Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

207. The Prayer of Jesus [3] (John 17:20-26)

The Lord's intercession now widened in scope to include the whole family of believers: "Neither pray I for these alone (the apostles), but for them also which shall believe on me through their word." There is plain implication here of a preaching mission for which, at present, his disciples were very ill-equipped. But he had already repeatedly assured them that all their inadequacy would be made good by the Spirit of truth. The present participle here (translated "shall believe," in the AV) is somewhat unexpected: "those who are believing." But at the time he spoke, his apostles were not active missionaries. Yet the next few verses have ever been read with reference to the whole community of believers, "that they may be one, even as we are."

This is not the only example here of the unexpected in tenses—have finished (v.4), have kept (v.6), have known surely (v.8), I am glorified (v.10), I come (v.ll), perished (v.12), I come, I speak (v.13), hated (v.U), I sent (v.18), thou gavest, I have given (v.22), I am, hast given (v.24), have tribulation, have overcome {16 :33).

":*V The phenomenon, traceable also elsewhere in the Lord's discourses in John, has been glossed over by students of this gospel. Has any coherent explanation of it ever been forthcoming?

That they may be one"

The existence of this verbal idiosyncracy has never hindered any devout reader of this prayer from a clear appreciation of the profound far-reaching character of its petition: "that they all may be one; as thou art in me, and I in thee, that they may be one in us." This is the second of four times (v.11,21,22,23). The repetition is a measure of the high importance set by Jesus on the unity of true believers.

He had set the ideal before the disciples in the sharing of the Bread and the Wine—an ideal which an anxious apostle was one day to strive desperately to impart to partisan Corinthians: "seeing that there is one loaf, we—the many-are one body" (see RVm of 1 Cor.10 :17). "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ (1 Cor. 12:12). Yet there have been times enough when it would seem that the Lord prayed for his own in vain. Would it have been any better had that prayer been offered forty times instead of four?

The ideal became reality in the earliest days of the church: "The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul" (Acts 4 :32). But even then it did not last. Soon there was "a murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews" (6 :1). And it was not long before "certain men . . . taught the brethren, except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (15 :1).

Nor has the Truth in Christ fared any better in the twentieth century. Depressed and discouraged, many a disciple has often wondered to what purpose the words were ever said—or read! : "that they may be one, even as we are one." So there were prayers of Jesus (Mt.26 :39 and Ps. 35 :13 are others) which even divine omnipotence could not and cannot respond to!

What a powerful contrast there is here with the familiar words spoken in Eden: "Behold, the man is become as one of us—to know good and evil" (3 :22). That was a one-ness of the wrong sort—equality of a kind, without fellowship, a human will asserting its independence of its Maker. For his disciples Jesus sought a mending of this discord: "I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one." Several other phrases in this prayer seem to echo Genesis: "the glory which I had with thee before the world was" (v.5); "they have kept thy word" (v.6); "keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me" (v.11); "that thou shouldest keep them from the evil (one)" (v.15); "the glory which thou hast given me ... before the foundation of the world" (v.24).

"Perfected into one" is a phrase which makes amends for all present disappointments, for it implies ultimate achievement of what, in this day of small things (and small people) seems to be hopelessly out of reach.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Jesus no less than four (five?) times made this supplication with the word ''one" in a neuter form—to match the word "spirit" (implied?) The oneness of his prayer is that so succinctly expressed by Paul: "One body, one Spirit . . . one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph.4 :4-6). However small the present signs of realisation, aspiration and striving towards this ideal of one-ness in Christ must never be let go. An easy-going compliance with anything less is an open confession that "the body, without the spirit, is dead."

Consecration and Glory

The means of achievement indicated by Jesus is easily missed by the modern reader because of the idiom involved. The Hebrew phrase for the consecration of a priest (literally: to fill the hand; Ex.29 :29,33,35, and many other places) is translated in the LXX by the word "perfected" (as in Heb.7 :28 etc). So, very probably, Jesus now envisaged the consecration of his disciples as "a spiritual house, a holy priesthood" (1 Pet.2 :5)—hence: "for their sakes I sanctify myself that they also might be sanctified through the truth" (v.19).

To this he added: "that they may behold my glory which thou hast given me before the foundation of the world." This is surely not the only allusion in this prayer to the manifestation of the Shekinah Glory of God to Moses and to the Seventy in mount Sinai before the inauguration of the tabernacle and its system of worship—the "foundation of the (Mosaic) world" (Ex.24 :18,10; 33 :22; 34 :29). The same prototype perhaps helps to add meaning to the expression: "that they also be with me where I am." But in the immediate reference to Jesus and his disciples, "where I am" more probably has reference to condition or status rather than location, as also in Revelation: "They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple" (7:15).

The appeal of the Son to the throne in heaven on behalf of his own now moved to a perfervid climax: "O righteous Father, the world (of Israel, the covenant nation) hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me. And I have declared to them thy name." This is not the same as "manifesting" the name of the Father to them (v.6). That referred to the exhibition of the Father's character and purpose in His Son. This looks back to all the instruction he had imparted to the disciples, especially at the Last Supper and since. And it was said by one who had "known" the Father. What do dogmatic Trinitarians make of the idea of a Son "coequal" with the Fathers who had to "get to know" Him, "learn" about Him?—for that is what the Greek word implies (and so also in 10:15; Mt.11 :27).

"I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it." The marvellous shock of Christ's resurrection had the effect of prising open the minds of the apostles to the reception of a vast world of spiritual truth which they drank in thirstily during the exciting experience of the forty days (Lk.24 :45; Acts 1 :3). Two thousand years before, Jehovah had said: "Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do? . . . For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord . . . that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him" (Gen. 18 ;17,19). Then how much more must the same be true regarding the Seed of Abraham: "The only begotton Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (Jn. 1 :18).And all this, "that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." Here, in few words, is the awe-inspiring and hopelessly illogical paradox of redemption—that a righteous Father should bestow on sinners the love which He has for His only-begotten Son. It makes no sense. And yet the explanation is simple: "I in them." That is both Why and How.

Notes: Jn. 17:20-26

The glory . . . I have given them. Here John places on record the promise of his own glory; Rev.22 :14.
My glory which thou hast given me. The repeated use of 'given' in this chapter and elsewhere suggests a Hebraism— O.T. nathan is often used in the sense of 'appoint'. Note on 'glory': Mt. 16:27; ls.48 :1 1,12.

For thou lovest me— should be taken as a parenthesis. Read thus, there is here no hint of the Lord's personal pre-existence.

The foundation of the world. Cp. Heb. 11 :11 s.w. "for the founding of seed."

Previous Index Next