It was May of 1992, my last Sunday as the pastor of a congregation I had served for sixteen years. I loved the pastoral ministry, at least on most days. But I had undergone a unique call to embark upon a mission of renewal to the church-at-large. So at forty-three years of age I was saying “good bye” to my people. I struggled for the right words in my final sermon. I knew the emotions on this day would be particularly powerful. I was quite unsure what to preach. I decided to finish chapter seventeen in the Gospel of John (17:20-26). I had been preaching through John’s Gospel for nearly three years! (What can I say, I had learned a method of verse-by-verse expository preaching and had not yet realized the problems with preaching such a long series of sermons!)
What I did not know that day, as I recounted in the early part of my book Your Church Is Too Small (Zondervan, 2010), was just how much this final sermon would change my life. I seriously doubt that anyone else was impacted by this message in the way that I was on that sunny day. This one sermon proved to be the unexpected turning point in my life.
The words I carefully pondered in John 17 became life to me when I understood that Christ was opening up his heart to the Father in this prayer. These words were spoken on the eve of his crucifixion. If you read the chapter carefully you will see that Jesus speaks directly to his heavenly Father, not to his disciples. This is not a model prayer given for us to pray but rather the Lord’s personal prayer offered to his Father. His disciples overheard it, or perhaps John alone heard it. Why would Jesus allow us to hear words from a private, deeply personal, prayer?
Chapter 17: The (True) Lord’s Prayer
The situation of the final evening our Lord spent with his disciples changes significantly in John 17. We read, “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you . . .’” (verse 1). This prayer, which can be visually seen in three concentric circles, is addressed to the Father by Jesus for himself. In the second circle he prays for his disciples and then in the third for all those who would believe through the teaching of his disciples down through the ages.
Though these words are directed by Jesus to his Father he clearly wanted his disciples (and us) to hear them. He invites us to eavesdrop on his most intimate words. When we hear Jesus we are struck by the sublime content of these petitions and intercessions. We soon realize that all our attempts at interpretation fall far short of plumbing the depths of his amazing prayer. We should do a more careful study of the words. This can lead to better exposition. But in the end we will likely have to confess that the only way to respond to this prayer is through a personal experience granted to us by the Holy Spirit. Rational probing does not open up the mystery of these words.
In fact, the ideal attitude [to this prayer of Jesus] would be a calm, contemplative gaze rather than an impatient, analytical examination. Only such respectful pondering will enable us to “locate” the mysterious presence of God and thus prepare the way for loving adoration. The holy intention of our Lord clearly exceeds our small and narrow confines.