Notes on Prayer: John 17:16-19

John 17:16-19

Verses 16-19 close the first Expository section of the Prayer-Discourse (vv. 12-19, cf. the outline in the previous study). A curious detail to note is the way that verse 16 repeats, almost verbatim, the second half of v. 14. This apparently led a number of scribes to omit the verse, but there a number of such repetitions throughout the Johannine Discourses of Jesus (and the Last Discourse, in particular), and text here is secure. As a result, we ought to regard the repetition as intentional, in terms of the structure of this section. It gives to the triadic structure a chiastic outline:

    • Expository narration—the work of the Son (vv. 12-14a)
      • Unity of Believers with Jesus—”not out of the world” (v. 14b)
        • Petition to the Father—protection from the evil in the world
      • Unity of Believers with Jesus—”not out of the world” (v. 16)
    • Exposition—the work and presence of the Son in believers (vv. 17-19)

According to this detailed outline, verses 17-19 are parallel to 12-14a, both representing the core exposition in the section. How do these two passages relate? The first deals with the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth (“When I was with them…”); the second focuses on the time after Jesus’ departure back to the Father. It must be admitted that the latter emphasis is not explicit or immediately apparent on a reading of the text; however, with a little study, I believe it come through quite clear. There are three statements in this exposition:

    1. A request that his disciples be “made holy” by the Father (v. 17)
    2. A declaration similar in formula to Jesus’ words to his disciples after the resurrection, sending them into the world as apostles/missionaries (20:21)
    3. A statement explaining that the disciples are “made holy” even as Jesus himself is made holy, using reciprocal language and hearkening back to the invocation (v. 1, cf. also 13:31)

Let us examine each of these in turn.

Verse 17

This is another petition by Jesus to the Father, and must be understood in relation to the central petition of vv. 9-11, as well as the further request in v. 15 (cf. the previous study). The motif of protection has been defined in terms of holiness—which, from a religious standpoint, essentially refers to separation from evil (and the world) and protection from it. Here is the request:

“Make them (to be) holy in the truth—your word is truth.”

We may isolate three key components to this petition:

    • The verb (a(gia/zw, “make holy, treat as holy”)
    • Emphasis on truth (a)lh/qeia), and
    • The identification of truth with the word (lo/go$) of God the Father

The second and third of these are important theological key words in the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and occur far more frequently than the first. In this regard, they serve to expound and explain the primary petition comprised of the initial words: a(gi/ason au)tou\$, “(May you) make them (to be) holy”. The verb a(gia/zw (hagiázœ, “make holy, treat as holy”) is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 28 times, compared with the much more common adjective a%gio$ (hágios, “holy”). In the Synoptic Gospels, in the words of Jesus, its usage is almost entirely limited to the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9; Lk 11:2), a context similar to that in John 17 (with the emphasis on the name of God the Father and His holiness, vv. 1, 6ff):

Pa/ter […] a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou
“Father […], may your name be made holy”

Pa/ter… (“Father…”, v. 1)
e)fane/rwsa/ sou to\ o&noma (“I made your name shine forth…”, v. 6)
Pa/ter a%gie th/rhson au)tou\$ e)n tw=| o)no/mati/ sou
(“Holy Father, keep watch [over] them in your name…”, v. 11)

Paul uses the verb 6 times in the undisputed letters (1 Thess 5:23; Rom 15:16; 1 Cor 1:2; 6:11; 7:14 [twice]); it occurs three more times in Eph 5:26; 2 Tim 2:21; 1 Tim 4:5. It is used 7 times in Hebrews (2:11 [twice]; 9:13; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12), in the context of the Israelite priesthood—a point to be discussed on v. 19 below.

It is important to emphasize again that the following phrase “in the truth” and the statement “your word is truth” both qualify and explain the meaning of the petition. First, we have the full form of the petition: “Make them (to be) holy in the truth”. The noun a)lh/qeia (“truth”) occurs 25 times in the Gospel of John, and another 20 times in the Letters (9 in 1 John). It has a special theological (and Christological) meaning, going far beyond the simple idea of factual truth, or even moral and religious truth. Rather, it is a fundamental characteristic of God the Father Himself, and of Jesus as the Son (of God). Moreover, it does not refer primarily to Jesus’ teaching and the proclamation of God’s word (as a message), but is embodied in the person of Jesus himself. Cf. John 1:14, 17; 8:32ff, 44-46; 14:6; 18:37-38; 1 Jn 1:6, 8; 2:21, etc. Distinctive of the Johannine theology, including that expressed by Jesus in the Discourses, is the special association (and identification) of the Spirit with this Truth (4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:7, 13; 1 John 4:6). The declaration in 1 John 5:6 makes this identification explicit and unqualified, and provides the answer to Pilate’s provocative question (Jn 18:38, “What is [the] truth?”):

“The Spirit is the Truth”
to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia

This declaration also informs the statement in 17:17b (cp. Psalm 119:142b Greek v.l.), which has similar wording (the only real difference being the emphatic position of the verb):

“Your Word is (the) Truth”
o( lo/go$ o( so$ a)lh/qeia/ e)stin

Taking these statements together, we have the fundamental identification of God’s Word (lo/go$) with the Spirit. Again, this does not refer to any particular message or set of words spoken by Jesus (though these are included, Jn 6:63, etc), but to the essential identity of Jesus (the Son) as the living embodiment of God’s Word on earth (Jn 1:1ff, 14, etc). Jesus’ manifest presence with the disciples cleanses them (Jn 13:10-11; 15:3), culminating in his sacrificial death (1 Jn 1:7-9) that protects believers and makes them clean (i.e. holy) from sin. This cleansing power again is identified with the Spirit (“water and blood”, Jn 19:34; 1 Jn 5:6-8)—the living and indwelling presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in believers. The Spirit is given following Jesus’ death (19:30, 34, understood symbolically) and resurrection (20:22).

Thus we may see here in verse 17 an implicit reference to the Holy Spirit as the means by which the disciples (believers) are made holy.

Verse 18

This is confirmed by what follows in verse 18, a reciprocal statement similar to the ‘commission’ of the disciples in 20:21:

“Even as you se(n)t me forth into the world, I also se(n)t them forth into the world” (17:18)
“Even as the Father se(n)t me forth, I also send [pe/mpw] you” (20:21b)

In 17:18, the aorist is used (indicating a past occurrence), while in 20:21, in addressing the disciples, Jesus uses the present tense (and a different verb [pe/mpw]). It is possible that the aorist assumes a tradition such as in the Synoptics (Mk 3:14-15; 6:6b-13 par; Lk 10:1ff), where Jesus is to have sent the disciples out on preaching assignments. The Gospel writer is certainly familiar with such traditions (3:34-38; 6:67-71), though he makes little of them in the narrative. However, a better explanation is at hand in the context of the Last Discourse. An important point of emphasis (discussed in the prior studies) is that Jesus was able to sanctify his disciples by his presence with them on earth (i.e., in the past, up to this point). Now that he is about to return to the Father, he is no longer able to “make them holy” the same way—thus the need (in the present) for the Father to send the Spirit as the Divine Presence (and Power) to fill this role in Jesus’ place. The words of commission in 20:21 are followed directly by the disciples receiving the Spirit from Jesus (who, in turn, had received it from the Father). The Spirit’s presence cleanses the disciples and makes them holy.

In this regard, the disciples are to function in the manner of priests in ancient religious tradition. Through a proscribed ceremonial ritual, Israelite priests were consecrated (made holy) for service in the sacred place(s), handling of sacrifices and sacred objects, etc—e.g., Exod 40:13; Lev 8:30; 2 Chron 5:11. Jesus’ disciples (believers) are compared or described as priests at numerous points in early Christian tradition, part of a wider religious phenomenon whereby devotion to Jesus takes the place of (or fulfills) the earlier cultic ritual practiced by the priesthood. Of the passages in the New Testament indicating this, cf. Matt 12:1-8; Rom 12:1-2; 15:16; 2 Cor 3:6ff; 1 Pet 2:5ff; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6.

Verse 19

The imagery of priesthood is even more prominent in verse 19. Indeed, it is due almost entirely to the influence of verses 17-19 that the Prayer-Discourse in chapter 17 is sometimes called the “High Priestly” Prayer of Jesus. However, this label is quite inappropriate for the Prayer as a whole, since it is only in these three verses that there is any real indication of priestly language or emphasis. Nevertheless, it remains a small, but important, element of the Prayer, and follows the overall theology of the Gospel, in which it is not believers, but Jesus himself, who is described in priestly terms. The emphasis is on the sacrifice (esp. the Passover sacrifice) rather than the one administering it; however, as in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus would certainly be seen as fulfilling both roles. This is expressed here in verse 19, where the Passion setting of the Prayer again comes to the fore:

“And (it is) over them [i.e. the disciples] (that) I make myself holy, (so) that they (also) would be made holy in the truth.”

Jesus functions as a priest, consecrating himself for service (symbolized by his actions in 13:4-12)—the primary service being his impending sacrificial death on the cross, which represents the completion of his ministry on earth (19:30). The only other occurrence of the verb a(gia/zw is in 10:36, which comes at the end of the “Good Shepherd” Discourse. The central motif of this Discourse is the idea that Jesus, as the excellent or exemplary (kalo/$) herdsman, lays down his life for the sake of the sheep. God the Father has given him the authority (and the command) to lay down his life (death) and take it up again (resurrection), cf. 10:11, 15, 17-18. The preposition is u(pe/r (lit. “over”), essentially the same idiom as we see here in 17:19, and also in the Last Supper scene in the Synoptics; let us compare these (and the general parallel in Jn 6:51):

    • “This is my blood of the covenant th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many” (Mk 14:24 par)
    • “the bread which I will give is my flesh over [u(pe/r] the life of the world” (Jn 6:51)
    • “…I set (down) my soul [i.e. life] over [u(pe/r] the sheep” (Jn 10:15, cf. also vv. 11, 17-18)
    • “I make myself holy over [u(per/] them…” (17:19)

There can thus be no real doubt that there is a direct allusion to sacrificial death of Jesus. The idiom in Mk 14:24 par is more concrete, drawing upon the ritual image of blood actually being poured (or sprinkled) over the people at the covenant ceremony (Exodus 24:6-8). In the Johannine references, it is more symbolic, dealing the sacrificial nature and character of Jesus’ death, much as we see in the Letter to the Hebrews (esp. throughout chapters 5-10). From the Johannine (theological) standpoint, it is the sacrificial death (and resurrection) of Jesus which releases the Spirit to believers, both symbolically (19:30, 34) and literally (20:22). The Spirit remains essentially connected with the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood (1 John 1:7-9; 5:6-8), transmitting its live-giving (and protecting) efficacy to the believer.

A point should be made about the reflexive use of a(gia/zw in verse 19, whereby Jesus says: “I make myself holy” (a(gia/zw e)mauto/n). We might have expected him to ask the Father to make him holy, or at least to emphasize the Father as the source of holiness (v. 11). The key to understanding this lies in the Johannine theological-christological framework, perhaps best expressed by Jesus in 5:26:

“as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave life to the Son to hold in himself”

There is a parallel to this in 13:31-32, using the idea of honor/glory (do/ca) rather than life (zwh/). Moreover, the context of 17:19 is elucidated in this regard by turning back to the use of the verb a(gia/zw in 10:36:

“…the (one) whom the Father made holy [h(gi/asen] and se(n)t forth into the world”

This expresses the same chain of relation as in 5:26, both reciprocal and hierarchical:

The Son alongside the Father—made holy by the Father’s Life and Power
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Sent into the world by the Father
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The Son (on earth) has the Life and Power given to him by the Father
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Prepares to finish his work in the world
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The Son about to return to the Father—makes himself holy

This dynamic continues as the Son makes his disciples (believers) holy in turn, through his work, and, ultimately, through the presence of the Spirit. Indeed, the Spirit represents the presence of both Father and Son (together) in and among believers, and this theme of unity becomes dominant in the remainder of the Prayer (vv. 20-26), as we will begin to explore in next week’s study.

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