by John Brown of Haddington
With A Discourse On The Relation Of Our Lord's Intercession To The Conversion Of The World
The seventeenth chapter of the Gospel by John is, without doubt, the most remarkable portion of the most remarkable book in the world—"The Scriptures of truth, given by inspiration of God." These contain many wonderful passages; but none more wonderful than this—none so wonderful. It is the utterance of the mind and heart of the God-man, in the very crisis of his great undertaking, in the immediate prospect of completing, by the sacrifice of himself, the work which had been given him to do, and for the accomplishment of which he had become incarnate. It is the utterance of these to the Father, who had sent him.
What a concentration of thought and affection is there in these few sentences! How "full of grace," how "full of truth!" How condensed, yet how clear, the thoughts; how deep, yet how calm, the feelings which are here, so far as the capabilities of human language permit, worthily expressed! All is natural and simple in thought and language—nothing intricate or elaborate; yet there is a width in the conceptions which the human understanding cannot measure—a depth in the emotions which it cannot fathom. There is no bringing out of these plain words all that is seen and felt to be in them.
The greatest and the best men have been most deeply impressed with the peculiar character of this wonderful prayer. Luther says of it, "This is truly, beyond measure, a warm and hearty prayer. HE opens the depths of his heart, both in reference to us and to his Father, and he pours them all out. It sounds so honest, so simple—it is so rich, so wide, so deep, no one can fathom it." "A nobler, holier, more useful, or more pathetic utterance," says Melancthon, "was never made on earth or in heaven." It was the last portion of Scripture read to John Knox, by his own special request. The holy Spener, the honoured reviver of spiritual religion in the Lutheran church, when it had been all but lost in controversy and formalism, never dared to expound this chapter; for he confessed that "he did not understand it," and said that to understand it, in his apprehension transcended "the measure of faith" usually communicated to Christians during their pilgrimage: yet did he love it with a peculiar affection, and sought to soothe his departing spirit during his dying hours, by having it read to him again, and again, and again.2
We should never read or meditate on any of the declarations of the word of God without feeling that we are "on holy ground." But here assuredly we are not only in the holy land, in the holy city, in the precincts of the temple: we are in the temple itself; nay, we are in its inmost adytum, not only in the holy place, but in the holy of holies. We are called on to listen to the incarnate Son, telling his Father in heaven what he thought and what he desired in reference to the work in which the glory of God and the salvation of men were equally involved; to see him unveiling the hidden mysteries of wisdom and kindness in the economy of grace, disclosing the immeasurable vastness of its plans, and the infinity of the love which formed and executed them.
The composition before us is a prayer. And what is prayer? Prayer is uttered desire; desire is its soul, utterance its body. Prayer to God, then, is very appropriately described in our Catechism as "the offering up of our desires" to him.
So far as the soul of prayer is concerned, our Lord "prayed without ceasing." His whole life was an unbroken prayer. He constantly realized the presence of his Father—He was ever with HIM—and his desires were constantly going forth towards the accomplishment of what he knew to be according to HIS will. He not unfrequently, however, yielded to that law of the human constitution, that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh," both because it was natural and agreeable to do so, and for the purpose, as Tholuck says, of "leading his followers into the sanctuary of his heart, and of raising them along with himself to God."
Vocal prayer seems indeed to have been habitual with our Saviour. Immediately on the commencement of his public ministry, we find that, after a short repose following a day of unremitting beneficent labour, "he rose up a great while before day, and went out and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed." We hear afterwards of his spending a whole night on a mountain in prayer to God. We read frequently of his "prayers and supplications," sometimes "with strong crying and tears," during "the days of his flesh,"3—his life of toil and suffering; and it was in praying that he ceased to speak and to breathe. "When he had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit: and having said this, he gave up the ghost."
The prayer before us is by far the longest of our Lord's recorded prayers. It is not, like what is ordinarily termed the Lord's Prayer, primarily intended as a form to be used, or even as a pattern to be copied, by his followers. That was a prayer, all of which he could not present. This is one, much of which we cannot present, much of which none could present but he who uttered it. Its substance and its manner equally betoken that it is fit for the mouth only of "the great High Priest of our profession."
Yet the same spirit animates both these wonderful compositions. In both the display of God's glory is represented as the supreme object of desire, that which is to be sought first: in both, too, the blessings chiefly solicited for man are heavenly and spiritual blessings; and thus, within certain limits, not difficult to define, this prayer is fitted to serve as an example.
In the course of our illustration of it, we shall indeed find that it teaches us much important truth as to the subjects, the manner, and the ground of prayer; what we should pray for, how we should pray, and through what channel and on what foundation we are warranted to expect the answer of our prayers; and that had he not prayed, did he not continue to pray, as he prays here, it would be to little purpose that we should pray.
Apart from the light which it casts on the Saviour's character, perhaps the justest view, the most interesting aspect in which we can contemplate this prayer, is as the model of that intercession which he, as our ever-living great High Priest, continually makes for us on the ground of his completed and accepted sacrifice, in the true holy of holies, in the immediate presence of God. Let us, with sacred awe and holy delight, proceed to consider it somewhat more closely, that we may, so far as is practicable, apprehend its meaning, and feel its elevating, transforming, soothing power.2
This prayer is introduced to our notice by a few words remarkable for their appropriateness, simplicity, and beauty,—"These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said." The reference of "these words" is fixed by the expression "these things," in the close of the last chapter: "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace." They obviously refer to the whole consolatory discourse recorded in the three preceding chapters; and the declaration before us is just equivalent to, 'When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and audibly uttered the following prayer.'2 He had said all that a wise kindness could dictate, to sustain and guide his disciples in the singularly trying circumstances in which they were about to be placed, by his being removed from them, in a way so remote from their expectations, so abhorrent to their feelings; and as the hour was just at hand for that separation,—so necessary, yet so painful,—he employs the few moments which remained in commending them to the care of his Father and their Father, his God and their God. In this he sets us an example and teaches us that, when we have done all we can in the way of promoting the holiness and comfort of those with whom we are connected, we should, in prayer and supplication, beseech him, who is the author of all good, to bless the objects of our care, and the means we have been employing for their welfare.
Our Lord "lifted up his eyes to heaven." They had probably been hitherto fixed with benignant regard on the disconsolate disciples. Now, as a token that he was about to engage in prayer, he lifts his eyes upwards—not as if he thought that the "heaven," or "the heaven of heavens," could contain Jehovah, or that the Father was far from him, but because heaven is conceived of as the region where the divine glories are most fully displayed, and therefore termed the dwelling-place and throne of Jehovah. The gesture naturally expresses abstraction from worldly thoughts, deep veneration, and holy confidence. It is well remarked by Calvin, "He looked up to heaven, not because God is enclosed there,—for he fills the earth also,—but because the aspect of the heavens admonishes us that the Divinity is exalted far above all creatures. By this act, indeed, Christ testified that, in the affection of his mind, he was rather in heaven than on earth; and thus, having left all men behind, he held a familiar colloquy with God." It has been remarked, too, and the observation is ingenious, "He did not turn his eyes towards the holy of holies in the temple, as the Levitical high priest did, but towards heaven itself, the true holy place, into which he was soon to enter, to appear in the presence of God for his people."
Assuming the attitude, our Lord immediately engages in the exercise of prayer. This he might have done silently; but he chose, and for obvious reasons, to present his petitions in an audible voice. Prayer is not necessarily vocal. When Hannah "prayed before the Lord," she "spoke in her heart;" and though her lips moved, they gave forth no sound. Nehemiah silently prayed to the God of heaven in the presence of the Persian king;2 and we know that some of the most acceptable prayers are expressed "in groanings which cannot be uttered." But in many cases, the employment not only of language, but of vocal, uttered language, is not merely useful for controlling wandering thoughts, fixing the mind, and increasing the impression, but is requisite to gain the object in view.
There was no danger of our Lord's thoughts wandering, or his devotional feelings becoming languid; but one leading object of the offering of this prayer was, that not only the interests of his disciples should be secured, but that they should be made aware of this, that they might see how strong a hold they had of his affections, and might be assured that, wherever he might be, all his influence with his Father would be employed for their advantage. He intimates this in very plain terms at the 13th verse: "These things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves;" as if he had said, 'These are intercessions which in heaven I will never cease to make before the throne of God; but I make them now in this world, in their hearing, that they may the more distinctly understand how I am there to be employed in promoting their welfare, that they may be made, even here, in a large measure partakers of my happiness.'
These remarks seem all that are necessary for illustrating the few striking words with which the prayer is introduced. Let us now turn our attention to the prayer itself.
It divides itself into the address; the prayer, strictly so called, or the petitions; and the conclusion. THE ADDRESS, "Father" (ver. 1), "Holy Father" (ver. 11), "Righteous Father" (ver. 25);—THE PETITIONS—including under that head not only the requests, but the reasons for the requests, the pleading as well as the asking—arrange themselves under three heads: petitions in reference to himself (vers. 1–5), petitions in reference to the apostles (vers. 6–19); petitions in reference to his true followers in all countries and in all ages (vers. 20–24);—THE CONCLUSION (vers. 25, 26). Such is the general division of the prayer, so simple and natural.
Table of Contents
PART I. THE ADDRESS.— John 17:1, 11, 25: "Father," "Holy Father," "Righteous Father"
§ 1. "FATHER" 1. Whom does the term designate? 2. What does the term indicate? (1.) Relation (2.) Affection
§ 2. "HOLY FATHER"
§ 3. "RIGHTEOUS FATHER"
PART II. THE PRAYER
§ 1. HIS PRAYER FOR HIMSELF.—John 17:1–5
§ 2. HIS PRAYER FOR HIS APOSTLES.—John 17:6–19
§ 3. HIS PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL.—John 17:20–24
PART III. THE CONCLUSION.—John 17:25, 26
NOTE A. The import of the Father "giving" persons to the Son, John 6:37
DISCOURSE ON THE RELATION OF OUR LORD'S INTERCESSION TO THE CONVERSION OF THE WORLD
PART I. THE DOCTRINE OF OUR LORD'S INTERCESSION GENERALLY
PART II. THE DOCTRINE OF OUR LORD'S INTERCESSION IN REFERENCE TO THE CONVERSION OF THE WORLD
§ 1. The conversion of the world a subject of our Lord's intercession
§ 2. The means of the conversion of the world a subject of our Lord's intercession,
PART III. PRACTICAL BEARING OF THE DOCTRINE OF OUR LORD'S INTERCESSION FOR THE CONVERSION OF THE WORLD
No. I. Connection between the visible union of Christians and the conversion of the world. By HUGH HEUGH, D.D.
No. II. The basis and object of the EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE
No. III. Some objections to the EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE considered