Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

205. The Prayer of Jesus [1] (John 17:1-5

Apart from this remarkable example of the Lord Jesus in prayer, almost nothing is known of his fellowship with the Father. But how this unique chapter in the gospels makes good all other omissions!

The phrase: "he lifted up his eyes to heaven," reads most naturally if this prayer were spoken out of doors, whilst Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Gethsemane. Perhaps en route there they spent a short while in the temple court. But such a supposition has to be reconciled with: "Your house is left unto you desolate" (Mt. 23:38).

It seems highly probable that John 17 gives the actual words spoken by Jesus. The later quotation of verse 12 (in 18 :9) strongly supports this: "that the saying might be fulfilled, which he spake. Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none." The words are quoted verbatim.

The prayer falls into three sections. In the first the Lord prays briefly for himself and for fulfilment of God's Purpose through himself. The rest of the prayer is for his disciples and then for those who are brought to faith in him through their labours. But essentially the prayer is on behalf of his apostles.

It is here that the outworking of the theme of John's gospel comes to its climax: "The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (1 :17). To read John 17without an awareness of its many points of contact with the work of Moses is to miss one of its main intentions. For convenience' sake a list of these is tabulated here:

John 17 - Jesus
"Thou gavest him authority over all flesh".
Numbers 16:22: "The God of the spirits of all flesh" (Moses' authority).
The only true God: "true" in contrast to if'; representation or symbol.
Exodus 32: Israel worshipping the golden calf.
Exodus 34:6: "The Lord, abundant in goodness and truth" (the same word in LXX).
"I have finished the work thou gavest me to do."
Cp. Moses bringing Israel out of Egypt and to Canaan.
"Glorify thou me with thine own self."
Exodus 34. The Shekinah Glory displayed to Moses.
Psalm 91:15 (primarily about Joshua):"I will deliver him, and glorify him"(LXX)
"I have manifested thy name."
v.14: "because he has known my name."
Exodus 34 :5-7: The Name of the Lord declared to Moses.

"The men which thou gavest me out of the world”
Exodus 32 :26: "Who is on the Lord's side?... And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves unto him."

"Thine they were, and thou gavest them me”
Numbers 3:12,9: "The Levites shall be mine... They are wholly given Aaron out of the children of Israel."

"They kept thy word."
Deuteronomy 33 :9: "They have observed thy word and kept thy covenant."
Leviticus 10:11: "Ye shall teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord hath spoken unto them"
"I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me;"
Deuteronomy 31:9: "And Moses wrote this law law and delivered it unto the priests . . ."
18:18: The prophet like unto Moses "shall speak unto them all that I shall command him."

"and they received them.
Deuteronomy 33:3 "every one received thy words."
"I pray for them."
Exodus 32 :30-33. Moses' intercession for Israel.
"I come to thee, Holy Father . . ."
Moses' ascent into the mount.
"The son of perdition."
Deuteronomy 30:17,18: "If thy heart change, and thou wilt not hearken, and thou shalt go astray ... ye shall perish in perdition" (LXX).
"That they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves."
Exodus 33 :13-17. Moses' plea that Israel might share the blessing given to himself. Or, reference to inheritance of the Promised Land.
"Keep them from the evil."
Exodus 33 :3,5. Moses saved the people from deserved punishment. (Contrast Deuteronomy 29 :21 : "The Lord shall separate him unto evil").
"Sanctify them through thy truth."
"For their sakes I sanctify myself."
Exodus 32 :29: "Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord."
"That they may be one, as we are."
Contrast Numbers 20 :10: "Ye rebels, must we (God and I) fetch you water out of the rock?"
"The glory which thou gavest me I have given them."
Numbers 11 :14: The Spirit given to Moses rested on the seventy also.
"That they may be made perfect in one."
Exodus 29 :9: "And thou shalt perfect Aaron and his sons" (LXX).
Hebrews 7:28: "The Son who is consecrated (perfected) for ever more."

"Thou hast loved them, as thou hast loved me."
Exodus 24 :10: The seventy ate a meal of fellowship in the divine Presence.
"I will that they be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory."
Exodus 24 : The seventy sharing Moses experience in the mount.
"O righteous Father...

I have declared unto them thy name."
Deuteronomy 32:4 LXX: "Righteous and holy is the Lord ... I have proclaimed the name of the Lord" (and see Exodus 34: 5-7).

It is to be noted that appropriately, the allusions are mostly to the sublimest experiences of Moses—his vision of the glory of the Lord in Sinai, his ministering of the Law, and his intercession for the people in their sin.

There is marked contrast between the Lord lifting up his eyes to heaven in this prayer and the penitent publican in the parable who "would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven" as he sought forgiveness (Lk. 18 :13). It is a contrast not difficult to understand. But a short while later, in Gethsemane, when Jesus felt borne down by the burden of sin and its penalties now laid upon him, "he fell on his face and prayed" (Mt.26:39).

"Father, the hour is come." It is the Lord's characteristic way of referring to a time of outstanding action and vital development (Jn. 2:4; 4:21,23; 5:25,28; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,37; 16:32; 19:27). The successful outcome of the Purpose of God now depended on the consecrated will of His only Son. So he prayed for help in the ordeal and victory in his tribulation.

The main point of his first petition comes out more clearly if it is rearranged: "Glorify thy Son, in order that, as thou hast given him authority over all flesh he might give to them whatsoever thou hast given him (that is, eternal life), even so may the Son glorify thee." Far from pitying himself because of the burden of responsibility and suffering now laid upon him, Jesus was concerned mostly for a happy outcome to this divine work, that "for God's pleasure" the New Creation might come into being (Rev.4:11).

It is difficult to believe that at this moment Jesus was not leaning once again (see Study 159) on the wonderful Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 49 : "Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified ... Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength ... a light to the Gentiles ... my salvation unto the ends of the earth" (49 :3,5,6). There are passages in the rest of the New Testament which take up this theme with great power and inspiration (e.g. Eph.l :20,23; Ph.2 :7-11; Rev.5 :8-14).

Those with difficulties in personal prayer will note one thing here with re-assurance. Even though this fruitful result of the work and suffering of Christ was already foretold in prophecies which must be fulfilled, and had already been promised to Jesus personally—'I have glorified my Name and I will glorify it again" (Jn.12 :28)—Jesus prayed nevertheless for full achievement of the Father's intention through himself. It is the old, old paradox of the infallibility of divine purpose and the frailty of human nature, even when that human nature is the Son of God. Inspired prophecy had also said: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession" (Ps.2:8). So Jesus asked, and was to ask again, and was not refused.

"Authority over all flesh" is an unusual phrase. It emphasized a creation in desperate need of redemption. "All flesh", as grass, had the glory of the lord revealed to it in Jesus. Yet through him eternal life was to come only to "those whom God had given him'—another mysterious paradox—or a different facet of the same. Some find satisfaction in evolving obscure explanations which are supposed to reconcile these seeming differences, at least to their own satisfaction. But it is probably more wholesome, and certainly more in tune with the life of faith to believe implicitly all these enunciations of variegated divine truth, whether they are seen to be reconciled or not.

Jesus defined the gift of eternal life. It is hardly the definition which would first come to the mind of a twentieth-century disciple whose sights are set on power over the nations, the rooting out of wickedness, and the enjoyment of comfort and ease in a springcleaned world. Instead: "that they might know thee the only true God, and him whom thou hast sent, even Jesus Christ."

Here some try to insist, with over-scrupulosity, on the reading: "in order that they might know thee ..." In that case, the main intent behind human redemption is that men be brought into fellowship with the Father and the Son. This is a not unworthy meaning of a sublime passage.

But in a number of places John's gospel uses this Greek particle [hind] to indicate apposition rather than a purpose or consequence (e.g. 3 :16; 4:34; 13:1); so the meaning suggested by the common version is equally possible; and the word for "know" (= learn about, get to know, perceive) lends support to this. The idiom which speaks of "eternal life" as a part of present experience in Christ is not uncommon in this gospel (e.g. 3 :36; 5 :24; 6 :47,54; 10 :28; 1 Jn.5 :11,13). Learning to know the Father and the Son is the quintessence of life in Christ, a widening experience leading to a fulness of personal knowledge in the age to come. There is little justification for the rather woolly controversy which has now and then centred on this phrase: "eternal life".

The expression: "the true God" somewhat remarkably makes contrast not with the false gods of men's devising but with the limited and often typical revelation of Jehovah in Old Testament times. Through His Son men were able to know intimately, if they chose, an expression of God's own personality and purpose. In the wondrous demonstration of this ineffable truth Jesus "glorified the Father on the earth." In this sense he "finished the work given him to do."

It has often been commented that verse 3 gives the first occurrence of the name "Jesus Christ"-apart from the heading of Matthew's and Mark's gospels. There is some doubt whether it was actually used by Jesus or whether, as the shape of the Greek sentence may suggest, it is a parenthesis inserted by John himself: "the only true God, and him whom thou didst send (even Jesus Christ)." Yet who would wish to say that this first use of the now familiar name is in any way out of place here? Because of its extended intercession for the disciples this is the Lord's high-priestly prayer. The name Jesus Christ is an appropriate reminder that he was anointed not only to be King of Israel but also as "an high priest over the house of God" (Heb.10 :21).

It would be a mistake to conclude, because the Lord spoke of a "finished work", that thenceforth there was nothing left for him to do. He had glorified the Father in countless gracious works (2 :11; 11 :4,40; 5 :36; 9 :4), he had taught with unflagging effort and earnestness the message of the kingdom and the responsibilities of its citizenship (7 :16,18; 4 :34). All this was now rounded off with the matchless appeal of the past few days. There still lay before him his self-denial and suffering, until at last he was to say, with head uplifted: "It is finished" (19 :30). His vital work as mediator still continues (16 :7,23; 14 :13,14; 15 :7,16). And even when he comes again there will be another great work to accomplish 1Cor.15:25,28.

It was surely for the benefit of his redeemed that the Lord now repeated his earlier petition (v.l): "And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was." Words such as these have been used as a sheet-anchor by Trinitarians and others who make the personal pre-existence of Jesus a dogma of high importance.

Once again, it is failure to recognize the idiom of the Bible, and especially of the Johannine writings, which has created the misconception. Jesus is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev.13 :8), he is "the root of David" (Rev.22 :16), he is the source of Abraham's unquenchable joy (Jn.8 :58,56), because from the earliest days his great redeeming work was the very hinge and pivot of every development in the purpose of God. Long before the foundation of the Jewish kosmos, from the time of Abraham, when Sarah "received strength for the founding of seed" (Heb.ll :11), the intensifying teleology of creation converged on Christ. And to this minute nothing has meaning apart from him.

Notes: Jn. 17:1-5

This chapter, more than either of the two preceding chapters, invites consideration as possibly a prayer of Jesus offered just before his ascension.

There are possible allusions to it in 2 Th.2:13, 14; 3:3.
Power over all flesh; cp. Dan. 7:14.

All flesh; Is. 40:5.
Know thee; Jer 9:4
Glorified thee. How?

a. Miracles; 2:11; 11:4, 40; 5:36; 9:4.

b. Teaching: 7:16, 18; 4:34.

c. Sacrifice; 19:30.

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