Jesus’ Prayer for His Disciples and His Missional Church

This paper looks at Jesus’ prayer life and how he accompanies and enables his disciples in and through his intercession. It focuses on John 17, which contains Jesus’ longest recorded intercessory prayer and provides a majestic model of biblical spirituality as well as revealing Jesus’ vision for his church.


Michael Widmer

Michael is from Switzerland. Together with his wife Haruhi, he has been working in Japan with OMF International since 2005. For the past thirteen years, Michael has served as lecturer of Old Testament at the Hokkaido Bible Institute. He is the author of Moses, God, and the Dynamics of Intercessory Prayer (Mohr Siebeck, 2004) and Standing in the Breach: An Old Testament Theology and Spirituality of Intercessory Prayer (Eisenbrauns, 2015).

 

 

Jesus’ Prayer for His Disciples and His Missional Church

Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 2 (May-August 2021): 11-18

In the following pages, I shall look at Jesus’ prayer life and how he accompanies and enables his disciples in and through his intercession. With regard to the latter, I shall focus particularly on John 17, which contains Jesus’ longest recorded intercessory prayer. It provides a majestic model of biblical spirituality as well as revealing Jesus’ vision for his church. The departing Lord prays for and anticipates a missional church. This will become increasingly clear as we exegete Jesus’ prayer and note the dominant theme of “sending” (John 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). The notion of “sending” is central to the entire Gospel of John.[1] Out of love for the world, God sent his Son from eternity into space and time to save the world and to bring life (John 3:16–17; 20:31). Jesus is the missionary par excellence. Just as he was sent, Jesus sends his followers into the world (John 17:18; 20:21–22). As the ominous “hour” drew closer and Jesus’ work was about to reach its climax, Jesus commissioned his disciples in prayer to continue his mission in the power of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; 17; 20:21–22). How Jesus’ followers were to achieve this and what characteristics and spiritual values his disciples and the emerging faith community should embody are in many ways the focus of Jesus’ prayer.

A related topic that I shall attend to in the final section of this article is the relationship between intercessory prayer and human action. By looking briefly at the paradigmatic story of Israel’s battle against Amalek and Moses’ mediation, we shall gain another angle on the delicate interdependence of prayer and human action in God’s purposes (Exod 17:8–16). Even so, the main focus will be on John 17. Jesus’ vision for his missional church is perhaps most clearly expressed in his magnificent prayer for his disciples and the future church. It is, however, to the third Gospel that we turn first, as Luke shows a particular interest in Jesus’ prayer life.

Aspects of Jesus’ spirituality and the prayer of the early church

 

 

 

 

 

Christ Retreats to the Mountain at Night by James Tissot. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 19.1 x 18.4 cm. From Brooklyn Museum, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollectition/objects/13464.

 

 

 

 

Jesus’ public ministry was frequently interspersed by times of solitude and prayer (Luke 5:16; 9:18, 28; 11:1).[2] During these moments of withdrawal, Jesus not only sought God’s strength to accomplish his mission, he also sought God’s guidance and help before significant events. Jesus went out to the mountains to pray before he chose his disciples and before he revealed himself to them as Son of God and Messiah (cf. Luke 6:12–13).[3] On other occasions, Jesus interceded for his disciples that they will not give in to temptations or lose faith (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus’ prayers for his followers are essential for their faithful and effective witness (Acts 7:60; cf. John 17:20). There are eleven references to Jesus’ prayers spread throughout the entire third Gospel.[4] Luke underlines that Jesus’ life and ministry were fundamentally rooted in intimate dialogue with his heavenly Father. Marshall confirms:

Both the quantity and content of the material on prayer in Luke’s Gospel suggests that the third evangelist was consciously aware of the significance of prayer in Jesus’ ministry and teaching. The total picture regarding prayer in Luke, in fact, goes much beyond what we find in either Mark or Matthew—so much so that “prayer” is usually regarded by commentators as one of the distinctive facts of Luke’s Gospel.[5]

Prayer is not just one of Luke’s special interests—prayer is fundamental to Jesus’ self-understanding and for his work both during his ministry and in the ongoing life of the church. For the Early Church, the praying Jesus is not just a role model, but also the reason for its existence. According to Feldkämper, the relation between the praying Jesus and the praying church is that the latter’s prayers are mediated through the prayers of Jesus. The risen Lord enables the church to praise and witness in the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:4, 11; 19:6). When the disciples realized that Jesus is God’s Son and Messiah, they bowed and worshiped Jesus (Luke 24:52; John 20:28; Acts 7:59–60). “Thus, the prayer of the disciples is mediated and enabled through Jesus. They pray like him, to him and through him.”[6]

Feldkämper sees this confirmed through comparing passages such as Luke 10:22 and 11:2. “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” On the basis of this authority, Jesus teaches the disciples: “When you pray, say, Father, hallowed be your name …” (Luke 11:2). As we shall see, when Jesus reveals God as Father to the disciples, he not only invites them to pray in a more intimate way, but also enables his followers to enter into an unprecedented relationship with God as their heavenly Father. One could argue though, that what came to be called the Lord’s Prayer, is really the disciples’ prayer or the Church’s Prayer,[7] while John 17 contains what is really the “Lord’s prayer.”

The “Lord’s Prayer”: A missional prayer (John 17)

As already noted, John 17 contains the longest intercessory prayer in the entire New Testament. In numerous ways, it stands in the tradition of major Old Testament intercessions. Prophetic, royal, and priestly mediatory figures such as Moses, Solomon, and Ezra are known to have engaged in prolonged intercessory prayers.[8] A careful reading of John 17 reveals, however, a prayer unfathomably rich in theology. Jesus’ prayer, Carson writes, summarizes most aspects of Johannine theology.

In some respects, the prayer is a summary of the entire Fourth Gospel to this point. Its principal themes include Jesus’ obedience to his Father, the glorification of his Father through his death/exaltation, the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, the choosing of the disciples out of the world, their mission to the world, their unity modelled on the unity of the Father and the Son, and their final destiny in the presence of the Father and the Son.[9]

 

 

 

 

 

Ezra Kneels in Prayer (Ezra 9:1-15), Doré’s English Bible (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. The work is in the public domain in its country of origin, the U.S., and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

 

 

 

The immediate context of the prayer suggests that Jesus intended to be overheard by the disciples.[10] Listening to Jesus’ prayer is like listening to a conversation in the heavenly throne room (royal image), the divine council (prophetic image), or the Holy of Holies (priestly image).

At least since the writings of Chytraeus (1531–1600)—one of the Lutheran fathers—Jesus’ prayer has been referred to as a “High Priestly Prayer.”[11] As the Gospel of John nowhere directly refers to Jesus as a priest, nor explicitly describes him as such, this designation as a high-priestly prayer has been questioned by numerous scholars. Former Pope Benedict XVI, however, endorses the priestly nature of Jesus’ intercession. He argues that the theology of John 17 corresponds exactly to that of the Letter to the Hebrews with its high-priestly portrayal of Jesus Christ.[12] Vischer prefers to call it a “prophetic intercession.” Given the dominant theme of sending, he argues that Jesus intercedes for his disciples like an Old Testament prophet.[13] Carson offers a nuanced judgment when he states that the designation “High Priestly Prayer” is not unfitting

inasmuch as Jesus prays for others in a distinctly mediatorial way—a priestly task—while he prays for himself with his self-oblation in view (vv. 5, 19). Even so, sacrificial language is not strong; more importantly, Christians have often thought of Christ’s ‘high priestly ministry’ in terms of his post-ascension intercession (e.g. Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 1 Jn. 2:1), while this chapter finds Christ praying on the way to the cross.[14]

Regardless whether we label Jesus’ prayer in John 17 as priestly or prophetic, or a combination of the two, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus intercedes on behalf of his followers as God’s Messiah with the missionary purpose that “you may come to believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

An outline of Jesus’ prayer

Jesus’ intercession progressively expands from the centre to the outside. First, Jesus prays for himself (John 17:1–5), then for his disciples (John 17:6–19), and finally for all people who will come to believe and acknowledge the Father and Son through the mission of the disciples (John 17:20–26). The book of Acts testifies to this movement in geographical terms: from Jerusalem (Acts 1–7), via Judea and Samaria (Acts 10–21), to Rome (Acts 27­­–28), and eventually to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8). The following outline of Jesus’ prayer emerges:

1.      Jesus prays for his own glorification and that of the Father (vv. 1–5)

2.      Jesus prays for his disciples (vv. 6–19)

a.      Jesus gives reasons for praying for the disciples (vv. 6–11a)

b.      Prayer that the disciples may be kept in God’s Name (v. 11) and be protected from the evil one (v. 15; 11b–16)

c.      Prayer that the disciples may be consecrated in the truth (vv. 17–19)

3.      Jesus prays for the future church (vv. 20–26)

a.      Prayer for unity among all believers (vv. 20–23)

b.      Prayer that all believers may be perfected in his glory (vv. 24–26)[15]

The prayer moves from the “particular to the universal,” to use Bauckham’s expression. In his booklet Bible and Mission, Bauckham expounds how God often works from the particular to the universal.[16] He notes that it was never God’s intention to single out and bless Abraham purely for his and his descendants’ sake. It was never God’s intention to choose and reveal himself to Israel only for Israel’s sake. It was never God’s intention to limit his kingdom to Zion only. God’s purpose in each of these singular choices was universal. Jesus’ prayer confirms that his followers are always caught up in the movement of God’s purpose from one to the many. God never singles out people and institutions for their own sake alone, but always for others to his glory.

 

Jesus prays for his own glorification and that of the Father (John 17:1–5)

1 Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

As Jesus anticipates the cross (“the hour has come”), he prays for his glorification (cf. John 12:23–24). When Jesus, the eternal Logos, became “flesh,” he laid down the glory that he had in eternity (John 1:14). Now he prays that through his forthcoming death and resurrection, the Father will give him back the glory the Son had “before the world existed” (John 17:1, 5). Here, we hear the pre-existent Son, who became a first-century Jew and is now preparing to “journey back to the Father.” Both verse 5 and verse 24 remind the reader of John’s Prologue, where we read that the Logos was with God before creation (John 1:1–18). Both the Prologue and Jesus’ prayer allow the reader to look beyond the this-worldly horizon into the eternal economy of God. Although the first part of Jesus’ prayer is about the mutual glorification of Father and Son, the disciples are also on Jesus’ mind and, as Ramsey notes, “the future glorification for which Jesus prays is, as we will see (v. 24), as much for their sakes as for his.” [17]

The glorification of the Son through the Father gives Jesus the authority to “give eternal life” to all who have been entrusted to him (John 17:2). Eternal life, according to John, is to know the Father and the Son. “Knowing” in this context stands for having intimate communion with the Triune God, as the church will come to confess (cf. 1 John 1:3; 5:20).[18]

Jesus’ intercessory prayer for his disciples (John 17:6–19)

The middle section of Jesus’ prayer is the longest. Jesus brings the people who were entrusted to him before God. As Jesus is about to leave his disciples, he sends them back into the world where they will be exposed to dangers and temptations. Jesus prays that they will be kept in God’s truth, that they will be one, rooted in Son and Father, and that they will be sanctified by the truth of his words.

Jesus gives his reason for praying for the disciples (vv. 6–11a)

6 I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. (John 17:6–8)

Back in verse 4, Jesus reported to his Father that he had accomplished the work that he had been entrusted with. Now, in verse 6, it becomes clear that a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ work was to reveal God’s name. How should we understand this? Has God not already revealed his Name and its meaning to Moses and through him to Israel (Exod 3:14; 34:5–7)? Schlatter suggests that what is new is that Jesus reveals God to the disciples as Father.[19] Although YHWH has been referred to as a Father in the Old Testament (cf. Deut 32:6; Isa 63:16; Jer 31:9), there is good reason to think that Jesus revealed the Fatherhood of God in a new and more intimate way. The Fatherhood of God is central to Jesus’ teaching (John 1:18; 5:17–23; 17:1–2, 5, 24; cf. Luke 11:2). Right from the outset of Jesus’ ministry, he told the people that he came and ministered in the name of the Father (John 5:43). As the chosen disciples were getting to know “Jesus as Son of God, they come to know God in a new way, as Father of Jesus—and so, though still only implicitly, as their own Father (see 20:17).”[20] This is also reflected in the prayer that Jesus taught the disciples (Luke 11:2) and confirmed later in Jesus’ intercessory prayer (John 17:23).

When Jesus says to the Father that the disciples “have kept your word” (John 17:6) and that they have come to know the truth about himself (v. 8), Jesus seems, at first hearing, overly positive about the understanding of the disciples. Had the disciples not just made the confident statement: “we believe that you came from God” (John 16:30)? And yet they will all run away when the guards come to arrest Jesus. [21] Carson acknowledges that the disciples may not have understood

that their Messiah had to die and rise again, they may not have grasped how he was to embrace and fulfill in his own person Old Testament motifs of kingship, sacrifice, priesthood and suffering servant. But they have come to the deep conviction that Jesus was God’s messenger …[22]

In order to understand fully Jesus’ messiahship and how God is working through his Son, the cross, resurrection, and the help of the Holy Spirit were necessary (John 16:12–15). The disciples’ incomplete understanding and still feeble faith underline the need for Jesus’ ongoing intercession for his disciples. Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith will not cease in the face of temptation and evil (Luke 22:32; cf. John 17:15). Jesus had a realistic view of the disciples’ fragile faith (cf. John 16:31–32). Hence, it makes good sense that Jesus’ prayer priorities are his disciples and not the world (John 17:9).

“I am asking on their behalf, I am not asking on behalf of the world

9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. (John 17:9–11a)

At first sight, this petition appears to stand in tension with God’s love for the world (John 3:16–17). Following the logic of Jesus’ prayer so far, however, it is understandable that he prays first for his disciples. Brown comments:

The prayer on behalf of his disciples (9) is an extension of the prayer for his own glorification (1); for it is in the perseverance and mission of these disciples that the name of God, given to Jesus, will be glorified on earth.[23]

We have already pointed to the overall movement of the prayer from the centre (i.e. from the Son and Father), via the disciples, to the world (John 17:21, 23). Jesus’ initial intercessory focus on the disciples ought to be seen in the light of a much wider biblical paradigm of God’s way of “saving” (blessing, redeeming, transforming) all the nations through the faithful work of his chosen followers.[24] Just as the Father sent the Son, so Jesus sends out his followers in the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples (John 17:18; 20:21–23; Matt 28:18–20). As noted by Cullmann, God often elects a minority in order to lead many to salvation.[25] The disciples are commissioned to continue Jesus’ mission. As they continue the overwhelming task of reaching the world for Christ, they need Jesus’ ongoing intercession (cf. Heb. 7:25).

After having laid the ground for the intercession for his disciples (John 17:1–11a), Jesus prays (i) that they be kept in the divine name (v. 11b); (ii) that they be protected from the evil one (v. 15); (iii) and that they be sanctified in the truth (v. 17–19).

Holy Father, protect them in your Name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17:11b)

Only here the adjective “holy” is added to the intimate title “Father”—πάτερ ἅγιε. It is an interesting combination that connotes both love and holiness, as does the revealed name of God (Exod 34:6–7). The attribute “holy” prepares for the petition to “sanctify” the disciples—ἁγίασον αὐτοὺς (John 17:17–19). Moreover, Jesus’ address anticipates verses 14 and following, where there is a clear distinction between the world and the disciples. The disciples do not belong to the world because they are set apart for God and his kingdom (John 17:14–16). In 1 Peter, we read: “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15–16; cf. Lev 11:44).[26] God’s holiness is the fundamental base for the consecration of Jesus and the church (John 10:36).

Jesus embodied and revealed the attributes of God to the disciples (John 1:14; 14:9; cf. Exod 34:6–7). Now before his departure, Jesus prays that Father God will keep the disciples in this truth. Thus, it looks as if Jesus’ first concern is that his disciples will remain loyal to the revealed truth about God (cf. John 17:17). This theological truth will be the foundation for the unity between God and his people.

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. (v. 15)

The disciples are not of this world and yet have a mission to the world. These two aspects create an unresolvable tension that characterizes the church. The church is always and at the same time “called out of the world and sent into the world.” These, as Bosch emphasizes with reference to the Lund meeting of “Faith and Order” (1952), are “not two separate movements but one”[27] that the church has been called to wrestle with. In this fundamental tension, there is, on the one hand, the danger of total assimilation into the world and, on the other hand, the temptation of total withdrawal from the world. The place of the people of God is in the world.

World in this context is an entity that is hostile to Jesus and to kingdom values and thus needs to be convicted of its sin (cf. John 16:9–11).[28] In order to fulfill their mission, the disciples need effective protection against any opposition and temptation (John 16:7–10; 20:22; cf. Luke 22:30–31). Ultimately, behind the hatred of the world is the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11). The world is understood to be under the influence of the devil (John 8:44; 13:2), also called Satan (John 13:27).[29] The request to protect the disciples from the “evil one (ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ)” specifies Jesus’ earlier prayer for general protection (John 17:11).

Jesus consecrates himself in order to sanctify his followers for mission (vv. 17–19)

17 Sanctify them in the truth (ἁγίασον αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ); your word is truth (ὁ λόγος ὁ σὸς ἀλήθειά ἐστιν). 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself (ἐγὼ ἁγιάζω ἐμαυτόν), so that they also may be sanctified in truth (ἡγιασμένοι ἐν ἀληθείᾳ). (John 17:17–19)

In the Old Testament, priests and prophets were sanctified, which means that they were set apart for God and ministry. Jesus was set apart for God’s purposes and sent into the world (John 10:36). When Jesus prays for the sanctification of the disciples, he asks that they be sanctified in the truth. Just as Jesus was sent into the world as the truth (John 3:17; 10:36; 14:6), Jesus’ followers are set apart and consecrated to testify about the way, the life, and the truth in the world (John 3:16–17; 20:21–23, 31).

Jesus’ petition suggests that the disciples cannot sanctify themselves. It requires Jesus’ prayer (John 17:17) and an act that Jesus himself first has to undergo for them (John 17:19). The flow of the prayer makes it clear that the disciples’ mission is somehow intrinsically related to Jesus sanctifying himself “for their sakes.” So, the question arises as to how Jesus sanctifies himself for the disciples and how this is related to the disciples’ commissioning. Part of the difficulty in understanding the logic behind Jesus’ prayer in verses 17–19 is that Jesus had already been “sanctified” (ἁγιάζω) by the Father in the sense of having been set apart for his mission to the world (John 10:36). Thus, it appears that the term “to sanctify” (ἁγιάζω) in John 10:36 and here in 17:19 contain different nuances. When Jesus speaks of his self-consecration for the consecration of the disciples (John 17:19), we seem to enter the domain of sacrificial categories. Westcott gave John 17 the title “The Prayer of Consecration” and sees in verse 19 the focal point of the entire prayer, namely, Jesus consecrating himself to death and his disciples to mission.[30]

Jesus consecrating himself for the consecration of his disciples most likely means that Jesus was preparing himself to die on behalf of his disciples (ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν, cf. John 1:29; 10:11; Mark 10:45). How do we know? Jesus revealed several times to his disciples that he was going to lay down his life for his people (cf. John 10:11, 17–18; 18:11; 19:30). The language in context, as Carson comments:

is evocative of atonement passages elsewhere (e.g. Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:19; Jn. 6:51 …). It is also evocative of Old Testament passages where the sacrificial animal was ‘consecrated’ or ‘set apart’ for death — indeed, of language where consecration becomes synonymous with the sacrificial death itself (e.g. Dt. 15:19, 21).[31]

One could say it is in these three pregnant verses that priestly and prophetic categories are fused into a new “messianic” witness (John 17:17–19). Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for those whom God has given him so that they will be purified in the truth revealed by the Holy Spirit (John 7:39; 16:13).[32] Set apart and consecrated, the disciples will then be sent out by Jesus as Jesus was sent out by God to continue God’s mission.

Jesus prays for the future church (John 17:20–26)

Jesus prays for later generations of believers who will respond to the apostles’ teaching (vv. 20–23)

20 I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20–23)

Jesus’ prayer for those who come to faith through the words of the apostles is intrinsically related to the missionary purpose of the Gospel that was “written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:30). These new believers are seen as the fruit of the preaching of the apostles (John 17:20).

 

The Woman of Samaria at the Well by James Tissot. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 26.2 x 37.6 cm. From Brooklyn Museum, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/
opencollectition/objects/4469.

 

 

 

 

 

The dynamics of Jesus’ prayer in verse 20 can be insightfully illustrated through the account of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42). It is fascinating to observe how the Samaritan woman was led from a surface encounter with the truth—acknowledging Jesus as a “prophet” (John 4:19)—to making him known as the “Messiah” (John 4:29, 39). The climax of the chapter, however, comes when the inhabitants from the Samaritan town were led to believe by the words of the “Samaritan convert” that Jesus is not only the Messiah of the Jews, but the Savior of the world (John 4:42; Acts 1:8).[1] In conjunction with the account of the Samaritan woman and Jesus’ prayer, Maier underlines that the Gospel of John is a missionary gospel (John 4:38; 10:16; 17:20–23).[2] Marshall finds this confirmed in John 17:20:

Here at last we have in unambiguous terms the commission of the disciples to be missionaries in the world, with the result that some will believe through their message.[3]

Jesus expands his prayer beyond later believers to the world (John 17:21). This universal goal qualifies his earlier statement in verse 9, where Jesus says that he does not ask on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom the Father has given him. Michaels writes: “God’s plan for the world will come to realization not through Jesus during his limited time on earth, but through the band of disciples he has gathered around him.”[4] Jesus’ prayer affirms the wider biblical paradigm noted earlier—that God often elects a minority to lead many to salvation.[5]

It is “through their word” that the future church will come into existence (John 17:20). It is the very words that Jesus had received from his Father that were passed on to the disciples (John 17:8, 14, 17) and will eventually come alive through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13). There is a unity based on God’s word (John 17:20). This unity between Father, Son, and the faith community has also important missiological and soteriological implications.

Jesus prays that the world may know that God the Father loved the disciples as he loved his Son (John 17:23)

In commissioning the disciples to be missionaries to the world, Jesus anticipates that some people will respond to their preaching (cf. John 17:18, 20). Here, in verses 22–23, however, it is the testimony of a loving unity among believers that will lead the world to acknowledge Jesus and his work. Interestingly, for the world, the process of coming to believe is, in a sense, evolving backwards. As non-believers observe the love-bond between members of the faith community, the world comes to see the source behind it, namely, that God has sent his Son out of love for the salvation of the world.

Amazingly, God’s love for the emerging faith community is the same as the Father’s love for his Son (John 17:23).[6] The belief that God is love is foundational to John’s theology. Marshall comments:

Love is a much-used concept in John to describe the relationship between God and Jesus (Jn 17:23–26) and between God and Jesus and believers (Jn 13:1, 34, 14:21, 15:9, 21:15–17), and between believers and one another (Jn 13:34–35). As a mutual relationship it clearly does not apply to the relationship of believers to unbelievers, nevertheless there can be the one-sided relationship in which God loves the sinful world (Jn 3:16), and Jesus and his followers are sent out in mission to the world (Jn 20:21–23).[7]

Jesus wishes that the disciples will be with him, see his heavenly glory, and share in the divine love (John 17:24–26)

In the closing section of the prayer, Jesus summarizes the entire prayer, if not his entire ministry. It contains three prayer objectives that are introduced by a ἵνα-clause: (1) “that believers will be with Jesus” (v. 24); (2) “that they see Jesus’ glory” (v. 24); (3) and “that the love of Father and Son may be in them” (v. 26).

24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:24–26)

 

 

 

The Descent of the Holy Spirit by Domenico Campagnola. Engraving 18.9 x 17.3 cm. From National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.5855.
html.

 

 

 

 

 

On the one hand, it is clearly an eschatological prayer. On the other hand, it refers back to Jesus’ pre-existent glory as mentioned in the Prologue (cf. John 1:1–3; 17:5). Jesus re-enforces here that he has and will continue to reveal God’s name to the disciples (John 17:26). By referring to the ongoing revelation and the loving communion between Father, Son, and believers, it looks as if Jesus is referring to his ongoing heavenly intercession (cf. Heb 7:25; 9:24) and the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). Jesus brings his majestic prayer to a close with another reference to the uniting love between Father, Son, and believers (cf. John 17:11, 21–23).

Thüsing argues that the love of which Jesus speaks in the final verse is the Holy Spirit in person. He finds a strong hint in verse 26, where we read: “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in the them.” Jesus leaves the world and goes to the Father, not to leave the disciples alone, but “in order that (ἵνα) he may abide in them and among them.”[40] Although exegesis does not allow absolute certainty that love equals the Holy Spirit here, it is clear that the eternal and mutual love between Father and Son is the source of Jesus’ mission (John 17:23, 26). It is this same (Spirit-) love that empowers and guides the church to love one another and witness to the world.

Summary, further theological reflections, and application

All for the glory of the Father

We have noted that the entire prayer is motivated by Jesus’ desire to see the Father glorified (John 17:1, 5). Turner comments insightfully on how Jesus’ prayer challenges the church to rethink its priorities in prayer and, indeed, its self-understanding:

The real challenge of Jesus’ prayer …, is not merely to a new attitude towards church unity, as though our striving will attain that goal. … The real challenge of the prayer is to nothing less than a Copernican revolution in our praying. Our prayers are too often centred on ourselves and spread out in concentric circles of our (often legitimate) interests, responsibilities, loves and imagined needs. Jesus’ prayer puts the Father’s glory at the centre, and spreads out in concentric circles of his will and purpose. Only as we, by God’s grace, become more deeply “rooted in the Father’s love, and more keen to know the One to whom we are reconciled through the cross, will that revolution become more possible, and the unity of which Jesus spoke (and for which he prayed) become a visible reality.[41]

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and the future church flows out of this desire to see the Father glorified. Father and Son are glorified when the church lives up to Jesus’ prayer vision. Looking ahead, Jesus anticipates the church to continue his mission and intercedes basically for four things:

1.      That the disciples will be protected and kept in the revealed truth. This theological truth lays the foundation for unity (John 17:11–12).

2.      That the disciples will be sanctified in Jesus’ work on the cross and set apart in the truth. That is, that the Word of God will purify them and set them free from evil and the temptations of the world (John 17:15).

3.      That the disciples will be commissioned to continue Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth in the world (John 17:18; 20:21).

4.      That the disciples will be one. Their unity is rooted and sustained in the oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 17:21–26).

Perhaps one could further summarize Jesus’ prayer vision: (1) that God will protect the church in the revealed truth, (2) that God will sanctify his church, (3) that the church will be a missionary church, and (4) that the church will be one.[42]

Jesus’ vision for his church: Committed to truth, holiness, mission, and unity

In a sermon on John 17, Stott makes the profound point that a biblically balanced interrelatedness of truth, holiness, mission, and unity is of fundamental importance for the church to glorify the Triune God and for it to be a credible witness in the world.[43] Stott points to the ongoing danger of losing the scriptural balance between these four characteristics.

There is a danger of protecting unity at the cost of truth and holiness. The relation between truth and unity lies at the heart of many church struggles. What exactly is the non-negotiable truth that lays the foundation for unity? To what degree does the church need to protect that truth in order to protect its unity? This makes for interesting discussion in Asia where harmony and unity are often valued higher than truth. According to Jesus’ prayer, both truth and unity are absolutely central to the church. It is, however, the revealed truth about God in Jesus that forms the foundation on which unity must rest.

Having said that, some churches are so preoccupied with aspects of the biblical faith that are not at the very core of the revealed truth that they become harsh and exclusive (like the Pharisees).[44] They have lost Jesus’ vision for unity and love (John 17:11, 24). Jesus anticipates generation after generation coming to faith through the apostles’ teaching and prays for a unity based on their words (John 17:20). He also prays for a oneness rooted in the perfect unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that it may be extended to the disciples’ disciples (John 17:21; cf. Eph 4:5).

At the same time, other churches pursue holiness to such a degree that they have lost touch with the world. They neglect Jesus’ teaching that the church is consecrated for the very purpose of being sent back into the world with a mission. Since the church is already in the world, what could “being sent back into the world” possibly mean? Among other things, it means entering the “worlds” of the people that God seeks to reach. Only when we manage to enter people’s fears, doubts, hopes, and joys can we truly hope to reach their hearts. Mission is both incarnational and contextual. Yet other churches are so preoccupied with evangelistic activities that they do not realise that they lose credibility if they do not reflect truth, love, holiness, and unity.

Jesus prays that his disciples will reflect all these characteristics. Milne puts it like this: “A true church will be recognized by its unity in relationships, its holiness of life, its openness to all, its submission to the rule of the apostolic scriptures, its preaching of Christ in word and sacrament, and its commitment to mission.”[45] Stott pleads memorably for BBC, that is, for a Balanced Biblical Christianity. Given the fact that it is not just a matter of balance, but of an intrinsically and mutually dependent relationship between these four essential characteristics, perhaps the acronym IBM better catches the priorities of Jesus’ prayer—IBM standing for Interdependent or Integral Biblical Mission.[46]

Partnership in mission: The relation between prayer and human action

Having looked at Jesus’ interdependent prayer foci and vision for the church, I would like to conclude with a brief exploration of a different aspect of interdependence in God’s work. Full-time gospel workers, whether overseas or domestic, often have mission partners who accompany and support them and their ministry in prayer. Readers of this article know that both prayer and action are essential aspects of mission work. To complete my reflections on the relation between prayer and mission, I would like to ground this vital partnership in one paradigmatic Old Testament story—Israel’s battle against Amalek and Moses’ prayerful mediation. Exodus 17:8–16 provides helpful insights into the interdependence of intercessory prayer and frontline action.

 

The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites by Nicolas Poussin (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. The work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

 

 

 

 

The account lends itself well to illustrate the delicate balance between divine and human involvement in achieving God’s purposes. It needed both Moses’ prayer on the hill and Joshua’s leading of the army in the valley. On their own, neither of them would have been able to win the battle. The picture of Moses’ uplifted arms holding the staff of God overlooking the battlefield reminded some of the Church Fathers of Jesus’ victory over evil on the cross.[47] We have explored how Jesus interceded for his “Joshuas” on the battlefields of the world. The outcome of the battle against Amalek was determined by the raising and lowering of Moses’ arms (Exod 17:11). Although no actual prayer is recorded when Moses was on the hill with Aaron and Hur, early Jewish and Christian interpreters understood Moses’ activity as prayer.[48] The focus of the account is on Moses and the happenings on the hill, while the battle in the valley receives less attention in the text. Although the author focuses on the importance of Moses’ intercession, “in vain shall Moses be upon the hill, if Joshua be not in the valley”—as Hall notes and adds—“Prayer without means is a mockery of God.”[49] Too often, as Bosch reinforces, we use prayer

as an escape from our responsibilities. We say so easily, when we have had a serious problem, ‘I have prayed about it, and now I leave it in God’s hands.’ This appears to be pious and submissive, but it may, in fact, be just a cover-up for unwillingness to face realities.[50]

Exodus 17:11–13 illustrates well the interdependence of intercessory prayer and human action. Although prayer decides the outcome, Joshua’s leading of the charge in the valley was necessary for victory.

Chopsticks in the hands of God: The threefold partnership in God’s mission

The above reading of Jesus’ intercession (John 17) and the account of Israel’s battle against Amalek (Exod 17) has underlined the importance of the intrinsic relation between prayer and action in God’s purposes. This essential interdependent threefold relationship can be memorably and effectively communicated to prayer partners with a simple, interactive chopstick analogy.

The Table Setup: A pair of chopsticks (we labeled one with a Japanese flag and one with a Swiss one), some dry beans or rice grain, and an empty bowl.

The Mission: We invited our prayer partners to use the chopsticks and try to place the beans/rice grains (“seekers”) into the bowl (“church/kingdom”).

Theological Point: It takes both chopsticks—the prayer partner and the gospel worker—to fulfill the mission to lead people into the kingdom. Moreover, the pair of chopsticks on the table are useless unless they are “placed” in the hands of the Triune God who orchestrates and enables the entire mission!

____________________________________

[1] See, e.g. John 1:6; 3:17, 34; 4:34; 5:23, 30; 6:38–40; 7:16; 8:35–36; 12:44–45; 13:20; 14:26; 15:26; 20:21.

[2] M. M. B. Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” in Teach us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, ed. D. A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 58–83.

[3] See also Luke 9:28–29; 10:21; Matt 16:15–17.

[4] Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28–29; 10:21; 11:1; 22:32; 22:41–45; 23:34, 46.

[5] I. Howard Marshall, “Jesus—Example and Teacher of Prayer in the Synoptic Gospels,” in Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, ed. R. N. Longenecker, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 115–16.

[6] Ludger Feldkämper, Der betende Jesus als Heilsmittler nach Lukas (Bonn: Steyler, 1978), 337.

[7] In German and French, the prayer is not called the “Lord’s Prayer,” but, like in Latin (“Paternoster”), “Our Father.”

[8] See Genesis 18:23–32; Exodus 32–34; 1 Kings 8; Ezra 9; Daniel 9; etc.

[9] Donald A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Leicester: Apollos, 1994), 551.

[10] Turner thus says that “the disciples are intended to hear it and learn from it.” Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” 77.

[11] Although the designation of John 17 as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” most likely goes back to Chytraeus, the roots to understand it as such reach back at least to Cyril of Alexandria (fourth century). See Oscar Cullmann, Das Gebet im Neuen Testament, 2nd ed. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997), 140.

[12] Joseph Ratzinger Benedikt XVI, Jesus von Nazareth: Vom Einzug in Jerusalem bis zur Auferstehung, Bd. 2 (Freiburg: Herder, 2011), 94–120.

[13] Lukas Vischer, Die Fürbitte (Frankfurt am Main: Knecht, 1979), 57.

[14] Carson, John, 552–553. For an understanding that John 17 possibly makes allusions to a priestly prayer, see Andrew S. Malone, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood, NSBT 43 (London: Apollos, 2017), 105–107.

[15] Adapted from Rudolf Schnackenburg, Das Johannesevangelium: Kap. 13–21 (Freiburg: Herder, 1976), 191–2 and George R. Beasley-Murray, John, WBC (Milton Keynes: Word, 1991), 295–6.

[16] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Milton Keynes: Paternoster and Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

[17] Ramsey J. Michaels, The Gospel of John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 863.

[18] In both Hebrew and Greek thinking, “to know” is semantically closely related to intimate communion.

[19] Adolf Schlatter, Der Evangelist Johannes, 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1975), 319–320.

[20] Michaels, John, 863.

[21] Michaels, John, 863–4.

[22] Carson, John, 559.

[23] E. Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John XIII–XXI: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970/2008), 763.

[24] Cullmann, Das Gebet, 141.

[25] Oscar Cullmann, Christus und die Zeit: Die Urchristliche Zeit-Und Geschichtsauffassung, 3rd ed. (Zürich: Evangelischer, 1962), 110–111.

[26] C. Kingsley Barrett, The Gospel According to St John:  An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1978), 423.

[27] David J. Bosch, A Spiritualty of the Road (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1979), 15.

[28] Turner, “Prayer,” 79.

[29] This is not unlike Paul’s reference to the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4).

[30] Brook Foss Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (London: Murray, 1881), 494.

[31] Carson, John, 567.

[32] Schnackenburg points to Ephesians 5:25–27 as a helpful analogy to Jesus sanctifying himself for the disciples. Schnackenburg, Johannesevangelium, 212. See also, Hanna Stettler, Heiligung bei Paulus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 607–12.

[33] Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (London: SCM, 1992), 283.

[34] Gerhard Maier, Johannes-Evangelium, 2. Teil (Neuhausen-Stuttgart: Hänssler, 1986), 227.

[35] I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 508–9.

[36] Michaels, John, 876.

[37] Cullmann, Christus, 110–111, cf. Bauckham, Bible and Mission, 27–54.

[38] We find a similar thought in 1 John: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. … We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:12, 19).

[39] Marshall, New Testament Theology, 522–3.

[40] Wilhelm Thüsing, Herrlichkeit und Einheit: Eine Auslegung des Hohepriesterlichen Gebetes Jesu (Johannes 17) (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1962), 132. Barrett discusses how this passage refers to the promised Parakletos (cf. John 14:5–6; 16:13–14). Barrett, John, 430.

[41] Turner, “Prayer in the Gospel,” 80.

[42] This is in line with the Nicene Creed in which the church confesses: “We believe in one, holy, catholic (all embracing) and apostolic (sending) church.” See Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 288–96.

[43] John Stott, “Jesus’ vision for his church” (All Souls, 24 October 2004).

[44] Christian Haslebacher discusses four levels of theological truth and to what level Evangelicals could compromise to protect the unity. Haslebacher, “Theologie in einer V.U.K.A.—Welt: Wie Einheit trotz Theologischer Unterschiede möglich sein kann,” Comunicatio 1, no. 1 (2021): 7–11.

[45] Milne, Know the Truth, 296.

[46]  Of course, Incarnational, or Interceded Biblical Mission would also be in tune with John 17.

[47] Origen sees Joshua as a type of Christ. (The Greek name for Joshua is Jesus.) It is Joshua who defeated Amalek, whom Origen equated with evil, and subsequently brought the people into the promised land. Origen, Exod. Hom. XI. 3. See Joseph T. Lienhard, Ronnie J. Rombs, and Thomas C. Oden, eds., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, ACCS 3; ICCS (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 92.

[48] See my book Standing in the Breach: An Old Testament Theology and Spirituality of Intercessory Prayer, Siphrut 13 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 61–4, for a discussion of various interpretations of Moses and his staff.

[49] Joseph Hall, Contemplations, cited from Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, OTL (Louisville: Westminster, 1974), 316.

[50] Bosch, A Spirituality of the Road, 17

Share this post

Get Involved

Have Questions? Send us an email.

To help you serve better, kindly fill all the fields (required). Your query will be routed to the relevant OMF team.

Contact Form

By clicking Submit, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with the terms in our Privacy Policy.

You’re on the OMF Australia website.
We have a network of centres across the world.
If your country/region is not listed, please select our International website.