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John 17:1-11 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 13-18. THE CONTEXT
These chapters outline Jesus’ preparation for the cross. He began by washing the disciples’ feet, demonstrating to them the kind of servant ministry that he expected of them (13:1-20). He gave them his new commandment of love (13:31-35). He promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit (14:15-31). Chapters 15-16 are composed of discourses (lengthy teachings). Now, in chapter 17, having prepared the disciples, Jesus prays for them. After this prayer, he and his disciples will go to a garden in the Kidron Valley where he will be arrested (18:1-11). This prayer, then, serves as a transition from the discourses of the Upper Room to Jesus’ passion.
JOHN 17:1-26. JESUS’ HIGH PRIESTLY PRAYER
This prayer concludes the farewell dinner. It is often called The High Priestly Prayer for two reasons: First, Jesus is preparing to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Second, he intercedes for his disciples (vv. 6-26) in the same way that the high priest intercedes for the people of Israel (see Romans 8:34).
This prayer is often likened to Moses’ farewell address (Deuteronomy 31:30ff), which concluded with Moses’ final blessing on Israel (Deuteronomy 33). The tone of that address was positive, very much like Jesus’ prayer. Moses was preparing to die, but he said, “You are happy, Israel. Who is like you, a people saved by Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 33:29). Jesus is preparing to die, but he prays, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you” (17:1).
Lincoln suggests that this prayer is the Johannine equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew 6:9-15. He notes the following parallels (Lincoln 432-433):
• “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9) is paralleled in John 17:1 by a mention of heaven and Jesus addressing God as Father. Jesus also addresses God as Father in 17:11.
• “may your name be kept holy” (Matthew 6:9) is paralleled in several places by concerns for God’s holiness or God’s name (John 17:6, 11, 26).
• “Let your Kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10) is paralleled by a concern for Jesus’ hour having come (John 17:1) and a concern about eternal life (John 17:2-3).
• “Let your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth” (Matthew 6:10) is paralleled by Jesus’ comment that he has finished the work that the Father sent him to do (John 17:4).
• “Bring us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13) is paralleled by Jesus’ plea for the Father to protect the disciples, living as they do in a hostile kosmos (John 17:11b-16).
This Johannine prayer is quite unlike Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). There Jesus sweats drops of blood and prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me.” In John’s Gospel, there is a hint of anxiety in Jesus’ earlier prayer, “Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this time?’ But for this cause I came to this time,” (12:27) but no anxiety about his personal fate in chapter 17. “Far from being shaken and shattered by the ruin of all his hopes, as one might have expected him to be, Christ blesses God with a full heart for enabling him to carry through the task with which he had been entrusted” (Gossip, 744).
But though Jesus’ prayer is positive, we hear an urgent, concerned tone. He is, after all, about to depart, leaving his disciples in a difficult world with a critical mission. He includes three petitions for the disciples in this prayer:
• First, he prays, “Holy Father, keep them through your name which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are” (v. 11).
• Second, he prays, “I pray not that you would take them from the world, but that you would keep them from the evil one” (v. 15).
• Third, he prays, “Sanctify them in your truth. Your word is truth” (v. 17).
• He also prays, “Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me” (17:20-21). This expands on the emphasis one oneness in the first petition.
Verses 1-11 have to do with the interrelationship between Jesus, God and the disciples. While Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit on several occasions (7:39; 14:16-26; 15:26; 16:13), there is no mention of the Spirit in this prayer.
JOHN 17:1-5. GLORIFY YOUR SON, THAT YOUR SON MAY GLORIFY YOU
1Jesus said these things, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, he said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you; 2even as you gave him authority over all flesh, he will give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ. 4I glorified you on the earth. I have accomplished the work which you have given me to do. 5Now, Father, glorify me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world existed.”
This paragraph is framed by petitions for glory. In verse 1, Jesus prays, “Father, … Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you.” In verse 5, he prays, “Now, Father, glorify me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world existed.” Jesus’ prayer will be answered on the cross.
“Jesus said these things” (v. 1a). Most of chapters 13-16 are dedicated to a lengthy discourse (teaching) in which Jesus spoke to his disciples about:
• His upcoming betrayal (13:21-30);
• The new commandment (13:31-35);
• Peter’s upcoming denial (13:36-38);
• His “Do not let your hearts be troubled” discourse (14:1-14);
• The promise of the Holy Spirit (14:15-31);
• Jesus as the true vine (15:1-17);
• The world’s hatred (15:18-27).
The phrase “these things” (v. 1a) takes in this entire body of teaching addressed to the disciples. Now Jesus turns his eyes and his voice to the Father. Presumably the disciples overhear the prayer, but Jesus is no longer addressing them. “Jesus now turns from holding communion with his disciples to hold communion with his Father on their behalf” (Bruce, 328).
“and lifting up his eyes to heaven” (v. 1b)—the accepted posture for prayer.
“Father, the time has come” (v. 1c). Jesus begins by addressing God as “Father.” In the Synoptics, Jesus teaches disciples to pray, “Our Father,” (Matthew 6:9), but not in this Gospel. In this Gospel, Jesus speaks of “my Father” or “the Father”—establishing his unique relationship with the Father. When he speaks of “your father,” he is speaking to his opponents, telling them that their father is the devil (8:41, 44).
The phrase, “the time,” refers to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Earlier, there were references to the fact that Jesus’ hour had not yet come (2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20). More recently, there were references to his hour having come (12:23; 13:1). All of his life Jesus has been moving toward the cross. This was his purpose in coming to earth. Immediately following this prayer, he will be arrested and set on his path to the cross (18:1 ff.).
“Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you” (v. 1d). In the Prologue, the Evangelist said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). The glory of the Son, in this Gospel, finds its culmination in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus must be lifted up so that he might draw all people to himself (12:32). It is in this Gospel that Jesus declares at his death, “It is finished.” It is his work—his glorification—that will be finished at that point. He will have done what he came to do. The resurrection and ascension will lie ahead yet, but it is the cross that will draw people to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t pray, “let this cup pass away from me,” as in the Synoptics (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). His focus in this Gospel is his own glorification (death, resurrection, ascension) as a means of glorifying the Father.
“even as you gave him authority” (v. 2a). In the Prologue, we heard, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). It seems natural, then, that the Word (the Son) would have Godly authority, and that is true. However, it is true only because the Father has granted the Son authority. The Father “gave him authority to execute judgment, because he is a son of man. Don’t marvel at this, for the hour comes, in which all that are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come out; those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (5:27-29). Jesus said, “I can of myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is righteous; because I don’t seek my own will, but the will of my Father who sent me” (5:30).
“over all flesh” (pases sarkos—all flesh) (v. 2b). “All flesh” is a phrase that appears frequently in both Old and New Testaments, often in ways that evoke the temporary nature of our fleshly existence. That contrasts with the permanent nature of the eternal life that Jesus has come to offer “to all whom (the Father has) given him” (v. 2d).
“he will give eternal life” (v. 2c). Jesus came to this earth because of the Father’s love of the kosmos—“that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16). As we will learn in the next verse, the eternal life that Jesus gives is defined as relationship to the Father, so for those who know the Father, eternal life has already begun.
“to all whom you have given him” (v. 2d). The purpose of the Son’s authority is to give eternal life to those whom the Father has given him. Earlier, the emphasis was on the role of belief in the process of salvation (“so that whoever believes in him should not perish”) —or on the role of the Spirit as the giver of life (“It is the spirit who gives life” (6:63—see also 7:37-39). Now the emphasis is on the role of the Father as the giver of life.
Throughout this Gospel, there is a tension between God’s love of the world and his condemnation of those who refuse to believe in the Son. On the one hand, “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son” (3:16), but “He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (3:18). Jesus’ words, “whom you have given him” raises the issue of divine election, a subject that is raised several times in this Gospel (6:37, 39, 44; 15:16, 19; 17:6, 9) and often throughout the New Testament.
“This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ” (v. 3). This is one of the great verses of the New Testament, forcing us to a new understanding of the word eternal. The dictionary defines eternal as “without beginning or end; existing through all time; everlasting,” so we think of eternal life as life without end. Jesus, however, defines eternal life as knowing God and Jesus Christ. Eternal life begins during our earthly life and continues into the life that we will experience after death. Eternal life is, therefore, a kind of life without end, but its essential character has more to do with its quality (relationship with God) than with its quantity (endlessness).
“that they should know you” (v. 3b). We should examine the verb “to know” (v. 3b). In the Old Testament, it is used for sexual intimacy—”Adam knew Eve, his wife; and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1). However, physical intimacy as God intends it is rooted in spiritual intimacy, and it is spiritual intimacy to which Jesus refers in verse 3. Spiritual intimacy with the Father will result in obedience to the Father’s will and loving fellowship with other Christians (Beasley-Murray, 297).
Gnosticism was a problem in the early church, one of its key tenets being access to privileged knowledge. Some people have concluded that verse 3 is Gnostic in its emphasis on knowing God and Jesus Christ. There are three reasons why that cannot be true:
• First, Gnosticism was dualistic, calling for withdrawal from this world, which is very different from the discipleship that Jesus describes in this prayer (see v. 11, 15).
• Second, Christian knowledge of God is rooted in history, the Incarnation and the cross—while Gnosticism was detached from history.
• Third, Christ offers disciples eternal life that begins here and now in the world that Gnostics regarded with such disdain (Brown, 752).
“and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ” (v. 3c). The Father sent the Son into the kosmos so that we might catch a glimpse of the Father’s glory—and as the bringer of grace and truth (1:14). The Son came into the kosmos “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16). By coming into the kosmos, the Son was doing the Father’s bidding—and carrying out his mission as assigned by the Father. While the Father and Son are one (17:11, 21-22), the Son’s Incarnation is a Father-directed mission.
“I glorified you on the earth. I have accomplished the work which you have given me to do” (v. 4). Jesus glorified God by his obedience—by his public honoring of the Father—by his work in the name of the Father. The Son has done all that he could to this point. Soon will follow the absolute completion of his work with the cross (see 19:30), resurrection, and ascension.
“Now, Father, glorify me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world existed” (v. 5). There is a kinship here with Philippians 2:6-11, which speaks of Christ Jesus as having “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (see also John 1:1:14). But this Gospel emphasizes the incarnation (taking on flesh and living among us) rather than the sacrifice involved in doing so (Malcolm, 576).
Jesus is obviously looking forward to being restored to the glory that he enjoyed with the Father prior to his Incarnation.
JOHN 17:6-8. THE PEOPLE WHOM YOU HAVE GIVEN ME
6“I revealed your name to the people whom you have given me out of the world. They were yours, and you have given them to me. They have kept your word. 7Now they have known that all things whatever you have given me are from you, 8for the words which you have given me I have given to them, and they received them, and knew for sure that I came forth from you, and they have believed that you sent me.”
“I revealed your name” (v. 6a). From the beginning, Jesus’ mission has been revelation. He is the Logos, the Word, the one sent to reveal God to us (1:1). He has made the Father’s name known.
The Jewish people have always been sensitive about God’s name, because they consider God’s name to be synonymous with God’s true nature or character. At the burning bush, Moses asked God’s name, and God replied, “I AM WHO I AM” (Hebrew: YHWH or Yahweh) and commanded Moses to tell the people, “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). In John’s Gospel, Jesus frequently uses this “I AM” formula (Greek: ego eimi) to identify himself (“I AM the bread of life”—”I AM the light of the world”—”I AM the gate for the sheep”—”I AM the good shepherd”).
For much of their history, Jewish people considered God’s name, YHWH, too sacred to pronounce, so they substituted the word adonai. Now Jesus makes God’s name known “to the people whom you have given me out of the world” (v. 6)—and the name is Father. Jesus makes God accessible—makes it possible for us to address God as Father.
“to the people whom you have given me out of the world” (v. 6b). The disciples about whom Jesus speaks are not outstanding in any way. Jesus could easily complain about their mediocrity, but instead speaks of them respectfully, as if they were a treasure that the Father has placed into his hands. As events will prove, once they are filled with the Spirit, they will become worthy witnesses—powerful advocates for the kingdom.
“They have kept your word” (logos) (v. 6c). It is surprising that Jesus would say that the disciples have kept the Father’s word. Their performance thus far has been mixed at best—but see below on verse 8a.
“Now they have known that all things whatever you have given me are from you” (v. 7). The disciples do not yet understand Jesus’ teachings about his death and resurrection, but they have placed their faith in Jesus as God’s prophet—as one who speaks God’s word.
“for the words (rhemata) which you have given me I have given to them” (v. 8a). Note the difference between “word” singular (logos) in verse 6 and “words” plural (rhemata) in verse 8. Logos (singular) and rhemata (plural) are two different words with significantly different meanings.
• Logos is important in this Gospel. Jesus is Logos—Word—the revelation of God. “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God” (1:1).
• Rhemata is a different word. Earlier we heard, “In the beginning was the Word” (logos) (1:1). Jesus is the Word of God––the one who embodies all that the Father intended to communicate to humankind. The word used in this verse, rhemata, has to do with spoken words. These rhemata (words) are Christ’s teachings, which he has embedded in his disciples’ hearts.
“and they received them, and knew for sure that I came forth from you” (v. 8b). Jesus does not say that the disciples have kept his rhemata—his words—his teachings—but only that they have received them. It would be stretching things to say that the disciples have been faithful to Jesus’ teachings, which they have thus far understood only dimly. Prior to the resurrection, they are more clueless than faithful.
However, they have been faithful to the Father’s logos—to the Father’s revelation of himself through the Son, who is the Logos. The disciples have hung in there with Jesus through good times and bad, because, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (6:68-69). It is the disciples’ faithfulness to himself to which Jesus refers when he says, “they have kept your word” (v. 6).
“and they have believed that you sent me” (v. 8c). Jesus establishes the chain of custody by which God’s words are transmitted. The words came from the Father, who gave them to the Son, who in turn gave them to the disciples. These disciples have not rejected these words, but have “received” them (v. 8b). They are receptive to the words that Jesus gives them, because they believe that Jesus was sent by the Father. If Jesus is truly sent by the Father, it follows that his words are trustworthy.
JOHN 17:9-11. I PRAY FOR THEM
9“I pray for them. I don’t pray for the world, (Greek: kosmou—from kosmos) but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10All things that are mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them through your name which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are.”
“I don’t pray for the world, (kosmos) but for those whom you have given me” (v. 9). This has a harsh ring to it, as if Jesus cares only about his little band of disciples and nobody else. However, when Jesus speaks of the world, he is not speaking of planet earth or all humanity but of the kosmos, which is the world that is opposed to God. The kosmos-world poses a threat to the disciples, who “are in the kosmos“ even as Jesus is preparing to depart the kosmos (v. 11).
But God and Jesus do not respond with hostility to a hostile world. Instead, this Gospel portrays them as loving the world and working to redeem it. Jesus said:
• “For God so loved the world (kosmos) that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t not send his Son into the world to judge the world, (kosmon) but that the world (kosmos) should be saved through him” (3:16-17)
• “If anyone listens to my sayings, and doesn’t believe, I don’t judge him. For I came not to judge the world, (kosmos) but to save the world” (kosmos) (12:47).
This was clear even to the Samaritans, who said to the woman at the well, ” Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (kosmos) (4:42).
“All things that are mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them” (v. 10). “What strikes one… most in our Lord’s prayer is not even (Jesus’) moving loyalty to his friends, …but rather his unmistakable pride in them” (Gossip, 746). It seems astonishing that Jesus would claim to be glorified in these disciples. They are a small and ordinary group of people who exhibit no unusual intelligence or talent. They seem unable to learn from the numerous clues that Jesus gives them concerning his future. No matter what Jesus says, they just don’t get it. How can Jesus claim to have been glorified in them?
Keep in mind that this Gospel was written quite late, probably after most of Jesus’ original disciples died. The author has seen that, somehow, through the grace of God and the work of the Spirit, Jesus has indeed been glorified by these disciples. The church is growing and spreading. However imperfect these disciples might have been, they have succeeded in glorifying the Lord. In fact, when Jesus says that he has been glorified in them, he uses the perfect tense, suggesting an already completed glorification, showing full confidence that they have glorified him and will glorify him.
This is an encouraging word to those of us who are tempted to despair of disciples and discipleship today—who long for a wart-free church. While the future of the church might seem compromised by the quality and commitment of its people, we can rest assured that the glorification that began with those first disciples continues with the work of the church today. The church is one example of the principle that God chooses the foolish and weak to shame the wise and strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).
“I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I am coming to you” (v. 11a). Technically, Jesus is still present in the world, and his death and resurrection lie ahead, but he has begun the process by which he will be glorified and will return to the Father. The kosmos will soon succeed in killing him, but he will emerge victorious through the resurrection. The disciples, however, will continue to live in the kosmos, an alien and hostile kosmos, and we can hear a note of angst in Jesus’ voice as he speaks of leaving them behind.
“Holy Father” (v. 11b)—in verse 25, Jesus says, “Righteous Father.” God is indeed holy and righteous. God’s holiness is central to his being and to our understanding of him. Holiness is also key to our discipleship, an emphasis that the church has often failed to emphasize these days. It is an emphasis that we would do well to revive.
This righteous aspect of God was emphasized in the Old Testament to the extent that Jewish people did not feel worthy to address God by name. Now Jesus makes known God’s name—and that name is Father. That name helps us to see God in a new light, not simply as holy and righteous, but also as nurturing. But we must not forget that the nurturing Father is also holy and righteous.
“keep (tereson—keep, hold, maintain) them through your name” or “keep them through your name which you have given me” (v. 11b). Jesus has been their protector, and gives an account of his stewardship (v. 12). Now he is preparing to depart, so he asks the Father to assume the role of protector to these disciples who are in the kosmos (world) but not of the kosmos—belonging to the Father but dwelling in a hostile land. If we had been praying, we would have asked simply that the Father protect them, but Jesus prays, “keep them through your name”—by which he means, help them to maintain an identity congruent with your name.
Jesus’ concern is not so much for the physical danger that his disciples will face—and by the time of the writing of this Gospel, the church will have experienced the full savagery of Rome’s persecution—but for spiritual victory in the face of great trials.
“that they may be one, as we are” (v. 11b). In recent years, the ecumenical movement has worked to bring denominations together organizationally, their efforts reflecting concerns both for this petition of Jesus and for the church’s witness. The unity for which Jesus is praying, however, is deeper—a unity of heart and purpose. Organizational unity is only a first step. We must also be concerned about disunity within denominations—within congregations—between individual Christians.
This is a prayer that, in many respects, has not been answered. The church has fragmented into many denominations and factions. Christians spend altogether too much time fighting one another. And yet, in some respects, Jesus prayer has been answered. Christians work together across denominational lines in many ways—from sponsoring community worship services to financing relief efforts. There have been a number of efforts to bring together denominations, either in formal mergers or through shared initiatives and mutual recognition of clergy. It is not enough, but it is a beginning.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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