Believers and the World (John 17:20-23)

This is a follow-up article to the discussion on verses 20-23 of the Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17 (part of a Monday Notes on Prayer series). It is necessary to examine the use of the word ko/smo$ (“world”) in the concluding phrase of the two (parallel) strophes that make up this section:

“(so) that the world would trust that you se(n)t me forth”
i%na o( ko/smo$ pisteu/h| o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$ (v. 21d)
“(so) that the world would know that you se(n)t me forth…”
i%na ginw/skh| o( ko/smo$ o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$
“…(and) that you loved them just as you loved me.” (v. 23c-d)

Jesus has been praying on behalf of believers, but now suddenly he shifts to the response of the “world”. There is some question as to the syntactical place of these two i%na-clauses, whether they are parallel to the prior i%na-clauses in each strophe (see the earlier discussion), or represent a subordinate result clause. In the first view, the world’s trusting/knowing would be part of the unity of believers in Jesus’ request; according to the second view, it is the result of the unity shared by believers. I consider the latter to be more likely, and more in keeping with the thought of the Prayer, and have rendered the conjunctive particle i%na to reflect this (i.e., “so that…”).

However, this reference to the “world” (ko/smo$) raises a problem. All throughout the Prayer, as well as the Last Discourse, and, indeed, the Gospel of John as a whole (with but few exceptions), the expression “the world” (o( ko/smo$) designates a realm of sin and darkness which is opposed to God and hostile to Christ; moreover, Jesus warns his disciples (and future believers), that, as long as they are living in the world, it will remain hostile to them (cf. 14:17, 22, 30; 15:18-25; 16:33; 17:9ff). This has been discussed repeatedly in the previous notes on chapter 17. Now, suddenly, Jesus speaks of the world trusting and knowing. How are we to understand this? There are several possible answers to this question:

1. It refers to a different kind (or level) of trust and knowledge, one which shows awareness of Jesus’ divine origins, but does not indicate true trust and knowledge. In traditional religious terms, we might refer to this as faith (of sorts), but not saving faith. There is some precedence for this in the Gospel of John. On several occasions, the populace at large (including Jesus’ opponents) are said to “trust” or “know”, but without any definite indication that they are true, committed believers (7:28ff; 8:30-31 [compare with the discourse that follows]; 11:45ff; 12:43-44). However, throughout the Gospel, the verbs pisteu/w (“trust”) and ginw/skw (“know”) are overwhelmingly used to characterize true believers, being used almost interchangeably. Even more to the point, the emphasis on Jesus as one “sent forth” (vb. a)poste/llw) by the Father serves as a shorthand for (true) trust/belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (see esp. verse 3 of the Prayer).

2. An interpretation more in keeping with the portrait of “the world” as hostile to God and unable to accept the truth, is to read the subjunctive verb forms (“might trust”, “might know”) as indicating a possibility which, for the most part, will not be realized. In this view, the missionary work of the disciples serves as a challenge to the world which leads, not to true faith, but to judgment for their inability (and/or unwillingness) to accept the truth. This preserves the contrast between believers and the world, which Jesus states unequivocally again in verse 25. The theme of Judgment is certainly present in the Last Discourse (14:30 [cf. 12:31]; 15:22ff; 16:8-11, 33), but is generally absent from the Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17, and, it must be said, is quite foreign to the thought of verses 20-23.

3. A simple reading of the phrases, taking the words at face value, might suggest that Jesus is speaking of the wicked/sinners in the world being converted to faith by the witness of believers. This is a common enough Christian outlook which continues to inform missionary work and evangelistic preaching today. It is certainly present in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel context of Luke-Acts, where an emphasis on repentance and forgiveness of sin is an essential component of the Apostolic message (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30, etc). However, it is almost entirely absent from the Johannine writings. Apart from the episode in 7:53-8:11 (which likely was not part of the original Gospel), it is hard to find any examples referring to the conversion of sinners (5:14 is a rare instance, perhaps drawn from the wider Gospel tradition). Admittedly, some key passages in the Gospels have been understood this way (most notably 3:16-17), but only when taken somewhat out of context from the rest of the Gospel of John.

4. An interpretation closer to the mark would again be to understand the subjunctives as “might trust” / “might know”, but in the sense of “might be able to trust”, etc. In other words, through the work and Gospel of Jesus, the world is freed from the power of sin, and has the ability to accept Christ. This does not mean that all in the world will accept—indeed many (perhaps most) will not—however, they are no longer prevented from doing so by the power of evil (and the Evil One) at work in the world. As appealing as this view might be, it reflects a universalism that, I would maintain, is foreign to the Gospel of John. By “universalism” I do not mean it in an absolute or final sense (i.e. “everyone will be saved”), but in a qualified sense related to the human will (i.e. “everyone is able to be saved”). In classical theological terms, the contrast is between a universal and limited application of the atoning work of Jesus. It would be anachronistic to use either label in the case of the Johannine writings; however, it seems abundantly clear that the Gospel, in particular, evinces a strong view of what we would call Election/Predestination—i.e. believers come to Christ because they already belong to God, being “born” of God and “chosen” by Him beforehand (1:12-13; 3:21; 6:37ff, 44-45, 64-65ff; 8:42-47; 10:3-5, 14ff, 27-29; 18:37, etc). To be sure, through Christ’s work, believers are freed from the power of sin and darkness in the world (1:5; 8:12, 31-32; 12:35-36, 46; 14:30; 16:33, etc); however, from the standpoint of Johannine theology, they never really belonged to the world in the first place—they were “in” the world, but not “of” it. This is a central theme in the Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 (vv. 2, 6, 9, 11ff).

In my view, a proper understanding of the phrases in question requires a close examination of the usage of the expression o( ko/smo$ (“the world”), beginning here in chapter 17, and widening out to the Last Discourse, the Gospel as a whole, and, finally to the Letters of John for comparison. Such a study is beyond the scope of this article; however, let us at least summarize the language and usage in the Last Discourse and the Prayer. Overall, in spite of some wordplay, o( ko/smo$ is part of a dualistic contrast—i.e. Jesus/Spirit/Believers vs. the World. A few points of detail:

    • The world is unable to receive the Spirit, and also unable to receive the Truth (“Spirit of Truth”) (14:17; 17:25); similarly, the world cannot “see” (i.e. recognize, accept) Jesus (14:19ff; 16:28)
    • The Spirit will judge/convict the world of its sin, this sin being that it does not trust in Jesus (16:8-11)
    • The world is contrasted with Jesus in the person of its chief/ruler (presumably to be identified with the Satan/Devil), a person (and/or personification) embodying evil. This “Ruler of the World”, and, the world itself, has no power over Jesus (14:30; 16:11, 33), who, in turn, has the power to remove believers from the world, i.e. freeing and protecting them from sin and evil (15:19; 17:15)
    • The world hates both Jesus and his disciples (believers), being hostile to them and persecuting them, etc (15:19; 16:20, 33)
    • Believers are not “of” (lit. “out of”, i.e. “from”) the world; rather, they are “of” God, belonging to the Father (14:19ff; 17:6ff, 16), and this is the reason for the world’s hatred of them (15:19; 17:14-15). The Father has given believers to Jesus, who, in turn, sends the Spirit to protect them in his place (14:26; 15:26; 16:7ff; 17:6, 9)
    • There is a clear contrast between the realm of the world (below) and that of the Father (above) (14:27; 16:28; 17:16ff)

Now let us look specifically at the way believers are contrasted with “the world” in chapter 17. In particular, there is an interplay of two expressions: “out of the world” (e)k tou= ko/smou) and “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|):

    • Believers are “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense that they/we do not belong to it; rather, they/we belong to God (vv. 6, 9). If believers, like Jesus, are “out of” the world, then it means that they/we are truly not “in [e)n]” it (v. 11).
      • In a secondary, but related, sense, God gave the disciples (believers) to Jesus “out of” the world (v. 6); this refers specifically to their/our coming to be believers in Christ.
    • The exact same point can be made, saying that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world”, meaning that they/we do not come from it—their/our true origins are from God (vv. 14, 16)
    • Yet it is also said that believers are not “out of [e)k] the world” in the sense they/we are still living on earth and, more importantly, must face the evil and hostility that dominates the world; in this sense, believers are “in [e)n] the world” (vv. 11, 13, 15)
      • Jesus’ ministry on behalf of believers relates to their being “in the world”: he speaks to them, giving them his word, “in the world” (v. 13), and sends them, as his representatives, out “in(to) the world” (v. 18)

Now, let us consider how this relates to the wording in vv. 21, 23. If we piece together the evidence in the Prayer, we can discern three key points:

    • Believers (the Elect) do not belong to the world (i.e. are not “of” it), but come from God
    • Yet believers remain living “in” the world, in the face of its darkness and evil
    • When believers are “given” by the Father to Jesus (the Son), they/we are taken “out of” the world and come to be believers in Christ

Thus, it would seem, when Jesus speaks of “the world” trusting and knowing as a result of the disciples’ (believers’) ministry, etc, it must be understood in light of the three points outlined above. In other words, here “the world” signifies the Elect/Chosen ones living in the world who have not yet come to be believers in Jesus. The same situation is described, though in different terms, in 10:16, where Jesus speaks of “other sheep”; of them he says that “it is necessary for me to bring/lead (them)”. And, from where does he, the herdsman, bring them? The answer is given here—from out of the world. The call, the sending out of the shepherd’s voice, is done through the work of other believers (“…trusting in me through their word”, v. 20), led and directed by the Spirit. I should say that the other universal-sounding statements in the Gospels, referring to the saving/salvation of “the world”, are best understood in this light as well (cf. 1:7, 29; 3:16-17; 6:33, 51; 12:32, 47).

If the above interpretation is indeed correct, there still remain three questions which I feel need 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 in to the structure of the section?

I will look at each of these briefly in the continuation of this article.

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