The Work Of Intercession
Have you ever seen a nest full of baby birds with their mouths opened, waiting anxiously to receive food from the mother bird? Their only desire is for what the mother bird will bring them and their open mouths and noisy cries are a whole hearted request for what they desire.
That is a good picture of what our prayers ought to be like. Rather than the faintly mumbled few words we utter in passing, God invites us into a relationship in which He, as Father, is seen as our whole source of all that we need and our conversations with Him acknowledge His sovereignty, glory and provision. Arthur Pink writes, “Prayer is the expression of desire for benefit by one who needs it, to one who, in his estimation, is able and disposed to confer it.”
If we see that prayer is that important, then we will desire, as the disciples did, to learn how to pray. To know, “How do we pray?” “Whom do we pray for?” “What do we pray about?”
Jesus answered the request of the disciples to teach them to pray when he taught them the “Lord’s prayer.” He further taught them to pray when they saw Him pray. One of the prayers which Jesus prayed in their presence is that which we find in John 17. Knowing that He was about to leave, he had given words of comfort and instruction and then he prayed this wonderful prayer. In it we have a model from which we can learn much about prayer. It particularly demonstrates a model from which we can learn about whom to pray for and how to pray. There is, of course, much more in this passage, but this morning I would like to draw from it lessons on prayer. Some of what I am sharing with you comes from two books. One by Andrew Murray with the title “With Christ in the School of Prayer” and the other called “When God Prays” by Skip Heitzig.
The outline which you will see in the NIV Bible is the outline we will be following. Jesus prays for Himself, for His disciples and for all believers.
Jesus Prays For Himself John 17:1-5
Prayer For Self.
In the first five verses, Jesus begins by praying for Himself. As the Son of God who knew God intimately, we wonder why He would need to pray for Himself. As we will see when we examine the content of His prayer, there is no self centeredness in this prayer. He is praying not so much for himself as that God’s will be done in Him. Yet He does think about Himself and His relationship to God.
If Jesus needed to pray for Himself, how much more do we need to pray for ourselves. How intensely do we pray for ourselves and our relationship with God?
Content Of His Prayer
There are, of course, elements of His prayer that are unique to Jesus alone because of who He was. However, we see also in His prayer a good model of some of what we ought to pray about for ourselves.
We recognize here the intimate relationship which Jesus had with His Father. In this prayer, He clarified his relationship to the Father. He spoke of his work. Notice that he talked about the work of giving eternal life to people. We also see how he spoke of His obedience. In verse 4 he speaks about “completing the work you gave me to do.” In his teaching and in a very short time in his death, Jesus did all that he had been sent to do. The primary concern of this prayer, however, and the actual request which He made to the Father is that God be glorified in His life and work. In the first verse Jesus asked “that your Son may glorify you.” The heart of Jesus, expressed in prayer is for the glory of God.
The word glory is used often in the Bible. Glory refers to that which is the best. When Jesus prays that God be glorified, He is expressing a desire that everyone, everywhere recognize that God and His way are the best. That there is nothing and no one more amazing, more wonderful than God. When God is glorified, people put their trust in Him. When God is glorified, He is recognized as the source of all that is right and good and perfect. Through the work of bringing people to eternal life, Jesus desires that people come to understand and acknowledge this.
As Jesus prayed that God would be glorified in Him, he modeled what we also need to pray for ourselves - that our lives bring glory to God. Our lives bring glory to God when we are taken from being lost sinners to being children of God. Our lives bring glory to God when the work of God is evident in us. Our lives bring glory to God when our life is focussed in a God-ward direction. Arthur Pink writes, “Christ prayed for this glory in order that He might glorify the Father. Here too, He has left us an example. Whatsoever we do is to be done to the glory of God, and nothing should be asked from Him save for His glory.”
It isn’t necessarily easy to pray like this. As we pray about our work, do we pray that God will be glorified in our work? As we pray about our obedience, can we say, “God, I have done what you asked me to do?” What will it mean if our ultimate concern is for the glory of God? For Jesus it meant death. For us it may mean suffering. Are we willing to bring glory to the Father through our lives, no matter what happens to us?
I think that as we pray about ourselves to the Father, we ought to be deeply honesty. We need to admit to God that we are often quite selfish and also fearful. We ought to pray honestly, but also trustingly, acknowledging before the Father that our deepest hearts desire is for His glory.
Jesus Prays For His Disciples John 17:6-19
Prayer For Those Nearby
In John 17:6-8, Jesus continues to speak to the Father about the work He has done, but now a new element comes into the prayer. He is speaking about those with whom He has spent most of the last three years. He acknowledges that these disciples of His have accepted His message and have become followers of God. In verse 9, Jesus says, “I pray for them.”
After prayer for self, Jesus moves on to prayer for His disciples. In praying for His disciples, He is praying for those who are closest to them. He indicates, further, in verse 9 that he does not pray for the world. That is not to say that He does not care about the world. We know from John 3:16 that the world is very much the object of His love. However, at this point the object of His prayer is those who have been closest to Him. This is the longest section and the prayer is specific and definite.
In a similar way, although we should care for and even pray for the world, often our most intimate prayers will be for those in the circle that is closest to us. This is the circle that includes our spouse, our children, our parents and our church family. This is the circle where we know what the struggles are and what is needed and so we are able to pray most personally and most definitely.
Content Of His Prayer
The content of Jesus prayer for those closest to him is also very instructive. What is the usual content of our prayer for each other? How does that list compare with how Jesus prays for His intimate circle?
In His prayer for His disciples, Jesus asks two things
Prayer For Protection
The context of this prayer is found in verse 11. Jesus recognizes, “I will remain in the world no longer.” Up to this point, Jesus had protected His disciples. When they had been hungry, He had provided bread and fish. When they needed a coin to pay taxes, He knew which fish had the coin in its mouth. When they fielded attacks from the Pharisees, Jesus answered the questions. But now He would no longer be physically present with them to protect them. Therefore, He prays for their protection.
In praying this prayer for them, He introduces them to a new relationship. No longer will they have the presence of Jesus to help them. Jesus prays that they will be protected “by the power of God’s name.” It was God Himself, by His Spirit who would now be their protection. Being protected by the name of God means that when God’s name is named in the presence of God’s enemies, they cringe. When we belong to God, we live under the protection of God Himself. It is not a magical thing, rather it is a matter of relationship. We belong to God and so we are identified with and protected by His name.
When Jesus goes on to pray, as He does in verse 12, saying, “I have lost none” it reveals the desperate need for this prayer. The language of loss suggests to us the battle that is going on. It intimates that there is a danger, an enemy out there. The danger is of course the enemy of our souls who is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Jesus prays for His dearest friends that they will be protected in that danger, protected from that enemy. Do you pray for those closest to you in this way? The danger has not subsided, in fact if anything, it has increased. The other day, I was feeling as if I was under a spiritual attack. Several things combined to make me feel defeated. I asked Carla to pray for my spiritual protection and God has answered that prayer. Let us pray for each other for protection in the battle.
Sometimes when we think about this kind of a prayer, we may feel as if such a prayer will help people to just barely hang on until Christ returns. It may raise in us a war mentality – we will man the battle stations until the victory trumpet is sounded. But Jesus prayer is not that gloomy. Although he was leaving and they would need protection, Jesus prays, in verse 13 that “they may have the full measure of joy.” Recently, Carla’s brother was diagnosed with cancer. The other day she spoke with him and indicated that they are praying and experiencing that the presence of the cancer will not take away the joy they have in the Lord. When you pray for those closest to you, do you pray that they will experience the fullness of the joy God intends for His children? Because of the power and work of Christ, joy can be our constant operating sense no matter how difficult the issues of life – whether illness, or persecution, or the hatred of others.
The final part of this prayer for the protection is an interesting one. It is interesting in the sense of what Jesus does not pray. He does not pray that they be taken out of the world. We would gladly pray for each other that we avoid trouble and trial. We would like to pray for each other that we can avoid difficulty. Jesus, the most compassionate one, does not pray for His disciples that they avoid the challenges of living in this world by being taken out of it. He does not pray that they will have an easy road. Rather, He prays that they will be protected from the evil one on this road.
Are we praying for each other, for protection, that we will not have our joy taken from us and that we will be protected from the evil one while living in a challenging and difficult world?
Prayer For Sanctification
In verse 17, Jesus prays another prayer for the disciples and that is that they be sanctified.
To be sanctified is to be set apart from the rest of the world. Jesus prays that those who belong to Him will be noticeably different from the rest of the people living in the world. The basis of this difference is God’s truth. When God’s truth lives in God’s people and they live in holiness, they are set apart from the rest of the world. The power of God’s truth sets us apart - knowing that we are forgiven, knowing that the Spirit is making us new.
As sanctified ones, we are sent into the world. Because we are different, holy, set apart to God, the world takes notice and we become the light in the world.
Can we pray like that for each other? When was the last time you prayed that your wife would be protected spiritually. When was the last time you prayed that your son would be filled with God’s full joy? When was the last time you prayed that instead of bringing your daughter home, God would sent her into the world to be a light and protect her from the evil in the world? When was the last time you prayed that your parents would be so holy that everyone they meet would notice the difference? May we learn to pray for one another in these deeper ways.
Jesus Prays For All Believers John 17:20-26
Prayer For The Wider Circle
In verse 20, the circle broadens to its widest point. Jesus now goes on to pray for all those who would believe because of the testimony of the disciples. What is interesting is that this wider circle extends to us. It is very exciting to notice that Jesus prayed for us. It is wonderful to also know, as Hebrews tells us, that He continues to pray for us.
As a model, this prayer invites us to also pray not only for ourselves and for those we are most intimately connected with, but also for a much wider circle.
How widely do we view that circle? Could it mean that we will pray for the rest of the church, not only those who are our close friends? Do you ever pray through the pictorial directory? What about the churches and mission work of the EMC throughout the world? Do you use the prayer calendar in the Messenger to pray for EMC missions? Do you pray for conference leaders? What about the wider circle yet? What about our Baptist or Holdeman neighbours? Do you pray for people in other denominations? Are you ever moved to pray for believers around the world? Let us not only pray for ourselves or our closest intimate circle, but also for God’s people throughout the world.
Content Of His Prayer
The content of Jesus prayer for this wider circle is also a good model for us to follow.
Prayer For Unity
The first prayer of Jesus for this wider circle is for unity. It is interesting that what was uppermost in Jesus’ mind as He looked into the future of His people on earth was that they would be one.
I believe that the unity Jesus was praying about was not organizational unity or forced obedience to one way. Rather, it is the unity which comes from being close to Jesus. Just as a wheel’s spokes come closer together at the hub, so also God’s people will come closer together as they come closer to the center, to the Father and the Son.
The primary purpose of this prayer for unity is that “the world will know that you have sent me.” In other words, the most important thing Jesus saw for the furtherance of the gospel in the world was that His people be one.
How miserably we have failed at this! Has this prayer been answered at all? Many times in church history it does not look like it. This reality only demonstrates the deep need for such a prayer. Yet as people have come closer to God, unity has happened. I have seen it in an inter-racial church where people from many nationalities loved each other and served God together. It is seen in caring communities of faith which exist in spite of being made up of people from different intellectual, economic and social backgrounds. It happens when we can disagree with each other but recognize that it is more important that we love each other and do God’s work than that we agree on every detail.
I suspect that not many of us have prayed that the wider circle of God’s people be one. What would happen if we would pray for the unity of God’s people. One of the reasons I am so excited about the Franklin Graham Festival is because it is an opportunity to work as one with people from many different churches and show the world that we are indeed one. By working together in this way, the world will know that this is of God.
Prayer To Be In Glory
The last prayer of Jesus in this section was a prayer that those who would believe in God would be with Christ in glory. He is praying here for the ultimate salvation of all who identify with Jesus.
How wonderful that Jesus prays this about us. He wants us in His presence.
Do we pray for others that they will be in glory? Are there some people whom we would rather not see in glory? How can we be faithful to Jesus’ prayer if we think about others like that?
What does it do as we pray this prayer for the wider circle? How does it cause us to look at others when we recognize that we will be in glory with them?
The prayer of Jesus is important in many ways. It allows us to think about the relationship Jesus had with His disciples as he was about to go to the cross. It shows us the heart of Jesus in His relationship with the Father. It encourages us to know that Jesus has prayed for us and continues to pray for us.
This morning, we have examined the prayer from the perspective of being a model of prayer for us to follow. As such, there are two lessons in this passage. The first is that we ought to pray for ourselves, for those close to us and also for a wider circle. Praying for ourselves comes fairly naturally to us, but let us recognize the importance of it and keep doing it. Praying for those close to us is also natural, but once again the model of Jesus encourages us to be faithful and deliberate in this kind of prayer. Prayer for the wider circle is also something that we do because we know it is right. The model of Jesus affirms this and encourages us to keep on doing it.
The passage also teaches us some of the things we ought to pray for each other. Often our prayers tend to deal with surface issues. We pray for health, happiness and success. The example of Jesus invites us to broaden our requests beyond these things and to pray that God be glorified in us, that God’s people be protected as they live in this world, that God’s people be a holy people and that they be one as they look forward to being in heaven with Jesus.
My encouragement to each of you is to seek to deepen your prayer life. May the model of Jesus teach and encourage us in the work of intercession.