Studies in John (Lesson 13: Jesus' High-Priestly Prayer)
I. The Altar of Incense
During the course of our journey through the gospel of John, we have also taken a journey through the tabernacle, and we have seen how all of its imagery is fulfilled in Jesus. He is the Lamb of God, offered upon the brazen altar at the entrance to the courtyard. He is the laver by which the priests were cleansed, and in him is the water of everlasting life. He is the table of the bread of the presence, nourishing those who eat of him with the true life of fellowship with God. He is the candlestick, the tabernacle's only source of light. And now, just before he offers himself up for our sins, we see that he is likewise the fulfillment of the symbolism in the altar of incense.
This altar of incense, which stood immediately before the holy veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, unlike the altar in the courtyard, was overlaid with solid gold (Exodus 30:1-6). And, unlike the altar in the courtyard, it was not for the blood of burnt offerings, but for the burning of fragrant incense, which rose up as a sweet smell to God â€“ with one important exception. Leviticus 4:1-12 tells us that, when the anointed priest of Israel sinned, he was to take some blood from the bull which he had offered on the brazen altar for his sin, and to place it on the altar of incense. So what does all this mean? Well, at least in the case of the anointed priest, the sweet smell of incense signified the pleasant and peaceful effects of the bloody sacrifice that had been offered. The brazen altar was a place of death and blood, and could not help but look and smell somewhat gruesome; but the effects were altogether lovely, for they included forgiveness and reconciliation to God. This sweet result of a bitter sacrifice was the symbolic intent of the altar of incense.
But more than just that, the altar of incense also signified the prayers of the saints, rising up to God as pleas for forgiveness, grace, and deliverance from their enemies. Because the blood sacrifices had been efficacious, God was pleased with these prayers of faith, and willing to answer them. Revelation 8:1-5 contains a beautiful example of this symbolism.
Now, let us think of Christ, in relation to the symbolism of the altar of incense: just as the anointed priest, he had a sacrifice to offer â€“ but his sacrifice was his own body! And just as the priest, he went before God on the basis of that sacrifice, and offered up his prayer for the people's forgiveness. The priest put the blood of the sacrifice on the altar of incense, and said, as it were, â€œNow, because of this blood, forget the sin which I have brought upon this people, and hear my prayer for their reconciliationâ€. In the same way Jesus took his own blood and offered it up to God, saying, â€œNow, because of this blood, let your people be reconciled to you!â€
But ah, how much greater is Jesus than the old High Priest, for he did not have to offer the same ineffectual offerings for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people; no, he offered up himself, as the sinless sacrifice, to atone for his people forever (see Hebrews 9:23-10:14). And, just as his atonement was effective, he likewise connected it with his effective intercession, so that we might be doubly sure of our forgiveness and favor with God, if we have fled to Jesus for refuge (see Hebrews 5:5-10). He is the Lamb of God, who offered himself up on the brazen altar as the effectual, atoning sacrifice for our sins; but he is also the priest who brings the blood of that sacrifice before God, as an effective, intercessory plea for the people. At the brazen altar, we see Jesus, our sacrifice; at the altar of incense, we see Jesus, our High Priest; and in the conjunction of his two, diverse ministries at these places, we have an immovable hope: we cannot fear God's just wrath any longer, for the blood of Christ satisfies the strictest demands of justice; and we cannot fear that God will forget about the law-satisfying blood of Christ when he looks upon us, for Jesus continually offers it up to him as the sweet smell of his accomplished reconciliation. We have rejoiced with John the Baptist in Jesus our substitutionary Lamb; now, let us rejoice before the throne of God in Jesus our intercessory High Priest!
And so we come to our text for this week; and in this text, we have an amazing and precious glimpse of Jesus, standing in the tabernacle, and offering up the blood of his own self-sacrifice as a plea to God for his people's forgiveness. This passage has long been called, most appropriately, Jesus' high-priestly prayer; for in it he offers up his pleas to the Father in our behalf, as our own High Priest, the one who mediates, intercedes, and brings us to God. What could possibly be more comforting, more exhilarating, more practical for our everyday lives than to hear Jesus, who is One with the Father, and who is always heard and answered by him (remember John 11:41-42), plead specifically for us with such strong devotion, asking for spiritual blessings beyond our wildest dreams? In this chapter, we can do that very thing: we can come into the holy place of the tabernacle and hear our great High Priest as he brings his blood before the Father, and intercedes for us on that basis. Oh, let us be thankful for Jesus our High Priest as well as for Jesus our spotless Lamb!
II.Glory for God and True Life for Men (John 17:1-5)
In a sense, Jesus' prayer in John 17 could be called a summary of everything which has gone before it. We see illustrated in Jesus' prayer everything which John has been emphasizing all along: Jesus' unswerving obedience to the Father; his oneness with the Father; his death as that which would bring glory to the Father and also to the Son; his role as the only one who truly reveals the Father to men; the fact that there is a certain group of people, called out from the world, whom God has chosen to give to the Son; and also more recent themes, such as the need for love and unity among the disciples; their mission to the world; and their final destiny in the Father's presence. But in another sense, it would be quite backwards to call this a summary. A summary is what an author does when he wants to review all the points that he has made; but in this case, it is quite the opposite. Here, John is not reviewing anything, but recording what Jesus had already prayed long before John ever wrote the gospel. The fact that all of Jesus' specific requests, as to what precisely his imminent death and resurrection should accomplish, are things that John's gospel has emphasized, tells us that John must have considered this prayer so important that he intentionally designed his gospel account around fleshing out the truths which he had heard in Jesus' prayer. This chapter is not the summary of John's gospel, it is the fountain and foundation for everything that John wrote. Really, it would be hard to overestimate the importance of this prayer: who would know better what specific effects to look for from the most important event of all history (indeed, the event for which all of history was designed) than the one who actually accomplished this all-important event of redemption through his sacrificial death on the cross? Do we want to know what God intended for Christ's death and resurrection to accomplish? We have no further to look than right here.
So what is it that Jesus requests in this monumental high-priestly prayer? In the first five verses, we have a brief distillation of the true intention for the events which would soon follow: Jesus' death was designed to be an event in which Jesus, the Son, could bring glory to the Father, and the Father could likewise bring glory to the Son. And the way in which this glorification would take place would be by Jesus' giving to the people whom the Father had given to him â€œtrue lifeâ€ â€“ which is just another way of saying, â€œintimate knowledge of and fellowship with the Fatherâ€. Back in the garden, this fellowship is what man was created for; and until man has regained the purpose for which he was created, his life is just a state of animate death. True life, and eternal life, is nothing but a restoration of that original purpose of knowing God â€“ and this is what Jesus' death would accomplish.
But how would this work, which would accomplish so much for those men which God had chosen, bring glory to God (the Father and the Son) at the same time as it brought life to men? First, we have to recognize that it did not add glory to God, as if he were only somewhat glorious before, and he became more glorious after â€“ no, Jesus prays that God would glorify him with the glory that he already had before the world was created. What it means, then, is not that God's glory would be added to, but that the glory which he already has would be displayed. Now, it starts to become clear how the purpose of redemption with respect to God is connected to the purpose of redemption with respect to man: man's life, his eternal joy, his everything good consists of knowing God; and God's glorification consists of his being known for who he is, as the already infinitely glorious God. In redemption, man is given the joy of knowing God in his glory, and God is glorified in man's joyful recognition of who he is. What a beautiful relationship!
So, before we move on, let us briefly reflect on how this event displays who God is. First, the essential nature of God is complex and interpersonal; God is a Trinity, and within that inter-Triune relationship, the different persons of the Godhead are constantly fellowshipping with each other, loving each other, and bringing each other glory â€“ but each in different ways. Humans cannot understand that abstract (but unimaginably beautiful) relationship without the help of some example; and the perfect example of how the Trinity naturally relates to each other is the practical outworking of their different roles in this central event of history, the redemption of man: in this work, we see how the Father relates to the Son, planning for him a perfect work, which will bring great glory to him, and promising him, in exchange for that perfect work, a magnificent reward â€“ namely, that he would give to him a special people, and also bring all created things under his feet, as their Master and Lord (Psalm 2:6-8; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:18-20; Ephesians 1:10,20-23). We see how the Son relates to the Father, always in perfect accord with his will, and always obeying him exactly. We see how the Spirit relates to the Father and the Son, proceeding from them in order to bring to life those whom he has chosen, not speaking of himself, but of the Persons in the Trinity who sent him (John 15:26). All of these actual realities mirror for us precisely what the triune God is in his essential nature. Without such a concrete example, we would never be able to comprehend the nature of God. And so, in the work of redemption, the triune God displays himself for who he is, in all his glory â€“ and we who have been called by him get the unspeakable joy of seeing his glory in the accomplishment of this great work!
And, besides the relationship of the persons of the Trinity, we can see innumerable attributes of the all-glorious God as we could never have seen them in any other way: we can see his wrath against sin, and his unyielding justice â€“ for God was pleased to crush his own beloved and sinless Son, rather than turn his back on the terrible affront to his holiness which sin constitutes. We can see the depths of his love and mercy and grace in that God would be willing to undergo the horror of divine wrath, the consternation of inter-Triune separation and break of fellowship, the indignity and shame and reproach and pain of being numbered with sinners and suffering as a sinner deserves to suffer â€“ all to bring back to God men who deserve nothing but what Jesus, undeserving as he was, actually underwent. And so we could continue, and will continue for all eternity, for that will not be long enough to unwrap the mystery and wonder of what God displayed of his glorious character when Jesus died on Golgotha two thousand years ago. But for now, we must press on with our lesson.
III. Jesus Pleads for the Preservation and Sanctification of his Disciples (John 11:6-19)
Now, after laying out the basic intent of his prayer, Jesus begins to give the reasons for why he is praying in this way, and for these specific persons â€“ and the fundamental reason goes back to the Father's will, together with the effects that it has produced. The Father, by his own immutable will alone, has chosen a certain group of people, out of a world which was evil without exception â€“ and he gave these to the Son, so that he might bring them back to him. Now, what has this will accomplished? First, as the Son is One with the Father, and always in perfect agreement with him, the will of the Father has been brought to concrete reality through the effectual working of the Son. Remember in the prologue how Jesus, the â€œWord of God,â€ brings to reality God's intention? So here, when God planned to redeem a wayward people to himself, it was Jesus who actually redeemed them, and brought them back to a true knowledge of God: or, in his own words, he â€œrevealedâ€ the Father's name to them. Within the Trinity there is always perfect unity â€“ and so the Father's will inevitably finds its concrete expression in the Son's activity.
But the effects of the Father's will do not stop with the Son's ministry; for flowing down, from the Father through the Son, is the effect of this sovereign will on the people he has chosen. The Father selected a people, Jesus revealed the Father to them, and now they know that everything which Christ has done comes from the Father. The words of God were in the Father's heart and revealed through the Son's ministry on earth; and now, they are received and held fast by the people which God has chosen. We could sum this wonderful reality up by saying that everything good, in this life and the next, is from the Father and comes down through the Son, because of his work of redemption which he was about to accomplish on the cross. And this work is so powerful that it cannot fail to secure eternal life, which is nothing other than the true knowledge of God, for everyone for whom it was intended.
So that is the basis for Jesus' prayer: that the Father had chosen these people precisely, and not the rest of the world; and that his will had been effective in bringing them to himself through Christ; but the impending reason for it, right now, is that Jesus is about to do what he had actually come to do, and then ascend to be with the Father in heaven. As long as Jesus was on earth, he himself was keeping them safe in their knowledge of God â€“ with the exception of Judas Iscariot, the Son of Perdition, concerning whom God had long before determined final apostasy and judgment, and recorded it in the scriptures. As we have noted before, Jesus mentions Judas specifically, so that none of his disciples would think that Judas' loss had been out of the Father's will; and that therefore, their own preservation was not entirely certain.
But the preservation of the rest of the disciples was indeed certain â€“ for Jesus asked the Father that he himself would keep them, after Jesus had gone back to heaven. And if anyone should think that keeping them involves the barest act of preservation, so that they should be saved â€œby the skin of their teeth,â€ as it were, Jesus adds the final outcome of this keeping work of the Father: and it is nothing less than a unity that is reflective of the very nature of the Trinity! It stops nothing short of the perfect recreation in fallen man of the long-marred image of God. And this request came from the Father's will, as we have already noticed, and so it could not be denied by the Father. In fact, it was not for the Father that Jesus ultimately prayed â€“ but for his disciples, so that they might hear Jesus' prayer and so be filled with joy. Truly, how could we not rejoice at such marvelous news?
And besides this, there is one more pressing reason why Jesus should pray this way: because of his work in them, giving to them the Father's words, they are not like the world anymore, but like Jesus. And if they are like Jesus, the world will hate them just as it hated Jesus. But just as Jesus overcame the world, not by leaving it prematurely, but by finishing his course, even to the bitter end of crucifixion by a mocking world, so the disciples would overcome, not by being plucked out of the world, but by God's grace to protect them from the Evil One who rages against them and turns his children, the unbelieving world, to the hatred and persecution of all who would be like Jesus. Truly, the ancient Christian saying is faithful: â€œIf we died together, we will also live together; if we endure, we will also reign togetherâ€ (II Timothy 2:11-12)!
Jesus has just prayed that the Father would preserve his people, so that, just as Jesus had overcome a hostile world, they would overcome that same hostile world. Now, he asks that the Father would sanctify them â€“ and once again, it is in imitation of Jesus that this request would be fulfilled. The work of redemption begins with the Father's plan, who sent Jesus into the world to accomplish redemption; but even though the Son fully accomplished redemption, the plan is not yet complete; for even as the Father sent the Son into the world, so the Son has sent us into the world. The Father sent the Son to accomplish redemption, and the Son has sent us to give the news of that redemption. The Father sent the Son to suffer for redemption to be accomplished; the Son has sent us to suffer so that the effects of redemption might be spread (see Colossians 1:24). In all these ways, we, as believers, mirror the activity of Christ â€“ what an amazing and undeserved opportunity has been given to us by divine grace! To suffer for the gospel is, as the early Christian believers found out, a most precious gift (see Acts 5:41)! But we must not forget the way in which we are sanctified as the Son was sanctified; it is only through the Word of God. Oh, let us be people of the Word! If we would be like Christ, let us be people of the Word! It is through the Word of God that the Spirit of God changes us into the glorious image of Christ Jesus our Savior.
IV. Jesus Expands his Prayer to Include Future Believers, and Pleads for their Unity (John 17:20-23)
Up to this point, we have had no definite indication that Jesus meant to include us, rather than just the eleven disciples, as the subjects of his prayer; but in fact he had us in mind too, and now he makes this truth explicit, so that we might derive deep personal comfort from Jesus' pleas just as the disciples did before us. How amazing it is to think that, when we were still children of wrath, and subjects of a hostile world, Jesus was already interceding for our final salvation! He already knew us by name, and he knew that, according to the Father's will, we would soon be snatched from darkness and death, and brought into the marvelous light of Jesus our Savior! But how was the precious calling to come to fruition? Our conversion occurred when we, still a part of the wicked world, were confronted with a picture of the Triune God, in the lives of the Christians who loved each other as the Persons of the Trinity love each other; it was then, as the truth of the gospel took concrete expression in the lives of the believers, that we were awakened by the Spirit to the glory of the Godhead, and so brought to Christ. The gospel would never have spread throughout the world if it had been a mere propositional message, with no power to change lives. And so the situation remains today â€“ what a sobering truth! If we as believers do not reflect the love and unity of the Trinity in our love for each other, then how will the world see who Jesus is, and believe that the Father has sent him? God, give us love and unity with our fellow-believers!
So we ask, because this is certainly a gift of God. God's love and inter-Triune unity is the essence of his glory, and a love and unity reflective of God's is nothing less than the gift of God's very glory, given to us! As astonishing as this doctrine is, we read it clearly in verse twenty-two. Above all, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us seek a Christ-like love for each other, and a unity representative of the inter-Triune unity of God. The purpose of redemption is to display the true nature of the triune God â€“ and we have been given the astonishing privilege of showing the divine nature to the unbelieving world. But how will we do this, if we are divided among ourselves? Is Christ divided? Is there no love between the Father, Son, and Spirit? We have been given the very glory of God, God's Spirit has breathed into us his love and is forming within us the image of Christ; let us seek to show the world who we are in him! Let us display the love and unity with which we have been blessed. Man's eternal happiness and God's eternal glorification will in this way come to fruition in the world. In this way, Jesus will gather the full fruits of his already-finished work. Father, join the word of the gospel which we proclaim in the world to the power of the gospel which we display in our lives! Bring your scattered children to glory, as they glimpse your glory in the Spirit who dwells within us!
V.Jesus Sums up his Pleas in a Climactic Request (John 17:24-26)
This final segment of Jesus' prayer is far too deep and rich to do justice to in a final paragraph; but we will proceed as the Spirit enables. In these verses, Jesus sums everything up with a request that is the very essence and soul of the gospel and Christianity, what we were saved for â€“ no what constitutes salvation itself, and eternal life: and that is, that we, who have believed in him, might be brought to be with him, and to see his glory. There is no joy, no life, no good thing at all, apart from seeing the glory of Christ. People who speak of salvation and think only of escape from hell, and nothing of the wonder of seeing Christ's glory, are self-deluded, and know nothing of salvation at all. Heaven will be a place for those who delight in seeing Christ. In fact, true salvation is nothing more than seeing Christ in all his glory. And what is this glory? It is far too deep and and broad and wide to begin to express in a mere sentence, but if we would begin to understand, we must think of the diverse and excellent characteristics which are to be found, in their greatest expression, in Christ alone. To be great, bold, powerful, filled with righteous wrath against sin, divine and exalted â€“ this is glory indeed, and Christ is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, our great God and King. But this is only the half of his glory. It is also glorious to be meek and lowly, gentle and compassionate, willing to be numbered among sinners and always ready to save the blackest soul which is helpless and distraught â€“ and no one under heaven has been filled with such glory as Christ, the suffering Servant of God. How great is the glory of Christ, and how well suited to draw from our lips fervent praise and worship for all eternity! If he were not divinely great and majestic, we would soon be bored with the sight of him, for God has placed eternity in our hearts, so that only infinite greatness can thrill us forever (Ecclesiastes 3:11). But if he were not meek and gentle, we would rather run to hell than stand before his righteous might, weak and sinful as we are. O stammering tongue! How can a mere lisping man give voice to the slightest glimpse of the manifold glory of Christ, the Lion and the Lamb? I cannot, but for all eternity I will try, for he is all my life and salvation.
Save us, O God! Show us the glory of Christ!