Notes on Prayer: John 17:13-15

John 17:13-15

As we continue through the Prayer-Discourse of Jesus (Jn 17) in these Notes on Prayer, we come to what we might call the exposition portion of the first section of the Prayer proper. Keep in mind the basic format of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, of which this Prayer shares many features in common (thus the designation “Prayer-Discourse”):

    • Saying/statement by Jesus
    • Reaction to those listening to him—his disciples, etc
    • Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains the true/deeper meaning of his saying

This being a prayer (monologue) by Jesus, there is no reaction by the disciples (indicating their lack of understanding, etc, as throughout the Last Discourse); instead, we find the important theme of the needs of the disciples in the face of Jesus’ impending departure (back to the Father). And, in place of the traditional/core saying by Jesus that serves as the base for the Johannine Discourse, we have here the central petition by Jesus (to the Father), which I define as comprised of verses 9-11. There are many ways of outlining the Prayer-Discourse; here I suggest the following:

    • Invocation—introductory address to the Father (vv. 1-5)
    • Narration—summary of the Father’s work which he (the Son) completed on earth (vv. 6-8)
    • Petition—the central request made to the Father (vv. 9-11)
    • Exposition, Part 1: Application to Jesus’ immediate Disciples (vv. 12-19)
    • Exposition, Part 2: Application to All Believers (vv. 20-26)

I discussed the elements of the petition in the previous two notes (on vv. 9-10 and 11-12, respectively). Verse 12 is transitional, in that it picks up the primary theme of the petition and carries it forward into the exposition. Again, because of the prayer setting, the exposition by Jesus takes on a different tone compared with the Discourses. It also has a triadic structure which follows the pattern of the Prayer as a whole:

    • Narration—summary of the work done by the Son on earth (vv. 12-14)
    • Petition—restatement of the central request (v. 15)
    • Theological/Christological Exposition (vv. 16-19)

We can see how verse 12 serves as the hinge, joining the main petition to the expository narration, by the syntax in verse 13:

12When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in your name that you have given to me, and I guarded (them), and not one out of them went to ruin…
13 But now [kai\ nu=n] I come toward you, and I speak these things in the world, (so) that they would have my delight filled (up) in themselves.”

The particles kai\ nu=n (“and now”), also used at the start of verse 5, establish the current/present situation that Jesus is addressing. In last week’s study, I discussed the double meaning of the expression “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw=|). In verse 11, Jesus specifically states that he is not (ou)ke/ti, “not yet, no longer”) in the world; and yet now he indicates that he is in the world. The ambiguity has to do with the position of his disciples (believers). On the one hand, they/we do not belong to the world and are not in it (“out of the world”); but, at the same time, they/we remain present in the world and are thus in it, facing the evil and hostility of the current world-order. The latter aspect is what Jesus is referring to in verse 13—even though he is not “in the world” (and is about to leave it, returning to the Father), he still speaks to his disciples (and all believers) “in the world”. The words he speaks—the Last Discourse sequence, including the Prayer-Discourse itself—are primarily intended to give help and comfort to his disciples, along the lines indicated in 14:27ff; 15:11; 16:20ff, 33. This comfort includes the promise of the coming of the Spirit (the para/klhto$, or ‘Helper’), and is central to the idea of Jesus own delight (xa/ra) being “filled” (peplhrwme/nhn) in (e)n) the disciples.

In verse 14, the theme of the contrast between Jesus/Believers and the world (ko/smo$, world-order), found throughout the Last Discourse (and in vv. 6ff), is likewise developed further:

“I have given [de/dwka] to them your word [lo/go$], and the world hated them, (in) that [i.e. because] they are not out of [e)k] the world, even as I am not am not out of [ou)k] the world.”

There are four parts, or phrases, to this statement, each of which delineates an important related theme in the Johannine Discourses. Let us consider each of them briefly:

1. “I have given to them your word” (e)gw\ de/dwka au)toi=$ to\n lo/gon sou). This continues the repeated use of the verb di/dwmi (“give”) throughout the Prayer (cf. the discussion in the previous studies) and emphasizes the relationship between Father and Son: God the Father gives to the Son (Jesus), who, in turn, gives to his disciples (believers). The “word” (lo/go$, used many times, with deep significance, in the Gospel) relates to the idea that the Son faithfully repeats what he sees and hears the Father doing and saying. But there is an even greater theological (and Christological) idea involved—that Jesus (the Son) reveals the person, presence, and power of God the Father Himself. In the context of the Prayer, the “word” Jesus gives to his disciples is parallel to the “name” which he makes known—and which was given to him by the Father. It is the Father’s own name, representing and embodying the Father (YHWH) Himself. So it is with the lo/go$; it is no ordinary “word” (cf. 1:1ff).

2. “and the world hated them” (kai\ o( ko/smo$ e)mi/shsen au)tou/$). The dualistic contrast between the “world” (ko/smo$) and God/Jesus/Believers is one of the central themes of the Johannine writings (Gospel and Letters), and is especially prominent in the Last Discourse. The wickedness and outright hostility of the world is the very reason (causa) for Jesus’ petition to the Father. Since he is departing the world, he will no longer be present himself to protect his disciples from this hostility and opposition. The hatred (vb. mise/w), of course, is exactly the opposite of the love (a)ga/ph) which is so vital to Jesus’ teaching in the Disourses, and to Johannine theology as a whole. The theme of love will come into more prominence at the close of the Prayer.

3. “(in) that [i.e. because] they are not out of the world” (o%ti ou)k ei)si\n e)k tou= ko/smou). Just as there is a double meaning for the expression “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|), so there is for the parallel expression “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou). In verse 6, Jesus’ disciples are said to be “out of the world” in the sense that they do not belong to the world, and have been chosen (and taken) out of it as believers in Christ. Yet here they are said to be not “out of the world” in that they are not from it. This plays on the semantic range of the preposition e)k (“out of, of, from”), but the essential meaning is the same: Jesus’ disciples (believers) do not belong to the world.

4. “even as I am not out of the world” (kaqw\$ e)gw\ ou)k ei)mi\ e)k tou= ko/smou). Here we find a theme which will be developed richly in the remainder of the Prayer: the unity of believers with Jesus himself. This unity is made clear by the compound particle kaqw/$ (“even as, just as”), along with the emphatic pronoun “I” (e)gw/). Believers come from God the Father, having their birth/origins with Him, even as Jesus himself (the Son) does; they do not belong to the world any more than Jesus himself does. Classic Christian theology would explain this as being the result of faith in Jesus; the Johannine emphasis, however, is somewhat different—believers respond in faith to Jesus because they/we have (already) been chosen, belonging to the Father even before coming to faith, and given to Jesus (the Son) by the Father Himself. In classic terms, the emphasis is squarely on Divine Election/Predestination.

This expository narrative sets the stage for a restatement in verse 15 of Jesus’ petition to the Father, in which the danger believers face from the world (ko/smo$) is stated vividly (and bluntly):

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but (rather) that you would keep watch (over) them out of [i.e. protect them from] the evil.”

Here we find a third sense of the expression “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou)—the concrete sense of a person being taken (removed) from out of the world itself. This is significant on two levels: (a) the ordinary human condition (i.e. living on earth), and, more importantly, (b) in relation to the wickedness and evil present in the world, dominating the current world-order. This is the thrust of the second half of verse 15: “…but that you would keep watch (over) [i.e. protect] them out of [i.e. from] the evil”. Commentators debate the precise meaning of the substantive adjective (“the evil”, o( ponhro/$), much as in the similar petition of the Lord’s Prayer (cf. below). It may be understood three ways:

    • Evil generally, with the definite article perhaps in the sense of “that which is evil”
    • “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Satan or ‘Devil’
    • “the evil (of the world)”, i.e. the evil that is in the world and which dominates it

Many commentators prefer the second interpretation, often taking it for granted; however, I do not agree with that position. In my view the context overwhelming favors the third sense above. Two factors, I believe, confirm this rather decisively:

    1. The clear parallel, both thematic and syntactical, between “the world” and “the evil”. The contrast in the verse only makes sense if “the evil” means the evil in the world, or the evil nature/character of the world, etc.:
      “I do not ask that you take them out of the world (itself), but (only) that you keep them out of the evil (that is in it)”
    2. The exact parallel of expression which reinforces this meaning:
      “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou)
      | “out of the evil” (e)k tou= ponhrou=)

This is not to deny the prominent role that the Satan/Devil has in the current world-order (ko/smo$). It is entirely valid, and certainly so from the New Testament and early Christian standpoint, to see evil personified (and/or as a person) this way. The most relevant passage in the Gospel of John is found in the Last Discourse—Jesus’ declaration in 14:30 (note certainly similarities of thought and wording with 17:12-15ff):

“No longer [ou)ke/ti] will I speak with you (about) many (thing)s, for the chief/ruler of the world comes, and he holds nothing in/on me…”

Consult also the lengthy Sukkoth Discourse sequence in 8:12-59, in which Jesus more or less equates the world and the Devil, and sets them in marked contrast with God the Father. In this regard, there is an obvious parallel between the petition in 17:15 and that which concludes the Lord’s Prayer, in the Matthean (and longer Lukan) version:

“and may you not bring us into testing, but (rather) rescue us from the evil” (Matt 6:13)

As I argue in the earlier study on this verse, in the Lord’s Prayer, the substantive expression “the evil” is best understood in an eschatological sense—i.e. the evil that is coming—which had at least a partial fulfillment in the suffering and death of Jesus (cp. Mark 14:33-38, 41 par; Lk 22:53), and which, in turn, ushered in a period of suffering and persecution for believers (Mk 13:5-13; 14:27, 41 par; Lk 22:36-37; Rev 3:10, etc). In the Gospel of John, traditional eschatological motifs and ideas are presented in a ‘realized’ form—i.e. as a present reality for believers, and for the world (in terms of Judgment, etc). In this regard, the emphasis in 17:15 is not on the evil that is coming (beginning with Jesus’ Passion, cp. 13:30; 14:30), but on the evil that is ever-present in the world, and which believers must face daily. This prayer for protection from the evil that governs the world finds a most striking parallel in the First Letter of John, at the conclusion (5:18-19), a passage which further explains 17:9-15 from the standpoint of Johannine theology:

“We see [i.e. know] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of [e)k] God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch [threi=] (over) him, and the evil [o( ponhro/$] does not attach (itself to) him. We see that we are out of [e)k] God, and (that) the whole world [ko/smo$] is stretched (out) in the evil [e)n tw=| ponhrw=|].”

This declaration virtually contains a fulfillment of what Jesus requests of the Father in chapter 17. We can also determine, based on the evidence from both the Gospel and Letter, how it is that the believer is protected from the evil that dominates the world. It is the living presence of Christ (the one born out of God) in the believer (like Jesus, born out of God), and it is through the Spirit that He is present. For more on this, please consult the series “…Spirit and Life” [Jn 6:63] soon to be posted here on this site.

In next week’s study, we will move on to explore verses 16-19, and, in particular, the newly formulated petition in v. 17, which gives greater clarity to the protection God the Father will provide for Jesus’ disciples. It will confirm the relation of this protection to the promise of the Spirit/Paraclete found at key points in the Last Discourse and elsewhere in the Gospel.

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