Doing God’s Will in a Hostile World (John 17:1-5)
March 29, 2015
I hope you left your shoes at the door when you came in today, because we’re on holy ground. Every week I feel overwhelmed with inadequacy when it comes to preaching God’s Word. But when I come to a chapter like John 17, I’m almost paralyzed! We’re entering the holy of holies and so we must tremble as we come in (Isa. 66:2). “Who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16)
Scottish minister John Brown (cited by A. W. Pink, Exposition of John) wrote: “The seventeenth chapter of the Gospel by John, is, without doubt, the most remarkable portion of the most remarkable book in the world.” We often read in the Gospels that Jesus prayed. Sometimes we can read short snippets of His prayers (e.g., John 11:41-42; 12:27-28). But here, just hours before Jesus was arrested, we get to eavesdrop on His prayer, the longest recorded prayer in the New Testament. Jesus prays for Himself, that He would be glorified (17:1-5); for His disciples, that they would be sanctified (17:6-19); and for the church, that it would be unified (17:20-26).
This prayer teaches us about prayer, about God’s sovereign purpose and our place in it, and about the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Lord Jesus views Himself equal to the Father in terms of glory (John 17:5), and yet distinct from the Father and subject to Him in their relationship. John G. Mitchell (An Everlasting Love [Multnomah Press], p. 321) wrote, “If there is any chapter in the Bible that would reveal the deity of the Son of God and His equality with the Father, it would be this chapter.”
This prayer, along with His subsequent prayer in the garden, steeled Christ to endure the hostility of sinners against Himself (Heb. 12:3). To be faithful witnesses in a world that is hostile to the gospel, we learn from our Lord that …
To do God’s will in this hostile world, understand and submit in prayer to God’s sovereign plan to glorify Himself through the cross.
This prayer reveals Christ’s raw courage in facing the cross! He was resolute because He knew God’s plan and He submitted in prayer to that plan. What we learn here will help us to do God’s will when we face the hostility of this evil world.
1. Jesus recognized and submitted to God’s sovereign plan to glorify Himself through the cross.
God’s sovereignty is not an impractical theological subject for debate, but rather a practical truth to be applied, especially when we face major trials. We see four aspects of this truth here:
A. God’s sovereign plan involved “the hour” when the Son of God would offer Himself on the cross.
John 17:1: “Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You ….”
“These things” refers to the upper room discourse. Jesus spoke the words of this prayer out loud, so that the disciples could learn from it and record it for our instruction. “Father” shows the close relationship between Jesus and the Father. He uses it six times in this prayer (here;John 17:5, 11 [“Holy Father”], 21, 24, & 25 [“righteous Father”]). There is an eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son, reflecting their intimacy and love for one another. But God is also the Father of Jesus when He took on human flesh (Luke 1:35). The Lord instructed us to pray, “Our Father, who is in heaven …” (Matt. 6:9). This reveals the amazing truth that we can approach the Sovereign Creator of the universe as our loving Father, who cares for us as His children. But it also shows that we always must come to Him in submission, recognizing His sovereign authority over us.
“The hour has come” points to the God-ordained hour of the cross. Five times in this Gospel Jesus referred to His hour or His time as not having arrived (John 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20). But when the cross was immediately ahead, Jesus said that the hour had come (John 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:32). It was the hour determined before the foundation of the world between the Father and the Son when the Son would make atonement for our sins. Peter referred to it in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:23), “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” God sovereignly determined the plan for our salvation, but those who carried out the plan by crucifying the Lord were responsible for their awful sin.
God’s sovereign plan is also seen in Jesus’ repeated references to being “sent” to earth by the Father (here in John 17:3). John refers to Jesus’ being sent 41 times, more than any other Gospel, which shows that “the thought of mission is important to John” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], pp. 230-231, note 78). Jesus lived with that sense of coming to earth to accomplish the work that the Father had given Him to do (John 17:4).
Of course, we cannot know God’s sovereign plan in advance, as Jesus did; He knew when that predetermined “hour” was upon Him. But we can know that God is sovereign over every trial that comes into our lives. Jesus endured the cross by trusting that the Father had determined the hour. You can endure trials in your life knowing that God is in control of history and that He is directing your history. He wants to be glorified as others see you trusting Him in prayer as you go through difficulties and trials.
B. God’s sovereign plan is to glorify Himself and His Son through the cross.
Jesus refers to this in verse 1, “Glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You”; and in verse 4: “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” The cross was the primary work that Jesus came to accomplish. In verse 4, Jesus views the cross as already finished.
The cross was an unlikely place to find glory. In that day, they didn’t make jewelry to display the cross attractively on a necklace. That would be like wearing a hangman’s noose around your neck in our day! The cross was a place of shame, humiliation, and the most excruciating form of execution known to man. But the cross is where God’s glory was supremely displayed.
To glorify God is to display His perfect attributes so that others will marvel at who He is. It means to make Him look good, as He truly is. And nothing glorifies God like the cross. It displays both God’s power and His wisdom, as Paul writes (1 Cor. 1:23-24): “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The cross is God’s power because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). It is God’s wisdom, because it removes human works and human “goodness,” which bring glory to man, as the means of salvation.
In every religion except biblical Christianity, salvation is based at least partly on human works or merit. But the gospel of the cross brings everyone before God as guilty sinners, so that when He saves them, He gets all the glory. That’s why Satan is relentless in opposing the message of the cross, sometimes blatantly, but often more subtly, by blending human works with Christ’s death, in an attempt to dilute God’s glory.
The cross also shows God’s supreme sovereignty. God sovereignly used the choices of sinners to fulfill the Old Testament prophetic details of Christ’s death. The Jewish leaders did not want to crucify Jesus during the Passover, because they feared a riot among the crowd (Matt. 26:5). But Jesus was God’s Passover Lamb whose blood applied in faith would protect from God’s judgment. And so He was sacrificed during the Passover. The pagan soldiers divided His garment among them and cast lots for His tunic (John 19:23-24), as Psalm 22:18 predicted. Although the soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals on either side of Jesus, they did not break His legs, in order to fulfill Scripture (John 19:36). He was crucified with common criminals, and yet laid in the tomb of a rich man, as Isaiah 53:9 prophesied. The cross shows that God is sovereign over all things, including the so-called “free will” of sinners.
The cross also displays God’s holiness and justice. Sometimes unbelievers ask, “Why can’t God just forgive our sins? If someone wrongs me, I forgive him. Why did Jesus need to die for God to be able to forgive us?” The answer is, because God is absolutely holy and just. If He did not impose the legal penalty for sin to be paid, He would be like an unjust human judge, which is to say, He would not be God at all. As the Holy One, He has decreed that the wages of sin is death, which means eternal separation from Him in hell. On the cross, Jesus, as the unique God-man, bore that awful penalty for every sinner who trusts in Him. Thus God can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
The cross also demonstrates God’s love, mercy, and grace. He doesn’t show His love to pretty good people who deserve it. Rather, to display His grace, He justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Christ’s aim in His earthly ministry was to glorify the Father by accomplishing the work which He gave Him to do (John 17:4). Now, He prays that the Father would glorify Him with the eternal glory that He shared with the Father before the world was, so that He in turn would glorify the Father (John 17:1, 5). That prayer assumes Jesus’ deity and His full equality with the Father (John 10:30), who does not share His glory with any creature (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). As Jesus boldly claimed (John 5:23), “All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.”
While none of us can do what Jesus did when He glorified God by offering Himself on the cross, we can learn from His example. The apostle Paul said that his aim was that Christ would be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death (Phil. 1:20). He said that our aim in whatever we do should be to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31). To make God’s glory your aim means dethroning self and enthroning God. It means submitting to His mighty hand in all that happens, including persecution (1 Pet. 5:7-10). Contrary to the false “prosperity gospel,” God doesn’t exist to make you happy. Rather, you exist to glorify Him. Adopting that mindset will strengthen you to do His will in this hostile world.
C. God’s sovereign plan involves the Lord Jesus giving eternal life to all whom the Father had given Him.
Jesus prays that the Son may glorify the Father and then shows how that will be worked out (John 17:2), “even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.” Jesus is saying that He has authority over all people to give eternal life to some of them. That’s an amazing claim, which no mere man could make (see, also, John 3:35)!
I realize that what I’m going to say here will go against what some of you believe, but I urge you to meditate prayerfully on what Scripture says and to submit to it. Jesus could have said that the Father gave Him authority to give eternal life to all who believe in Him, which would have been true (John 1:12; 3:16). But that’s not His emphasis here. Rather, Jesus says that He has been given authority to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given Him. He repeats this designation in John 17:6 [2x], 9, & 24. The emphasis is on God’s sovereign choice to give some to the Son and on the Son’s authority to give eternal life to these people. As Jesus said (John 5:21), “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.”
Christ uses similar language in John 6:37, 39: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out…. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” Those whom the Father has given to the Son are responsible to come to Him; but Jesus says that there is no doubt that they all will come and that He will keep them, because their eternal destiny ultimately rests with God’s purpose, not with their will.
I’ve heard Bible teachers say that Christ will not override man’s free will, which of course makes man, not God, sovereign. They portray Christ as impotently pleading with sinners, “Oh, please, won’t you come to Me?” He isn’t actually able to save anyone, because He can’t violate their free will. He can only save those who choose to cooperate with His offer. One false teacher actually argued that if God is able to save everyone, but chooses only to save some, then He is immoral! That’s blasphemy! That view exalts proud man and it dishonors our Lord. It means that He failed in His mission to give eternal life to all whom the Father had given Him. And it means that you’re wasting your time to pray for the salvation of anyone, because God isn’t able to save him because of his stubborn free will!
So, why does Jesus in His prayer here emphasize His sovereign authority to give eternal life to all whom God has given to Him? He emphasizes it to teach us that His work on the cross is not in vain. Sinners crucified Him, but they could not thwart, but rather inadvertently fulfilled, God’s plan to give some to His Son so that He could give eternal life to them. God didn’t send His Son to die, hoping that somewhere, somehow, some would chose to believe in Him. Rather, God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and predestined us according to His purpose, “who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). So if we proclaim the gospel faithfully, we may suffer rejection and hostility, as Jesus did. But we can know that God will use the message preached to save all whom He has given to His Son.
Thus God’s sovereign plan centered on the cross, which glorified Him. That plan included giving Jesus authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom the Father gave Him.
D. The essence of the eternal life that Christ gives is that we may know the only true God and Jesus Christ.
In verse 2, Jesus states that eternal life is a gift, not something that we earn. The verb, “to give,” occurs 17 times in Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and more often in John than in any of the other gospels (Morris, p. 718, note 6). It puts the focus on God’s grace.
Then Jesus defines eternal life, drawing together verses 1 and 2 (John 17:3): “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The essence of eternal life is to know the only true God and to the extent that we know God, we see Him in all His glory. But we can only know God through His Son. Christ was sent to reveal the Father to us. As John 1:18 states, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” In John 14:9, Jesus told Philip, who had asked Jesus to show them the Father, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” In Matthew 11:27, emphasizing His sovereign choice again, Jesus claimed, “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”
Eternal life is not just quantitative (lasting forever), but also qualitative (the wonder of knowing the only true God and His Son, Jesus Christ). This knowledge of God and Christ is a personal relationship that begins the moment you believe, but deepens over time and throughout eternity. And so our aim should be that of the apostle Paul (Phil. 3:10), “that I may know Him.”
Jesus said that the world would crucify Him and persecute His people because “they have not known the Father or Me” (John 16:3). But Jesus could submit to the cross because He knew the Father perfectly. To the extent that we know God, we will be able to do His will, even when the world is hostile toward us.
Our Lord did God’s will in this hostile world because He recognized and submitted to God’s sovereign plan to glorify Himself through the cross. But there is one other crucial ingredient:
2. Jesus submitted to God’s sovereign plan through prayer.
The prayer recorded in this chapter, plus Christ’s agonizing prayer in the garden (of which we only have a summary), show us that He was able to do God’s will in this hostile world through prayer. We’ll be examining this prayer more in the weeks to come. But for now, note that Jesus prayed for something that He knew the Father had ordained to happen. Before the foundation of the world, God ordained that He and the Son would be glorified through the Son’s death, resurrection, and exaltation. Now Jesus says, “It’s time! Do what You have ordained to take place!”
Some people mistakenly conclude, “If God is absolutely sovereign and has promised to work all things after the counsel of His will, why pray? What will be, will be!” They use the same fallacious argument against evangelism: “If God has chosen who will be saved, why preach the gospel? Everyone who is elect will be saved!” But both of those erroneous conclusions overlook the fact that God ordains the means as well as the ends. His sovereign purpose comes to fruition as His people rely on Him in prayer and as they preach the gospel to all people.
Let me show you two examples, one regarding evangelism and the other regarding prayer. Regarding evangelism, in the context of talking about suffering hardship including his imprisonment for preaching the gospel, Paul said (2 Tim. 2:10), “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” They were chosen (the Greek word means, “elect”), but Paul had to suffer and preach the gospel so that they could “obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus.”
Regarding prayer, Daniel was reading the prophet Jeremiah, where God revealed that 70 years were determined for Israel’s captivity. He did the math and realized that the time was drawing near. But rather than saying, “Cool!” and sitting back to watch it happen, he said (Dan. 9:3), “So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” The rest of the chapter records his heartfelt prayer that God would do as He promised to do.
In Revelation 5:9-10, John sees the four living creatures and the 24 elders holding up bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood menfrom every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
But just because God prophesies that that will happen doesn’t mean that we are to sit back and say, “Cool!” Rather, it will happen when we pray and give and send out workers and preach the gospel and willingly suffer for the sake of the gospel. God will be glorified through the cross, but we need to understand His sovereign plan and submit to it through prayer and obedience.
- Why is God’s sovereignty not a doctrine to be debated, but rather a truth to be submitted to and applied?
- A critic sneers, “If God ordained the cross, then He is responsible for evil.” Your reply?
- How would you answer the false teacher who claimed that if God was able to save everyone, but only chose to save some, then He is immoral?
- If the essence of eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ, what in your life is hindering that process? What would further it? Readjust your schedule this week to reflect that priority.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
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