When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, (John 17:1)
For those of us who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and have come to love Him, there is nothing about His life that is not meant for our encouragement. There is nothing so small about the slightest action of His that is recorded in Scripture that is of no concern to us. This afternoon we will simply consider this one phrase, “He lifted up His eyes to heaven.” In studying just this one phrase this week, I have to say that it has made me love Jesus more and understand the work of Christ more, and I trust it will do the same for you, if you know Him. Or that you may come to know Him today. “He lifted up His eyes to heaven.” Such a seemingly insignificant detail, or so we may think. “He lifted up His eyes to heaven.” Simply the narrator walking us through the story and nothing more, or so we may think. Wherever Jesus looks, He looks on purpose. Whatever detail that is recorded in Scripture, is recorded on purpose. There are no inconsequential details in the Scriptures concerning Christ.
Where Does Jesus Look?
Throughout the Scripture, sinners are encouraged, invited, exhorted, and commanded to look at Jesus Christ. We are to look unto Him. With so many sinners instructed to look to Jesus Christ, we might ask, “but where does Jesus look?” We know that we are to look up to Him, but where does He look? To whom was He to look? As His life and ministry is coming nearer and nearer to its climactic moment at the cross, the Son of God takes a significant moment to lift up His eyes to heaven. With His disciples gathered around Him and the suffering of the cross before Him, Jesus Christ lifts up His eyes to heaven.
What Does Jesus See?
What did Jesus see? When Jesus lifted up His eyes to heaven, what did He see? What was set before Him? What came into His view? To answer this question, we will not resort to mere speculation, but to the Word of God, for that is our only proper use of this time. And, in asking this question, I am not asking about what Jesus literally physically saw. But if we consider what John says, that Jesus lifted up His eyes to heaven, alongside the content of Jesus’ prayer, alongside other messianic texts with this same language of lifting up one’s eyes, we will find some incredible things to be of great benefit to our faith.
To begin to understand the significance of this divinely inspired descriptive detail of the posture of Christ in this prayer, we ought to consider the most frequent way this phrase, or extremely similar phrases are used throughout the Bible. Most frequently we find it in the prophets. So many of the prophets had visions – Zechariah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, to name a few – and in these visions they are often instructed by an angel of the Lord to lift up their eyes and to look. They are often instructed to “look up here.” And when they were instructed to lift up their eyes and look at something, they were typically looking at something, in vision form, that God was about to do, or something that God was going to do in the future concerning the Messiah, concerning judgments, or salvation.
Not only in the prophets, but in many instances throughout the Bible, when the text of Scripture notes that someone “lifted up their eyes,” they do so and are able to see something that is not right in front of them. They are able to see something that is coming. In other narrative instances something imminent upon them. In the prophets, typically something further off. Both of these aspects are at play when our Lord lifted up His eyes to heaven to pray. Later in the very night that Jesus prayed this prayer, He would be betrayed by Judas, arrested, and taken to trial. In this moment of prayer when His hour suffering is upon Him, Jesus lifts His eyes up to heaven. When we look at what Jesus prays as He looks up to heaven, He prays that His Father would now glorify the Son, that the Son may glorify the Father. One way that John has regularly used this terminology of the Father glorifying the Son, is as a way of describing or referring to Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross. There is a prophetic element to this prayer. Jesus knows what He was sent to do and He prays that it would be accomplished, that it would come to pass. What did Jesus see when He looked to heaven? He saw His cross, He saw the Father glorifying the Son, that the Son may glorify the Father.
Jesus also prays in verse five, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” Jesus is not only praying for the Father to glorify the Son at the cross, but also in His ascension, when the Son returns to the Father’s presence, to be glorified with the glory He had with the Father before the world existed. This is also what Jesus sees. He sees His return to the Father and return to glory. The glory of suffering and the glory of ascending to the Father’s presence is set before the view of Jesus as He lifts up His eyes to heaven. Oh to have such a view in our Christian lives! To see and know that we must suffer for a while, and that when such is accomplished, we will receive a crown of eternal life in the presence of God, and to pray for each in their time with complete contented faith! This is what Jesus sees, and prays for.
I want to think for a moment about what Jesus sees in His being lifted up on the cross. If you would, let us look at a couple Psalms. Turn to Psalm 121. In the first message I preached a couple weeks ago on John 17, I mentioned that one of the things we will see throughout this prayer is the use of the Psalms. I won’t be preaching a sermon just on that topic, rather we will see the use of the Psalms throughout these sermons. So keep your eyes open for that throughout the coming weeks, as we now turn to Psalm 121.
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
One of the views on this Psalm is that the Psalmist is looking up to the hills, and when he does, he sees various high places where there were shrines to false gods, and thus asks, where does my help come from? The answer is not from what he sees on the hills, but from Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth. It is from the One who made the hills. This Psalm is ultimately about Jesus Christ. We are drawn to this Psalm from John 17 because of the common phrase that describes the one praying as lifting up His eyes. When Jesus lifts up His eyes to heaven, He sees the cross before Him. In the language of Psalm 121, He sees the hill on which He was to die. He sees the hill of Golgotha, the place of the skull, a place of death, from where no help comes. Rather, it comes from above. You have to look higher than the hills, to heaven.
Look over in your Psalter to Psalm 123.
To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.
3 Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4 Our soul has had more than enough
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.
As you can see, we are drawing the connection to this Psalm for the same reason as the other. The eyes are lifted up to the One who is enthroned in the heavens. The one who looks to the One enthroned in the heavens is surrounded by scorn and contempt, much like our Lord would soon be later that night. But being surrounded by those at ease and by the proud, does not change the fact that there is One enthroned in the heavens. The scoffers and the proud, no matter what they do to the righteous, are not on the throne. Thus we pray, thus Jesus prays to the One on the throne. Jesus lifts up His eyes and sees such ones who will soon surround Him, but He looks up further, to His Father in Heaven. Jesus looks up and sees what is upon Him, but He maintains His view on the Father Who has, in His Sovereignty, appointed each curse, each drop of saliva to be spat upon Jesus’ flesh, each false accusation, each wound which He would receive, and the inestimable glory that it was to bring. Jesus prepares Himself for this hour by communing with His Father, looking to heaven.
This is what Jesus sees, but it is not all that He sees. What else? Turn if you would to Genesis 15.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue[a] childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son[b] shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
So here Abraham is asking God about where his offspring will come from. God tells him he will have a son, but then God tells Abraham to look to the heavens. Amazing. Look to the heavens, and number the stars if you can, so shall your offspring be. This was a sign God gave to Abraham of His promise, the stars in the heavens. Anytime Abraham needed reminding, he could simply look up to the heavens, and see, and be reminded. What does this have to do with Jesus looking up to heaven? Jesus is a greater Abraham. Jesus was also to have many nations as His offspring and was childless. In fact, this is how God fulfilled His promise to Abraham, in Christ, and those united to Christ by faith, like Abraham. This is not a random connection to Jesus looking to heaven, this is what Jesus prays for. He prays not only for His disciples, but also in verse 20, “also for those who will believe in me.” Jesus was praying for all those who were promised to Abraham, and promised to Him. When Abraham looked up to the stars in the heavens, he saw the ones for whom Jesus would pray for, the ones whom the Father gave to the Son. This is who Jesus saw when He lifted up His eyes to heaven. He saw the children of Abraham, all those who would believe in Christ. And so Jesus prays for them. Jesus sees that which would be accomplished through His being glorified by the Father.
This is also what we see in the prophet Isaiah chapter 60, if you would like to turn there.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
We have this connection between Genesis 15, Isaiah 60, and John 17 – Isaiah 60:4, “lift up your eyes.” What is seen in the lifting up of the eyes in Isaiah 60 is what Abraham sees when he lifts up his eyes, and what Jesus sees when He lifts up His eyes. Jesus sees all His children coming to Him. This passage in Isaiah 60 is clearly messianic, there’s so much good there that we read. Darkness will cover the land when Jesus dies, but He will rise upon them and His light will shine and all His sons and daughters and nations will come to Him. This is what Jesus sees and prays for as He prays for all those who will believe in Him. What Abraham and Isaiah saw dimly, Jesus sees very clearly, and what He will do accomplishes this, and brings in this great multitude of people who will believe. Jesus looked and saw the thousands converted at pentecost. He saw the many converted during the apostolic ministry as the gospel spread throughout all the world. He saw the host of Irish barbarians coming to Him through Patrick in the 4th century. He saw the host of northern Africa coming to Him in those early centuries. He saw the host of the germanic barbarians coming to Him with the missionary zeal of St. Boniface. He saw the vast numbers of Europeans coming to Him over the hundreds of years in the middle ages. He saw the Russian peoples coming to Him with the conversion of Vladimir the great beginning in the 11th century. He saw the great number of those who would be freed from the bondage of Rome during the reformation. He saw the great number of Indians coming to Him with the missionary efforts of William Carey and the Baptist missionary society. He saw the American colonies hosting generations of Christians coming to Him with the Puritans. He saw the scores of others, and the many yet who will come to Him. For all these, Christ prayed. He prayed for them, lifting up His eyes to heaven, just before He would go to accomplish their redemption. Are you among this number? Believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Posture in Prayer
As we look with awe upon the posture and sight of Christ in prayer, I want us to consider our own posture and sight in prayer. As J. C. Ryle comments on Jesus lifting up His eyes to heaven in prayer, Ryle says, “This shows that bodily gestures in prayer and worship of God are not altogether to be overlooked as unmeaning.” Certainly the modern evangelical tends to reject any significance in the physical aesthetic of worship and prayer. We don’t want to do that. We do not want to make traditions of men into pharisaical laws, but we can rightly consider the totality of our being and posture in worship and prayer without doing so. All of our being and person is to be and reflect our submission to Christ.
We may ask, should we lift our eyes to heaven in prayer? Is this a posture that we also should take in prayer? I believe the answer is no, not necessarily, though I would not say we are forbidden to at certain times. I am sure many of us have had times where we were outside at night looking up at the stars, praying and communing with God. So there are times for that, and times not for that. Certainly there were many other times that Jesus was in prayer, and assumed a different physical posture. In Luke 18 Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee prays, thanking God that he is not like these other sinners. But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Certainly this prayer of the tax collector is commended by Jesus. Literally taking a posture of bowing our heads and body is fitting for sinners in prayer, as it shows what should be the posture of our heart, humility in prayer before God. But as we bow ourselves in prayer, it is certainly necessary that our eyes of faith be lifted up to heaven in prayer.
Calvin says that in looking to heaven, “we are reminded that the majesty of God is far exalted above all creatures.” In taking on a physical posture of humility, we can look to heaven with the eyes of faith and be reminded of the majesty of God far above us as creatures and every situation we face that troubles us in our time of need. Looking to heaven in faith, as we pray, is looking to the throne of Grace, where Jesus sits, where our prayers are received and heard.
As we do this in faith, the spiritual lifting up of our eyes signifies a turning away, a looking away from all others, showing that God in Christ is our only help. The only throne to which we pray is the throne of Grace.
John Gill also comments on Jesus lifting up His eyes to heaven in prayer, saying that this shows Christ’s “confidence of the divine favour… His mind was devoid of shame and fear and was possessed of great freedom, boldness, and intrepidity.” This also we ought to have in prayer, by faith. We are to approach with boldness the throne of Grace. We ought to pray with confidence of divine favour. The problem with that, is that we are sinners. Who are we to have confidence of divine favour? Who are we to approach with boldness the throne of Grace? We have sinned. God is Holy. We are not. We need our sins forgiven. We sin. What we need is the forgiveness of sins. The ends for which Jesus prayed that all those who believe in Him would be one with Him and with one another comes only because such ones have their sins forgiven. So how do we have this boldness in prayer? We look to Christ who accomplished the forgiveness of sins when the Father glorified Him, lifting Him up on the cross, shedding His blood to atone for our sin. When we look to Christ in prayer, we can pray with the boldness of Christ.
In 1 Samuel we read about how the Ark is captured by the Philistines. After God judges them, the Ark is returned to the people of Israel, and as it returns we read this in 1 Samuel 6:13, “Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it.” Friends, this is how we should look upon Jesus Christ. We lift up our eyes and see Him conquering His enemies, and see Him forgiving our sins, and those who see Him in that way, rejoice to see Him coming to them. We lift up our eyes off a vain thing and rejoice to see Jesus Christ coming back from the dead, rising up from the grave for our justification! The return of this ark is a story of resurrection, which is a story of Jesus, and lifting up our eyes and rejoicing to see Him alive and victorious. The Son lifts His eyes to the Father; God’s people lift their eyes to the Son and rejoice.
Church, set not your eyes upon worthless idols that cannot so much as lift a finger. Set not your eyes on a vain thing, a foolish thing, a worthless thing, or an impure thing. Look not upon another, look not upon the condition of things around you, look not upon the enemies and giants in the land surrounding you. Lift up your eyes off of those things, off of your own works, and lift them up to the finished work of Christ, lift them up to the seated, ruling, and reigning Christ, for it is to the seated Christ whom we pray – to our great High Priest who has sat down having completed the work of our redemption.
How Looking Transforms Us
Thinking about the totality of our being, it is so often the case that the eyes and the face of a person will show much truth. The eyes and the face will often show confidence and strength, or guilt and shame. We don’t look at someone at any given moment and say, “you look guilty!” But there is a general principle here. If you look at the people around us in our culture today, you can look at their eyes or their face and you can see so much emptiness, guilt, and shame. You can see so much need and longing. You see a great need for people to be free, and for people to be happy. So many today don’t even want to look people in the face or show their face for they are afraid of what it reveals. Ultimately what we see is people who are guilted with who they are, even though many won’t say, as sinners. Guilted with their sin, even if they don’t understand or acknowledge that that is what it is. We can look around at people in our society and see by their faces a great need for the forgiveness of their sins, and to receive the gladness and joy that comes with that forgiveness in Christ. On the other hand, we can also look at and see others who have no shame, who have no guilt, and who have eyes and faces filled with pride and arrogance in their sin and rebellion against God. This is a dangerous thing. The face and the eyes and where they look and how they look can tell you a lot. What is needed is God’s face to shine upon us in the face of Jesus Christ.
Our eyes are not fit to look up to heaven and nakedly behold the glory of God. We need our faces covered, not with cloths and masks, but covered with the face of Jesus Christ.
We need Christ’s looking to transform our looking. We need the face of Christ to transform our faces. And this is exactly how God changes us. We are transformed by looking and beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We need our guilt ridden eyes to be blinded by the blazing fire in the eyes of Jesus Christ, so that we might be given new eyes of faith that are filled with confidence in the face of the sins and suffering of this world, eyes that are filled with confidence to approach with boldness the throne of Grace, knowing our sins are forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ and we are clothed in His righteousness, and that our prayers are heard in the ears of God and smelled as incense and as a pleasing aroma in the nostrils and presence of God at His throne.
We are transformed by looking and beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ. This is what happens to us in prayer when we lift up our eyes and look with eyes of faith upon Christ and consider, and forget not all His benefits, blessings, and promises. He prayed for us, that we might pray to Him. And if you are a sinner here today, you are called upon to call upon the name of Jesus Christ and be saved and have your sins forgiven and be made right with God. Jesus lifted up His eyes to heaven, where He now sits, let us lift our eyes up to Him. And as He sits there now, He looks with compassion upon sinners, and comes to them by His Spirit in the preaching of the gospel, accomplishing that which Christ prayed for, that we might be one with Him.