Studying John 17 14-24

A portion carved out of the middle of Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer,” John 17:14-24, is the text we’re studying for Sunday, January 24. [Here are some reflection / discussion questions on this text.] Here are, considering the subject matter, a very few notes on the text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text is from the gospel of John, so we’ll want to remember that gospel’s many distinctive features, including long speeches, profound and careful symbolism, and its emphasis on the identity of Jesus, the Christ, and the Father. This particular text comes at the conclusion of an especially long speech, Jesus’s “farewell discourse,” which begins in John 13 with Jesus’s washing the disciples’ feet, and his explanation of that act’s significance. Jesus makes this speech on the night of his arrest, before that arrest. He closes the discourse with a long prayer, and our text is a few of the verses that come more or less in the middle of that prayer.

The prayer can be outlined in more than one way, but all those ways recognize that the prayer has three main parts: one focusing on Jesus, one on the disciples, one on “those who will believe in me through their word.” Our text includes some verses from the second part, and the first verses of the prayer for “those who will believe.”

This is an important and beloved text. One of our former pastors used to talk about it all the time with great reverence. Raymond Brown calls it “sublime.”[1] If there is a text in the Bible that explicitly confirms “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” John 17 would be the one. So important and sublime that adults could think it made sense to assign it as memory work to 4th graders. [Evidently, I still have feelings about that.]

“Important,” “beloved,” and “sublime” are not the same as “clear” or “easy to understand,” however.

I thought this text was hard to understand when I had to memorize it in 4th grade, and over 50 years later, although I feel a little bit clearer, I still suspect it is saying much more than I understand. This explains why I have a lot fewer notes than usual, despite the importance and sublimity of this text, and why most of the notes I do have are questions.

All of John 17 shows up in the lectionary across the three-year cycle, as the gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday after Easter: John 17:1-11 in Year A, John 17:6-19 in Year B, and John 17:20-26 in Year C. But the Seventh Sunday after Easter is inclined to get bumped for Ascension, which features Luke 24:44-53, so how familiar we will be with John 17 if all we know about the Bible is the lectionary may depend on whether we have had pastors who lean more to thinking of John 17 as “sublime,” or as “obscure.”
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CLOSER READING: There are lots of ways to read this text.

There is a detailed commentary on the chapter at Bible Gateway, I think solid, that carefully presents a close reading of all the verses and connects them to both the overall structure of the prayer, and to recurrent themes in John’s gospel and in other parts of scripture.

Alternatively, we could simply hang on to the “gist” of the text:

… here, Jesus prays the real ‘Lord’s Prayer,’ and it’s all about unity, love, service, and steadfastness. Alas, however, Jesus’ prayer remains as yet unfulfilled, unanswered. Because as long as the Church, and Christianity, remains fragmented, unloving, weak and infirm because of the grip of sin, it can never experience what Jesus here prays for.” [2]

Raymond Brown’s reading occupies a middle ground:

Jesus prays for glorification (i.e., the glory that he had before creation) on the grounds that he has completed all that the Father has given him to do and revealed God’s name. This is not a selfish prayer, since the goal of the glorification is that the Son may glorify the Father properly. In the second section (17:9-19) Jesus prays for those whom the Father has given him that they may be kept safe with the name given to Jesus. He refuses to pray for the world (which by rejecting Jesus has become the realm of evil), for his disciples do not belong to the world. Quite unlike a gnostic savior, Jesus does not ask that his disciples be taken out of the world, but only that they be kept safe from the Evil One (who is the Prince of this world). Praying that they will be consecrated as he consecrates himself, Jesus sends them into the world to bear witness to truth. In the third section (17:20-26) Jesus prays for those who believe in him through the word of the disciples – a prayer that they may be one just as the Father and Jesus are one. … A unity brought to completion among believers will be convincing to the world. [3]

All of these readings seem clearer to me than my own.

It seems helpful to identify the things Jesus is specifically asking the Father for: that the Father glorify the Son (vv1 and 5); that the Father keep safe the ones the Father gave Jesus out of the world – the disciples, and it seems, more specifically, the twelve minus Judas Iscariot – in God’s name (v11), keep them safe from the Evil One (v15), and sanctify them (or consecrate them, or set them apart) in the truth (v17); and that the ones who believe through the disciples’ word will all be one (v21), that they will be in us (the Father and Jesus) (v21), and that those given to Jesus by the Father will be with Jesus (v24) where he is.

Glory is a complex term; it can incorporate senses of radiance or brilliance, of importance or weight, of fame or renown, of worth or value; it can be something apparent, like a demonstration, or something felt or thought, like reputation. Glorifying someone or something can range from praising and attributing greatness or value to that someone or something, to revealing or showing someone or something to be honorable or important.

It would make sense to understand Jesus’s request in verse 1 to mean something like “show the surpassing worth of” or “reveal the truth of.”

In v15, Jesus seems to most translators probably to be asking that the disciples be protected from the Evil One, though it’s possible that he means for them to be protected from evil, as in Matthew 6:13.

In verse 24, the glory Christ had before the foundation of the world might make us think of Ephesians 1:4, and shed new light on what it might mean to be chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.

The way Jesus talks about what he has done and what he is asking the Father to do, he seems to be speaking from a point of completion – that is, although events have yet to unfold, Jesus speaks of them as if they are already accomplished.

One big challenge of this text, it seems to me, is the one of stopping and asking ourselves “what does that actually mean?” as we go along, instead of settling for a vague impression of meaning. What do we think it actually means to be one? To be sanctified in the truth? How does glory lead to unity (v22)? And so on. Thinking about the various possibilities here is one way to explore the text. And whether or not we can answer these questions, it seems to me we should be asking them. If what it shows us is that Jesus is here thinking and speaking in intimate terms to the Father, of things we struggle to follow and grasp – that might not be the worst way to read this text, either.
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[1] Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Doubleday, 1997. 355.

[2] West, Jim. John: For the Person in the Pew. Quartz Hill Publishing House, 2008. 114-15.

[3] Brown, 355-6.
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Mosaic of eagle representing St John the Evangelist

Image: “St. John mosaic, All Hallows, Allerton,” by Rodhullandemu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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