For Sunday, January 24, we are studying a portion of Jesus’s “great High Priestly Prayer,” as our former pastor used to refer to it, John 17:14-24. [Here are some notes on the text – not enough, probably.] Here are a few questions we might want to consider or discuss:
But first, a couple of thoughts. I think I have already indicated my feelings about this text, and to make them explicit: I think this is the hardest chapter in the entire Bible to understand. One of the hardest, anyway. I’m not saying I don’t “like” it; I’m saying I don’t think I understand it very well. And I don’t mean just theologically. I think it’s hard to understand semantically, that is, it is hard to understand what the sentences are saying, what they are referring to.
That problem is not made any easier by the fact that we are reading it in translation – so we are already trying to deal with someone else’s struggles to understand what those sentences were saying in one language that was not their first (because New Testament Greek is no one’s first language these days), and then trying to say the same thing in a different language.
In a situation like this, we have a couple of options:
Option 1: We can stick close to what we do know and can understand about this text. Jesus is praying. He is praying for himself, for the disciples (“those you [Father] gave me”), and for “those who will believe in me through their word” (if that description fits us, then, for us). For the disciples and for us, Jesus is asking for protection from evil, for “being one,” for love, and for being where Jesus is and seeing his glory.
Knowing and feeling reasonably confident of that, we could ask ourselves:
How does it feel knowing that Jesus has already included us in his prayers? Is this a model for our prayer? Who do we include in our prayers, and should we perhaps think about including others besides those? Why do we think this?
How does it feel knowing that Jesus prays for himself? What does that tell us about prayer for ourselves? [It might be worthwhile to note that Jesus prays for himself so that he can fulfill his mission and glorify God. Is that a model for our own prayers for ourselves, do we think?]
Why do we think Jesus asks for the specific things he asks for? What is important about protection from evil (or, the Evil One)? What is important about “being one”? Why would he need to ask for that specifically, do we think? What about love? Jesus and the Father love one another, and Jesus asks that the disciples and those who come after them be included in that love. How is that working out for us, do we think? Why is that, do we think? Jesus says this love will demonstrate to the world that the Father sent Jesus. How is that working out for us, do we think? Why is that, do we think?
What about this prayer makes us feel really good? Why is that?
What about it makes us feel challenged or called to new action? Why is that? What action?
How does this prayer make us feel about Jesus? Why is that? What effect do we think that has on our lives?
Option 2: We could spend time meditating on what this text could possibly mean, by really thinking deeply about the words.
I confess, I am completely stuck on verse 17, so let me give an example of what I mean using that verse.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.John 17:17
What does “sanctify” mean here, do we think?
[Possible synonyms, more or less, are: “consecrate,” “hallow” – and this is the same Greek verb used in Matthew 6:9, “Hallowed be Thy name” – as in “make holy,” “dedicate,” “set apart” – usually for some specific service. But for us, “sanctify” probably makes us think of “purify.” “Consecrate” probably makes us think a little more of setting something apart for a religious purpose. At least, that’s how those words work on me. So we could be having several different impressions of the meaning of “sanctify.”]
What does “in the truth” mean, do we think? What are the possibilities?
[“In” is a preposition, and prepositions are the hardest parts of speech to pin down. Is “in the truth” meant more like “in the water,” “in the sink,” “in haste,” or “in your mercy”? That is, is the “truth” that the disciples are to be sanctified “in” more like a substance that sanctifies, a location in which sanctification takes place, a quality that characterizes the performance of the sanctification, a condition of its performance? There might be some other possibilities I haven’t thought of here, too. It seems to me that what we think this means will affect what we think about other things. What we think “truth” is, how we think it works – probably affects how we read this verse. But maybe this verse ought to work on what we think truth is and how we think it works. So thinking about this is not a waste of time.]
“Your word is truth.”
Let’s remember that this is the gospel that begins with “In the beginning was the Word.” So when Jesus says “your word is truth,” are we meant to think of that? And if we do, how does that influence our understanding of the sanctification, and the truth, that Jesus is talking about here? Does that give us any other ideas about what he means by “sanctify them in the truth [i.e., in your word]”? What ideas?
And while we’re thinking about all this, what implications do these different thoughts seem to have for our understanding of what it means for us to follow in the footsteps of these saints, and perhaps to experience the same kind of sanctification? Eh?
What light do these few words shed on that, what questions do they raise for us about the experience of sanctification, or the process of sanctification? About the relationship of “truth” – whatever we are beginning to understand that to mean here – to that sanctification?
How does “sanctification in the truth” happen? And when, or as, it does, then what?
Hopefully you see my point. This option involves really looking closely at the language, how we understand the language, what we imagine that language to refer to in the concrete world in which we live (because, presumably, we think it does refer to something in that world), and what all that leads us to understand about what we are reading here.
Others might be more interested in different verses.
[For instance, what does he mean, “one, as we are one”??]
As usual, overall, our main task is to try to hear the text as well as we can, and then pay some close attention to what that tells us about God, and about ourselves – at least, that’s how I see it.
Image: “A Family Around a Table,” Julius Paulsen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons