We come now to our final consideration of the unforgettable words addressed by our Lord to the faithful eleven in the upper room and on the way toGethsemane. They should possess a special place in the hearts of all who would follow our Saviour worthily, for they are so rich in spiritual lessons. They contain truths expressed in the character of the Lord Jesus, and in his teaching.
We must endeavour to be conformed to his image, if we desire to belong to his family. None was more responsive to the teaching and example of Christ than the apostle Paul and he makes it clear how we must be conformed to the image of our Lord, for he alone is the complete and total image of his Father. So the Apostle reminded the Romans: “…if any man hath not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (8:9), while later in the same chapter, he declared: “For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (v. 29). Here is the picture of God’s family when it will be brought together, eternally, and all its members will share one likeness, that of the Lord Jesus, for he is the image of the Father.
Jesus and his kindred
The concept of a family transcending the normal human relationship was difficult for the Lord’s own family to grasp. During his ministry, the Lord seemed almost to disown his kindred. When they began to wonder whether the Lord was beside himself and Jesus received the message: “Behold, thy mother and they brethren stand without, seeking to speak to thee,” he responded in what might have seemed to Mary painful terms. Stretching forth his hands towards his disciples, he made the solemn declaration: “Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister and mother: (see Matt. 13:49-50, and Mark 3:31-35).
Here surely is the concept of God’s family. Hard though it was for his own kindred to take such an idea on board, nevertheless after the resurrection we see his mother and his brothers amongst his followers (Acts1:13-14; and note the contrast with John 7:2-5). If we seek first thekingdomofGodand his righteousness, our families will suffer no loss and the outstanding demonstration of this truth, as ever, is the Lord himself.
V. 21 Oneness is imperative
While the notion of God’s family is a truly grand concept, all too easily its unity can be fractured and it is with this that our Lord shows his preoccupation in the prayer of John 17:21: “That they may all be one; even as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me…that they may be one.”
What else is there here but the idea of the true unity of Christ’s followers. The history of mankind and of Christian society all down through the ages has demonstrated how easily division can occur, and how difficult it is to heal the breaches once they have been opened up. Yet the Lord shows us the way – the disciples can achieve this unity: as the Father was in His son, so must his followers be one in the Father and the Son.
This unity of Christ’s followers had a clear aim: “That the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Shortly, the Lord was to leave the apostles and the responsibility for continuing his work was to devolve upon them. Their unity in the common purpose of witnessing to the Lord and preaching the gospel of salvation was thus all important. The Acts show how real this unity was. Luke’s record contains no hint of discord between the apostles. While the leading part was played by Peter, in close association with John, the others worked in concert with them. The contrast with the occasional pettiness displayed during the Lord’s ministry is impressive and shows how much the apostles took to heart the Lord’s concern for their unity. This need for unity is as pressing a need today as it was in the first century.
V. 22 Unity is linked to glory
The Lord proceeds to demonstrate how he is to help the apostles in achieving the unity existing between himself and his Father: the glory he has received he has given to the eleven (v. 22). What are we to understand by this term glory in the present context? We must seek the answer by attempting to understand how that glory had been given to the Son. John seems to anticipate this saying of Christ by a declaration early in the gospel: there he affirms he and his associates have beheld the Lord’s glory, “full of grace and truth” (1:14), and later adds, “For of his fullness have we all received, and grace for grace” (v. 16). It would therefore appear the glory revealed in the Lord must be connected with grace — that patience, love and forgiveness he extended in such full measure to the apostles.
It was this glory in its various aspects which he had passed on to his apostles. As for the glory involved in suffering, we recall James the brother of John suffered martyrdom for his faith (Acts 12:1-2). In the case of Peter, he was told that in the manner of his death he would glorify God (see John21:18-19). If ever there is evidence of the spiritual progress achieved by the humble fisherman, it is surely in this passage. The searching question every disciple must ask himself or herself is, “To what degree have I understood and received this glory?” As the Lord shows, in the case of the apostles, the communication of the glory was to ensure that a unity would exist between them which would be a reflection of the unity between the Lord and his Father.
So important is this theme of oneness, the Lord pursues it further: “I in them, and thou in me” (v. 23). Yet again we note this word, “in,” is so immensely significant. As Paul understood — Christ in us is the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
Yet once more we find an expression of the Lord’s awareness that, as his successors, the apostles would make known that the Father had sent His Son. Moreover, the following statement must have deeply moved the men listening to him: God loved them, even as He loved His Son. How could that possibly be? Yet the love of the Lord God is truly all-embracing and can be a source of encouragement and strength to all disciples.
V. 24 The Lord wants his people with him
We are increasingly becoming aware that the themes in this sublime prayer are few, but they are fundamental – v. 24 is a further demonstration. The Lord begins simply: “Father,” for the Lord knows his Father is listening to him and responding, so he presents not so much now a request as a wish.
We note he acknowledges once more that the apostles are what God has given him, for he goes on to refer to them as “they.” He has already done this earlier in the chapter (see v. 6). The Lord himself occupies a special relationship with his Father, but he does not want to be alone. Accordingly he expresses the wish that they would share it with him, occupying as it were the same unique place before God, “That, where I am, they also may be with me.” It is only there, beside him, that they can behold his glory, the glory bestowed on him by the Father.
The Lord proceeds to speak of the love his Father bore to him before the foundation of the world. The expression does not occur here alone: thus Paul speaks of the believers being chosen in Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Peter, likewise, refers to the Lord’s sacrifice in terms which speak of him as a slain lamb, foreknown before the foundation of the world but manifested at the end of the times (I Peter1:18-20). Here we are confronted with the fact of God’s foreknowledge which surpasses our comprehension: the Lord God foresaw the sacrifice of His Son, before the existing order came into being (“the foundation of the world,” see also Rev. 13:8) but some of its outworking Peter himself had experienced. We thus have the concept of a divine purpose which controls the unfolding drama of human history and sees the end from the beginning.
As for God’s purpose in Christ, His eternal purpose, Paul has much to say in Ephesians 1:3-11 (v. 4 is already mentioned above). In this significant passage, the Apostle twice employs the term “foreordained.” Prophecy in its various forms is but a manifestation of God’s foreknowledge, which, like most of what concerns the Almighty God, is beyond our understanding. The great comfort for the believer lies in the conviction that nothing man does can frustrate the divine purpose to fill the earth with His glory through Jesus Christ His Son (see I Cor. 15:27-28).
V. 25 Righteousness the key
In verse 25, we meet once more concepts already encountered, but we note first the Lord refers to his Father as “righteous.” No description could be more appropriate. He alone can declare us righteous, free from sin, by the exercise of His mercy in the person of the one He has sent into the world. This His Son recognizes by referring to his Father as “righteous.” Because he acted so completely in harmony with his Father’s will, the Lord has become for us “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (I Cor.1:30).
Then the Lord contrasts his own knowledge of God with the ignorance of the world. We thus see how righteousness is linked with this awareness of what our God really is. It is no accident, and here we have a further demonstration of the unity of Scripture, that the prophet had declared this centuries before: “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify any: and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).
We note how prophetically the Lord is himself called “righteous” and that he was to justify, or declare righteous, “many.” This, in turn, is an anticipation of the Lord’s own solemn declaration when he instituted the breaking of bread and introduced the memorial wine: “For this is the blood of the covenant (AV: “new as a covenant”), which is shed for many unto the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28; see also Mark14:24).
Finally, we note in our consideration of verse 25, the Lord once more mentions that, contrasting with the ignorance of society at large, his apostles have known that he has been sent by his Father. What a comfort this was to him. We can dwell too much on the occasional failures of these faithful followers and forget they had been with Jesus for so long, sharing in the opposition from the Jewish leaders, finding themselves estranged from the synagogue (see once more John 9:22). The Lord had come to love them and we know their association with him is far from over (cf. Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:29-30).
V. 26 Love must be the binding force
In the very last of his prayer, the Lord claims once more he has made known his Father’s name to the eleven (cf. 15:15; 17:6). But this was to be an ongoing process, for the Lord indicates it is not over: “and will make it known.” This is but another token, amongst many, of the unique foreknowledge possessed by the Lord. He is aware how much more they will have to learn about the Father’s purpose in himself, and in the consideration of this subject we have had occasion more than once to remind ourselves of what we can learn from the book of Acts.
It is no surprise, as we intimated at the beginning of our study of this unique sequence of chapters, that the last words are about love: “That the love whereby thou lovest me may be in them, and I in them.” Who can question the love the Father bore to His son? It is doubtless beyond our comprehension to completely fathom this love in its depth and fullness. Yet it was our Lord’s wish for the apostles, as it is for us, that such love should be in us, as a very part of our being, and this can become a reality only if Christ dwells in our hearts by faith. There can be many criteria of acceptability before our Father but here, in the last words of this sublime prayer, is the supreme test for every disciple. As the writer of this gospel would later say: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him” (I John4:18).
So often we have referred to the great Apostle. He possessed and was driven by a great love for the one who had shown his love for him, Saul of Tarsus, the former relentless persecutor. It appears, therefore, appropriate to terminate this series with a quotation from one of his letters:
“As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and stablished in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6-7).