Believers and the World (Jn 17:20-23, continued)

As a continuation (and conclusion) to the recently posted article, on the statements regarding believers and “the world” (o( ko/smo$) in John 17:20-23, I mentioned three specific questions which I felt still needed to be addressed:

    • How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?
    • What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?
    • How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit into the structure of the section?

I will briefly discuss each of these in turn.

1. How does the unity of believers relate to the world trusting/knowing Jesus?

The principal theme of verses 20-23 is Jesus’ request for the unity of his disciples (believers). This is expressed two ways:

    • With the neuter singular adjective e%n (“one”): “that they would (all) be one
    • Using the preposition e)n (“in”): believers in the Son (and the Father), and the Son in believers, just as the Father and Son are in one another.

The use of the comparative particle kaqw/$ (“just as”), and the relation of believers to the union between Father and Son, makes clear that believers share in the same (not just similar) unity that Father and Son share. This is a powerful theological (and spiritual) proposition, which may seem quite shocking to religious sensibilities, but it is not to be explained away or mitigated. The language used by Jesus (and the Gospel writer) must be allowed to stand. And yet, how does this unity relate to “the world”? In the main part of this article, I discussed how the concluding i%na-clauses, mentioning “the world”, are best understood as subordinate result clauses. Let us consider again how these fit in the parallel strophes of verses 20-23:

First strophe, verses 20-21:

    • “…(I ask) about the (one)s trusting in me through their word,
      • that [i%na] (they) all would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] you, Father, (are) in me and I in you,
      • that [i%na] they also would be in us,
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth.”

Second strophe, vv. 22-23:

    • “And the honor [do/ca] which you have given to me, I have given to them,
      • that [i%na] they would be one [e%n]
      • just as [kaqw/$] we (are) one [e%n]—I in them and you in me—
      • that [i%na] they would be completed into one [e%n]
        • (so) that [i%na] the world would know that you se(n)t me forth
          and (that) you loved them even as you loved me.”

For ease of reference, here are the two clauses in context, with the immediate statement regarding unity in bold:

“…that they…would be in us, (so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth”
“…that they would be completed into one, (so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth”

How does the unity of believers lead the world (i.e. others in the world who are not yet believers) to trust and know (i.e. recognize) Jesus’ divine origin as Messiah and Son of God? Some would cite the example of Christian unity as something which might convince people of the truth of the Gospel. While this is a noble sentiment, it is not at all what is in view here in the Prayer. Rather, the unity of which Jesus speaks is fundamental and essential—the very identity of believers is defined by their/our union with God the Father and Jesus the Son. This union, indicated primarily by the preposition e)n (“in”, i.e. “in us”), is further defined three distinct ways in the Gospel of John; the divine Presence in believers is described in terms of: (1) Word [lo/go$], (2) Love [a)ga/ph], and (3) Spirit [pneu=ma]. It is the Word-Love-Spirit of God (and Christ), dwelling in and with believers, which brings others to trust and knowledge of the truth. This will be further discussed in the following two sections.

2. What is the significance of this for the use of the verb teleio/w (“make complete”) in verse 23?

In the earlier notes on verses 20-23, I pointed out how the use of the verb teleio/w (“[make] complete”), in the passive, with believers as the subject, occurs only here in the Gospel of John, but that four similar instances are found in the First Letter (2:5; 4:12, 17-18). The passages in 1 John share much of the same thought, language, and vocabulary as the Prayer-Discourse of Jn 17. There, too, the unity believers share with Father and Son is defined in terms of love (cf. section 3 below). However, I believe there is one aspect of the use of the verb here in verse 23 which has not yet been explored, and it relates specifically to the statement regarding the world trusting/knowing. The unity of believers is only realized collectively, not individually—but as a universal Community, bound together by the living Word-Love-Spirit of God. To that extent, unity is not realized until all believers are included—that is, when all the Elect/Chosen ones, living throughout the world, in all times and places, come to trust in Jesus, becoming true believers in Christ. This is wonderfully expressed, though using different imagery, in the “Good Shepherd” discourse:

“And I hold other sheep, which are not out of [i.e. from] this yard, and it is necessary for me to bring them also, and they (too) will hear my voice, and they will be a single herd [poimnh/], (with) one herder [poimh/n].” (10:16)

It must be emphasized that, though believers may gather (physically) into local communities, the unity spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of John is entirely spiritual—it is truly a universal Community, realized and possible only by and through the presence of the Spirit. It is no coincidence that the giving of the Spirit follows almost directly after the death and resurrection of Jesus (20:21ff), and that this is indicated symbolically in the narrative at the moment of Jesus’ death (19:30):

    • His dying word on the cross: tete/lestai (“it is completed“, vb. tele/w closely related to teleio/w), after which
    • “…he gave along the Spirit” (pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma)

3. How does the final clause of verse 23, with its motif of love, fit into the structure of the section?

Verses 20-23 conclude with a statement that defines unity in terms of love (a)ga/ph)—that is to say, divine love, the love of God, which believers share by way of our union with Christ. This divine love cannot be separated (as an attribute) from the very Presence of God Himself, which believers are joined with by way of the Person of Jesus, through the Spirit. As mentioned above, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, Word, Love and Spirit, are largely synonymous, all three representing the living presence of God the Father and Jesus (the Son). This special meaning of a)ga/ph is seen throughout the Gospel, but especially in the Last Discourse (5:42; 8:42; 13:34-35; 14:15, 21ff; 15:9-13, 17, 19). It is even more prominent in the Letters (42 times, including 36 in 1 John). In 4:8, God Himself is identified as Love, and I mentioned above how believers being “made complete” is understood in terms of this love (2:5; 4:12, 17-18). In many ways, the First Letter takes up where the Last Discourse leaves off, both serving as detailed expositions of the “love commandment” in 13:34-35. The wording in 17:23 summarizes this exposition, but from the standpoint of the Father’s relationship to believers: “you loved them just as you loved me”.

However, according to the syntax of vv. 22-23, this statement is part of the i%na-clause which mentions the world knowing:

“…that they would be completed into one, (so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth, and (that) you loved them even as you loved me.”

The statement of God’s love is part of what the world comes to know:

    • “(so) that the world would know
      • that you sent me forth
      • and (that) you loved them even as you loved me”

Some commentators have struggled with the pronoun “them”, pointing out that, in context, it must refer to the believers (“the ones trusting in me…”) of v. 20, rather than to the immediate subject “the world”. However, according to the interpretation I set forth (cf. the main discussion), here “the world” refers ostensibly to believers—i.e. the Elect/Chosen ones, in the world, who have not yet become believers. This renders the immediate syntax more intelligible: those “in the world” who come to be believers realize the love God the Father has for them, a love that is identified in the person of his Son (Jesus). The wonderful reciprocity that defines both the unity and love which we share, as believers, and expressed here, is supplemented by Jesus’ earlier statement in 14:31:

“…(so) that the world would know that I love the Father, and even as the Father placed (a duty) on me to complete, so I do (it).”

Here the idea of believers “in the world” is less in view; the focus is rather on Jesus’ impending sacrificial death, and the time of darkness which accompanies it. The statement in v. 31 is preceded by an ominous declaration that “the chief/ruler of the world comes”, along with a message of encouragement that “he holds nothing on/in me”. That last phrase could mean “he has no part in me”, or “he holds nothing on me” in the sense of having “no power over me”; probably the latter is intended. In any event, the wording of v. 31a is quite similar to that of the closing words of 17:23—the former mentions Jesus’ love for the Father, the latter the Father’s love for Jesus. The world—everyone in it, not just the elect/believers—can recognize in Jesus’ death his great love for God.

It is the “love commandment” in 13:34-35 which relates more directly to the statement in 17:23:

“A new duty I give to you to complete: that you love each another—just as I loved you, that also you would love each other. In this, all people will know that you are my learners [i.e. disciples], if you hold love among [lit. in/on, e)n] each other.”

There is a similar matrix of thought and language, including the idea that people in the world will know as a result of the unifying love which believers share. Here the sense of believers as an example to the world is more plausible; yet, the emphasis is still squarely on believers and their relationship to Jesus.

If we consider the statements in 13:34-35, 14:31, and 17:23 in sequence, representing a kind of development of thought, it seems to parallel Christian ministry itself:

  • 13:34-35—Believers as ministers, representatives of Christ, in the world
    • Love—We are to love each other according to the example of Jesus (“just as” [kaqw/$] he loved us); his sacrificial death is implicit and fundamental to this love.
    • World’s Response—”All people” recognize this love as a sign that believers are disciples of Jesus, i.e. that they are Christians
  • 14:31—The Gospel message believers proclaim in the world is centered on the sacrificial death of Jesus, which frees us from the power of the world (“ruler of the world”, v. 30)
    • Love—Jesus’ love is embodied in his sacrificial death, and demonstrates his love for God the Father
    • World’s Response—Those in the world, both the Elect and non-elect, can recognize Jesus’ love for God in his sacrificial death
  • 17:23—Believers proclaim the Gospel (the Word), being guided and empowered by the living Word (the Spirit) which unites us with God the Father and Jesus (the Son)
    • Love—As believers we share (“even as” [kaqw/$]) in the same Love which God the Father has for Jesus (the Son); it is not just an attribute of God, but the Presence of God Himself.
    • World’s Response—The Elect/Chosen ones in the world come to know that Jesus is the Son sent by God the Father, and recognize the love which God has for them, uniting them with all other believers.

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