The High Priestly Prayer

Hywel R. Jones
Monday, July 1st 2019
Jul/Aug 2019

Although John 17 has been known as the “High Priestly Prayer” of the Lord Jesus Christ for many years, some reservations have of late been expressed about the suitability of that designation. It has been pointed out that Jesus was praying on earth and not in heaven, that he made no mention of “sacrifice” but of “consecration,” and that not only of himself but also of his disciples. The range of the prayer is therefore regarded as being larger than what is properly sacerdotal. By way of reaction to that critique, Leon Morris’s comment is as effective as it is perceptive: “Everything I suppose depends on what range one would expect to find in a high priestly prayer.”1

The rather ordinary term “farewell” has therefore been employed because of the connection between Jesus’ prayer and his prior declaration about his impending departure. Valedictory addresses and prayers are contained in the Old Testament, notably by Jacob (Gen. 49) and by Moses (Deut. 32–33). Jesus’ prayer is not only different from theirs in form, but it is vastly superior in content. It is one of a kind—unparalleled and incomparable. Robert Traill, a seventeenth-century Scots divine, wrote, “The best sermon that was ever preached in the world was followed by the best prayer that was ever offered up in it.”2 Matthew Henry said that it was “a prayer after sermon, after sacrament, a family prayer, a parting prayer, a preface to his sacrifice . . . [and] a specimen of his intercession.”

Its opening words make it clear that it was a prayer Jesus himself prayed, and it is essential to give full weight to that fact. But this does not mean that Christians may not use this prayer in appropriate ways. It is important that they should do so. It has significant bearings on the faith and life of the church, because the incarnate Son was talking with his own Father about their saving intervention in a fallen world.

As an entrée to the study of this prayer, which will be more devotional than exegetical, grateful use is made of a remark by the New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown. Noting how often Jesus addressed God as “Father” in this prayer,3 Brown commented that “the disciple and the reader are party to a heavenly family conversation.”4 John, the son of Zebedee, was surely (!) “the disciple” who heard what Jesus said to his Father, and what John recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has enabled “reader(s)” also to listen in, as it were, and so to be included in the circle of apostolic fellowship with the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit (1 John 1:1–3).

An Earthly Family Conversation

But first, some notice should be taken of the fact that an “earthly” family conversation had just concluded and John’s record of it exhibits all the hallmarks of ear and eyewitness authenticity. In it, Jesus described the eleven disciples as his “little children” (13:33); and as on previous occasions, when they did not understand what he said, clarifications—even corrections—became necessary. Peter, Thomas, Philip, and Judas (Thaddaeus) all took issue with Jesus as he spoke about his imminent departure; but like a kind parent, the Lord answered their questions patiently but firmly. He dealt with their Jewish mind-set that focused on things material and visible, and prophet-like he assured them that better covenantal days were ahead as a result of his “departure” and the Spirit’s consequent “coming.” Jesus’ last words to his disciples at that family conversation were: “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). They have become life-giving words to Christians throughout history.

A Heavenly Family Conversation

Then rather suddenly,5 and certainly before they reached Gethsemane (18:1), the eleven disciples became “party to a heavenly family conversation.” While still in their company and not unmindful of them (see v. 13), Jesus looked heavenward and spoke to his “Father” (v.1). His prayer respected the distinctions between time and eternity, earth and heaven, but they were transcended in his filial consciousness and this familial communion. He began with a focus on himself (vv. 1–5), then on his disciples/apostles6 (vv. 6–19), and finally on Christians throughout history (vv. 20–24).7 As his prayer thus soars in mind and widens in its scope, it is more appropriate to think of it in terms of motion rather than division, phases rather than sections. We will pick out some of the terms that had importance in his mind, because they are repeated, and comment on them.

Phase 1: “The Hour”and “the Glory” (vv. 1–5)

Although Jesus is praying for himself, he is not doing so in a self-centered way. His opening words revolve around two closely connected matters that relate not only to him but also to his Father. They are “the hour” and “the glory.” He knows that the “hour” has come and that his Father does too, and that they both are well aware of its importance in terms of “the glory” to be revealed.

Time and again during his earthly life, Jesus had been aware that this hour had not come. Twice he resisted family pressure on the matter (2:4; 7:1–8), and twice he was protected from the evil intention of his foes because of that fact (7:30; 8:20). But two harbingers of it had just crossed his path, and each was a portent of death and glory to him. On the one hand, some Greek-speaking Jews had come to the Passover from Galilee and wanted to see him—a foretaste of the Gentile harvest (12:20–33) that would result from his death. On the other hand, the traitor Judas Iscariot had left the Upper Room to bring it about (13:31). Both events convinced him of the imminence of the hour, and he spoke accordingly to his disciples. It was at one and the same time the hour of glory and of “the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). It coincided with “the cup” of the cross (Mark 14:35) on the way to the crown. So he said, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (13:31). “The hour” is therefore fraught with great significance and consequences—on earth and in heaven, for the world and for hell.

But what is glory? And what does it mean to glorify? The word glory is common in both testaments and is familiar to Christians. But what does it mean? A. M. Ramsey has indicated that the word contains “the greatest themes of Christian Theology,” bringing together “in a remarkable way the unity of the doctrines of Creation, the Incarnation, the Cross, the Spirit, the Church and the world-to-come.”8

By way of a working definition, it can be said that “glory” refers to “something or someone revealed in some way or other.” It has associations in the Old Testament with “weight” and in the New Testament with “light,” so it is connected with honor and splendor. Whenever the word occurs in the Bible, the questions to be considered in order to appreciate it are: Who (or what) is being revealed, how or by what means is that done, and (sometimes) why? It is used of the created and governed universe (Ps. 19:1–6), the prestige of nations (Isa. 16:13), the transient dignity of man (Isa. 40:7) and the permanent majesty of the Lord (Isa. 40:5).

But there is another revelation of God that no one can see that exceeds them all in its fullness and finality. It is in the “Word made flesh,” the full actualization of the Shekinah of the tabernacle, the incarnation of “grace and truth” (1:14–18). This means that Jesus is the full and final disclosure of all that God is (see also 2 Cor. 4:6; Heb. 1:3), and he will be so even in the new heavens and the new earth, which will be lit up by the glory of God shining in “the Lamb, its lamp” (Rev. 21:23).

So what does this amount to with reference to his request? Jesus (the man) prays that through all the shame and horror of Gethsemane to Golgotha, the Father will reveal him magnificently in his true messianic divinity. As his ever-true incarnate Son who could not and would not think, speak, or act independently of him (see 5:19), Jesus declares that he is determined to reveal the Father as the only true God by accomplishing what he has been sent to do on earth—and in his mind and spirit, it is as good as done. On that basis, all that Jesus asks for in relation to himself is that the Father will be true to him, attesting him as his “Christ” to all the elect, and exalting him, now incarnate, to his immediate presence by way of resurrection and ascension.

Phase 2: The Name, the Word, and the World (vv. 6–19)

It is clear that Jesus is now praying for his disciples. But which ones? Was he thinking only of those who were to become his apostles, or did he have others in mind? ESV’s translation of “people” (v. 6) opens up the larger possibility, for there were others who had been following him (Luke 8:2, 3) to whom more were added prior to his resurrection and ascension (see Acts 1:15; 1 Cor. 15:6). However, we think the older translation “men” is much better for three reasons. First, Jesus refers to them as being with him and to all of them as having been “guarded” by him, with the single exception of the “son of destruction” (v. 12). Second, what he says about “name,” “word,” and “world”—the three words that dominate this section—better fit that particularity of reference. Third, the final phase of the prayer is prefaced with “I do not ask for these only” (v. 20). Making this specific identification does not, of course, mean that all that Jesus said in these verses referred to them exclusively, any more than that they are excluded from what he says about others in the subsequent verses.

“The Name”

In our culture, whatever a person’s name may actually mean, it says nothing about his or her character or significance. That is not the case in the Bible, where a name is not just a means of identification but a disclosure of identity in the purpose of God. This is why name changes are of particular importance; for example, “Abram” to “Abraham” (see Gen. 17:5). So it is with God’s “name,” which reveals the kind of deity he is, as does the word glory when used of him. Those two terms are often combined, as in the expression “the glory of his name” or “glorious name.” In the Old Testament, his personal name is “the Lord” (see Gen. 15:7; Exod. 3:13–15). Rendered with more than a touch of mystery as the “I AM THAT I AM,” or the “I will be what I will be,” it combines his eternality and supremacy. These are manifested in covenant commitment to his people by a threefold redemptive activity of (1) hearing/seeing their need, (2) coming down to deliver them, and (3) leading them on (Exod. 6:2–8). This is the rich background to Jesus’ reference to his Father as “the only true God” and to himself as the One “whom [he] has sent” (v. 3).

“The Word”

God is revealed by his word, which Jesus says he has “given” to his disciples just as he had “manifested” God’s “name” to them. Speaking with the same certainty he had about his work having been finished before it was done in time and space history, he declares that his future apostles know his identity as God’s sent one revealed in his word (vv. 6–8). Neither “name” nor “word” can be separated from God himself, and that is why the “word” is said to “keep” (vv. 11–12) and also to “sanctify” (vv. 17–18), both of which are divine activities. His name and his word are equally true (v. 18); and while he is greater than both, he is not something other than either. What is more, this revelation is expressed in “words” (v. 8). Words have edges in the sense that there are limits to their meaning; they do not embrace opposites. The God of whom Christ spoke is real and consistent, and all Jesus said about him—every jot and tittle—is truth. It is expressed predictively and precisely in “Scripture” (v. 12), which “cannot be broken” (10:35). It cannot be falsified.

“The World”

In this chapter (as elsewhere in the Gospel), the word world is used in more than one sense. It refers to the human environment and to the human condition, and the difference has been summed up in the catchphrase “in it but not of it.” In the first sense, Jesus was in it but about to leave it, while the disciples were remaining in it (vv. 11, 15). In the second, he was never “of it” (v. 14), while they had been; but having been chosen and called, they no longer were (vv. 6, 15–16). These two “worlds,” however, are not worlds apart, because of the presence and activity of the evil one, whom Jesus was to meet and conquer (14:30) and whom the disciples were to encounter as well. It is a “world” that hates whatever and whoever is different from it, because it loves itself (16:19) and does not know God (v. 25).

But Jesus’ declaration “I am not praying for the world” (v. 9) does not mean that there is no place for it in the redemptive plan of God. This is monumentally clear by John 3:16, where “world” means humanity as condemned, perishing in the darkness because of its wickedness and yet loved by God. What Jesus meant by the “world” in 17:9 is shown by his immediately preceding and following words, which underlined that it was those the Father had chosen and entrusted to him for whom he was praying. He had been keeping them together while he was with them; but now that he was about to leave them in such an impure and hostile environment, he requests his “Holy Father” to undertake that responsibility. As this is with a view to their being sent into the world in his name, he sets himself apart to God’s will that they might make him known in the world as gladly as he had made the Father known. The world that rejects the Savior is therefore neither rejected by him nor by the One who sent him. Nor should it be rejected by those Jesus sends, because his desire is that many should believe in him as God’s Messiah (v. 21) and receive eternal life (v. 2). That astounding story of the gospel in the world begins to be told in the rest of the New Testament.

Phase 3: Oneness in Glory and Love (vv. 20–26)

The Lord Jesus concludes his intercession in filial adoration, because prayer is more than petition—whether for oneself or for others. He gives voice to two requests and makes a resolve. He asks the Father that all who believe in him will be one and that they will all be with him in heaven; and finally, he commits himself to serve them further in making the Father known to them.

Requests: Oneness in Love

Jesus had already prayed for oneness among his disciples, describing it in terms of the oneness that existed between his Father and himself (v. 11). He now amplifies that request as he extends its scope to include all who “will believe [in him] through their word.”

The term “oneness” is being used rather than “unity,” because it is more personal and also to differentiate what Jesus is speaking about from the ethos of the World Council of Churches of the last century. Setting aside the serious doctrinal issues raised by such ecumenical activity, what bedeviled its aim was a pursuit of structural reunification of churches, for which they argued on the basis that visibility was necessary for “the world [to] believe.” Jesus, however, did not only say, “That they all may be one”; he added, “Just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you that they also may be in us.” He then went on to speak about the glory and the love of such indwelling! Those extra words are all important. They make clear that the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son supplies the pattern for the oneness Jesus prayed for and that the glory and love they share supplies its dynamic. The glory of the Father is revealed in the exalted Son, and their love is their mutual delight on account of the finished work of redemption—a glory far greater than the work of creation.

What can have greater “binding” force between a Father and a Son than love? What can preserve the distinctions of the three persons in the Godhead and yet unite them as much as love—between each of them and each believer—on earth and afterwards in heaven? How else can they all “be perfectly one”? Is not “love the bond of perfection” (Col. 3:14)? Is the divine glory not commended by loving service to God and neighbor more than anything else? If that is the case, does it not follow that the increasing self-giving of Christians and churches—to the Father through the Son and by the Spirit in accord with apostolic truth—demonstrate to the world the mystery of the self-giving God in Christ? There is a powerful mystery at work here that unites believers on earth with the Father through his incarnate Son by the Holy Spirit (14:23), and it will be made visible and effective.

But the horizon of Jesus’ intercession is not curtailed by time and space. It reaches beyond into eternity. His final request—preceded by “Father, I desire”—reveals his intense wish that all his people should be with him in his Father’s presence and see the glory that was given to him as a result of the work he completed. Beholding Jesus glorified, they will not only worship the God-Man but be transformed into his likeness (see 1 John 3:2). “They will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads” (see Rev. 22:4). It will be abundant life and love that is both heavenly and everlasting at “the marriage supper of the Lamb.” In love, he had come to be like them and with them on earth, and now he prays that they might come to be with him and like him in heaven.

Resolve in Love

Although the closing verses do not contain a petition, one is implied in Jesus’ appeal to God as “Righteous Father.” This is because he is summarizing his ministry over against the world’s rejection, and yet declaring his intention to continue it. Jesus is therefore looking to God to uphold what is right and true. (Is this an echo of the “Johannine sounding” statement in Matthew 11:25–27?)

The solemn declaration “I will continue to make [your name] known” is intriguing—and enriching. But to what does it refer? There are two possibilities, the second including the first but going beyond it. Jesus could be referring to all that he will teach his disciples in the period between the Upper Room and his ascension, because his disclosure of the Father did not come to an end with this prayer. But it could also refer to such ministry being done by him as exalted at the Father’s right hand. Either way, it has more to do with the Messiah’s prophetic ministry than with his priestly office. It is a continuation of what he had done before his atoning death but now with a difference—a great difference because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a consequence of his glorification. Prior to Calvary he said to his disciples,

“I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now [but following this with the promise] when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (16:12–13)

The rest of the New Testament unfolds that unique ministry; and by means of it, the Lord Jesus Christ makes known his love to all believers by his indwelling Spirit (v. 26).

Conversations consist of statements and replies. But in this “heavenly conversation,” Jesus receives no audible reply from his Father as he did at his baptism or on the Mount of Transfiguration or when Greeks came to the Passover. The question could therefore be raised as to whether or how the Father responded, and we mention it only to point out how impossible it was for heaven to be as brass. The Father always heard the Son (see 11:42) and did what he asked, because the Son always did what the Father said and asked (5:19; 8:29). He upheld him in his agony in Gethsemane, sustained him in the darkness of the cross, raised him from the dead, and enthroned him at his own right hand. The disciples were preserved and empowered, and the gospel word took root in Jerusalem and was extended to Judaea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The Christian church has come into being and been maintained in spite of the world’s continuing hostile unbelief—and at times, in spite of her own faithlessness. Although answers are still forthcoming in the gospel being spread, there is one that is still outstanding in the sense that all for whom he died and rose are not yet with him in his Father’s glorious presence. But it will happen! The Son is there in his glorified humanity, and he “will come again and will take [them] to [himself] that where [he is they] may be also” (14:3).

Meanwhile, all the believing hearers/readers of what the apostles spoke and wrote are in that “heavenly family” of which Jesus said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20:17).

Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

  1. Leon Morris, Commentary on John’s Gospel, New London Series (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1971), 716.
  2. Robert Traill, qtd. in John Brown, An Exposition of Our Lord’s Intercessory Prayer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), vii.
  3. It is used six times in the chapter but 137 times in the Gospel, of which 122 refer to God.
  4. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible Series (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 747.
  5. The expression in 14:31 does not have to mean that Jesus and his disciples leave the Upper Room. It is an idiom, referring to a verbal rather than a physical move, paralleled in Matthew 26:46 and Mark 14:42. On this understanding, Jesus prayed in the Upper Room prior to leaving for Gethsemane (18:1).
  6. In verse 6, ESV opts for the gender-neutral term “people.” We think the immediate context requires the older rendering “men,” e.g., as in NASB (see discussion later).
  7. It exhibits a similar progression to Aaron’s prayer on the Day of Atonement, which was first for himself, then his house, and finally the people (see Lev. 16:11–19).
  8. A. M. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1949), 5.
Monday, July 1st 2019

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