Commentary on John 17:1-11
Jesus was a man of prayer. He taught his disciples to pray. That teaching resulted in a model of prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—that has become an integral part of the Christian witness.
In this text, we find Jesus once again at prayer. Jesus is in conversation with his disciples, and he ends his conversation with a prayer, spoken in their presence, perhaps with the hope of having them listen in to the hopes and dreams he has for them. As he taught his disciples, once again, Jesus begins the prayer by calling on his father, as the source of his being and his power, the one to whom he addresses his requests.
Theologian Rebecca Clair Young says: “The prayer describes his relationship with God as well as his relationship to the world into which God sends him.”1 In his prayer, he intercedes with God not only for himself but also for the disciples then and in the future. Even the words that seem to be about himself are really on what he as the Son of God can offer to his disciples. Jesus’ call to be glorified through his death names his crucifixion as a moment of triumph for him but most importantly a moment of affirmation of his divinity for his disciples. Jesus claims the glory that is due to him for the completion of his earthly mission as savior.
Unlike the model of the Lord’s Prayer, this prayer seems more instructive to the disciples about who they are and who Jesus is in their lives. The prayer reads like a narrative of Jesus’ role as Savior and guide, as leader and example for the present disciples and those yet to come. It moves from his incarnation through his ministry and leads to his upcoming passion. His intercession on behalf of the disciples offers a mode of prayer whereby one makes intercession for others. Jesus reports to God on his earthly mission and at the same time informs the disciples of what they have received through him.
The challenge that this prayer presents lies in Jesus’ words that seems to suggest a preference for the disciples. He says, “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me because they are yours” (John 17:9). The language seems exclusive and may lead erroneously to the belief that only those who follow Christ may have the favor of God.
It is important to contextualize the passage by considering both the situation with Jesus and the disciples and also with the Johannine community. Jesus is speaking within the gathered community of his disciples, but the text is written to the Johannine community. As Nancy J. Ramsay informs us:
The dualism of the Johannine community poses a challenge for us. The term “world” most often refers to a dangerous, hostile place that opposes God’s hopes for justice and mercy. In this passage Jesus prays not for the whole world but for those whom he has taught and guided into knowledge and love of God. He prays confidently for their (and our) protection in a hostile world.2
Jesus’ prayer is appropriate to both the disciples and to the Johannine community. As a model it must be recognized as such and its meaning for the church today must also take into consideration the divisions that mark society globally and locally as well as the divisions in the Christian church and within denominations.
One additional element of this prayer that is noteworthy is that at the moment of prayer Jesus “looked up to heaven” (John 17:1). Young reminds us that “The biblical view of heaven is different from our view of the universe. Where our ancestors looked up and imagined a heavenly dwelling for the divine, we see physical space extending billions of light years. Even in the age of science, though, it remains significant that Jesus looks up at this moment, because he is looking beyond worldly limits to a far greater, unlimited life.”3 While the focus for himself may be the cross and the resurrection, his vision for the disciples is that they will flourish in ministry united by his name. Further, the disciples and we are moved to understand the unity of the Father and the Son. Jesus, through his resurrection, is joined with God in the eternal realm and all who follow Jesus have the assurance that because of his love for his followers, they are also recipients of God’s love.
Jesus’ prayer for his followers extends beyond the disciples referenced in the text to the followers of Christ over time, into today and beyond into the future. Jesus’ prayer is offered in the assurance that God hears and God answers. That is a model that all Christians are called to follow. As Jesus did, we too must pray believing that God not only hears but also responds to prayer. The final words of this prayer are a call to unity for the followers of Jesus. It is a prayer that needs to be offered on every occasion of prayer by every Christian because it remains an unrealized petition on behalf of our Savior. Even with advances in ecumenical and interfaith movements, there are deliberate actions that intentionally divide the people of God. Whether or not they are followers of Christ, God intends that all people on earth may live in unity. Ultimately, that is the major element of Jesus’ prayer that we must offer on every occasion—“that they may be one, as we (God) are one.”
- Rebecca Blair Young, “Theological Perspective on John 17:1-5,” in Feasting on the Gospels John, Volume 2 Chapters 10-21, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 212.
- Nancy J. Ramsay, “Pastoral Perspective on John 17:1-11,” in Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 540.
- Young, 212.
May 21, 2023