John 17 – A High Priestly Prayer?

In March I was asked by a student to participate in the presentation of his ordination papers and to pray over him. This was a bit of an honor, since this event was in a real sense sending the man off to pastor a church. Our own church witnessed the same sort of thing when two recent graduates were presented their papers before the congregation. Both men were prayed over by someone and they too were “sent off” to do the ministry for which they had been preparing.

John 17 is a prayer of consecration, a final prayer before the arrest and execution of Jesus. The disciples were given to Jesus by the Father, Jesus as taught them and passed God’s word to them, and now they are going to be sent into the world. They are in need of protection since the world will hate them just as it hated Jesus (John 16:1-4).

This chapter is often titled “Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer” by Bible editors and in commentaries. According to Carson, this designation is as old as David Chytraeus (1530-1600), and is so common that it is difficult to call the chapter anything else. The icon image I used in this post dresses Jesus as a priest and gives him the title of “Eternal High Priest.”  Even the ESV calls this the “The High Priestly Prayer.”  Certainly Jesus is called the Great High Priest in Hebrews, but there is little else in the New Testament which uses that metaphor for Jesus.

But that is not how John presents the prayer, there is no implication that Jesus is functioning as a priest here, and it is difficult to know what a “priestly prayer” might be in a first century context. Perhaps the idea of intercession is what points preachers to call this a priestly prayer, but even this fails when one reads the prayer – Jesus is not interceding on behalf of his disciples!

Certainly Jesus is praying for his disciples, but the prayer is focused on how the disciples will be tested in the next few days, during the crucifixion and the time Jesus is in the grave. There is a real spiritual crisis of faith coming for these men as they will witness the arrest of their leader, the one they thought was God’s messiah. They will all deny their Lord in some way, from Peter’s famous denial to the more implicit denial of fleeing the garden. For the days after the execution of Jesus, these disciples will experience extreme doubts a perhaps even despair over the death of Jesus.

But after the resurrection, when their joy is restored, they will face increased persecution and pressure from both outsiders (who want to silence them) and insiders (who question who Jesus was and what he did on the Cross). Jesus is praying not only for their protection over the next three days, until the resurrection, but for their unity until he returns in power and glory.