"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 12 The Last Supper and Farewell Discourses

12.3 Jesus' Final Prayer for His Disciples (Jn 17.1-25)


The Fourth Gospel does not often recount Jesus' prayers. Although his speech, especially to his disciples, is often prayerful, speaking of his Father and what he was sent into the world to do, actual prayers are rare. That highlights the importance of this long prayer that concludes the account of the Last Supper. It is full of statements that seem addressed more to the listening disciples than to the Father. This is not surprising - after all, if you pray aloud in the presence of others, they will see and hear you. They will draw conclusions about your relationship with God and perhaps take your prayer as exemplary, teaching them how to pray. Anyone who prays publicly is always conscious of their words, the effect they may have on their hearers, and the model that they are providing, especially when they want to draw hearers and prayer together. Jesus would not be any different in this regard.

Thus, it is not surprising that this is a common characteristic of Jesus' few prayers in John's Gospel. When Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the tomb, he first raises his eyes to heaven (another characteristic of Johannine prayer - compare Jn 17.1) and then speaks in this way:

“Father, thank you for listening to me! I’m sure you are always listening to me, but I say it for the sake of the crowd of bystanders, so that they may trust that you sent me.” And after saying this he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn 11.41-3)

This suggests that Jesus' spoken prayers, the ones said aloud in the presence of others, are addressed in part to those hearers and not just to the Father.

We see this again in the next chapter, when Jesus speaks to a group who have come to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple after some Gentiles approach Philip and Andrew. His whole discourse (in Jn 12.23-33) is not strictly speaking a prayer, although it has many prayerful qualitities. In v28, however, Jesus does address God, and and receives a reply in the form of a heavenly voice, which he later says (in v30) came on account of the bystanders. Again it appears that Jesus' words in public prayer are addressed in part to his hearers.

So given these two previous prayers, and the natural characteristics of public prayer, John has constructed this great prayer for the disciples present and still to come with its effect upon the disciples who heard it in mind. It seems, based upon the prayers in this gospel, that John saw Jesus' motive in these prayers first and foremost to be addressing the question of Jesus' authority. In John's Gospel, it is Jesus' relationship with the Father that gives Jesus authority over all flesh (Jn 17.1-2) or the power to call Lazarus out of the tomb (Jn 11.41-3) or the ability to draw all people to himself (Jn 12.31-33). It is because he stands in the relationship of a Son to God as his Father and because he obeys the Father who sent him that Jesus could do the signs that he has done.

Hence Jesus wants to emphasise his relationship with the Father who sent him, as a way of reassuring his disciples about who he is and what authority he has been given. That relationship underlies everything that he prays for. If we follow Jesus' prayer paragraph by paragraph we see these points emerge.

First of all, the mutual glorification of Father and Son. Glorification has been a constant theme in this gospel - John discusses it in the prologue, and there are further discussions of glory and glorification in chapters 7 and 8, as well as John 11 (because the glory of God is a reason for the death of Lazarus, since that event provides an occasion for Jesus' miraculous sign). But most relevant here is the discussion in John 12.20-36 and during the Last Supper (especially in Jn 13.31-8).

Now we learn that this mutual glorification (of the Son by the Father and the Father by the Son) happens so that Jesus may give each of his own (that is to say, each disciple) eternal life. Jesus also reassured the disciples that the terrible events that were about to take place were really meant for the Son's glorification, however differently they might appear -- nothing less would get them through the next few days. It is the relationship between the Father and Son that both explains this glorification and gives it authority.

As the prayer continues, Jesus' faithfulness next comes into focus. Again the relationship between Father and Son guarantees what Jesus reminded the disciples of through this part of the prayer. Because of it, we know that Jesus was faithful in passing on all that the Father had given him as Son to those that put their trust in him; the disciples have received the Father's words in hearing the Son's words.

The relationship between Father and Son is a factor, probably the most imortant factor, in Jesus' statement that neither he nor his disciples are of this world. The tragic suffering of the coming hours is because Jesus has begun the process of leaving the world completely behind and returning to the Father who sent him. Despite the world's hatred for him and them, Jesus has kept them all safe up until now. The only one to be lost will be the one fated to do so, Judas himself. The other disciples will (ultimately) experience joy, and be consecrated in the truth, as Jesus himself is consecrated.

Grounded in his relationship with the Father who sent him, Jesus prays not just for the disciples he had made during his earthly ministry, some of whom are gathered for Passover and to hear him. He also prays for those who will become disciples in future because of the words of these present disciples. What he prays for is unity - for his disciples, his own as he calls them elsewhere in the prayer, to be one just as he and the Father are one.

What does this mean? In the course of the prayer, Jesus expresses this union in two slightly different ways. In v11 he had prayed, "Holy Father, keep them safe in your name, which you have given to me, so that they may be one, just as we are one." But now in vv20-1, he prays, "I am not asking only for them, but also for those who put their trust in me because of their word: may they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, so that the world might believe that you sent me."

In the first instance the divine Name, which the Father has given to the Son, will provide the safe haven for the followers (who are also given to the Son by the Father) to achieve the unity that is natural to the Father and Son. As Brown points out (Brown 1970 p 764) this way of looking at the divine Name is found in the First Testament, in passages such as Prov 18.10: "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are saved."

But in the second verse (v20) Jesus goes beyond offering such a context for the unity of the disciples. Instead he speaks of its goal: "so that the world might believe that you sent me". The unity shown by the disciples will offer the world the opportunity to believe that Jesus has been sent by the Father. How should we understand this unity? Are the disciples to be one with one another, or are they to be one with the Father and Son? It seems to me likely that the answer to that question is, Both. Disciples of Jesus are offered both the opportunity for a relationship of union with one another and with the Father and the Son.

Two earlier passages in the Gospel are helpful in understanding the relationship that the evangelist imagined coming into being through an individual's act of trust in Jesus. One of these is in the Prologue. There in Jn 1.12-13 we read, "But as many as did receive him [the Word], to them he gave the ability to become children of God, to those that put their trust in his name, those begotten not of blood nor by the will of the flesh nor by the will of a man, but from God." This suggests that the relationship to be formed between the disciple and God will be a familial one: the disciple will become a child of God by receiving the Word. The second of these is the parable of the Vine and its Branches (Jn 15.1-11). Here the metaphor is not so personal, but it is organic: the relationship between the disciple and God is compared to that between branches and the vine from which they spring (see the discussion on Jn 15.1-11. The disciples are joined with the Son. On the one hand they thus receive the Father's loving care, like that of the grower for his vines. And on the other, they also will, if they remain in the Son, and the Son in them, bear much fruit for the Father.

These two images, of the disciples becoming children of God, and of them becoming fruitful branches of a vine whose rootstock is Jesus, are illuminating when applied to this prayer. This union about which Jesus prays appears to be the same thing, looked at from a different angle, as the familial relationship established among disciples and between the disciples and God in the Prologue or the unity of vine and branches proposed in the parable. In all three cases, what is important is the new relationship, the new kind of relationship, that is established by God's promise when human beings take the step of trusting that Jesus is sent by the Father to do the Father's will in the world and that Jesus is Messiah and Son.

In the final paragraph of the prayer, Jesus returns to the complex relationship between love (that of the Father for the Son), knowledge, glory (in the peculiarly Johannine sense) and union. Jesus prays for the disciples to be where he is (as he had already discussed in Jn 12.26) so that they can see the glory that the Father has given him because of the Father's love for the Son. In some mysterious and unexplained way this is connected with their knowledge of Jesus as Son and as the one the Father has sent: as Jesus makes the Father's Name more and more known to his disciples, the love with which the Father loves him will become the means of the disciples' union with him: "Righteous Father, the world also did not know you, but I knew you and these know that you sent me. And I made your name known to them and I will make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I may be in them." (Jn 17.25-6) The relationship between Father and Son and the relationship between disciple and Jesus are both rooted and grounded in love. That is the message of all three attempts to explain it, or envision it, that we have seen. This makes a fitting end for a prayer which is itself rooted and grounded in love, the love that Jesus has for his disciples present and to come no less than the love that binds the Father and Son together. Through this love Jesus' disciples are invited to become part of the divine Family that his followers will later understand as the Trinity.

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Jesus first announced the arrival of this hour in Jn 12.23, and now he repeats the claim, signifying that the hour continues. Because he is going from the world to the Father now, he can speak of the hour as arrived. See the discussion on Jn 12.23 for more detail.

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It is somewhat difficult to be sure what is going on here, but I have followed Brown (Brown 1970 p 741) in regarding v3 as an insertion of some kind into the text of the prayer. Perhaps it was intended by the evangelist, or more properly by the evangelist's own followers, as a clarification of the meaning of the text. Hence I have not put it within the quotes like the rest of the text of the prayer, and have instead put it in parentheses.

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This is the first of a number of occurrences (from v5 through v25) of "the world" ("kosmos" in Greek) in this chapter. Most of them are the now-familiar negative usage, in which the world represents that part of God's creation which is antithetical to God under the authority of Satan, or at best separate from God. A very few occurrences of "the world" here in ch17 (here in v5 and also in vv21-4) represent the created order, or all creation. See the discussions on 1.9 and 7.7 for more details.

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Other ancient authorities read "keep safe in your name those whom you have given to me". The difference between saying that the Father gave the divine Name to Jesus and saying that he gave the disciples to Jesus is a large one. The oldest and best MSS have the reading we have followed. It is also harder to understand the reading we have chosen than the other - this principle of textual study is called lectio difficilior (Latin for "the harder reading"). It is based on the probability that a copyist is more likely to change a reading that is hard to understand to one that is easier, thinking he is correcting a mistake in his base text, than the opposite. Therefore, all other things being equal, we should chose the harder reading.

This is the only place in John's Gospel where the Father is said to have given the divine Name to Jesus, and there are various attempts to work out what that might mean. Brown seems to say that it emphasises the power by which Jesus (as Son) is able to protect his own against the world (seen as the totality of those who have turned from following Jesus and trusting in him to following and obeying the ruler of this world, who is, as we know diametrically opposed to Jesus and the Father). See Brown 1970 pp 758-65, especially 759 and 764. It is clearly not meant to subordinate the Son to the Father as was done in various adoptionist and other heretical movements of the first four or five centuries of the church, although taken out of the context of John's teachings about the relationship between the Father and the Son here or in the Prologue or in Jn 5.19-30 it could appear to do so.

John's explication of Jesus' teaching about his relationship with the Father involves a a delicate balance between the idea of equality (such as we see in the Prologue) and other ideas drawn from contemporary notions about the relations between fathers and sons, in which sons learn skills or crafts and receive power or property from their fathers. Jesus himself may use parables or metaphors about fathers and sons to express in human terms his relationship with his Father, and to a degree such comparisons carry with them a sense of subordination, because subordination did exist between fathers and sons. But other teachings, as for example those which use the image of the Word as well as that of a first-born son, forbid our importing that subordination into the divine familial relations between Father and Son

I think that John is, at this very early point in the history of the Jesus movement, reaching for a way to talk about the Father and the Son and how they depend upon each other. Jesus has been given the divine Name by the Father because he embodies the Son and Word -- he is thereby able to use that Name ("I AM" or "ego eimi") of himself without uttering blasphemy and also to invoke it to protect his own.

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The "son of perdition", that is, the one destined to destruction, is a reference to Judas, who will be lost to the Twelve, to the rest of Jesus' followers, because of his actions. Several passages from the First Testament have been cited as the Scripture possible referred to here (see Brown 1970 p 760 for one attempt to list them). None of the ones Brown lists seem to fit the bill, as it were; perhaps the suggestion that it may allude to the Septuagint text of Proverbs 24.22a is the most helpful, a suggestion in which the annotators of John in The Jewish Annotated New Testament(2nd edn, Amy-Jill Levine and Mark Zvi Brettler eds; OUP 2017) concur:

21My son, fear God and the king,and disobey neither of them,22for they will unexpectedly punish the impious and who shall know their punishments? 22aA son who keeps the word will be far removed from destruction,for he received it willingly. (New English Translation of the Septuagint (OUP, 2007))

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