What was the focus of Jesus’ prayer in John 17?

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Easter 7 in Year C is John 17.20–26. It continues as part of the ‘dicing up’ of sections from the farewell discourse in John 13–17 across the three years of the lectionary, and like other readings it is strangely short—which creates the real danger that we read each part in isolation, and lose the context and flow of Jesus’ speech here.

Part of the distinctive issue in this part of this gospel is that Jesus’ language here proceeds by circling round ideas, and with each new circling, adding in new dimensions and aspects; the closest analogy I can think of is creating a rope by winding threads together, and as it progresses adding new strands (though I am not sure I have expressed that very well!). So we cannot really read this passage without noting what has gone before, and how the ideas are developing. For example, the first phrase in our reading is ‘I do not ask for these only…’ which raises the question, who are ‘these’, and what has Jesus asked for them? What does he mean by ‘word’, and why is there a contrast with the ‘world’?

This applies especially to the language here of unity. If I was given sixpence every time I heard someone quoted John 17.21 ‘…that they might be one…’ then I’d have a lot of change that I wouldn’t know what to do with. It is commonly suggested that, in this, Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer’, we see his last desire expressed to his heavenly Father, and that desire is for his people to have visible unity. We must therefore take this seriously, and make it a priority above other issues since, after all, it was so important to Jesus that it formed his final wish. Specifically, this concern must override any other, so that we do not allow differences in doctrine to undermine the unity; we must ‘agree to disagree’ in order to stay together.

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 [to Gethsemane] in John 18.1, but we need to turn to Mark 14.32 to know the name of the place and what happens there.

(A perennial puzzle in this whole speech is the occurrence of ‘Rise, let us go from here’ in the middle of Jesus’ speech at 14.31, which some critical scholars have taken as evidence of clumsy editorial stitching together of diverse source material. But why assume the writer is so stupid, that he did not notice this? It is perfectly possible that Jesus’ teaching from John 15.1 onwards takes place as they walk through the city and past the temple, not least because the temple has a sculpture of a vine adorning it, which would fit well with Jesus’ teaching about the vine. Then, in John 17.1, being out of doors Jesus really does ‘lift his eyes to the sky (heaven)’, and when they ‘go out’ in John 18.1, they are going out from the city (not from the room) in order to cross the Kidron Valley.)

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, 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). (See James Bejon’s article on chronology in John for an intriguing exploration of the literal and symbolic references to time in the gospel.)

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 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’, as if the kingdom did not have an impact on earthly structures of power—rather than properly as ‘from this world’, reflecting the actual Greek terms, and referring to its origin and therefore source of legitimacy.

Within our lectionary reading, we have the full range of meanings of ‘world’:

  • the hope is that the ‘world might believe’ in verse 21;
  • the world ‘might know’ that the Father sent the Son in verse 23;
  • the world is that which was created in verse 24, before which Jesus was already glorified;
  • yet the world ‘does not know’ the Father in verse 25.

The question of where Jesus ‘remains’ or stays or abides has been of interest from the disciples’ first encounter: ‘Rabbi, where are you staying/abiding?’ (John 1.38). We now learn that Jesus abides in the Father, and we need to abide in him, and that he will no longer abide in this world but is going to the Father. (This idea of movement from the Father’s side, down to the incarnation, and up again back to the Father is neither late, not uniquely Johannine, since we find the same movement in Phil 2.5–11 and in 2 Cor 8.9).

Now we begin to approach the heart of the prayer, where the statement about unity comes. 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).

(This is part of a consistent point in the gospels, that there need to be two witnesses who agree for their testimony to be true, based in the instruction in Deut 17.6 and 19.16; hence in Mark 14.56–59 it is key that none of the witnesses agree with each other. This idea is also behind the image of the people of God as ‘two witnesses’ in Rev 11.)

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.

There is an interesting sense of the word of the gospel cascading from one group to another. Jesus’ first prayer is for the disciples who have already come to believe in him, but he looks forward to a time when others will come to believe ‘through their word’. Jesus has spoken his words to them, and they then speak these words to others; this parallels the sending of the 12 and the 72 in Luke 9 and 10, where those Jesus sends say and do the things that Jesus has said and done.

There is also a hint here that this second group is different in some way from the first, pointing suggestively to the gentile mission which was already well under way by the time this gospel was written. The prayer that ‘they may be one’ therefore includes and applies to the unity of Jewish and gentile believers in Jesus, and we find a similar concern in Paul’s language in Eph 2.14, whereby those who were near (Jews) and those who were far off (gentiles) are united—’the two have become one’.

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.

And of course we find very similar inter-relationships between these concerns elsewhere. In the oft-cited example of the Council of Acts 15, it is striking that the understanding of the new experience of seeing the Spirit poured out on the Gentiles is interpreted by means of discerning God’s purposes in Scripture, and (most notably for us) is then recognised by all of God’s people in unanimity. The accord with Scripture and the unified reception by the people both attest to the truth of the interpretation.

Perhaps this is an object lesson in the dangers of the ‘memory verse’ approach to reading Scripture, by which we isolate one phrase from its immediate and wider context, and so lose important elements which it needs in order to be understood properly.

(Parts of this were previously published in 2016 and 2019.)

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24 thoughts on “What was the focus of Jesus’ prayer in John 17?”

  1. Thank you Ian for focussing us on John 17.

    I find it quite remarkable how Jesus is able in Ch 13-17 to sit with his disciples and concentrate on their needs as he is about to leave them. Gethsemane shows just how crushing the anticipation of the cross is for Jesus yet in these chapters he concerns himself with the needs of his disciples.

    The same is true of the prayer in ch 17. After an initial prayer that he may be glorified so that the father may be glorified … he seems to be speaking as if the cross is already past…now glorify me in your presence… the preponderance of the prayer is for ‘his own’. It is for their spiritual well-being in a number of key areas as you explain Ian.

    On the question of unity it is clearly not a denominational unity. Ultimately it is the unity of life and light in those who are truly his.

    I wonder what is meant by ‘the glory you have given me I have given to them that they may be one’?

    Is it the glory of grace and truth… the glory of selfless commitment to God and to his own? The glory of his love?

    • More comprehensively, the glory of the character of the Father, of God. This life of he Father within will create unity among God’s people.

  2. Do you have any comments on the fact that Jesus prayed for unity, and His prayer has not been answered? How does that affect the theology of our unanswered prayers?

  3. There is a unity in Christ, with all around the world, brothers s sisters in union with him, remaining in Him.
    All bookended by the first and last chapters in John.
    There is no unity outside of Him. No adoption outside of him.
    Seemingly unanswered prayer, is prayer answered!
    Thank you Ian for this, which contains stuff I’d not noticed before.
    I consider thi chapter to be one of the key text in the Gospels.
    When everything, all else is stripped away, are we to be left with any remembered word, Bible text at all?

  4. I found about 40 reasons why 15-17 cannot be a later addition, but none indicating that it might be.
    Such theories were all the rage at the time, so put it down to a passing trend.
    Ch 18 refers back to his ch 17 prayer (I have lost none of those you gave me) which is one main factor refuting the idea.
    Deipnon (and references to the meal) are 13.2,4,23,26-30.

  5. ‘Specifically, this concern [‘visible unity’ concealing disunity (deception)] must override any other, so that we do not allow differences in doctrine to undermine the unity; we must ‘agree to disagree’ in order to stay together.’

    Sir – not even the devils in Hell would dare suggest ‘we must ‘agree to disagree”; for they know that the result would be civil war.

    It is written ‘a House divided cannot stand’.

    Jesus’s plea for unity – remains a plea frustrated by the exercise of free (self) will.

    • Perhaps where the gospel is not at stake we must be forbearing. Recognise that we are not an infallible guide. Make room for conscience. Live with less than the ideal… as we grow into the maturity of faith. We are all imperfect.

      • John Thomson

        ‘Perhaps where the gospel is not at stake we must be forbearing.’

        What is there to forbear where the gospel is not at stake?

        ‘Recognise that we are not an infallible guide.’

        Infallibility belongs to God alone. There has been no failure to so recognise.

        ‘Make room for conscience.’

        Does that include the conscience that has been seared by a hot iron?

        ‘Live with less than the ideal… as we grow into the maturity of faith. We are all imperfect.’

        Had those dicta been the watchword: not a single one of the Old and New Testament prophets would have been recorded.

        Nor a single one from modern times.

        No John Bunyan (prison); no Wesley (excluded from the Church of England); no Dietrich Bonhoeffer (hanged); no Corrie ten Boom (concentration camp); no Alexander Solzhenitsyn (the Gulag).

        Why should we live with ‘less than the ideal’? To do so would frustrate maturity and preserve imperfection.

  6. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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.

    This seems to be a unity founded on the dynamic of relationship with divine persons. Through faith and the gift of the indwelling Spirit we participate in the divine fellowship. .. we dwell in God. It is perhaps related to the unity of the Spirit in Eph 4. Thus all believers enjoy this unity presumably to varying degrees, We begin to think like God and this unity is a witness to the world.

    This as I say above is not a denominational or institutional unity. John’s concerns are with the building blocks of life in Christ. He does not look at local churches. This shared life and sharing in divine fellowship creates a unity among believers that is a witness to the world.

    ‘The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me’

    Here unity seems to allow for development…for growth In Eph 4 believers are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit but they are also to attain unto the unity of the Faith. They had to grow in maturity into Christ. Perhaps it is something similar that John is pointing to a unity of maturing into the full knowledge of God.

    I think this unity is expressed even in this blog. There are those whose words reflect God’s concerns and who are essentially one even if they may differ on more secondary matters. Then there are others who clearly don’t share in this fellowship with the God and Christ of Scripture. They are opposed to those joined in a fellowship of faith in Christ, They would not wish to be part of it. I would love for them to become part of the believing family but at the moment it doesn’t seem likely.

    I am always drawn to John’s gospel but there is much that is hard to grasp.

    • “Unity among believers” is great, but it isn’t much of a witness to the world (verse 21) because the world doesn’t and can’t see it. Denominational and institutional unity *is* something the world would see and therefore we should seek it.

    • John Thomson

      Delighted you said that it’s not a denominational nor institutional unity.

      The Archbishop of York has pleaded (I’m sure his prayer has been heard) for the Church of England to ‘die a grand operatic death’.

  7. Jamie

    Don’t you think at a local level the world sees believers working together? The Roman Catholic Church is an exercise in structural unity but I’m not so sure it is a good example of gospel unity. I understand your point but even before the NT canon was complete Paul encourages believers to meet with other groups of faithful believers as the church in Ephesus apostatises.

    • How many references to “gospel co-operation” (or jointly-run Alpha courses, or the equivalent) are there on your own congregation’s website?

      • To have gospel cooperation, first there has to be s recognition that there is a Gospel and what or who it is.
        There’s the rub. There is no unity, in Christ alone in whom the fullness and face of God is revealed.

  8. Off topic. Article over at Anglican Ink:

    Growth, Decline and Extinction of UK Churches.

    The faster you get rid of the liberals – the more likely your church will survive.

    • The Anglican Ink article together with the authors Limited Enthusiasm Model is a fascinating read and worth a whole OP on this blog IMO.

      It confims what I have always thought that the future of christianity in the UK does not lie in the historic state church and denominations.

    • Let’s pray for the liberals and the non-liberals that God in his mercy and grace will revive and rebuke us all.

      Phil Almond

      • Ahem!

        He’s already done that. The big denominations who wink at homosexuality are on their way out.

        The homosexuals who run them aren’t remotely interested in their decline and fall – as most of them will collect their pensions and as they leave whisper: “Not my problem.”

  9. The Anglican Ink article has an excellent graph.
    Why oh why are people still treating this kind of trend as news? Quite the reverse – the news would be if the findings were any different. They never have been and never could be.
    Any such reaction could be giving a pass to the dishonest trend to present findings that are always the same as ‘surprising’ and secondly never to refer to all the previous studies that have come to much the same commonsense conclusion. The study itself is not guilty of either of these 2 things.

  10. This article on John 17 reveals this to me.
    1 The paucity of comments from liberals, which of itself reveals the gulf or, as put by Gresham Machin a different religion.
    2 As good as the link to Anglican Ink is, how we can stand too much enthusiasm for scripture, as we disappear down our favourite rabbit holes.
    But, along the lines of the topic in Anglican Ink, for an interesting, too me, even as a none Presbyterian, talk/lecture on an extended potted history of the movement of the Scottish Church up to present times, here is a link to Dr Ian Hamilton, Are there lessons for any any or all denominations? I’d say so. It will chasten and dreaw objection from some as it draws near to recent times and decisions.

    With acknowledged thanks to David Roberston for the link

    • Geoff

      Interesting speech by Chalmers on how they attempted to maintain denominational unity.

      The principal argument for staying in the church was ‘influence’. He then spoke about the moment when they accepted priestesses and asked (in the early nineties) what happens when they ask us to accept homosexual priests?

      That happened yesterday – the righteous were defeated.

      If sex is irrelevant to the priesthood, then why should sexual orientation and transgender be relevant?

      Game over.


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