The Context of Jesus’ Prayer (John 17)

by Andreas Köstenberger

While Jesus’ prayer in John 17 has traditionally been dubbed His High Priestly Prayer, others have called it “the Lord’s Prayer,” because Jesus here engages in one of the longest recorded prayers in the Gospels. This is noteworthy also, since John’s gospel does not include the “Lord’s Prayer”—perhaps better named “the disciples’ prayer”—which Jesus taught His disciples at their request and which is included in both Matthew and Luke (Matt. 6:9–13Luke 11:2–4). On the reasonable assumption that John knew the earlier Gospels when he wrote his, one may surmise that, rather than featuring the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew or Luke, he recorded Jesus’ final prayer before His crucifixion instead.

Note also that John, immediately after Jesus’ final prayer, refers to a “garden” that Jesus and His followers entered after crossing the Kidron ravine, shortly before Jesus was taken into Roman custody (18:1–2). While John does not give the garden’s name, readers of the earlier Gospels will have no difficulty inferring that it was Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed just before His arrest (Matt. 26:36–46Mark 14:32–42Luke 22:40–46). In these earlier Gospels, we’re told that Jesus pleaded with the Father three times, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44Mark 14:36, 39, 41Luke 22:42). John, it appears, significantly expands our knowledge of what Jesus prayed just before entering the garden that night.

The Context

The account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane in the first three Gospels thus provides a fascinating canonical backdrop to John’s account of Jesus’ final prayer. But what is its context in John’s gospel? John essentially divides his account of Jesus into two dramatic acts, which scholars have dubbed the “Book of Signs” (chs. 2–12) and the “Book of Glory/Exaltation” (chs. 13–21). In some ways, reading the two halves of John’s gospel is therefore like watching a theater performance or football game with an intermission or halftime. In the first half, Jesus is shown to engage in a series of breathtaking signs, ranging from turning water into wine at a Jewish wedding (ch. 2) to raising a man named Lazarus from the dead (ch. 11). Tragically, however, the Jewish nation rejects her Messiah (12:36–41).

When the curtain opens (or the teams take the field again) in the second half of John’s gospel, the setting has markedly changed. Jesus has now gathered the believing remnant—the Twelve, His new messianic community (called “his own” in 13:1; see 1:11)—and John adopts a postresurrection, exaltation vantage point. Thus the Johannine “Book of Exaltation” opens as follows (note the separate preamble, mirroring the introductory prologue in 1:1–18):

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. . . . Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper (John 13:1–4).

The well-known foot washing scene follows, in which Jesus modeled His love for His own, the very love He would shortly demonstrate when dying on the cross for their sins (19:30; see 3:16). In this way, the foot washing serves as a “sneak preview” of the cross (13:1: “he loved them to the end,” whereby “to the end” likely means both “till the very end” and “to the fullest extent”).

Chapters 13–17 of John’s gospel are almost entirely unique and depict Jesus’ Last Supper with the twelve Apostles (note that John does not explicitly refer to Jesus’ institution of the new covenant in His body and blood, presupposing the Synoptic Gospels, though the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 may mirror the Last Supper). Only here do we find Jesus’ parting instructions to His closest followers, including directives regarding the coming Holy Spirit (chs. 14, 16) and instructions on how to abide in Christ after His departure (ch. 15). The overall structure of chapters 13–17 (called the Farewell or Upper Room Discourse), which precede the Johannine passion narrative, is as follows. John 13:1–30 narrates the foot washing as a sort of narrative preamble to both the Farewell Discourse and the entire Book of Exaltation (including the passion narrative in chs. 18–21).

Then, once the community is cleansed and Judas the betrayer has left the room (13:30), Jesus turns to instructing the Eleven in the Farewell Discourse proper, which spans from 13:31 to 16:33. Jesus’ words are occasionally interrupted by questions from His disciples (e.g., 13:36–37 [Peter]; 14:5 [Thomas], 8 [Philip], 22 [the other Judas]), though for the most part it is Jesus who prepares His followers for life apart from His physical presence with them. Doubtless Jesus’ followers thought losing their beloved Master would be utterly disastrous; yet, He tries to convince them that it will actually work out for the better. Once He had passed from the scene, He—in conjunction with the Father—would send the Spirit to indwell believers. In this way, rather than Jesus being with them, the Spirit would be in them, leading to an intensified and even more powerful divine presence in their midst and even in their innermost being.

Of course, as New Testament believers, we who have put our faith in Christ and in His death on the cross on our behalf have personally experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit, but for the disciples in the Upper Room, the fullness of the Spirit’s ministry was still future. Here, we see Jesus telling them what was soon going to take place at the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2; see John 20:22, where Jesus acts out this reality in a preliminary fashion when commissioning His followers). Jesus ends His instructions by illustrating the disciples’ experience of temporary grief at His crucifixion with a woman’s experience of giving birth: while it is painful in the short run, that pain soon gives way to joy when the baby is born (16:16–33). Similarly, the disciples will briefly grieve over Jesus’ death but will soon be overjoyed when they see Him risen from the dead.

With this, Jesus concludes, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (16:33). In this way, Jesus reassures His followers in view of the upcoming tribulation and anticipates His victory over the world and Satan, “the ruler of this world” (12:31; 14:30; 16:11).

The Prayer Itself

In the New Testament, it is primarily the book of Hebrews that sets forth and expands on Jesus’ high priestly role. The New Testament as a whole depicts Jesus in His three roles as Prophet, Priest, and King. Regarding His prophetic office, Jesus acts as a Prophet when clearing the temple at His first visit to Jerusalem at the occasion of the first Passover recorded in John’s gospel (2:13–22). In keeping with the psalmist’s portrait, Jesus is shown to be consumed with passion for God’s glory and the purity of people’s worship (John 2:17; see Ps. 69:10). The temple is Jesus’ “Father’s house” (John 2:16; see Luke 2:49), the place where He—the messianic Bridegroom (John 3:9)—will go to prepare a place for His followers after His departure (14:2–3).

Also, when people see the messianic sign Jesus has performed when feeding the five thousand, they say, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14, emphasis added), in keeping with the expectation of the arrival of a “prophet like Moses” (Deut. 18:15–19). Note, however, that at the temple clearing, Jesus is rejected and pronounces judgment on the Jewish nation, and when recognized as “the Prophet who is to come into the world,” He withdraws, “perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:14–15). Thus, as John remarks regarding Jesus just before His performance of one of His messianic signs in Galilee, “a prophet has no honor in his own hometown” (4:44; see Matt. 13:57Mark 6:4Luke 4:24). So, in John’s gospel, Jesus is indeed a Prophet, but One who is rejected both by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and by His own people in the Galilean north.

With regard to Jesus’ role as King, we’ve just seen that people, right after the feeding of the five thousand, were going to compel Jesus to be their king by force (John 6:15). Later, at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem just before the crucifixion, Jesus mounts a donkey and rides into the city in Solomonic fashion (12:12–19; see 1 Kings 1:38), emblematic of His regal humility (John 12:14) and in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s prophecy, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (v. 15; see Zech. 9:9). Large crowds come out to meet Him, waving palm branches in a gesture of Jewish nationalism—nearby Jericho was known as “the City of Palms,” and palm branches were symbols of Jewish national pride—and crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13).

And yet, just as people here hail Jesus as their King, a similar crowd soon thereafter joins the Jewish authorities in their condemnation of Jesus. When Pilate presents Jesus to them after a mock trial, saying, “Behold your King!” they cry out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” (19:14–15). And when Pilate retorts, “Shall I crucify your King?” the chief priests chillingly answer, “We have no king but Caesar” (v. 15). After pronouncing the “guilty” verdict, Pilate has a trilingual sign made that says, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” and has it affixed to the cross, indicating the charge against Jesus (v. 19). Still not satisfied, the Jewish authorities try to prevail upon the Roman governor to alter the inscription so that it says, “This man said, ‘I am King of the Jews,’ ” but Pilate brushes them aside (vv. 21–22). Thus, in a deep and tragic irony, Pilate affirms what the Jews reject—Jesus’ role as King. Just as Jesus is the true Prophet despite people’s rejection of Him, so also He is truly their King, their rejection of Him notwithstanding.

The priestly office of Jesus is not explicitly developed in John’s gospel to the same degree as His roles as Prophet and King. Nevertheless, His death on the cross is presented in sacrificial terms. He is “the Lamb of God” who dies to “take away the sins of the world” (1:29, 36); He is the “Good Shepherd” who gives His life for His “sheep” (10:15, 17–18). As the Jewish high priest that year, Caiaphas rightly—albeit unknowingly—prophesied, Jesus was the “one man” who died for the sins of the people; thus, not only the Jewish people, but also the gentiles could be offered salvation (11:50–52; see 10:16). By fulfilling this priestly, intercessory function—paradoxically serving both as High Priest and as the perfect sacrifice—it was truly Jesus who served as High Priest even though Caiaphas formally held that office.

Also, the theme of Passover constantly accompanies John’s depiction of Jesus’ mission, indicating that Jesus fulfilled Passover symbolism in conjunction with Israel’s exodus and deliverance from bondage in Egypt. In this vein, John would doubtless have echoed Paul’s declaration that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). In all these ways, John presents Jesus as the true Prophet, Priest, and King, despite His being rejected by the people. In fact, people’s rejection of Him as Prophet, Priest, and King was an integral part of His messianic mission (see John 12:38–41). It is within this framework that John casts Jesus as uttering His final prayer where He is shown to intercede, first for Himself (17:1–5), then for His followers (17:6–19), and finally for those who would become believers through the witness of His first followers (17:20–26).

Jesus’ Disposition

Jesus’ stance at the very outset of His prayer—which concludes the Johannine Farewell Discourse—is marked not only by sinlessness but also by selflessness. Strikingly, in His final hour, Jesus is concerned not merely about completing His own messianic mission but also for the spiritual wellbeing and future mission of His followers. In this, He takes on the priestly posture of intercessor. He is concerned “to give eternal life to all whom you [the Father] have given him,” which is to know both the only true God and Jesus whom He has sent (John 17:2–3). He is concerned also to bring glory to the Father rather than seeking to accrue glory for Himself (vv. 4–5).

Jesus did not come to take—to pursue His own agenda or to seek to increase His own stature—but rather to give: to give eternal life to lost sinners and to give glory to the Father who sent Him on His life-giving mission. In having regard for others, as already demonstrated at the foot washing, Jesus serves as an example for believers (John 13:15–16; see Phil. 2:1–11). According to Jesus’ “new commandment,” we are to love each other as He loved us (John 13:34–35). Jesus’ example of selflessness and supreme regard for others—His boundless self-giving love for others—proves extremely convicting in a world where self-promotion and self-interest are the order of the day, even among many professing Christians.

Jesus is also concerned that the Father keep those whom He has entrusted to Him spiritually safe in a world that hates both Him and them: “Keep them in your name . . . that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). The disciples are in the world but not of it (vv. 11, 14, 16). Jesus has already given them God’s Word (v. 14) and will soon send His Spirit. His prayer is not that the Father would take believers out of the world but that He would preserve them while they remain in the world—that He “keep them from the evil one” (v. 15). Therefore, His prayer is for believers’ consecration—their sanctification—through the truth of God’s Word (v. 17).

What is more, their consecration is not for selfish purposes so they can bask in their own holiness. No, it is for the purpose of mission (John 17:18). This missional purpose of sanctification is often overlooked, which is highly unfortunate, because not only should sanctification result in mission, but, conversely, mission must be carried out by sanctified people—people who are Spirit-indwelt and obedient to God’s Word, and people who love one another and are unified in their common allegiance to Christ and their purpose in mission to the world (vv. 20–26; see Eph. 4:1–6). The believing community’s unified mission, undergirded by Jesus’ Spirit-wrought love for each other, is therefore the underlying vision of Jesus’ final prayer in John 17.

Andreas Köstenberger – Dr. Andreas Köstenberger is theologian in residence at Fellowship Raleigh Church. He is the author, editor, or translator of over 60 books and served as editor of the Journal of the Theological Society.

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