Read John 17:1-19
I want to continue looking at prayer because, if there is one thing that will make a difference in the life of our church, it is prayer. It is not my leadership that will make the difference. It is not coming up with some clever strategy. It is prayer. We need to be a church built on prayer. Everything we do; every decision the elders (or anyone else) makes needs to be soaked in prayer. The people who are most powerful in the congregation are not necessarily the leaders but those who prayer!
But we are also approaching Easter – the most holy time in the church year – and it is important that we turn our hearts and minds towards Calvary
So, I looked at the prayers of Jesus close to Easter – Jesus’ prayers on the Thursday night at the Last Supper and on the Friday morning from the Cross. Here’s what I found.
At the Last Supper, Jesus said that He had prayed for Peter.
Also, at the Last Supper, we have the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayer – the prayer that occupies the whole of John 17.
After the Last Supper, there was the tormented prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed that He wouldn’t have to go to the Cross, but then came to a point of peace about doing it.
And then, on the Friday morning, we have the seven things that Jesus said from the cross. They are not all prayers. Some of them clearly are and are explicitly addressed to God. Some of them are not prayers but I want to consider them anyway because they reveal the heart of Jesus.
One thing that I noticed as I looked at that list of prayers was how many of them were prayers for other people. And the thing that makes that even more amazing is the context. As I said, these are all prayers from the Thursday night and the Friday morning of Easter. In other words, when Jesus was facing, or actually enduring, the most horrific moments of His life; when He was facing the prospect of crucifixion and even when He was actually nailed to that cross, Jesus prayed for others.
I struggle to understand how any human being can do that and yet it illustrates the character of Jesus. I would have thought that He would have been totally consumed with His own situation – that all His thoughts would have been on what was just ahead of Him or on what He was actually experiencing.
If we look at that list of prayers, Jesus does also pray for Himself. I am not suggesting for a minute that He didn’t pray for Himself, or that we shouldn’t. Quite the contrary, Jesus’ example here shows how right it is to pray for ourselves but it emphasises the selflessness of Jesus even more than in the midst of great personal need, He still prayed for others.
Let’s look at those prayers in order.
Luke 22:31-32 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Apparently the word ‘you” is plural in the first part of that passage and singular in the second part. In other words, Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, Satan demanded to have you all that he might sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith might not fail. And when you, Simon, have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Satan had demanded to be able to sift all of the twelve like wheat. Obviously that means to test them severely to separate the good from the bad. I don’t know if Peter felt insulted that Jesus felt that he needed particular prayer or complimented that he was singled out. Who knows? But Jesus knew the particular temptation that Simon Peter would face – the temptation to dissociate himself from Jesus and say that he didn’t know Him. Out of the group, Jesus was conscious of the individual. He warned Peter, during the Last Supper, that Peter would deny Him before the cock crowed three times. He knew that Peter would be powerfully tempted by Satan and that he would fail – and then feel terrible about his failure. So, what an amazing thing that Jesus told him that He had prayed for Him. What an encouragement too that Jesus knew that Peter would “turn again” – would repent – and that he would have a ministry of strengthening his brothers even after such a catastrophic failure. How amazing is it that Jesus was conscious that Peter was going to go through a tough time – nothing compared with Jesus’ tough time – but Jesus knew that Peter was going to be in trouble and so Jesus Had taken the time to pray and to encourage him.
The next specific prayer was the prayer from John 17. The Passover meal must have been hugely significant for Jesus. The disciples, at this stage would not have understood, but Jesus would have been only too aware of the parallels between the events of the Passover, when the Jews were rescued out of Egypt by virtue of the blood on the lamb being applied to the door frames of their homes so that the angel of death passed over those homes, and the events of the next few hours when He, the Lamb of God would be slain so that by His blood all who trust in Him might be saved. Every detail of the Passover would have been poignantly relevant for Him and yet He was able to give thanks (We have the words: “when He had given thanks” He broke the bread) and took that occasion to minister to the disciples. The whole evening really was for their benefit. Jesus was preparing them for what was ahead and readying them to continue His ministry without Him. He told them not to be afraid; He told them about heaven; He told them about the Holy Spirit who would help them. He instituted Communion, as a gift to the church, and as a means by which generations of Christians would remember Him and receive God’s grace.
It was all about providing for them when He would no longer be physically present, and part of that was to pray for them – at length. The first few verses are Jesus’ request that God glorify Him. It is as if Jesus says, “Father, this is it! This is the moment. I have glorified You. Please now glorify me.” It is as if He is putting Himself into God’s hands.
He said, “I have accomplished the work You gave me to do.” What can that mean? He hadn’t yet gone to the cross and that surely was the primary work He had been given. I suspect He is referring to the second most important aspect of His mission – and that was to make disciples. He prayed about how He had invested into the lives of these men. He had nurtured and trained them. That, I suspect, was the work that He had now completed.
Even as Jesus prayed that God might glorify Him, His focus was on those men and the rest of the passage we read is a prayer for them – not for Jesus Himself but for the disciples. He prayed about how God had given them to Him out of the world; about how He had taught them and they had come to believe.
In v.9 Jesus said, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” There is no doubt that Jesus loves the world but this prayer was more specific. It was prayer for His disciples. Then He prayed that God would keep them; that they would be united. He prayed that they would have joy. With all the things that Jesus must have had on His mind, which were the opposite of joyful, He prayed that the disciples would have joy. He said He didn’t want them taken out of the world but that God would protect them in the world. He prayed that God would sanctify them – transform them, make them holy – and then He sent them into the world. Then Jesus said that it was for their sake – for their sanctification in truth – that He consecrated Himself. He was about to die. It was for them.
I don’t know if you know Stu Crosson who is the vicar of St Matthew’s, Anglican. I meet with Stu each week and we pray together. He preached on John 17 last week and he pointed out that Jesus says that we are saved out of the world; we are still in the world but we are not of the world, and we are sent back into the world in mission. That is all in this prayer.
We didn’t read the whole prayer. Immediately after the segment we read, Jesus said, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” During the Last Supper Jesus prayed for everyone who would believe through the preaching of these apostles – in other words us! Only hours before His death, Jesus prayed for you. Do you marvel that, when Jesus could have been preoccupied with His own situation, He thought about you and prayed for you?
The next prayer was in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we get a picture of what was really going on for Jesus. He was utterly tormented. Matthew says that Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled”. Jesus Himself said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…” He cried out to His Father not to have to endure the Cross. Mark says He was ‘Greatly distressed and troubled”. Luke says that Jesus was in agony and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground. He prayed for Himself.
There is nothing wrong with praying for ourselves. If we follow Jesus’ example, we will pray for ourselves. Prayer is an act of humility. Prayer says, “I need help. I am inadequate. I am lost.” To not pray demonstrates a prouder attitude that says, “I can cope by myself.” Praying is an act of humility. We should pray for ourselves. But, again, this illustrates the depth of Jesus’ anguish and therefore how surprising it is that He should spend so much time praying for others.
The next morning, on the Cross, Jesus spoke seven times.
|Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.||Luke 23:34||Prayer||Jesus’ concern for those who were killing Him|
|Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise||Luke 23:34||Jesus’ concern for the thief’s salvation|
|[To Mary] Woman, this is your son. [To John] This is your mother.||John 19:26-27||Jesus’ concern for His mother’s wellbeing|
|My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?||Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34||Prayer||Jesus’ own spiritual suffering|
|I thirst||John 19:28||Jesus’ own physical suffering|
|It is finished||John 19:30||Jesus’ completion of His mission|
|Father, into your hands I commit my spirit||Luke 23:46||Prayer||Jesus’ faith in God|
Three of those (the first, the middle and the last) are quite obviously prayers but look again at what was on Jesus’ mind. The first three are all about other people. He prayed for the forgiveness of those who at that very moment were killing Him! He spoke words of salvation and assurance to the penitent thief beside Him. He put His mother into John’s hands that she might be cared for. He then expressed the unbearable spiritual pain of being separated from His Father – because of our sin. He expressed His physical torment by crying out just two words: “I thirst.” After six hours, He came to the point where He had done all that had been asked of Him. He went to the cross and died for the world. He was able to say, “It is finished! I have done it.” Lastly, He expressed His faith in His Father when He said, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.”
Jesus’ nature is to be thinking of others in the midst of all His own torment. I find that incredible but my goal, as a disciple, is to also be like Jesus – as is yours. Can we learn something from this example? Can we learn something about our prayers not being consumed with ourselves but, no matter what is happening for us, still being conscious of what others are facing, and lifting them up before God?
Let’s just finish by reviewing the things that Jesus saw as being important.
- He prayed for God’s protection for one man who would endure a severe testing, and would fail. We have opportunities to pray for people who are going through difficult, testing times
- He prayed for the future mission of His disciples. There are many people involved in some form of ministry who are relying on us to pray for them.
- He prayed for people to know God’s forgiveness – even the people who hurt Him most. Maybe there are people who have hurt us but we can pray for them and for their forgiveness.
- He was concerned that the thief receive salvation and dying knowing that he had been saved. We need to pray for the salvation of many people, maybe in our families, certainly in our community.
- He looked with compassion on His mother and arranged for her wellbeing. Let’s make sure we pray for people who are needy. We have many opportunities. Let’s take them.
Look at those prayers. Are they the concerns that also motivate us to pray for others even in the midst of our own genuine neediness?