John 17 - The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

We are now looking at chapter 17, and it has, since the time of the early church (Cyril of Alexandria), been called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. Whether the evangelist John regarded it as such or not, the title is very much to the point. Anyway, in the background of this title, there is the relevant fact that during the Old Covenant, it was the duty of the priest to offer sacrifices to God and, before that, to pray to him. Before Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, he prays to God for his disciples and for the whole Church that is going to be left behind.

"Father, glorify your Son" 17:1-5

Jesus’s public teaching is completed. He is about to face what will be the bitterest moment as well as the consummation of his life – his death on the cross for the sins of the world and the return to the Father’s glory.

Jesus had been given authority over all the people of the world so that, in this dark world, the sinners might in him find the way to the glory of the holy God. The light had been kindled and the road had been prepared. The One who had brought the light was about to return to the glory he had before coming to this world.

It is part of the great depths and mysteries of the Holy Trinity that the Son approaches the Father praying with humility and giving honour the Father, even if he is God from God.

Prayer for the disciples 17:6-19

As Jesus turns to pray for his own, he prays first for his disciples, especially for those who are his contemporaries and who lived with him. It is only after this that he prays for us who share the same faith. It is important to take note of this so that we shall not forget the actual situation and shroud it in a pointless idyll – the enemies of Jesus had already gathered a group, and, carrying robust weapons, these were on their way to catch the Lord. The words of Jesus must be placed in the context where the forces of hell were about to be unleashed. Seen from this perspective, his words have the power that will touch us, too, in the most difficult and distressing moments of our lives.

Who were the disciples of Jesus? They were people whom God had chosen from the world and given to Jesus. The Son had taught them everything the Father had told him, and God had made them receive that teaching. They had understood that Jesus was the the Saviour of the world, the Son sent by the Father. God’s light had been kindled in the world. But it was because of this light that the people who belonged to Jesus met with such hatred, for there is nothing that our dark world wants as badly as to quench the light of God.

So far Jesus had protected his own. Now he was leaving the world and going to the Father, and he leaves his people to be protected by God. They cannot be taken out of the world and its evils, but they can be guarded against the evil one, and this is Jesus’s petition. In other words, he prays that God may keep those who follow him as humble students of the word, who thus will stay in the Father’s glory and truth.

What about the Church? 17:20-26

The last words of Jesus’s prayer do not concern only his disciples but also the whole Church of Christ, all the people throughout the ages who believe in and distribute the word that the disciples passed on. Jesus prays for two things, first that his own may all be ‘one’, and secondly that they may yet be with him there where God is.

The Lord’s prayer for his own to be ‘one’ implied a serious problem which existed even at the time when John’s Gospel was written. The language John used was different from Paul’s, and both Jacob and Matthew had their own way of writing, too. There was tension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, and soon various wild sects were tearing the unity of the Church. But Jesus prays that all his own might form one body, be ‘one’, like the Father and Son are one. On Earth, there is only one Church, the one that Jesus Christ has prepared as his bride. All dispersion among the Christians is caused by people, and sin is the reason for it.

Hopefully, both parts of Jesus’s prayer make us ask some questions. First, if it is God’s will that there is only one Church, why are there Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, and Pentecostal Christians, let alone Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so many others? There is only one reason for the wide range of Christian denominations, and it is sin and withdrawal from God’s truth. And yet real oneness is not attained through a mere elimination of denominational boundaries, nor by accepting nearly everything. Real unity is in Christ and in his word.

We are aware that the Lutheran Church is not the one, holy, and apostolic Church the existence of which we profess in our Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, we believe that when our Lutheran churches seek to become firmly established in the written word of God and allow it to put right our human-based opinions, we are engaging in the best ecumenical work possible.

Second, Jesus is not praying that his followers might get fine houses or luxury cars but that in the end, they might all be with him in the Father’s glory. All else will eventually prove futile for us, too. Ultimately, the Christian faith is about one thing: will I end up in hell because of my sins, or will I have eternal life and salvation through the grace given to us by Christ.

Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer takes the reader into deep things that we can only touch on in this presentation. The real place of learning them is in the fellowship with God. It is there that Christ teaches the holy name of God to those whom he taught to know it.

”Why is it then that Jesus must still keep teaching us God’s name, in other words, his real Being? Because life in God is not a stagnant existence but true, eventful life. Neither is the knowledge of God a place we have reached, but we must again and again learn to recognize God’s influence in our new and often shocking circumstances. So, if it can best be learnt through Jesus’s death on the cross, we have reason to expect that Jesus will be teaching us to learn about God’s love through things in which the world will only be able to see either pointless suffering or, at the most, God’s hatred. When Jesus was expecting crucifixion, he said that ‘the same love with which you have loved me’ will abide in the believers. The cup of wrath was given to Jesus by his loving Father. God’s love, once received by the believer, will abide in him, too, as the believer will be, over and over again, taught to find it and to put his trust in it, even when facing death.” (Jukka Thurén)