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THE GREATEST PRAYER IN HISTORY

My Favourite Scripture Passages

John 17:1-21
1st May 2005

If you could overhear the secret prayer of someone who dearly cares for you, would not that make a difference to how you live? A boy heard his mother sobbing in her room asking God to help him with a temptation he faced, tiptoed away with a resolve to be strong. Like him, we can overhear Jesus praying for us. Jesus devoted Himself to prayer. We read: “very early in the morning, long before daylight, Jesus got up and left the house. He went out of the town to a lonely place where

He prayed.” Mark 1:35 He was at prayer frequently on such occasions as:

  • when He came up out of the baptismal waters;
  • while He faced temptation in the wilderness;
  • before He chose the twelve to train as disciples;
  • after the sending out seventy believers in mission;
  • whenever He touched someone to heal them;
  • at the time of His transfiguration on Mt Hermon;
  • as He was approaching His passion in Jerusalem;
  • while He introduced the last Supper to His disciples;
  • when He was in Gethsemane preparing for death;
  • while He was nailed to the Cross in excruciating pain;
  • as He died His last words were in prayer to His Father;
  • after His resurrection for those who believed in Him.

At every point of His life, Jesus prayed. One of the few memories of Jesus found outside the Gospels says: “In His life on earth, Jesus made His prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God who could save Him from death. Because He was devoted and humble, God heard Him. But even though He was God’s Son, He learnt through His sufferings to be obedient.” Hebrews. 5:7

When Jesus faced the final crisis in His life during those events that lead to His death, Jesus prayed. He prayed alone. He prayed with His disciples. He prayed in the Upper Room. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed on the Cross. He discovered through His prayers and suffering a way of redemption and positive achievement, whereas we moderns would have collapsed through exhaustion and despair. We do not understand that prayer is also potent opposition. He would have prayed in private, because He knew the power of prayer. We moderns would have tried to avoid the Cross. But Jesus went into an olive orchard and prayed. That prayer is the greatest in history.

John 17 is a favourite scripture passage, because it is the anguished prayer of our Lord, overheard by John who was also praying nearby, but not as deep into the Garden as Jesus. Here is a remarkable record, the last prayer of the best man who had ever lived, overheard in the stillness of the dark night. We are overhearing a heart wrenching prayer, and it was for us! We are struck by the extraordinary simplicity of the language. There are some who struggle with prayer seeking to speak to God as if He were a teacher of English and others who write their prayers using words which I never hear in their common speech. We really do not have to pray like that. Jesus prays with simple words. We are also struck by the shape of the prayer. Like the Lord’s Prayer there is a pattern, for He starts with God and His concerns, then for His own concerns, and finally, His intercessions for others. He speaks of God as “Father” v1, then “Holy Father” v11, then “righteous Father” v25. There are three concentric circles of concerns, each wider than the one before.

The first circle of concern is with Jesus Himself; the second circle of concern is with His friends and followers; and the third circle of concern is with those who will believe in Him as His church through the witness of the disciples. It is His prayer for those in the widest circle of concern that I would concentrate on now. What was it that Jesus, in His greatest prayer, asked from the Father for us who believe in Him through the disciples’ witness?

1. IN A SEGREGATED WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR UNITY.

Our world is segregated across scores of lines. We are divided by race, religion, colour, class, creed, status, sex, economic circumstance, disability, age, employment, social standing, family ties, town of origin, place of education and so on. We Australians like to think we are all equal mates, with no barrier or bar to anyone. But scratch us and old antagonisms, pre-judices, snobberies and divisions come out. I know clubs in Sydney that have no regulations discriminating against anyone but by amazing coincidence no member is ever a Jew, or Chinese, or coloured, or Aborigine, or poor, or female, or disabled, or in any other category of the unwanted. Ours is a segregated society. Jesus prays that in a segregated society the church may be one. The church must be one place where rich and poor, black and white, brown and yellow, educated and ignorant, male and female, ethnic and Caucasian, migrant and aboriginal, young and old, may be found both in congregations and in leadership. I am proud of the great diversity of this congregation in that regard. Jesus in his last hours prays: “I pray also for those who believe in me because of their message. I pray that they may all be one.” v20

We usually take this to mean that Christians should be united instead of denominationally divided. But Jesus is not advocating some ecclesiastical carpentry tacking one denomination onto another. Nor is He talking of a union based upon compromise where beliefs do not matter. Nor is He talking about a marriage of convenience between churches with falling member-ships. He is talking about “being one” a spiritual conviction that binds us together which is that inner unity we have with each other over all those worldly segregations that divide us. That includes a oneness that overcomes the racial barrier. There is no place for racial separation in the church. That includes a oneness that overcomes the economic barrier. There is no place for economic superiority in the church. That includes a oneness that overcomes social barriers. There is no place for snobbery in the church. Jesus prays in a world of segregation we might be one.

2. IN A SINFUL WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR HOLINESS.

He prays: “Father. May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you.” v21 That is the nature of our unity together. It is a unity of spiritual conviction, harmony, and integration like that of the Father and the Son. They possessed separate identities, yet one nature, and separate functions yet one purpose. It is that spiritual oneness that holds us together in a world that is falling apart. It is that spiritual nature that brings us in holiness into a world that is sunk in sinfulness. In this prayer, Jesus uses two phrases: “in the world” and “in the Father”. Jesus had been “in the world” but as He approaches the Cross, He leaves the world to be wholly identified “in the Father”: “And now I am coming to you; I am no longer in the world.” v11

Christians live in the world, but our destiny lies in our Father. Here is great insight on how we must live. At this stage in our spiritual progress, like Jesus during his time in Jerusalem, we live in the world, yet we shall live in the Father. To live “in the world” means to live in a society that is apart from God. It is the world that is perishing as opposed to the world of God that abides forever. It is the natural order of humanistic man, where man is the measure of all things, and where our hedonistic satisfaction is the chief purpose of life. It is the secular society that has no room for God.

Yet God so loved this world, He sent His only Son to redeem it. Those of us who have been redeemed now live in the world, but we live in God who transcends this world. We are in this world but our destiny is not here. Jesus never tried to escape the sinful world in which He lived. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, forgave a adulterer, enjoyed a wedding feast, and died between two thieves. He was in the world, totally involved with sinners. He said, “I am come to call sinners to repentance.” Yet He was not of the world. He lived a life of transparent holiness. No one could accuse Him of any sin. He was utterly untouched by any scandal. His enemies were silenced by His purity of thought and deed, even upon the Cross. He was in the world but not of the world. So are we who believe in Him. Jesus prayed not that we might be taken out of the world, but that we will be kept from the Evil One in the world by holiness of living. Nothing can so shame dirt as cleanliness, nor put darkness to flight better than light.

So He prays for His disciples: “Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one just as you and I are one. While I was with them I kept them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me. I protected them and not one of them was lost except the man who was bound to be lost so that the scripture might come true. And now I am coming to you, and I say these things in the world so that they might have my joy in their hearts in all its fullness. I gave them your message and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world. I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the Evil One. Just as I do not belong to the world, they do not belong to the world. Dedicate them, to yourself by means of the truth; your Word is truth.” v11–17

Jesus prays for His disciples that they might be one, that they may have His joy, and that God will keep them from the Evil One. He prays they will be holy in a sinful world, and the secret of holy living lies in dedicated study of His word, the truth. So He prays for us, not that we will live a life cloistered from all wrong, but that we will be kept in holy living amid a selfish, secular, sinful world. We are in the world but not of it. Christians appear as other people, but are different by the holiness of their living. Unrepentant immorality among church members and leaders is never acceptable.

3. IN A SCEPTICAL WORLD JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR WITNESS.

This is a world of aimlessness, but the Christian lives with purpose. Our purpose is to shine as light in the darkness so that others will reach for the light themselves.

The world is self-centred. The Christian is others centred, not turning from sinners, but seeking to win sinners to Christ. Not evasion from the world, but evangelism in the world. As Jesus prayed: “I send them into the world, just as you sent me into the world. And for their sake I dedicate myself to you, in order that they too may be truly dedicated to you.” v19 Jesus prays: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who believe in me because of their message. I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” v21 Evangelism is the primary task of the church and what Christ made primary we dare not make secondary. We include the word “Mission” in our name because the church is only the church when it is in mission, seeking to win people to Jesus.

Every member should be united with each other believer in Christ, living a life of holiness, being kept safe from the Evil One, so that the world might believe that God sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world. We offer people Christ! Jesus prays for our witness, that the world might believe. Let me ask you: Do you believe that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life?” To respond affirmatively is to enter His kingdom, to be in the world but no longer of it, to be in the light rather than in the darkness, to be one with the Father and the Son and with those who believe in Him, to be committed to holiness of living by the study of His word, and to be a witness to His truth that others may also believe. Have you heard His prayer for you? Have you believed?

Gordon Moyes

 

Wesley Mission, Sydney.