The Magisterial Prayer as the Final Preparation for Passover (17:1-26)

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, which highlight the Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane as the final preparation of Jesus before his arrest (cf. Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-43; Luke 22:39-46), the Gospel of John does not include that pericope but has instead this magnificent prayer of chap. 17. This chapter has been labeled with many titles such as "The Consecration Prayer," or "The Prayer of Consecration" (Westcott, Hoskyns and Davey, Beasley-Murray), "The Prayer of the Departing Redeemer" (Schnackenburg), "The Farewell Prayer" (Bultmann, Ridderbos), "The Sage's Prayer" (Witherington), "The Prayer"/"Final Prayer of Jesus" (Barrett, Carson), "Jesus Prays for His Disciples" (Newman and Nida), and "The High Priestly Prayer" (Agourides, Haenchen, Morris). Brown designates the chapter merely as "The Last Discourse," and Segovia does not even include the prayer in his Farewell study.

Although there are a few manuscript variants, the chapter is surprisingly free of debatable textual issues. Instead, the attention given the chapter has focused on theological concerns and more recently on structural issues.

Excursus 19: The Structure of John 17

In dealing with the chapter's structure many scholars have developed their analytical patterns based on theological and linguistic considerations and have divided the chapter into three, four, or more subsections. Westcott argued for three sections based on the petitions of Jesus for himself (vv. 1-5), his immediate disciples (vv. 6-19), and the later community of followers (vv. 20-26). Schnackenburg, in his 1973 article on structure, further subdivided vv. 6-19 into three parts related to a direct personal concern for the disciples (vv. 6-11a), a concern for their protection in the world (vv. 11b-16), and a concern for their consecration or sanctification (vv. 17-19). Furthermore, he divided vv. 20-26 into two parts related to the concern for oneness (vv. 20-23) and the concern for the community's fulfillment (vv. 24-26). As a result he ended up with six basic subsections.

This basic pattern of dividing the chapter has been followed substantially by others such as Beasley-Murray and Carson. Moreover, D. A. Black has since attempted to support this division through a linguistic analysis.

Brown, however, turned away from Westcott's threefold pattern and its revisions and chose another three-part division of vv. 1-8,9-19,20-26, although he adds the following subdivisions: vv. 1-5,6-8,9-16,17-19,20-23 and 24-26, thus ending with a slightly different six-part subdivision. Barrett, Lagrange, and others have employed a four-part division, while Dodd decided to alter Westcott's second section of vv. 6-19 by dividing it into vv. 6-8 and 9-19. Malatesta decided on a five-part structure he developed from an overly complex chiastic pattern that he thought he found in the Gospel.

My own structure is based on what I think is a clearly defined seven-part subdivision of the chapter based on the content, the petitional divisions, and the relationship of these petitions to the overall structure of the book. It is my hope that the reader will therefore once again be led to realize that this Johannine writer had an amazing organizational ability for developing his themes and integrating them into the rest of the book.

Before I turn to the specific structure of this chapter, it is important to note that the major section in which this chapter has been located is the conclusion to the Farewell Cycle. The designation "Farewell Discourses" that has been used by a number of scholars is a deceptive misnomer because chaps. 13-17 include far more than discourses. I have instead likened this Farewell Cycle to a bull's-eye or target with concentric rings and a center that moves the reader's thinking from the outside and a readiness for the strategic Passover (13:1) in the life and ministry of Jesus, introduced with the arrival of the "hour" at 12:23, to the core of what it means to be a disciple. Then the Cycle moves back again to the outer ring, where the toll of the dominating hour is once again sounded (17:1). In this Cycle the first half of the outer ring or circle involved a footwashing act that modeled for the disciples the meaning of discipleship in love. But in closing that ring Jesus' departure was clearly announced.

The first part of the next ring therefore involved the introduction of the Circle of Anxiety and the promise that Jesus' departure to the Father was purposeful. Inside that ring came the first part of the divine answer to the disciples' distress in the first segment of the Paraclete sayings. That, in turn, led to the core involving the necessity of abiding in Jesus to assure authentic discipleship. As we moved out from that core again to the inner ring, new Paraclete sayings were introduced to deal with the hostility in the world. That, in turn, led back to the Circle of Anxiety and the promise that like the pain of childbirth, the disciples' anxiety would turn to joy; and even though they would abandon Jesus, he would bring them peace.

Now as we return to the outer ring and chap. 17, the focus is once again fully on Jesus. As Jesus modeled for them in chap. 13 the nature of community discipleship through love, here he modeled for them his concerns for the community's mission and well-being through prayer. This Farewell Cycle is like a beautiful symphony that integrates an amazing interplay of ideas into a priceless work of art.

But chap. 17 is also an intriguing work itself, and it serves as a magnificent conclusion to this Farewell Cycle. Encapsulated within this concluding chapter are a series of seven distinct petitions that for the most part invoke the name "Father" and are like flashing signals notifying the reader of changing emphases in this great prayer. As I have indicated earlier, the three previous petitions in the Gospel all use this same signal (11:41; 12:27-28). In learning about prayer from the Lord, John also learned from Jesus that God was not some abstract force in the universe but was like a personal Father.

Jesus came into a Jewish world that had developed a remote view of God, one that needed angels to carry messages. The people had ceased to use the name of God for fear of taking his name in vain, just like the Prodigal Son, who could speak of "heaven" but not use the name of God (cf. Luke 15:18,21). Into this context of speaking of God by means of surrogate titles Jesus came and called God his Father. But what was even more astounding was that he taught his disciples to pray "Our Father" (cf. Matt 6:9). For the Jews of that day such a personal view of God was very degrading of God and akin to blasphemy (cf. John 5:18). Yet in spite of his personal sense of the Father's presence, Jesus modeled for his disciples how to honor and glorify God through consistent obedience to the will of the Father. It is this wonderful sense of Jesus' personal relationship to God that John captured in this magisterial prayer of John 17. Few passages of Scripture come so close to revealing the heart of God's special agent as these magnificent twenty-six verses.

Using the key of pater (father), it immediately becomes evident that there are at least six petitions in this chapter (vv. 1,5,11,21,24,25). To these six petitions is added a seventh petition using an implied pater in v. 17. What is even more intriguing is that these seven petitions seem to connect with seven aspects of the Gospel theologically and linguistically in a way that stretches the mind because of how these connections were so artfully designed.

But the structure is not merely developed in terms of the seven petitions. There also seems to be another structural marker, eroto, "I pray" or "I ask" at 17:9 and 17:20 that seems to signal major shifts in the petitions and therefore to divide the chapter into three major sections, as was suggested by Brown. But I would entitle these three sections (1) Finishing the Mission in a Hostile World (17:1-8), (2) Preparing the Disciples (17:9-19), and (3) Looking to the Future (17:20-26).

In concluding these introductory remarks, I must also mention another important fact with respect to two verbs that are used repeatedly throughout this chapter. They are didonai ("give") in 17:2,6,7,8,9,11,14,22,25 and apostellein ("send") in 17:3,8,18,21,23,25. In using these verbs John was highlighting the fact that the main focus of the chapter was not to be put on Jesus but on his mission in the establishment and confirming of a community that would believe and obey him, God's agent or shaliach.

An understanding of this fact is absolutely crucial in expounding this chapter because many commentators have argued that the first part of this prayer concerns Jesus' self rather than his work of establishing a community of disciples for the continuing divine purpose of mission. By missing this crucial element of the prayer interpreters can easily turn the prayer into a model for a mystical experience with God that neglects its overarching mission incentive. The same can be said of much of the preaching and debate concerning the use of the strategic verses on oneness in 17:21-22 during the last century, for they have often failed to recognize the centrality of mission in the quest for unity.

With these extended introductory remarks on John 17 in mind, attention is now directed to an analysis of the chapter.

Finishing His Mission in a Hostile World (17:1-8)

1After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:

"Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. 5And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.

6"I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

This section of chap. 17 includes two significant petitional subsections (vv. 1-3 and vv. 4-8), which are directed to the conclusion of Jesus' earthly mission and return to the Father as he prepared to turn over the Gospel task to his designated human agents, the disciples.

THE FIRST PETITION: GLORIFICATION IN MISSION (17:1-3). 17:1 This chapter and the first petition begin with several important noteworthy markers. The first is that by beginning with the words tauta elalesen, Jesus "said these things," it implies that Jesus had completed speaking and was turning to something else, namely, to the prayer. Agourides, however, argues that the prayer was actually a "consolatory discourse" or teaching mechanism itself. Although the prayer undoubtedly has didactic implications, it reveals something far more of what John sensed was the driving force of the mission of Jesus, in a similar way to that which the Song of Moses (Deut 32) encapsulated Moses' concerns in the long farewell to his people in Deuteronomy.

The second marker involves the fact that Jesus (lit.) raised "his eyes to heaven." This act is to be understood as a symbolic gesture of prayer (cf. 11:41). In advising translators concerning this expression Newman and Nida assert that "it is important to avoid the impression that Jesus looked into heaven in the literal sense." That this act was viewed as directing one's full attention to God should here be understood, and heaven is not to be thought of as "sky" but as the abode of God. In that day it was viewed as "up," whereas today one might think of God as existing in another dimension.

The third marker, "Father," has been discussed at length in the introduction to this chapter as an indication of a petition for both Jesus and subsequently for his followers.

The fourth marker is the familiar word "hour" (NIV "time"), which provides the presupposition to the entire prayer: namely, that the crucial Passover death of Jesus was at hand and everything in this chapter presupposed Jesus' imminent departure.

The petition itself is fully purpose driven. It is not self-oriented. Jesus' petition for the Father to "Glorify your Son" cannot be understood apart from the goal that the Father would be glorified through the Son's glorification. Moreover, it cannot be understood apart from the fact that the "hour" of the Son's glorification was premised on the death of the Son. It is essential, therefore, not to assume that glorification implies only bright lights and victory because Jesus' resurrection cannot in John be separated from the death of God's Son, his special agent. Thus, honoring/glorifying the Son in his mission to the world actually honors the Father (cf. 5:21-23).

17:2-3 In like manner the rationale continues in that the giving of power/authority to the Son was for the purpose of bestowing/giving eternal life to all. But the parameters for the giving of this eternal life are clearly established by the stated mission of Jesus to the effect that "they may know ... the only true God" and his specially sent agent.

Suffice it to state briefly that while God's intention is that everyone or all people should be given eternal life, receiving this bestowal is inseparably linked to knowing God and his special Son. Moreover, the God about whom the prayer speaks is not some generally defined "god" within the world of many gods. God here is defined by two specific adjectival limitations. God is, first, the one and only God; and, second, God is absolutely genuine or authentic.

In addition, the mission of the Son is defined in close connection to the overall purposes of God because his giving of eternal life to people is further explained as given to those whom God had given to him. The Son's saving activity, therefore, is directly related to the will and purposes of God. But great care must be taken in not overinterpreting the words in this passage to limit the number God has given to the Son because the point of the prayer is not to categorize people as those who are to be "in" and those who are to be left "out" of the divine mission. The point of this petition and its explication is that Jesus submitted and was obedient to God's purpose for him. That purpose in his life, death, and resurrection (his glorification) was to glorify God and to bring the promise of eternal life and salvation to the world. His mission was good news, not limiting bad news. But at the same time he took seriously evil in the world as the context for both his mission (highlighted in the Passover events) and for the disciple's mission (as evidenced later in the fourth petition).

As one reflects on the words in this subsection concerning Jesus' purpose in giving eternal life to all, one is not merely drawn to the great assertion of John 3:16, wherein God and the Son are joined together in the purpose of bringing eternal life to all who believe. One is equally drawn to the fact that this petition of Jesus actually reflects the purpose statement for the entire Gospel (20:30-31). There it is said that many other signs could, in fact, be given that are not included in this book, but those that have been selected are chosen to promote believing in the intimate relationship of Jesus, the Son, and God the Father in order that the believer might experience dynamic new life because of him.

THE SECOND PETITION: THE RETURN TO GLORY AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE INCARNATIONAL MISSION (17:4-8). 17:4 This verse provides the transition from the purpose statement concerning the coming of Jesus to the incarnational work of Jesus. The link is provided by the extended use of the concept of glory. This verse is both reflective of the past and serves as the basis for the prospect of the future in the petition of the next verse. As Jesus anticipated the cross, he could review his incarnation and speak of bringing glory to God by completing or fulfilling his assigned work.

17:5 As Jesus looked back before the incarnation, he voiced his second petition with the standard marker "Father" and prayed that his mission would be fully completed by the sign of his return to the glory he had before creation. The connection between this verse and the Prologue of John has been often noted by commentators. But I should add that just as in 1:1-2 it was said that the Word was in the beginning with God and yet the two were distinguishable, so there is here no attempt made for the Son to pray for the merging of the two or for the Son's absorption into God or the divine mind/soul as might have been proposed by Plato and the Greek philosophers. The Godhead in John is very personal and identifiable both before the incarnation (1:1), in the incarnation (1:14), and thereafter in the postresurrection return.

Käsemann had argued that the idea of Jesus possessing glory in the incarnation (as in 1:14) was a contradiction of ideas. Haenchen, however, countered by stating that the prayer of Jesus for a restoration of the former glory here "presupposed" that he did not possess that type of glory in the incarnation. Accordingly, Jesus was hardly Käsemann's docetic "god walking about the earth." Schnackenburg posited that while both John here and Paul in Phil 2:6-11 may have been seeking to assist believers to understand the greatness of the Redeemer in his effective work, the perspective is slightly different in that for Paul, Jesus has an enhanced status after the emptying and subsequent exaltation whereas in John, Jesus "regains the glory that was previously his." Yet these ideas seem to make overly fine distinctions, and perhaps it is best not to concentrate on the temporal issues such as the premundane existence of the Logos but to focus on his supermundane nature and thus emphasize "his transcendence over the world." But I would insist that however one might describe the transitional nature of Jesus, there is no question that the present statements are to be linked with the description in the Prologue of the Word (logos) and God (theos).

17:6-8 These verses form another of the Johannine saddle texts, which here relate both to the petition in v. 5 and the petition introduced in v. 9. These verses are again like the saddle of a mountain range that enables climbers to move from one peak to another without returning to the base of the mountain. The two previous verses involved a reflection on the past ministry of Jesus as well as the prospect for completion of his mission and return to his former glory.

These three verses continue the reflective process of Jesus' incarnational work, but here the focus is particularly with his disciples. This work of Jesus is described as revealing (lit.) "your name." The NIV has "you," which omits the powerful Semitic word picture that implies Jesus' work involved revealing the very nature of God (cf. 14:9-10).

Those disciples to whom Jesus revealed God's name or nature belonged to God (the Greek uses the idiom "they were to you"), and God in turn gave them to Jesus. They did not have any special origin as Jesus did because they came "out of the world." Yet they had become special to God because when God gave them to the incarnate Jesus to reveal his own name/nature, they would become important to God's strategy of mission. In analyzing 17:6 the interpreter should avoid jumping into the predestination/prestatus argument like Carson and not attempt to bisect words in terms of time. The issue is not the previous status of the disciples but their role in God's mission strategy through the coming of the incarnate Jesus.

The importance of v. 6 is that the disciples have become a strategic link in God's work. The text states that they have kept/obeyed "your word." The verb is in the perfect tense, indicating the continuing implications of their obedience. The singular of "word" (logon) is to be understood as a collective for God's message, the good news or the gospel, and not as a reference to individual commands of God or to the teachings of Jesus.

Although some commentators are tempted to discuss the anachronistic nature of this statement, such a discussion is unnecessary. Of course, John was writing after the resurrection and understood that the disciples had been failures and were later restored. But that does not mean that Jesus could not have proleptically viewed the disciples as fulfilling God's intention for them in spite of their failures. All one has to do is read the incredible statement of Paul concerning the pathetic Corinthians in 1 Cor 1:4-9 and to wonder if Paul was talking about the same group of people that he writes about in the rest of the epistle.

The disciples of Jesus had not been and would not be perfect models of consistently following Jesus, but Jesus knew their hearts. Peter is a good example of inconsistency in the sword episode (18:10-11), the denial (18:15-27), and the recommissioning (21:20-22). Yet in his heart he had committed himself to Jesus (6:67-69), was willing to lay down his life for Jesus (13:37), jumped overboard to be with Jesus (21:7), and three times affirmed that he loved Jesus (21:15-17). The disciples were merely human beings, but just think of what God was about to do with them!

As we move to v. 7, the word "now" signals the fact that Jesus turned his thinking from the past experiences with the disciples to the current situation. He was about to depart from the world, and he was confident that the disciples would fulfill God's goal of mission for them. The reason was that they had come to know (the Greek is perfect) that Jesus was the special agent of the Father because everything associated with Jesus had actually been given (another perfect tense) by God. The use of the perfect tenses here indicates that a stage had been reached in the disciples' lives that (although they would fail) still gave Jesus the sense that the mission of God would go forward when he departed. Not only had he been given by the Father everything/everyone pertaining to his work, but these disciples had come to know that the source was the Father.

The statements in 17:8 then tie together the various ideas in a closing unified incarnational perspective. First, Jesus had been transferring (the perfect of "give") to the disciples the "words" he was given by God. The implication is clearly that the words of Jesus were revealed words from the Father (cf. 3:34; 6:63,68; 14:10; 15:7). Second, the disciples had received or accepted these revealed words. Third, the disciples "knew with certainty" that Jesus came from God. And fourth, they believed that he was on a mission, sent directly by the Father.

This subsection involving the second petition for a return to Jesus' former glory (17:5) thus reflects the focus of the Prologue (1:1-18), in which at the beginning (en arche) the Word was not only directly related to God (pros ton theon, 1:1) but in his incarnation he revealed God's glory (1:14). It also completes the logic of the Prologue concerning the children of God who have received or "accepted" (elabon, cf. 1:12; 17:8) both him and his words. Moreover, this section (17:8) is also clearly reminiscent of the focus of the Cana Cycle, the stories of which were directed to engendering authentic knowing and believing (at Cana, 2:11; after the Temple scene, 2:23-25; in the Nicodemus context, 3:16-18,36); with the Samaritan woman, 4:42; and with the official, 4:48,53).

As this section draws to a conclusion, the introduction of the disciples in connection with the incarnational mission of Jesus actually sets the stage for the next several petitions, which focus on the disciples in a hostile world. In concluding this section, therefore, it is appropriate to reiterate what I have stated elsewhere concerning these first two petitions in contrast to what Brown, Käsemann, and others have said, that "what may seem to be a personal petition" on the part of Jesus "must not be understood in any way as self-serving because Jesus in no way sought to escape death." Instead, his death was "in fact the way to glory in the mind of the evangelist." It was for John as for Jesus the clear means of the Lord "completing his mission as God's agent."

—New American Commentary