the prayer of Jesus is very comprehensive; it applies to believers from the first century, right on through to the end of church history
In John 17 we find the longest recorded prayer of Jesus; the apostle John, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, included it in his gospel. In fact, it is preserved for us only in John’s gospel. Jesus prayed this prayer just prior to his arrest and subsequent crucifixion.
The prayer is very significant for a number of reasons: because it is included in the Scriptures; because Jesus, the Son of God, prayed it; and because of its content. As you read through the prayer you will see that Jesus was anticipating a time of transition, a time when he would be leaving the world and his disciples, to rejoin his Father in Heaven (John 17:11, 13).
As this time of transition drew near, Jesus offered up this prayer. In his prayer he made a number of requests; he prayed for himself and he also prayed for his disciples. A quick reading of the prayer will show that the majority of his prayer was given over to making requests for his followers.
In this chapter we will focus our attention on the portion of the prayer that he offered for his disciples. This section of his prayer falls into two parts; there is a section given to prayer for the disciples who were present with him in the first century, and a section given to prayer for the disciples who were yet to come. Let us briefly consider each of the parts of the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples.
Jesus’ Prayer for His Disciples Who Were Present With Him
In the first part of his prayer for his followers Jesus prayed for the disciples who were present with him (John 17:6–19). As he prayed, he acknowledged the good spiritual qualities in his disciples’ lives. He said that they knew that everything that Jesus had came from the Father (John 17:7), that they accepted the words that Jesus gave to them, that they knew with certainty that Jesus came from the Father, and that they believed that the Father sent Jesus into the world (John 17:8).
In short, his disciples had some spiritual perception; this was because they had received divine revelation. One example of this is the Lord’s words to Peter; he told Peter that he was able to make the declaration that Jesus was the Christ because it had been revealed to him by the Father (Matt 16:17).
After listing these positive qualities of his followers, which were clear evidence of the work of God in their lives, Jesus moved on to make some requests on their behalf. His requests included prayers for their unity, protection (John 17:11, 15), and sanctification (John 17:17). These requests, at least in part, arose out of Jesus’ concern for his followers. He knew that he was no longer going to physically be with them to help them as he had been in the past (John 17:12), so he asked the Father to minister to them and meet their needs.
The disciples had already endured harsh treatment in the world (John 17:14), and they would again as the book of Acts makes clear (Acts 4:1–22; 5:17–40; 8:1–3; 12:1–19). In addition to harsh treatment from people, the attacks of the evil one would be directed toward them as well (John 17:15); these things caused Jesus to intercede for his followers. Jesus wanted his followers to be sanctified, or set apart as God’s people in the world. But Jesus’ prayer for his followers didn’t end there; it went on.
Jesus’ Prayer for His Future Disciples
Beginning at John 17:20, Jesus starts to pray for the people who will come to believe in him though the ministry of the first-century disciples, those who were with him at the time he prayed. This part of the prayer, though not specifically directed toward the first-century disciples, may have been very encouraging to them because it showed that they would have fruit from their ministry: people would come to believe in Jesus through their word (John 17:20) as they ministered in the world (John 17:18).
In fact, the fruit that would come from their ministry would be more than they could see, or perhaps even imagine. This prayer applies not only to those who would directly hear their testimony or preaching, such as those who responded to Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2), but also to all of those who would come to faith in Jesus through their word, the apostolic writings contained in the New Testament. The apostle John specifically says that he wrote his gospel for the purpose of leading people to faith in Jesus (John 20:30–31).
So the prayer of Jesus is very comprehensive; it applies to believers from the first century, right on through to the end of church history. This being the case, if you are a Christian, Jesus’ prayer in John 17 applies to you! With that said, let us now turn our attention to what Jesus asked for his followers.
In John 17:21, Jesus prayed that his people would be one; a couple of verses later in John 17:23, he asked that they would be united. Different words were used, but the requests are basically the same: Jesus prayed for the unity of his people. Jesus prayed twice for the same thing, and he made these requests in very close proximity to one another. The repetition of the request seems to be important; Jesus appears to be stressing this request, emphasizing it. This prayer reveals some very significant things; let us now take a closer look at this prayer of Jesus.
What This Prayer Reveals
The Heart of God
One thing that this prayer reveals is the heart of God, that is, God’s desire for his people. Jesus and the Father are distinct persons within the Godhead (see Matt 3:16–17; 17:1–8; 28:19), but they are united in purpose (John 5:19). The unity of the Father and Jesus the Son can be seen in a number of biblical texts. Three times in this prayer in John 17 Jesus refers to his unity with the Father; twice he says that he and the Father are one (John 17:11, 22), and once he expresses the same thought without using those exact words (John 17:21). The unity of the Father and the Son can be seen in other texts as well. In John 10:30 Jesus plainly says, “I and the Father are one.” Earlier in his gospel John tells us that the one whom God has sent, Jesus, speaks the words of God (John 3:34).
During his earthly ministry, Jesus said that to see him was to see the Father (John 14:9). Jesus also said that he only did what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19). Jesus was, and is, always in perfect harmony with the plans, purposes, and works of the Father. Since these things are true, Jesus always prayed in the will of God; he always asked what the Father would want asked. The requests that Jesus made in this prayer in John 17 are God’s will for his people. This shows us that God’s desire, God’s heart, for his people is that they be united.
The Need of Humanity
Jesus’ prayer also shows us is that there is a need for the kind of prayer that he prayed. Jesus is not one to waste his time on frivolous, or meaningless, activities. Jesus knew that unity would be a challenge for his people, so he prayed about the matter. In fact, the need was so great that he did not refer it to an intercessory prayer group; he prayed for it himself! It is obviously a very significant need if the Son of God prays for something. Jesus was very much aware of the difficulties or challenges that the disciples would face with regard to the issue of unity. He saw evidence of some of these problems early on in the lives of his followers.
The disciples talked about which of them was the greatest, or most important, on a number of occasions (Mark 9:34; Luke 22:24). James and John sought places of honor for themselves in Jesus’ kingdom, which resulted in the other disciples becoming upset with them (Mark 10:35–41). Jesus’ disciples also were concerned when they saw someone, who was not a part of their group, doing works in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38). These are just a few examples, but they demonstrate that unity was a problem for the followers of Jesus from the very beginning of the Christian movement. Subsequent church history has not fared any better; in fact, it is probably worse. Church history records many instances in which the body of Christ has divided. This confirms that the prayer that Jesus prayed for unity among his people was, and is, a very necessary prayer.
Jesus’ Care for His People
A third thing that Jesus’ prayer shows us is his care for his people. We typically pray for people that we care about; Jesus does the same. He prays for all of his followers, and note that there is no partiality in his prayer; he makes the same requests for all of his children in all ages. The requests that he makes are for good things. He does not want his people to be destroyed by the enemy (John 17:15), nor does he want them to be divided; these things would not be good for his people and would not be advantageous to Jesus’ purposes or kingdom. Jesus’ prayer is an indication of his concern for the church. Jesus understands quite well the nature of the conflict that his people are engaged in. Light is battling darkness. While the battle frequently rages in the natural realm, it has its root in the spiritual realm. Jesus takes the battle very seriously; he addresses it in prayer, and his prayer is focused on God’s provision for his people. Jesus does not want his people to buckle under to the opposition that the enemy brings to the church. This opposition can take many forms; it can come in the form of persecution, sickness, or, a major concern of this prayer, division. The enemy knows that pressure and a sense of being isolated can do much to undermine the work of the kingdom, and so he will do all he can to bring these things to bear upon the church. Jesus expresses care for his people by praying that they will not fall prey to these pitfalls.
The Importance of Unity
Unity among the people of God is very important; this can be seen from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and from other texts as well. Jesus is not the only one concerned about unity; unity was also a major concern of the apostle Paul (Rom 16:17–18; 1 Cor 1:10; Eph 4:3; Phil 1:27; Titus 3:10). As the previously mentioned Scripture references indicate, Paul wrote about unity to Christian people in a number of different locations. There are some very practical reasons why unity is so important. People cannot walk together unless they are agreed (Amos 3:3), and a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25); disunity disturbs the sense of peace and well-being. Unity is also important because more can be accomplished when people work together than when they work independently or are separated from one another. These things should make it clear that unity is both desirable and necessary for the people of God.
God has also demonstrated that he blesses his people when they are united. He blessed the disciples in the early church after they gathered together for ten days in united prayer; God poured out the Holy Spirit on them (Acts 1:14; 2:1–4). The Lord also blessed a united church later in the book of Acts. After the healing of the man at the Gate Beautiful in Acts 3, Peter and John were taken before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin threatened the apostles and told them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus anymore (Acts 4:18).
When the apostles were released, they went back to the church (Acts 4:23). The church lifted their voices together to God, and God answered their prayer in a powerful way, filling all who were gathered there with the Holy Spirit so that they could carry on the work of God in spite of the threats of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:24–31). In Acts 12, we find that the apostle Peter was put in prison (Acts 12:3–5). This was a source of great concern to the other believers, and they earnestly prayed to God for him (Acts 12:5); this resulted in Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:7–10).
However, in John 17, Jesus’ concern about unity is focused not so much on the benefit that unity will be to his followers as on the effect that unity will have on people who are outside of the community of faith. Jesus prayed that his people would be united so that the world would know and believe that the Father sent him into the world (John 17:23, 21).
If the church is united, it can do much to help people be receptive to Jesus Christ; if the church does not demonstrate unity, it may actually keep people from coming to faith in Christ. The church’s behavior can work at cross purposes with the mission that Jesus gave her to do (Matt 28:18–20). In 1995, Dr. John Stott spoke at a large Christian conference in Boston; the theme of the conference was “Woven Together . . . So the World May Know.” As he spoke in the Hynes Auditorium, Dr. Stott said, “The world’s belief depends on our behavior.” This is a sobering thought.
The mission of the church in the world is somehow tied into this matter of unity. Unity is important to the church in order that she may be strong and vibrant, and it is important to the world. Unity, or the lack of it, affects the openness of unbelievers to Jesus Christ and thus their eternal destiny. The stakes are very high. Will we answer the prayer of Jesus or not?
Will we, as the church, be united? A number of years ago, my friend and former pastor, Rev. John King, gave a teaching at a denominational meeting in New York City. He wrote the word unity on the board and pointed out that the word contained the letters u and i. He said that unity is about “you” and “I,” and it is.
A Working Definition of Unity
Before talking further about unity, it is necessary to define how the word unity will be used in this book. The word unity surely means different things to different people. As I attempt to define how the word is used in this book, I will start by stating first what I do not mean by unity.
As others before me have pointed out, unity does not mean uniformity. Unity does not mean that the entire body of Christ is going to become one large denomination that agrees on every point of doctrine and practice.
Differences in doctrine, worship style, church government, and other things will surely continue to exist until Jesus returns. In this book, I use the word unity to mean the essential cooperation of born-again believers, regardless of denominational affiliation, working together for kingdom purposes.
This unity is predicated on the acceptance of certain cardinal doctrines of the faith: the nature of God (this would include the doctrine of the Trinity), the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the necessity of a born-again experience.
These are foundational truths on which all genuine believers ought to be able to agree. Churches and believers that hold to these basic beliefs should be able to work together. Ministries in which Christians might work together include evangelism, prayer, and mercy ministries such as the providing of food and clothing to those in need.
All of these are ministries that have biblical foundations (Matt 28:18–20; Acts 2:42; Matt 25). Unity can bring much glory to the Lord, both through its testimony to the unbelieving world and through the work that is actually accomplished through cooperative efforts.
. Stott, The Spirit, the Church and the World, 82.
. Stott, plenary session of the Evangelistic Association of New England’s Congress, 1995.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version, TNIV Copyright 2001, 2005 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
This chapter is from John P. Lathrop’s book Answer the Prayer of Jesus: A Call for Biblical Unity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011) Used by permission of Wipf & Stock Publishers www.wipfandstock.com
This chapter was previously posted on line in November of 2012 by the Pneuma Review. www.pneumareview.com
John P. Lathrop - United States
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Western Connecticut State University, Zion Bible Institute, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education (CUME). He is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies and has twenty years of pastoral experience.