The Prayer of the Overcomer (preaching resource for 5/21/23, Easter 7)
This exegesis of John 17 provides context for the RCL reading in John for 5/21/23. It draws on multiple sources including "The Bible Expository Commentary" (Warren Wiersbe), "The New Bible Commentary," "The Parable of Joy" (Michael Card), and "The Gospel of John" (F.F. Bruce).
|"Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles" by Duccio (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
The setting of John 17 is late on Maundy Thursday evening during Holy Week, perhaps still in the Upper Room at the Last Supper, or perhaps in or near the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus met often with his disciples to pray. In any case, this chapter presents what Warren Wiersbe refers to as the “holy of holies” of the Gospels—an account of the prayer of God the Son conversing with God his Father just as Jesus is about to give his life as a ransom for us all.
This prayer makes it clear to us that Jesus truly is the Overcomer. From a human perspective his arrest later that evening and his crucifixion the next day, look like overwhelming defeat. Yet, we know better—it was the moment of Jesus’ overwhelming victory. He was, and still is, the Great Overcomer: “Take heart!” he encourages us, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The word "world" is used 19 times in this prayer, making clear the connection between chapter 17 and John 16:33. Our calling and privilege is to participate with Jesus in his prayer and in his love and life as the Overcomer. Indeed, in him we are overcomers.
Why did Jesus pray the way he did here? Certainly he was preparing for the suffering ahead. But he also had his disciples in mind (John 17:13). He prayed about their security, their joy, their unity, and their future glory. And his prayer extends to us. Jesus wants us to know all he has done for us and given to us; and all he will yet do for us, in this life and the next.
In this prayer—often referred to as Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer’—Jesus our High Priest and Lord declares four wonderful privileges we have as those who participate in the love and life of the Overcomer: we share his life, we know his name, we have his word, and we share his glory.
1. We share Jesus’ life (17:1–5)
1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”
Jesus begins his prayer by praying for himself, but in doing so he also was praying for us. His burden—his motivating passion — was the glory of God, and this glory would be realized in his finished work on the cross. The servant of God has every right to ask his Father for the help needed to glorify his name. “Hallowed be Thy name” is the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer, and it is the first emphasis in this prayer.
“Father, the time has come,” reminds us of the many times in John’s Gospel when this “time” is mentioned. Jesus lived on a divine timetable while on earth and he knew he was in the will of the Father. “My times are in your hands” (Psa. 31:15).
The important word "glory" is used several times in this prayer—referring to various “glories.” In John 17:5, Jesus refers to his preincarnate glory with the Father, the glory that he laid aside when he came to earth to be born, serve, suffer, and die. In John 17:4, he reported to the Father that his life and ministry on earth had glorified him, because he had finished the work the Father gave him to do. In John 17:1, 5, our Lord asked that his preincarnate glory be returned to him, so that the Son might glorify the Father in his return to heaven.
Jesus glorified the Father in his miracles (John 2:11; 11:40), to be sure; but he brought the greatest glory to the Father through his sufferings and death (John 12:23–25; 13:31–32). From the human point of view, Calvary was a revolting display of man’s sin; but from the divine point of view the cross revealed and magnified God’s grace and glory. Jesus anticipated his return to heaven when he referred to “completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4). This “work” included his messages and miracles on earth (John 5:17–19), the training of the disciples for future service, and most of all, his sacrifice on the cross (Heb. 9:24–28; 10:11–18).
It is on the basis of this “finished work” of Jesus that we have the gift of eternal life (John 17:2–3). The word "give" is used in one form or another in this prayer at least 17 times. Seven times Jesus states that believers are the Father’s gift to his Son (John 17:2, 6, 9, 11–12, 24). We are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as the Father’s love gift to us (John 3:16), but Jesus affirms that believers are the Father’s “love gift” to him.
“Eternal life” is an important theme in John’s Gospel; it is mentioned at least 17 times. Eternal life is God’s free gift to those who believe on his Son (John 3:15–16, 36; 6:47; 10:28). The Father gave his Son the authority to give eternal life to those whom the Father gave to the Son. From the human viewpoint, we receive this gift the moment we believe on Jesus Christ. But from the divine viewpoint, we have already been given to the Son in divine election from before the beginning of time. This is a mystery that we accept by faith.
What is this “eternal life”? It is not merely ‘everlasting life’—a non-ending progression of minutes. Rather it is a ‘kind’ (quality) of life that involves knowing God personally. And it’s not just knowing about God, but having a personal, free and intimate relationship with him in and through Jesus. It is not enough simply to “believe in God,” for “the devils [demons] also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). Our Lord’s debate with the Jewish leaders (John 8:12ff) makes it clear that people may be devoutly religious and still not know God. Eternal life is not something we earn by character or conduct; it is a gift we receive by admitting we are sinners, repenting (turning to God), and believing on Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
The Father answered his Son’s request and gave him the glory. And thus today in heaven there is a glorified Man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ—the one who took humanity up into himself, reconciled that humanity to God and took that humanity, now glorified, with himself into heaven. And so because Jesus the God-Man is glorified in heaven, sinners on earth who embrace, by faith, the union they have with him are saved and have the promise of future full glory in heaven with him. This is eternal life.
Because we share this life with Jesus, we share his victory. Because he is the Overcomer, in him we are overcomers too: “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). When we were born the first time, we were born “in Adam.” We were born losers. But when we put our trust in Jesus to be our Savior, we were born again as winners. Satan tries to obscure this precious truth of the finished work of Jesus, because he knows it is the basis of his defeat: “And they overcame him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11).
We are privileged to share Jesus’ life—the life of the Overcomer. And there is another privilege that is ours…
2. We know Jesus’ name (17:6–12)
6 "I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
Jesus reveals to us the Father by sharing with us the Father’s name. The Father’s name is one and the same as his character, which Jesus manifested to his disciples—particularly this night in the Upper Room. In the NRSV (and the NIV footnote), verse 6a reads: "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” In Hebrew culture, personal names often expressed something of the person’s character. When Jesus prays to the Father that, “I have made your name known”, he means that he has revealed God’s character (nature). One of the ministries of the Son was to declare the Father—to make him known (John1:18). Jesus did not instantly reveal the Father in a blaze of blinding glory because his disciples could not have endured that kind of experience. Rather, gradually by word and deed, Jesus revealed to them the nature of God as Father (John 16:12).
God revealed himself to Israel as the great I AM (Ex. 3:11–14). Jesus revealed this same God as Father, Son and Spirit (the triune God), proclaiming of himself as one with the Father: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35); “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12); “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11); etc. Jesus reveals God’s name by exemplifying and by proclaiming the Father. The word "Father" is used 53 times in John 13–17, and 122 times in John’s Gospel where Jesus makes it clear that the Father sent him, that he was equal to the Father, and that his words and works came from the Father.
Jesus makes it clear that knowing God as Father is the ‘place of safety’ for the believer. Father God protects his own (John 17:11–12). Thus our safety and security depends not on our own character or conduct but on the character and nature of God our Father. When he was on earth, Jesus protected his disciples and they could depend on him (John 17:12). If the Savior, incarnate in our humanity, could keep his own while he was limited to an earthly (human) existence, is he not able to protect them now that he is glorified in heaven? He and the Father, together with the Spirit, are surely able to guard and secure God’s people!
Furthermore we are secure because God’s people are the Father’s gift to his Son. Would the Father present his Son with a gift that would not last? The disciples (as Jews) had belonged to the Father by creation and covenant, but now they belonged to the Father’s Son. How precious we are in his sight! How carefully he watches over us and even now prays for us! Remember this and rejoice whenever you feel as though the Lord has forgotten you, or that his love seems far away.
Our security as believers rests in another fact: we are here to glorify Jesus (John 17:10). With all of their failures and faults, Jesus still commends his disciples with these words: “Glory has come to me through them.” Would it bring glory to God if a believer failed to make it into heaven? Certainly not! Whatever God starts, he finishes (Phil. 1:6). Indeed, God has provided the divine resources in himself for us to glorify him and be faithful. We have his word (John 17:7–8), and his word reveals to us all that we have in Jesus Christ. The word gives us faith and assurance. We have the Son of God interceding for us (John 17:9) and the Father always answers the Son’s prayers (John 11:41–42).
God also gives us the fellowship of the body of Christ, the church: “that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). The New Testament knows nothing of isolated believers; wherever you find saints, you find them in fellowship. Why? Because God’s people need each other. Jesus opened his Maundy Thursday message in the Upper Room washing the disciples’ feet and teaching them to minister to one another. In the hours that followed, these men (including confident Peter) would discover how weak they were and how much they needed each other’s encouragement.
Thus we learn from this prayer that believers, despite their weakness, are secure in Christ. Indeed, Jesus keeps safe through the Father’s name (nature) all whom the Father gives him (10:26–30). They are secure because of the nature of God, the nature of salvation, the glory of God, and the intercessory ministry of Christ.
We are privileged to share Jesus’ life and to know his name. And there is a third privilege that is ours…
3. We have Jesus’ word (17:13–19)
13 "I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
The word of God is a precious gift of God to us. The Father gave the words to his Son (John 17:8), and the Son gave them to his disciples (John 17:14) who, in turn, have passed them along to us through Holy Scripture as they were inspired to write it by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21). Thus the word is divine in origin—bringing to us the very life of God, the life of the Overcomer.
How does the word of God enable us to overcome the world? Three ways:
a. It gives us his joy (17:13)
“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). We commonly think of Jesus as “a man of sorrows” (Isa. 53:3), and indeed he was; but he was also a person of deep abiding joy. John 17:13 is the very heart of this prayer given in the shadow of the cross, and its theme is joy! Jesus had referred to his joy already (John 15:11) and had explained that joy comes by transformation (John 16:20–22). Joy also comes from answered prayer (John 16:23–24). Now he made it clear that joy comes from the God’s word. The believer does not find joy in the world but in the word of God. Like John the Baptist, we rejoice greatly when we hear the Bridegroom’s voice (John 3:29).
Jesus was a man of joy and revealed his joy to others. It was not the fleeting levity of a sinful world but the abiding enjoyment of the Father’s person and word. He did not depend on outward circumstances but on inward spiritual resources that were hidden from the world. This is the kind of joy we have as we share his love and life through his word: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart's delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty (Jer. 15:16).
b. It assures us of his love (17:14)
The world hates us, but we are able to confront this hatred with God’s own love, a love imparted to us by the Spirit through the word. The world hates us because we do not belong to its system (John 15:18–19) and will not be conformed to its practices and standards (Rom. 12:2). The word reveals to us what the world is really like; the word exposes the world’s deceptions and dangerous devices. The world competes for the Father’s love (1 John 2:15–17), but the word enables us to enjoy the Father’s love.
c. It imparts to us his power (17:15–17)
The focus of this part of Jesus prayer is the protection (sanctity) of his disciples. Though we are in the world we are not to of the world. We are not to live like the world. Sometimes we think it would be easier if we were “out of the world,” but this is not true. Wherever we go, we take our own sinful self (what Paul calls the ‘flesh’ or ‘fleshly nature’) with us, and the powers of darkness follow us. Spiritual isolation does not lead to spiritual victory.
True sanctification (being set apart for God) comes through the ministry of God’s word through his Spirit. “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me…” (John 15:3-4a). God set us apart and we are called to remain (abide—see John 15) there. As we grow in faith, we experience more and more the sanctification that is already ours in Christ. We love what Jesus loves more and more. We want more and more to serve with him. All of this growth comes to us through God’s word abiding and growing in us—touching every part of our inner person.
This word is accessible to us through Scripture. And it is not enough merely to study the Bible to learn doctrinal truths. Scripture is God’s word to us that we might encounter and love Jesus, the Living Word of God, who is the truth and the life. Learning and loving leads to living as the Spirit enables us to participate fully in Jesus’ love and life. This is how we glorify God in this present evil world.
And so the word imparts to us God’s joy, love and power. And these transform us from the inside out, providing all we need to serve him as witnesses in this world (John 17:18–19). Our sanctification in Christ is not for the purpose of selfish enjoyment or boasting; rather it is so that we might represent Christ in this world and thus draw others to him. Jesus set himself apart for us, and now we are set apart for him and for the world. The Father sent Jesus into the world, and now sends us as his emissaries into the same world. Jesus is now “set apart” in heaven, praying for us that our witness will bear fruit as many repent and turn to the Lord who is their life.
We are privileged to share Jesus’ life, to know his name, and to have his word. And there is a fourth privilege that is ours…
4. We share Jesus’ glory (17:20–26)
20 "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them."
Here Jesus focuses our attention on the future as he prays for the whole church throughout all ages. He has already prayed about our security and sanctity; now he prays for our unity—that we would experience a unity in the Spirit that is like the oneness of the Father and the Son through the Spirit. Christians may belong to different fellowships, but we all belong to the Lord and to each other.
What is the basis for Christian unity? It is the person and work of Jesus Christ and his glory (John 17:2–5). He has already given his glory to us (John 17:22) and he promises that we will experience that glory in its fullness with him in heaven (John 17:24). All true believers have God’s glory within, no matter what they may look like on the outside. Christian harmony is not based on the externals of the flesh but the internals and eternals of the Spirit in the inner person. We must look beyond the elements of our first birth—race, color, abilities, etc.—and build our fellowship on the essentials of our new birth in Christ.
As we grow in the Lord, the glory within begins to grow and to reveal itself in what we say and do and the way we say and do it. People do not see us and glorify us; they see the Lord and glorify him (Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 6:19–20). One of the things that most impresses the world is the way Christians love each other and live together in harmony. It is this witness that our Lord wants in the world “that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). The lost world cannot see God, but they can see Christians; and what they see in us is what they will believe about God. If they see love and unity, they will believe that God is love. If they see hatred and division, they will reject the message of the Gospel.
In John 17:25–26 there are no petitions. Jesus simply reported to his Father about his ministry in the world, and made several declarations that are important to us: He declared that the world does not know the Father, but that we believers know him because the Son has revealed the Father to us. The world certainly has many opportunities to get to know the Father, but it prefers to go on in blindness and hardness of heart. Our task as Christians is to bear witness to the lost world and share God’s saving message.
Jesus also declares the importance of truth and love in the church. Believers know God’s name (nature) and even share in that divine nature. Jesus makes it clear that truth and love go together (see Eph. 4:15). It has well been said that truth without love is brutality, but love without truth is hypocrisy. The mind grows by taking in truth, but the heart grows by giving out in love. Knowledge alone can lead to pride (1 Cor. 8:1), and love alone can lead to wrong decisions (see Phil. 1:9–10).
How wonderfully encouraging it is to us to listen in on Jesus’ prayer to the Father on our behalf. We are so privileged as God’s children adopted by grace. In that privileged position we share Jesus’ life, we know Jesus’ name, we have Jesus’ word, and we share Jesus’ glory. Now, what shall we do with what we have been given? Let us be motivated by Jesus’ priorities. Indeed in this prayer his priorities are evident: the glory of God; the sanctity of God’s people; the unity of the church; and sharing the Gospel with a lost world. Let our focus be the same. Let us share fully in the heart and work of Jesus who is the Great Overcomer. By God’s grace we will one day say with Jesus, “I have glorified you on the earth; I have finished the work which you gave me to do” (John 17:4).