We may well despair of doing justice to the deep thoughts of this prayer, which volumes would not exhaust. Who is worthy to speak or to write about such sacred words? Perhaps we may best gain some glimpses of their great and holy sublimity by trying to gather their teaching round the centres of the three petitions, 'glorify' (vs.1, 5), 'keep' (v.11), and 'sanctify' (v.17).
I. In verses 1-5, Jesus prays for Himself, that He may be restored to His pre-incarnate glory; but yet the prayer desires not so much that glory as affecting Himself, as His being fitted thereby for completing His work of manifesting the Father. There are three main points in these verses-the petition, its purpose, and its grounds.
As to the first, the repetition of the request in verses 1 and 5 is significant, especially if we note that in the former the language is impersonal, 'Thy Son,' and continues so till verse 4, where 'I' and 'Me' appear. In verses 1-3, then, the prayer rests upon the ideal relations of Father and Son, realised in Jesus, while in verses 4 and 5 the personal element is emphatically presented. The two petitions are in their scope identical. The 'glorifying' in the former is more fully explained in the latter as being that which He possessed in that ineffable fellowship with the Father, not merely before incarnation, but before creation. In His manhood He possessed and manifested the 'glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth'; but that glory, lustrous though it was, was pale, and humiliation compared with the light inaccessible, which shone around the Eternal Word in the bosom of the Father. Yet He who prayed was the same Person who had walked in that light before time was, and now in human flesh asked for what no mere manhood could bear. The first form of the petition implies that such a partaking in the uncreated glory of the Father is the natural prerogative of One who is 'the Son,' while the second implies that it is the appropriate recompense of the earthly life and character of the man Jesus.
The petition not only reveals the conscious divinity of the Son, but also His willing acceptance of the Cross; for the glorifying sought is that reached through death, resurrection, and ascension, and that introductory clause, 'the hour is come,' points to the impending sufferings as the first step in the answer to the petition. The Crucifixion is always thus treated in this Gospel, as being both the lowest humiliation and the 'lifting up' of the Son; and here He is reaching out His hand, as it were, to draw His sufferings nearer. So willingly and desiringly did this Isaac climb the mount of sacrifice. Both elements of the great saying in the Epistle to the Hebrews are here: 'For the joy that was set before Him, [He] endured the Cross.'
The purpose of the petition is to be noted; namely, the Son's glorifying of the Father. No taint of selfishness corrupted His prayer. Not for Himself, but for men, did He desire His glory. He sought return to that serene and lofty seat, and the elevation of His limited manhood to the throne, not because He was wearied of earth or impatient of weakness, sorrows, or limitations, but that He might more fully manifest by that Glory, the Father's name. To make the Father known is to make the Father glorious; for He is all fair and lovely. That revelation of divine perfection, majesty, and sweetness was the end of Christ's earthly life, and is the end of His heavenly divine activity. He needs to reassume the prerogatives of which He needed to divest Himself, and both necessities have one end. He had to lay aside His garments and assume the form of a servant, that He might make God known; but, that revelation being complete, He must take His garments and sit down again, before He can go on to tell all the meaning of what He has 'done unto us.'
The ground of the petition is twofold. Verses 2 and 3 represent the glory sought for, as the completion of the Son's mission and task. Already He had been endowed with 'authority over all flesh,' for the purpose of bestowing eternal life; and that eternal life stands in the knowledge of God, which is the same as the knowledge of Christ. The present gift to the Son and its purpose are thus precisely parallel with the further gift desired, and that is the necessary carrying out of this. The authority and office of the incarnate Christ demand the glory of, and consequent further manifestation by, the glorified Christ. The life which He comes to give is a life which flows from the revelation that He makes of the Father, received, not as mere intellectual knowledge, but as loving acquaintance.
The second ground for the petition is in verse 4, the actual perfect fulfilment by the Son of that mission. What untroubled consciousness of sinless obedience and transparent shining through His life of the Father's likeness and will He must have had, who could thus assert His complete realisation of that Father's revealing purpose, as the ground of His deserving and desiring participation in the divine glory! Surely such words are either the acme of self-righteousness or the self-revealing speech of the Son of God.
II. With verse 6 we pass to the more immediate reference to the disciples, and the context from thence to verse 15 may be regarded as all clustered round the second petition 'keep' (v.11). That central request is preceded and followed by considerations of the disciples' relation to Christ and to the world, which may be regarded as its grounds. The whole context preceding the petition may be summed up in two grounds for the prayer -- the former set forth at length, and the latter summarily; the one being the genuine, though incomplete discipleship of the men for whom Christ prays (vs.6-10), and the latter their desolate condition without Jesus (v.11).
It is beautiful to see how our Lord here credits the disciples with genuine grasp, both in heart and head, of His teaching. He had shortly before had to say, 'Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known Me?' and soon 'they all forsook Him and fled.' But beneath misconception and inadequate apprehension there lived faith and love; and He saw 'the full corn in the ear,' when only the green 'blade' was visible, pushing itself above the surface. We may take comfort from this generous estimate of imperfect disciples. If He did not tend, instead of quenching, 'dimly burning wicks,' where would He have 'lights in the world?'
Verse 6 lays down the beginning of discipleship as threefold: Christ's act in revealing; the Father's, in giving men to Jesus; and men's, in keeping the Father's word. 'Thy word' is the whole revelation by Christ, which is, as this Gospel so often repeats, not His own, but the Father's. These three facts underlying discipleship are pleas for the petition to follow; for unless the feeble disciples are 'kept' in the name, as in a fortress, Christ's work of revelation is neutralised, the Father's gift to Him made of none effect, and the incipient disciples will not 'keep' His word. The plea is, in effect, 'Forsake not the works of thine own hands'; and, like all Christ's prayers, it has a promise in its depths, since God does not begin what He will not finish; and it has a warning, too, that we cannot keep ourselves unless a stronger Hand keeps us.
Verses 7 and 8 carry on the portraiture of discipleship, and thence draw fresh pleas. The blessed result of accepting Christ's revelation is a knowledge, built on happy experience, and, like the acquaintance of heart with heart, issuing in the firm conviction that Christ's words and deeds are from God. Why does He say, 'All things whatsoever Thou hast given,' instead of simply 'that I have' or 'declare'? Probably it is the natural expression of His consciousness, the lowly utterance of His obedience, claiming nothing as His own, and yet claiming all, while the subsequent clause 'are of Thee' expresses the disciples' conviction. In like fashion our Lord, in verse 8, declares that His words, in their manifoldness (contrast v.6, 'Thy word'), were all received by Him from the Father, and accepted by the disciples, with the result that they came, as before, to 'know' by inward acquaintance with Him as a person, and so to have the divinity of His Person certified by experience, and further came to 'believe' that God had sent Him, which was a conviction arrived at by faith. So knowledge, which is personal experience and acquaintance, and faith, which rises to the heights of the Father's purpose, come from the humble acceptance of the Christ declaring the Father's name. First faith, then knowledge, and then a fuller faith built on it, and that faith in its turn passing into knowledge (v.25) -- these are the blessings belonging to the growth of true discipleship, and are discerned by the loving eye of Jesus in very imperfect followers.
In verse 9 Jesus assumes the great office of Intercessor. 'I pray for them' is not so much prayer as His solemn presentation of Himself before the Father as the High-priest of His people. It marks an epoch in His work. The task of bringing God to man is substantially complete. That of bringing men by supplication to God is now to begin. It is the revelation of the permanent office of the departed Lord. Moses on the Mount holds up the rod, and Israel prevails (Exod. xvii.9). The limitation of this prayer to the disciples applies only to the special occasion, and has no bearing on the sweep of His redeeming purpose or the desires of His all-pitying heart. The reasons for His intercession follow in verses 9-11a. The disciples are the Father's, and continue so even when 'given' to Christ, in accordance with the community of possession, which oneness of nature and perfectness of love establish between the Father and the Son. God cannot but care for those who are His. The Son cannot but pray for those who are His. Their having recognised Him for what He was binds Him to pray for them. He is glorified in disciples, and if we show forth His character, He will be our Advocate. The last reason for His prayer is the loneliness of the disciples and their exposure in the world without Him. His departure impelled Him to Intercede, both as being a leaving them defenceless and as being an entrance into the heavenly state of communion with the Father.
In the petition itself (v.11b), observe the invocation 'Holy Father!' with special reference to the prayer for preservation from the corruption of the world. God's holiness is the pledge that He will make us holy, since He is 'Father' as well. Observe the substance of the request, that the disciples should be kept, as in a fortress, within the enclosing circle of the name which God has given to Jesus. The name is the manifestation of the divine nature. It was given to Jesus, inasmuch as He, 'the Word,' had from the beginning the office of revealing God; and that which was spoken of the Angel of the Covenant is true in highest reality of Jesus: 'My name is in Him.' 'The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe.'
Observe the issue of this keeping; namely, the unity of believers. The depths of that saying are beyond us, but we can at least see thus far -- that the true bond of unity is the name in which all who are one are kept; that the pattern of the true unity of believers is the ineffable union of Father and Son, which is oneness of will and nature, along with distinctness of persons; and that therefore this purpose goes far deeper than outward unity of organisation.
Then follow other pleas, which are principally drawn from Christ's relation to the disciples, now ending; whereas the former ones were chiefly deduced from the disciples' relation to Him. He can no more do what He has done, and commits it to the Father. Happy we if we can leave our unfinished tasks to be taken up by God, and trust those whom we leave undefended to be shielded by Him! 'I kept' is, in the Greek, expressive of continuous, repeated action, while 'I guarded' gives the single issue of the many acts of keeping. Jesus keeps His disciples now as He did then, by sedulous, patient, reiterated acts, so that they are safe from evil. But note where He kept them -- 'in Thy name.' That is our place of safety, a sure defence and inexpugnable fortress. One, indeed, was lost; but that was not any slur on Christ's keeping, but resulted from his own evil nature, as being 'a son of loss' (if we may so preserve the affinity of the words in the Greek), and from the divine decree from of old. Sharply defined and closely united are the two apparent contradictories of man's free choice of destruction and God's foreknowledge. Christ saw them in harmony, and we shall do so one day.
Then the flow of the prayer recurs to former thoughts. Going away so soon, He yearned to leave them sharers of His own emotions in the prospect of His departure to the Father, and therefore He had admitted them (and us) to hear this sacred outpouring of His desires. If we laid to heart the blessed revelations of this disclosure of Christ's heart, and followed Him with faithful gaze as He ascends to the Father, and realised our share in that triumph, our empty vessels would be filled by some of that same joy which was His. Earthly joy can never be full; Christian joy should never be anything less than full.
Then follows a final glance at the disciples' relation to the world, to which they are alien because they are of kindred to Him. This is the ground for the repetition of the prayer 'keep', with the difference that formerly it was 'keep in Thy name,' and now it is 'from the evil.' It is good to gaze first on our defence, the 'munitions of rocks' where we lie safely, and then we can venture to face the thought of 'the evil,' from which that keeps us, whether it be personal or abstract.
III. Verses 16-19 give the final petition for the immediate circle of disciples, with its grounds. The position of alienation from the world, in which the disciples stand by reason of their assimilation to Jesus, is repeated here. It was the reason for the former prayer, 'keep'; it is the reason for the new petition, 'sanctify.' Keeping comes first, and then sanctifying, or consecration. Security from evil is given that we may be wholly devoted to the service of God. The evil in the world is the great hindrance to that. The likeness to Jesus is the great ground of hope that we shall be truly consecrated. We are kept 'in the name'; we are consecrated 'in the truth,' which is the revelation made by Jesus, and in a very deep sense is Himself. That truth is, as it were, the element in which the believer lives, and by abiding in which his real consecration is possible.
Christ's prayer for us should be our aim and deepest desire for ourselves, and His declaration of the condition of its fulfilment should prescribe our firm adhesion to, and constant abiding in, the truth as revealed and embodied in Him, as the only means by which we can attain the consecration which is at once, as the closing verses of the passage tell us, the means by which we may fulfil the purpose for which we are sent into the world, and the path on which we reach complete assimilation to His perfect self-surrender. All Christians are sent into the world by Jesus, as Jesus was sent by the Father. We have the charge to glorify Him. We have the presence of the Sender with us, the sent. We are inspired with His Spirit. We cannot do His work without that entire consecration which shall copy His devotion to the Father and eager swiftness to do His will. How can such ennobling and exalted consecration be ours? There is but one way. He has 'consecrated Himself,' and by union with Him through faith, our selfishness may be subdued, and the Spirit of Christ may dwell in our hearts, to make us 'living sacrifices, consecrated and acceptable to God.' Then shall we be truly 'consecrated,' and then only, when we can say, 'I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.' That is the end of Christ's consecration of Himself -- the prayer which He prayed for His disciples -- and should be the aim which every disciple earnestly pursues.