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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Prays for All Who Believe in Him Through the Witness of the Eleven (17:20-24)
Jesus Prays for All Who Believe in Him Through the Witness of the Eleven (17:20-24)

Jesus now prays for all believers that which he has prayed for the eleven (vv. 20, 22a). His ultimate purpose in his requests is that all may be one (vv. 21a, 22b-23a) so, in turn, the world may believe (v. 21b) and know (v. 23b) that the Father sent the Son. Jesus then adds the request that all believers may be with him in heaven to see his glory (v. 24).

Jesus' disciples are described by him as those who will believe in me through their message (v. 20). All later belief, Jesus implies here, is to come through the apostolic word (Alford 1980:880), thereby showing that the apostolic foundation of the church (cf. Mt 16:18; Eph 2:19-20; Rev 21:14) was the will of Christ himself. This Gospel does not speak much of the twelve apostles as such (6:67), but important truths about them are conveyed, especially in the farewell discourse, which is addressed to them. Most importantly, they are the chief witnesses to Jesus (cf. 15:27), as we see here.

What follows is usually seen as the content of Jesus' prayer for all disciples—that all of them may be one (v. 21)—as it is in the NIV. The word that (hina) is used this way quite often, but it also frequently signals purpose. Jesus uses this same language in two other places in this prayer (vv. 11, 22), both times clearly indicating purpose, which suggests he intends this meaning here as well (Ridderbos 1997:559; cf. Alford 1980:880). The content of Jesus' prayer for all believers, then, would be the same as the content of his prayer for the eleven, namely, that they be kept and sanctified by God (vv. 11-19), through God's name (vv. 11-12), word (v. 14) and truth (v. 17), which they have received through Jesus. He now summarizes using yet another parallel term when he says I have given them the glory that you gave me (v. 22; cf. Schnackenburg 1982:192). Like the other terms, glory refers to the revelation of God in all his beauty of being and character. But, also like the other terms, glory is a manifestation of God himself—not just a revelation about him, but his actual presence (cf. Ex 33:18-23). Jesus shares in this glory as the eternal Son (vv. 5, 24), and he has now given (dedoka, perfect tense, another pointer to the eternal perspective of Jesus in this prayer) this glory to his disciples. In part this refers to his revelation of the Father, which he has made known to his disciples; but this revelation brings them the knowledge that is a participation in God's own eternal life (v. 3). Accordingly, Jesus says he has done all of this, here summarized as his giving of the divine glory, in order that they might share in the divine oneness.

In the first century there was a widespread belief among Jews, Greeks and Romans in the unity of humanity. Various sources for this unity were suggested, including the concept of one God, the recognition of one universal human nature, the recognition of a universal law and the notion of one world (Taylor 1992:746-49). Efforts were made to embody this unity. For example, Alexander the Great had set out to unite the inhabited world, and later the Romans picked up the same goal. On a smaller scale, the members of the community at Qumran referred to themselves as "the unity," which included a unity with the angels, thus linking heaven and earth (Beasley-Murray 1987:302). So Jesus' prayer would speak to an issue of great interest, but the oneness he refers to is distinctive in its nature from other notions of unity. It is grounded in the one God, as were some other views of unity (Taylor 1992:746), but also in himself and his own relation with the one God. He claims to offer the unity that many were desiring, but this unity is grounded in his own relation with his Father. Furthermore, he says that the band of disciples there in the room with him is the nucleus of the one unified humanity.

Jesus speaks of the oneness of all believers (that all of them may be one, v. 21) and then links this with the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son. The NIV has this indwelling as the model for the relationship among believers: just as you are in me and I am in you. The word translated just as (kathos) can signal not only comparison but cause. Both of these two meanings are appropriate here, for the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son is both the reason that all may be one and the pattern for such oneness. This becomes clearer when Jesus adds "that they themselves also may be in us" (v. 21; the NIV makes this a new sentence). The oneness of believers is to be found in us, in their relation to the Father and the Son. The same twofold thought occurs when Jesus repeats that they may be one as [kathos] we are one (v. 22). The oneness of the Father and the Son is both the cause of and the model for the believers' unity.

The Father and the Son's oneness has been mentioned earlier (10:30) and has been implicit in all that Jesus has said and done. This oneness includes both a unity of being and a distinctness of person, and it has been seen especially as a oneness of will and love. These are also the characteristics of the oneness that Jesus desires for his disciples to have in their relationship with one another in God. The picture of the relation believers have with one another and with God becomes clear when the various expressions are compared (see figure 1). This oneness is made possible through two types of mutual indwelling—the believers in the Son and the Son in them (14:20; 15:4-5) as well as the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son (10:38; 14:10-11; 17:21). These two types are combined to explain the believers' living in God: on the one hand, the believers are in the Son, who is in the Father (14:20; cf. Col 3:3); on the other hand, the Father is in the Son, who is in the believers (Jn 17:23). The believers' point of contact in both cases is the Son. Nowhere in this Gospel is it said that the Father is in believers or that believers are in the Father. The believers have a mutual indwelling with the Father, but only by the Son, for no one comes to the Father except through the Son (14:6). So the oneness of the Son with the Father is unique (1:14, 18), for Jesus shares in the deity of the Father. But in the Son believers have access to the Father and share in his very life, the eternal life.

Jesus seems to suggest that the actual outworking of the believers' oneness with one another in the Father through the Son is a process that will take some time, for he adds, may they be brought to complete unity (v. 23). More literally, he says, "may they have been perfected into one." The perfect tense is used, suggesting once again Jesus' eternal perspective as he prays. He is speaking, in part, about the oneness that is further perfected as the "other sheep" (10:16) and the "scattered children of God" (11:52) are gathered in. But this oneness must also refer to the oneness that is present throughout the life of the community as the community makes "every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph 4:3), for it is something that the world can notice. So this is a spiritual oneness that comes from God, but it has to do with how the community of believers lives in the world.

Indeed, Jesus says the purpose of this oneness is that the world may believe that you have sent me (v. 21). Such belief is the key response Jesus has received from his disciples (v. 8), so this is a reference to those who are still in the world yet are becoming believers. To believe that the Father sent Jesus is to accept that the Father is as Jesus has revealed him to be and that Jesus is the one way to the Father. When Jesus repeats this purpose he changes the term from believe to know (v. 23), again echoing his earlier description of the disciples (v. 8). Because this knowing is parallel to believing, Jesus does not refer to some mere intellectual recognition of the fact that the Father sent the Son, but rather to the knowledge that is eternal life (v. 3).

Thus, the disciples are sent on mission just as Jesus was sent (v. 18), and the very purpose of their life together is to bear witness to the Father and the Son. This oneness flows from a common life that is characterized chiefly by love, and thus the world will see that the Father has loved the disciples as he has loved the Son (v. 23). In other words, the amazing transcendent love evident between the Father and the Son is not an exclusive glory that humans must be content only to admire from afar. The love the Father has for Jesus is the same love he has for believers, indeed for the whole world (3:16). For "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8, 16), and "there is only one love of God" (Brown 1970:772). The believers are to embody this love and thereby provide living proof of God's gracious character, which is his mercy, love and truth. They will be an advertisement, inviting people to join in this union with God. The love of God evident in the church is a revelation that there is a welcome awaiting those who will quit the rebellion and return home. Here is the missionary strategy of this Gospel—the community of disciples, indwelt with God's life and light and love, witnessing to the Father in the Son by the Spirit by word and deed, continuing to bear witness as the Son has done.

A great deal has been written about this passage regarding the meaning and implications of this oneness for the church (cf. Staton 1997). The main points in the text seem to be that this oneness is a spiritual reality, derived from sharing in the divine life of the Father and the Son and embodied in a particular community of human beings such that it can be evident to unbelievers. In other words, it is a sacrament, a reality in the human sphere participating in the divine sphere. So this is not simply some invisible church, although the actual institutional structure of this community is not discussed beyond the reference to the apostles' word (v. 20). The actual lack of unity among Christians throughout history, both between groups of Christians and within groups, tempts a believer to despair and holds Christ up to contempt by the world. Jesus' prayer shows that there can be no oneness apart from him, yet Christians disagree on who Jesus is and how one is to relate to him! This oneness clearly must come from God and is not something people of goodwill can manufacture. It is predicated on sharing in the divine glory (v. 22) and name (v. 26). Oneness can only come through being born from above, hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and accepting the witness of the Paraclete, thereby revealing the glory of the Father within history.

This oneness is to take place in history in order that the world can continue to be confronted with a witness to the Father. Jesus' last petition, however, looks beyond this life to heaven (v. 24). Jesus is returning to the Father, and now he prays for those you have given me, repeating again the fact that these are his disciples only because of the Father's will (cf. vv. 2, 6, 9). This expression is more literally translated as "that which you have given me," another use of the neuter singular to speak of his disciples as a unit (see note on v. 2; cf. 6:37, 39; perhaps 10:29), which is particularly appropriate after his referring to their oneness. But the band of disciples is not a faceless group; it is composed of beloved individuals who each are indwelt by the Son (15:5), and so he immediately uses the masculine plural pronoun for them (kakeinoi; left out of the NIV). In this way the grammar captures both the oneness of the community and the distinct individuals within the one community.

He whose will is one with God's will now expresses that will when he says I want. What he wants is this community of individuals to be with him where he is. So those who are "in" him are also to be "with" him, again recognizing the distinction of persons. Union with God is not homogenization. Jesus' request that they be with him raises interesting questions, since as divine Son he is present everywhere (cf. Augustine In John 111.2). But the connection with Jesus' earlier teaching about returning to take them to be with him where he is (14:1-3) suggests strongly he is referring to heaven. This being the case, his prayer takes in the whole span of the believers' life, from then on into eternity. Specifically, he wants them to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. We have already seen his glory (v. 22; 1:14; cf. 2 Cor 3:18; 4:6), but there is a yet more complete vision of his glory awaiting believers. John later says that at his coming "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3:2; cf. Col 3:4). What begins at his second coming will continue on, for Jesus is talking not about his coming itself but about that which takes place afterwards. He has promised Peter, and, through him, his other disciples that they will follow him later (13:36), and here is what they will meet, the glory of the Lord—the glory that comes from the Father, who is the source of all, and that is a gift of love. That which Jesus has revealed in his earthly ministry is a mere glimpse of an eternal reality that existed before creation. In his prayer, Jesus has been speaking of the future from an eternal perspective. Here in his final petition he looks on ahead to the ultimate future.

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