Chapter 20: Sanctify Them

In This Chapter

A Quick Dip
Diving Deeper
Jesus’ Second Request for the Disciples
A Special Use
The Purpose Clauses: Unity
Embracing Unity
The Ultimate Goal
Unity and Belief
Physical Protection
An Invitation


Sanctify* these believers by your truth; your Word is truth. Just as you sent me into the godless world on a divine mission, I also send them into the godless world. And for their sakes I am dedicating myself as an offering so that they also may be set apart by truth.

And not only for these followers do I pray, but also for those who shall put their trust in me because of my followers’ witness. The goal of my prayer is that they all may be united as one in heart, mind, and purpose, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, and also that they may be united as one in us so that the sinful world might believe that you sent me. And the glory which you have entrusted to me I have permanently entrusted to them, so that they may be united as one just as we are united — I in them and you in me — so that they may be perfectly united in heart, mind, and purpose and so that the sinful world might know in their hearts that you sent me and loved them [the disciples] just as you loved me.
John 17:17–23

A Quick Dip1

Sanctify/set apart: This Greek word is often translated in different ways: sanctify, set apart, dedicate, or make something holy. To sanctify means to take something that is common (a building, vessel, or person) and set it apart for a special, spiritual use. Sanctification is not a moral action; there is nothing we can do to sanctify ourselves or any other object. Sanctification is a divinely produced state of being, and only God — who alone is holy — can sanctify what is unholy and impure.

Truth: God’s divine truth contains several noteworthy characteristics. First, truth is valid; we can believe in and put our trust in God’s truth. Second, truth cannot change. Even when everything around us has changed, God’s truth — his Word, his teachings, his revelation, his character — remains the same. Finally, truth is eternal. The grass withers, the flower fades, but God’s truth can never be destroyed. It will continue to exist long after this world has faded away.

Dedicating myself as an offering: This phrase contains the same verb as described above, but the phrase here means, “I am sanctifying myself.” Jesus sanctifies himself by placing himself on the cross as an offering. Since God alone has the ability to sanctify someone, when Jesus claims to be able to sanctify himself, he is actually declaring his own divinity: Jesus, who possesses the power to sanctify both himself and others, is God.

Witness: The Greek here is usually translated as Word and refers to God’s divine Word or his revelation in Jesus Christ. The disciples’ Word is the very same Word that they have received from God, and they will use this Word — this revelation of Jesus Christ the Savior — as their witness to the fallen world.

In me/in you/ in us: The use of in denotes a close, personal relationship between those mentioned in these phrases.


  1. Do you see yourself as sanctified — holy, set apart from what is common? Why or why not?
  2. For what special use has God sanctified you?
  3. What comes to your mind when you hear Jesus speak about his followers being “united as one”? Are we believers truly united?
  4. How does it make you feel to know that Jesus’ request is not just for those followers gathered around this table, but for all believers, including you and me?

Diving Deeper

Jesus’ Second Request for the Disciples

In his farewell prayer, after asking his Daddy to keep the disciples safe, Jesus makes a second request concerning his followers: “Sanctify them by your truth; your Word is truth.” Sanctify. Lift up something that is common and ordinary and set it apart; make it fit for a special, holy purpose. Sanctification is a big word that is often spoken by preachers and theologians; it is also a word whose meaning is difficult to hold onto once the sermon or lecture has ended. We need a concrete image to help us firmly grasp the meaning of this academic term and, more importantly, the meaning of Jesus’ petition. Fortunately, at this very table in the upper room, the gospel writers record for us just such a specific example of sanctification.2 During the Passover meal, Jesus reaches down and lifts up a piece of bread, the most common food in Palestine. When Jesus lifts up this piece of bread — giving thanks and passing it around with the words, “Take, eat, this is my body” — this common food becomes a holy element of remembrance. In the same manner, an ordinary cup of wine is also sanctified. Through the touch of the Master’s hand, what was common and ordinary has now become something extraordinary.

This is exactly what Jesus is asking God to do to the disciples when he prays, “Sanctify them.” Jesus wants his followers to be set apart from the common, ordinary lot of humanity in order to become an extraordinary group of men and women. But how does this happen? What is it that sets the disciples apart from everyone else? Jesus declares that truth — God’s life-giving Word — is the instrument which God uses to sanctify Jesus’ followers. When God reveals his truth to the disciples, his revelation sets them apart and makes them unique. They become holy because this truth that they now possess is holy. It is very important to understand that Jesus’ followers are not sanctified because of who they are. They are not sanctified by anything that they have done. Instead, they are sanctified by what they have received.

Jesus himself has an important role to play in the process of sanctification, “And for their sakes I am dedicating [sanctifying] myself as an offering in order that they also may be set apart [sanctified] by truth.” When the disciples watch Jesus place himself as an offering on the cross, they witness two truths: Jesus’ divine power (demonstrated by his ability to sanctify himself) and God’s unconditional love (demonstrated through the gift of his beloved Son). Jesus’ power and God’s love. Once again, being able to witness and to understand these truths separate the disciples from the rest of the sinful, unbelieving world.

A Special Use

There is more to sanctification, however, than just being set apart. When we read in Scripture about objects that are sanctified — a cup, a building — we find that these items are not set aside just to look pretty. They are sanctified for a special purpose. They are set apart for a special use. In the same way, the disciples are not sanctified just so they can sit around and look holy. Instead, Jesus asks God to set them apart because he has a holy purpose for them: “Just as you sent me into the godless world on a divine mission, I also send them into the godless world.” After asking his Daddy to keep them safe and set them apart, Jesus directs these sanctified disciples back out into the dangerous, hostile world.

So we see that within every sanctification there is also included a sending. Spiritually, we must remain close to God’s protective power, but physically, we must go back out into the fallen world. If we refuse to go, if we refuse to allow God to use us in a special way, then we reject our own sanctification. Jesus did not ask God to set us apart merely to be pew warmers. There is a higher purpose — and a deeper meaning — for our lives.

I use the word we because Jesus is careful to point out that this request is made not just for those gathered in this room: “And not only for these followers do I pray , but also for those who shall put their trust in me because of their witness.” Two insights may be gleaned here. First, Jesus reveals a glimpse into the future: the disciples will carry God’s Word into the fallen world; others will hear and believe. Success is assured. Secondly, Jesus reveals that this is not a first generation prayer; the requests to keep his followers safe and to sanctify them are not only for these Eleven but for all of Jesus’ disciples for all time to come. Jesus wants you and me to clearly understand that this prayer and these desires are spoken for every person who will ever have a permanent relationship with God’s Son.

The Purpose Clauses: Unity

Now that we have a better understanding about what Jesus is asking God to do when he prays, “Sanctify them,” we can turn again to our familiar question: Why? Why does Jesus ask God to sanctify the disciples? It is impossible to miss the answer to this question. Four times in seven verses Jesus repeats what he has already said: “So that they may be united as one.” As we stated earlier, unity is extremely important to Jesus. Now he carefully defines this unity for his listeners.

Unity among believers. In verse 21 Jesus prays, “The goal of my prayer is that they all may be united as one in heart, mind, and purpose just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you.” This purpose clause underlines an acute longing: Jesus wants his disciples to experience the same kind of unity with one another which he and his Daddy share. This unity is illustrated by the phrases in me and in you. These phrases describe both a warm, personal relationship and a deep spiritual connection between two persons or beings. Plainly put, Jesus wants his followers to possess the same type of intimacy in their relationships with one another which he and his Daddy share.

Unity with the Father and Son. Jesus continues, “And also that they may be united as one in us.” Besides being united with one another, Jesus also wants his followers to experience a oneness with both himself and his Daddy. The ultimate relationship, of course, is unity with the Father — for the disciples’ hearts, minds, and spirits to be united with God’s Spirit. However, it is essential for us to understand that if we believers are to enjoy unity with God, we must also experience unity with both God’s Son and our fellow disciples. Consider this: How can we possibly be close to the Father if we have rejected his beloved Son? And how can we say that we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ if we speak ill of one of his followers? You see, the strength of one relationship depends upon the strength of the others.

This insight was crystallized for me one day when I was helping with a party in my son’s classroom at school. While the children were eating, several mothers stood around chatting. One conversation caught my ear: “Oh, yes, I know her. She goes to such-and-such church. We used to go there, but we don’t anymore. In fact, we left because of her…” And the conversation continued in criticism of this particular person.

I have listened to many similar conversations in the past. I am ashamed to admit that I have actively participated in many such conversations. The fact is, this speaker could have been me. Yet this time, because I had been studying this prayer, these words pierced my heart. Given that I was beginning to understand just how important unity among believers is to my Master, when I perceived the brokenness and bitterness which had arisen between these two sister disciples, a deep sense of sadness settled over my own spirit. Jesus’ words, “united as one…united as one,” raced through my mind, driving home this heart-wrenching truth: we believers can never be one in purpose and will with our Father if we are tearing away at our relationships with one another.

I think back over the conflicts I have had with my fellow believers in the past. Most of my criticisms were voiced because a brother or sister did something or said something that differed from what I would have said or done. The truth is, I became disgruntled when I did not get my way. I got bent out of shape because people around me did not think and behave like me. Yet no two followers of Jesus are exactly alike. Jesus called a fisherman and a tax collector to sit at the same table. Like those first disciples, we are all very different. God created us to be this way, and Jesus did not come to erase the differences. When Jesus prayed for us, he did not pray so that we would all become the same. He did not pray so that God would change the sheep and remake them into clones. No, Jesus prayed so that God would take the different sheep and unite them into one flock.

Sometimes in my relationships with fellow believers, I treat them like they belong to a different Shepherd. We may be different sheep. We may even be on different paths: some may be traveling over snowy mountains, some may be strolling through green valleys, some may be trudging across arid deserts. But we are all guided by the same Shepherd, and — ultimately — he is leading us all in the same direction. Different as we may be, we still belong to the same fold.

The Scripture is clear. The purpose behind Jesus’ prayer was not to produce a people who would all worship him in the exact same fashion or who would celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the same way. He did not pray so that everyone would be baptized in a particular manner or develop the same type of church government. Instead, the goal of Jesus’ prayer was that our shared safety and our shared sanctification would unite us in spirit and in purpose.

Embracing Unity

Let me share one more insight which I have gained regarding our attitude toward unity. I have always viewed unity — especially unity in the church — as something toward which we must work to achieve. However, after listening to Jesus’ prayer, I have come to realize that unity is not a goal. It is a gift. Unity, like grace, is provided by God. Just as Jesus prayed, God has used his power to save us, to sanctify us, and to bind us perfectly and permanently together as one. We are united. Some of us just need to start acting like it.

No, unity does not need to be achieved; it only needs to be embraced. Yet I had to ask, “How? How are we supposed to embrace this unity?” I spent many hours out in my solitary place seeking an answer to this question. Surprisingly, I found the answer to be very simple. In order to embrace our unity, all we really need to do is to follow the Shepherd — and to understand that we are all following the same Shepherd. The same Shepherd keeps us all safe. The same Shepherd sets us all apart and sends us all out on the same mission. We all have the same purpose. If we will do this — if we will just follow our Shepherd — then whenever we look at the sheep around us, we will cease to criticize them just because they have been made differently or have been set on a different path. We will truly understand, as Paul said, that a body must be made up of different parts in order to function properly. We will come to see our differences as an important part of God’s plan.

Furthermore, besides joining the flock and following the Shepherd, there is one other thing we believers can do that will enable us to embrace our unity. We can continually remind ourselves — however painful it may be — that we sheep are also united by our shared acts of sinfulness. It is especially important to remember this whenever we find ourselves wounded by the actions of a fellow sheep. We must not forget that we, too, have often injured others. Not one among us is guiltless. So whenever we look upon the one who has hurt us, we must not treat her as a fellow believer who stands condemned. Instead, we must treat her as a fellow believer who stands redeemed — redeemed by our Shepherd’s own blood. Because, more than anything else, it is this blood which unites us.

The Ultimate Goal

As we stated in the last chapter, unity — as important as it is to Jesus — is not the ultimate goal. It is not his deepest wish. There is something more. Jesus tells his Daddy that he wants his followers to be united, “So that the sinful world might believe that you sent me.” Jesus’ utmost concern is not for his followers but for the sinful world — that part of humanity which is still lost in the darkness of separation from God. Everything for which Jesus has asked in this prayer — glorify me, keep my followers spiritually safe, set them apart and send them out — everything has been requested in order to achieve this one purpose: so that the sinful world may come to believe, to trust, to put their faith in Jesus’ Daddy.

Jesus even states this wish a second time: “The glory which you have entrusted to me I have permanently entrusted to [my disciples]…so that they may be perfectly united in heart, mind, and purpose and so that the sinful world may know in the depths of their hearts that you sent me and loved them just as you loved me.” Jesus wants the sinful world to know two things: that God sent his Son into the world on a divine mission of salvation and that God dearly loves all those who accept his Son as their Shepherd and Savior. As we have stated time and time again, to know these two things about God means to enter into a life-changing relationship with him — a relationship in which the fallen one’s heart, mind, and spirit become intimately entwined with the very heart, mind, and spirit of Jesus’ saving Daddy.
Belief and knowledge — trust and intimacy — are more than just the key threads upon which Jesus weaves his magnificent tapestry about relationships. They are also his two most desperate desires for humanity’s lost and fallen race.

Unity and Belief

Jesus makes it absolutely clear in his prayer that there is a critical connection between his followers’ unity and the sinful world’s belief. Yet when I stop to consider it, the connection is not so clear to me. What does unity have to do with belief? How do my relationships with God, Christ, and my fellow disciples produce faith and trust in unbelievers?

To find out, let us return to the table and the disciples gathered there. Let us remember what is about to take place. Just before praying this prayer, Jesus told the disciples, “Behold, the hour is coming and indeed it has come when you will be scattered” (John 16:32). Mark 14:27 records Jesus’ words this way, “For it is written,3 ‘I will strike the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” Scattered — like sheep who are being attacked by wolves. Within a few hours, Jesus’ prediction and Scripture’s prophecy would come true. The Shepherd would lie bleeding and destroyed. The sheep would be scattered. The flock would have vanished. And the sinful world would be laughing.

But then God would move.

Just as Jesus had prayed, God would glorify his Son — and himself — by raising the Shepherd up from the dead. And just as Jesus had prayed, God would reunite the scattered sheep — each one safe, each one sanctified — with the Shepherd who had laid down his life to save them. In both the resurrection of the slain Shepherd and the reunion of the scattered flock, the sinful world would witness God’s power and God’s love. They would see, they would know in the depths of their hearts that there is no power in existence strong enough to snatch away the relationships which God has worked to establish. Like the empty tomb, our unity stands as a witness to the fallen world.

Physical Protection

At this point, we can turn back to our questions from the last chapter: Why did Jesus not pray for the disciples’ physical safety? Why did he not ask for them to be kept safely away from the hatred and persecution of the sinful world? The answer is now apparent. If Jesus had asked his Daddy to keep the disciples physically safe, God would have had to separate them from the rest of humanity. And separating the disciples would mean removing God’s witnesses and God’s revelation from the dark and desperate world.

So, does Jesus just not care about our physical safety and our physical well-being? Of course he does. Look at his life. Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, calmed the storms, comforted the bereaved, raised the dead. Yes, Jesus cares. Matthew and Luke both recall a time when Jesus looked at his disciples and told them, “Indeed, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Matt 10:16, Luke 10:3). Can you not hear the sorrow and concern in Jesus’ voice? Jesus dearly loves his disciples; he is their Shepherd. He gave his life to protect them. To send them out into the sinful world is a very, very difficult thing for him to do. He knows what is going to happen; he tells them. They will be persecuted, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, tortured, killed. They cannot be sent out and remain physically safe. They cannot remain untouched by the pain, suffering, and brutality of the world’s sin. So again we ask, if Jesus loves his disciples — if he loves us — then why does he send us?

Because he also desperately loves those who are still lost.

An Invitation

You know, you and I are able to see how much God loves us when we watch him send his only Son into the sinful world to die for us. In the same way, the sinful world can see how much Jesus loves them when they watch him send us — his beloved followers — back out to deliver his message of love and hope to a world filled with pain and brokenness. When Jesus sends us back out, he shows the world that it is not enough just to save some of his sheep. Jesus is not content to rescue only part of his flock. He wants to save them all. It is his most passionate desire.

In the same way, our willingness to leave the safety of the fold — to get up off of our comfortable pews and step out among those who sometimes seem like wolves — is to demonstrate to the sinful world not only our love for our Shepherd, but also our love for them, our lost brothers and sisters. It shows the sinful world that our desire is the same as our Shepherd’s. We want them to know him, to have a personal relationship with him. We want them to be united as one in him. And we want them to stand united with us as well.

When we listen to Jesus’ prayer, when we look into the window of his heart and see his deepest desire, we can hear Jesus extend his invitation to us. Will we accept our sanctification? Will we embrace our unity, not just with the Father but also with his Son and with our fellow believers? Will we answer the call and step back out into the hostile world in order to carry the truth to those who still do not understand it? For the sinful world to come to know and believe, to gain a permanent relationship with their Daddy — Jesus invites us to make this our passionate hope and our heartfelt prayer for each person we meet today and every day throughout the rest of our lives.

>> Chapter 21: I Desire

Chapter 20 Footnotes

* Imperative verb = Jesus’ actual request to God; this is what Jesus is asking God to do.
1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix.
2 See Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; and Luke 22:17-20
3 See Zech 13:7.


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