The lectionary reading for Easter 7, the last Sunday of the Easter Season before Pentecost, is the ‘great prayer’ of Jesus in John 17. The lectionary divides the chapter into three parts over Years A, B and C, which either assumes that preachers and people have a good memory from year to year, or perhaps suggests that we think about the whole passage, but only read one section each year.
Our chapter divisions do, for once, follow the logic of the narrative; the end of chapter 16 concludes the farewell discourse that began in John 13.31, and John 17.1 highlights this, as John turns from the disciples to speak to his Heavenly Father. (The phrase ‘he lifted up his eyes to heaven’ is a standard indicator of prayer directed to God.) But this part of the discourse, though formally directed to God, otherwise continues the form and style of the previous discourse. There continue to be abrupt changes of subject, and a kind of circling around from one subject to another, with summary apophthegms along the way. And the prayer is marked by a distinctive mix of past and future, so that things that, within the narrative, are future are referred to in the past tense:
- ‘I have overcome the world’ (John 16.33)
- ‘I have brought you glory…by finishing the work…’ (John 17.4)
- ‘They have obeyed your word…they know everything’ (John 17.6–7)
- ‘They knew with certainty…they believed’ (John 17.8)
- ‘I remain in the world no longer’ (John 17.11)
It is clear that none of these things are actually past: Jesus only overcomes the world in his death and resurrection; his work is only finished in the cry of completion from the cross (John 19.30); the disciples clearly do not yet understand, and have not yet believed until later in chapter 20; and Jesus is still in the world!
This kind of folding over of narrative time has been a feature of the Fourth Gospel earlier in the story, so that we are introduced to Lazarus, Mary and Martha by means of an event (the anointing of Jesus) that has not actually yet been related (John 11.2). But this effect has been intensified as we approach the Farewell Discourse, so that in John 12.23 we read that ‘the hour has now come’, we hear language that belongs in Gethsemane (‘My soul is troubled’ John 12.27), and Jesus declares that ‘the ruler of this world has been cast out’ (John 12.31—compare Rev 12.9–10, using a cognate verb).
There is a sense in which this makes the gospel easier to read for us, reading from the future and knowing how the story unfolds (the gospel appears to assume that we have already read Mark). But it creates a strange narrative dynamic, where Jesus, in contrast to the other characters, is all-knowing, and operates with a different sense of time. Mark Stibbe (John: Readings Commentary 1993) comments:
We are confronted again with a frequent paradox of the farewell discourses: the remembrance of things hoped for…
Throughout John, there is a powerful sense of the presence of the eschatological future. Though the last day is still anticipated as a future event, many of the characteristics of that future day (resurrection of the dead, judgement, the giving of eternal life) are dispensed to a needy humanity in and through the ministry of Jesus. The realities of God’s tomorrow are present in the today of Jesus’ life…
The eternal has entered history…and, as such, Jesus can speak of future actions as past realities. Jesus can revel in temporal paradoxes because he perceives history always from the perspective of eternity (p 177).
The whole of the farewell section has a chiastic structure, that is, a symmetry that revolves around the central section of chapter 15. (You can see a detailed sequence of parallels between chapter 14 and 16, as pointed out by Raymond Brown in his 1966 commentary.) Here we see some clear parallels between the beginning of chapter 13 and the opening verses of chapter 17:
|1 Jesus knew the hour had come…
|1 ‘Father, the hour has come.’
|3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power.
|2 ‘You granted him [the Son] authority over all people’.
|1 He loved them to the end (telos)
|4 ‘I have brought you glory on earth by completing (teleioo) the work you gave me to do.’
The parallels here, and the repetition of themes in the prayer, remind us that Jesus is not so much petitioning the Father as declaring things to him; it is a prayer (as was the prayer in John 11.41–42) intended to be overheard, and as such it continues to be part of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, as well as to us who also overhear it.
There are varying views on the structure of the prayer overall, which arise because of the recurrence and repetition of themes. But, broadly speaking, we see:
- a focus on Jesus and the Father (verses 1 to 6)
- the petition for the disciples, for their protection and sanctification (verses 6 to 19)
- prayer for ‘those who will believe’, for their unity in the truth of Jesus’ words (verses 20 to 26)
The lectionary division cuts across this, so that we read the first section and the beginning of Jesus’ prayer for protection for the disciples.
There are clearly features in the prayer which are distinctive to the Fourth Gospel—but we should not let that push us into thinking the differences with the Synoptics are greater than they really are. Jesus’ address of God as ‘Father’ is prominent in this gospel—but it is also prominent in Matthew, where Jesus describes God as [heavenly] Father no fewer than 45 times. And there is a very Johannine-sounding description of the unity of Father and Son in Matt 11.27, including the statement that ‘all things have been given to me’, an idea repeated throughout this prayer (‘those you gave me’ John 17.6).
The mention of ‘glory’ comes at the beginning and end of this subsection, and is characteristic of the second half of the gospel, sometimes called the Book of Glory (in contrast to the ‘Book of Signs’ that constitutes the first half of the gospel) from the introduction of the idea in John 12.23. The mutual action of bringing glory to one another between the Father and the Son has some parallels in God’s relationship with Israel in the prophet Isaiah (see, for example, Is 44.23, 46.13, 55.5, and all through chapter 60). But the shared glory ‘before the world began’ reminds us of the Prologue to the gospel, when the Word was ‘with God in the beginning’ (John 1.2) as well as the Pauline expression of Jesus ‘equality with God’ in Phil 2.6.
The granting of Jesus ‘authority over all humanity’ places Jesus alongside God, who is the only one with authority over the world in Jewish thought. But again it reminds us of Matthew’s gospel, which reaches its climax in Jesus’ statement that ‘all authority has been given to me’ (Matt 28.18) and Paul’s understanding of all things being put in submission to Jesus (1 Cor 15.27). The granting of ‘eternal life’ again echoes the Prologue, where Jesus is ‘the life who is the light of all…to those who did receive him, he gave the right to become children of God’.
There is here a close relationship between understanding and relationship; eternal life is to ‘know you…and Jesus Christ’, the only time in the gospel where Christos (‘messiah’) is used as a kind of title. This ‘knowledge’ is not merely factual, as is the case in later ‘gnostic’ developments, but relational. Yet this relationship also includes knowledge and understanding, as the later emphasis on ‘knowing’ and ‘the word’ demonstrate.
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples demonstrate both the solidarity and mutual sharing between Father and Son; the disciples belong to the Father and have been given to the Son, and the Son now offers them back in prayer to the Father. The word of the Father has been passed on to them faithfully by the Son, and they have received the words of Jesus and have kept them.
The prayer also demonstrates the radical disjunction between the disciples and ‘the world’. Throughout this gospel, ‘the world’ has an ambiguous status. On the one hand, it was created by God through Jesus (the Word) and so owes its very existence to him. And this world is the constant object of God’s love. Yet this world has not received him, and so stands in judgement (John 3.17), and because of that also stands in opposition to Jesus’ followers (John 16.33). Just as Jesus has been in the world but is not of the world, the same is true of the disciples as they find their true home in him. Thus Jesus’ prayer is not that the disciples will be taken from the world, but that they will be protected in it. The language of ‘protect’ (or ‘keep’) resurfaces repeatedly in this next section.
Although it is not part of our lectionary reading this year, it is worth looking ahead to the final part of the prayer, since this is often taken out of context and understood as a concern for unity separated from other issues.
Jesus’ key concern is for the protection of the disciples in the midst of the world in which they remain but to which they do not belong. ‘Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17.17) The language of truth goes to the heart of a key theme in John; as Andrew Lincoln and Mark Stibbe have pointed out, the whole of John can be understood as a form of trial narrative, with witnesses called to testify to the truth of Jesus’ claims and identity, and the Father even called to the witness stand (John 8.18). That is why the conflict is so sharp with the ‘leaders of the Jews’ in chapters 5 to 8, because they are the prosecuting counsel, and that is why John’s account of the crucifixion naturally includes the extended dialogue with Pilate (conveyed to us by one of the servants there) which is not included in the synoptics.
‘Your word’ here cannot refer to Jesus himself, even within the ‘logos’ Christology of John, not least because Jesus has already talked of the cleansing and sanctifying work of his words, that is, his teaching of truth, in relation to abiding in the vine (John 15.3). To be holy involves remaining in the person and work of Jesus, and remaining in his teaching which reveals the truth about us, God and the world. It is into this context that Jesus then longs for the unity of his people. The parallel with the unity between Jesus and the Father cannot be exact, not least with the hindsight we have following the Nicene expressions of our understanding of the Trinity. But it is about the unity of commitment, will and understanding; just as Jesus does the will and work of the Father, and just as the Father’s testimony is completely unified with the testimony of Jesus, so his disciples are to have that one commitment to true testimony which reveals the truth of God—and which will then lead many who have not themselves been witnesses of Jesus also to believe (John 20.31). There is no sense here that the unity of the believers in and of itself, disconnected to the truth, plays any role in the conviction of the world.
Jesus finishes the prayer with an inclusio return to the theme of glory, but does so with a unique address to God as ‘righteous Father’—only the third time John uses the term ‘righteous’ (after John 5.30 and 7.24) and the only time in the New Testament that God is described in this way.
So Jesus’ prayer for unity is tightly bound with concerns for the truth, for holiness, for the distinctive testimony of his people over against the world to which they do not belong, leading to the revelation of the glory of God and by which, through faithful testimony, many in the world will come to believe that Jesus is the only true revelation of the Father who loves them and draws them to himself.
Although this is often described as Jesus’ ‘High Priestly Prayer’, perhaps by conflation with the idea of Jesus offering continual intercession for us in Hebrew 4.14, prophets were also known for their intercession for Israel. More than that, Jesus’ prayer appears to be closely connected with his promise of what the Spirit will do when he comes, in chapters 14 and 16. It might therefore be more accurate to consider this to be ‘Jesus’ prayer as Paraclete’; the things he prayers for as our Advocate before the Father (protection, glory, unity in the truth, holding onto his words) are all things that the Spirit will effect amongst Jesus’ followers—both the disciples, and those who come to believe through their testimony.
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