Notes on Prayer: John 17:11-12

John 17:11-12

Last week, in these Prayer Notes on the great prayer-discourse of Jesus in John 17, we looked at verses 9-12, focusing detail on vv. 9-10. Today, I wish to continue by examining vv. 11-12, which contains the substance of Jesus’ petition to God the Father on behalf of his disciples

“And (now) I am no longer in the world, and (yet) they [i.e. the disciples] are in the world, and I come toward you. Holy Father, keep watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me, that they might be one, even as we (are). When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me, and I guarded (them) and not one of them came to ruin…”

Jesus’ initial words are striking: “I am no longer [ou)ke/ti] in the world”. He says this even as he is still in the presence of his disciples (i.e. on earth) speaking to them; indeed, the statement appears to be contradicted by his words that follow in v. 13 (“I speak these [thing]s in the world”). There is a dual-meaning to the expression “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|). On the one hand, until Jesus departs and returns to the Father, he remains in the world; but, on the other hand, he and his disciples do not belong to the world (ko/smo$, the current world-order). In verse 6, Jesus describes his disciples as men whom God gave to him “out of [e)k] the world”; this is the opposite of being “in [e)n] the world”. In the same sense, while he is with his disciples, especially at this moment (and after the departure of Judas), Jesus is no longer “in the world”.

Even more important is the way that this expression anticipates his return to the Father. We can see this by an outline of the first sentence of verse 11; thematically, it can be represented by a chiasm:

    • “I am no longer in the world”
      —”but they are (still) in the world”
    • “I come toward you”

This emphasizes the idea that Jesus does not belong to the world, but to the Father; he does not come from the world, but from the Father—and it is to the Father that he returns. The contrast with the disciples presents the other aspect of the expression “in the world”. Even though the disciples, like Jesus, do not belong to the world, they will still remain in it, after Jesus has departed. This refers both to the ordinary sense of living as a human being on earth, and, more importantly, to the reality of believers faced with a hostile world dominated by sin and darkness. This is the context of much of the Last Discourse—cf. especially 15:18-25 and the ominous declaration in 14:30 that “the chief [i.e. ruler] of the world comes [i.e. is coming]”. With regard to this latter phrase, note the parallel (words in italics):

    • “(now) the chief of the world [ko/smo$] comes [e&rxetai] and he holds nothing on/in me
    • “(now) I am no longer in the world [ko/smo$]…and I come [e&rxomai] toward you [i.e. the Father]”

It is the fact of Jesus’ impending departure from the disciples which creates the need for which he prays to the Father in vv. 11b-12. The opening words of this actual request echo those of the Lord’s Prayer:

    • Holy Father [pa/ter a%gie]…in the name [e)n tw=| o)no/mati] which you…”
    • “Our Father [pa/ter h(mw=n]…may your name be made holy [a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou]” (Matt 6:9 par)

The emphasis on the name of God the Father is most important to the Prayer-Discourse as a whole, as I discussed last week. The word o&noma (“name”) appears a number of times, beginning with verse 6; that opening declaration, at the start of the prayer proper, gives the thematic (and theological) basis for the remainder of the Prayer-Discourse: “I made your name shine forth to the men whom you gave to me out of the world”. Three key elements of this declaration are also present here in verse 11b: (1) God’s name, (2) the disciples/believers, and (3) God the Father giving to Jesus (the Son). These elements are present, but combined differently, in the specific request made by Jesus:

“Holy Father, keep watch (over) them in the name which you have given to me”

Jesus made the Father’s name “shine forth” to the disciples (“the men”) during his time with them on earth; now he asks the Father to continue that work, the emphasis shifting from revelation to protection—protection from the evil and darkness of the world. Two verbs, largely interchangeable in meaning, are used together here:

    • thre/w (t¢réœ) has the basic meaning “watch”, often in the sense of “keep watch (over)”
    • fula/ssw (phylássœ) similarly means “watch, be alert, guard”

Let us look at how these verbs are used in the Gospel (and Letters) of John. Most commonly they relate to the idea of believers keeping/guarding Jesus’ words. This is expressed three ways, which are more or less synonymous:

    • (1) Jesus’ word/account (singular, lo/go$)—Jn 8:51-52; 14:23; 15:20; 1 Jn 2:5 (all using thre/w)
    • (2) Jesus’ words (plural, lo/goi)—Jn 14:24 (using thre/w)
      or, similarly, his “utterances [i.e. spoken words]” (rh/mata)—Jn 12:47 (using fula/ssw), interchangeable with “word[s]” (lo/go$, v. 48)
    • (3) The things Jesus lays on believers to complete (plur. e)ntolai/), typically translated “command(ment)s”—Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 3:22, 24

An important point is that believers are to keep Jesus’ word(s) just as Jesus (the Son) has kept the word(s) of the Father—Jn 8:55; 15:10; 17:6. This chain of relationship between Father, Son and Believer(s) is central to Johannine theology and will be discussed in more detail as we proceed through the Prayer-Discourse. Jesus’ words are identified as being precisely those of God the Father; thus, if one keeps/guards Jesus‘ words, the believer is also keeping/guarding the Father’s words (John 12:49; 17:6; 1 Jn 5:2-3).

But this is only one aspect of the verb thre/w/fula/ssw. Part of the reciprocal relationship between Jesus and the believer is that, just as the believer keeps/guards Jesus’ word, so Jesus also keeps/guards the believer. This is the idea expressed here in vv. 11-12. Jesus prays to the Father, asking that He keep watch (over) the disciples—i.e. the elect/believers, the ones given by the Father into Jesus’ care. Jesus states that he himself kept watch over them (note the emphatic pronoun e)gw/, “I kept watch”) while he has been with them on earth (v. 12); but now, he is going away, and requests that the Father would keep watch over them. Almost certainly this refers to the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete (see below). It is possible to view Jesus’ request here as a fulfillment of 14:16ff. What is the nature of this protection? It is more or less explained in verse 15:

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you would keep them out of the evil”

This request, so similar in many ways to the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer, will be discussed next week. It is important to note that it was Jesus himself (the Son) who protected believers during his time on earth; now it is necessary for the Father to provide similar protection in his absence. Let us consider how Jesus states this situation in verse 12:

“When I was with them, I kept watch (over) [e)th/roun] them in your name which you have given to me, and I guarded [e)fu/laca] them…”

The wording is almost identical to the request in v. 11b, indicating again the close relationship between Son and Father. The English phrase “in your name which you have given to me” in both verses glosses over certain difficulties of interpretation. The reading of the best manuscripts is:

    • au)tou\$ e)n tw=| o)no/mati/ sou w!| de/dwka/$ moi
      “…(watch over) them in your name which you have given to me”

Copyists apparently misunderstood the syntax, as we find a number of instances in the manuscripts where it reads a plural accusative form (ou%$), i.e. referring to the disciples:

    • au)tou\$ e)n tw=| o)no/mati/ sou ou%$ de/dwka/$ moi
      “…(watch over) them, the (one)s whom you have given to me, in your name”

There is basis for such a formulation in the Gospel (cf. the wording in verse 6, also 18:9), but almost certainly the dative singular (w!|) is original. The reference is to the name which God has given to Jesus, and it is this name which keeps/guards believers—”in the name which you have given to me”. An even trickier interpretive point involves the nature of the name given to Jesus.

What is this name? Clearly it belongs to God the Father, since Jesus says “your name”—”in your name which you have given to me”. Elsewhere in the Gospel, the “name” specifically refers to Jesus‘ name, usually with the expression “trust in (Jesus)’ name”. The author speaks of trusting in his name, in Jn 1:12; 2:23; 20:31; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13, while in Jn 3:18 the reference is to trust “in the name of the…Son of God”. The name of Jesus has great power and efficacy, as we see expressed throughout the New Testament. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples (and all believers) that they are to pray/ask of the Father in his [i.e. Jesus’] name—Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26. Moreover, believers experience the release (forgiveness) of sins through Jesus’ name (1 Jn 2:12). Jesus also tells his disciples that the Father will send the Spirit/Paraclete in his name (14:26). The more familiar reference to protection/power for believers in Jesus’ name presumably explains the variant reading in vv. 11-12 of the Bodmer Papyrus (Ë66*): “…in my name which you have given to me”.

It is overly simplistic (and somewhat inaccurate) to take the view that Jesus’ name is simply the name Jesus/Yeshua itself. This would reduce “in the name of…” to a quasi-magical formula; and, while many Christians have used and understood it this way, the New Testament suggests something deeper (e.g. Phil 2:9-11, and many other passages). The key is in realizing how ancient peoples understood and treated names. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented the person himself (or herself), embodying the person’s essence and power in an almost magical way. To know or have access/control of a person’s name meant knowledge/control of the person (and the power, etc, which he/she possessed). From a religious standpoint, this gave to the name of God an extraordinary importance. To know the name of God, and to “call on” his name, meant that one had an intimate access to God Himself. For more on this topic, see my earlier Christmas season series (“And you shall call his name…”).

This is important because it relates to the Father/Son relationship that is central to the Gospel (and Discourses) in John. Jesus is the Son sent by the Father—thus he comes in his Father’s name (representing) him, working and acting in His name (Jn 5:43; 10:25; cf. also 12:13). As a faithful Son, he does and says what he seen and hears the Father doing/saying—i.e. his words are those of the Father. Moreover, as the Son (and heir), the Father gives to Jesus everything that belongs to Him (3:35, etc), including His name. Jesus, in turn, gives this name to believers, both in the sense of making it known—i.e. manifesting it to us (17:6, 26)—and also in the sense expressed here in vv. 11-12. Believers are kept/guarded in (e)n) this name which God the Father gave to Jesus. Is it possible to define or identify this name more precisely? There are several possibilities:

    • It is the ancient name represented by the tetragrammaton (YHWH/hwhy)
    • It is the ancient name as translated/interpreted in Greek as e)gw/ ei)mi, “I AM”
    • It is to be understood in the fundamental sense of the name representing the person—i.e. the name of God the Father indicates the presence and power of God Himself

The last option is to be preferred, along the lines suggested above. However, serious consideration should also be given to the second option, considering the prominence of the many “I Am” declarations by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. In these statements, Jesus is identifying himself with God the Father (YHWH), as the divine/eternal Son who represents the Father.

Following each of the parallel requests in vv. 11b-12, involving the name of the Father given to Jesus and the protection of the disciples, we find two statements relating to the unity of the disciples (believers). First, note how these fit into the structure of the passage:

    • “Holy Father, keep watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me,
      • (so) that they may be one even as we (are). ” (v. 11b)
    • “When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me,
      • and I guarded them, and no one out of them went to ruin [i.e. was lost/perished]” (v. 12)

The phrase in v. 11b anticipates the prayer for union/unity that is developed in vv. 20ff; interestingly, Ë66* along with Old Latin, Coptic and Syriac witnesses does not include this phrase. The statement in 12, by contrast, looks back to the role and position of Judas Iscariot among the disciples (6:70-71). This reflects a basic Gospel tradition regarding Judas, of course (Mk 14:20-21 par), but it takes on deeper symbolism in the Johannine Last Supper scene (13:1-3ff, 18, 27-30). There are two main points of significance to the departure of Judas in the narrative: (1) it marks the coming of a time of darkness (“and it was night”, v. 30; cp. 12:35-36), and (2) it allows Jesus to give his ‘Last Discourse’ instruction, speaking now only to his true disciples (believers). At the same time, the mention of Judas (as an exception, in fulfillment of Scripture) only underscores the unity of the remainder of the disciples—”not one of them went to ruin”. This is given dramatic expression during the Passion narrative (18:8-9).

A final point to be made on these verses has already been touched on above—the relationship between Father and Son (Jesus), which is also paralleled in the relationship between Jesus and believers. Central to this two-fold relationship, the key theme of chapter 17, is the presence of the Spirit. While the Spirit/Paraclete (pneu=ma/para/klhto$) is not specifically mentioned in chap. 17, it can be inferred at a number of points, based on the earlier references in chaps. 14-16 (and elsewhere in the Gospel). Jesus states clearly in verse 11 that he is departing and “is no longer in the world”. It is fair to conclude that the request in v. 11 relates to the request for the sending of the Spirit (in 14:16, etc). The keeping/guarding done by Jesus in the Father’s name now will be done for believers through the Spirit. The Spirit is also the basis for the unity (between Father/Son/Believers) which is so much emphasized in the prayer-discourse of Jesus in chap. 17. This will be discussed further in next week’s study (on verses 13-15).