Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
In John 17, Christ intercedes earnestly and powerfully for His disciples. His prayer has come to be known as the High Priestly Prayer even though nowhere in this prayer do we find the words “high priest.” Yet, Christ clearly shows His priestly role in the very form and substance of this prayer. What was Christ’s role as the Great High Priest? As question and answer 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism says of Christ, He is “our only high priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body has redeemed us, and ever liveth to make intercession for us with the Father.” These priestly roles (especially intercession) are on display throughout this section of the prayer (John 17:19–26). Jesus, the Great High Priest, intercedes for the sake of His disciples, and indeed for the whole church. He prays for His own, those whom the Father has given Him.
Christ the great, final, and ultimate High Priest comes before the Father with power to intercede for His disciples with three requests to bring before His Father. What can we learn about the heart of the Savior from His intercessory requests? What are the three prayer requests that the High Priest presents to His heavenly Father? John 17:19–26 tells us that Christ prays for His own and for their consecration, unity, and glory.
His Own (vv. 24–26)
Jesus prays for His own whom He loves with an everlasting love. In the conclusion of His prayer, Christ points us to the truth of election. Election is seen both in the time period mentioned and in the parties identified in His concluding words. Notice the time period at the end of verse 24. Christ is speaking of His Father’s love that was given to Him “before the foundation of the world” (17:24). What kind of love goes back before creation? What kind of love did the Father give the Son that may also be given to His people (v. 26)? This love describes God’s compassionate doctrine of election. As Belgic Confession article 16 describes it, “God is merciful in . . . saving . . . those who, in the eternal and unchangeable divine counsel, have been elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works.” The Father’s love that is before creation is pointing to this eternal and unchangeable counsel.
Furthermore, Christ’s concluding words point to the two parties in election—those who are given to Him by the Father and those who are not. In verses 24 and 25 Christ speaks of those “whom you have given me” and those in “the world” who “[do] not know you.” In these words, Christ identifies the elect and the reprobate. Belgic Confession 16 points to both of these parties when speaking of “those who . . . have been elected” and “the others” whom He leaves “in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves.” The distinction between these two parties should not lead us to the fatalistic conclusion that “whatever will be will be.” Rather, when we hear the High Priest’s final promise in this prayer, we should desire to be used as instruments to proclaim the truth of His electing love. Our consecrated Savior is praying that His elect will be consecrated in the truth of His Word and united to the Father through Him in order to share in and show His glory.
Consecration (vv. 17–19)
For this request of consecration, we should consider John 17:17, 19. In verse 17, Christ asks the Father to “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” In verse 19, He states that “for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” In these verses we find the same Greek word appearing three times, translated both as “sanctify” and “consecrate.” Either translation of this term helps us see that Christ is using priestly language. He is interceding so that His disciples would be sanctified or separated from the world just as Christ Himself is separated and consecrated. This encourages us to consider two points from this intercession: first, how the Son requests the disciples’ sanctification, and second, how the Son reminds us of His consecration.
In Christ’s request for the disciples’ sanctification, He asks the Father first to point them to the truth of the Word. In verse 17, “truth” is mentioned twice. After the general request to be sanctified “in the truth,” Christ concludes by affirming that the Father’s “word is truth.” The request certainly applies to the disciples in a unique way. They would not only be those who knew the Word of truth incarnate, but they would be inspired by the Holy Spirit as His instruments to preach and to write God’s Word. The request has special meaning for the disciples, but the request also applies to all who are God’s people. The only way to be sanctified or consecrated to God is through the power of God’s Word.
Then Christ reiterates this request for sanctification at the end of verse 19. But now He begins to point them to the truth of Himself. He does so by reflecting on His own consecration: “For their sake I consecrate myself” (v. 17, emphasis added). Christ’s statement shows how the content of the Word’s truth is Jesus Christ, the High Priest who has consecrated Himself to save them. For the disciples to be sanctified, holy in the sight of our Father, they needed to be set free by the truth of Jesus Christ, which is only revealed in the truth of His inspired Word.
Christ’s request is answered when we consider what happens in the book of Acts and throughout the Epistles. Peter’s first sermon appeals to the Word and points to Christ (Acts 2:14–36). Paul opens his first letter to the Corinthians preaching the “word of the cross” (1:18, 23). Throughout Scripture, we are called to receive the truth of Jesus Christ. Therefore, though this request is specifically for those first-century disciples, the content of this request for sanctification still applies to all who follow Christ. We are all called to be sanctified as living sacrifices of thanks. Paul uses this same priestly language at the beginning of Romans 12, where we are called to be a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (v. 1). Thus, we see that Christ’s request for His disciples was answered. These same men for whom He prayed went forward as Apostles. Moreover, in their messages and prayers, the disciples also asked for all Christ’s followers to be sanctified. So, while this part of Christ’s intercession had His disciples in mind, we see how it also applies to us, as those who follow Christ and His Word.
Christ also gives us comfort in this request, as He reminds us of His own consecration in verse 19. Surely Christ uses the same word to connect to His disciples. However, He also distinguishes between their sanctification and His consecration. For where the disciples need a request that they may be sanctified, Christ reminds us that He is consecrated. Jesus, who identifies as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), has no need to request consecration. Rather, He declares in this consecration that He is the High Priest, the sacrifice, and the Holy One in His Father’s sight. In using this priestly language, Christ affirms that He is a Priest like no other. The comfort from this priestly declaration is for all who belong to Christ. Therefore, He fittingly transitions in verse 20 and shows that He is not solely praying for His disciples (17:20). The High Priest extends His intercession to all who belong to Him in the present and future. His prayer continues by giving a fitting request for the community of believers throughout all time, a request of unification.
Unity (vv. 21–23)
We find Christ’s request for unity throughout verses 21–23. In verse 21 He asks “that they may all be one” (emphasis added). In verse 22, the request is reiterated: “that they may be one even as we are one” (emphasis added). And in verse 23, He concludes, “that they may become perfectly one” (emphasis added). Yet, we must ask what kind of unity He is pleading for. There are many divisions in the life of God’s people today. We find professing Christians still divided for theological, sociological, economic, cultural, racial, geographic, and historical reasons (just to name a few). So, is Christ asking for an end to one or all of these divisions? To understand Christ’s intent behind this request for unity, we should consider how the request serves both as an illustration and an application of unity.
The Son of God gives a shocking illustration of unity in verses 21 and 22. Christ compares the unity of believers to the very unity of the Son and the Father. He states, “Just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you,” and He goes on to request “that they may be one even as we are one.” The relationship of the Father and the Son is used to illustrate our call to be united as one. In this illustration, the Son is not requesting that we might become divine beings, finding some pantheistic unity with the Father and the Son. Rather, Christ uses the greatest picture of unity between the Father and the Son to give us an example of the unity that we are to desire. Therefore, this powerful illustration also gives us a practical application of unity.
Christ applies unity, by praying that God’s people would be one in Him. Notice how the idea of oneness cannot stand alone. We cannot just be one. We can only be one in Him. If we long for unity to break sociological, economic, cultural, racial, geographic, or historical division, it can only happen by turning to the Son. Unity is not some magical antidote that exists in and of itself. Oneness apart from Christ is an idol being defined and sculpted by fallen man’s definition.
Too often we follow this false path of unity in the church. We forget about the vertical relationship between Christ and His church, and we look at one another horizontally asking how we can solve our problems with our own wisdom. Self-made and self-dependent plans of unity are always doomed to fail. In Christ’s prayer for unity, He turns our focus in the proper direction. We are shown that true unity in Christ is found in two ways: unity by faith (v. 21) and unity in the Father’s love (v. 23).
The first request for unification is for unity by faith. In verse 20, Christ intercedes for all who will “believe in [Him] through [the disciples’] word.” In verse 21 He expands on this unity by faith, asking that “the world may believe that you have sent me.” Where the request in verse 20 shows the concept of unity within the church, in verse 21 Christ explains how this idea of unity is to be proclaimed to the whole world. Whether the focus is on the fellowship of verse 20 or the evangelism of verse 21, this kind of unity can be found by faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus’ request reminds us why the proclamation of the gospel is so important. Any true hope for unity must start with faith in Christ.
Christ also requests that we will be united in the Father’s love. The love of our Father is such an immense encouragement. Despite our battles with sin and Satan, the Son is asking that we would be united as children of our heavenly Father. A version of Psalm 103 puts it well:
The tender love a father has
For all his children dear,
Such love the Lord bestows on them
Who worship Him in fear. (“The Fatherly Love of God,” Psalter Number 278)
Our Father’s love for the sake of Christ gives us a more profound understanding of unity. David, the author of Psalm 103, knew the Father’s love. John, who recorded the prayer of our High Priest, knew the Father’s love. And we who continue to call out to our Father in heaven, are united to these men and all who call to Him in faith for the sake of Christ.
Christ’s request for unity should not primarily leave us pursuing strategies to break down denominational barriers or cultural hurdles or as a proof text for discussing the social divides of the day. Rather, the High Priest’s request encourages us that we are unified with the Father and the Son, called to believe in Him through His Word and to show Christ to the world. Christ has Himself fulfilled that prayer for unity and continues to fulfill it as men and women come to faith in Him and proclaim Him to the world.
Glory (vv. 22, 24)
The Savior then moves on to a final prayer request that His disciples will show His glory. A request for glory is a fitting conclusion, as it connects with the idea of unity. As His disciples are unified with Christ they will also share in His glory. In these concluding verses, Christ asks for glory to be acknowledged now, and for His glory to be shared in the future. Christ points us primarily to present glory in verse 22, for He speaks of the glory He has given them in the here and now (John 17:22). Certainly, the glory of our Savior has already been revealed. For He is the One who came in glory (Luke 2:14), unveiled His glory to His disciples (Matt. 17:1–8), triumphantly entered in glory (Luke 19:38), and rose from the tomb in glory (24:19). The Great High Priest confirms that His glory in Jerusalem has been already shown and will be revealed one day in all its fullness. While we undoubtedly yearn to see His glory face-to-face, we must also acknowledge how He has already revealed His glory. We should even more desire to read the Scriptures, when we see how clearly His glory has been shown to us in His Word.
Furthermore, Christ is asking that His glory would arrive in the future. In verse 24, His request is looking forward as He asks “that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory” (John 17:24). Indeed, the concept of glory often leaves us looking forward to that which is still to come (Matt. 16:27). Future glory calls all Christians to continue in prayer. The final prayer we find in Scripture is “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). In times of difficulty, struggles with sin, or the pain of death, let us continue to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Future glory also reminds us of the big picture of God’s salvific plan. His plan of salvation is one that will continue throughout all eternity, and it is a plan that began before the foundations of the world. The final statements from Christ’s High Priestly Prayer (John 17:24–26) remind us that He is still praying for His elect. What encouragement we find in this prayer as our High Priest, Jesus, even now intercedes for us from heaven. May we know Him and be united to Him by faith. We are called to continue to make Him known to the world until He returns in glory.