“Gnosis” in the NT: John 17:3

John 17:3

Today’s note, supplemental to the current series “Gnosis and the New Testament” will examine the statement in John 17:3, perhaps the most explicitly “gnostic”-sounding declaration in the entire New Testament:

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

A question to be addressed right away is whether this statement is part of the actual words of Jesus in his prayer-discourse of chapter 17 or is an explanatory statement by the author of the Gospel (and/or his source). The specific reference to “Yeshua (the) Anointed” (Jesus Christ) strongly suggests the latter. If so, then the author/editor is specifically clarifying Jesus’ words in verse 2:

“Even as you [i.e. the Father] have given to him [i.e. the Son] authority o(ver) all flesh, (so) that (for) every (one) that you have given him, he should give to them life of-the-Age [i.e. eternal life].”

However, it is often difficult to know for certain where or when an author/editor’s comment could be interrupting the words of Jesus. This is especially true for the discourses of Jesus in John, which demonstrate an intricate blending of Jesus’ own words with an interpretive layer which gives added meaning and significance to his words. The discourse in 3:1-21 is another good example; commentators continue to debate whether Jesus’ words as such end with verse 15 or continue on through 21 (note also the wording in v. 11); similarly, whether John the Baptist’s word end at verse 30 or continue through v. 36. I see little (if any) substantial difference with regard to the meaning of 17:3, whether it represents the actual words of Jesus or a comment by the author, since, as noted above, the discourses of Jesus in John consistently seem to blend these two components throughout, so that Jesus’ own words are enhanced by a level of interpretation.

In the prior study on John 8:32, I mentioned the format or pattern which makes up the discourses of Jesus in John. This applies also to the great chain of discourses in chapters 13-17, with the exception of chapter 17, which is uniquely a kind of monologue, which I would qualify as a prayer-discourse. Here, Jesus is addressing God (the Father) in the presence of his followers, much as we see in 11:41-42. It serves as a perfect and exalted climax to the discourse(s) of chs. 13-17. It is so deep and rich in its structure and language, that no single outline will be entirely satisfactory; here, I have followed, with some modification, the outline offered by R. E. Brown (in his Anchor Bible [AB] commentary [Vol. 29A, p. 749], based on the earlier work of A. Laurentin):

    • Narrative setting (v. 1a)
    • Prologue—saying/statement (vv. 1b-3)
      —”Response” (v. 3)
    • Refrain:
      (a) Jesus’ relationship with the Father: the pre-existent glory (vv. 4-5)
      (b) Jesus has shone forth (manifest) the Father’s name (v. 6)
    • Part 1—Prayer/petition (vv. 7-12)
    • Part 2—Prayer/petition (vv. 13-23)
    • Refrain:
      (a) Jesus’ relationship with the Father: the pre-existent glory (vv. 24)
      (b) Jesus has shone forth (manifest) the Father’s name (vv. 25-26)

(Cf. also my study on chapter 17 in the Monday “Notes on Prayer” series)

The initial prayer statement in vv. 1-2 functions in a manner similar to the saying of Jesus with opens the great discourses (cf. 8:31-32 and the prior study). The statement in verse 3 (cf. above) could be said to function like the response by Jesus’ hearers in the discourses, except that here it reflects the understanding and faith of believers, rather than the misunderstanding (and unbelief) of those hearing his words. The “refrain” of vv. 4-6 (followed again in vv. 24-26), contains two great themes (and keywords) of chapter 17: (1) do/ca (“honor, splendor, glory”) and (2) fanero/w (“shine [forth], cause to appear, [make] manifest”). Another important word is the verb di/dwmi (“give”) which occurs 17 times in the chapter. It has a two-fold meaning—(a) that which the Father has given to the Son, and (b) what the Son has given to believers. Interestingly it is the believers who are at the heart of what God the Father has given to the Son, creating a reciprocal relationship—Father-Son-Believers—involving an intricate and repetitive language. The central portion of the prayer-discourse I also divide here into two parts (vv. 7-12, 13-23), each with a similar structure (cf. Brown, p. 749); each part:

    • begins with the particle nu=n (“now…”), and then contains, in turn:
    • a pronouncement (7-8, 13-14)
    • a main petition (9, 15ff)
    • reference to glory (10, 22)
    • reference to unity (11, 21-23)

There is a kind of logical chain running through the prayer:

    • The pre-existent glory (do/ca) which the Son and Father shared
    • –Believers were given to the Son
    • ––The Son came into the world from the Father
    • –––The Son shines forth the Father’s name (making it known) to believers
    • ––––The Son glorifies the Father in this work
    • –––––The death/resurrection/exaltation of the Son
    • ––––The Father glorifies the Son
    • –––Believers will make the Son and Father (His name) known to others
    • ––Believers remain in the world
    • –Believers are one (united) with the Son
    • Believers will inherit the glory shared by Father and Son, and so be one (united) with them both

It is important to read the statement in verse 3 in light of the overall context and structure of the prayer-discourse. The Son gives to the chosen ones (believers) the life-of-the-Age, i.e. life of the Age-to-Come, which ultimately means eternal life with God and Christ in Heaven. How is this life given to believers? This is expressed in various ways, with different images, throughout the Gospel, but here, as in 8:31ff, it is perhaps best understood in terms of the word(s) (logo$, r(hma[ta]) which Jesus “speaks”—cf. especially the statements in Jn 5:24 and 6:63 (also v. 68). The expression “word(s) of life”, along with the same underlying association, in relation to the Gospel message (of Christ), is also found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 5:20; 13:46, 48; Phil 2:16; 1 John 1:1). It is clear from the discourses of Jesus in John that this “word” does not simply represent the sayings and teachings of Jesus, but the presence of Christ himself, as the Son (of God) and living Word who reveals and manifests the Father (his name). Further, it is certainly to be identified also with the (Holy) Spirit, as indicated specifically in Jn 6:63. In chapters 14-16, the Spirit (Paraclete) is said to function effectively as the abiding presence of Christ in and with the believer (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:13ff; cf. also 20:22).

It is now time to look a bit more closely at the statement in 17:3, which I will do in the next study.

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