in the flesh or saw the miracles or would see the resurrection. The apostles are set apart because they have the truth, which is the very words of God. This knowledge must compel us to read and learn from the scriptures.
Jesus Prays For All Disciples (17:20-26)
In the same way, there are three aspects of Jesus’ prayer as he turns the attention of his prayer to the disciples who would believe through the apostles’ words. It is important to consider that Jesus states that belief will occur through the words of the apostles. The preaching and the teaching of the word is how disciples are made. It is not through tricks or manipulation. We do not need a special format, strategy, or book. The declaration of the word of God is how belief occurs. As Paul would declare, faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). There is no other means to faith.
Jesus’ first concern is that his believers would be one just as the Father and the Son are one. How will this unity come about? In an effort to fulfill this prayer, many have created institutions, organizations, creeds, catechism, and confessions of faith to bring about unity among believers. But I hope we will immediately recognize the problem. The problem is that we are no longer following the authoritative word of God given to the apostles. Now we will listen to the wrong people, though they had good intentions. We do not follow what people wrote about the scriptures. We must follow the scriptures. The means of unity among all believers is submission to the word of God. This is what verse 21 is picturing. The Son was united to the Father because he completely submitted his will to the Father’s will.
Unity will exist when we submit to each other with the grid of God’s word to direct us. Remember that the apostle Paul urged us to walk worthy of our calling by maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). Follow the scriptures is the only way we can do this. Unity is in the truth, not in setting aside the truth. Unfortunately, this is the other attempt that is made. We are told that which church you go to does not matter. We can just simply ignore the details because we all believe in Jesus. But we cannot decide which commands of the Lord are important and which are not. Unity cannot exist until every person holds the scriptures alone as the only authority and then submitting one’s life to the scriptures. Friends, the apostles were not led by the Spirit into all truth so that we would ignore it. The truth of God’s word determines the bounds of unity, not what we think is important or unimportant.
Jesus says that unity among Christians is important so that the world may believe (17:21, 23). Our unity is to be visible so that the world will have a positive response to the Lord. We are not to cause the world to blaspheme God because of our fighting and strife. God wants the world to see our submission to God, to his word, and to one another. Too many Christians have fought and devoured each other, causing them to have no impact on the community. I have seen this happen in some churches. No teaching occurs because everyone is fighting with each other. But, again, the answer is not ignoring the scriptures. The answer is for each of us to drop our pride and submit to the scriptures.
Second, Jesus prays that we would see Jesus’ glory and be with him (17:24). Jesus includes both the apostles and his disciples in this part of the prayer by saying, “I desire that they also.” Oh, to be with Christ! Our Lord’s desire is that we would see his glory and how glorious it will be. Eternal life is knowing God (17:3). We are looking for a fuller knowledge of the Lord when we can see the glory of the Lord when we shed this physical body.
Finally, Jesus prays that we would love (17:26). “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26 ESV). Jesus prays that the love the Father has for the Son would be in his disciples. Unity is a critical goal that Jesus gives for us. Unity from come by submitting to the truth of the scriptures. But how we attain this unity cannot be at the cost of love. Doctrine is very important but we discredit the doctrine of Jesus when we lack the love our Lord. We must see the perfect balance that our Lord taught us. Unity does not come by ignoring or overlooking the truth of the scriptures. Unity does not come by destroying people for the sake of the scriptures. We will exhibit the love of Christ to all people while we warn the world about their souls and warn others that we must submit to all the truth of God’s word.
Jesus has given us the formula for the unity that he prays for us to have. Unity will come by submitting to the truth found in the scriptures and showing love for each other with the very love that God has for us. Unity will come by having a common goal: seeing the glory of the Lord and being with him and knowing him eternally.