Commentary on John 17:1-11
Chapters 14-17 are known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.
In it, he takes his disciples aside and prepares them for his departure, instructing them, warning them, and equipping them. The Discourse ends with his Farewell Prayer in which he directs his speech not to the disciples, but to God. Three themes are prominent and none is new in John: glorification, knowledge, and unity.
Whatever the relationship between Jesus and God entails, glorification is a substantial part of it. In 7:39 we learn that believers had not yet received the spirit because Jesus had not yet been glorified. The bestowal of the spirit in John is entirely dependent upon Jesus’ death and resurrection. In John, the death and resurrection are not a denigration of any sort; rather, they are described in terms of coronation, exaltation, and glorification. What was yet-to-be in 7:39 is now realized in chapter 17 as Jesus says, “Father the hour has come.” The glory build-up starts in chapter 12, with the end of Jesus’ public ministry and turn to his closest companions.
The process starts with Mary anointing Jesus’ feet for his burial, and Jesus’ indication that: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). It’s an interesting feature of John that the passion, resurrection and ascension are all considered as one moment rather than individual, linear, discrete events. Whereas they often call chs. 1-12 The Book of Signs, scholars usually designate chapters 13-21 The Book of Glory. Glory (doxa) and glorify (doxazo) appear forty-two times in John, most of them in 13-21. More than one-third of all NT occurrences of the verb “glorify” occur in John.
While most occurrences appear in the latter part of the gospel, the reader is made to understand from the beginning that the incarnation is about beholding of the glory of God: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The rest of the gospel details the evidence of that glory and, more surprisingly, our own participation in it.
God’s glory in John is more like being at the very heart of a fireworks display rather than watching it on TV. One sees the light, feels the thunder of it, finds oneself breathless, is caught up in the majesty and power and wonder and extraordinary transcendence of it all. She looks around and finds that others have come seeking something of this wonder and so, for a moment, she is connected with other pilgrims who have braved the journey rather than settling for a second-hand account of the thing.
John’s notion of God’s glory is informed by the Old Testament which speaks much about the glory of the Lord (kavod adonai). As in many other places in John, Exodus looms large in the author’s imagination. Consider Exodus 40:35: “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Here’s the point: the glory of the Lord is God’s presence. With every word he or she can muster, the author of John pushes to intimacy. The incarnation, glory, love, father, mother, son, one, knowing–every last word declares that God created this world, with the help of Jesus, for the single purpose of unity with all of creation. Intimacy and unity. Jesus came to reveal that as God’s sole intention, to model that unity, to complete that unity. Jesus glorified God by completing the works God sent him to do.
The baton gets passed in the same way, of course, from Jesus to believers who will do greater works than Jesus. Now believers glorify God when they reveal God’s love to the world God created and will love to the end (3:16), even as that world shows resistance here and there, even hatred. No matter; the job is done, Jesus has conquered the world (16:33). John’s tenses are confusing to us because he often speaks as if something in the process of happening or not yet happened has already happened. But from God’s perspective, these things are so certain that they can be spoken of as complete. This is why believers go forth in confidence with undying hope despite the way things appear.
The author has not given up on the world. Jesus prays for the world later in ch. 17. If he had given up on the world, Jesus would not have equipped the disciples with power equal to his own to do their part in unifying the world to God. Believers do, indeed, belong to Jesus, have been given to him, but everything belongs to God and will ultimately be drawn into unity with God (cf. 12:32).
Knowledge and Eternal Life
Eternal life is defined in this passage it may surprise those more familiar with Matthew or Revelation. How does John define eternal life? Is it escaping fiery flames of hell or singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with the cherubim and seraphim at some future glorious appointment? No, it’s being in relationship with God and Christ, what John calls “knowing” and it’s available in its entirety now. Recall that Jesus “knew” everything about the Samaritan woman. Of course, he did, since we already learned in 2:25 that he “knew” what was in everyone and had no need for anyone to tell him anything. This is the deepest kind of knowing, as in Ps. 139. When all is said and done, what deeper desire exists than to know and be truly known, understand and be truly understood, love and be truly loved? According to John, that’s the meaning of life.
This gospel specializes in knowing language (ginosko, oida) and loving language (agapao, phileo), because they go together, though it might be counterintuitive to us. Our minds may assume the opposite, in fact–we take great pains to disallow true knowledge of ourselves since we assume that the more someone knows the “real” me, the less love they will have for me. As knowledge goes up, love goes down; if we want love to remain high, then we’d better work hard on passing ourselves off as “loveable.” John will not countenance such notions. One cannot deeply love that which one does not know. And knowing depends upon authentic relationship and regular encounter with the beloved.
Is it any wonder that four great examples of discipleship in John are the Samaritan woman in ch. 4, the blind man in chapter 9, Mary in chapter 12, and Thomas, of all people, in chapter 19? What do they have in common? They participated in ongoing relationship and encounter with Jesus. Both the Samaritan woman and the blind guy have lengthy, increasingly deep dialogue with Jesus and as they do, they understand him more and more to the point where they “know” him and understand that he is the source of their lives and loves them like no other. This leads them to worship him and testify to others about him.
Mary is described as one whom Jesus loved (11:5) and John makes it clear and that she, her brother Lazarus and sister Martha regularly spent time with Jesus. Thomas may be a less obvious hero, but he’s a hero nonetheless in this Gospel. He sticks with Jesus even though he discerns trouble is in store (11:16); he asks questions when he doesn’t understand (14:5); he’s not gullible or prone to flights of fancy but he’s willing to believe when confronted with raw glory (chapter 20). On the basis of all of this, Thomas comes to fully know Jesus such that he declares him to be “My Lord and My God” (20:28).
A cord of three strands is not easily broken, Ecclesiastes insists, so how much more so a cord of four strands: believers are unified with God, Christ, the Spirit and one another. Therefore, we are strong and equipped to do greater works than Jesus. There’s no reason we can’t just as effectively demonstrate and reveal God’s love for everything in God’s cosmos as did Jesus. This is an empowering word, to be sure; it’s also a challenging word because we cannot pretend to be waiting for something God has yet to provide before we get on with the work at hand; we can’t wring our hands and say, “If only….” To be sure, the road will be rough enough that Jesus feels the need to offer prayers for our protection as we go; we know, then, that we are in good hands. We have all we need to testify to God’s love in ways that will bring abundant, eternal life to all of creation. So, rise, let us be going (14:31).