Based on a series of sermons preached in PCC Prayer Meetings in 2021
“I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”John 17:15-17
Prayer is easy. It is the soul talking with God. Yet prayer is also most difficult. How can a sinful creature of dust engage in meaningful conversation with the transcendently holy Creator of all heaven and earth?
It is no wonder that Christ, our elder brother, seeks to teach us how to pray in so many ways. We know the Lord’s Prayer is a pattern or template to teach us how to pray. He also teaches us principles of prayer through the writings of His apostles inspired by His Spirit. And He gives His Spirit to dwell in us to help us pray. But that’s not all. He also gives us examples of prayer: not only of His servants throughout the ages but of Himself. The most famous of these examples is, no doubt, what is traditionally called the High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17.
This was the prayer which our Saviour prayed as He concluded His Farewell Discourse on the night wherein He was betrayed. Much may be gleaned from this extraordinary prayer. But let us concentrate for the moment only on one specific aspect of prayer, namely, intercession for one another.
Now, to intercede is to plead on behalf of another person. So technically, when you pray for yourself, you are not interceding.
In His High Priestly Prayer, the Lord begins by praying for Himself (v. 1-5), then He prays for the disciples whom the Father had given Him (v. 6-19), and then He prays for others who would be directly or indirectly converted through the ministry of His apostles (v. 20-26). This means more than 80% of His High Priestly Prayer is taken up in intercession!
So what can we learn about intercessory prayer from this prayer of our Saviour? Consider three things.
a. First, it is instructive that the Lord indicates explicitly that He is not praying for the world, but for those whom the Father has given Him (v. 9). What does He mean by “the world”?
Since He contrasts the ‘world’ with those whom the Father has given Him, by “the world,” He must be referring to individuals. Who are these? Well, He is probably referring to all who remain in unbelief.
Does this mean that we should not pray for unbelievers? No, because He would—in the third part of His prayer—pray for those who would eventually be converted. And on the cross, He prayed for those who crucified Him who knew not what they were doing.
But by His example and testimony, our Lord indicates that while we ought to do good unto all men when we have the opportunity, it is not really our calling to pray for the physical condition or healing of the unconverted. I am not saying it is wrong to do so, but praying for their conversion is far more needful. I say this because some of us may think it is the duty of believers to pray for healing for anyone we know who is unwell. But no! Uncompassionate as it may sound, it is not.
b. Secondly, consider what the Lord asks for those whom the Father has given unto Him. These would refer to His disciples in the first place and to all other believers in the second place. What does He pray for them?
Notice, He prays not that they should be taken out of the world, nor does He pray that they would be spared from hardships. Instead, He prays that the Father would keep them from evil. What does that mean? Simply stated, it is a request that we may be kept from all spiritual harm. That essentially is the implication of the word ‘evil’ in the context.
Of course, the word could mean “any hurt,” but if that were the case, then the Lord’s prayer was not heard, for all the apostles suffered severe persecution. Only one escaped martyrdom! So it cannot be that the Lord has in mind that God should spare them from physical affliction. I am not saying that it is wrong to pray for physical healing or protection, else the Lord Jesus would not have answered the prayers of many who came to him for healing. As Calvin reminds us in his commentary on Psalm 38—it is never wrong to “ask an alleviation of [our] misery” when “constrained by dire necessity.”
But our Lord’s example shows us that it should not be the main focus of our intercessory prayers. Yes, we should pray for one another when we go through particular life trials, including illnesses, exams and losses. But our petitions should not be focused on the alleviation of misery. Instead, we should desire that those undergoing trial may be kept from temptation to evil and prosper spiritually through the difficulties they have to endure.
c. Thirdly, our Lord’s example also shows us the importance of interceding for each other’s sanctification. “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (v. 17). To sanctify is to make holy to set apart unto God. The Lord is praying for His disciples to be so affected and saturated with God’s Word that their lives will not only be pleasing to the Lord but a testimony to the world.
Christ is our King and our compassionate great high priest. We are called to be a royal priesthood. As priests, we are called to be intercessors as Christ is. How shall we intercede? Shall we not intercede for others and each other as Christ interceded for His people?
Let us remember the emphasis which Christ places on conversion and growth in grace. It is not that He did not care for the physical well-being of the people. He did. He fed the multitude on two occasions. But when it comes to intercessory prayer, His example shows that His focus is not on the temporal well-being of those He loves, but on their spiritual and eternal well-being.
May we learn from Him to pray for one another with the same spiritual and eternal focus. Let us pray for one another and others’ conversion. Let us pray for growth in the knowledge of God’s word and sanctification. Let us pray for one another during our trials that much spiritual and eternal good may be wrought through these times. Amen.