John 17:20-23, continued
Line 4: John 17:21d, 23c
The fourth line of the parallel stanzas in John 17:21-23 (cf. the prior note on the stanza-outline) is perhaps the most difficult to interpret. A correct understanding hinges on how one interprets the key Johannine vocabulary, in context.
- “(so) that the world might trust that you se(n)t me forth” (v. 21d)
i%na o( ko/smo$ pisteu/h| o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$
- “(so) that the world might know that you se(n)t me forth” (v. 23c)
i%na ginw/skh| o( ko/smo$ o%ti su/ me a)pe/steila$
- “(so) that the world might trust that you se(n)t me forth” (v. 21d)
The two statements are nearly identical, differing only in the specific verb—pisteu/w (“trust”) vs. ginw/skw (“know”); however, in the Gospel of John these two verbs, as applied to believers in Christ, are more or less synonymous.
The first point of difficulty is the the opening particle i%na. This is the third i%na-clause in the stanza (along with lines 1 & 3), but there is some question whether the force of the clause is the same. In other words, does it again re-state Jesus’ primary request to the Father (lines 1 &3), or does it represent a subordinate purpose/result clause (i.e. “so that…”)? Most commentators understand it here in the latter sense, and this is probably (more or less) correct. However, a careful study of the remainder of the line can provide some clarity on this point.
The main difficulty involves the use of the noun ko/smo$ (“world, world-order”), truly a distinctive Johannine term, as more than half (102) of all New Testament occurrences (186) are in the Gospel (78) and Letters (24) of John. More to the point, it occurs 44 times in the Passion Narrative (chaps. 13-19), including 20 in the last Discourse (13:31-16:33) and 18 in the chap. 17 Prayer-Discourse (nearly a tenth of all NT occurrences in a single chapter). A certain amount of confusion arises due to the fact that the word is used on two different levels, one neutral, and the other decidedly negative:
- Neutral—the inhabited world, in a geographic and social sense
- Negative—the current order of things in the (inhabited) world, dominated by darkness and sin
More often that not, in the Johannine writings, the negative aspect is in view, including throughout the Last Discourse and Prayer-Discourse. There is a strong dualistic contrast, between the ko/smo$ and God, with the world in opposition to God the Father and His Son Jesus; as such, the world is also hostile and opposed to believers as well. The relation of believers to the “world” dominates much of chapters 13-17. Indeed, this contrast is perhaps most clear in the Prayer-Discourse; at the same time, there are numerous instances of the neutral sense of the term ko/smo$, including some wordplay involving both meanings. In this regard, you should study all the prior occurrences (14, in vv. 5-6, 9, 11, 13-16, 18) closely.
Given the strong negative aspect of the term ko/smo$, its use here in vv. 21, 23 is a bit puzzling. On the one hand, the world is opposed to Christ and his followers, being so separate, indeed, that Jesus states bluntly that he does not pray for the world (v. 9), but only for his disciples (believers). Now, however, he seems to be expressing the wish, or request, that the world may come to trust/know him as the Son sent by the Father. How is this to be understood? There are three main possibilities:
- It reflects the genuine wish of Jesus that all (people in) the world would come to trust in him, even though many (perhaps the majority) ultimately will not.
- It implies the opposite side of trust/knowledge—while it leads to salvation for the elect/believers, it results in judgment for the rest of the world.
- Here ko/smo$ properly signifies believers in world.
While there is some truth in the first two approaches, in my view only the third does full justice to the Johannine theological vocabulary and the overall message of the Discourses. The first approach could be seen as supported, for example, by the use of ko/smo$ in 3:16ff; however, the reduction of this passage as an expression of evangelistic optimism is largely the result of reading vv. 16-17 out of context (a close study of vv. 18-21 helps clarify their proper meaning). At the same time, some validation of the second approach above might be seen in the way that the verbs pisteu/w (“trust”) and ginw/skw (“know”) are used in 7:28ff; 8:31(?); 10:38; 12:42-43—the passages imply that there can be level of trust/knowledge of Jesus which ultimately does not result in one being a true believer. On the same sort of ambiguity involving the idea of seeing (i.e., = knowing), cf. 4:48; 6:36; 9:39ff; 15:24, etc; 20:25-29—seeing/knowing Jesus, at this level, does not necessarily result in genuine (saving) trust.
In spite of these parallels, I would still maintain that the third option above best fits the context of the Johannine Discourses (esp. the Last Discourse and Prayer-Discourse). Here, by “the world”, Jesus means the elect in the world who have not yet come to trust in him. This gives to the general inclusive request (regarding “all” believers, vv. 20-21a) a more precise global significance—i.e. all those who will become believers, throughout the world (cp. Mark 13:10 par; Matt 28:19 etc; also Jn 10:16; 11:52). This maintains the proper sense of the verbs pisteu/w and ginw/skw, as referring to genuine trust/knowledge in Jesus that results in union with him. The definition of this trust/knowledge, in terms of Jesus as the one (i.e. the Son) sent forth (vb a)poste/llw) from the Father, makes clear that he is speaking of the true, saving trust/knowledge that allows one to experience eternal life (5:24, 38; 6:29, 57; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44-45; 13:20; 15:21; and, in the Prayer-Discourse, vv. 3, 8).
But if this is so, how does the unity of believers result in (or have as its purpose) others coming to trust in Jesus throughout the world? This must be understood in light of verse 20 and the narrative context of the Prayer-Discourse. Until the disciples come together again (after being scattered, 16:32), as one, and receive the unifying presence of the Spirit (20:19-22), they are not able to proclaim the Gospel message to others. Their commission by Jesus (20:21, 23) is tied closely to their receipt of the Spirit (20:22), as also in the Lukan tradition (Lk 24:47-49; Acts 1:8; 2:1-4ff). Following this same pattern, all others (of the Elect) who come to trust in Jesus, do so in response to the Gospel message as proclaimed/presented by those who are already believers, united together in the Spirit and Love of God. In other words, this unity is integral to the Gospel message, which cannot truly be proclaimed without it.
In lines 1 and 3, I translated the subjunctive verb forms as “would be one”, etc. The subjunctive here in line 4 could be rendered similarly (“would know”, “would trust”); however, I have decided to alter the translation slightly, as “might know/trust”, so as to preserve something of the idea, otherwise expressed (to some extent) in 3:16-17, of Jesus’ inclusive wish that the world (as a whole) might be saved. It is, however, only the elect in the world who can (and will) become believers. The traditional/customary religious idea of “conversion” (from a life of sin, etc) is generally foreign to the Gospel of John (with the main example, in 8:2-11, likely not part of the original Gospel). Instead, there is a strong emphasis on what we would call election or predestination—those who come to trust in Jesus do so because they already belong to God. These elect “in the world” are living in the world, but do not belong to it; rather, they belong to God. This is a key theme of the Prayer-Discourse (vv. 2, 6, 9, 14, 16, 25), as well as elsewhere in the Gospel. This context for the emphasis on unity in vv. 20ff was established earlier in verse 11:
“And I am no longer in the world, and (yet) they are in the world, and I come toward You. Holy Father, may you keep watch over them in the name you have given to me, that they would be one, just as we (are).”