Jesus prayed that His followers would be set apart by truth. Do Christians have a role in this sanctification process? What is sanctification? What is truth?
The night before He was crucified, Jesus prayed His longest prayer recorded in Scripture. This prayer occupies an important place in the chapters that John devoted to the final hours of the life of Christ.
The events of those hours, and particularly the thoughts of our Savior shortly before He died, should motivate all Christians.
“Sanctify them by Your truth”
The prayer itself fills all of John 17. At one point, close to the middle, Jesus asks the Father to sanctify His disciples through the truth (verse 17).
What, exactly, did Jesus mean by sanctify? How does truth make that possible? And why is this important for us to know?
What does sanctify mean?
In the article “Sanctification,” Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible notes, “In each of the thousand places where this term and its cognates appear in the canonical Scriptures, the meaning of separation is either explicit or implicit, and in no instance is this meaning excluded” (Vol. 5, p. 265, emphasis added).
The article also notes that the term carries with it the additional concept of purification, particularly in regard to preparation for service.
Jesus, then, was asking His Father to separate His disciples, but set them apart from what?
The answer lies elsewhere in Christ’s prayer. His disciples were described as “not of the world” (verses 14, 16), having been taken “out of the world” (verse 6). Jesus said that He was “no longer in the world” (verse 11), yet in the same verse said that His disciples are still “in the world.”
He said these words knowing that He was about to be crucified. He would no longer be in the world (society), but His disciples would be. Even so, they were not to participate in the selfish and evil ways of this society. They were to be separate from the world in how they lived their lives.
The Father—and only the Father—begins this process of separation. Earlier in his Gospel, John quotes Jesus as declaring, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44).
This drawing, however, is just the beginning. The process continues as the Father sanctifies through truth.
How does truth sanctify believers?
For the disciples to live apart from worldly ways, they needed a different standard. That standard is Jesus Christ, whose life and conduct perfectly exemplified God’s truth. At one point in his Gospel, John quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
In fact, John uses the word truth (or some variant) more than twice as many times as the other three Gospels combined.
He begins in John 1 by describing Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (verse 14) and declaring that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (verse 17). In a long conversation with a Samaritan woman, Jesus explains that the Father wants believers to “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
What is truth?
Ironically, the last use of the word in John comes in chapter 18 when Pilate cynically asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (verse 38).
For us to move forward as Christians, we each must be able to answer Pilate’s question.
In one sense, Jesus was the embodiment of truth. His disciples walked and talked with Him. They had the privilege of knowing Him on a personal level.
We don’t have that same opportunity to walk and talk with Jesus in the flesh. Even so, God has made it possible for us to have a personal relationship with Him and to understand His wonderful truth.John described this firsthand contact. He said Jesus was the One “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” (1 John 1:1).
What about you and me? We don’t have that same opportunity to walk and talk with Jesus in the flesh. Even so, God has made it possible for us to have a personal relationship with Him and to understand His wonderful truth.
“Your word is truth”
Immediately after Jesus asked the Father to sanctify the disciples through truth, He declared that God’s “word is truth” (John 17:17). Although one of the names of Jesus is the Word (John 1:1), that does not appear to be the sense Jesus had in mind.
Earlier in His prayer, Jesus repeatedly spoke of having given His disciples the words of God (verses 6, 8, 14). He had personally spent years speaking with them about God’s truth.
Later in the prayer, however, Jesus spoke of future generations of believers: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word” (verse 20).
Those of us who are Christians now believe because of the words passed down to us through the disciples and other early converts, such as Paul. Those words are available to us through the Bible. In fact, the message recorded in the Bible is also called the “word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13), because He inspired it. It captures the character and nature of God and Christ.
Our part in sanctification
Jesus’ request that the Father set apart the disciples through the truth carries with it a duty for all believers. We also have a role to play in our sanctification.
Remember, sanctification is a matter of separation from the world by learning, and adopting, a different standard—God’s standard. This prepares us for service. Preparing ourselves to live godly lives requires regular personal Bible study.
Paul explains this to Timothy: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
It is through the Bible that we come to really know our loving Father and our Elder Brother. And it is through diligently studying God’s words to us that we take part in our own sanctification.