The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Easter 7 in Year B is John 17.6–19, the central section of Jesus’ so-called ‘High Priestly Prayer’. The reading omits the introduction and opening sentences of the prayer, and stops short before the often-quoted ‘that they might be one’; I have previously commented on the use of this phrase, usually taken in isolation from the rest of the prayer.
It is worth looking at the prayer a little more closely, and putting it in its context both in John’s gospel and amongst the gospels as a whole. The prayer forms the climax of the Last Supper discourse in John—but of course John himself mentions no supper, but instead focusses on the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus. This reminds us that we need to read John in one hand with the synoptics, and particularly Mark, in the other; the two fill out each other and give each other context. So we read that, after this prayer of John 17, Jesus ‘goes out’ in John 18.1, but we need to turn to Mark 14.32 to know the name of the place, Gethsemane, to which he goes, and what happens there.
It is also worth noting from the outset that the longer form of Jesus’ speech in John is not, in itself, a reason to treat the synoptics as more historical, and John more of a theological construction of what Jesus said. Even the speeches in John are relatively short, and all the teaching of Jesus recorded in the synoptics would take mere hours to recite, so we must treat them as (quite possibly reliable) summaries of longer and more extensive teaching.
Turning to the prayer itself, we find many of the earlier themes and ideas in John drawn together. First, in the opening verses (not included in our lectionary reading) we meet the notions of ‘hour’ and ‘glory’; John has from the beginning been interested in days and hours, and in Cana Jesus tells Mary that ‘my hour has not yet come’ (John 2.4) and yet, in the miracle and in anticipation of what is to follow here, ‘Jesus did the first of his signs…and revealed his glory’ (John 2.11).
Then we have the interrelated ideas of life and truth: eternal life is to know the true God, whom Jesus alone reveals. In the prologue in John 1, we have already been introduced to the light who was life for the world from the beginning of creation. And that light is constantly linked with testimony—of John, of Jesus’ disciples, and of Jesus himself. The idea of the work of the Son being aligned with the work of the Father takes us back to the idea that ‘my Father is always working’ in John 5.17 and that the work demanded of us is faith—believing in what Jesus teaches (John 6.29).
The idea that Jesus’ has ‘manifested your name’ sums up a repeated theme in the gospel—that the actions and teaching of Jesus reveal the character of God (for which ‘name’ is a metonym). Thus the first sign at the wedding at Cana ‘manifested his glory’ (John 2.11) which is also the glory of the Father, and Jesus only speaks what the Father gives him to say (John 8.28). He has already told the disciples that he has passed on to them everything that the Father has given him (John 15.16)
The distinction of the disciples from the world touches on John’s ambiguous theology of ‘world’—it is the object of God’s love (John 3.16) but is also opposed to God and the things of God (John 15.18), so that (paradoxically) to love the world is to hate God (1 John 2.15). This contrast between the disciples and the world reflects Jesus’ own relationship with the world (John 17.16); though the world ‘came into being through him, it did not know him’ (John 1.10) and ‘his own people [both the Jews and all humanity] did not receive him’ (John 1.11). His own ministry and kingdom do not have their origin in the world—that is the real meaning of Jesus’ statement to Pilate in John 18.36, often mistranslated as ‘of this world’ rather than ‘from this world’, as if the kingdom did not have an impact on earthly structures of power.
Once again, in verse 8, we find echoes of the opening chapter of the gospel: Jesus’ followers have ‘received’ him (John 1.12) by receiving his teaching (the same identification between Jesus and his words that we saw in John 15.10) and ‘believing’ in him, recognising that he, the Word, has come from God. And, once more, we have the paradox that, though his followers have decided to respond in the context of a gospel which emphasises the need to choose allegiance, yet they are the ones that God has given to Jesus, since ‘no-one can come to me unless the Father draws him (John 6.44). The work of God, the appeal of Jesus, and the decision of the disciple are closely interweaved.
It is striking that here Jesus is not praying for the world! Why might that be? Because God’s love for the world (John 3.16) has been shown by sending Jesus into the world to be given for the salvation of those who receive him, even though he is not from the world. Having been born (again) as children of God, Jesus’ disciples are also now not ‘from the world’, but they remain in the world, and in fact have been sent to the world just as Jesus was sent to the world by the Father. The verb here is αποστελλω, apostello, and we know its cognate-derived noun ‘apostle’; to be part of ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ is to share in this sense being ‘sent’. The way that the world will know God’s love and life is by his people being unified in the truth of his word which they keep, taught by the Spirit, and sanctified for his purposes as they are sent into the world.
We find in John 17.11 characteristically ‘realised’ language of this gospel: Jesus says that he ‘is no longer in the world’, which he clearly still is (!), so many ETs have rendered this in the future tense, ‘I will no longer remain in this world’. Jesus’ coming to the Father is the reverse of his having come into the world, and forms a kind of theological inclusio; having in the calendar just celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, it is worth noting that, once again, the Fourth Gospel agrees with the Synoptics in according the Ascension theological importance, but does it by means of discourse instead of narrating an event. The overall shape here also correlates with Paul’s ‘Christ hymn’ in Phil 2.6–11 which has the ‘eucatastrophic‘ or ‘comedic’ U-shape to its narrative, where the downward movement from heaven to the depths and disaster of death is following by exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, even to the point of sharing the divine name.
The language of ‘keeping,’ tereo, is used distinctively here. Earlier in the gospel, it has had a mundane sense; the good wine has been ‘kept’ till last at Cana (John 2.10). But then Jesus is the one who ‘keeps’ God’s word (John 8.55) and anyone who ‘keeps’ his words has eternal life (John 8.51). This sense is continued into the Farewell Discourse; those who ‘keep’ Jesus’ word will have Jesus and the Father abide in them (John 14.23), and (conversely) ‘keeping’ Jesus’ commandments is the way we abide in him (John 15.10).
Now, the subject and object of keeping are reversed: those who have ‘kept’ God’s word from Jesus (John 17.6) need to be ‘kept’ in God’s name, that is, his character (John 17.11) which will lead to their unity. Jesus both ‘kept’ and ‘guarded’ them whilst he was with them; now he prays that God will ‘keep’ them, and in particular protect them from the ‘evil one’. This binary between the people of God and the forces of evil is clearly reflected in the Book of Revelation, but it is also close to Paul’s language of spiritual warfare:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6.12).
As we have done before, it is worth tracing the interrelationship between the ideas that have been weaved together here (new in bold, repeated in bold italic):
6. Jesus has manifest God’s name to those he gave him out of the world
7. The ones he gave him have kept his word
8. Jesus gave them the word God gave him, they received them, know the truth, and believe
9. Jesus prays for those God has given him, but not the world
10. They are God’s and Jesus’, and he is glorified in them
11. Jesus is coming to God, so no longer in the world though they are.
Keep them in your name, that they might be one.
12. Jesus kept them God’s name, guarded them, and lost only one as Scripture said
13. Jesus is coming to God, but speaks these things that they my have fulness of his joy
14. I have given your word, the world hates them, they are not of the world as I am not
15. Do not take them out of the world, but keep them from the Evil One
16. They are not of the world as I am not
17. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
18. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world
19. I sanctify myself, so they might be sanctified in the truth.
We can see from this the way that, as the discourse circles around, earlier ideas are repeated whilst new ideas are integrated in, and we return, with new understanding, to the ideas that we began with—the truth of God’s word, which those who trust themselves to Jesus keep and which keeps them.
We previously noted the realised, eschatological significance of the ‘fulness of joy’. Joy is not a common theme in the Fourth Gospel (unlike in Luke’s gospel, where it is mentioned frequently), coming in John 16.20–24, and here in verse 13. But it is also mentioned by John the Baptist in John 3.29. On every occasion is it associated with ‘fulness’ or ‘being complete’ (the verb pleroo) and is accompanied by images of eschatological fulfilment—for John the Baptist, the coming of Jesus as the arrival of the long-awaiting bridegroom, and in John 16.21, illustrated by the joy of a woman who has given birth, in Isaiah 26.17, 66.7–9, Micah 4.8–10 and Rev 12.2, an image of the people of God suffering under oppression and awaiting ‘deliverance’ by God.
In rabbinic thought, joy was imperfect in the present age, marred by the certain prospect of death and the worries of this life (Gen Rab 42.3). Only the age to come, the messianic era, would see perfect joy (Koestenberger, Zondervan Illustrated, p 145).
In the Fourth Gospel’s realised eschatology, the joy of the age to come is granted to us now as we abide in the love of Jesus, the true vine, by keeping his commandments.
The new idea of ‘sanctification’, of Jesus himself, and of his followers by the truth of God’s word, seems to come out of the blue—but it deepens the contrast between the disciples and the world. The term ‘sanctify’ (ἁγιάζω) has occurred only once before, at the end of the controversy following Jesus’ teaching about himself as the good shepherd, where Jesus has been ‘sanctified’ and ‘sent’ into the world by God (John 10.36). Now his followers follow this same double pattern of being sanctified and being sent.
Jesus sanctified himself by setting himself apart to do the Father’s will, which included bringing the knowledge of God and eternal life to all who believe, and laying down his life for them. By laying down his life, he also sanctified them—that is, he cleansed them from sin, separated them from the world, and set them apart as his witnesses in the world (Colin Kruse, TNTC on John, p 400).
There is one final thing to notice in the verses that immediately follow our reading, and which are the ones most often quoted in isolation from what has gone before. In John 17.20–21, where Jesus’ prayer for unity has earlier been more general, his prayer now is more particular:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
‘These only’ refers to Jesus’ followers during his earthly ministry, who were almost exclusively Jews, though including the Samaritans in chapter 4. ‘Those who will believe in me through their word’, written by the gospel author after the gospel has spread well beyond the Jewish community, must include Gentiles who have been incorporated into the new Israel in Jesus. So Jesus’ prayer here isn’t merely a general request for unity, but a more specific one—that the unity of Jew and Gentile amongst all those who ‘believed in his name’ (and not just ‘his own’ people, John 1.11–12) would be a sign of the truth of God the creator of all and Jesus his Word, and will lead many others to believe in him.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph 2.14–18).