“I Am Not Praying for the World”
Scripture Readings: 2 Chronicles 6:12-42; John 17:1-26 (text) * Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 116-117
May 8, 2016 * Download this sermon (PDF)
Beloved congregation of Christ: We come now to Chapter 17 of the Gospel of John, when Jesus spent his last night on earth praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is also seen praying in the garden, but without the long prayer in John 17. The other three Gospels focused on Jesus sorrowing and agonizing over his coming death, praying to his Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).
What is this cup that he was agonizing over? It is the cup of God’s wrath on the sins of his people (Isa 51:17; Rev 14:10). It is the cup of his “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28), the blood he would shed on the cross for his people’s sins.
Our Heidelberg Catechism reading today (Q&A 116-117) tells us that prayer is necessary for Christians because “is is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us.” The Old Testament is full of prayers of God’s people. The Psalms, particularly, give us different kinds of prayers, including prayers of praise, thanksgiving, confession, lament and joy. In the New Testament, we read of believers often praying. Paul’s letters are full of prayers for the churches, and exhortations for Christians to pray.
Jesus is often seen praying, in all places at all times. He prays day and night, and all night in the garden. He prays in the synagogues, and before meals. He taught us the ideal pattern of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer.
As Jesus prayed in the garden, he prayed aloud, in the tradition of Jews. This is why the four gospel writers can tell us what he prayed about. This prayer is the last of his “farewell discourse” from John 13-17. In verses 1-8, he poured out his heart and his feelings to his Father. He prayed that his life and death would glorify his Father, and that because of all his work completed on the cross, the Father would glorify him. Then in verses 9-19, he prays for his twelve disciples and the daunting task ahead of them because of the world’s unbelief and hatred. Finally, in verses 20-26, he prays for those who would believe in him through the preaching of his eleven disciples.
So his prayer is not a prayer for all people in the world. It is a prayer for all those who would believe in him from all peoples, nations and languages in the whole world. This is our theme today, “I Am Not Praying for the World,” under three parts: first, “Glorify Your Son that the Son May Glorify You”; second, “I Am Praying for Those Whom You Have Given Me”; and third, “That They May All Be One.”
“Glorify Your Son that the Son May Glorify You”
As in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught us, he opens his prayer by praising and glorifying God, addressing him as “Father.” He addresses God as his Father six times (verses 1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25), showing his unity and intimacy with God. Jesus knew that his “hour” had come, the hour of his death. After he entered Jerusalem for the last time, he said to the Jews, “But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). When Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples, he knew that “his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father” (John 13:1; 7:30; 8:20).
Jesus then prays to his Father, “glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (verses 1-2). So when the hour of his crucifixion comes, he will be glorified by his Father, and his death will glorify his Father. But even before his death, when he lived a perfectly obedient life, Jesus already glorified his Father, “having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (verse 4).
What is this work assigned to him by the Father that he accomplished? He revealed the true God to the people the Father gave to him. John says early in 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” There are two divine Persons here: “the only God,” Christ, who is at the right hand of his Father in heaven. Christ, the Second Person of the Trinitarian God, made the First Person known to his people.
Jesus says in verses 6-8 that he has made his Father known to his disciples by giving them the words that his heavenly Father has given him. They received the Word, which is the Truth, and they believed in him as the Son of God. And they also believed in his Father.
And how can God and his Son be glorified in a shameful, accursed death on the cross? Because after he arose from the grave, he is given authority over all heaven and earth. He is also able to give eternal life to all that the Father had given before the creation of the world. This also shows that Jesus is divine, since God does not give his glory to any other, “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other” (Isa 42:8; 48:11). Before the world was created, before Christ came down from heaven, he had the same glory as his Father in heaven.
Our reading in 2 Chronicles 6 is a prayer by King Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple. Like Jesus, he begins his prayer by glorifying God, “O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven or on earth” (verse 12). Then in verse 18, he praises God’s immensity, “But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” This is why Jesus teaches us to first give honor and glory to God before we send our petitions, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your Name.” Our petitions are to be based on God’s glory, holiness and sovereignty.
“I Am Praying for Those Whom You Have Given Me”
After praying about his relationship with his own Father, Jesus in verses 9-19 prays for his disciples during his three years of earthly ministry, especially the Eleven (Judas not included).
In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon first prays for the people of Israel, “have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O LORD my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you” (2 Chr 6:19). He then prays for all the needs of the people, especially for forgiveness when they repent of their sins: those who sin against their neighbor; when Israel is defeated by another nation and goes into captivity; when there is drought, famine and pestilence. Solomon prays that God would “forgive your people who have sinned against you” (verse 39).
In the same way, Jesus prays, “I am praying for them,” then adds, “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me.” This is why we believe that when Jesus willingly offered his body and blood on the cross, he did it on behalf of believers only, those whom the Father had given him before the world was even created. He knows that they would all believe, that he would lose none of them, because all that the Father promised him, the Father would fulfill (John 6:37, 39). In verse 19, he prays that he lived his perfect life and died his sacrificial death “for their sake.” For this work, he “sanctifies” or “consecrates” himself, just as he said in John 6:51, “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
He knew that he would soon leave them to go back to his Father, so he prays that the Father would guard and keep them. Jesus is concerned that when he leaves his disciples without a Teacher and Leader, they will cease being united in love. How would the Father keep them? Jesus had given them all the words, the instructions, the laws of God’s Word. This Word will guard them from the hostility and hatred of the world against God and his Son Jesus Christ. The unbelieving world, beginning from Cain, all the way to Judas Iscariot, has hated God. They hated Christ then, as they hate Christ today. They hated God’s Word then, as they hate God’s Word today. His Word is all foolishness to them.
So Jesus warned his disciples, “Because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). But it is this same Word that keeps and guards all believers from the temptations of this wicked world. It is this same Word that sanctifies them, separates them from the world, and produces holiness in them.
Therefore, when we see all the wickedness around us, we sometimes pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, come soon!” But only God knows the hour when he would come to takes us away from this evil world. Jesus knew this, so he prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (verses 15-16).
Since the early church 2,000 years ago, many Christians have made the mistake of withdrawing from the world, not willing to wait for the return of Christ to separate the sheep from the goats. Monks did this, so did the 16th century Anabaptists, the present-day Amish, and other separatist groups. Even churches that prohibit smoking, drinking wine and even coffee, dancing and other “worldly” things are taking themselves “out of the world.” But John says that worldliness is not these things, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). Having earthly wisdom and desires, and not heavenly wisdom and desires is what separates true believers from the world. We are “in the world,” but our mind and desires are not “of the world.”
“That They May All Be One”
The words of Jesus and his Father that guard his disciples unite them in love, as he and his Father are united in divine love. And what is the outcome of Christians being united in love for God and for one another? Jesus says, “my joy [will] be fulfilled in themselves” (verse 13). There is no joy more complete than in loving God and brothers and sisters in Christ. David sings in Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” So in John 15:11, Jesus tells his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
In the last part of his prayer, Jesus prays for all people whom his present Jewish disciples also disciple to believe in him, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (verse 20). Again, the theme of unity is on his mind, not only among the Eleven, but among all who would believe in all the world from his departure until his return.
In King Solomon’s prayer, we find a portion where he prays for aliens and strangers, those who are not of God’s people Israel, in verses 32-33. If a foreigner comes from a far country to worship the God of Israel, Solomon prays, “hear from heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.” Solomon’s prayer is a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, where Jews and Gentiles from all nations will worship the Father and his Son Jesus Christ together in unity. The whole world is not far from the mind of Jesus as he prepares himself and his disciples for his departure. This is why John foresees worshipers in heaven coming from all nations, peoples and languages in the world (Rev 5:9).
Jesus says to his Father that he has given all these believers from all nations his glory. This is not his divine glory, but the glory of eternal life in this world. And when this loving unity of believers is seen by the world, they will also know and believe that he came down to earth because his Father sent him (verses 21-24).
What glory do sinners see? Paul says that Moses’ face reflected God’s glory, but it faded away, while the glory of Christ reflected in believers’ holy lives stay. They see believers “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:13, 18). If Christians in the church show their unity, love for God, for one another, and for strangers; and if they live godly lives; the world will see the reflection of the the glory of Christ in them. And when Christ returns to take them to where he is – heaven – then the glory that Christ gave to his disciples will be completed in all its fullness.
Dear friends, loving one another includes praying for one another as Jesus prayed for us all in the garden. When we pray, let us first give glory and honor to God in our prayer, for he alone is able to save us through the work that our Savior has accomplished on the cross. Let us pray for one another in our church, then for our brothers and sisters in Christ in all the nations: that God will guard them with his Word; that we may serve God while we are in this world; that we may be protected from this world’s wisdom, temptations, and evil desires.
Let us also pray for our unbelieving families and friends: that they may see our unity in love so they too would believe in our Savior; that they too will worship the true God, and not the idols of this world; that they too would be transformed from being haters to lovers of God, his Word, and his church; and that they too, when they are saved from their sins, will also be transformed from glory to glory in their lives.
Let us therefore heed John’s exhortation, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).