Praise and Prayer
OUR LORD was often in the prayer of God, but it is seldom that we are given a record of the words that He used or the contents of His petitions. But in John's account, a whole chapter is devoted to His communion with the Father. We are taken, so to speak, into the very holy of holies, and are given the precious privilege of listening to the most marvelous and intimate interchange of thought between the Son and the Father in regard to His mission to Israel on the earth. The circumstances are such that we would expect a recital of the sins that surround Him and a plea for protection from the evil devices of the adversary. Instead, as becomes the golden altar of incense, He is occupied with His glories and those of His disciples.
In meditating on any passage in the accounts of our Lord's life it will help us much to get an intelligent grasp of its message if we keep in mind which account contains it, and in what part of each account it occurs. This is comparatively simple if we keep in mind their skeletons as given at the end of the Keyword Concordance. For those who have not, as yet, one of these in their possession, we will repeat, briefly, the important facts, so that we may understand the crisis which called for the Lord's lengthy prayer in the seventeenth of John.
Christ's glory and His humiliation are the two great themes which are set forth in the accounts of His life and ministry. Matthew writes of His glory as the King of Israel, while John correspondingly reveals this glory as the Son of God. Mark and Luke are occupied principally with His humiliation, the former as the Servant and the latter as the Son of Man. We should remember this in reading them, and place them as the backdrop of every scene and incident they contain. For example, the Lord's prayer in John is not based upon His royal rights, His lowly service or His descent to human form, but upon the glory of His divine sonship.
Furthermore, all of the accounts have the same general skeleton, that is, they treat of the same subjects in the same order. Each one has a central crisis, after which the same subjects again occupy our attention, but in reverse order. Up to the crisis He is heralded, after the crisis He is rejected. It is often vital to the understanding of a passage to keep these things in view. The standard formula for all of the accounts may be condensed to this: Credentials, Baptism, Kingdom, King : : King, Kingdom, Baptism, Credentials. For example, our Lord's prayer, which we are about to consider, occurs at the end of the rejection of the Kingdom, and can be understood and appreciated only as we view it in this light.
More definite and detailed indications of what to expect in our Lord's prayer can be gained if we trace the matter still further in the skeleton. The period dealing with the rejection of the kingdom (John 11:54-18:1), divides into two corresponding sections, both of which deal with His departure (11:-54 = 12:-36), hostility (11:55-12:19 = 12:37-50), and the hour of His glorification (12:20-36- = 13:1-17:26), but the former half is concerned with the throng and the Greeks, the latter with the disciples and the Father. In this latter discussion of His glorification, He first speaks to His disciples (13:1-16:33), then prays to His Father (17:1-26). Such is the setting of this most marvelous of the communications between the Son of God and His Father.
A SHORT INTRODUCTION
To condense it briefly, in a single sentence: God reveals Himself in Christ in the Greek Scriptures, veiled in flesh in the four Accounts, as the Son of God in John, as communicating with His Father in regard to the rejected kingdom and His disciples in our Lords prayer in the seventeenth chapter of John. If all expositors would introduce their subjects after this fashion, tracing them, figuratively speaking, from the main stem, through the big boughs and the diminishing branches to the fruit, we would not so often be deceived, and be handed a lemon picked from a sycamore tree, or an olive from a fig. We should always view every passage in the light of its place in the whole of God's revelation, and in each secondary division in which it finds its place. Then we would never take or apply or appropriate (or purloin, or pilfer, or filch, or steal) a prayer which belongs to our Lord's disciples, and pertains to His kingdom at its rejection, for ourselves, especially when we can enjoy it much more when we leave it to its rightful owners.
Ever since His rejection as King, after the Jews sought to kill Him, He no longer walked in Judea (John 7:1), and began His return to the Father. He had come out from God and now was on His way back to Him. Significantly, this, the principal crisis in His career on earth, came at the festival of tabernacles (John 7:2). It suggests that, as in the days of the tabernacle in the wilderness, the priest, in passing into the presence of God, made his way by the altar and laver in the court, and the lampstand and showbread and golden altar in the holy place, and passed the curtains into the holy of holies with its ark and cherubim and the shekinah glory, so now He, in the same order, wends His way back to the Father. Indeed, the narrative commences with a suggestion of His sacrifice, for the Jews were out to kill Him.
The prayer itself can best be grasped and enjoyed when we see the subjects and their marvelous balance. At its commencement (1-8) and at its close (24-26) we are occupied with the Glory of the Son. Then, second, as well as second from the end, is a plea for Unity (9-11:20-23). In the center, the subject is the Keeping of the Disciples. This divides into two complementary parts, Christs keeping (12-14) and Gods (15-19). In general, the Son is the subject at the beginning and the end, just as He is First and the Last in the greater themes of creation and salvation. And the center is taken up with the Disciples, their Unity, and Protection. Yet all of this is in view of the failure of the Kingdom heralding, and His consequent departure.
He Himself is the Way, the true and living Way (John 14:6). No one else can come to the Father except through Him. But He is also represented by all that is on the way. He is the Door, as well as the Shepherd Who lays down His soul for the sake of the sheep (John 10). He is the Laver, but not alone for outward cleaning. He provides life-giving water which not only hallows but satisfies and vivifies (John 7:37-39). He is also the Lampstand, for He is the Light of the world, and gives the light of life (John 8:12). He makes even the blind to see (John 9:1-6). At the so-called last supper, He is the Show-bread, or bread of the presence, and shares Himself with the disciples (John 13). And then, in the prayer He offers, we recognize Him as the Incense as well as the Golden Altar, just before the curtain. Soon after this, the Curtain was rent and He became the Propitiatory. But, at this time He stops before the altar to offer incense in this most marvelous of all His prayers.
INCENSE AT THE GOLDEN ALTAR
Christ is the Antitype of the golden altar on which incense ascends as a savor of rest up to the Deity. Only through Him can we send up to God our prayers of appreciation and praise. This incense was of a very special composition, and was used only for the worship of Jehovah. As all else in God's dwelling places was designed to be a physical representation of spiritual realities, we may be certain that the ingredients which composed it will tell us much of the composition of that which pleases and glorifies God in His worship. We will therefore consider each of its components and seek to discover what qualities will yield a fragrant odor when offered on the altar, Christ.
Strange as it may seem, almost all have some most disagreeable quality, bitterness, or blackness, or a bad odor, so that they offend one of our senses, taste, sight or smell, tongue, eyes or nostrils. This may be divine illustrations of the function of evil in the eons. When substances which are repugnant to our senses are transformed by the fire into sweet, soothing incense, it may help us to see how God transmutes the evils which we abhor into sweet praise for His name. Bitter burdens, black experiences, bad behavior, all may be turned, by the alchemy of His sacrifice, into light loads and bright events and good conduct, which ascends to the presence of God, in worship and adoration, through the cross of Christ, our Lord.
INGREDIENTS OF THE INCENSE
The material ingredients of the incense used on the golden altar are not accurately known, but we have endeavored to sift the evidence very carefully (Lev.30:34). The first one is simply called a drop (ntph) in Hebrew, the same word used in Job 36:27 for drops of water. The Greek version calls it staktee, our stacte, which also means drop, but was used of special kinds of aloe or cinnamon or myrrh. The Septuagint is woefully loose in this case, as staktee is used of aloe, of labdanum and of carbuncle, as well as of myrrh. An ancient author, speaking of myrrh, says the drops which exude from the tree of their own accord, without an incision, is called stacte, i.e. drop, which makes the best of all myrrh. So it seems that the principal ingredient of the incense used in the worship of God by Israel, was drop myrrh, the natural, not artificial exudation, which probably exceeded all others in its bitterness.
And is not this in fullest and finest accord with the spiritual ingredients of praise and worship, especially in the case of our Lord? The fumes ascending from myrrh are most agreeable, but it is so exceedingly bitter to the taste that the Hebrew name is simply the stem mr of the word mrre, bitterness. His course, since he left the Father and began his messianic ministry, was bitterly bitter. His own brothers did not believe on Him. His neighbors tried to hurl Him to death. His people rejected Him. The scribes derided Him. The priests and elders sought to murder Him. All His efforts seemed to be a complete failure. Instead of the crown of the kingdom, He was about to be wreathed with thorns. Instead of the most glorious throne on earth, He was soon to occupy the most ignominious and shameful place in the universe, gibbeted as a dangerous criminal on the cross of shame.
He has endured it all, and in this way has glorified God on the earth, and finished the work God gave Him to do. There is a tremendous lesson here for those who have eyes to see it. During the evil eons, glory comes to God, not through great success, not through the winning of vast multitudes for Him, but through bitter experiences of defeat and through a few faltering followers, and rejection by the religious world. In this regard, our course should agree with His, for we know that mankind as a whole will repudiate the evangel of God's grace just as Israel rejected the gospel of the kingdom. And glory arises today from this bitter way, and ascends to the nostrils of God as incense, a restful perfume most acceptable to Him, when His messengers to the nations are persecuted, just as it did when the great Herald of the kingdom was despised and forsaken, except by a faltering few. The incense that ascends from a martyr, burning at the stake, is the delight of God's heart.
The second ingredient is also much easier to understand spiritually than to ascertain materially. It is simply black. This is applied to the black lion, because this color is so unusual. Here it seems to indicate the black murex shell, which was the base of most oriental forms of incense. Spiritually, the name is most suggestive, for it points to everything that is black, or opposed to the light. Just as the bitter is most unpalatable to the taste so the black is unwelcome to the eyes. Just as the persecution He endured was bitter to His soul, but fragrant in God's nostrils, so the depravity of men, which appalled Him and cast a gloom upon His spirit, ascended to God as a sweet odor when fumed upon the altar.
Galbanum, the third ingredient, gives us another contrast. Its Hebrew name, chlbne, seems to be a combination of chlb MILK or fat and lbn WHITE, that is, MILK-WHITE. It was probably a gum resin which resembles asafetida, with the same fetid odor. The myrrh was bitter to the taste, the murex was black to the sight, now the galbanum is a stench to the nostrils. So was our Lord's ministry an offense to His people.
But not all the ingredients of the incense which ascended on the golden altar are disagreeable to the soul in their native state. The frankincense was a fragrant gum resin, agreeable to the eyes and, though it has a faint turpentine flavor, is not bad to the taste. So with the spiritual counterpart. In our Lord's ministry, and in all efforts for God's glory during the evil eons, there is a measure of pleasure as well as pain, there are men who hear as well as the many who will not harken, some who see as well as the majority who are blinded, and those who accept with pleasure as well as masses who are offended. Frankincense by itself is the usual incense today, and this is an apt ingredient to picture God's pleasure in that which is in accord with His will.
The only other ingredient seems to have been salt. This was added to keep it from going to corruption, as, indeed, it is widely used today. Our Lord knew no corruption, not even of His is flesh, in death. So it is not one of the ingredients of the incense, but an added element which is most necessary when we seek to solid up our worship in the incense of praise and adoration. It seems to suggest that which was largely lacking in Israel's worship, but abundant in our Lord's career, that is discipline. If the walk is corrupt, the worship is a stench in the nostrils of God. No matter how it appears outwardly, no matter how vast and successful our career may be, if it does not conform to the Scriptures, it lacks the salt, apart from which God is not well pleased.
Our Lord cannot be accused of lack of love, for He gave His whole soul for the salvation of the lost. Nevertheless, there were times when He seemed to be excessively harsh. When He exposed the Pharisees He called them the progeny of vipers (Matt.3:7). Even when He rebuked a beloved disciple, He did not hesitate to use a term which we could not use without reflecting upon our own conduct. He called Peter a satan, the Hebrew title of the adversary (Matt.16:23). This salt was rather sharp, but it was most necessary. The disciples were the salt of the earth, but how could they be if they themselves were corrupt in their conduct?
The offerings also demanded salt. It must not be lacking. On the other hand, no leaven or yeast or even honey was allowed on the present or meat offering (Lev.2:11-13). They could have oil and frankincense, but no honey. Does this not suggest to our minds such natural sweetness as conflicts with God's will and condones evil? A father should be fond of his child, but he should not fail to admonish and correct it on that account. We should be fondly affectionate with our friends, but let us not allow this to influence our attitude in case of misconduct. Honey is good (Prov.24:13) yet it is not good when eaten in excess (Prov.25: 27). It should not interfere with helpful discipline, or enter into our spiritual relationships. Its sweetness should never be found in the incense of praise and prayer. Our Lord did not include a petition for Judas.
THE GLORIFICATION OF THE SON
The opening and closing thoughts of this prayer reveal to us the very heart of God's purpose in the Greek Scriptures, as well as the method of attaining it. God's glory is made manifest in the glorification of His Son. On the other hand, He imparts eonian life to make it possible for His disciples to get this knowledge. It is a marvelous condensation of the object of all creation and revelation. God is inherently and infinitely glorious, but it is far too bright for mortal gaze. It must be reflected so that we can look upon it. First, we are introduced to it in the shadows of the Hebrew Scriptures, then we see it in the Son, but not at a glance. We must have time to look and learn. For this purpose, we are given eonian life. After all have learned the lesson, then they will have indissoluble life at the consummation, but that will be the result, not the means of a knowledge of God's glory.
THE HOUR COMES
The closing period of the lowly life of the Son of God has arrived. In anticipation of its end, He prays to the Father, for this will be impossible while He is under the curse of the cross, forsaken for our sins. So that the exact time which He assumes in spirit is when He cries, It is accomplished! (John 19:30). Then it is that He gives up the spirit, and then it is that the work which the Father had given to Him was finished (John 17:4).
THE VARIOUS GLORIES
His first thought is to glorify the Father. He had glorified Him on earth in humiliation, now He desires to do it by a totally different method, by means of His own glory. It is most striking to note these different methods in connection with the two evangels. The apostles had continued with Him in His trials (Luke 2:28). No one who had not been with Him from the baptism of John until His ascension could be numbered with the twelve apostles (Acts 1:22). But He met Saul of Tarsus in glory above the brightness of the mid-day sun. This is the glory for which He asked the Father in this prayer.
A. E. Knoch
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