The High Priestly Prayer: A Prayer for Glorification

Sermon by David Strain on August 23

John 17:1-5

Well for the next three Sundays, God willing, our plan is to consider together the seventeenth chapter of the gospel according to John. It’s often called, and has been for many centuries now, it’s often called Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” which is an apt description because it comes at the climax of His earthly ministry, on the eve of His betrayal as the shadow of the cross looms large. So the moment of His supreme, priestly sacrifice as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, this is the moment, and it is preceded by this great prayer of preparation and consecration and intercession. You remember the work of the Levitical high priest who once a year would enter the Most Holy Place in the earthly temple. And there, he would pray first for himself and then he would intercede for the people of God before making the atoning sacrifice. And so here is the Lord Jesus, the antitype, the great, true High Priest, to whom the Levitical priesthood points us. And He prays, verse 19, “for their sake.” “For the sake of God’s people, I consecrate Myself.” And He prays in the first part of this prayer for Himself in preparation for the climactic sacrifice that He must shortly offer. And then having prayed for Himself, He pours out His soul on behalf of those for whom He must shortly give His life.

Now it is a remarkable fact that while the Gospel accounts tell us that prayer was a constant, vigorous component of our Lord’s daily routine, we actually have very little record of the content of His prayers. So that this prayer, offered as it was on the very precipice of Calvary, that this prayer should give us such extensive insight into how and what Jesus prayed for, does indicate, I think, that it deserves our special attention. Here, we get to see Jesus’ particular burdens. Here are His preoccupations. His great overriding concerns as He heads to the cross. This is what weighed on His mind and occupied His heart. And frankly, if these are our Savior’s priorities, shouldn’t we evaluate our own in light of them? If these are the priorities of the Lord Jesus, then our own ought to dovetail with His.

A brief glance at the chapter will show it divides rather easily into three unequal sections. Each has its own particular focus. Verses 1 through 5, we have a prayer for glorification. Jesus prays that the Father would glorify Him in the work He is about to complete. Then in 6 through 19, which we intend to consider next week, we have a prayer for sanctification – not for Christ, but for His people. He prays for the preservation and the holiness, the sanctification of His disciples. Then in verses 20 through 26, we have a prayer for unification. Jesus’ desire is that the church, the whole church across the ages and around the world might be one, just as He and His Father in heaven are one. And so these are the three priorities to which Jesus gives expression – the glory of Christ, the holiness of believers, the unity of the church. And as we think about following Jesus faithfully surely those ought to be our great priorities also – the glory of Christ, the holiness of believers, the unity of the church.

Well that said, today we’re going to give our attention to verses 1 through 5 and this prayer for glorification with which the chapter opens. You’ll see immediately if you look at the passage, that same, that grand theme, glory, dominates this part of the prayer; it brackets the paragraph. Doesn’t it? Verse 1, “Father, the house has come; glorify your Son.’” Verse 5, “And now, Father, glorify me.” This is a prayer for glorification; the glorification of the Son, the Lord Jesus. And what I want us to see is how Jesus develops this theme of glory in three tenses. He talks about the glory of the Son in the present tense in verse 1. And he talks about the glory of the Son in the past in verses 2 through 5. And again he talks in verse 5 about the glory of the Son yet to come in the future. It’s striking, isn’t it, that as the Lord Jesus contemplates the ordeal of the cross and consecrates and rededications Himself for that great work, that His focus should be on the glory of God in the exaltation of His Son. And actually, that’s why we need these verses so very badly today. They are a vital corrective to the self-absorption and the self-centeredness that tends to dominate our culture and our lives. In my judgement, our greatest need in the church in these days is to look up and away from self and to fill our gaze with the glory of Jesus Christ. And that is the dominant thought of these opening five verses.

Before we look at them together, let’s pause and pray once again and ask for the Lord Jesus to help us. Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, we tread on holy ground now as we enter with You into the holy place in prayer, as we hear You praying for Your glorification at the cross. And we ask that Your glory would shine on us from Your Word, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, that we may see it anew with the eyes of faith and be enabled to rejoice in the wonder of it, to find our satisfaction in it; in its light to flee sin and self to new dependence and trust in You. O Lord, would You do that among us now as Your Word is read and proclaimed, for we ask it in Your name, amen.

John 17 at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.’”

Amen, and we praise God for speaking to us through His holy, inerrant Word.

The Glory of the Son in the Present

Well let’s think first about the glory of the Son in the present tense. This week I read the story of Richard Leroy Walters. Before Walters died you might have met him at a senior center, I think it was run by a Catholic mission, that he liked to visit in the city of Phoenix, Arizona. You might even have seen him sleeping rough on the grounds of that center in the evenings. Walters was a homeless man who ate his meals at the local hospital, used the telephone at the center; he had no family and lived a reserved, largely solitary existence. If you saw him, you might feel pity for him but you would not see anything particularly unusual or special in Richard Walters to distinguish him from any other older homeless man who was sleeping rough on the streets of Phoenix. And so you can imagine the astonishment when the Catholic mission that Walters used received a six figure bequest from his $4 million estate. It turns out Walters was a multimillionaire and what you saw was not at all what you got with Richard Leroy Walters.

Part of what really strikes me as I read through this first part of John 17 is that when it comes to the cross of Jesus Christ, what you see is not what you get. What you see is not what you get. What do you see when you look at the cross? Is it a picture of defeat? Of suffering? Of helplessness? Of shame? Were you a casual spectator passing by on the day our Lord was crucified, you would not likely have picked out Jesus and His sufferings as in any way observably different from that of either thief crucified with Him. Perhaps in your time you would have seen many hapless victims of the imperial Roman torture machine hanged on a gibbet lining the roads of the ancient Mediterranean world. Nothing would have signaled Jesus out from the rest. Like that unrecognized homeless multimillionaire, Richard Walters, the very last thing any of us would see looking at Jesus hanged between these two thieves on Golgotha, naked and in agony, the last thing we would see is glory.

But look at the text. Glory is precisely the category that Jesus thinks best fits the cross. Verse 1, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” Now if you’ve read through John’s gospel you may have picked up on that phrase, “The hour has come.” Actually, through the first twelve chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus and John have repeatedly said, “The hour has not yet come.” So for example, at the wedding at Cana at the very beginning of His public ministry, John 2 verse 4, Jesus tells Mary, “But My hour has not yet come.” Or another example, John 7 verse 30, “So they were seeking to arrest Him but no one lay a hand on Him, for His hour had not yet come.”

But from chapter 12, by the middle of chapter 12 onwards, the focus of the narrative in John’s gospel completely shifts. It turns with a resolute focus on the journey toward Calvary, toward the cross. And from then on, Jesus begins to say, “My hour has come.” So what does this expression, “The hour has come,” intend to teach us? D.A. Carson summarizes it well. He says it refers, “to His death on the cross and the exaltation bound up with it or the consequences deriving from it.” The hour, you see, is the moment ordained by God in which our Savior must secure our redemption by the sacrifice of His life. And over and over in John we’re told, “The hour had not yet come,” and now here we are and He prays, right on the eve of His suffering, “Father, the hour has now come.” And as He contemplates the arrival of that hour, this hour of unspeakable suffering, what is it that He wants the Father to do for Him? What would you want the Father to do for you? You’ve been conscious there is an appointed hour throughout the course of your life and you’ve seen the hour approaching, day after day. And now it has come at last and you know what that hour must hold for you – terrible agony of body and mind and soul, grief and loss as those you love desert you and abandon you and betray you. What would you ask the Father to do for you? Deliver you from this hour? Sustain you, perhaps, in the middle of this hour? What does Jesus pray for? “Father, glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You.”

You see, that’s what the cross is for Jesus. It is the venue for the unveiling of glory. The Shorter Catechism talks about Jesus’ life in terms of His estates of humiliation and exaltation. And so it asks, for example, “Wherein consisteth Christ’s exaltation?” And it answers most helpfully, “Christ’s exaltation consisteth in His rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven, in sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and in coming to judge the world at the last day.” That’s correct. It’s glorious in fact. But there’s an important sense in which, for Jesus, the cross itself belongs not only to His humiliation but even to His exaltation. Think about it here in the weakness and the agonies of Calvary, the glory of Christ is seen perhaps never more clearly to those who believe because here we see, don’t we, the love of Christ for His Father. He is willing, He is glad to embrace the nightmare of suffering even, beneath which His soul must shortly be submerged in order to please His Father.

And here we see Christ’s great love for the world as He freely bears the full weight, the crushing burden of divine wrath for the sake and on behalf of His people. Here, His obedience is on display that does not shrink back even from going to such lengths as the cross to fulfill the will of God. Here we see the humanity of Christ bleeding, crying out, thirsting, dying. Here we see the deity of Christ, lending infinite value to mortal sufferings that He might pay an infinite debt, the debt our sins have incurred. Here we see Him, our Prophet, in His suffering revealing the Father’s heart for sinners. Here we see Him as Priest, offering Himself on the altar to make atonement. Here we see Him as King, doing battle with His great enemy, our great enemy, the devil, and triumphing over him, making public spectacle of him at the cross and thereby winning our deliverance. And so here at Calvary, the flame of love was kindled in the hearts of believers and it has engulfed the church in every nation and around the world in worship and adoration and praise for Jesus Christ. The cross reveals His glory. We see Him in all His beauty and majesty and love and grace and power and wisdom, nowhere more clearly than at the cross. And so here, knowing that the hour had come, knowing that He, in this moment as He prays, He stood on the lip of the crucible of untold agony. And remarkably He does not pray for glory instead of the cross; He prays that the Father might glorify Him by means of the cross. In the cross, He prays that the Father would bring Him to Calvary because that’s where His glory would be revealed. The cross is where the glory of Christ can be seen and known.

Sometimes I will hear a complaint from believers who get impatient with a constant emphasis on the Gospel message. They’ve got the sufferings and the death of Christ down cold, you see. They know all they need to know about that, apparently. That’s the basics. That’s the ABCs of the Christian life. “The cross – that’s what you need to know when you become a Christian, but we have moved on. We’re moving on to the deeper things.” But Jesus’ prayer here, do you see it, it directly contradicts that attitude. There is no ocean more mysterious in its depths than the cross of Jesus Christ. You will never exhaust the riches in this mine. If you want to find inexhaustible glories, this is where you need to devote your attention.

Let me just ask you, “When last did you meditate on the cross, on the cross?” Can you find enough in the cross to hold your attention for more than just a few minutes? Can you see the glories? We have not yet come to grips with the teaching of John 17 if we cannot, with any sense of wonder, lose ourselves in the contemplation of the glory of Jesus Christ revealed as He gave Himself for us at Calvary. Never, never take your eyes from it. It is endlessly fascinating, endlessly beautiful, unfailingly satisfying. The cross of Jesus Christ. He prays for glory in the present, right now, now that the hour has come.

The Glory of the Son in the Past  

Then notice what we learn about the glory of the Son in the past. Look at verse 4 with me. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” And then in verse 5 He mentions, “the glory I had with you before the world existed.” Now here, we are being led into mystery, sublime mystery. We are being told that the glory that shines at the cross, it was a glory that began to shine – it’s not really correct to say it that way – in eternity. We know from the Gospel records, don’t we, that Jesus was conscious, He was a man – a human being with all the ordinary limitations of mind and body that that involved. He was one of us with a true body and a reasonable soul. But now we get to see here in these five verses of John 17 don’t we, that He’s also conscious of being the eternal Son of God. And according to the text, He knew something about His own preexistence. He knew, first of all, that before time or space, before there was creation, He dwelled in the loving fellowship of the blessed Trinity. Verse 5 says that Jesus enjoyed “glory with the Father before the world existed,” in the unity of the Holy Spirit, three persons in one, God the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

But the text actually says He knew more than that. Not just that He had dwelt forever in the bliss of Trinitarian fellowship, but He knew of an arrangement between the persons of the Trinity before time. Do you see that note sounding in the text? Theologians typically refer to it as the covenant of redemption. Look at verse 4. Jesus spoke of “work that the Father gave him to do.” Verse 2 says He was “given authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all those whom the Father had given to Him.” So understand what we’re being told. The Son has been given a definite people by God the Father, chosen out of the mass of fallen humanity, upon whom the Son must bestow eternal life. By means of the whole course of His earthly obedience, He is to obey and bleed and die, specifically for the salvation of the elect people of God. And here He tells His Father that the climactic hour having arrived, He has completed the task, He has fulfilled the terms of the covenant of redemption, He has kept God’s Law, He has fulfilled its every precept, He has proclaimed God’s truth, He has inaugurated God’s kingdom. Throughout His life, He had borne our sins and endured the judgement of God in the many miseries that He suffered. And now, He is about to crown it all and give His life in the climactic sacrifice to satisfy the wrath of God in our place and for our sakes.

You know, every now and then we hear the idea that the Lord Jesus came to make the Father love us. Have you heard that? You may even have said that. The Father is pictured as rather aloof, cold, an austere judge perhaps, with hardly a thought to spare for us, unapproachable. Maybe that’s how your earthly father was and behaved toward you and so now it’s hard for you even to conceive of God the Father in any other way. He must be cold and aloof and with very little time for you. You have this idea of a distant, unfeeling Father. But then, then the Son comes, you see, and unlike the Father, He loves us; He’s tender toward us. He suffers for us, He dies in our place, He pays our penalty, He meets all the exacting demands of the Father and so He manages to pry some modicum of mercy from the Father’s unwilling, reluctant hands. “And so if the Father loves us at all,” we’re tempted to think, “it’s only because Jesus has made Him love us, has somehow persuaded Him to love us.”

But can you see how far that is from Jesus’ own understanding of His work? He was sent on His mission by the Father in eternity and given a number, a people to save, for whom He obeyed and bled and gave His life. It was the love of the Father that gave the Son for you in the first place. The electing love of God that entrusted you into the Son’s hands and of all whom the Father had given Him, He loses none. The Lord Jesus never needed to persuade God to love you. The Lord Jesus is, as it were, the display of the love of God for you. You have, believer in Jesus, you have always been loved; from eternity to eternity you are beloved.

The Glory of the Son in the Future

Glory in the present. Glory in the past. Then Jesus prays all of this, notice, conscious of glory for the Son yet to come, still in the future. Look at verse 5 again. “Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed.” He contemplates here what awaits Him on the other side of the cross, on the other side of the empty tomb, and He prays for exaltation in the Father’s presence. This was the promise, you see, made to Him by the Father. In the covenant made with Him in eternity, He would be highly exalted and given the name above every name. The Father told the Son, in the words of Psalm 2 verse 8, “Ask of Me and I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession.” Or in the words of Psalm 110 verse 1, the Father promised that the Son would “sit at the Father’s right hand until He makes His enemies a footstool for His feet.” This is the glory of the exalted Son for which He now prays. And do you see how it sweeps from eternity through history, through the cross, through the empty tomb, up on into glory yet ahead? And at every stage of that journey, we see another phase of the glory of the Son who glorifies the Father. There is preincarnate glory. There is obedient, incarnate suffering, crucified glory. And then there is exalted, triumphant, ascended glory.

But before we’re done, we need to see what stands right at the very center of all of this glory. Right in the heart of the passage. You see what the glorification of the Son in each of these ways produces? You see what it’s for? Look at verses 2 and 3 again. “Father, glorify Your Son,” Jesus prayed, “since You have given Him authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom You have given Him. And this is eternal life, to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” It belongs, you see, to the glory of the Son to rescue sinners. The Son is glorified in your deliverance, in showering mercy on us when we don’t deserve mercy. He came so that you can know God in and through Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

Understand, please will you understand that being a Christian is not a matter of getting your doctrine right. That’s important, but that’s not what makes you a Christian. It’s not a matter of understanding correctly the biblical teaching about who God is, knowing about God. What happens when you become a Christian? The Lord Jesus brings you into fellowship, personally, directly, really, vitally with the living God Himself. You come to know Him. You know Him in Jesus Christ.

The poet, Alexander Pope, once said, “Know then, thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.” Do you see how Jesus says the opposite in these verses we’ve been studying? “This is eternal life, to know You.” It’s not presumption, “God to scan.” This is life, life! You’re dead if you don’t know this, if you don’t have this. This is life, to know God, which is the gift. It’s in the gift of the glorious Son, the Lord Jesus. He can give it to you.

We live in a narcissistic age, don’t we, absorbed with ourselves, with our feelings, our pleasures, our needs, our wants. But the truth is – haven’t you found this? The further and further we delve into ourselves, the less and less satisfied we become. John 17:1-5 is giving us the antidote that points us away from ourselves. It wants to take you to this glorious vista so that taking it in, you forget everything else and you’re lost in wonder at its beauty. John 17:1-5 wants to show you the glory of Christ. He reigns, not as one aloof and distant, you see. He reigns now in glory to give, to bestow the knowledge of God that is life to all who will come to Him, to all whom the Father has given to Him.

So isn’t it time to lift your eyes from your navel gazing and to look up and away from ourselves and to see again the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining on us in the face of Jesus Christ? There, there is life and there is satisfaction and there is joy, because there is glory unveiled. Let’s pray together.

O Lord Jesus, there are no words to speak of Your glory, to adequately capture its wonder. But would You please forgive us for not even turning our gaze to contemplate it, not wrestling to give voice to the wonder that we feel, not feeling the wonder, for allowing, for especially allowing the cross to become old news in our hearts? So today we pray for our souls, our consciences, our hearts, and we ask You to take us back to the cross and buckle our knees in the dust before it. Show us again the beauty and glory of what You have done, of who You are, of the Father’s gift, that we may live for You and no longer for ourselves. For we ask this in Your name, amen.

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