Jesus’ Upper Room prayer
Jesus prays for himself, for the disciples that are with him and then for all those who believe through those disciples.
Jesus prays for himself, for the disciples that are with him and then for all those who believe through those disciples.
Hello, welcome to Series 12 and Episode 18. This is the last episode in Series 12, and in this we are discussing 'Jesus' Upper Room Prayer' during the Last Supper, The text we are going to study is John 17: 1 - 26. This episode brings to an end a large number of episodes which describe the Last Supper.
Introduction and Recap
However, before we get into that, let us go a little further back in time, as I have done on the episodes before, to keep reminding us where we are in the story. We are of course, on Thursday evening in the last week of Jesus' life, after some incredibly dramatic events, which have been recorded for us by the Gospel writers, and which we have looked at in Series 11 and Series 12. The contrasts are incredible because at the beginning of the week Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph. You would imagine nothing could go wrong - thousands of people gather to welcome him into the city. They know he is a wonder worker, a miracle worker. They know he performed a resurrection from the dead in nearby Bethany, a few kilometres away, just a short time earlier. Some people actually saw that resurrection taking place; other people had seen his miracles throughout Judea, some had come down from Galilee. There was a huge crowd gathered for the Feast of the Passover. He was acclaimed as the Jewish Messiah by the crowds. What could possibly go wrong? The problem was that the authorities in Jerusalem were totally hostile to Jesus. The High Priest and the priests ruled over the Temple and organised all the Temple worship, and the religious council, the Sanhedrin, was the authority that governed the Jewish faith. They had already decided that Jesus was a false messiah and needed to be got rid of, preferably executed. They didn't trust his following, which was seen to be growing all the time and they wanted to get rid of him. That was the conflict that was going to make the early start of the Triumphal Entry to be just one part of the story.
Conflict began to develop very openly on the Monday, when Jesus went into the Temple and overturned the money-changers of the Temple market which was run by the priests. On Tuesday there was some hostile questioning in the Temple compound between Jesus and the religious authorities. By the end of Tuesday, the atmosphere was very tense and the authorities were actively looking for a way to arrest Jesus while he was in the city. The difficulty was the crowds were very much on Jesus' side. They were in awe of his miracles; they probably didn't really understand his mission, certainly not his mission to die and rise again from the dead, but they were aware that he spoke with great authority, and he performed spectacular miracles on a grand scale. The crowd was on the side of Jesus. The authorities were trying to find a way of getting rid of him, and they came up with the idea of trying to arrest him quietly when he was away from the crowds. They knew he stayed outside the city somewhere, probably, as far as we can tell, in the village of Bethany or nearby, and they really wanted a way to arrest him. On Wednesday, they got the help they wanted and they got it from an unusual and surprising place, because one of Jesus' own disciples, Judas Iscariot, swapped sides. We see that at a meal in Bethany. Jesus is anointed by Mary of Bethany and there is an intimate meal with his disciples and some local friends. Judas Iscariot quietly leaves that event, goes back into the city and starts talking to the religious authorities about finding an opportunity to hand him over to them, so they can arrest him and they promise him a rich financial reward for doing so.
When we come to the Last Supper, all these things have happened and Jesus is fully aware that the time is very close, that he is going to be arrested. He knows that he is not going to resist that arrest. He knows that he is not going to run away. He is going to face it because he believes it is in God's divine purposes that he should die at the hands of the authorities. We have looked at the Last Supper, as recorded by the various different Gospel writers. We have looked at material in Luke and John principally, and we have seen how Jesus hosted the Last Supper; and he gathered his disciples around him - a bit like a father would gather his family; and how he very surprisingly and suddenly washed the disciples' feet as a sign of his servanthood and love for them; we see how he instituted the Lord's Supper, or Communion, or Eucharist by taking the bread and the wine and making them symbols of his forthcoming death, and he encouraged the Church to follow this pattern for all time to come; and we see him teaching about servant leadership. We see Judas departing very suddenly. Then John takes us on an interesting journey of understanding the teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples at that very vulnerable moment after Judas had left and with feelings of great uncertainty about what was going to happen next. Jesus had said some things that were very unsettling and we followed through a number of episodes the teaching that Jesus gives in John 14,15 and 16 - teaching about comforting the disciples, teaching about the Holy Spirit, teaching about the process of being shaped for their ministry by difficult circumstances, under the supervision of God the Father. That passage is the first half of John 15 which we looked at in Episode 15 and then in the last episode, Episode 17, towards the end of chapter 16, Jesus becomes much clearer with his disciples about the fact that he is going to die and rise again, and then depart from them, go back to heaven to the right hand of his Father, and they are going to be carrying forth his mission without his presence there. They have a very honest and frank conversation about that in John 16 towards the end, when Jesus speaks much more plainly and clearly with them about his death. He knows that it has been really hard for them to come to terms with the fact that he might die - a whole mixture of insecurities and emotions and grief is very close to the surface with them, and he has been talking to them gently and encouraging them.
Jesus and Prayer
Now we come to the very final thing that Jesus did in the upper room. It is very interesting that at this point he suddenly prays, and this upper room experience isn't just about talking - it is about prayer for Jesus. We have looked at Jesus in prayer on quite a number of occasions. We have looked at how he prayed, at how he taught us to pray, and at how he frequently sought time to pray to his Father. We have seen his dependence on his Father. We have seen the priority of prayer, but here it comes very much to the forefront of our attention - the fact that at this moment of intense crisis, Jesus does more than talk. He is seeking the help of his heavenly Father and he is praying for his disciples. It is an amazing prayer. We are going to look at it in three sections, first of all he prays for himself, then for his disciples, the immediate disciples who are gathered with him and then he prays for all believers, which includes you and me, as we believe and trust in Jesus Christ
Jesus Prays for Himself
Let's read the first five verses.
‘After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those that you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing 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.”’John 17:1-5, NIV
Jesus recognises that the hour has come - the time of his suffering and death is upon him. He knows that he's going to be arrested imminently. He is pretty certain it is going to be that very evening, and he prays, ‘Glorify your Son’ which means to raise him from the dead, give him resurrection, and then raise him to an ascension back into heaven at the right hand of his Father. When Jesus dies and his body in the tomb, it is the Father's initiative that will cause the raising of him from the dead, which will bring glory to him. That is exactly what happened and it has been described very powerfully by Paul in Philippians 2: 5 - 11, which describes Jesus' incarnation, coming to the earth and suffering, and then what happens afterwards. Philippians 2: 5,
‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’Philippians 2:5-11, NIV
Now the second half of this passage, verses 9 - 11 describes God the Father exalting him to the highest place, a reference to both the resurrection and particularly the ascension of Jesus back to heaven. Jesus' prayer ‘glorify your son’ is fulfilled in this way. He also affirms here in John 17: 1 - 5 that he brought glory to the Father by completing the work that he called him to do. What had he called him to do? John 3:16 is an amazing summary, a very simple summary of the mission of Jesus - John 3:16
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’John 3:16, NIV
God the Father so loved the world that he sent his Son, and Jesus is completing everything that he was asked to do by his Father. In verse 3, he defines eternal life,
‘“Now this is eternal life that they know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”’John 17:3, NIV
To be truly saved, guaranteed eternity, we need to know both God the Father and Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is the way to God.
Jesus Prays for the Apostles
Jesus goes on to pray at some length for his disciples in a very moving prayer, recorded in verses 6 to 19, which we're going to read. This is speaking of the disciples immediately with him at that time.
‘“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. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 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. I pray for them. I'm not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 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. 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. 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. 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. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.”’John 17:6-19, NIV
That might seem quite a complex series of statements there. This is Jesus praying aloud in the hearing of his disciples, not least John, who is recording the prayer for us. But many of these statements here are not so much requests to God, as actual statements about what Jesus has done, and what is the reality - what Jesus has done for his disciples and how Jesus fulfilled what the Father has asked him to do. In verse 8, he describes three things that the disciples have done. Verse 8 again
‘“For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.”’ (So they accepted Jesus's teaching) ‘“They knew with certainty that I came from you and they believed that you sent me.”’John 17:8
They understood that Jesus was the Son of God and they believed in Jesus' mission. Jesus says that he had protected them through their time together - verse 12, ‘“I protected them and kept them safe by that name that you gave me.”’ All the way through the ministry of Jesus, there is a spiritual battle going on, and the raising up of these disciples, who are going to be the foundation of the Church, who have been called Apostles by Jesus much earlier in the ministry - the raising up of these leaders and the protecting of them to make sure that they are able to function effectively when Jesus has died and been raised again and ascended - that is really important. They need to endure. Jesus knew that one of them would fall away. God had already predestined that that would happen and it was going to be part of his purposes, because Judas Iscariot's betrayal was going to be used by God in a sovereign way, to be the trigger for the necessary death of Jesus. Jesus' first specific prayer for his disciples here is for their protection - verse 11, that the Father will protect them in their unity and verse 15, that the Father will protect them from the evil one.
Their protection is important and then his other prayer in verse 17 is an interesting one. ‘“Sanctify them by the truth.”’ It is important to try and understand what this actually means. The idea of sanctification means being set apart - as they are set apart to serve God, and Jesus wants the truth that comes from God to keep changing them and keep maturing them. As Jesus prays for his disciples, he is asking the Father to protect them, so that they may stay united and fulfil their mission. We cannot underestimate how vital it was that these eleven, shortly to be twelve again, disciples are steady, secure, committed, united, and faithful with the things that they have been called to do. Jesus is praying that God the Father will help them to do that. As I have mentioned in some earlier episodes, the number of Apostles grew again to twelve, after the resurrection when one of their friends and colleagues who had been around Jesus' life was added to their number to replace Judas Iscariot. His name was Matthias and the story is told in Acts 1.
Jesus is calling on his Father to protect them, keep them united so that they can fulfil their mission, and interestingly enough that is actually what happens. They go through tremendous pressures; they get separated by huge geographical distances, as they go off in different directions to preach the Gospel and plant the Church. Many of them leave the land of Israel altogether, and go off on mission. Almost all of them die a violent death. They end up in different parts of the Roman Empire and outside the Roman Empire, further to the east, and yet all of them fulfilled their calling to develop the mission and established the Church in a miraculous way. At this very vulnerable moment, it was vital that they were protected and were not scattered. They didn't fall away, they were not overwhelmed by the pressure and the insecurity and the terrible emotions that would come when Jesus was taken from them violently, tried illegally and executed publicly just outside the city gates of Jerusalem.
Jesus Prays for the Church
Turning now to the final section, verses 20 - 26, where Jesus is praying for the whole Church and that includes you and me.
‘“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 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 - so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and see my glory, the glory you've given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 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.”’John 17:20-26, NIV
Again quite a complex statement here, quite a complex prayer, but as we look at it a little more closely, we see that there are two basic prayers for all the believers. Look at verse 21 ‘“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you”’. This prayer is about the connection between individual disciples and God himself. That is a vital thing that Jesus is concerned about, that they actually are in a living relationship with God, and also that they are one, united like the Father and the Son. That unity is a very interesting subject and it seems to be incredibly strange to us just looking at this prayer, to think of this prayer in connection with the history of the Church, which is a history of many divisions and much disagreement over many centuries. How is it that this prayer for unity between the believers is actually going to be fulfilled? That is a question that arises out of this prayer, especially as the outcome of the unity is that the world may believe that you've sent me - verse 21 - that there may be a very extensive advance of the kingdom of God. Let us ponder for a moment what this might mean because this has been the subject of some misunderstanding. What kind of unity is being talked about? Is this a unity of churches in a structural way that some people campaign for in the modern world? That is not the implication of this. Is it a unity of culture, that all Christians should function the same way culturally? No, it implies a relational unity, that everyone who is truly born again acknowledges every other person who has that born-again experience - that regeneration experience - that they recognise in each other that living faith, and are united in the mission that we are all called to be involved with. It appears from Paul's teaching in Ephesians 4, that Paul anticipated something very similar, and I think it is helpful to turn to the teaching in Ephesians 4: 11 - 13 to get a bit of an insight as to how this prayer might be fulfilled. Speaking of the ascended Christ.
‘Christ gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’Ephesians 4-11-13, NIV
Then continuing in Ephesians 4: 14 - 16 with more detail,
‘Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow up to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’Ephesians 4:14-16, NIV
Paul here is giving more substance to this aspiration of Jesus' prayer, explaining how it might work. He is basically saying that a church, based on the primary ministry of the Apostles, but with functioning ministries - prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers - over time will move towards a position of increased unity and understanding and maturity. It is almost as if Paul is speaking prophetically of some goal for the Church in the longer term future. He himself experienced lots of tension and difficulty and division in his ministry, and he experienced it in Ephesus that he is writing to right now. It looks as though Paul is anticipating that, with the passage of time, the Church will increasingly, as it is built on the right foundations, come to a position of working together across cultures and across different church groupings. There was an initial unity of the Church in the first generation, and the unity has been fragmented in subsequent centuries, but it is a legitimate hope that the prayer of Jesus here in John 17, through the process described in Ephesians 4, may be fulfilled in the period of time before Christ comes again. As the Church becomes secure and mature, as nominal faith falls away, as we have seen in other teachings of Jesus, we may see that increasing unity coming about.
As we conclude this episode, and as we conclude our teaching on the Last Supper, let us remind ourselves that Jesus here shows the vital importance of prayer. If it was important for him; it is important for you and me. Time spent praying to our Father - in a crisis, Jesus prayed, and it won't be long before he is praying again in the Garden of Gethsemane, in great distress and agony. In a time of crisis and need, Jesus prayed. When we have need, what do we do? Do we pray, or do we worry, or are we hyperactive, or are we depressed? We can learn from Jesus. In a time of incredible pressure. He helped his disciples so much in the Last Supper to prepare for a very turbulent future and he was also seeking the help of his heavenly Father, that in his humanity he may be able to cope with the intense suffering that was about to come upon him. We will return to the story in Series 13.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Jesus prayed under pressure and in the light of trouble. What does this tell you?
- Are the three aspects of prayer from praying for himself, to disciples, and then believers generally significant for you?
- What did Jesus achieve by his ministry and then his death on the cross?