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Bible Commentaries
John 17

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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C. Jesus’ high priestly prayer ch. 17

This part of Jesus’ private ministry has many connections with the preceding Upper Room Discourse. In the Old Testament, prayers often accompanied important farewell discourses (cf. Genesis 49; Deuteronomy 32-33). The main theme is Jesus’ desire for the Father’s glory and the disciples’ welfare. However many of the other themes that have run though this Gospel reach a new climax here too. These themes include Jesus’ obedience to the Father, the revelation of God through the Son, the calling of the disciples out of the world, their mission, their unity, and their destiny. [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 551.]

The similarities between the content of this prayer and the Upper Room Discourse, plus John’s notation at its end (John 18:1), seem to indicate that Jesus prayed it before He entered Gethsemane. He probably prayed it in the upper room, [Note: Edersheim, 2:513.] though He may have done so somewhere else in Jerusalem.

"Whether He prayed it in the Upper Room or en route to the Garden, this much is sure: it is the greatest prayer ever prayed on earth and the greatest prayer recorded anywhere in Scripture. John 17 is certainly the ’holy of holies’ of the Gospel record, and we must approach this chapter in a spirit of humility and worship." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:367.]

Though labeling this prayer "Jesus’ high priestly prayer" is a bit misleading, I know of no better way to describe it. Obviously Jesus had not yet entered into His high priestly ministry, which He began when He ascended into heaven, when He prayed this prayer (cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1). This prayer, nevertheless, represents a foretaste of that intercessory ministry.

"We so often understand this prayer as though it were rather gloomy. It is not. It is uttered by One who has just affirmed that he has overcome the world (John 16:33), and it starts from this conviction. Jesus is looking forward to the cross, but in a mood of hope and joy, not one of despondency." [Note: Morris, p. 634.]

Verse 1

"These things Jesus spoke" (NASB, Gr. tauta elalesen Iesous) clearly connects what follows with what Jesus had just been saying (cf. John 14:25; John 16:1; John 16:4; John 16:25; John 16:33). Lifting up the eyes to heaven indicated prayer, as did Jesus’ words (cf. Psalms 121:1; Psalms 123:1; Ezekiel 33:25; Daniel 4:34; John 11:41). Perhaps John included the detail of Jesus lifting His eyes toward heaven to help the reader visualize His continuing submission to His Father.

The title "Father" was, of course, Jesus’ common way of referring to God’s relationship to Himself (John 11:41; John 12:27; cf. John 17:5; John 17:11; John 17:21; John 17:24-25). The hour in view was the hour of the Son’s glorification through death, resurrection, and ascension (cf. John 2:4; John 7:6; John 7:8; John 7:30; John 8:20; John 12:23; John 12:27-28; John 12:31-32; John 13:1; John 13:31). The inevitability of an impending event did not lead Jesus simply to accept it fatalistically. This is how some believers respond in similar situations. Instead it moved Him to petition the Father that what was coming would result in God’s glory.

"As so often in Scripture, emphasis on God’s sovereignty functions as an incentive to prayer, not a disincentive." [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., pp. 554-5.]

Jesus asked His Father to glorify Him so He could glorify the Father. To glorify in this context means to clothe in splendor (cf. John 17:5). The only way this could happen was for Jesus to endure the Cross. Thus this petition is a testimony to Jesus’ commitment to do the Father’s will even to the point of dying on the cross. His request for glory, therefore, was unselfish. It amounted to a request for the reversal of the conditions that resulted in the Incarnation (cf. Philippians 2:6-11). Jesus requested God’s help (i.e., grace) in His sufferings, His sacrificial death, His resurrection, and His ascension. All of this was ultimately for the glory of the Father. It would magnify His wisdom, power, and love.

Verses 1-5

1. Jesus’ requests for Himself 17:1-5

Verse 2

The Father had glorified the Son by giving Him the authority to give eternal life to all individuals whom the Father had given to the Son (cf. Matthew 28:18). The Father had given Him this authority before Creation (cf. Psalms 2). It was the basis for Jesus’ request in John 17:1. Both John 17:2-3 are explanatory and consequently somewhat parenthetical. Jesus referred to believers as those whom the Father had given Him five times in this prayer (John 17:2; John 17:6 [twice], 9, 24).

Verse 3

Jesus proceeded to define the nature of eternal life. Eternal life is essentially knowing (Gr. ginoskosin, cf. Genesis 4:1 LXX; Matthew 1:25) God experientially through faith in His Son (cf. John 3:5; Jeremiah 31:34; Habakkuk 2:14; Hebrews 8:11). Jesus described it in terms of relationship rather than duration. Everyone will live forever somewhere. However the term "eternal life" as Jesus used it means much more than long life.

"Life is active involvement with environment; death is the cessation of involvement with the environment, whether it be physical or personal. The highest kind of life is involvement with the highest kind of environment. A worm is content to live in soil; we need not only the wider environment of earth, sea, and sky but also contact with other human beings. For the complete fulfillment of our being, we must know God. This, said Jesus, constitutes eternal life. Not only is it endless, since the knowledge of God would require an eternity to develop fully, but qualitatively it must exist in an eternal dimension." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 162.]

Jesus described the Father here as the only true God. He is knowable only through Jesus Christ whom He sent (cf. John 1:18; Matthew 11:27). We sometimes say that it is a blessing and an inspiration to know certain people. This is all the more true when we know God. Knowing Him changes us and introduces us into a different quality of living. [Note: Morris, p. 637.]

Verses 4-5

Jesus had glorified the Father by all that He had done in His incarnation. Jesus probably intended to include His death, resurrection, and ascension, to which He referred proleptically here (cf. John 19:30). Jesus’ crucifixion was a foregone certainty because of His commitment to do the Father’s will (Philippians 2:8). Now He asked the Father to glorify the Son by all that the Father would do in exalting the Son. Thus Jesus essentially restated the request of John 17:1. He wanted to return to the condition in which He existed with His Father before His incarnation. This request presupposes Jesus’ preexistence with the Father and His equality with the Father (John 10:30). Really Jesus requested His own glorification.

Verse 6

Jesus viewed these disciples as those whom God had given to Him out of the world (cf. John 6:37; John 15:19), not as those who had chosen to follow Him. This viewpoint accounts for Jesus’ confidence as He anticipated their future. They belonged to God, and God would therefore protect them. Jesus had revealed God to them. The name of God summarizes everything about Him (cf. Exodus 3:13-15; Isaiah 52:6). Manifesting the name of God to people means revealing His essential nature to them. The Eleven had kept God’s word by believing on and following Jesus even though they were not consistently obedient.

Verses 6-11

The bases for these requests 17:6-11a

Verses 6-19

2. Jesus’ requests for the Eleven 17:6-19

Jesus’ glorification depended on the wellbeing of those whom the Father had given to Him (John 17:2). Consequently Jesus prayed for them too. He made several requests for them but first expressed the reasons He was praying for them and why He wanted the Father to grant His requests.

The length of this section of the prayer suggests that Jesus had greater concern for His disciples’ welfare than for His own.

"Jesus prayed for His disciples before He chose them (Luke 6:12), during His ministry (John 6:15), at the end of His ministry (Luke 22:32), here (John 17:6-19), and later in heaven (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25)." [Note: Blum, p. 331.]

Moreover in view of their weaknesses, they were in great need of God’s grace to sustain them in the future. It was God’s keeping power rather than their strength that made Jesus’ confident as He prayed for them.

Verses 7-8

There was much that the Eleven did not yet understand, but they did believe that Jesus had come from God and that His utterances (Gr. rhemata) were God’s words. Commendably they accepted Jesus’ teachings even though they did not understand them fully, and what they understood they believed. Jesus’ unusual phrasing stresses His unity with the Father.

"As long as we stay with the figure of the Galilean Jesus (perhaps romanticizing over the beauty of his holiness and lowliness) so long we miss what really matters. What is central is that all that we see in him is of God. It is not so much the Man of Galilee as the eternal God on whom our attention should rest." [Note: Morris, p. 641.]

Verses 9-10

Because the Eleven had believed on Him Jesus made request for them, not for the world, at this point. The basis for that request was that these disciples belonged to God, so their welfare was His special interest. Those who belong to the Father belong equally to the Son. Thus Jesus claimed equal concern for the Eleven with the Father. This is another claim of equality with the Father. Glory had come to Jesus through the faith of the Eleven, as it had not come from the world.

Verse 11

The title "Holy Father" appears only here in the fourth Gospel and is a reminder of both aspects of God’s nature. It balances ideas of ultimate purity with intimate paternity and so prepares for what lies ahead, namely, the need for loving sanctification (John 17:17-19). The Father’s holiness serves as a model for the holiness of disciples (cf. Leviticus 11:44; Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16). The reason Jesus and disciples can be holy is that the Father is holy.

Jesus asked His Father to keep these disciples "in your name" (Gr. en to onomati sou). The NIV interpreted this phrase to mean "by the power of your name" (cf. Psalms 20:1; Psalms 54:1; Proverbs 18:10). [Note: Bruce, p. 332.] However the preposition en may be locative instead of instrumental in mood. In that case the idea would be "keep them in your name," meaning keep them loyal to you. [Note: Lindars, p. 524.] Some commentators argued that both ideas were in Jesus’ mind. [Note: E.g., Brown, 2:759.] The context favors the second view. Loyalty seems to be the objective of the keeping and the dominant idea, not the means to it, namely, the Father’s power. The name that the Father had given to the Son probably refers to the revelation of God’s character that Jesus had manifested (John 17:6-8; cf. John 1:18; John 14:9).

The ultimate end of God keeping these disciples loyal to the revelation that Jesus had given them was that they might experience unity. They would be one with one another as well as one with the Son and the Father if they remained loyal to Jesus’ revelations. Projecting this idea further we can see that the Scriptures are the basis for the unity of believers with one another and with God.

Verses 11-16

The request for protection 17:11-16

Verse 12

Jesus had kept these disciples loyal to God and had protected them from external attacks while He was with them. The only exception was Judas Iscariot who was always the traitor that the Old Testament had predicted would betray the Messiah (Psalms 41:9; Psalms 69:25; Psalms 109:6-8; cf. John 13:18). His defection did not prove Jesus a failure but Scripture trustworthy. Jesus did not include Judas in His requests for the Eleven.

The term "son of perdition" (Gr. ho huios tes apoleias, NIV "the one doomed to destruction") could describe Judas’ character (cf. Isaiah 57:4) or his destiny (Psalms 35:4-8). He had a damnable character and would end in perdition, but the second idea seems to be stronger in the context. Perdition in the New Testament usually refers to eschatological damnation (cf. Matthew 7:13; Acts 8:20; Romans 9:22; Philippians 1:28; Philippians 3:19; 1 Timothy 6:9; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 17:8; Revelation 17:11).

The only other occurrence of the title "son of perdition" occurs concerning the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3). This fact has led some interpreters to conclude that the Antichrist will be the resurrected Judas Iscariot. However, God will not resurrect unbelievers until the end of the millennium (Revelation 20:11-15), but the Antichrist will appear and carry out his work during the Tribulation that will precede the millennium (cf. Revelation 13:1-10; Revelation 19:19-21).

Verse 13

Jesus had protected the Eleven while He was with them in the world, but now He was about to leave them and return to the Father. Therefore He gave these teachings and offered these petitions that they might share the fullness of His joy after He had departed (cf. John 15:11; John 16:22; John 16:24).

Verse 14

The revelations and teachings that Jesus had given the Eleven would be the basis for their remaining loyal, safe, and joyful. Nevertheless the world would hate them because they were no longer of the world even as the world hated Jesus because He was not of the world. The idea is not so much that the disciples’ outlook was different from the world’s but that their origin and character were since they had believed in Jesus. [Note: Morris, p. 646.] Jesus spoke of the Father and the world as opposing loyalties (cf. 1 John 2:15).

Jesus was apparently saying some of these things in prayer for the disciples’ benefit, as He had earlier prayed with the onlookers at Lazarus’ tomb in view (cf. John 11:42).

Verses 15-16

Jesus’ was not asking the Father to remove the Eleven from the hostile world as He was about to leave it. He was petitioning Him to keep them loyal to Himself while they continued to live in it. Jesus repeated the thought of John 17:14 b in John 17:16 to stress the disciples’ essential distinction from the world. It was, therefore, protection from "the evil" (Gr. ek tou ponerou) in the world that they needed. This phrase could mean evil generally, or it could be a reference to the evil one, Satan. Other occurrences of the phrase elsewhere encourage us to interpret it as referring to the devil here (cf. Matthew 6:13; 1 John 2:13-14; 1 John 3:12; 1 John 5:18-19). Even though Satan now stands condemned, He still controls the world (1 John 5:19).

Throughout church history Christians have sought relief from the world’s hatred by withdrawing from it socially, and in other ways, or by compromising with it. Some individuals tend to withdraw from a disagreeable and dangerous environment while others prefer to blend into it. Jesus’ will, however, was that His disciples should do neither of these things. He wanted them to remain loyal to God while continuing to participate in the amoral aspects of its life. Our sense of mission and our sense of identity should control our desire for comfort.

"Christians must not take themselves out of the world but remain in meaningful contact with it, trusting in God’s protection while they witness for Jesus." [Note: Blum, pp. 332-3.]

Verse 17

"To sanctify" (Gr. hagiazo) means to set apart for God’s service (cf. Exodus 28:41; Jeremiah 1:5). Jesus is the perfect example of a sanctified person. He devoted Himself completely and consistently to God’s will for Him. Sanctification in John’s Gospel is always for a mission. [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 566.] The means of the disciples’ sanctification was the truth, which Jesus explained was God’s Word. Jesus came to reveal God’s word to humankind (John 1:1; John 1:14; John 14:6), and the Spirit would help His disciples understand it (John 15:13). It is both personal and propositional. It comes to us through the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the written Word of God, Scripture.

The way Jesus asked the Father to sanctify the disciples was by using His word. This means that it is essential for disciples to know, understand, believe, and obey the revelation that God has given us. The words of God that Jesus revealed and that stand recorded in the Bible are the key to believers’ practical sanctification. Practical sanctification involves separation unto God from the world, the evil one who controls it, and the lies that He promotes that the world believes.

"With the mind, we learn God’s truth through the Word. With the heart, we love God’s truth, His Son [cf. John 14:6]. With the will, we yield to the Spirit [of truth, cf. John 14:17; John 16:13] and live God’s truth day by day. It takes all three for a balanced experience of sanctification." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:370.]

Verses 17-19

The request for sanctification 17:17-19

Verse 18

Jesus next explained the purpose of the sanctification that He requested for His disciples. He had sent them into the world with a mission (cf. John 13:20; John 15:26-27; John 20:21). Similarly the Father had sent the Son into the world with a mission (John 10:36). In both cases sanctification was essential for the success of the mission.

Comparison with John 17:20 shows that in John 17:6-19 Jesus was praying specifically for the Eleven. However, we should not regard what He requested for the Eleven as restricted to them exclusively. The change that takes place in John 17:20 is not from one group of believers to another as though they were in separate containers. It is rather a broadening of the field from the Eleven to those that would follow them. Thus it is understandable that when Jesus prayed for the Eleven He would pray for some things that not only they but their successors would need. Clearly all subsequent believers would need sanctifying by God’s Word so they could achieve their mission, as the Eleven did.

Verse 19

Jesus did not mean that He intended to make Himself more holy than He already was since that would have been impossible. He set Himself apart to do God’s will partially for the sake of His disciples. He is our example of perfect sanctification, and His sanctification makes ours possible. Without the sacrificial death of Jesus there would be no salvation and no mission for us. There would be no sanctification for us either. One of the purposes of Jesus’ death was to set believers apart to God and His mission for them to function as priests in the world (cf. 1 Peter 2:9).

Verse 20

Jesus now identified future believers as the objects of His intercession, as well as the Eleven. He described them as those who would believe through the witness of the Eleven. All Christians have come to Jesus Christ either directly or indirectly through one or another of the original disciples or apostles. As we have seen, John had a special interest in stressing the importance and effectiveness of the witness of believers. This witness is the concrete expression of the mission to which Jesus had been referring (John 17:18-19). Even though the Eleven would fail Jesus soon, they would return to follow Him and would carry on the mission that He gave them.

Verses 20-23

The request for unity 17:20-23

Verses 20-26

3. Jesus’ requests for future believers 17:20-26

As Jesus thought about the disciples that would believe on Him through the witness of the Eleven, He requested two things for them from His Father: unity and glorification.

Verse 21

Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers as well as for the unity of the Eleven (John 17:11). This unity rests on adherence to God’s truth, and it reflects the unity that exists between the Father and the Son. Furthermore it is union with the Father and the Son (cf. ch. 15). God answered this prayer initially on the day of Pentecost when He united believers with Himself in the body of Christ, the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13).

The purpose of this unity is that the world might believe that the Father sent the Son, namely, that Jesus was God’s Son. The display of mutual love among Jesus’ disciples shows that they are His disciples. Their love for one another shows that they really do follow His teachings and possess His life. This gives evidence that Jesus really was who He claimed to be. It vindicates His teaching and so glorifies Him.

"From the beginning of the believer’s spiritual life to his final glorification the fatherhood of God is the basis for the believer’s experience. . . . This relationship of God to men, perfectly exemplified in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, is both the highest expression of His consciousness of His relation to God and the fullest attainment that man can reach through union with Him." [Note: Tenney, "Topics from . . .," p. 46.]

This verse is a favorite of promoters of the ecumenical movement. However as the content and context of this verse clarify, Jesus was not speaking about institutional unity but personal unity among genuine believers. He was praying that all true believers would be one in their love for one another, their submission to the authority of Scripture, and their commitment to their mission. Disunity among professing Christians has frustrated Jesus’ purpose that the world might believe on Him. Nevertheless the solution to this problem is not to impose an artificial institutional unity that ignores the bases of true unity and presents a hypocritical facade of oneness. It is to promote love for one another among genuine believers.

Verse 22

Jesus continued to explain the nature of the unity that He requested from His Father. In what sense do all believers share God’s glory? Jesus probably was speaking of His bringing the full knowledge of God to them. The revelation of God results in glory for God. When believers understand and believe the revelation of God that Jesus brought, they become partakers of that glory. This is something else they share in unity with one another that the Father and the Son also share with one another. Another view is that the glory in view refers to Jesus’ work of redemption, but that subject is not as prominent in the context as the revelation of God.

Verse 23

This verse advances the thought of John 17:21. Jesus wanted the unity among believers to be so great and so clear that the world would believe Jesus’ message. The world would also see that God had poured out His love on believers as well as Jesus. Notice that Jesus implied that He would indwell believers as the Father indwelt Him. All three members of the Godhead indwell the Christian (John 14:23; Romans 8:9; Colossians 1:27). God’s indwelling presence unites Christians in the body of Christ and glorifies God.

Verse 24

Here Jesus’ request clearly included the Eleven with all the elect. He wanted them all to observe (Gr. theorosin) the glory that the Father would restore to the Son following His ascension (John 17:5; cf. 1 John 3:2). This appears to be a reference to Jesus’ essential preexistent glory. His humiliation in the Incarnation was only temporary. Glorification will begin for Christians initially at death or the Rapture, whichever comes first (cf. John 14:2-3; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8). Our glorification includes being with Jesus forever (cf. Colossians 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). Since Jesus’ will (Gr. thelo) was identical with the Father’s will (cf. John 4:34; John 5:30; John 6:38), we can know that the Father will grant this request.

This is one of the clearest passages in the New Testament that sets forth the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 3:21; Philippians 2:9-11). [Note: See John V. Dahms, "The Subordination of the Son," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:3 (September 1994):351-64.]

Verses 24-26

The request for glorification 17:24-26

Verses 25-26

Jesus concluded His prayer as He began it, by addressing His Father by name (cf. John 17:1; John 17:11). By calling God His righteous Father Jesus was affirming His belief that God would do what was right in granting the petitions that He was presenting. This included glorifying the Son and bringing believers safely to heaven where they would behold His glory.

Jesus’ mission had not resulted in the whole world coming to know God experientially. Nevertheless Jesus Himself knew the Father, and the Eleven had come to believe that Jesus was the revelation of the Father. Jesus would continue to reveal the Father so the Father’s love would remain in them. It would do so because Jesus Himself would remain in them.

So concludes Jesus’ great intercessory prayer for His believing disciples. This was an important part of His private ministry of preparing His disciples for what lay ahead of them. We could summarize its main points as follows. Jesus asked for Himself glorification (John 17:1; John 17:5) that the Father might be glorified (John 17:1). He asked for the Eleven (and their successors) faithfulness (John 17:11). The results of their faithfulness would be their unity (John 17:11) and their joy (John 17:13). The means to their faithfulness would be their safety (John 17:15) and their sanctification (John 17:17). He asked for future believers unity (John 17:21-23) in the present that the world might believe (John 17:21; John 17:23) and heaven (John 17:24) in the future that believers might see His glory (John 17:24) and fully experience God’s love (John 17:26).

This section of Jesus’ ministry began with a call for present humility (John 13:1-12) and ended with an assurance of future glory (John 17:24-26). In between, Jesus gave revelations of the importance of love, the ministry of the coming Holy Spirit, the promise of answers to prayer, and instruction about the importance of abiding in Christ.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on John 17". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/john-17.html. 2012.
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