Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

206. The Prayer of Jesus [2] (John 17:6-19)

After its first few sentences, all the rest of this prayer of Jesus centred on his disciples, so it may be taken as fairly certain that even the earlier petitions on his own behalf were really with them in mind, for it was only through himself that eternal life and the glory of the Father could come to them. He had been unremitting in his efforts to educate them in this truth: "I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word." That expression: "Thou gavest them me" comes six times in this prayer! (v.6twice,9,11,12,24).

The Name

The allusions to Moses come through clearly here (see Study 205). The "name" of the Lord declared to Moses (Ex.34 :6,7) was declared by him to the people, just as the glory of the Lord also was visible in him in a truly awe-inspiring fashion (34 :29-35). And as the men of Levi, unexpectedly loyal to their leader and reacting sharply from the sin of the golden calf, were assigned a perpetual loyalty to the sanctuary of the Lord (Dt.33 :8-10), so also now the disciples given to Jesus as his necessary helpers, had hung on in their loyalty to him against all, discouragements.

Jesus had both "manifested" the Name of God (v.6) and "declared" Him (v.26). The former word nearly always implies theophany, the latter means "made known" through his teaching. The "Name" he manifested was, of course, much more than the divine Covenant Name or other cognomen. As with Moses in the mount, the Name of the Lord now declared by Jesus was His character and attributes and purpose. "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (the fulfilment of His promises), keeping mercy for thousands (very probably means "for a thousand generations"; Ex.20 :6RVm), forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Ex.34 :6,7). It may be doubted whether at this time the apostles appreciated that their Jesus was to be the vehicle of such surpassing grace, but in due time the Spirit of truth illuminated their understanding very remarkably.

"They have known

Given to Jesus by the Father, they "kept" his word and became the staunch custodians of his teaching. Here again is yet another aspect of the inescapable paradox woven into so much of the teaching of John's gospel. Given by the Father-this is election-but keeping their Master's word is only by personal decision and act of will.

"Now they have come to know that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee." Throughout the past three years there had been plenty of occasions when their confidence in him had faltered, times enough when devotion had been clouded by mystification; yet they had held on, unable to define clearly the grounds of their conviction about him, but unwilling to let go.

It seems not unlikely that the past tenses used by the Lord in his prayer concerning his disciples were so used by anticipation of the greater consolidation of faith which came to them later on. The very words spoken by the Father to His Son (Dt.18 :16,18) were now spoken to them by Jesus, "and they received them'—at this time only in a limited sense; the "receiving" of the inner meaning of their Lord's instruction would be theirs in due course. "They have known surely that I came forth from thee, and they believed that thou didst send me." It may be doubted whether at this moment the apostles had grasped as a literal fact that Jesus was the Son of God, born of a virgin (8 :42). And the sense in which he was "sent" would naturally be interpreted by them in the light of his word about themselves: "As thou hast sent me unto the world, even so have I also sent them into the world" (v.18). But the full realisation of the person and work of Jesus would necessarily come to them after the resurrection, after Pentecost.

There is a marvellous exclusiveness about this petition of Jesus for his own: "I pray for them: I pray not for the world" (cp. Mt.10:32). Once again it was the Jewish world which he reprobated. He had come unto his own, and his own received him not (astonishing understatement!). And as long as Israel gave him only a stubborn rejection, "pray not for this people" was the mandate God laid upon him (Jer.11:14;cp. 1Jn.5:19).

So all his concern was centred on these humble inadequate men given him by his Father—'for they are thine: and all mine are thine, and thine are mine." Once again the paradox shouts for resolution: if this be so emphatically true, why the need for this most intense insistent prayer? But the Book supplies no answer. To the unbeliever this is foolishness, to the man of God it is faith, and thus the Son of God is glorified in him.

How well Jesus knew the frailty of these to whom he was to commit so much. There might well be grounds for concern how they would fare without him: "I am no more in the world, but these are in the world (that hostile Jewish world of entrenched privilege, religious distortion, and consolidated prejudice). Holy Father (the one who prays thus is a High Priest entering into a Holy of Holies),... Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me."

The unique mode of address used by Jesus here is a measure of the intensification of his emotion and earnestness. In such an environment as the disciples would find themselves, how could they hope to keep their heads above water without having "everlasting arms" to support them and without a wisdom far beyond their own?

The exact equivalent of this prayer (v. 11) is to be found in an impressive Messianic psalm: "Let not them that wait on thee, O Lord God of hosts, be ashamed for my sake; let not those that seek thee be confounded for my sake, O God of Israel" (69 :6). And another psalm which includes a moving passage about Judas (55:12-14)ends on this note: "Cast upon the Lord that which he has given thee, and he shall sustain thee" (55 :22). In his protracted intercession for those given him by the Father, Jesus expressed the spirit of this psalm perfectly.

The son of perdition

His own concern and vigilance for the twelve had been unremitting: "While I was with them, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept (NEB: kept them safe), and none of them perished, but the son of perdition." The implications here are very striking. If the twelve were "given" to Jesus by the Father, it must mean that there was direct divine guidance in their selection, a guidance imparted in the course of a whole night spent in prayer about them (Lk.6:12).

Judas was one of those "given" by the Father, yet he became "a son of loss." Then what did John mean by his earlier declaration that "Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him" (6:64)? Perhaps this should betaken to mean that Jesus knew (from the Old Testament) that the traitor must be one of the inner circle of his disciples.

The added phrase: "that the scripture might be fulfilled," lends support to this. "Let his days be few, and let another take his office" (Ps.109 :8; and cp. Ps.55 :12-14; 41 :9; 35:12-14).

In this specific example of Judas the earlier paradox reasserts itself. "Given to Jesus by the Father" would seem to imply the inevitability of salvation, Nevertheless Judas perished. Indeed, Jesus spoke of him as already perished (the RV reading is correct), although still competent for the evil work of betrayal. Here once again is the Johannine idiom (learnt from Jesus?). "He that loveth not his Brother abideth in death" (1 Jn. 3:14).

The ground for this prayer on behalf of the disciples was now repeated: "And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world (he surely meant 'concerning the world—the next few verses seem to demand this meaning), that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves." This repetition of the word "fulfilled" suggests allusion to another Scripture to be fulfilled, probably to Psalm 16 :11: "Thou wilt shew me the path of life; in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand ("I come to thee") there are pleasures for evermore" (but see also Zeph. 3:17;ls.29:19;51:ll;66:5). Here immediately after a clear prophecy of his resurrection, is a dear prophecy of his ascension. It is to be recalled, also, that just before this prayer Jesus had been making his promise to send the Spirit of truth from the Father (16:7; 15:26; 14:26).

Concern for the disciples

The benefit of the disciples as the spring and source of this prayer had already been copiously emphasized in his earlier words to them. It is worthwhile to bring the passages together, in order to get the full effect of the Lord's concern for his weak unsure followers:

"Now I tell you before it come, that when it (the betrayal) is come to pass ye may believe that I am he" (13:19).

"And now I have told you before it (the ascension) come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe" (14:29).

"These things (the warning of persecution, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit) have I spoken unto you that ye should not be offended" (16:1).

"But these things (the hostility of the rulers) have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you" (16:4).

"These things (about the new commandment) have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled" (15:11).

"These things (his and their relationship to the Father) have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace" (16:33).
For all the hardship which hung over him, Jesus could hardly have shown greater solicitude for his followers and less for himself than by the long and intense sequence of petitions which he offered for them: "I have given them thy word; and the world hated them (cause and effect? 15 :18,19), because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (why this immediate repetition?). The world referred to was, once again, the Mosaic system and the unspiritual men associated with it; and the evil he sought their deliverance from was the danger of their being sucked back into compliance with an entrenched self-interest which his sacrifice must bring to an end.

Sent into "the world"

This part of the prayer has a close affinity with the assurance spoken to Peter a short while before: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan (the Jewish adversary—the "world") hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Lk.22 :31,32).

If they were true followers, they could expect their own experience to match his own. "As thou didst send me into the world, even so have I sent them into the world" (v.18). This can hardly have reference to the earlier, rather brief, mission they had carried out some months before. It must be about the great work of preaching which they were to undertake after his ascension. But it is not easy to see why a past tense should be used here (cp. 4 :38), unless indeed this prayer was actually offered just before the ascension.

He prayed that their self-denying consecration to an evangelizing mission might match his own: "For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth . . . Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (v. 19,17).

This "truth", as in so many places in the Old Testament, alluded to the mighty promises of God which centred in himself. Indeed, the key phrase here was a quotation of king David's thankful response to the great Messianic promise made to him through Nathan: "Thy words are truth, and thou hast promised this goodness unto thy servant" (2 Sam.7 :28). In the days to come it would be a firm conviction of the immutability of that promise and of its sure fulfilment in Christ which would keep these frail men constant and courageous in their ministry—this, and heaven's response to their Master's prayer.

Thus they were launched on their mission— "sent into the world'—even as their Master had himself been "sent into the world" from the time of his baptism by John.

Notes: Jn. 17:6-19

Those that thou gavest me I have kept; an allusion to Ex.23? cp. 1 Pet. 1:2,5.

Perdition; s.w. Mt. 26:8. Judas was the only one of the twelve who reckoned his discipleship a loss.
I speak in the world. Alternative meaning: 'through the apostles and their witness.'
Thy truth: the Promises: e.g. Gen.24:27; 32:10; Ex.34 :6; Ps.31 :5; 40:10,11; 89:14; 132 :11; Mic. 7:20.

Sanctify them through... thy word; cp. Ex.19:14; Eph. 5:26.

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