Notes on Prayer: John 17:1-5

Continuing the post-Easter celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, during the upcoming weeks (through Pentecost) in this Monday Notes on Prayer feature, I will be examining the great prayer (or prayer-discourse) of Jesus in John 17. This prayer is unique due to its form and position within the Gospel of John. Like other instances of Jesus’ sayings and teachings in the Gospel Tradition, as they are adapted and included in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ words here reflect a distinctive Johannine discourse format. Indeed, chapter 17 represents the last of the great discourses of Jesus—it serves as fitting conclusion, not only to the Last Discourse sequence of 13:31-16:33, but to all of the prior discourses as well. Many of the words, images, and themes from the earlier discourses are recapitulated and restated here. It is thus proper and fitting to refer to chapter 17 by the term “prayer-discourse”. Even though it is technically a monologue, with Jesus addressing God the Father, certain structural and formal attributes of the discourses can be detected. This discernable literary style, so distinct to the Gospel of John (and absent from the Synoptics), of course, raises questions as to the relationship between chapter 17 as we have it, and the original/authentic words of Jesus. However, this is a question which applies to all of the discourses in John and cannot be limited to Jesus’ Prayer in chap. 17; I will, for the most part, not be addressing it in these notes.

The Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 is extremely rich and complex, and may be outlined or divided numerous ways. At several points, I will offer my own structural analysis; to begin with, it would seem that verses 1-5 have a clear chiastic structure, and can be treated as a unit:

    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 1)
      • Jesus’ authority over all the Father has given to him (v. 2)
        • Statement on “eternal life” in relation to the Son and Father (v. 3)
      • Jesus’ work involving all the Father has given to him (v. 4)
    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 5)

John 17:1-5

Verse 1

The narrative introduction (v. 1a) to the Prayer-Discourse, with the action/gesture of Jesus described, is similar to the moment of prayer in the Lazarus scene (11:41), and also reflects the earlier episode in 12:27-28ff (see below). The language and imagery, however, is traditional, and can be seen elsewhere in the Gospels, as for example in the miraculous feeding episode (Mark 6:41 par; cf. John 6:5). Overall, in the Johannine context, these simple words take on added meaning:

“Yeshua spoke these (thing)s and, lifting up his eyes unto heaven, said…”

Three details, distinct to the theological (and Christological) language of the Johannine discourses, can be noted here:

    1. On the surface, and at the narrative level, the verb “spoke” (e)la/lhsen) simply refers to Jesus’ words to his disciples after the ‘Last Supper’ (13:31-16:33). However, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly makes the point that everything he “speaks” (vb. lale/w) or says comes from what he (as the Son) has heard God (the Father) say to him. It is part of the wider Johannine theme of Jesus’ intimate relationship to, and identification with, God the Father. The most relevant passages in this regard are: 3:31-34; 5:30ff; 7:16-18; 8:26-29, 38-40ff; 12:49; 14:10, 24ff; 15:15; cf. also 6:63; 16:13.
    2. Here the verb “lift up” (e)pai/rw) refers to Jesus’ reverent gesture of raising his eyes upward during prayer. However, again, the verb ai&rw (“take [up], lift, carry”), along with others related to “raising, lifting, etc” (a)nabai/nw, u(yo/w), features prominently in the Johannine Discourses. The image of Jesus being “lifted up” has a two-fold meaning: (1) his death on the cross, and (2) his return to the Father—both aspects inform the idea of his being “glorified” (cf. below). Some of the most significant passages are: (a) for ai&rw, 1:29; 10:18, 24, and the resurrection context of 11:39, 41; (b) for u(yo/w, 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 24; (c) for a)nabai/nw, 1:51; 3:13; 6:62; 20:17, and note the contrastive play on words in 7:8ff; 12:20, etc.
    3. Jesus’ act of looking up toward heaven also has special meaning in the Johannine context. The entire thrust of the Last Discourse relates to Jesus’ impending departure, his return back to the Father (in Heaven). Thus the simple gesture of looking up here becomes a theological picture that, in a sense, summarizes the entire setting of the Last Discourse. For this referential point of “heaven” as Jesus’ place of origin and return, cf. 1:51; 3:13, 27, 31; 6:31-58; 12:28.

Jesus’ initial statement, or invocation, in v. 1b, likewise can be divided into three parts—three distinct phrases, from a syntactical standpoint; they can be understood as a step-chain of relation:

    • “Father, the hour has come” (Pa/ter, e)lh/luqen h( w%ra)
      • “may you give honor to your Son” (do/caso/n sou to\n ui(o/n)
        • “(so) that the Son might give honor to you” (i%na o( ui(o\$ doca/sh| se/)

Certainly, the last two phrases form a clause-pair marked by the coordinating particle i%na (“[so] that”). The initial phrase more properly serves as the prayer invocation and could stand apart; however, I prefer to keep the sequential chain intact throughout the entirety of vv. 1-5. Indeed, the temporal statement at the beginning (“the hour has come”) can be seen as parallel to the time indication at the close of v. 5: “before the world(‘s coming) to be”. This demonstrates the stark difference between the Johannine and Synoptic handling of this tradition—i.e. Jesus’ saying that his “hour” (w%ra) has come. In the Synoptic tradition, it refers specifically to his Passion, to the moment of his arrest which marks the beginning of his suffering (and death). It is foreshadowed in Jesus’ prayer to Father (Mark 14:35, cf. also v. 37 par); but the declaration comes in verse 41 par:

“…the hour came [i.e. has come]! See—the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!”

The Matthean version uses a different verb, but has the perfect tense in common with Jn 17:1:

“…See—the hour has come near [h&ggiken] and the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!” (Matt 26:45)

In Luke, the tables are turned and the emphasis is not on Jesus’ hour (i.e. his passion/suffering), but on the evil character of the moment (esp. of Judas and those who take him captive):

“…but this is your hour and the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness!” (cf. also 4:13, and note a similar sort of contrast in John 7:6-7)

How different is the feel of the Johannine statement by Jesus in John 17:1! It shares with the Synoptic tradition a Last Supper setting, and, as such, is certainly related to the idea of his impending death, but there is little sense of that in the immediate context of chapter 17. Interestingly, the Gospel of John does retain the traditional association of the expression with Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death), but in a different location, at an earlier point in the narrative (12:23ff):

“The hour has come [e)lh/luqen] that the Son of Man should be given honor [docasqh=|].”

Note the similarity of wording to 17:1, especially the important use of the verb doca/zw; the reference to his suffering and death comes in the illustration (v. 24) and sayings on discipleship (vv. 25-26) which follow. The Gospel of John has nothing like the Synoptic Prayer/Passion scene in the Garden, but Jesus’ declaration in 12:27ff in many ways is similar to it and takes its place. Again, it differs markedly from the Synoptic tradition in two respects: (1) the use of the verb doca/zw gives it a significance beyond the basic idea of his suffering/death, and (2) it includes the Johannine emphasis on the relationship between Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father). Both of these points are central to the setting of the Prayer-Discourse in chapter 17. Thus, even though Jesus’ suffering and death is not principally in view in 17:1, it is still an important component to the idea of Jesus’ being “given honor” or glorified by the Father. It is this that we will explore next week as we examine verses 1-5 in greater detail.

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