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When Jesus drew near to His final hour on the cross, having already loved His disciples who were in the world, “he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). This begins John’s narration of the events surrounding the last evening of Jesus’ earthly life, when Jesus washes His disciples’ feet and teaches them about His cleansing (vv. 1–20), encourages them about His impending departure (13:31–16:33), and then prays what is often known as His High Priestly Prayer (17:1–26). It is remarkable that Jesus does not cease to shepherd His disciples even as He faces His own death and the grueling prospect of bearing the wrath of God against sin.

Prayer and The Mission of Jesus

After the opening verses of the prayer (John 17:1–5), much of what follows focuses on the disciples of Jesus—near and far. Keeping with the themes of this final night of His life, Jesus focuses His attention on His people. This is not the first time in John that Jesus has spoken about His mission to save His people. Earlier, in His Bread of Life Discourse at the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus reveals that He has come to do the will of His Father in heaven, which involves losing not one person from those whom the Father had given Him but raising each one up on the last day (6:38–40). For all who come to Christ in faith will receive eternal life, and everyone the Father gives Christ will come to Him (v. 37).

Prayer for a Particular People

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is consistent with the mission revealed in John 6. He focuses His prayer specifically on His people (17:9): Jesus prays not for the world at large but specifically for those whom the Father had given Him. Readers of John already know that it is the will of the Father that Jesus not lose anyone who has been given to Him; His prayer is therefore in accord with the will of the Father. In 1 John, the Apostle writes that if we ask anything according to God’s will, then we know He hears us (5:14–15). Surely this is preeminently true of Christ Himself, whose prayers were heard because of His godliness (Heb. 5:7). Eternal life is offered freely to anyone who believes in Jesus (John 3:16–17), but to reject Jesus is to stand under condemnation (v. 18). Jesus makes distinctions between those who are true children of Abraham by faith in Christ (8:56) and those who are of the world (vv. 23–24)—those who are only physical children of Abraham (vv. 37, 39) but whose father is actually the devil (vv. 38, 41, 44). Jesus reveals His heavenly Father (5:19–30; 8:28, 38, 49), who is, through Christ, also the Father of all who believe in Jesus (20:17).

The obedience of Jesus stands in the background of Jesus’ prayer, and Jesus states earlier that He has finished the work that was given to Him.

Jesus thus prays specifically for His disciples, for they belong to His Father (17:9). More than that, since all that the Father has is granted to the Son (5:26–27), all those who belong to the Father belong also to the Son (17:10). To tease out the logic of 17:9–10, Jesus prays for His disciples in particular because they belong to the Father and the Son. These are the disciples whom Jesus has protected during His ministry—only Judas, the betrayer, has gone astray, and this was to fulfill Scripture (v. 12). Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves His sheep and who lays down His life that His sheep might live (10:10–11). Inherent in this statement is a distinction: the Good Shepherd does not give up His life indiscriminately for all but does so only for His own sheep. Jesus’ prayer, focused on a particular people, is thus consistent with His focus on a particular people throughout the gospel of John.

Prayer and Imminent Departure

Jesus also prays for His people because His hour of glorification—which in John entails the “lifting up” of the Son in His death, resurrection, and ascension—is at hand. His departure is imminent. Jesus is not of the world and is departing to heaven (17:11). The disciples must be kept because the world is in the throes of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Therefore, Jesus prays that His disciples will be kept from the evil one (John 17:15). In 1 John 5:18–19, we read that Jesus Himself keeps His disciples from the evil one. This may also be in view in the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the petition that Jesus’ disciples be delivered from “[the] evil [one]” (Matt. 6:13). The devil opposes God’s children, which is why it’s encouraging to know that Jesus casts out the ruler of this world (John 12:31) and has come to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Jesus keeps us from evil, for He has overcome the devil on our behalf. The obedience of Jesus stands in the background of Jesus’ prayer, and Jesus states earlier that He has finished the work that was given to Him (John 17:4).

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a sign not of Jesus’ absence but of His victory.
Departure and Joy

Jesus’ departure also means joy for His disciples (John 17:13), for Jesus is going to be glorified and will send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to be with His disciples (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). He will not leave them as orphans (14:18). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a sign not of Jesus’ absence but of His victory. This is also cause for the disciples to rejoice (v. 28; 16:20–24). The Holy Spirit will guide the disciples into all truth, and elsewhere we know that the Spirit equips God’s people for ministry, for the sake of unity (Eph. 4:1–16). Though Jesus is departing, He encourages His disciples to continue to abide in Him that their joy may be full (John 15:11; 1 John 1:3–4). This they do inasmuch as His words abide in them (John 15:7; 17:14). As we pull the pieces together, we can say that even though Jesus is departing, we can have continued fellowship with Him—in union with Him—by means of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

Kept in God’s Name

Jesus specifically prays that His disciples be kept in God’s name (John 17:11). The petition to “keep them in your name, which you have given me” (emphasis added) may refer to the power of God’s name by which the disciples are kept, or perhaps to the identification of the disciples as those who bear God’s name and are to be kept faithful to His character. The goal of this keeping is stated explicitly in 17:11: that the disciples may be one in a way that reflects the unity of the Father and the Son. Instead of being marked by the world, the disciples must be marked by and kept in God’s name. Similarly, disciples are entrusted with God’s Word (v. 14), and those who love Him will keep His commandments (14:15). Those who reject Jesus also reject His Word (8:37). In this, too, we see a difference between true disciples and the world.

In the World, Not of the World

The disciples must be kept in God’s name because they do not belong to the world, though they live in the world. In this respect, the disciples mirror Jesus Himself, who was in the world but not of the world (John 17:14–16). Jesus came from above; He did not come from this world (3:31; 8:23). As such, Jesus was hated by this world. Given this reality, Jesus’ disciples should not be surprised to discover that the world hates them also (15:18–19; 17:14). The world is at once an object of God’s love (3:16; 12:46) and is set in continual opposition to God (7:7). In this world, disciples are salt and light; they must not (indeed, they cannot) seclude themselves from the world but must continue to live in this world. Even so, they have been chosen out of this world (15:19). Jesus tells His disciples that this world will bring trouble for them, just as it did for Him; but they can also be encouraged, for Christ has overcome the world (16:33).


The prayer of Jesus for His disciples is not simply a historical record about past disciples; it is a living Word that provides encouragement for today. Most directly, Jesus’ prayer (and many of the statements He makes in the Farewell Discourses) has the first disciples in view. Yet Jesus’ prayer also makes clear that the lineage of disciples beyond the core disciples is in view as well. Jesus prays both for His immediate disciples and for those who will come to faith by means of the first disciples’ testimony: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). The horizon of this prayer thus includes all disciples who come to faith through the Apostolic witness and its legacy, including the Apostolic legacy recorded in Scripture. For it was to these disciples that Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, who would remind them of all that Jesus had taught them (14:26; 15:26–27). Since the Apostles are foundational to the church (Eph. 2:20), Jesus’ prayer for the security of His disciples has in view all subsequent generations of disciples as well.

This prayer, and its relevance for disciples today, is rich with application.

First, Jesus knows His disciples. Jesus not only knew the first-century disciples, but He knows all those who are His. When He prays for those who will believe later, this includes all believers today. In this prayer, Jesus also had today’s disciples in view. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus speaks of other sheep who will hear His voice (John 10:16). The Bible speaks of God’s foreknowledge in personal terms: it is people who are foreknown for salvation (Jer. 1:5; Rom. 8:29; Gal. 1:15). The gospel of John speaks clearly of the divinity of Jesus, who was with God in the beginning as the Word of God (John 1:1). As the divine Son of God, Jesus knows all things, including those whom the Father had given Him (5:19–23; 6:39–40).

Second, not only does Jesus know all His disciples through the centuries, but He prays for them. He prayed for future disciples in John 17. He prayed for His first disciples that they might be protected, so that they might serve as part of the foundation for the church (see Eph. 2:20). This care and tenderness is seen in Jesus’ words to Peter in a similar context in Luke:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31–32)

Here we can be sure that Jesus’ prayer was effectual: Satan did not succeed in sifting Peter like wheat (i.e., that his faith should fail). And this prayer affects more than just Peter, for when Peter is restored after he falls (John 21:15–17), he in turn will strengthen his brothers. Together they will, by the power of the Spirit, turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6), spreading the message of Christ, the good news that cannot be contained but that reaches across the globe and through the centuries. The effect of Jesus’ prayer, and the impact of Peter and his brothers, is seen today in the presence of Christians all over the globe.

Jesus prays both for His immediate disciples and for those who will come to faith by means of the first disciples’ testimony.

Further, not only did Jesus pray for us back then, but He continues to serve as a high priestly intercessor for us in heaven today. Jesus was really crucified but really rose from the dead and really ascended into heaven. He is not dead, but He lives and reigns in His glorious estate of exaltation. And His resurrection proves that His sacrifice was effectual. Paul writes in Romans 8:34 that Jesus continues to intercede for us. Likewise, Hebrews tells us that Jesus always lives to intercede for those who draw near to God (Heb. 7:25). This is an ever-present, ongoing, personal intercession in the heavenly sanctuary, and by His once-for-all and continuing high priestly work, we may approach the throne of grace with boldness—for we have a Great High Priest in heaven (Heb. 4:14–16).

Third, Jesus’ disciples are secure. Jesus came to do the will of His Father, which includes losing not one of His people. He came to grant eternal life to all those whom the Father had given Him (John 6:38–40), and He completed His work, losing none of His true disciples (17:4, 12). Even when the Shepherd was struck and the sheep were scattered (16:32; see Zech. 13:7), the Shepherd rose and gathered His sheep to Himself, pouring out the Spirit and ruling over a reunited people. Thus, not only are the disciples secure, but the church itself is secure. Though many enemies attack the church, the church will stand fast, for it is built on the Rock. And just as death could not conquer the Founder of the church, neither will the church itself be overtaken by death (Matt. 16:16–21). For the living Lord reigns as King over the church. Christ is already victorious over all (Eph. 1:20–23), and in the end all things will be placed under His feet (1 Cor. 15:20–28).


Let those who follow Christ, therefore, live boldly in the world today. For our Savior is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep and secures their salvation. He knows us by name. His priestly concern is not relegated to the past, but He continues to provide us with a way to approach the throne of grace with confidence. He understands our weakness and is able to help us when we are tempted. He sought us before we ever sought Him. Our faith may often be weak, but we belong to a strong Savior. And He has prayed for us.

The Person of Christ

The Petition of Christ

Keep Reading The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus

From the December 2020 Issue
Dec 2020 Issue