Line 1: John 17:21a, 22b
This is the first of five notes on the five line pairs in John 17:21-23. As discussed in the previous daily note, in these verses there are two parallel 5-line stanzas; the formal parallelism is precise, as I have outlined. It thus makes sense to examine together the corresponding lines in both stanzas. The first line, in v. 21a and 22b respectively, states the central request Jesus makes here in the Prayer-Discourse to God the Father, on behalf of believers (all believers, v. 20). The two lines state this request concisely, and are virtually identical:
- “…that they all would be one” (v. 21a)
i%na pa/nte$ e^n w@sin
- “…that they would be one” (v. 22b)
i%na e^n w@sin
- “…that they all would be one” (v. 21a)
The only difference is the inclusion of the adjective pa=$ (plur. pa/nte$), “all”, in the first line. It is clearly implied in the parallel line as well, without any need for the modifier to be repeated. The word translated “one” is the neuter (e%n) of the primary numeral ei!$. The neuter does not represent an abstraction as much as it does the collective—the many (believers) as a single entity, or community. As previously noted, in Hebrew/Aramaic, this would be rendered by the noun dj^y~ (yaµad), as indeed it was used by the Community of the Qumran texts. Cf. The Community Rule [1QS]: “…(in order) to be as a dj^y~” (5:2), “…in their being gathered (in)to the dj^y~” (5:7). Quite literally (and concretely), e%n denotes “one (thing)”, a point that will be discussed in the following notes.
Jesus’ request is existential—it refers to what believers would be (w@sin). This is expressed by the present subjunctive of the verb of being. Since Jesus makes this request of God the Father, the implication is that the condition has not yet been realized. In the narrative context of the Prayer-Discourse—his impending death and his departure to the Father, referenced throughout the Last Discourse—this must be related to his request for the Spirit to be sent (14:16; 15:26, also 14:26; 16:8ff). With his death, the disciples will be scattered (16:32), only to be gathered back together following his resurrection, symbolized by their being gathered in one place (even though it was out of fear, 20:19ff, cp. Lk 24:36ff; Acts 1:12ff; 2:1), where they receive the Spirit from the exalted Jesus (20:22). This basic type-pattern is fulfilled for future believers, in all places, and continues the subjunctive wish of Jesus in the Prayer-Discourse. Some translators render it as “may be” or “might be”, but this, I feel, misreads the force of Jesus’ request. In some ways, it is closer to the nature of a command, directed as much toward the believers themselves as it is to God the Father whom he addresses (cp. 11:42). He could as easily have said (to the disciples/believers), “I ask of you that you would (all) be one”. Compare also the use of imperatives in a prayer setting, such as in the Lord’s Prayer. When addressing God, it seems rather impious to translate these as “you must…”, etc, the preferable rendering being rather that of an entreaty (“may you…”, “please…”).
Going beyond the text to certain theological ramifications regarding this sort of prayer-language, it may be said that the believer ought to make the request to God with the sense of trust that it will be done, or even that it has been done (cf. 14:13; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24, 26ff). These references in the Last Discourse center this mindset in the relationship (i.e. union) believers have with Jesus the Son and God the Father, the very point of 17:20-23. The nature of this relationship will be elucidated by a study of the following lines.
The immediate context of this request for unity has to do with trust (vb pisteu/w) in Jesus (v. 20). This might suggest that the unity of believers is Christological—based on a proper understanding and recognition of who Jesus is (Messiah & Son of God) and what he has done. The centrality of trust (pi/sti$) within the Johannine writings cannot be minimized; it represents one half of the dual-command (or duty) required of all believers (1 Jn 3:23-24, etc). Indeed, much of First John is devoted to the problem of division in the Community, being caused by false (“antichrist”) believers who, according to the author, espouse an erroneous view of Jesus. Centuries of Christological disputes have similarly been the source of much division, and, as a result, many Christians have sought to establish unity in terms of definitive creeds or statements of faith/belief. However, at the same time, Jesus’ request for unity would seem, in some sense, to be separate from the question of trust, since he is speaking of all who trust (i.e. all believers), and makes the additional request that they would be one.
If we wish to understand exactly what Jesus (and the Gospel writer) have in mind, it will be necessary to examine the remaining lines of the stanza(s), beginning with line 2 (vv. 21b, 22c-23a), in the next note.