John 6:63; 17:20-23
In the previous note, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), we examined Paul’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus, and its association with the Holy Spirit. Pauline theology is closely aligned with the Johannine theology, in its emphasis on the participation of believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Three key points may be made regarding this participation:
- It is the means by which believers are united with Jesus (the Son), and, in turn, with God the Father
- This union occurs through the presence of the Spirit in and among believers, and
- The presence of the Spirit conveys the eternal, life-giving power of Jesus—the same power that raised him from the dead—to believers.
At the ritual level, this participation is symbolized through the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In his letters, Paul tends to use the baptism ritual as a way of expressing the participatory aspect, whereas, in the Gospels, the emphasis is on the Lord’s Supper. This is clearly so with regard to the idea of participation in Jesus’ death, built into the very language of the institution, in the Synoptic Last Supper scene (Mk 14:22-25 par). The association with Jesus’ resurrection is less apparent; probably the closest we come is in the Emmaus episode of the Lukan narrative, with the eucharistic allusions in 24:30-31. With the breaking of the bread, the disciples see the resurrected Jesus, and recognize his presence with them.
The sacramental symbolism is more complex in the Gospel of John, having been detached from the Passion/Resurrection narrative, and given a new (and deeper) interpretation within the context of the great Discourses of Jesus. The eucharistic language in the Bread of Life Discourse (6:51-58) is a natural development of the Gospel tradition of the miraculous feeding, where, at an early point, eucharistic allusions were recognized and applied to the narrative (6:11ff, cp. Mark 6:41ff / 8:6ff par). What is distinctive in the Bread of Life discourse, is how this association is further developed and given a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. To “eat the flesh” and “drink the blood” of Jesus means to trust in the message of who Jesus is (the Son of God come from heaven), and to be united with him (to “remain” in him). The overall context of the Gospel makes clear that this is realized through the Spirit, even as Jesus declares in 6:63:
“The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. giving] life, the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing); the utterances [i.e. words] that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life.”
The same point is made elsewhere in the Discourses, through the image of drinking water, which symbolizes the presence of the Spirit (7:37-39; 4:13-14, 23-24). Through the Spirit, the believer is able to participate in the life-giving power of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, to (symbolically) “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood”.
Again, in the previous note, I discussed how, through the resurrection, Jesus comes to share the Spirit of God, and that it is through this Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—that believers are united with him. That this union is based upon the Spirit is a fundamental point of Johannine theology, and one, it seems, that Paul shared. Certainly his exposition of the resurrection of Jesus (in 1 Cor 15 and Rom 8:9-11, cf. also 1:4 etc) would tend to confirm this. Consider also his statement in 1 Cor 6:17: “…the (one) being joined to the Lord is one Spirit“. This is true of the union of Jesus (the Son) with God the Father, and, correspondingly, it is equally true of our union (as believers) with Jesus. While Paul does not develop this idea much further in his letters, it is central to the great Johannine Discourses of Jesus—especially the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33) and the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17.
It is in the Prayer-Discourse, that this aspect of Johannine theology reaches its pinnacle, forming, we may say, the climactic point of the entire Gospel. In terms of the narrative context, it represents Jesus’ last words, in the presence of his disciples, prior to his death. From this narrative standpoint, the Prayer-Discourse holds a similar place in the Gospel of John as the institution of the Lord’s Supper does in the Synoptics. Through the presence of the Spirit, believers participate in the life-giving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Spirit is the means by which the union is achieved, while, in the Prayer-Discourse, the focus is on the nature of this union.
While sharing features of the Johannine discourse-format, chapter 17 is unique among the Discourses in that it is a prayer, addressed formally to God the Father, though the main message is intended for Jesus’ disciples (believers)—cp. 11:41-42. I have discussed the Prayer-Discourse at length as part of a series in the Monday Notes on Prayer; you should consult those notes for a detailed exegesis. The main thrust of the prayer is Jesus’ request for the protection/preservation of his disciples (believers). This request to the Father is to be understood in terms of the central message of the Last Discourse—the promise of the Holy Spirit (also referred to as “the [One] called alongside”, para/klhto$), who will continue the presence of Jesus in and among believers, uniting them with both the Son of God (Jesus) and God the Father. It is through the Spirit that the Father will “keep watch over” them (vb thre/w), protecting them from the evil in the world (vv. 11-15). As the Spirit of holiness, it will also purify believers, even as the Father Himself (and Jesus the Son) is holy (vv. 17-19).
That the Johannine Discourses are addressed to all believers, and not merely to Jesus’ immediate disciples, is a vital and essential point for interpretation. The point is made explicit here in the Prayer-Discourse, with Jesus’ words in verse 20:
“And (it is) not about these alone (that) I make (this) request, but also about the (one)s trusting in me through their word/account…”
The universal scope of the Discourses, involving all believers, was hinted at in earlier passages (e.g., 3:16; 4:21ff; 10:16; 11:52), and is clearly in view in the mind of the Gospel writer (20:29-31). The emphasis on the unity of believers—all believers—was stated previously, both by Jesus and the Gospel writer, respectively:
“…and they will hear my voice, and they shall come to be a single [mi/a] herd [i.e. flock], (with) one [ei!$] herdsman [i.e. shepherd]” (10:16)
“…but also that the offspring [i.e. children] of God, having been scattered throughout, would be gathered together into one [e%n]” (11:52)
Both of these passages are set in the context of Jesus’ impending death, as the means by which—through the resurrection and the presence of the Spirit—believers are united into one. In Hebrew and Aramaic this sort of oneness, or unity, is expressed through the related roots dja and djy, and the respective words dj*a@ and dyj!y`. The latter noun (y¹µîd, “unity”), has a corollary dj^y~ (yaµad) that specifically refers to a unity of persons, i.e. a community, being united together by a common identity or purpose. The Community of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea Scrolls) referred to itself as a dj^y~, and so also, we may assume, early Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking Christians did the same for their own Community. In the New Testament, the Greek word for this common bond is koinwni/a (koinœnía, Acts 2:42 et al); it does not occur in the Gospel, but is used by the author of 1 John (1:3, 6-7).
Many Christians, I fear, have misunderstood the sense of Jesus’ prayer for unity in 17:20-23, primarily due to the tendency to read these verses out of context. Indeed, Jesus’ words here must be read in the light of the Last Discourse, with its Passion setting, as well as in terms of the Johannine Discourses as a whole. Keeping the following points in mind will help readers and commentators avoid off-target explanations regarding the unity/oneness expressed in vv. 20-23:
- It is Jesus’ sacrificial death that is the basis for this unity—this is clear both from the Passion setting of the Prayer-Discourse, and the earlier references to the unity of believers in 10:16; 11:52 (cf. above).
- The unity involves participation in (“remaining in”) the life-giving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection—cf. the discourses dealing with the theme of resurrection (esp. 5:19-29; 11:21-27ff), the motif of eating/drinking what Jesus gives (4:13-14; 6:51-58; 7:37-38f, etc), and the repeated use of the verb me/nw (“remain”) throughout (esp. 5:38; 6:27, 56; 8:31ff; 12:24, 46; 14:10, 17; 15:4-10ff).
- The unity is realized through the presence of the Spirit—the coming of the Spirit, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, is a central theme of the Last Discourse (see esp. 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15), as well as being alluded to numerous times in the prior discourses.
Verses 20-23 will be discussed in further detail in the next daily note.