Listen: Christian Growth with Simon Manchester. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Simon Manchester presents a four-part series of messages on the great prayer of Jesus in John 17, often called “The Real Lord’s Prayer. This week, Part 3: Jesus Prays for the Apostles (b).
Part 3: Jesus Prays for the Apostles (b)
We are looking at the Prayer of John in chapter 17, a very brilliant prayer where Jesus prays for the 11 Apostles. It’s just before the arrest and just before the crucifixion, and we can see in the prayer what he longed for. And when we see what he longed for, we learn what to long for. If you have grown up with a praying mother (I’ve had the privilege of growing up with a praying mother), you know it is an immeasurable blessing to have someone who prays for you from the start.
And to have the Lord Jesus pray for you – who can measure what it means to have him pray for you. As the Scriptures tell us, he prays, and he intercedes for his people every day.
Now we’ve seen in John 17 so far Jesus prays for himself, slightly shocking that he would start with himself but he asks the Father to glorify him in the cross and then to glorify him in heaven because if the Father glorifies him in the cross, people will be saved and the Father will be glorified himself.
And then we saw last week that he begins to pray for the 11 Apostles, and we saw last week his prayer that the Father would keep them or guard them.
Now this sounds or could be a middle-class prayer really “Father life is a bit tough, would you please just guarantee that everything goes well, please watch over, keep them happy, keep them safe, keep them well”. But Jesus doesn’t pray that.
We know from history that probably 10 out of the 11 were martyred for their faith and so if Jesus was praying that they would be kept from suffering, his prayer was not heard or answered. But Jesus is praying “Father keep them one, keep them unified in the faith, in the salvation, look after them, look after their souls” – that’s what he’s praying.
We see a similar thing when Jesus was speaking to the disciples in Luke 21, and he said to them on one occasion, you know some of you are going to be put to death. And then he said, not a hair of your hair would be hurt. That’s the paradox, isn’t it?
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Some of you will be outwardly killed; you’ll lose your human life, but nothing will do damage to you. You will be made secure, you will be kept secure, and you will be carried through.
Praying That God Would Keep Them
Well, I’ve been reflecting on this “keeping prayer”, this prayer that God would keep his people. I’ve been thinking about it this week because I’ve been asking myself the question: “What happens if I pray for you that God would keep you?” What will God do? And what happens if you pray for me that God would keep me? What will God do, what will the Father do?
And this is where my imagination goes. It’s just sanctified imagination. Let’s imagine that I pray for you that God would keep you – that he would keep away a thousand dangers and as the Father hears the prayer that God would keep you and you begin to go through this new week.
The devil fires dozens of darts at you, and the Father causes those darts to miss the target!
The world is bringing a special tempting campaign towards you, and the Father causes the campaign to fail.
The sin (which is very real in our hearts and often scares us – it’s so terrible) is strangely subdued, and when you do get an inclination to do something sinful, your plan doesn’t work and when you get an opportunity to be quite sinful, you don’t have an inclination to be sinful because the Father has heard this prayer keep his people.
And of course on the positive side, if I was to pray that the Father would keep you or you were to pray that the Father would keep me, it’s possible that the truths of the Gospel, the truths of Jesus would come home to us with fresh application and urgency.
I’ve had the pleasure this week of meeting with a couple of men whose lives have hit absolute rock bottom, and they are ever so joyful – everything that is significant has come to them with new power and freshness, whereas for us so often there’s very little of the sort of down turn and very little of the up praise. But here are these men that I have met this week – the real bottom has fallen out of the world, and the joys and the truths and the treasures of the Gospel have come home to them with great new freshness.
And so it’s possible as we pray that the Father would keep his people that we are wonderfully and supernaturally protected, and we are also wonderfully and supernaturally enthused in the areas of truth and love and perseverance.And that’s what this great prayer “to be kept” I think is all about. We can be sure Jesus is wise when he prays. We would do well to take a leaf out of his book and put this little word “keep” into our prayer vocabulary. That’s what we looked at last week.
Father, Sanctify Them
Now today we come to the second in the Prayer for the Apostles, and this is the flip-side of the prayer, and it’s specifically in chapter 17 verse 17. You heard it read a few minutes ago where Jesus prays “Father sanctify them” and again in verse 19 he prays that “they may be sanctified”.
Now I doubt that there are many of us here this week who have prayed that anybody would be sanctified. It’s just not part of our vocabulary – it’s not the way we think. We might, of course, pray that somebody would grow in holiness, which is pretty well the same thing but as we will see in a minute, sanctification is more than just growing in holiness.
So what I want to do for these next minutes is to think with you first of all about getting the meaning clear – what does it mean when he says “sanctify these Apostles”?
And the second thing I want to do with you this morning is to just think briefly about the practicalities – how is this going to happen.
So let’s reflect on those two things.
What Does it Mean to Sanctify?
First of all getting clear on the meaning of the prayer in John 17:17 “Father sanctify”.
Now friends I do want to warn you that this is complicated, it’s just not an easy passage. It’s not an easy concept, and so we need just to keep asking the Lord to help us to get this because if we get it, we’ll get something.
Now there are two ways as most people here know that God sanctifies his people:
- Positional sanctification
- Progressive sanctification
You need to know the two to avoid confusion.
The first one is Positional sanctification – what this means is that God positions his people into a special place – he puts them in a position. Just as we might choose a team – I might select this morning ten people and say ‘would you, you, you, you & you, please stand over there – that’s a little-sanctified team. They’ve been positioned for a specific purpose – that’s positional sanctification.
That’s why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 6:11 “You (Christian people in Corinth) were sanctified”, he positioned you. He goes on to say “He washed you, he justified you, and it’s all been done”.
If I could make this even simpler that my guess is that everybody here this morning has two kinds of plates at home. There are the unwashed plates that are good for nothing at the moment, but the dishwasher or the sink and then there are the washed plates that are pretty well good and ready for anything.
Now when a person has been washed, justified and sanctified, they are useful to Jesus. And this is the first of these meanings of sanctification.
The other way that God sanctifies his people is Progressive Sanctification – slowly and steadily transforming Christian people into the likeness of the Lord Jesus – making us more holy. And that why Paul can say in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 “May God sanctify you completely” – it hasn’t happened yet. “May he sanctify you completely”. “He is faithful”, says Paul “He will do it”.
Now there are the two meanings – he has sanctified you if you are a Christian, he will sanctify you. You are in a position of sanctification (set apart or chosen); he will sanctify you, make you more holy and transform you into the likeness of the Lord Jesus.
And the classic verse in the New Testament is probably 2 Corinthians 3:18 where Paul talks about being transformed into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another.
Now when Jesus says in John 17:17 “Father sanctify them” – what is he saying? Is he saying position them or make them more holy?
Well, first of all, you notice that he is not preaching, he’s praying. He’s not yelling at the disciples “be more holy”. He’s not even telling them to read their Bibles, although we can see in verse 17 that the word of God is somehow involved in this.
I want to suggest to you that it is unlikely that Jesus is praying for Progressive Sanctification. It’s unlikely that he is saying “Father make them more and more holy”. That would be an absolute priority for Jesus that they would be more and more holy, but the context is that he is leaving them in the world for a particular task, position and role. And he says in verse 19, and this is the crunch I think the key, “for them I sanctify myself”. I position myself so that they will be positioned for usefulness (stay with me!)
Jesus is saying not ‘I make myself more holy’ – that’s impossible – he’s saying ‘I sanctify myself, I position myself, and I devote myself, and I consecrate myself’. And what he means by that of course is ‘I commit myself to the cross and the resurrection and the ascension because that will guarantee their security, safety, usefulness and faithfulness.
So I want to suggest to you that Jesus is praying for the positional sanctification of the Apostles. He’s asking the Father to put them in the place which is the world where they would be most useful and to keep them useful. And so the double prayer “Keep and sanctify” works like this – and if this is all you hear this morning, this is I think all you need to remember – he’s saying “Father keep them from a thousand spiritual dangers and sanctify them for one great priority”.
Protect Them From Spiritual Dangers
Now, friends, I have three children, I can’t think of anything more important to pray for my children – “Father keep them from a thousand spiritual dangers.”
I don’t mind if they are not wealthy, I don’t mind if they don’t all get married, I don’t mind if they are not happy, I don’t mind if they are depressed. But keep them from a thousand spiritual dangers and sanctify them (put them in the place which is your place) saved, useful and fruitful – that’s what he is praying. There is nothing more important to pray for loved ones. Now I keep thinking about how powerful it is to pray that God would sanctify loved ones. Especially because we are powerless, we just can’t do this; we do have to ask God to do this. We can’t get somebody safe from spiritual danger – I can’t guarantee this week that you’ll have no spiritual attack, but I could pray for your safety. I can’t make you keen (would that I could make you keen, would that you could make me keen).
Pastors every now and again tear their hair – I have a reasonable head of hair – and yet pastors tear their hair out every now and again thinking how do I get this person from 8 degrees Celsius spiritual lifestyle to 28 degrees and if possible 38 degrees? And sometimes congregations think the same – if only we had a keen pastor! Please make him keen for us!
Well, let’s pray for these things. We can’t make it happen.
Imagine we are committing a child to a new school: Can we control the circumstances of the playground? No, we can’t Can we make the child love the school? No, we can’t.
Imaging we are committing a child to learn to swim: Can we guarantee what the water and waves will be like? No, we can’t. Can we make the child love swimming? No, we can’t.
We are so limited, but when God works on somebody he can control the circumstances, and he can control the inclinations.
He can deal with the externals and the internals. He can deal with the situation, and he can deal with the desires. He is unbelievably worth talking to about this.
And therefore he can take a person who is young or old, and he can work in them so that they know Christ, just as we heard today of somebody who came to know Christ. He can work so that they come to love Christ and follow Christ and everything spill over from that. Everything important flows from that – so “Father Keep your people from a thousand dangers and sanctify them, position them for one great priority” – that’s what we are talking about.
How Does God Sanctify Us?
The second thing this morning, let’s get practical – how is this going to happen?
I want you to notice in verses 17, 18 & 19 there are three little words or phrases which need to be properly grasped.
The first is where Jesus says verse 17 “do it by the truth”. He says “Sanctify them in the truth” and then verse 18 “you sent me, I’ve sent them” and the third thing verse 19 “I sanctify myself so that they will be sanctified”. I put myself in the position where I should be so that they will be in the position where they should be.
You need to think about how this is going to work because these phrases can be quite mysterious and mystical and misleading if we don’t read them carefully.
I’ve been reading recently about some of the gaffs of the US Presidents. You know that political leaders say crazy things every now and again, and I think there is a whole book of these sorts of things but here are some of the gaffs which appeal to me and I am telling you this for a purpose. These are phrases which just leave you scratching your head not really knowing what to do.
George W Bush said on one occasion – “Families are where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream”. What do you do with that?
Listen to Eisenhower addressing the allied troops during World War II – “Do not needlessly endanger your lives till I give the signal”. Now there’s a rallying cry for you!
Or perhaps most famously Dan Quail, former Vice President who notably said on one occasion “If we do not succeed we run the risk of failure”!
But my favourite from Dan Quail is “friends no matter how rough the road may be, we can never and will never, never surrender to what is right”! It’s just hard to know what to do in response to that, isn’t it?
Now I mention that to you because is it not possible to sit in a building like this and to hear phrases and words and theological terms and they leave us quite mystified and paralysed. It’s like me appealing to you this morning “let’s all go and let’s all go with the truth and let’s all serve and let’s all do our mission together”. That’s just going to mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.
And when we read here in John 17 that Jesus says that we need the Word, we need to know that we are sent, and we need to know that everything is guaranteed because Jesus sanctified himself, some of this begins to take shape and clarity which we desperately need.
Mission and Service Versus Evangelism and Gospel
Now two Americans have written a book recently where they have traced the confusion of the church today back to some of the words and terms that have been used in the 1970’s. I don’t know if you realise this but back in the 1970’s there were debates and disagreements about whether the church should be doing evangelism or whether it should be doing social action. Some clever people came up with the word – “let’s say we are doing ‘mission’”. Now everybody was suddenly happy because ‘mission’ is not a Bible word. But suddenly everybody said ‘mission’ – and that sounds fine.
And Tom Cruise was happy – mission is fine – but what does mission mean? And the same type of language was used where people put gospelling work and loving your neighbour and said – let’s just call it ‘serving’ and everybody said that would be great – ‘serving’ we are all for serving.
But if I was to say to you this morning – would you please head out the doors and get into your mission and serve – what do we mean? It’s just too vague.
If you read the Book of Acts, and you look at the early Church – they were doing ‘mission’, and they were ‘serving’.
But as this book has pointed out:
- They were not caring for creation
- They were not planning social renewal
- They were not forming strategies to serve the community
You will find that they were telling and hearing the Word of God, lives were being changed and when lives were being changed everything was being changed. That’s what they gave themselves to.
So when Jesus says in John 17:17 “Father sanctify the Apostles” no wonder he says ‘put them into the truth. Sanctify them in the truth – your Word is truth. I am leaving them, and they are not going to be listening to me anymore. They are going to have the Word; they are going to have the Scriptures, and they are going to need to be in the truth otherwise they will get confused, and they will go in all sorts of directions.
So the first thing he says is “Sanctify them in the truth” and friends what that simply means is believe it or not the Bible is going to keep us clear, keen, united, faithful and useful. “Sanctify them,” says Jesus “in the truth” – your word is truth.
Jesus Was Sent and Now He Sends Us
The second thing he says is “I was sent” verse 18 “and I have sent them”. Now again this gets very confusing for the church because the church says – well we must be sent like Jesus. He was sent into the world, the Incarnation, and we must go and be the incarnation. But friends, we are never going to be the incarnation. Jesus was sent into the world to live perfectly and die in our place and rise from the grave, and we just don’t do that, and we can’t do that.
Even if we were just reading John’s Gospel together, what would we work out that Jesus’ big mission was?
We wouldn’t work out that it was to make everybody well because he turns his back on lots of sick people. But we would know that everything Jesus does is to help people have eternal life because it just comes up in every chapter. And everything that he says and everything that he does is to help people to have eternal life. And surely if that’s what he came into the world to make sure people could have eternal life – if we are going to be sent into the world to his people, pretty likely the big job is to help people have eternal life from which so much will flow.
Well we are Christians in the world, and Jesus says in John 17 that we are chosen out of the world, we are a picked team. I think we need to preach that to ourselves every now and again. I find it very hard to believe that I am a chosen person that’s because I think – oh I don’t deserve to be chosen, but I don’t deserve to be chosen, but I am a chosen person because he chose me by his grace. And you are a chosen person if you’ve put your faith in Jesus because of his grace. So if you have put your faith in Jesus, you are a chosen person.
And we also discover that we have been left in the world – he doesn’t take us straight to heaven, but he leaves us in the world – that’s why we are here.
How Can We Be Most Useful to God?
Some of you may be wondering why you are here – you’ve been left for a very great purpose. The question is not ‘why am I here’ – the question is ‘since I am here, how can I be most useful’? How can I be most useful to you God?
And then, of course, we are aliens – he says we are not of the world – we’ve got a different outlook on the world. We see Christ central to the world and the world sees self-central to the world. And then we’ve also become missionaries because we have been sent into the world.
So – out of the world, in the world, not of the world, into the world. Out of the world, in the world, not of the world, into the world – that’s how we are to think of ourselves.
And there is nothing better for us to do than to use our time well since we’ve just got a short span to help people to have life eternal. And that’s why you need to check whether this is just talking or whether it affects you pray and affects the way you plan and affects the way you give. Because if your praying and your planning and your giving have got nothing to do with the Gospel, check your pulse – something is wrong.
The Gospel Mission
It’s no good saying ‘I’m doing kingdom work’ unless people are kneeling before the King. It’s no good saying ‘I’m serving people’ if the Gospel is being hidden away and disciples are not being made.
One of the writers of this book says we want the church to remember that there is something worse than death, and there is something better than human flourishing, and we will work to relieve suffering especially eternal suffering.
So we need the truth, says Jesus, and we need the Gospel mission – the Gospel mission.
We Need Jesus
And the last thing (verse 19) is we need Jesus. We need him because he sanctified himself – he positioned himself for obedience and death and resurrection, and that’s what underwrites our security.
I don’t know whether the message has come to you every now and again which is just coming in all different directions? The message that has been coming to me from all different directions in my conversations with people and my reading with people is that we just don’t talk enough about how sinful we are! And yet it’s a great and important subject, and I’ve had people see me this week who have got to the very gutter of their sinfulness, and now they appreciate that they have a Saviour. They cannot believe how great Jesus is, they’ve hit the trough, and they are now absolutely full of gratitude.
One of the great dangers for us isn’t it is that we have sort of a shallow view of our sin, and therefore we have a shallow view of the rescue?
When we have a deep grasp of our sin – serious praise goes up. And that’s why John 17:19 is so meaningful because Jesus commits himself or sanctifies himself to save seriously sinful, terrible people like us.
This is the way [Martin} Luther described his sin: “It is the loss of uprightness; it produces a proneness to evil, a disdain for light and wisdom, a fondness for error and darkness, the avoidance of good and good works, in fact, an eagerness for doing evil. I am curved in on myself. I am an ingrown person” says the great Martin Luther.
Now when I read that I think to myself, well I’m just thankful he said that because that’s just what I am like. And that’s just what we are like. And that’s why the work of the Lord Jesus to come into the world and to sanctify himself, to set himself apart for the work of the cross and the resurrection for people like us is just unbelievably good – because he is dealing with the worst and saving the worst.
That’s why I hope friends that you won’t lose the value of this prayer that we might pray as Jesus prayed for the Apostles, and for loved ones that God would keep them and sanctify them, keep them from a thousand spiritual dangers and sanctify them for the one great priority of knowing Jesus and serving Jesus and following Jesus. There’s nothing to rival a prayer like that.
And everything else flows from it. So what could we do better than to ask this of a very kind God who has sent a very great Saviour.
– Let’s pray –
Our Father we thank you this morning for the way the Lord Jesus prayed so shrewdly for the Apostles. We thank you for this remarkable prayer that you would keep them from a thousand spiritual dangers, and we thank you that you did.
We thank you too for this prayer that you would sanctify them, commit them and position them for your purposes and that you did.
And we pray for ourselves, our Father because we are very prone to sin and very naïve that you would keep us from a thousand dangers in your kindness and power, and we pray that you would also sanctify us for the purpose for which you have put us in the world. We thank you so much that you have given us the Scriptures so that we would know your purposes. We thank you for sending us to be Gospel witnesses to the eternal life that Jesus died to bring, and we thank you too that he underwrote by sanctifying himself and guaranteeing our position, our security and our future.
We ask that you would hear our prayer so that we would be kept and we would be sanctified, and you would be honoured, and many people would be helped, and we ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.
- See the whole series, ‘ The ‘Real’ Lord’s Prayer — A Christian Growth Series .
- See more of Simon Manchester’s Christian Growth messages.
- See more on the topic of Prayer.