The High Priestly Prayer: A Prayer for Sanctification

Sermon by David Strain on August 30

John 17:6-19

Well do keep your Bibles in hand or look with me at the New Testament passage printed in the bulletin. Last Lord’s Day, you may remember, we began to consider the first of the three divisions of John 17, what’s usually called our Lord’s great “High Priestly Prayer.” Verses 1 through 5, we saw last time, give us a prayer of consecration as the Lord Jesus dedicates Himself to the atoning work that He must soon fulfill at the cross. And now this morning we are going to consider verses 6 through 19, that large central section, which provide for us a prayer for the sanctification of the Church.

And if you’ll look at it with me for a moment, verses 6 through 19, I want you to notice three themes in this part of Jesus’ prayer for our sanctification, each of them building upon the next toward a climactic focus on our holiness. First in verses 6 through 9, the theme of revelation. Jesus manifests the Father’s name to us. Ultimately, He makes God known to us through His Word. Revelation. Then secondly, 10 through 13, the focus is on preservation. Jesus asks the Father to keep, to preserve His disciples now that He is to leave them. And He is to do this, notice, by the revelation that God gives to Jesus of His name through His holy Word. So revelation, preservation; finally verses 14 through 19 the focus is on consecration. Negatively, Jesus prays for us to be kept from the evil one while we live our lives in the world. And more positively, He consecrates Himself that we may also be consecrated or sanctified, and that sanctification happens, notice, in the Word which is God’s truth. And if you take all of that together, in many ways, these three themes provide for us a marvelous summary of the saving benefits Jesus provides for those who follow Him. Revelation resulting in preservation and consecration, all of it by means of the holy Word of the living God. That’s the Christian life in a nutshell.

Now before we consider all of that, we are going to pause once again and pray and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit as we hear the voice of God in His inerrant Word. Let’s pray together.

Holy Spirit, we pray now that You who illuminate, rather who inspire these words, might illuminate our understanding so that the truth as it is in Jesus might penetrate our hearts and dispel the fog of confusion in our minds and give us light. We pray that You would, by Your Word, lead us to our Savior anew that in Him we may know the Father, be preserved in Him, and sanctified in and by Him for Your praise and glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.  All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

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

On July 27, 1917, three young men stood on the muddy battlefield at Flanders in Belgium. They gathered around as one of them, Second Lieutenant Robert Kelly Pollen of the Royal Irish Rifles hastily scratched out his last will and testament on a little scrap of leftover notepaper. A single sentence in length, written in beautiful flowing cursive, Pollen said simply that he wished to leave all his worldly possessions to his father, J.M. Pollen Esq. of Belfast in Northern Ireland. His two friends, Second Lieutenants John Kimmy Boyle and William Kingston signed their names below his own as witnesses. And four days later, Pollen was dead; a casualty of the Battle of Passchendaele. I’ve only seen a photograph of the document itself. It’s currently housed in the Belfast Public Records Office in Northern Ireland. But that little scrap of now yellowing paper inscribed with the names of these three heroic young friends I find to be a sobering, even sacred thing. It transports me back there in my mind to stand with those three friends on the brink of battle. And we witness Pollen, knowing that his life is on the line, the chances of survival may not be great and he bequeaths everything that he has to his father, and then he bravely marches to his death.

John 17 is not unlike that. It is, as it were, the last will and testament of the Lord Jesus Christ, composed on the eve of His own climactic battle with sin and death and Satan at the cross; a battle that He knew for sure would cost Him His life. And here, we get to read our Savior’s great desire as He contemplates it all. He gives everything that He has. He entrusts His greatest possession. He bequeaths His people, His disciples, into the care and keeping of His Father in heaven, along with all the saving gifts and graces we’re going to need to live in the world after His departure. That is what is going on in the passage that we’ve read together.

Revelation

And if you’ll look at what He says, first of all, in verses 6 through 9, you’ll see that He begins by reflecting on the theme of revelation. Verse 6, “I have manifested Your name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world. Yours they were, you gave them to Me, and they have kept Your Word.” We’ve seen this emphasis, haven’t we, on the electing love of the Father giving to the Son a people to save out of the world from before the dawn of history; we’ve seen it already when we look back at verse 2 for example. And here it is again. Do you see it in verse 6? “The people whom You gave Me out of the world.”

In a great sermon, Eric Alexander, who has been a mentor and model of preaching to me over the years, he illustrates this idea from the Anglican liturgy for a marriage ceremony, which actually is part of our own wedding liturgy here at First Presbyterian Church. If you’ve been at weddings here you will have heard it often enough over the years. Remember how it goes? The congregation is seated and the music begins and the doors of the sanctuary are flung wide and the bride enters on the arm of her father and he leads her down the aisle and up the steps to stand beside the groom. And the minister asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” And the father, usually with a lump in his throat manages to croak out, “I do.” And then he takes her, his daughter, the bride, by her hand and he places her hand in the hand of the bridegroom. And that is what Jesus is saying has happened to us in the eternal counsel of God if we are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Father has loved us and He puts our hands, as it were, into the hands of Christ and He says to Jesus, “I give You My beloved, My own dear child, to be Your bride, and for You to be the Bridegroom forever.” “The Church”, as Mr. Alexander said, “is the Father’s love gift to the Son.”

The Gift of Revelation

And having been given by the Father to the Lord Jesus, the Lord Jesus, now in our text, in turn gives two gifts to us. You see the first of them in verse 6. “I have manifested Your name to the people whom You have given Me.” Now that is revelation language, isn’t it? There’s a sense of course in which Jesus’ whole life and whole ministry is one single, complex act of divine self-disclosure and revelation. The apostle John put it this way in John 1:18. In an echo of Jesus’ words here, “No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” That’s why Jesus came – to make God known; to make Him manifest; to reveal Him to us in His words and works, in His life and death and resurrection, in His mighty deeds, in His loving sacrifice – Jesus shows us God.

And that’s very much what He means when He says, “I have manifested Your name” to God’s people. You may know that in the Bible God’s name is really shorthand for God’s being, His character. It is God’s very self – who He is and what He is like. And that is what Jesus unveils to us, do you see – the heart of the Father. My old theology professor, Donald Macleod, was fond of quoting Archbishop A.M. Ramsey, who said famously, “God is Christlike, and in Him there is no unChristlikeness at all.” “God is Christlike, and in Him there is no unChristlikeness at all.” That’s exactly right. You look at Jesus to see God. You know God only in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.

He manifests God’s name to us and He does it specifically – notice this in the text – through the Word of God. Verse 6, “Yours they were, You gave them to Me and they have kept Your word.” Verse 8, “I have given them the words that You gave Me.” How does Jesus manifest the Father to us? He will do it by the Word. A closed, neglected Bible leads to an overlooked and misunderstood Christ and a distant, unknown Father. But when the Word of Christ has its way in our hearts, we are led by it to know the Lord Jesus for ourselves, and in Him, we find we come to know the Father. He shows the Father’s heart to us.

And how are we to profit from the Word? How are we to be sure we don’t miss what the Word is really showing us? Well do you see what the Word requires? In the text, look at the text, verse 6 – Jesus’ disciples “kept Your Word.” And in verse 8, “I have given them the words You gave Me. They received them and have come to know in truth that I came from You and they believed that You sent Me.” So what does the Word demand of us if it is to bear fruit in our lives? It demands faith, doesn’t it? We must keep and receive the Word as truth, Jesus says, and we must believe in its great central message that the Father has sent the Son in His great love to rescue us from the destruction and devastation of sin.

It’s not enough, you see, to know the content of the Word. Jesus is saying much more than that, isn’t He? Perhaps you’ve been raised in a Christian home. You’ve been in Sunday School all your days. You know the stories. You can quote the texts. You know the verses, perhaps. But mere familiarity with the Bible is not enough, neither is it adequate simply to ascent to its propositions as statements of fact, to believe that it is true. That’s necessary, but it’s not enough. To believe that it’s true in some vague, general sense, you know, will be of no use to you when it comes to the great issue of eternity. In fact, when you stand before Christ in the last judgment, your knowledge of the truth, of it’s facts and details, and yet your rejection of the Lordship of Christ in your life will only condemn you the more. James 2:19 reminds us, doesn’t it, that even the devil believes the facts and trembles. No, we need to go even further than that. We need the Word of Christ by which Jesus reveals the Father to us and we receive it and believe it and we come to know personally, intimately. We trust and rest and rely our whole selves upon the promises of mercy and grace that the Word communicates.

So let me ask you, do you believe the Word of Christ as Christ Himself, by His Word, highlights your spiritual plight – lost in your sin, living under the judgment of God apart from a Savior? Do you believe the Word of Christ when He tells you of God’s love in providing a way of escape through the cross of Jesus Christ? Do you believe the Word of Christ when He invites you to come and lay your deadly doing down and to trust yourself wholly without reserve to the Lord Jesus to be your only Rescuer and Savior, securing your pardon and reconciling you to God? Do you believe the Word of Christ when He calls you to a life of repentance and new obedience to His commandments? It is by such means that the Son reveals the Father to us. This is what is required of us in His Word. So the first gift Jesus gives to us is the gift of revelation.

The Gift of Intercession

And that is the major emphasis of this first part from the beginning of the prayer, but there is a second and subordinate emphasis, a second gift that Jesus gifts. It is the gift of intercession. Look at verse 9. “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me out of the world, for they are Yours.” Now do you see the marvelous symmetry and coherence of the saving plan of God? The Father gives a people to His Son in eternity, then the Son comes into history in the Lord Jesus Christ and He obeys and bleeds and dies and rises specifically to save those whom the Father had given to Him. And now we learn that the Son intercedes for them, having finished His great sacrifice, and now reigning at the Father’s right hand He intercedes for these ones particularly and not for the world. The Church, after all, is the apple of His eye, the darling of His heart, the delight of His soul. And because that is true, we can be confident we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. We can be sure that right now all our sin and weakness and unworthiness notwithstanding, at the right hand of the Majesty on High there is one who ever lives to make intercession for us, who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities and who pleads our cause. It is a great token, isn’t it, of the fervor of Jesus’ love burning furnace hot in His heart for you that though face to face with the glory of the Father, He is ceaselessly bringing your name, your cause, your needs before that great throne.

And if you look at the text, you’ll notice that it’s as He sounds this note about intercession that He segues to the next major theme in His prayer because now we get to learn the content of His petitions, the things He’s asking for both in this prayer and surely in His intercession still in the glory of His Father’s nearer presence.

Preservation

Then the first theme, then, is revelation. The second in verses 10 through 13 is preservation. He starts with the need for preservation. Verse 10 says, “The people the Father gave Him are the fathers,” properly speaking, “and the Son is glorified in them.” I love that, by the way, because it says, “Here’s how Jesus thinks about His Church.” It’s not often how we think about the Church – compromised, frustrating, weak, worldly. Jesus says, “I am glorified in them. I delight in them. They give Me joy. They bring Me glory.” Maybe we need to readjust how we think about the Church and pause a little before we rush to criticism and to judgment.

But all the glory that the Church gives, all its flaws notwithstanding, to the Lord Jesus, there remains yet a challenge facing the Church. In verse 11, “I am no longer in the world,” He says. “I’m leaving. But they are in the world. I’m leaving them behind,” to be sure. Verse 12, “While I was with them in the world I kept them in Your name. None of them were lost except the one doomed to destruction” – the son of destruction. He’s referring to Judas Iscariot – “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. But now I am leaving them and my great concern is that they might be preserved.” And so He prays, “Father, keep them in Your name.” Now please understand the menace, the overtones of threat that shroud Jesus’ words when He says, “I am no longer in the world. They are in the world.” “The world,” in John’s writing especially, is not a geographical term only. Jesus isn’t saying simply, “I’m leaving and everyone else will remain on planet Earth.” “The world,” in John’s writing, has moral and ethical overtones. It’s John’s way of talking about the mass of humanity living in rebellion against God. And so when He says, “I’m leaving the Church behind in the world,” it’s like me saying, “I’m going to leave my children to camp out for the week in the exercise yard at Parchman Prison.” There’s threats on every hand! It’s a dangerous place to be. And so He prays, “Father, keep them.” He wants the Father to hold us fast, to preserve us forever.

And notice this now. He wants the Father to do it, “in Your name, which You have given to Me.” Jesus has already told us He makes known, He makes manifest, “by the Word,” by the holy Scriptures. So here, God Himself, summarized in the name, revealed in the Scriptures by the Lord Jesus, is the means by which He will hold us fast. So we are saved as Jesus makes the Father known to us through His holy Word and we are kept by the same means, you see.

Do you see what danger we are exposing ourselves to when we neglect the great instrument of our preservation – the Word of Christ by which we know our Savior who shows us the Father? There is a connection, do you see it, between a closed Bible and a faltering faith; a link between the neglect of the revelation of God in Christ through the Scriptures and staggering, stumbling Christians who fall foul of the predations of a dark and dangerous world.

Results of the Father’s Preserving Work: Unity

And before we move on, do notice the results, the two results Jesus lists of the Father’s preserving work. When the Father answers the Savior’s prayer for our keeping and our preservation, what will that look like? Well first, Jesus says there will be Christian unity. Verse 11, “Holy Father, keep them in Your name which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” We’re going to come back to this next week, God willing, in the next section where unity is the major theme, so we won’t labor it here except to say that preservation is a community project. Isn’t it? It happens in the context of the unity of the body of the Church when we are together. That’s why it’s so very important for us as we are able, as it’s safe for us to do, to be physically together, to live out and practice our Christian unity so that together under the Word of Christ we may grow and be kept by the Father in the midst of a dark and hostile world. Unity.

Results of the Father’s Preserving Work: Joy

But also joy. That’s the other thing that results when the Father keeps us. Verse 13, “These things I speak in the world that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.” Now we are, I know, we’re Presbyterians. I know you’re not smiling behind your masks! This is worship! Wipe that smile off your face! What’s worse, I’m a Scottish Presbyterian, right, so we believe in deep joy! The joke in Scotland of course is that Presbyterian joy is so deep you can’t even find it! But whether it’s Presbyterian or not, Jesus has no place for a joy you cannot find. Christianity is defective when it is altogether void of joy. Look, I’m not saying that weeping and sorrow and lament have no place. They have a large place, don’t they, both in the Scriptures and in our experience. But we have come to discover, those of us who have tasted something of the sweetness of the Gospel, that in the midst of tears and weeping and lament, there remains yet this deep, bass note that sounds of joy in the Lord Jesus Christ that nothing in our painful, heartbreaking circumstances can rob us of.

Consecration

So revelation. Preservation. What a precious gift it is when the Father keeps His people by Christ through the Word. He cultivates that preservation in the context of unity and it produces joy. How we need each other, even as we look to the Father to keep us. And then finally, there’s the climactic prayer. Everything has been building up to this – consecration or sanctification. Verse 14 acknowledges, frankly, the world hates us because we’re not of the world anymore than Jesus is of the world. We’re living in a war zone. But Jesus is not praying that we might escape the warzone like refugees, fleeing a war zone. He’s praying instead that we might be kept – notice this – “from the evil one, while we are in the world.” Verse 15, while we stay in the world, the devil and the rebel world around us, they make common cause together against Christ and against His people, and so He’s praying, you remember, just like He did for Simon Peter. “Simon, Simon, Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you.” The invincible prayers of Jesus are an adequate answer to Satan’s desire to sift His people like wheat. And what comfort there is for us in that because here we get to see how Jesus prays for us all, not just for Simon. “Father, keep them. That struggling child of God, she needs You. Father, keep her. He’s under so much pressure. There are temptations one every hand. Father, keep him.”

And it’s not just a negative prayer, is it, to be kept from the attacks of the evil one. It’s also a positive prayer that we might be sanctified. Our posture, you see, is not just defensive. We are in the world; we are trying to keep Satan at bay and the world at bay. No, no. Jesus tells us He has sent us into the world just as He Himself has been sent. We are on mission. We have been given marching orders into the fray, not away from it, and we need more than just preservation; we need sanctification that we may shine like stars in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. And so Jesus prays for our holiness.

Now notice in verse 19 in our translations an unfortunate inequity in the way the same Greek word is translated, Jesus says, “For their sakes, I consecrate Myself that they may be sanctified.” It’s actually the same word – “consecrate” and “sanctify.” Jesus says, “I consecrate Myself that they may be consecrated.” Or, “I sanctify Myself that they may be sanctified.” The point is, where do you get holiness? Don’t you want to be more holy? Me too. Don’t you hate your sin? Doesn’t it break your heart? Isn’t it frustrating you haven’t made more progress? Where do you turn to grow in godliness? It comes from Jesus. He is the sanctified one and He sanctifies. He sanctifies Himself that we may be sanctified in Him.

And again, notice what we’ve seen all the way through this prayer. The great connection between the work of Christ for us and the Word of Christ to us. “Sanctify them in the truth. Your Word is truth.” How do you go to Jesus? Where do you turn to hear Him speak and give you direction, to grow you in grace, to nourish your faith? Where will Jesus meet you that you might become more like Him? He will meet you in the pages of this book. He will meet you in the holy Scriptures. The holy Christ makes holy Christians through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who leads you into the holy Scriptures.

We suggested at the very beginning, didn’t we, that Jesus’ prayer is not unlike Second Lieutenant Pollen’s battlefield last will and testament, as our Savior goes off into this climactic battle at Calvary for our sakes. But if this is Jesus’ last will and testament, what do you do when a will is read? You obey! The will is executed. Jesus is making a bequest to you, revealing the Father, preserving you in the world, making you holy. That’s the bequest. It’s all bound up with the Word of God, the Word of Christ. How foolish we are if we do not draw from the inheritance given to us. What riches have been made over to us by our Savior and yet so many of us live in such spiritual poverty because we do not draw from the inheritance that is ours by right, by His bequest.

The revelation of God in Jesus Christ by the Word. Preservation in the name, by the Father, in the midst of the world, kept from the world and the devil through the Word of Christ. And sanctification – consecration to God that you may make a difference, an impact, may extend His kingdom in the world for His glory and praise by the Word of Christ. May God help us then to draw from this rich inheritance that God may be glorified and we may be sanctified. Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we praise You for the great work You’re doing, for the work You’re doing in us by Your Son, through Your Word. Oh, cause that work to advance. We are so weary of the world. We are so weary of sin. So weary of ourselves. Hear then the Savior’s prayer, “Sanctify them in the truth. Your Word is truth.” Sanctify us. Make us like Jesus. Do it for Your glory. Help us not to neglect the inheritance, the bequest that is ours in the holy Scriptures. For Jesus’ sake, amen.

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