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John 17:20-26 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 17. JESUS’ HIGH PRIESTLY PRAYER
This prayer, prayed by Jesus just prior to his death, is often called his High Priestly Prayer, because he intercedes with God in behalf of the disciples, present and future. We ought to think of this prayer, rather than the “Our Father,” as the Lord’s Prayer, because it is the prayer in which Jesus pours out his heart. The “Our Father” would better be called The Model Prayer or The Disciple’s Prayer, because it is a prayer that Jesus gives us to pray. The John 17 prayer is also known as Jesus’ Last Will and Testament, because it represents Jesus’ provision for the disciples’ needs on the eve of his death.
This prayer could be full of despair, because the disciples have proven disappointing. Even though Jesus has tried to prepare them for his coming death and resurrection, they have failed to understand. They expect a Messiah of worldly power, like King David, and have not been able to grasp the very different character of Jesus’ ministry. Furthermore, the disciples are nondescript and few in numbers. No CEO would entrust a significant project to such an undistinguished group, but Jesus is leaving the future of God’s work in their hands—and in God’s hands. That is the key—in God’s hands. Jesus is leaving the disciples, but he is not leaving them alone. The Holy Spirit will accompany them—will strengthen them—guide them.
Jesus prays, “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” (v. 21). The union of the disciples with Father, Son, and Spirit makes the impossible possible. This tiny band of ordinary people will turn the world upside down.
The disciples are about to experience great trauma at Jesus’ death. This prayer gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ trauma as he prepares to leave them. The passion of this prayer brings to mind a dying mother pleading for the child for whom she can no longer care. It brings to mind a father saying goodbye to a son who is going off to war. It is the cry-of-the-heart of perfect love, and it is the prayer of perfect faith. Jesus knows these disciples’ weaknesses, but he also knows that God will take care of them.
JOHN 17:20-23. I PRAY FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN ME
20“Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, 21that (Greek: hina) they may all be one; (hen) even as you, Father, are in (en) me, and I in (en) you, that they also may be one in (en) us; that (hina) the world may believe that you sent me. 22The glory (Greek: doxan) which you have given me, I have given to them; that (hina) they may be one, (hen) even as we are one; (hen) 23I in (en) them, and you in (en) me, that (hina) they may be perfected into one; that (hina) the world (Greek: kosmos) may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you loved me.“
Note the poetic interplay among the Greek words hina, hen, and en in the verses above. There is, in the original Greek, a lovely flow that cannot be conveyed in a translation.
“Not for these only do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word” (v. 20b). In verses 7-19, Jesus prayed for the disciples. Now he widens the circle to include those who will follow. Note his optimism. He assumes that the witness of these disciples will be effective.
“that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be one in us” (v. 21a). We should hear Jesus’ prayer as a prayer for us today. It would be an interesting exercise to insert a list of names from our congregation into this prayer. Jesus prays “that (Dave and Pete and Susan and Shawn and Jennifer) may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also be one in us” (v. 21a). The danger in such an exercise, however, is that it might give the false impression that Jesus is praying for individual disciples rather than the community of faith at large. I believe that he prays here for both the individual and the corporate body.
“that they may all be one” (v. 21a). This is a prayer for the unity of believers. Satan works to divide us. Christ works to unite us.
“that the world (kosmos) may believe that you sent me” (v. 21b). While the word kosmos can be used to refer to the created world, in this Gospel it is the world that is opposed to God—a corrupt and even demonic world.
The Word “was in the kosmos, and the kosmos came into being through him; yet the kosmos did not know him… (and) did not recognize him” (John 1:10-11). Nevertheless, “God so loved the kosmos that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the kosmos to judge the kosmos, but that the kosmos should be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
“so that the world (kosmos) may believe you sent me” (v. 21b). Unity multiplies the effectiveness of our witness. A divided church loses persuasive force.
Advocates of the ecumenical movement cite these verses to justify their work. However, their work is valid only as it adheres to true faith and practice, which isn’t always the case.
It is clear that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of believers has not yet been fully answered. Fragmentation began as early as Acts 6:2, where “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” While that conflict was quickly resolved, other conflicts have deepened and spread. We desperately need to repent—and to hear Jesus’ prayer again and again (Beasley-Murray, 307).
However, we also need to recognize that Jesus’ prayer has been answered, at least in part. “There is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave or free man, there is neither male and female; for all of you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We tend to forget how revolutionary Paul’s words to the Galatians were for the time, twenty centuries ago, when they were first written. While the current model of competing denominations diminishes our witness, it is also true that our love for Christians across denominational lines offsets that, at least in part. If we are sorry for the disunities that plague us, let us also be glad for the unity that blesses us.
“The glory (doxan) which you have given me, I have given to them” (v. 22). The glory and love that Jesus gives the disciples are the same glory and love that he received from the Father. They are mission-oriented and involve hardship as well as reward. In this Gospel, Christ’s glory is made fully manifest in his death, resurrection, and ascension (thought of as one continuous action in this Gospel). It is through his cross and open tomb that Jesus returns to the glory that he enjoyed with the Father before the creation of the world (17:5). It is by taking up their crosses and following Jesus that his disciples share in his glory (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
• The glory which the Father gives the Son results ultimately in the exaltation of Jesus, who is given “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth” (Philippians 2:9-10), but the pathway to that exaltation involves the Son emptying himself, “taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
• The love with which the Father loves the Son leads ultimately to a throne, but only by way of a cross.
“that they may be perfected into one” (v. 23b). Such perfected unity is possible only by the grace of God. The disciples argued over who was greatest (Mark 9:34). James and John requested, “Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left hand, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). The early church will experience doctrinal controversy and other conflict (Acts 15). But the grace of God will also enable them to work together to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their spiritual unity will make that proclamation highly successful.
JOHN 17:24-26. I MADE KNOWN TO THEM YOUR NAME
24“Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25Righteous Father, the world hasn’t known you, but I knew you; and these knew that you sent me. 26I made known to them your name, and will make it known; that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
“Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (v. 24). When he prays for himself, Jesus qualifies his request by saying, “however, not what I desire, (Greek: thelo) but what you desire” (Mark 14:36). When he prays for his disciples, he prays, “I desire” (thelo) with no qualification.
Earlier, Jesus promised the disciples, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also” (14:3). Now he asks the Father to fulfill this promise.
“I made known to them your name, and will make it known” (v. 26). The most powerful testimony to the loving character of God will take place on the cross, where the Father will give “his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16). That testimony will stay alive through the witness of the disciples only if we manifest the love of God in our lives. The love of God welling up within us fuels our witness, and makes it impossible for the world to ignore the Christ whose name we bear. “See how they love one another,” the world says. That is powerful testimony. Seeing how Christians love the poor and needy is equally powerful.
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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Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
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Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
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Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Krentz, Edgar and Vogel, Arthur A., Proclamation 2: Easter, Series C (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980)
Lindberg, Paul H., Lectionary Bible Studies, “The Year of Luke,” Lent-Easter, Study Book, (Augsburg-Fortress, 1976).
Malcolm, Lois, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
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