The Prayer of Jesus

John 17

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / September 5, 2004


            What should the Christian Church look like? I’m not talking about the physical building, nor am I asking about the order of the worship service. But, rather, what attributes should the Christian Church, and its members, be marked by?


            The prayer of Jesus, recorded in John 17, reveals to us the attributes Jesus intends for us to pursue and possess. The prayer begins with Jesus praying for His own glory, in relation to the glory of His Father. But then, in the second part of His prayer, Jesus prays for His disciples; Jesus prays for those who are left to reflect His glory, praying that they would be marked by joy, holiness, unity, and love.


            Beginning at verse 13, Jesus prays that His disciples would be marked by joy. What do we think of, when we hear the word ‘joy’? Most of us, I suspect, think of joy as a feeling of happiness. Joy is what we feel when our circumstances are favourable. Joy is what you feel when your favourite hockey team wins ‘the big game’. Joy is what you feel when you are reunited with a loved one who has been far away. But is this the kind of joy that Jesus is calling for? Well, no.


            The joy I have just described is not unique to being a Christian. You do not have to be a Christian to be a ‘happy person’. But you do, however, need to be a Christian to possess the kind of joy that Jesus calls for. Jesus prays, “that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (17:13). It is not just any kind of joy, but it is Christ’s joy that should mark the Christian.


            ‘How do we get that?’ you ask. Well, first, let me say that Christ’s joy is not something you can manufacture. Possessing Christ’s joy is not something that happens by simply wishing for it.


            This makes me think of an encounter between golfer, Jack Nicklaus and his celebrity partner at a golf tournament some years ago. At this tournament, Jack's celebrity partner, after watching him putt for the entire round, said, ‘I wish I could putt like that’. Jack Nicklaus was unmoved by the compliment and he turned to his celebrity partner and said; ‘I didn't get to putt like this by wishing.’


            Jack’s message to his partner was that good putting was the byproduct of faithfully practicing the fundamentals of golf. A similar principle applies in acquiring the joy of Christ.


            It is a persistent theme of Scripture, that there is a connection between Christian joy and faithful obedience to God’s commands. A couple of chapters earlier, in John 15, Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love . . . These things I have spoken to you (in order) that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (Jn. 15:10, 11).


            Jesus explains that, in order for our joy to be “full”, His joy must be in us; and for His joy to be in us, we must be diligent to obey His commands.


            What I find most striking in this instruction is the fact that obeying God is joy producing. Most people think of obeying God as joy quenching. Many people imagine that if we did all that God required, we would be unhappy. We mistakenly imagine that doing what God requires means ceasing to have any fun.


Jesus’ instruction tells us that quite the opposite is true. The one who has the deepest joy, the one who has a lasting joy, is the one who faithfully obeys God’s commands (Jn. 15:11). Kind David found this, and it caused him to write, “The precepts of the Lord are true, giving joy to the heart” (Ps. 19:8).


The joy that each Christian is to possess, the joy that each Christian church is to be marked by, has a Divine origin, and is a joy that comes from obeying God’s commands.


The next characteristic we come to in Jesus’ prayer is holiness. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth . . . And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (17:17, 19).


To ‘sanctify’ something is ‘to set something apart for holy use’. Jesus prays that we might be set apart from the world (17:16), and yet, He does not mean that we are to be removed from the world because He also prays, “I have sent them into the world” (17:18). So then, the Christian is to be set apart from the world within the world. In other words, the Christian Church should be marked by distinction—a distinction caused by the sanctifying power of God’s truth.


Notice, again, that this second characteristic is also related to God’s Word. In the same way that obeying God’s Word produces in the church the mark of Christian joy, submitting to the truth of God’s Word contributes to our growth in holiness.


We should also note the connection between our sanctification and Christ’s sanctification. Now, when we think of our sanctification, we tend to think of a process whereby we grow in holiness. We should not think of Christ’s sanctification in this way. When Jesus says, “I sanctify Myself” He is confessing that He too has been set apart. Jesus has been, by His own volition, set apart as the righteousness of God Incarnate. Jesus has been set apart to be our atoning sacrifice.


Why does He do this? “I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (17:19). Our growth in holiness is indeed tied to the transforming power, of God’s Word. But, as Jesus also explains, our positional holiness, and our growth in holiness, is intimately connected to Christ’s life and death, set apart for our sake.


Do you see the implication of the petitions of Jesus’ prayer? Jesus died, not merely, to redeem you from hell; He died, not simply for you to be forgiven of your sins; but He died to make you holy and happy (McCheyne). And so when we fail to pursue the things that lead to holiness and Christian joy, we fail to appropriately honour the death of Christ.


The Christian church is to be marked by joy, holiness, and thirdly, it is to be marked by unity. Jesus prays, “that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me” (17:22, 23).


            Immediately, we can glean from this petition that Jesus is calling for much more than a superficial kind of unity. Jesus does not call for organizational unity, nor does He call for a sentimental, handholding, kind of unity. But, rather, Jesus prays that “(the Church) may be one, as (He and the Father) are one”(17:22).


            Now how are we to accomplish that? The late A.W. Tozer would often argue that, while the Church is to pursue unity, it is to do so by endeavouring to become like Christ. And, to articulate his understanding of unity, Tozer would employ the analogy of tuning pianos. If a hundred pianos were merely tuned to each other, their pitch would not be very accurate. But if they were all tuned to one tuning fork, they would automatically be tuned to each other. Similarly, unity in the church isn't trying to be the same as everyone else. Rather, it is becoming like Jesus Christ.


Unity, then, means much more than just getting along with one another. There is more to unity than holding a worship service, and inviting Anglicans and Baptists to attend. Unity requires that we remain tuned to the tuning fork. Unity requires that we pursue the same goals—goals that are established by the prayer of Jesus. We are called to submit ourselves to the commands of Scripture; a pursuit that Jesus promises will make us joyful, holy, and united.


And, finally, the Christian church is to be marked by love. James Montgomery Boice calls love “the greatest mark of the church”. The apostle Paul says much the same in 1Corinthians 13:13, “now faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.


It has been argued, and I am inclined to agree, that love holds all of  the other attributes together (Boice, The Gospel of John, 1347). Think about what would happen if you removed love from the other marks of the church. If you have joy, without love, you are left with self-serving hedonism. If you have holiness without love, you get a kind of self-righteousness—the kind that characterized the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. And, if you take love away from unity, you move towards a kind of tyranny; you move towards a pattern of forced conformity (Boice, The Gospel of John, 1348).


When we recognize the need for love to permeate every aspect of Christian character we are not surprised to see Jesus end His prayer with this emphasis. Jesus prays that “the love with which (the Father) loved (Him) may be (found) in (us)” (17:26).


Again, it is not just any kind of love that will do, but rather, what is called for is the manifestation of Divine love in the lives of those who would follow Jesus. This is precisely what Jesus had been teaching. Jesus didn’t simply say, ‘Love one another’, rather, He commanded us, “Love one another, just as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).


            This has been the pattern of Jesus’ prayer for us. Jesus prays that we would be marked by certain characteristics, and then He gives Himself as the standard by which those characteristics are to be measured. It is Christ-like joy, Christ-like holiness, Christ-centred unity, and Christ-like love that we are called to pursue.


            Now, before we close, we must ask a question of paramount importance: In what sense is Jesus’ prayer answered? Think about that for a minute.


            Jesus has already said that “if (we) ask anything in (His) name, (He) will do it” (Jn. 14:14). And so, presumably, when Jesus prays for something, the Father gives Him what He asks for.


            If this is true, how can it be that a church is lacking in joy, holiness, unity, and love? Since we know that there is no such thing as a perfect Christian or a perfect church, we are compelled to confess that Jesus’ prayer will not be answered completely until ‘the age to come’. In heaven we will see the prayers of Jesus answered perfectly and completely. Yet, on the other hand, to suggest the opposite of this; to assert that Jesus’ prayer is, in no measure, answered during our lifetime is revolting (Don Carson).


            We conclude, therefore, that Jesus’ prayer is indeed answered, in some measure, during our lifetime, and is answered perfectly in the age to come.


            Friends, do you know what it is to grow in Christian joy, holiness, unity, and love? If you do, then you demonstrate the efficacy of Jesus’ prayer. What holds the Christian Church together, what keeps you and I on the narrow path, what promotes in us the fruits of the Spirit, is the prayer of Jesus.


            We need to remember this. When the struggle to be like Christ becomes more than we think we can handle, we need to remember who is praying for our spiritual well being.


            If we belong to Christ, we can expect profound, and ongoing, change in our character; we can expect change in how we live our lives in this world; we can expect change because Jesus has prayed for us. And the prayer of Jesus will most certainly be answered. Amen.