The followers of Jesus are kept, sanctified and sent in John 17

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.

(Interesting to note, as came out in the video discussion below, that Jesus says that he is ‘coming’ to the Father, using the same

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).

Come and join Ian and James as they discuss these issues and their application.

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7 thoughts on “The followers of Jesus are kept, sanctified and sent in John 17”

  1. Who do you think Jesus is addressing here? I thought it was the 12 not a wider group of disciples as seems implied by the article.

    • I would suggest that part is for the Eleven plus all the other disciples at that time – there were many more than just the Twelve. Though it is difficult to know reading the previous chapters precisely who was with Him at the time. But surely his words applied to all of them, particularly given that a replacement was found quickly for Judas per Acts. It would be odd if those words didnt apply to him, but he was not part of the original Twelve.

  2. A tiny thing, but John does mention the supper (albeit not a Passover meal): “the evening meal was being served” (John 13.2).

  3. Bengel speaks of this chapter as the simplest in word, and profoundest in thought, in the whole Bible. “The key to the thought is in the presence of the Spirit, who shall guide into all truth (John 16:26)”.
    One needs to soak and soak in this Chapter. This “nugget” of sanctification dropped in by Jesus is painstakingly hammered out in all it’s facets by the Spirit led apostles.
    The book of Hebrews is replete with references to the concept, Paul and Peter’s writings similarly so. [even so in many decades I have never heard a sermon preached specifically on Sanctification]
    Ephesians 1:4, “God chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we might be holy and blameless before him in love,”
    “It’s because his purpose in calling us was that we might become holy. Holiness is the invincible purpose of God in our call. He would be unfaithful to his purpose if he just called and didn’t sanctify., “God has not called you for uncleanness, but in holiness.” “God called you with a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9).
    Holiness is the invincible purpose of God in our call.
    Walter Marshall’s great work, *The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification* presents the culmination of Puritan thought on living the Christian life. Combining doctrinal precision and pastoral sensitivity, Walter Marshall shows how sanctification is essential to spiritual life, dependent on spiritual union with Jesus Christ, and inseparable—though distinct— from justification. He shows how holiness involves both the mind and the soul of the believer and that it is the aim of the Christian life. It is no wonder that this book has been reprinted many times throughout the years and received such high praise from leading ministers of the gospel .It is a glorious read!
    Similarly, Jonathan Edwards’s *The Religious Affections: How Sweet it Is! * See It is also available on line.

  4. What is it to “know God” today, that is eternal life? And, how? If not experientially, that is, not mere intellectual acceptance of propostional truth, though it will include that. And knowing includes sanctification being sanctified/ holiness, without which we can not know God and can not have eternal life.
    So much for universalism and doing what is right in our own eyes/ opinions/feelings, worldy as they may be, which we need to be kept away from.

    Thank you Ian and James for a splendid, spiritually, scripturally profound exposition.

  5. The Encyclopedia of The Bible says this of Sanctification

    SANCTIFICATION (קָדﯴשׁ, H7705, ἁγιασμός, G40, sanctification, moral purity, sanctity; cf. Lat. sanctus facere, “to make holy”).
    One of the most important concepts in Biblical and historical theology, this term and its cognates appear more than a thousand times in the Scriptures. Sanctification may be defined as the process of acquiring sanctity or holiness as a result of association with deity. Its synonyms are consecration, dedication, holiness, and perfection.

    I. In the OT
    A. Etymology. The basic Heb. word lying behind such terms as “sanctification,” “holiness,” “hallowed,” and “separation” is the root qadōsh. Its etymology is uncertain. Attempts to find its origin in Babylonian, Assyrian, and Arabic languages remain indecisive. The Sem. root, KDSH, means to “cut off” or to “separate.” The word KDSH appears in three discernible meanings:

    1. Radiance. Numerous passages speak of holiness or sanctification as linked with God’s presence, as at the burning bush (Exod 3:5), at Mt. Sinai (19:16-25; 24:17), in the desert (14:24), and in the Tabernacle and Temple (40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:11). In these passages God’s presence is marked by radiance and light; significantly, a synonym of qadosh is “glory” (kabod).

    2. Separation. The most basic meaning of “sanctification” is separation. In each of the thousand places where this term and its cognates appear in the canonical Scriptures, the meaning of separation is either explicit or implicit, and in no instance is this meaning excluded. Mt. Sinai (Exod 19:23), the first-born (13:2), the Sabbath (20:11), and a pagan army (Isa 13:3) were “sanctified” by being set apart.

    3. Purity. a. Ceremonial. The objective of sanctification is purity, whether ritual or moral purity or both. The former is that normally required of priests and other officials in divine service (Exod 22:31); it is ritual correctness.

    The most explicit and detailed description of sanctification is to be found in Psalm 51. The psalmist (prob. David) prays for pardon of actual offenses. But he is concerned with more than a rectification of the past; he also pleads for cleansing and renewal of his disposition.
    In the NT.
    Heb.6:17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,
    6:18 And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.
    7:1 Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

    This encyclopedia gives an explanation from the scriptures that
    Sanctification is both a process and a crisis.
    Entire sanctification is the most debatable aspect of the subject. All major theological traditions agree with reference to sanctification up to a point.
    The Reformed traditions, Orthodox, and Catholic do not, however, find in Scripture or in experience provision for full deliverance from sin while “in the flesh.” This may be attributable in part to the influence of oriental dualism imported into Christian theology via Augustine who was influenced by a Manichaean philosophy before he became a Christian.

    Crisis or process? The evidence from Scripture, reason, and experience leads to the conclusion that sanctification is both process and crisis. The process begins when one is “risen with Christ” in the new birth. Paul’s emphasis on faith blends well with this emphasis upon a stage in the Christian’s life when he recognizes his inner defilement, deliberately renounces a self-centeredness, and embraces by faith God’s provision in Christ for full deliverance and perfection in love (Col 1:22; 1 Thess 5:23; Eph 3:19; Rom 6:11-14; Gal 2:20).

    “This conscious self-consecration to the indwelling Spirit…is uniformly represented as a single act…(2 Cor 7:11)…Such an awakening and real consecration…was rather a thing of definite decision (expressed by the aorist, Rom 13:14; Col 1:9f.; Eph 6:11, 13-16) than of vaguely protracted process (expressed by presents)” (Bartlet, HDB, IV, 393).

    It behooves us not to neglect this important and vital aspect of salvation and do business with God who gives wisdom upon request without upbraiding,the neglect of wisdom always leads to loss poverty and empty futility.[Proverbs]
    Christ offers us the fulness of His riches in abundance.

  6. Forgive my zeal on this much neglected subject but I feel we need a new reformation of sola faith to include the work of Sanctification as an indispensable element of full salvation.

    I am very much inclined towards the thoughts of Jodocus van Lodenstein who would prefer not to speak of a reformed church, but rather a reforming church (de Gerform. kercke genoemt woude hebben niet Reformata of Gereformeert,

    The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) has been used so often as to make it a motto or slogan. People have used it to support a surprising array of theological and ecclesiastical programs and purposes. Scholars have traced its origins to a devotional book written by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. Van Lodenstein,
    (Reformanda, of Reformeren). “Semper Reformanda”
    Graafland (1986:89–93) explains that Van Lodenstein used his Beschouwinge van Zion as a criticism of the Reformation a century earlier, as well as the ‘deformation’ of the church of his own time.
    On the one hand he regarded church reformation as a necessity (as Calvin). The Reformation during the 16th century was the start of a new and better era in the history of the church. His criticism was (contra Calvin) that it was limited to a reformation of doctrine and not also of Christian life.
    “The part of religion that always needs reforming is the human heart. It is vital religion and true faith that must be constantly cultivated.

    The great concern of ministers like van Lodenstein was not the externals of religion—as absolutely important as they are—but rather the internal side of religion. Van Lodenstein was a Reformed pietist and part of the Dutch Second Reformation. As such, his religious concerns were very similar to those of the English Puritans. They all believed that once the externals of religion had been carefully and faithfully reformed according to the Word of God, the great need was for ministers to lead people in the true religion of the heart.
    They saw the great danger of their day not as false doctrine or superstition or idolatry, but as formalism. The danger of formalism is that a church member could subscribe to true doctrine, participate in true worship in a biblically regulated church, and yet still not have true faith. As Jesus had warned against the Pharisees of His day, citing the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).

    “The part of religion that always needs reforming is the human heart. It is vital religion and true faith that must be constantly cultivated. Formalism, indifferentism, and conformism must all be vigorously opposed by a faithful ministry.

    The Canons of Dort declared:
    “When God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds”.

    This doctrine of regeneration was used, then, to stress the new principle of life in the Christian and the need for that new life to be lived out. The Christian needed to eschew formalism and live out his faith in the daily struggle against sin, finding rest and hope in the promises and Spirit of God.
    I think he speaks as powerfully as he preached to great widespread acclaim;
    to our generation and to our Church in its present dilemmas’.
    It is not reformation of doctrines that is required but reformations of life and proclamation of “the Glorious Gospel” in all it’s fullness because it is all fullness
    Poured out, Pressed down, Shaken together, and Overflowing.


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