A Prayer for Unity

John 17:1–11 is part of the lectionary readings for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24th. Jesus’ petition is often called His high priestly prayer.

In the Old Testament, the high priest had a special role in representing God’s people. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Most Holy Place in the temple to make atonement for the sins of the nation (Lev 16:5–17).

Yet, the blood of bulls and goats was only a temporary, anticipative substitute for the spotless Lamb of God. At the divinely appointed time, He offered Himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice of atonement for our sins (Rom 3:23–26; Heb 7:27; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 John 2:2).

The backdrop to John 17 is Jesus’ final discourse to His disciples before His arrest. The Evangelist described Jesus lifting His eyes toward “heaven” (v. 1), as He prayed aloud to His Father. This was a customary method of prayer (Ps 123:1; Mark 7:34; John 11:41).

John 17 is the Savior’s longest recorded petition. In it, Jesus prayed for Himself, His disciples, and everyone who would come to believe in Him after His ascension.

Jesus began the prayer by noting that the “time has come” (v. 1). The Savior was aware that He was about to die on the cross and He knew it would be the consummation of His earthly ministry.

Previously, the Evangelist had noted several instances in which Jesus pointed out that it was not yet His moment of suffering and glorification. For instance, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the Savior told His mother that His hour had not yet arrived, when Mary, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, informed Jesus that the wine was gone (2:3–4).

Later, after Jesus’ brothers urged Him to perform His miracles in Judea, Jesus said His time had not yet come (7:6, 8). Then, when Jesus’ enemies failed to seize Him, the Evangelist mentioned that Jesus’ hour had not yet arrived (7:30; 8:20). Finally, not long before Jesus’ crucifixion, the time had finally come for Him to be glorified through His atoning sacrifice at Calvary.

Ironically, the Cross meant something considerably different to Jesus than it did to the people of His day. From their perspective the cross was a symbol of total degradation and shame, but to Jesus it was the pathway to honor (Heb 12:2). The hour had arrived for His heavenly Father to glorify His Son, especially as He glorified the Father while dying on the cross.

The religious elitists in Jerusalem thought they had “authority” (John 17:2) to rule over and determine the destiny of Jesus. They imagined that His humiliating death would be proof of their supremacy.

In truth, however, God had given Jesus absolute jurisdiction and supreme control over all humanity. His gift of “eternal life” to believers exemplified that “authority.” Though Jesus seemed to hang helplessly on the cross, through this sacrificial act, He was able to bestow salvation to those whom the Father had given to the Son.

In Jesus’ prayer, He defined “eternal life” (v. 3). It was not simply immortality, but more importantly, a personal relationship with the Father based on knowing Him as the “only true God.”

Furthermore, we can know the Creator through faith in Jesus the Messiah, whom the Father “sent” to make Himself known. “Eternal life” is a growing relationship with God that begins, not just when believers die, but at the moment of their baptismal regeneration (3:3, 5).

Jesus’ next statement assumed that He would complete His redemptive “work” (17:4) on the cross. He understood that His decision was irrevocable. Though Jesus had the power to choose not to place His life in the hands of His enemies, He remained firm in His resolve to finish the eternally pivotal task given to Him by His Father (10:18).

Jesus always performed His duties on earth with the intent of glorifying His Father in heaven. Even now, as Jesus prayed in the looming shadow of the cross, He was confident that the completion of His salvific mission on earth would bring honor to His Father.

Next, Jesus asked the Father to “glorify” (17:5) the Son. Jesus requested the same majestic splendor He had enjoyed with the Father before the creation of the world (Phil 2:7–8). Indeed, the Son petitioned that His “glory” (John 17:5) be restored to Him in His Father’s “presence” (or “at your own side”).

Jesus’ petition reveals two significant attributes about His deity. First, Jesus is not a created being, but has always existed from eternity past as God the Son.

Second, Jesus is equal with the Father (and the Spirit) in that they share the same “glory.” In brief, Jesus was declaring what He had publicly acknowledged before, namely, His essential unity with the Godhead: “The Father and I are one” (10:30).

Decades later, in John’s vision of the glorified Son of God, the apostle saw Jesus standing among seven golden lampstands (Rev 1:12–13). John spotted the Redeemer wearing the full-length robe of a high priest (Exod 28:4; 29:5).

A sash was fastened to the Messiah’s robe and made from gold, which was appropriate for the exalted Lord. His white head and hair symbolized His purity, majesty, and divine authority (Rev 1:14; see Isa 1:18; Dan 7:9).

The Son’s eyes, radiating like fire, denoted His penetrating insight. His feet, glowing like red-hot bronze, emphasized His stability and strength, while His booming voice reflected His awe-inspiring power (Rev 1:15).

These characteristics were appropriate indicators of the one who judges all evil and enters the Father’s sacred presence on behalf of those who trust in the Son (John 5:26–27; Heb 9:11–14). The “glory” (John 17:5) of the risen Lord Jesus is evident from the appearance of His face, which beamed like the sun at its brightest time in the day (usually noon; Rev 1:16).

In John 17, Jesus made it clear that He was praying for His disciples and not for the “world” (v. 9). This did not imply a lack of concern for unsaved humanity (3:16). Instead, Jesus wanted His immediate followers to know His specific concern for them.

After all, the Son had unveiled the Father to the disciples (17:8). Jesus also disclosed that whatever belonged to the Son (including His followers) originated with the Father (v. 9), and that the Son would be “glorified” (v. 10) through the disciples, especially as they faithfully proclaimed the gospel to the unregenerate.

It is worth emphasizing that Jesus’ followers belonged to the Father, and the Father had specifically given them to the Son (v. 9). As the Father had released them into His Son’s care, now the Son was giving them back into His Father’s care, particularly so that they might honor the Son by telling the lost about Him (v. 10).

Jesus asked the Father to “protect” (v. 11) the disciples by the “power” of His “name.” In Bible times, a name signified a person’s character. Also, changing someone’s name meant a change in character.

For example, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude.” Later, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “having power with God.” Jesus even changed Simon’s name to Peter, which means “rock.”

As for Jesus, His name means the “Lord saves” (Matt 1:21), an attribute of the Creator mentioned throughout the Old Testament (Deut 32:15; 2 Sam 22:3, 47; 1 Chron 16:35; Ps 18:46; Isa 17:10; Hos 13:4; Mic 7:7; Hab 3:18). Having God’s holy “name” (John 17:11) gave the Son the authority and power to act in His Father’s behalf.

Jesus indicated that He was not going to be with His disciples much longer, but that He was returning to His Father in heaven. For a relatively brief period, they would be left alone in the “world,” which was opposed to the Christian faith (v. 14).

Without the Son, His followers would need protection from whatever could cause disunity among them. They would also need protection from their human and supernatural enemies, who would vigorously and violently attempt to thwart their efforts to declare the good news of salvation. For these reasons, the Son petitioned His Father to safeguard the disciples.

Jesus’ reference to God as “Holy Father” (v. 11) is striking because a similar statement is not recorded anywhere else in the Gospels. Evidently, the Son was focused on the Father’s righteousness when the Son asked His Father to use His power to watch over the disciples. Indeed, no form of evil could ever remain in the presence of God’s righteous character to harm His children (v. 12).

The Son, however, was not implying that the Father’s name was a magic formula that people could use to brandish supernatural power. Rather, His name revealed His divine, omnipotent nature, which was manifested in His character. God’s name and its power were most clearly on display in Jesus of Nazareth.

As the Son returned to the Father, the disciples would remain on earth to experience the “joy” (v. 13) of sharing the good news with the lost. The stark reality, however, is that the “world” (v. 14) would both despise the message Jesus’ followers proclaimed and detest them for doing so.

Even though Jesus’ disciples did not belong to the “world” (v. 15), He did not ask God to deliver them out of it. After all, they had a mission to fulfill, and they could not do it if they were completely removed from pagan society.

Nevertheless, Jesus did pray for the protection of His followers from Satan. The Redeemer did not ask that His disciples be free from hardship and persecution (for these certainly came to all of them), but that they would not fall under the oppressive influence of the “evil one” (v. 15) due to the difficult circumstances they might experience.

Once more, Jesus emphasized in His prayer that He and His followers did not belong to the “world” (v. 16). While the disciples listened, they could not miss the implication of Jesus’ statement.

Jesus’ followers had come to learn that their Master neither originated from, nor was affiliated with, any heathen institution. Now the disciples were beginning to understand that, in the same way, they did not belong to the “world,” and so were in no way obligated to follow its Satan-inspired path.

Next, the Son prayed that the Father would set apart the disciples in the “truth” (v. 17). The focus is on the message of salvation Jesus brought through His incarnation, public ministry, and upcoming sacrificial death at Calvary (v. 18).

Until now, only Jesus had been consecrated in the “truth” (v. 19). In anticipation of the cross-resurrection event, along with Jesus’ subsequent ascension to heaven, He petitioned the Father to “sanctify” the disciples “by the truth.”

The Son realized that after His departure, it was imperative for His followers to remain faithful to and live by His teachings (3:21; 8:31). Their ongoing commitment to the “truth” (17:19) that Jesus taught would ensure their success in serving as His ambassadors to the lost.

In verse 20, Jesus interceded for all those who would trust in Him through His disciples’ proclamation of the gospel. The Son wanted these future believers to remain unified in their faith, as well as experience the unity of the Father and the Son (v. 21).

The implication is that it was insufficient for Christians to focus solely on maintaining their shared unity. They also were to remain united with the triune God.

Doing so would ensure that Jesus’ followers maintained an effective witness to the “world.” It would also convince the lost that the Father had sent His Son to be their Redeemer.

Just as the Father’s “glory” (v. 22) rested on the Son, likewise now it would rest on His disciples. As they cared for each other, along with those who were outside the faith, Jesus’ followers would reflect the unity of the triune God and bring “glory” to the Lord.

Jesus stated that Christian “unity” (v. 23) would help the “world” recognize that the Father had dispatched the Son. Similarly, the believers’ remaining “completely one” would be a witness to the unsaved of God’s love for them and His desire to redeem them.

As Jesus’ disciples remained united, the unregenerate would recognize the veracity of the gospel. The Christian witness would be even more convincing when the unsaved saw believers avoiding gossip, building up one another, working together in humility, and refusing to become sidetracked over irrelevant issues.

It was Jesus’ desire that all who trusted in Him would one day dwell with Him forever in heaven. There they would be able to see and enjoy His majestic splendor (“glory”; v. 24), which the Father had given the Son before the “creation of the world.”

In another unique reference to God, the Son called the Father “Righteous” (v. 25). Although pagan society remained ignorant of this righteous and powerful God, Jesus knew Him intimately.

Finally, the Son noted that He had made the Father’s “name” (v. 26) known to the disciples (1:18), and would tell them more about what the Creator is like. Jesus mentioned two reasons for doing so.

First, the Son wanted believers to have the same “love” (17:26) that the Father had for the Son. Second, the Son wanted to indwell His followers. The Evangelist made a similar point in 1 John 4:9, “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”

Key ideas to contemplate

At the Last Supper, the day before Jesus’ horrible crucifixion, He prayed for those He loved with deep compassion. The Savior knew that His disciples were about to face severe testing. For this reason, He prayed that they would remain united, especially to strengthen one another during their upcoming ordeals.

1. Kept safe in the Father’s name. Like Jesus’ frightened disciples, we too experience anxiety in sharing the good news with the lost. After all, we realize that many of our unsaved peers remain antagonistic to the gospel.

The Son, knowing the above, prayed that we, in our baptismal union with the Father, would be shielded from eternal harm (John 17:11). The Son also petitioned the Father to keep us safe in our dedication to Him by the “power” of His “name.”

2. Protected from Satan. Jesus’ prayer was not for the Father to remove His children from the world, along with sheltering them from all strife and problems. Instead, the Son petitioned the Father to guard believers from the attacks of the “evil one” (v. 15).

Sometimes, Christians mistakenly try to avoid or escape the world’s trials and terrors. Jesus, however, assures us that He is ever-present to enable us to withstand the onslaughts of Satan and his demonic cohorts.

3. Sent as ambassadors into world. Verse 18 emphasizes Jesus’ prayer that we would be aware of our mission to serve as His ambassadors to the world. While, at times, we might, become obsessed with our safety and security, Jesus emphasized the importance of humbly serving others. This includes proclaiming the gospel, as well as ministering to people’s deepest needs.

4. United in the Son. Jesus knew that His church would always encounter subversive forces, both from within and without, which would try to disrupt and divide His followers. So, Jesus prayed that they would remain united in Him, not just with one another (v. 21).

5. Filled with the Father’s love. The Son’s closing words, which are recorded in verse 26, stressed the importance of His disciples being filled with the Father’s love. Even though we might not always agree with other members of our congregation, the Lord urges us to show mutual compassion and kindness. In this way, the world recognizes that we genuinely are Jesus’ caring followers.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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