by John M. Frame
Dying wishes are sacred, or so we would judge from literature, history, and our own experience. When someone we love and respect is dying and seeks to ask of us one last favor before the end, we listen intently, and we sense a deep obligation. We will usually try very hard to carry out our loved one’s dying wish, and if we cannot, or if we decide even for good reasons not to, it is often with a keen sense of sorrow.
When Jesus faced death, he did not merely wish; he prayed to his Father, as we all should do as Christians. That Jesus prays, rather than merely wishing, does not make his desires any less sacred; quite the contrary. As we read Jesus’ prayer in John 17, we sense that we are kneeling with him on holy ground. So this prayer has been called Jesus’ “high priestly prayer.” It is priestly, because like a priest Jesus is preparing sacrifice, in this case his own life, and because like a priest Jesus, even in this extreme danger, intercedes with the Father for his people. When he was preparing to suffer more than anybody has ever suffered, he was concerned for his disciples, and for us (verse 20). What amazing love!
If dying wishes are sacred, certainly Jesus’ dying prayer is the most sacred, the holy of holies. If dying wishes impose obligations, Jesus’ dying prayer imposes ultimate obligation, the highest possible obligation.
Obligation on whom? First of all, on God the Father. That sounds suspicious; how can God the Father possibly be under obligation? Well, he cannot be under obligation to someone higher than himself. But he is under obligation to himself, to his own standards, to his own integrity. He cannot act contrary to his own holiness, righteousness, or love. And, in the mystery of the Trinity, he cannot act contrary to the wishes of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Father, Son, and Spirit are perfectly one in their desires. The desire of each obligates the others, for the desire of each is the desire of each of the others. Some people are a little bit like that. My wife and I often find ourselves ordering the same item from a restaurant menu, with no prompting or discussion. On more important things, I’m afraid, we still disagree all too often. And if the truth is known, many of us are double-minded even within ourselves: we want something, but at the same time we don’t want it. But there is no double-mindedness in God, or among the persons of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit agree entirely on what to think and what to do.
So God the Father will certainly answer Jesus’ prayer. But not necessarily right away. I don’t fully understand this, so I doubt if I can explain it to you very well. But God has decided, through all eternity, to realize his own plans gradually in time. God himself is above time, and he can accomplish his purposes literally in no time at all. Or in a hundredth of a second if he chooses. We might think it might have been nice if he had completed the history of the world in five seconds: Creation in the first second, the Fall in the second, redemption in the third, evangelization in the fourth, and the consummation in the fifth. He could have done that, and there would have been some advantages in that kind of plan. For one thing, there would be no long periods of suffering; no centuries of what appears to be divine absence, no agonized longing for Christ’s return.
But for his own reasons, God determined to prolong the history of the world, by years, centuries, and millennia. That means that God’s own goals, his ultimate purposes, will not be completed right away. God intends to bring perfect righteousness to the world, but maybe not right away. He intends to fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, but maybe not right away. He intends to right all wrongs, but maybe not right away.
And this means that the godly prayers of God’s people, even the prayers of the Son of God, Jesus, even the sacred prayers that he brings to the Father before the hour of his death, even those prayers may not be answered right away. Make no mistake: God the Father will certainly answer them. In one sense, Jesus’ prayers obligate the Father. But the Father will answer them in his own time, in his own way.
But Jesus’ prayer also obligates someone else: it obligates his disciples, his church. It obligates us. Now God is sovereign; but he often brings his sovereign purposes to pass through finite means, especially through people. What mysteries we’ve been thinking about tonight! The Trinity; the delay of God’s purposes through time; now God’s sovereignty and human responsibility! God will sovereignly answer all the prayers of Jesus. But there are some things in this prayer that require a response on our part.
Not many, by the way. It is interesting to note how few requests there are in this prayer. Most of Jesus’ prayer here is not request at all; it is Jesus’ report to the Father on what he has done. Do you do that in your prayers? Do you report to God what you have done? Do you use prayer as a means of accountability, when you report to him how you have carried out his will? This was not true in Jesus’ case, but it might remind you of some duties you have left undone. Maybe we need to make fewer requests in our prayers and bring more reports.
But Jesus does make some requests. The requests he makes are much more in God’s hands than in ours. In verse 15, he calls the Father to protect us from the evil one. Certainly we cannot protect ourselves; it is the work of God to protect his people. And if we have any desire for God’s protection, it is a desire he gives us. But we do have a responsibility here. Our Lord, before his death for us, prays, not for himself, but to us; he prays that God will protect us from the evil one. Will we respect his dying prayer? If so, we will earnestly, passionately crave God’s protection from Satan. We will join with Jesus in crying out to the Father to keep us from the evil one. We will hate the evil one and all his works. And when the devil tempts us, we will resist him, with all the strength God gives us. Not that we are the ones who answer Jesus’ prayer, but because we love him above everything, and we want to agree with his every word. We want his concerns to be our concerns, his passions to be our passions, his hatreds to be our hatreds. Our beloved, dying Lord wants Satan away from us. So we too want Satan away from us. Protecting us from Satan is the work of God the Father. But can we be indifferent to the dying prayers of one who loved us beyond all measure? We must pray with him, and show by our lives that we really want his prayer to be answered.
But Jesus had another request too, and this is the request that I will focus on for the rest of this message. In verse 20, he prays for his disciples and for us; not for the disciples alone, he says, but “also for those who will believe in me through their message.” And what he asks for us is “that all of them may be one.” He wants his people to be united.
Now here we want to ask Jesus what kind of unity he is talking about. Because there are many different kinds of unity and disunity in the church. We sometimes talk about unity of doctrine, unity of purpose, unity of love and care for one another, unity of organization, so we want to know precisely what kind of unity Jesus is praying for here. In Eph. 4, Paul lists a number of unities: “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, one who is over all and through all and in all.” According to Paul, we are one because we worship one God, through one Lord Jesus Christ, in one Holy Spirit. That gives us unity with one another as members of the same family. It gives us a bond of peace, so that we don’t fight one another all the time. We have one faith, a common trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. One baptism—a sign that sets us apart from non-Christians and therefore unites us together in covenant with God. Is Jesus praying for all of these, or only some?
But Jesus doesn’t separate out all these different kinds of unity. He simply prays that his people will be one. He leaves it to us to work out the implications, the specific forms our unity will take. But he also gives us a starting point, a deep perspective on the unity of the church, an incredibly profound vision of what it means for us to be one.
In Jesus’ prayer, the most important kind of unity is our union with himself and with God the Father. Look at his amazing words from verse 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. (Compare verse 11)
And in verse 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.
In these verses, Jesus speaks first about our union with himself and the Father, then about our unity with one another. He prays that we will in him and he in us. Before unity in the church, there must be unity between the church and Jesus Christ. First of all, Christ calls us to be one in him. So over and over in the New Testament we read about being in Christ. All the benefits of salvation can be summed up in that phrase, being in Christ. God the Father forgives our sins, because we are in Christ; our sins become his, and his righteousness becomes ours. We believe in Christ, trusting him as our only comfort in life or death. We are adopted in Christ—in him we become God’s sons and daughters, members of a wonderful new family. We are holy in Christ—separate from the world, because he is our high priest.
But there is more: there is also vital union between ourselves and Christ. He actually lives in us by his Spirit, and we live in him. As Paul says in Gal. 2:20,
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
Now we tend to avoid the word mystical in our circles. But Reformed divines have sometimes used the term mystical union to describe this wonderful relationship. Over against false mysticism, it’s important to say that this union does not make us God; it does not erase the distinction between the Lord and the servant. Indeed, it underscores that distinction. Paul goes on to say in Galatians, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Even in our mystical union, there is no confusion between him and us. He is Lord, and we live by faith in him.
Nevertheless, this union is intimate, personal, rich, deep. Our bodies are temples: holy, because the Lord is there. He does his wonderful work in and through us, to light up the world with his righteousness and his gospel of salvation.
And there’s more: not only does Jesus pray that we will be one with him, he also prays that we will be one with each other. So now, at last, we’re ready to talk about the unity of the church, the unity of God’s people. The first thing is that our union with Christ is the basis for our unity with one another. We have no real unity with those outside of Christ. We may have family ties with unbelievers, we may work in their businesses, fight in their armies, pay them our taxes. But these relationships are like nothing compared to our relation to Christ and to his people. One day even our earthly families will fade away, superseded by the great family of God from all tribes and nations.
The unity of the church is the unity of all of us in the Lord Jesus. If I am in Christ, and you are in Christ, then we are one in him. If we are both in Christ, we are radically separate from the world, separated to Him. That being in Christ is the most important thing about you, and the most important thing about me. And if we have that in common, we have a relationship that goes far beyond national allegiance, far beyond common interests, hobbies, vocations, ethnicities, talents, even family ties. We have Christ in common. So we have far more in common than either of us can have with any unbeliever.
Our oneness, like our mystical union with Christ, is mysterious and deep. It is like the unity within the Trinity itself. Jesus says, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (21). Words really fail me here. We are not the Trinity—but somehow our unity images the Trinity. As the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father, and as the Father, Son, and Spirit are in us, and we in them, so we are to be in one another! I in you, you in me.
Forget the rather ludicrous physical images that this language might suggest. I can’t really get inside your skin, or vice versa. God doesn’t expect me to. The Father, Son, and Spirit don’t have a physical union either, because they are not physical beings. They are one God; we are not one human being, but many. In that way our unity is different from theirs. But beyond the physical, and what philosophers call the ontological, the unity of being, let’s ask in concrete ways how our unity can image the unity of God.
(1) First, they bring glory to one another. In the beginning of Jesus’ prayer, he says,
Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.
Then in verses 4 and 5,
I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.
The Son has glorified the Father; now the Father will glorify him. We also read elsewhere that the Spirit brings glory to Christ. And if we are to reflect the Trinity, we, like them, will glorify one another.
To glorify is to adorn. A woman’s hair is her crowning glory, says Paul; it adorns her, it makes her look wonderful. Woman is the glory of her husband-—he makes him look good, even him. When we glorify God in worship, we tell one another how wonderful, how beautiful God is; we adorn him with our praises. God’s glory is that great light that shines out from him when he appears to men. When we glorify God in our lives, we make that light shine throughout the earth, so that like Jesus we ourselves are lights in the world.
Let us glorify each other. Let us make one another look good. We can do that by helping one another to deal with sin, by helping one another with problems, by praising one another, encouraging one another. Paul in Rom. 16 glorifes Phoebe, when he says, “she has been a great help to many people, including me.” Do you glorify your brothers and sisters in Christ? Or are you, like me, sometimes tempted to put them down, to disparage their accomplishments, to injure their reputations ever so slightly, so you can make yourself look a little better by comparison? Jesus would never belittle the Father to honor himself, even though he deserved supreme honor. He humbled himself to do the Father’s will, to bring glory to Him. We need to humble ourselves, to glorify one another.
That should be true even in our corporate church life, in the way we relate to other churches, even churches of other denominations and traditions. As some of you know, I’m against denominations, although for the moment we are stuck with them. Biblical teaching about church government says nothing about denominations. There are apostles, elders, overseers, deacons, councils at times—but no denominations. In the beginning there was one church; the many denominations came about because of sin—either sin in the people who left, or sin in the people who forced them out. But as I say, we’re stuck with denominations today. It would be nice if we could say that all the true Christians in the world are in my denomination, but we know that’s not true. There are true Christians in many denominations throughout the world. Are we seeking to glorify them?
The rule in many churches is that we say mostly good things about our church or our denomination, and we say mostly bad things about other churches or denominations, especially those in other traditions. Now I know that sometimes to glorify a fellow Christian you must correct him. To glorify the Reformed Episcopal church, we will eventually have to set them straight on the principles of biblical church government. But how are we trying to do this? Through put downs? Through caustic, nasty criticism, hard-edged ridicule, peremptory condemnation? Or do we seek first to understand where our brothers are coming from, to recognize what is good in their ministry, and to correct them in such a way as to glorify the work of God in their ministry? To correct them in such a way as to make them look good to the watching world?
If we are one as Jesus and the Father are one, we will glorify one another.
(2) Secondly, we can image the Trinity by serving one another. Again, remember that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is more a report than anything else. The Father gave him a task, and he carried it out fully. He didn’t spare himself any suffering, any misery. The cup of death for sin could not pass from him. He took that awful cup of God’s wrath and drank it down to the dregs.
He revealed the Father to the people God had given him, and he protected them and kept them safe. Not one was lost except Judas the betrayer, that Scripture might be fulfilled. He brought them into the love of the Father and the Son.
Over and over in the gospels, Jesus says that he came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of the Father. His own will was perfect. Had he done his own will, his own will alone, he would still have lived a perfect life. And of course his own will was one with the will of the Father, so we wonder why he should make a negative contrast, “not my will, but yours.” But Jesus teaches us here that in his time on earth, his time of humiliation, he comes as a Servant, the Servant prophesied in Isaiah 53, for example. As God, he is Lord; as man, he is Servant. He lives the life of service that Adam should have lived. As Adam and all of us have disobeyed the Father, Jesus obeyed. For our salvation, it’s important not only that Jesus be God, but that he also be a Servant, a perfect man, able to offer himself in sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus had the right to be Lord, the right to have everyone bow to him. But he came into the world, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
When Jesus said that, he was teaching his disciples how to relate to one another, to be servants themselves. James and John, and their mother, wanted them to be rulers in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus said no;
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. (verses 42-44)
As Jesus came to serve, we are to serve one another. Over and over the New Testament stresses this. The great song of Phil. 2, showing the humiliation and exaltation of Christ—it is to show Christians how to get along, “let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
(3) Glorifying one another, serving one another, and, finally, loving one another. The Father glorified the Son, because he loved him before the creation of the world, verse 24. It is that love that Jesus wants to see in his disciples. In the last verse of our passage, he says to the Father,
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. (verse 26)
Love is that attitude of heart that motivates us to glorify and serve one another. And love is the very heart of the Christian life. The two greatest commandments are the commandments to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. The new commandment Jesus gives to his disciples is that they should love one another as he has loved them. Make no mistake, Scripture defines love by nothing less than the cross. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). We hesitate before this holy ground. We can imagine imitating Christ in many ways—but can we possibly imitate his atonement? Surely I can’t die for anyone’s sins! But yes; our love is to imitate Christ precisely as he dies for our sins. That’s the case in Phil. 2, John 3:16, and many other passages:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 John 3:16)
Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (4:11).
Love is greater than all spiritual gifts, Paul teaches us in 1 Cor. 13, and without love everything is worthless. And tradition tells us of the old Apostle John, hardly able any longer to speak, standing in the assembly with assistance, to say, “little children, love one another.”
Our theologies talk about the marks of the church, but love is the mark Jesus mentions, the mark that identifies us as Christ’s disciples. In the first centuries, the pagans noticed that love. It stuck out: how these Christians love one another. Today, the pagans tend to notice other things about us: the division, the splintering, the quarrelsome spirit. We need to learn again to love one another as Christ has loved us. We need to learn what it means to lay down our lives for one another.
Many more things can be said about John 17, and about relationships in the church, but these three will be a sufficient challenge for now. Amazingly, we can image the Trinity itself, as we glorify one another, serve one another, love one another. And that is nothing less than Jesus’ dying prayer for us.
I understand that you are beginning a new Baptist conference. That’s exciting. I love what you’re doing. I’m not a Baptist, but I seek to glorify you tonight. And to serve you in this message and to express my real love for you. You are not starting a new denomination; if you were I would have to scold you. But you are bringing otherwise independent churches and believers together, to work together on matters of common concern. That’s great. That’s a move in the direction of unity.
The world will be watching, to say nothing of Christians in other alignments. How will they think of your conference? As another bunch of feuding fundamentalists? As a group that gathers to congratulate themselves and put down the Christians outside the fold? Or will they be amazed at the love you have for one another, and for other Christians, and for the lost? Will they remark about how you selflessly strive to bear one another’s burdens, even making major sacrifices? Will they be surprised at how much you glorify one another and the rest of the church? How you give credit to others, make others look better? If so, you’ll have a Baptist conference that reflects the very Trinity, God himself, Father, Son, and Spirit. Isn’t that wonderful? To him be all the glory! Amen.