Notes on Prayer: John 17:20-23

John 17:20-23

As discussed previously in these notes on the Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17, verses 12-26 provide an exposition of the central petition of vv. 9-11. As in the Discourses proper, Jesus explains the true meaning of his words; in this regard, the situation is much like that of the prayer at the tomb of the Lazarus in 11:41-42—it is intended as much or more for the benefit of those around him (the disciples/believers) than it is for God the Father whom he addresses. Verses 12-19, discussed in the prior studies, comprise the first section of the exposition, verse 20-26 the second. The petition in vv. 9ff is for the needs of believers; in vv. 12-19, the focus is on Jesus’ immediate disciples (the Twelve, etc), while in vv. 20-26 the viewpoint widens out to encompass all believers everywhere. This is clear from the way the language in verse 9 is repeated, essentially restating the petition:

“And (yet) I do not ask about these only, but also about the (one)s trusting in me through their word [lo/go$]…”

The wording sharpens an important theme running through the Last Discourse: that of the disciples serving as witnesses of Jesus after he has departed to the Father. Verse 18, with its reference to the disciples as apostles—i.e. ones sent out from Jesus into the world—anticipates the post-resurrection commission in 20:21-23. Yet here, the emphasis is not on the work of the disciples, but on those who come to trust in Jesus through their work. In this regard, verses 20-23 serve as an expository refrain to the Prayer, moving from Jesus’ circle of disciples to the wider sphere of believers the world over. The parallelism in these verses is striking, and must be examined carefully; indeed, we have here two strophes that are nearly identical, following a precise pattern:

    • Initial statement regarding believers
      • i%na clause—that they (all) may be one
      • comparative kaqw/$ clause, relating their unity to that shared by Father and Son
      • i%na clause—that they may share the same (kind of) unity
        • concluding i%na (result) clause—believers’ witness to the world

Let us consider each strophe—first, vv. 20-21:

    • “…(I ask) about the (one)s trusting in me through their word,
      • that [i%na] (they) all would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] you, Father, (are) in me and I in you,
      • that [i%na] they also would be in us,
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth.”

Second, the following vv. 22-23:

    • “And the honor [do/ca] which you have given to me, I have given to them,
      • that [i%na] they would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] we (are) one [e%n]—I in them and you in me—
      • that [i%na] they would be completed into one [e%n]
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would know that you se(n)t me forth
          and (that) you loved them even as you loved me.”

It will be most useful, I think, to take each corresponding pair of lines, from each strophe, and examine them together in turn.

With regard to the initial statement regarding believers, the first (v. 20) identifies believers as those trusting in Jesus through the intermediary work of the disciples (i.e. other believers) proclaiming the Gospel message about him. The second statement (v. 22a), I would suggest, characterizes the essential identity of the believer: one who shares in the honor/glory (do/ca) of God the Father and Jesus Christ (the Son). This divine honor/glory is not realized individually, but collectively, for believers as a whole. This will be discussed further when we come to verse 24. The Prayer-Discourse began with this idea of honor/glory (do/ca), in vv. 1ff, and has continued as a theme throughout (vv. 10, 17-18, 22ff). There can be little doubt that Jesus is here speaking of the same divine/eternal do/ca mentioned in vv. 5 and 10, however shocking that might seem to religious sensibilities. He states unequivocally that he has given this same do/ca to believers; and, it must be understood as the sign and basis of the unity we have with Father and Son (and with each other). This point will be expounded further by Jesus in vv. 24-26.

Now, for each of the i%na/kaqw/$ clause pairs:

  1. “that (they) all would be one” [i%na pa/nte$ e^n w@sin] (v. 21a)
    “that they would be one” [i%na w@sin e^n] (v. 22b)

These two statements are virtually identical, really only differing by the inclusion of “all” (pa/nte$) in the first statement, a distinction which certainly applies to the second as well. It emphasizes that Jesus’ prayer relates to all believers, everywhere. At other points in the Gospel we find a definite awareness of this universal outlook (1:12-13; 3:14-15ff; 6:44-45ff; 10:16; 11:25-26; 12:32, 46ff; 18:37; 20:29, 31, etc). The repeated use of the neuter e%n (“one”) emphasizes that believers should be understood collectively—i.e. as a universal community. It is similar in meaning to the Hebrew word dh^y~, used as an identifying self-designation by the Community of the Qumran texts; the same language was almost certainly applied by early Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking Christians as well (cf. Acts 2:42, etc).

  1. “just as you, Father, (are) in me and I in you” [kaqw\$ su/ path/r e)n e)moi\ ka)gw\ e)n soi/] (v. 21b)
    “just as we are one—I in them and you in me” [kaqw\$ h(mei=$ e%n: e)gw\ e)n au)toi=$ kai\ su\ e)n emoi/] (v. 22c-23a)

These are two distinct, but closely related statements; in several important respects the meaning is the same:

    • The unity of believers is patterned after the unity shared by God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son); this is the force of the particle kaqw/$ (“just as, even as”)
    • However, this unity is not just similar to the divine unity, it is fundamentally the same—it is based upon the unity of Father and Son and derives from it
    • The basis of this divine unity, in which believers share, is the joint/reciprocal relationship of being “in” (e)n) one another.

This unity is presented here in two aspects:

    • Horizontal (reciprocal)—equally between Father and Son (and, in turn, with believers): “you in me, and I in you”
    • Vertical (hierarchical)—from Father to Son to believers: “I in them and you in me”

Ultimately, for believers, the first aspect is dependent upon the second; that is to say, we share in the unity between Father and Son through our relationship to the Son. Though it is not stated here, this relationship with the Son is realized through the presence of the Spirit.

  1. “that they also would be in us” [i%na kai\ au)toi\ e)n h(mi=n w@sin] (v. 21c)
    “that they would be completed into one” [i%na w@sin teteleiwme/noi ei)$ e%n] (v. 23b)

Here the point made above—that unity is based on being “in” the Father and Son—is beautifully set in parallel: “in us” and “completed into one” are synonymous. For the sake of simplicity, my translation of the second phrase, though generally literal in rendering, has somewhat obscured the force of the perfect participle teteleiwme/noi. This would more accurately be translated “(one)s having been completed” or “(one)s having been made complete”. In other words, the participle characterizes believers. This verb (teleio/w, “[make] complete”) is closely related to tele/w (“complete”), and both verbs together have a special theological significance in the Johannine writings. In the Gospel, they refer to Jesus (the Son) completing the work, or mission, for which the Father sent him to earth (4:34; 5:36). We saw that Jesus used the verb teleio/w earlier in the Prayer (v. 4); the Passion setting makes clear that this completed work is to culminate with his sacrificial death (19:28), being fulfilled in his final word on the cross: “it is completed” [tete/lestai, vb tele/w] (v. 30).

However, here the verb teleio/w, in the passive, is used of believers. The parallel for this usage is found in the First Letter of John, and these references must be consulted to understand its meaning here:

“but, whoever would keep watch (over) his word [lo/go$], in this (person) the love of God has been made complete [tetelei/wtai], (and) in this we know that we are in him [e)n au)tw=| e)smen]” (2:5)

“No one has ever looked (upon) God. (But) if we love (each) other, (then) God remains [i.e. dwells] in us, and his love is made complete [teteleiwme/nh] in us.” (4:12)
“In this [e)n tou/tw|], love has been completed [tetelei/wtai] with us…that just as [kaqw/$] that (one) [i.e. the Son/Jesus] is [e)stin], (so) also we are [e)smen] in this world. There is no fear in love, but the love (that is) complete [telei/a] throws fear (out)…and the (one) fearing has not been made complete [tetelei/wtai] in love.” (4:17-18)

Even a casual reading, in translation, should make clear how similar the thought and language is to that of the Prayer-Discourse of Jesus. Here the completion/completeness of believers is marked by the presence of God’s love (a)ga/ph) in them. That is certainly an important motif in the Gospel Discourses as well; in fact, it is one of the key themes that opens the Last Discourse (13:34-35), running all the way through it, to the end of the Prayer-Discourse (vv. 24-26, to be discussed in next week’s study). There is, in these passages from 1 John, a close connection between the verb teleio/w and the idea of the unity of believers that is based on the presence of God (and Christ) in us. This is precisely what we find here in vv. 21, 23 of the Prayer. Believers are made complete through their/our union with the Son, the presence of whom is variously defined in terms of (a) Word [lo/go$], (b) Love, but ultimately as (c) the Spirit.

However, this is not the full extent of the meaning of the verb teleio/w in this passage; there is an important aspect yet to be addressed, which requires study of the final (concluding) phrases of each strophe.

  1. “(so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth” [i%na o( ko/smo$ pisteu/h| o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$] (v. 21d)
    “(so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth…” [i%na ginw/skh| o( ko/smo$ o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$]
    “…(and) that you loved them just as you loved me.” (v. 23c-d)

The references here to the “world” (ko/smo$) are complex and carry a special significance within the theological setting of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus. A proper understanding of it requires an extended discussion, which I will be giving in a supplemental article.