Notes on Prayer: John 15:7, 16

After a short hiatus this Christmas season, the Monday Notes on Prayer returns as a regular feature. Previously, we had begun a study series on references to prayer in the Last Discourse of Jesus (John 13:31-16:33). Our first studies examined the reference in 14:13-14, along with a study on the idea of prayer “in Jesus’ name”, considering the meaning of that expression in the context of the theology (and Christology) of the Johannine Discourses. This week we will move ahead in the Last Discourse to the section covering 15:7-17.

John 15:7-17

Before proceeding, it may be helpful to revisit the structure of the Last Discourse, to see where 15:7-17 fits into this overall framework.

    • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
    • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
      • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
    • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
      • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
    • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
      • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
    • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

John 15:1-16:4a, the second Discourse-division, is at the center of the Last Discourse complex, set in between the two (roughly parallel) divisions focused on the departure of Jesus. 15:1-16:4a emphasizes the place of the disciples (believers) in the world, following Jesus’ departure.

The first half of this particular discourse (vv. 1-17) involves the illustration of the Vine and Branches, an expository message that may be outlined as follows:

    • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • The Illustration (vv. 1-3)
      • Application:
        —Remaining/abiding in Jesus (vv. 4-9)
        —Love and the Commandments (vv. 10-11)
        —The Love Command (vv. 12-15)
      • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 16-17)

There are a number of other ways one might divide this material, and it is possible to demarcate verses 7-17 as a unit—representing the exposition of the main illustration in verses 1-6. This alternate way of dividing the passage is useful for our study here, since the section of vv. 7-17 both begins and ends with a statement regarding prayer:

Verse 7:
“If you would remain in me, and my words [r(h/mata] remain in you, (then) you may request what ever you would wish (for), and it will come to be (so) for you.”
Verse 16:
“…(so) that you…should bear fruit, and your fruit would remain, (so) that whatever you would request (of) the Father in my name, He would give to you.”

The distinctiveness of vv. 7-17 as a unit is confirmed by the clear and careful thematic structure of the passage. Note, in particular, the following chiastic outline, focusing on the framing portions of vv. 7-8 and 16-17:

    • my words remain in you”, implying acceptance and obedience to Jesus’ words (v. 7a)
      • Promise of answered prayer: ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you (v. 7b)
        • emphasis on the disciples bearing fruit (v. 8a)
          • on being/becoming Jesus’ disciple (v. 8b)
          • on Jesus’ gathering out [his disciples] (v. 16a)
        • emphasis on the disciples bearing fruit (v. 16b)
      • Promise of answered prayer: the Father will give you whatever you ask [in Jesus’ name] (v. 16c)
    • these things” that Jesus gives to his followers as a duty (v. 17)

In the central portion of verses 9-15, Jesus expounds further what it means to be his disciple. This is expressed through three distinctive themes: (1) remaining in Jesus (using the verb me/nw), (2) keeping the “commandments” of Jesus, and (3) the principal idea of love. All of these are important components to the theology of the Johannine writings. This set of three items can actually be reduced to two, since the emphasis on the “commandments” and the theme of love are so closely interconnected as to be essentially the same.

1. “Remaining” (vb me/nw)

In the immediate context of 15:1-16:4a, this refers to the illustration of the Vine (in vv. 1-3ff). The only branches that bear fruit are those that remain in the vine; at the same time, branches that do not bear fruit are cut off, so that they truly are no longer part of the vine. This imagery, however, reflects a wider use of the verb me/nw in the Gospel of John. The verb is a key part of the Johannine theological vocabulary. It occurs more often in the Gospel (40 times) and Letters (27 times) than in the rest of the New Testament writings combined (51 occurrences total). Even in places where it seems to be used in a common, ordinary sense in the narrative (1:38-39; 2:12, etc), the verb carries a deeper meaning.

In the context of the Johannine theology, the verb me/nw serves as a defining term for the believer’s trust in Jesus. As the Gospel narrative indicates at a number of points, there were people who exhibited a certain kind of “trust” in Jesus, but then fell away, or whose initial belief did not lead to true, lasting faith in Jesus as the Son of God. The trust possessed by the true believer remains.

There are two aspects of this meaning of the verb me/nw: (a) continuance, and (b) an abode. The believer’s trust continues, in that it lasts “into the Age (to come)”, an idiom that is used in the Gospel to express the idea of eternal life. The believer, even in the present Age, possesses this eternal Life of God, coming to possess it through trust in Jesus, though, in truth, the believer only comes to faith in Jesus because he/she already belongs to God. There is a strong sense of election in the Johannine writings, with the concept of disciples being chosen (“gathered out”) by Jesus; and yet, at the same time, this choosing reflects their identity as God’s children, those who belong to Him as His own offspring (te/kna).

The second aspect of the verb me/nw is that of abiding—that is, in a dwelling-place or abode. This aspect featured prominently in the earlier section of the Discourse (14:1-14) that contained the first two sayings on prayer (vv. 13-14). Indeed, it is the aspect that comes to dominate the thought expressed in the Discourse, with emphasis being given to the idea that God will come to take up His abode in and among believers, through the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit represents the presence of both Father and Son, though it is the Son’s presence that has priority, since it is through the Son that we experience the presence of the Father. This is a key component of the Johannine theology, and it is expressed in the Last Discourse, utilizing the verb me/nw, in 14:10, 17. The verb is especially prominent here in the Vine illustration of 15:1-3ff, occurring repeatedly (11 times), in vv. 4-7, 9-10, 16. It is also central to the sayings on prayer in vv. 7 and 16 (cf. above), where it is emphasized as the requirement, or condition, for the promise of prayer being answered by God:

“If you remain [mei/nhte] in me, and my words remain [mei/nh|] in you…” (v. 7)
“that you…should bear fruit, and your fruit would remain [me/nh|], (so) that…” (v. 16)

The conditional nature of these clauses is indicated by the subjunctive form of the verb.

2. The “Commandments” and Love

Verse 17 emphasizes the need to keep the ‘commands’ (e)ntolai/) of Jesus, the things he has ‘commanded’ (e)nte/llomai) his disciples. The same point is made throughout verses 9-15, in the central expository section of the passage. The customary translation of the noun e)ntolh/ as “command[ment],” however, is somewhat misleading, especially in the context of the Johannine Discourses. The fundamental meaning of the noun (and related verb) more properly refers to something (i.e., a duty, obligation, mission) placed on (i.e., given to) a person to complete. Jesus uses it a number of times in reference to the mission he was sent to earth (by God the Father) to complete (cf. 10:18; 12:49-50; 15:10). The use of the plural e)ntolai/ does not refer to the commandments of the Law (i.e., the Torah regulations, etc), nor even to specific teachings of Jesus. This last point requires some further explanation.

It certainly is true that the disciple of Jesus will follow his teaching and example. This idea is central to the theology of the Johannine Discourses. Jesus (as the Son) does and says all that he sees/hears the Father doing/saying, and those who believe in the Son (Jesus) will likewise do the same with regard to what he does and says. However, this cannot be reduced to a concrete set of “commands”, in a manner similar to the Torah regulations, that are then to be obeyed by believers. The true significance of the e)ntolai/ (or the singular e)ntolh/) for believers, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings (and here in the Last Discourse), is defined by two key themes:

    1. The singular ‘command’ of Love (a)ga/ph), and
    2. The continuation of Jesus’ presence through the Spirit

Because of the great importance of this subject, both for the statements on prayer in vv. 7, 16 and the exposition in vv. 9-15, it is necessary to devote a full study to it, which we will do in next week’s Monday Notes on Prayer.

 

 

 

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