Notes on Prayer: John 17:1-5

Continuing the post-Easter celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, during the upcoming weeks (through Pentecost) in this Monday Notes on Prayer feature, I will be examining the great prayer (or prayer-discourse) of Jesus in John 17. This prayer is unique due to its form and position within the Gospel of John. Like other instances of Jesus’ sayings and teachings in the Gospel Tradition, as they are adapted and included in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ words here reflect a distinctive Johannine discourse format. Indeed, chapter 17 represents the last of the great discourses of Jesus—it serves as fitting conclusion, not only to the Last Discourse sequence of 13:31-16:33, but to all of the prior discourses as well. Many of the words, images, and themes from the earlier discourses are recapitulated and restated here. It is thus proper and fitting to refer to chapter 17 by the term “prayer-discourse”. Even though it is technically a monologue, with Jesus addressing God the Father, certain structural and formal attributes of the discourses can be detected. This discernable literary style, so distinct to the Gospel of John (and absent from the Synoptics), of course, raises questions as to the relationship between chapter 17 as we have it, and the original/authentic words of Jesus. However, this is a question which applies to all of the discourses in John and cannot be limited to Jesus’ Prayer in chap. 17; I will, for the most part, not be addressing it in these notes.

The Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 is extremely rich and complex, and may be outlined or divided numerous ways. At several points, I will offer my own structural analysis; to begin with, it would seem that verses 1-5 have a clear chiastic structure, and can be treated as a unit:

    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 1)
      • Jesus’ authority over all the Father has given to him (v. 2)
        • Statement on “eternal life” in relation to the Son and Father (v. 3)
      • Jesus’ work involving all the Father has given to him (v. 4)
    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 5)

John 17:1-5

Verse 1

The narrative introduction (v. 1a) to the Prayer-Discourse, with the action/gesture of Jesus described, is similar to the moment of prayer in the Lazarus scene (11:41), and also reflects the earlier episode in 12:27-28ff (see below). The language and imagery, however, is traditional, and can be seen elsewhere in the Gospels, as for example in the miraculous feeding episode (Mark 6:41 par; cf. John 6:5). Overall, in the Johannine context, these simple words take on added meaning:

“Yeshua spoke these (thing)s and, lifting up his eyes unto heaven, said…”

Three details, distinct to the theological (and Christological) language of the Johannine discourses, can be noted here:

    1. On the surface, and at the narrative level, the verb “spoke” (e)la/lhsen) simply refers to Jesus’ words to his disciples after the ‘Last Supper’ (13:31-16:33). However, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly makes the point that everything he “speaks” (vb. lale/w) or says comes from what he (as the Son) has heard God (the Father) say to him. It is part of the wider Johannine theme of Jesus’ intimate relationship to, and identification with, God the Father. The most relevant passages in this regard are: 3:31-34; 5:30ff; 7:16-18; 8:26-29, 38-40ff; 12:49; 14:10, 24ff; 15:15; cf. also 6:63; 16:13.
    2. Here the verb “lift up” (e)pai/rw) refers to Jesus’ reverent gesture of raising his eyes upward during prayer. However, again, the verb ai&rw (“take [up], lift, carry”), along with others related to “raising, lifting, etc” (a)nabai/nw, u(yo/w), features prominently in the Johannine Discourses. The image of Jesus being “lifted up” has a two-fold meaning: (1) his death on the cross, and (2) his return to the Father—both aspects inform the idea of his being “glorified” (cf. below). Some of the most significant passages are: (a) for ai&rw, 1:29; 10:18, 24, and the resurrection context of 11:39, 41; (b) for u(yo/w, 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 24; (c) for a)nabai/nw, 1:51; 3:13; 6:62; 20:17, and note the contrastive play on words in 7:8ff; 12:20, etc.
    3. Jesus’ act of looking up toward heaven also has special meaning in the Johannine context. The entire thrust of the Last Discourse relates to Jesus’ impending departure, his return back to the Father (in Heaven). Thus the simple gesture of looking up here becomes a theological picture that, in a sense, summarizes the entire setting of the Last Discourse. For this referential point of “heaven” as Jesus’ place of origin and return, cf. 1:51; 3:13, 27, 31; 6:31-58; 12:28.

Jesus’ initial statement, or invocation, in v. 1b, likewise can be divided into three parts—three distinct phrases, from a syntactical standpoint; they can be understood as a step-chain of relation:

    • “Father, the hour has come” (Pa/ter, e)lh/luqen h( w%ra)
      • “may you give honor to your Son” (do/caso/n sou to\n ui(o/n)
        • “(so) that the Son might give honor to you” (i%na o( ui(o\$ doca/sh| se/)

Certainly, the last two phrases form a clause-pair marked by the coordinating particle i%na (“[so] that”). The initial phrase more properly serves as the prayer invocation and could stand apart; however, I prefer to keep the sequential chain intact throughout the entirety of vv. 1-5. Indeed, the temporal statement at the beginning (“the hour has come”) can be seen as parallel to the time indication at the close of v. 5: “before the world(‘s coming) to be”. This demonstrates the stark difference between the Johannine and Synoptic handling of this tradition—i.e. Jesus’ saying that his “hour” (w%ra) has come. In the Synoptic tradition, it refers specifically to his Passion, to the moment of his arrest which marks the beginning of his suffering (and death). It is foreshadowed in Jesus’ prayer to Father (Mark 14:35, cf. also v. 37 par); but the declaration comes in verse 41 par:

“…the hour came [i.e. has come]! See—the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!”

The Matthean version uses a different verb, but has the perfect tense in common with Jn 17:1:

“…See—the hour has come near [h&ggiken] and the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!” (Matt 26:45)

In Luke, the tables are turned and the emphasis is not on Jesus’ hour (i.e. his passion/suffering), but on the evil character of the moment (esp. of Judas and those who take him captive):

“…but this is your hour and the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness!” (cf. also 4:13, and note a similar sort of contrast in John 7:6-7)

How different is the feel of the Johannine statement by Jesus in John 17:1! It shares with the Synoptic tradition a Last Supper setting, and, as such, is certainly related to the idea of his impending death, but there is little sense of that in the immediate context of chapter 17. Interestingly, the Gospel of John does retain the traditional association of the expression with Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death), but in a different location, at an earlier point in the narrative (12:23ff):

“The hour has come [e)lh/luqen] that the Son of Man should be given honor [docasqh=|].”

Note the similarity of wording to 17:1, especially the important use of the verb doca/zw; the reference to his suffering and death comes in the illustration (v. 24) and sayings on discipleship (vv. 25-26) which follow. The Gospel of John has nothing like the Synoptic Prayer/Passion scene in the Garden, but Jesus’ declaration in 12:27ff in many ways is similar to it and takes its place. Again, it differs markedly from the Synoptic tradition in two respects: (1) the use of the verb doca/zw gives it a significance beyond the basic idea of his suffering/death, and (2) it includes the Johannine emphasis on the relationship between Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father). Both of these points are central to the setting of the Prayer-Discourse in chapter 17. Thus, even though Jesus’ suffering and death is not principally in view in 17:1, it is still an important component to the idea of Jesus’ being “given honor” or glorified by the Father. It is this that we will explore next week as we examine verses 1-5 in greater detail.

April 20: John 11:25

John 11:25

Jesus’ response to Martha in vv. 25-26, which also expounds the meaning of his saying in v. 23, can be divided into four parts, though it makes up a single sentence:

    • “I am the standing up [i.e. resurrection] and the life”
    • “the (one) trusting in me, even if he should die away, he will live”
    • “every (one) living and trusting in me, no he does not die away into the age”
    • “do you trust [i.e. believe] this?”

Each of these will be discussed in turn, beginning with the declaration in v. 25a:

e)gw/ ei)mi h( a)na/stasi$ kai\ h( zwh/
“I am the standing-up and the life”

There are three elements to this saying: (1) pronoun (subject), (2) verb, and (3) dual predicate. The first two are taken together, as the phrase “I am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) marks this as one of the famous “I am”-sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

e)gw/ ei)mi—There are at least 17 “I am” sayings or statements by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, and these can be divided into: (a) those with a predicate, and (b) those without a (specific) predicate. I begin with the latter, since they are necessary for a proper understanding of the former. There are three important occurrences in the discourse of Jesus set in Jerusalem during the festival of Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles) in chapters 7-8:

    • “for if you do not trust that I am [e)gw ei)mi], you will die away in your sins” (8:24)
    • “when you lift high the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [e)gw ei)mi]…” (8:28)
    • “…before Abraham(‘s) coming to be [gene/sqai], I am [e)gw ei)mi]” (8:58)

To these may be added Jesus’ wording in verses 18 (“I am the one witnessing about myself…”) and 23 (“I am out of [i.e. from] the things above”), which have more in common with the sayings with a predicate (below). The statement in 13:19 is similar in aspects of thought and vocabulary with the three sayings above:

“From now I say (this) to you before (its) coming to be, (so) that you may trust, when it comes to be, that I am [e)gw ei)mi]”

In two other instances, the expression e)gw/ ei)mi is understood, in the context of the narrative, as “I am he“—6:20 and 18:5.

The background for this Johannine usage of e)gw/ ei)mi by Jesus is to be found in the self-declaration by God (YHWH) in the Old Testament: “I am YHWH…”. This formula of divine revelation, occurs in key passages such as Gen 28:13; Exod 6:6-7; 7:5; 15:26; 20:2, 5; Lev 18:5; Isa 45:18; Hos 13:4; Joel 2:27, etc. This involves the pronoun yn]a& (“I”) but no specific verb (a verb of being is implied). A similar declaration, “I am He” (aWh yn]a&), occurring in Deut 32:39 and frequently in (Deutero-)Isaiah (41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6) is translated in the Greek version (LXX) as e)gw/ ei)mi—”I am“. For Greek-speaking Jews in the post-Exilic period, “I Am”, e)gw/ ei)mi, could function effectively as the Divine name (i.e. YHWH), and this is important in the context of the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
For more on the name YHWH and the explanation provided in Exod 3:14, cf. the earlier Christmas season note.

A central theme throughout the Gospel, in the discourses of Jesus, is that Jesus (the Son) is making known the name of the Father to his disciples (i.e. to believers). In ancient thought, to make known a person’s name is essentially the same thing as making known the person himself. Thus the “I Am” sayings of Jesus should be understood in terms of theophany—the manifestation of God to human beings on earth. In this regard, even the sayings typically translated “I am he” (Jn 6:20; 18:5) still have the character of a theophany. This is especially clear in the case of 6:20, which is part of the walking-on-water episode, where Jesus appears to the disciples, in the midst of wind and storm (typical elements of a theophany), and declares: “I am (he) [e)gw ei)mi]—do not be afraid!”

A recognition of this religious and theological background of the expression e)gw/ ei)mi will help us understand the sayings which involve a specific predicate. In most of these, Jesus is identifying himself with a particular image or symbol:

    • “I am the bread of life” / “I am the living bread” (6:35, 51)
    • “I am the light of the world” (8:12, cf. also 9:5)
    • “I am the door of the sheep(-fold)” (10:7, 9)
    • “I am the excellent (shep)herd” (10:11, 14)
    • “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5)

Jesus appears to be taking details from the natural world and daily life, much as he does in the (Synoptic) parables, and interpreting them from a spiritual and divine standpoint—he is the true [i.e. eternal/divine] bread, water, vine, shepherd, etc. However, the saying closest in form to 11:25a is found in the famous declaration of 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life”. Both statements take the pattern “I am…the life”.

a)na/stasi$—This noun, derived from the verb a)ni/sthmi, literally means “standing up”, but is commonly used in the technical sense of “resurrection”, i.e. standing up from the dead. Martha uses it in the conventional religious sense of the end-time resurrection, as discussed in the previous note. Indeed, it is always used this way elsewhere in the Gospels (Mark 12:18, 23 par; John 5:29; and cf. also Acts 23:6, 8; 24:15). Eventually, early Christians applied it specifically to the resurrection of Jesus, as in Acts 1:22; 2:31; 4:2, 33, and throughout the letters. There is an interplay of both meanings in Acts 24:21 and 26:23 (cf. also 17:18, 32). Jesus’ statement to Martha in 11:25 combines these meanings and transcends them. By using the e)gw/ ei)mi formulation—”I am the resurrection”—Jesus is identifying himself with the effective power (of God) to raise the dead, and with God Himself who will raise them.

There are two aspects to Jesus’ correction of Martha’s misunderstanding, reflected in each of the two predicate nouns. First, he corrects her understanding of the resurrection (h( a)na/stasi$) by identifying himself as the resurrection—it is not simply something which will take place in the future, it is present now, in the person of Jesus. Second, he adds to it the life (h( zwh/).

zwh/—This word occurs quite frequently in the Johannine writings: 36 times in the Gospel, and 13 times in the letters; if we include the book of Revelation (17 times), that makes nearly half of all occurrences (135) in the New Testament. Based on the context of the narrative (the death of Lazarus), it would seem that ordinary physical life is in view. Certainly Martha has this in mind, thinking of the resurrection from the dead at the end time (v. 24). And yet, the word zwh/ almost always carries a deeper meaning throughout the Gospel and letters of John. In the Gospel, zwh/ occurs 17 times (nearly half of the 36) within the expression [h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh/, “[the] life of the age”, usually translated as “eternal life”. Even when it is used alone, it tends to denote eternal life, in the qualitative sense of spiritual and divine life—i.e., the life which is found in God the Father and the Son (Jesus). This fundamental identification is confirmed by the use of the e)gw/ ei)mi formula (cf. above), and is clarified by Jesus’ statement in 14:6. Jesus (the Son) reveals the life, truth, etc, of the Father and points/leads the way to Him.

I will be discussing the expression “life of the age” (i.e. eternal life) in more detail in upcoming notes. Here it is important to realize how Jesus (and the Gospel writer) makes use of the word “life”, and the idea of it, moving from the conventional understanding of the disciple (Martha), to a profound revelatory expression which even the committed believer can only begin to grasp. This will be examined as we proceed through the remainder of vv. 25-26 in the next few daily notes.