As a way of bringing to close our study of prayer in the Last Discourse, it is necessary to address several key points.
First, the nature of the requests that believers will make to the Father—that is, the requests made “in Jesus’ name”, which are promised to be answered. These requests are referenced in a comprehensive and open ended manner—i.e., “whatever you would request”. The implication is that every prayer will be answered. This may be affirmed as correct, but only in the qualified sense required by the theological context of the Last Discourse.
In this regard, it may be noted that, in the Gospel of John, there is little or no practical teaching regarding prayer, such as we see at various points in the Synoptic Gospels (the Lord’s Prayer, etc). There is virtually nothing said regarding prayer for the practical necessities of daily life—food and drink, healing from illness, release from suffering, deliverance from persecution and temptation, etc. In fact, if anything, Jesus seems to draw a clear contrast between ordinary food and drink, etc, and the true spiritual nourishment that he provides for believers (4:7-14; 6:22-59; 7:37-39). Even in the Synoptic tradition, in the Lord’s Prayer, personal requests to meet daily needs are clearly subordinated to petitions related to God and His Kingdom.
The focus of the requests in the Last Discourse is defined by the thematic emphases that run through the Discourse-complex; of these, we may draw particular attention to:
- Understanding of who Jesus is, and his relation to the Father
- Jesus (the Son) as the one sent by God the Father, who makes known, through word and action, the truth of the Father; believers, in turn, are sent by Jesus to do the same—i.e., make known the truth of God the Father and Jesus the Son
- The bond of love that unites believers to Father and Son; it is the same bond that unites believers with one another (including those chosen ones who have not yet come to faith)
- The presence of the Spirit, uniting believers with Father and Son (and each other); through the ministry of believers, the Spirit is communicated to others, even as Jesus communicated it to the first disciples (20:22)
Second, the significance of prayer in Jesus’ name. As previously noted, this cannot be limited to a facile inclusion of the phrase “in Jesus’ name” as part of prayers (though early Christians did adopt this practice). Rather, the phrase is a fundamental mark of identity—that is, those who are true believers in Christ. From the standpoint of Johannine theology, this especially refers to the union of believers with Christ, and of his personal presence abiding in and among them. This emphasis is scarcely unique to the Johannine tradition; it was part of the wider early Christian tradition, including the baptism ritual. Even in the Synoptic Gospels, we find a saying such as in Matt 18:20, where the phrase (“in my name”) clearly indicates the personal (spiritual) presence of Jesus (cf. also Mk 9:37 par).
The Johannine writings go much further in developing the early tradition, especially here in the Last Discourse, where Jesus’ teaching to his disciples is expressed, overwhelmingly, in terms of the Johannine idiom (cp. the language and manner of expression in First John). In the Last Discourse, the abiding presence of Jesus (= “in Jesus’ name”) is defined primarily in terms of: (a) love, and (b) the Spirit. These are addressed in the final two points.
Third, prayer involves fulfillment of the ‘love command’ and is focused on the extension of the bond of love. When one keeps the ‘command(s)’ of Jesus (and of God the Father), the meaning, in the Johannine context, is two-fold. The ‘command’ (or duty) begins with a true trust in Jesus—that is, who he is as the Son of God—and continues (and is completed) as believers love each other, according to the example and teaching of Jesus himself. Jesus’ ultimate prayer (chap. 17) to God the Father was that believers would be united through the bond of love, and this is to be the overriding focus of our prayers, as believers, as well (cf. especially the closing verses 20-26). The mission and ministry of believers, preaching the Gospel and following the example of Jesus in our actions, is a basic sign of love—even to those elect/chosen ones of God who have yet to become believers.
Finally, prayer is centered in the presence and work of the Spirit. The coming of the Spirit is central to the Last Discourse. There are key statements regarding the Spirit in all three of the main divisions of the Discourse-complex: in 14:16-17, 26, in 15:26, and in 16:7ff, 13-15. The Spirit is also called by the descriptive title para/klhto$ (parákl¢tos), “(one who is) called alongside” to give help and assistance.
The references to the Spirit are most notable in the first and third divisions which emphasize the impending departure of Jesus (back to the Father). When Jesus departs, and is no longer physically present with his disciples, the Spirit will be sent to take his place. This is abundantly clear in terms of the framework of the first division, and it is equally clear how closely connected prayer is to the coming of the Spirit. Note the sequence:
- V. 12: Jesus’ departure (“I am going away”)
- Vv. 13-14: Prayer/request in Jesus’ name
- V. 15: Believer’s fulfilling the duty/command of love
- V. 16: The sending of the Spirit (called “another” para/klhto$, implying that Jesus was the first para/klhto$ [1 Jn 2:1])
- Vv. 17ff: The Spirit will abide (“remain”, vb me/nw) in and with believers, continuing the presence of Jesus (the Son), and uniting believers with Father and Son
This same sequence is restated in verses 21-27ff (note the context of prayer in vv. 23-24).
In a very real sense, the Spirit is the answer to our prayer. The teaching of Jesus on prayer in Luke 11:1-13 has much the same focus, climaxing with a declaration on God sending the Spirit in answer to his disciples’ prayer (v. 13). The variant reading of the Kingdom-petition in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer (verse 2b [v.l.]) explicitly interprets the coming of God’s Kingdom with the coming of the Spirit. And, indeed, the Spirit is identified with the Kingdom of God, both in the narrative of Luke-Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Acts 1:6-7; Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 15:50; Gal 5:21ff). As Jesus’ teaching in Luke 12:22-31 par makes clear, our prayer/requests should focus on the Kingdom of God, rather than on our daily needs, etc.
At the same time, the Spirit guides the prayer of believers. This is implied by the description in the Last Discourse of the Spirit’s work, and of the basic idea of the Spirit as “one called alongside [para/klhto$]” to help and assist us. Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit is depicted as guiding and directing believers in all aspects of their life and ministry, and we may fairly assume that this includes their prayers as well. Paul makes this connection more specific at several points in his letters (cf. Rom 8:26-27, etc). The principle expressed in Rom 8:5 is worth nothing:
“the (one)s (who are) [i.e. who live] according to the Spirit (have their mind on) the (thing)s of the Spirit”
In other words, our thought and intention will (and should) be focused on the Spirit. The clear implication is that our prayer should be focused on the Spirit—its presence, work, and communication to others—as well.