The High Priestly Prayer
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Approaching John 17, a holy hush seems to fall on the reader. This is the Holy Place of the Bible, the Holy of Holies of the New Testament. This is our Lord’s longest recorded prayer. Spoken in the shadow of the cross, it has always held a special reverence among believers.
One preacher never preached from it because he felt it transcended his powers. He felt unable to do it justice, and had it read to him three times when dying. Another believer had it read to him sixty times on his deathbed. When John Knox came to die, he asked for this passage to be read to him.
This prayer is truly the Lord’s Prayer. What we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer should actually be called the Disciples’ Prayer.
This prayer is most commonly called “The High Priestly Prayer.” As the great intercession by Jesus for His followers, it is the private property of believers.
We are sadly mistaken if we think all the Bible’s promises are for everyone. There is but one word of ultimate comfort in the Bible for unbelievers, the offer of salvation by grace.
Psalm 23, John 14 and 17, Revelation 21 – these do not apply to the lost. For those outside Christ, there is no consolation in grief, no strength in weakness, no promise to cling to in death. But believers sorrow not as others who have no hope (I Thessalonians 4:13).
The Bible always draws a sharp line across the human race. To unbelievers, it says “You must be born again.” To believers, it promises everything else.
John 17:1a (Holman) Jesus spoke these things, looked up to Heaven, and said:
Having spent the evening thus far speaking for God to them, Jesus now spoke to God for them. He taught us we must pray for those we teach. This adds warmth to our teaching. We deal not only in facts, but also in love for one another.
Eyes lifted up to Heaven was the customary posture of prayer for the Jews, because of their exalted understanding of God. They knew He dwelled in the heavens. “I lift my eyes to You, the One enthroned in heaven” (Psalm 123:1).
Jesus used this customary mode of praying often: When He broke the loaves and blessed them before feeding the 5000 (Mark 6:41), when He healed the deaf mute (Mark 7:34), when He raised up Lazarus (John 11:41), and here.
Our custom of bowed heads comes from the courtesy of a slave before his master, and from the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:13). Our custom of closed eyes is an aid to concentration, an attempt to minimize distractions. It also reminds us we worship a God who is Spirit, and thus invisible.
John 17:1b “. . . Father, . . .”
God had one Child who did not sin, but never a child who did not pray. The voice of prayer is a mark of Childhood. Prayer is to be our natural state, a sign by which every heir of God is known. Jesus needed prayer. How much more do we!
When we pray, we pray to a Father. When Jesus looked up toward Heaven, He did not see an abstract Cause, a blind Tendency, soulless Nature, an impersonal Force. He saw One who lives, has personality, and loves.
John 17:1c “. . . the hour has come.”
“The hour” refers to the cross. The moment of Christ’s suffering was determined in the counsel of the Father. Jesus had often said His hour was not yet come; but now it was near, and He knew it. People cannot predict with precise accuracy the climax, crisis, and death of their own lives, but Jesus did.
It was for this hour the cosmic clock of time was first set in motion. This was the hour for which the world had been created and upheld. Heaven, Hell, and Earth existed for this moment. They were conjoined in the struggle at Calvary.
After many skirmishes, the decisive battle between good and evil would now be fought. The trumpet was sounding for an engagement that would be irretrievably fatal to the one or to the other.
John 17:1d “Glorify Your Son . . .”
Yielding Himself to death on the cross, Jesus desired vindication from the Father, who sought to glorify Jesus often. One, He spoke audibly at Jesus’ baptism and Transfiguration. Two, He gave Jesus power to speak with authority and perform miracles. Three, He had the betrayer himself speak well of Jesus in the hearing of Christ’s murderers. After confessing he had betrayed innocent blood, Judas sealed his confession with his own guilty blood.
Four, He had Pilate’s wife, asleep, realize Jesus was innocent. He did the same to Pilate, awake. Five, He darkened the sun three hours, tore the Temple veil, shook the earth, and split rocks. Six, He had a soldier say, “Truly this was the Son of God.” Seven, and most important of all, the Father raised Jesus from the dead. This is what Jesus was referring to in our text. He wanted to be honored through a death that would end in life.
Many of history’s colossal figures had to die to find their chief glory. It often took their own death to prove to others what and who a person really was. The void caused by their death can leave a stronger impact than the life that filled the void.
Socrates, Joan of Arc, Elijah Lovejoy, Lincoln, Bill Wallace – they all had to die to find their highest glory. This is what Jesus had to do.
John 17:1e “. . . so that the Son may glorify You.”
These words keep us from imputing selfish motives to Jesus. He had committed His whole undertaking to the Father’s honor. Jesus here taught us what to aim at in our prayers – the Father’s honor. We must desire “that in everything God may be glorified” (I Peter 4:11). “Hallowed be Thy Name” must be intermixed with every other petition we offer.
The reason for our existence is to honor God. Cromwell’s dying prayer expressed it well, “Lord, Thou art my witness, that if I still desire to live, it is to glorify Thy Name and to complete Thy work.”
Jesus brought honor to His Father by living and speaking in such ways that others were forced to think more about God. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the old adage; and because God is invisible, He is often forgotten. Whatever makes people think about God with reverence and gratitude thereby promotes His glory. I pray we learn to do so, for the Father’s sake.