Commentary on John 17:6-19
In 2018, the Seventh Sunday of Easter is also Mother’s Day.
John consistently uses “Father” language for God, especially in John 17, so it is good to be mindful that this terminology is used to indicate a close, familial relationship and not as a gendered identity.
John 17:6-19 is part of the larger unit of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples that starts in John 13 with the foot washing scene and concludes with Jesus’ prayer here in John 17. The prayer is sometimes referred to as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” but that is not accurate, since Jesus is not portrayed in a priestly role in John. It comes closer to functioning as John’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with the address to the “Holy Father” and his “name” (verse 11) and the request for protection from the evil one (verse 15).
The prayer actually runs from verses 1-26. Verses 1-5 preceding our text focus on Jesus’ glorification. The text at hand, verses 6-19, focuses on Jesus’ concerns for the disciples. Verses 20-26 close with Jesus’ request for his disciples’ unity and mutual love. Immediately following the prayer, Jesus and the disciples go across the Kidron Valley to the garden where Judas will betray him.
As is typical for Johannine texts, the wording spirals around, seemingly repeating itself, yet moving forward to some new perspective. It is a passage that functions better as a meditative prayer than as a spoken text. It is like a fabric woven with repeating words and themes. Focusing on a few of these threads will help sort out key points in this prayer.
World: The relationship of Jesus and his disciples to the world is complicated in John. The disciples were chosen from the world (verse 6), are in the world (verse 11), are hated by the world (verse 14), and are not of the world (verses 14, 16). Jesus prays that the disciples be protected from the “evil one” who is at work in the world, but not that they be taken out of the world (verse 15). Ultimately, just as the Father sent Jesus into the world, so too Jesus sends the disciples into the world to continue his mission.
Given: This word (didomi) occurs nine times in this passage. It is acknowledged that the Father gave the disciples to Jesus (verses 6, 9). Everything (verse 7), including the words (verse 8) and the “word” (verse 14) that the Father gave Jesus, Jesus has given to the disciples. The “name” that the Father gave Jesus is the name which protects the disciples (verses 11-12).
Word: Jesus is the Word (logos) in John, and so there is a double entendre when Jesus talks about how the Father has given his disciples the “word” (verse 14) and that this word which they have kept is the truth (verses 6, 17).
Truth: This section of the prayer is framed by “truth,” a repeated and significant theme in John which also has a double entendre. (See also John 1:14, 17; 8:32; 18:37-38.) In John 17:8, Jesus affirms that the disciples know the truth of his origin from the Father. In verses 17-18, Jesus asks that they be sanctified in the truth which is also confirmed as God’s word. All this comes together to confirm what Jesus, the Word, had previously said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Sanctify: This concept is the climax of this part of the prayer (verses 17-19). The word used, hagiazo, is the same word in the Lord’s Prayer traditionally rendered as “hallowed.” It is noteworthy, then, to consider that the way in which God’s name is to be regarded as sacred is also what Jesus prays for his disciples. Consider also Jesus’ statement in John 10:34-36 where his own sanctification is what qualifies him to be God’s Son. Similarly, then, our sanctification is the basis for our claim to be children of God. This sanctity is not just an abstract reality or the grounds for claiming a godly status. It is described as being “in the truth” which is equated with the “word” as noted above, and here is where things get interesting.
First, this sanctification has a purpose which is given in verse 18: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” That is, sanctification is not a way of being made pure and holy by being set apart. It is intended as the way for disciples to be sent forth to share the t/Truth and the w/Word. It is not a way of being taken out of the world but being sent into it. (See also John 20.21 for a similar commissioning.)
Second, verse 19 points to how the sanctification occurs by connecting our sanctification with Jesus’. What does it mean for Jesus to sanctify himself? I believe that it must refer to his action of laying down his life on the cross and taking it up again in his resurrection. (See also John 10:17-18!) What then does it mean for us be sanctified in the t/Truth? We can return to Jesus’ own words earlier in this discourse at the last meal in John 15:11-13: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Our sanctification, therefore, comes freely to us at a cost to God in Christ, but it is not cheap grace. It also comes in the experience of losing our own lives. (See also John 12:25.)
As with John in general, this passage functions on two levels: the prayer Jesus shared with his disciples around 30 CE and the ongoing relevance of that prayer for Jesus’ disciples later in the first century when the text was written and shared in the Johannine community. This perspective becomes explicit in verses 20-23 where Jesus refers to those who will come to believe based on the original disciples’ testimony. This latter context also serves to make John transparent and applicable to Jesus’ disciples today. For the first disciples and for us, sanctification in the t/Truth and w/Word, therefore, is both a matter of what God does for us in Christ and what we experience in being sent into the world as messengers of that w/Word and disciples who love one another, even to the point of laying down our lives.