Notes on Prayer: John 17:1-5 (continued)

John 17:1-5, continued

Last week, I began a discussion on the great Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17, looking at verse 1 in some detail. Today I wish to continue on with an examination of the remainder of verses 1-5.

Of particular importance is the use of the verb doca/zw, both in verse 1 and again in vv. 4-5 (and v. 10); the related noun do/ca also occurs several times in the chapter (at the beginning and end, vv. 5, 22, 24). Both words are an important part of the vocabulary of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, especially the verb which is used 23 times (out of 61 total in the New Testament)—7:39; 8:54 (2); 11:4; 12:16, 23, 28 (3); 13:31 (2), 32 (3); 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1 (2), 4, 5, 10; 21:19. There are also 19 occurrences of the noun do/ca1:14 (2); 2:11; 5:41, 44 (2); 7:18 (2); 8:50, 54; 9:24; 11:4, 40; 12:41, 43 (2); 17:5, 22, 24. Unfortunately, it is not easy to give a (consistent) literal translation in English for either verb or noun, as they can differ in meaning and nuance depending on the context, and, in particular, whether the subject/object involves human beings or God (or Christ). While do/ca is typically translated “glory”, in many instances a much better rendering is “esteem”, which more closely captures the fundamental meaning of the word. When used in a religious context, the predominant idea tends to be that human beings are to give to God the esteem and honor which He is due. However, when applied as a divine attribute or characteristic it is better understood in terms of the “splendor” which God possesses, and which surrounds him. In order to capture both aspects, in the special way that the words are used in the Gospel of John, I prefer to translate the verb doca/zw as “give honor (to)”.

There are several key Johannine passages (in the Discourses of Jesus) where the verb is used, sometimes together with the noun, and these need to be considered in order to gain a proper understanding of their usage in chapter 17.

1. Jn 8:50ff. The words are part of the conceptual vocabulary that frames the great Discourse of chapters 7-8 set during the Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles) festival in Jerusalem. Thematically, there is a clear symmetric (and chiastic) structure to the discourse-sequence, with the concluding discourse (8:31-59) serving as a parallel to the opening episode (7:14-24). In particular, we may note how the exchange in 8:48-51ff refers back to Jesus’ declaration in 7:18:

“The (one) speaking from himself seeks his own honor/esteem [do/ca]; but the (one) seeking the honor/esteem [do/ca] of the (One) having sent him, this (one) is true and there is not (any) injustice in him.”

The long and increasingly hostile exchange in 8:31-59, sharpens and comes to a climax as Jesus makes the following statement in verse 49, in response to the attack from his opponents that he “has [lit. holds] a daimon“:

“I do not hold a(ny) daimon, but (rather) I honor [timw=] my Father and you treat me without honor [a)tima/zete/ me]!”

This use of the verbs tima/w & a)tima/zw demonstrate how close in meaning the noun timh/ (“value, worth”, often in the sense of “honor”) is to do/ca (“esteem/honor”), especially in this context. Jesus follows in verse 50 with the language of 7:18, using the noun do/ca:

“And I do not seek my own esteem/honor [do/ca]—(but) there is there is the (One) seeking (it)…”

Here we find the same reciprocity (between Father and Son) as we have in 17:1ff—Jesus (the Son) seeks the honor of God the Father, and the Father seeks the Son’s honor. This raises an interesting point regarding the syntax of verses 1-5 and the use of the particle i%na (discussed below).

2. Jn 11:4, 40. In the Lazarus scene, the entire episode—the death of Lazarus and his subsequent resurrection—is for the declared purpose of giving honor/esteem (do/ca) to Jesus; and this, not simply due to the fact that he works a great miracle, but for what it indicates (as a sign) regarding Jesus’ true identity. The purpose is stated by Jesus, to his disciples (and to the readers as well) in the opening portion of the narrative (verse 4):

“This lack of strength [i.e. weakness/illness] is not toward death, but (instead it is) under the honor/splendor [do/ca] of God, so (that) the Son of God might be given honor [docasqh=|] through it.”

In other words, the illness (and death) of Lazarus is under the control of the do/ca of God and serves that divine purpose. The association of do/ca/doca/zw with resurrection here emphasizes again the difference between Jesus’ prayer in 17:1ff and the similar prayer-language used during the Synoptic garden scene (discussed in last week’s study). The “hour” in 17:1 is not that of Jesus’ Passion (his suffering and death) alone, but instead points more directly toward his subsequent resurrection and return to the Father, just as Lazarus’ moment of suffering does not point toward physical death alone, but to the resurrection power possessed by Jesus as God’s Son. The moment of Lazarus’ own resurrection confirms the point (11:40): “Yeshua says to her [i.e. Martha], ‘Did I not say to you that, if you would trust, you will see the honor/splendor [do/ca] of God?'”.

3. Jn 12:23, 28, 41, 43. The portion of the Gospel of John spanning chapters 2-12 forms a clear division in the narrative (sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”), covering the period of Jesus’ public ministry, and comprised of a combination of miracles by Jesus (and other “signs”) and related discourses in which the signs (together with their true meaning) are explained. The words do/ca/doca/zw feature prominently in the concluding scenes of the “Book of Signs” in chapter 12. We already looked at verses 23 and 28 in last week’s study, as they fit so closely with the language used by Jesus in 17:1ff. To these may be added the important, but often neglected, words of the Gospel writer in verses 41-43. As in the Synoptics, Isaiah 6:10 is cited to explain why many of Jesus’ contemporaries were unwilling (or unable) to accept him as the Messiah. The Gospel writer further states that Isaiah “saw his honor/splendor [do/ca]”, by which the original context (the do/ca of YHWH) is interpreted in terms of Jesus’ divine status as God’s Son. There is a clear echo of 8:56-58 in these words (cf. above on the use of do/ca in 8:50, 54). The failure of people to recognize Jesus’ divine do/ca, is further explained, through a bit of ironic wordplay, by the author in verse 43:

“For they loved the honor/esteem [do/ca] of men more than the honor/esteem [do/ca] of God.”

We must keep this Johannine usage of do/ca & doca/zw in mind as we return to examine 17:1-5. The reciprocal language used by Jesus, indicating the intimate relationship between Father and Son, creates certain ambiguities and tensions in the fabric of the text. This is part of the immense beauty and power of the Johannine discourses of Jesus, but it also creates points of difficulty for the commentator. One example is the use of the conjunctive particle i%na to join together the phrases and clauses of vv. 1-2 into a structure and chain of relation. There are actually three connective particles; let us consider them and how the phrases fit together:

    • “The hour has come—may you give honor to your Son
      • (so) that [i%na] the Son may give honor to you
        • even as [kaqw\$] you gave him e)cousi/a over all flesh
          • (so) that [i%na] (for) all which you have given to him, he might give to them (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

There are two i%na-clauses, both of which are best understood as indicating a purpose or result (i.e. “so that…”). However, the precise relationship between them is not entirely certain. It is possible to view them in more parallel terms, as representing two related results of the Father giving honor to the Son; one might even view this as a chiastic structure:

    • “The hour has come—may you give honor to your Son
      • (so) that [i%na] the Son may give honor to you
        • even as [kaqw\$] you gave him e)cousia over all flesh
      • (so) that [i%na] for all that you have given to him
    • he might give to them—(the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The sense of reciprocity is perhaps better illustrated in the second (chiastic) structure, and is to be developed by Jesus throughout the Prayer-Discourse. A powerful inter-relationship is established: Father—Son—Believers. As indicated above, the particle i%na in verse 1 is best understood as indicating purpose or result—the Son giving honor to the Father is the result (and end purpose or goal) of the Father giving honor to the Son. However, it is interesting to note that, in the parallel verses 4-5, we find the opposite—that the Father honors the Son as the result of the Son’s work which give honor to the Father. This would allow for the reading of the i%na clause in verse 1 in a causal sense (“in that…”, i.e., “because”). I would maintain that it is, indeed, better to keep to the more natural grammatical sense of i%na indicating purpose/result in verse 1, and to see verses 4-5 as reflecting a reciprocal parallelism with vv. 1-2. This fits with the overall chiastic structure of vv. 1-5, as I noted already last week:

    • The Father gives honor to the Son
      • (so that) the Son may give honor to the Father (v. 1)
        • through the (work) given him by the Father (to complete) (v. 2)
        • the Son has completed the work by him by the Father (v. 4)
      • (and so) the Son has given honor to the Father
    • (thus) the Father will give honor to the Son (v. 5)

It is in vv. 4-5 that we have a clearer indication of the coming death of Jesus, with the use of the verb teleio/w (“[make] complete”). Earlier in the Gospel (4:34; 5:36) the verb seems to refer more generally to Jesus’ ministry work (teaching, healing miracles, etc); but here, in the Johannine context, there can be no doubt that the verb, when used by Jesus in the Discourses, must be understood in a comprehensive sense—Jesus’ work on earth (as the Son), culminating in his sacrificial death. This is confirmed by Jesus’ dying words on the cross (19:28), actually a single word in the Greek: tete/lestai (“it is completed”). The verb takes on a somewhat deeper significance later in the Prayer-Discourse (v. 23), when Jesus uses it to refer to the unity that his work achieves for believers, uniting them/us together with Father and Son through the presence of the Spirit. This will be discussed later in these notes on John 17.

Looking at verses 1-5 as a whole, again, it  must be stated that the death of Jesus is not what is primarily in view, despite the general Passion setting and the use of the verb teleio/w in verse 4 (see above). His sacrificial death certainly represents the climax and completion of his work on earth; however, it is this work, taken as a whole, and as a reflection of the relationship between Father and Son, which is the main emphasis in chapter 17 (and, one may say, in the Last Discourse itself). If there were any doubt on this point, we would simply turn to the declaration in verse 3, which stands at the heart of verses 1-5. Many commentators regard this statement, not as the words of Jesus, but as an explanatory aside (comment) by the Gospel writer. This seems likely given the particular formulation, which sounds very much like an early Christian creedal formula, and, indeed, is similar in many ways to the concluding declaration in 20:31. While the objective statement in verse 3 may be, theologically speaking, a bit too precise to fit the historical context of the narrative, it is vital for what it reveals about the identity of Jesus. I discuss this verse in considerable detail in a separate series on the use of the words “Spirit” (pneu=ma) and “Life” (zwh/) in the Gospel of John (soon to be posted on this site), and will not reproduce that here. The expression “life of the Age” (here h( ai)w/nio$ zwh/), typically translated as “eternal life”, is a key Johannine term, appearing many times in the Discourses of Jesus, but also elsewhere in the Gospel and Letters. Here it is given a precise definition:

“And this is the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]—that they would know you the only true God, and the (one) whom you se(n)t forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

If verse 3 is indeed an explanatory statement by the author, it was triggered by the use of the expression zwh/ ai)w/nio$ at the end of verse 2. The parallel with verse 4 makes clear that the “work” which the Son (Jesus) completes may be understood as the giving of (eternal) Life to all those (believers) whom God the Father has given to him. This point will be discussed in more detail in next week’s study (on verses 6-10).

Finally, it is worth noting the temporal-keyed statement that concludes verse 5; it should be understood as parallel to the initial declaration of v. 1: “the hour has come”. Again, we must make clear that here, in contrast to the Passion-context of the similar Synoptic saying (cf. last week’s study), this “hour” goes beyond the moment of Jesus’ impending suffering and death, to the completion of the Son’s work on earth, which includes his resurrection and return to the Father. This is confirmed by the statement in v. 5b which further describes the honor/splendor (do/ca) the Son is to receive from the Father: “…the honor [do/ca] which I held alongside you before the (coming) to be of the world”. Note again the parallelism:

    • The hour has come
      • May you give honor the Son (v. 1)
      • Now may you give honor to me, Father… (v. 5a)
    • (in the time) before the world (came) to be (v. 5b)

This coming “hour” marks a return to the beginning (1:1ff)—the Son’s return to the Father in Heaven. As Christians, we are so accustomed to thinking, in orthodox terms, of Jesus’ divine pre-existence, that it is easy to forget (or ignore) how rare this idea actually is in the New Testament. It is not to be found at all in the Synoptic Gospels, nor in the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts; it is also quite rare in the Pauline letters (though Paul himself accepted some basic version of the idea), and in the other New Testament letters as well (with the exception of Hebrews). The first generation of Christians appears to have come to a realization of this belief only gradually. While the idea that Jesus, after the resurrection, was exalted to a divine position and status at the right hand of God in Heaven, was widespread, there does not seem to be clear evidence for a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent Deity prior to about 60 A.D. The ‘Christ hymn’ in Philippians 2:6-11 has a descent/ascent conceptual formulation which is generally similar to what we find throughout the Gospel of John. The traditions underlying the Johannine Prologue (1:1-18), and reflected all through the Gospel, probably date from around the same time as the ‘Christ hymn’. One may surmise that it was during the period c. 50-60 A.D. that a distinct belief in Jesus’ pre-existence began to take shape. If it were more widespread by or before this time we would expect to see greater evidence for it throughout the New Testament. In any event, there is no doubt of this belief in the Gospel of John; the pre-existent deity of Jesus is expressed in unmistakable terms, including by Jesus himself in the Discourses. However, the idea is, perhaps, not stated so precisely by Jesus as we find it here in the Prayer-Discourse. The wording in v. 5b seems to hearken back to the opening words of the Gospel (1:1ff). What is unique about the setting in the Prayer-Discourse is the added dimension, developed by Jesus during the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), involving the promise that believers will share in this same glory (do/ca) that the Son has alongside the Father. This will be discussed further in the coming weeks’ studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.