John 17:1-5 – Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast August 19, 2007. Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It’s been a while since I’ve been with you. I am grateful to Dr. Bridges for teaching the class and sharing with you her translations of John’s Gospel. We’ll try to have Linda back again. I was in England for three weeks. It was my first visit to England. I presented a paper at a conference in York and researched in the Moravian archives in London for a week. I found some wonderful things in the archives, including sermons of Zinzendorf that have never been published. I am grateful that my family was able to go on the trip with me. We took the time to visit the British Museum, Stonehenge, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Christopher Robin was not there with Alice, though.
This year is the centennial of the founding of the Boy Scouts and there was a worldwide jamboree in England. Everywhere we went there were scouts from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. At Baden Powell’s marker in Westminster, troops left their national flags in tribute. We loved the city of York and drove through the Yorkshire moors. We were also able to visit several Moravian churches and had dinner with two of the pastors. It really was a wonderful trip and very productive, but it is nice to be back home. I had a craving for BBQ and iced tea.
Overview of the High Priestly Prayer We have come to the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel, which has long been recognized as a special unit of Scripture. It is one of the most poetic pieces in the New Testament, and in many churches is read during Holy Week. 500 years ago a Protestant biblical scholar named David Chrytaeus dubbed it the High Priestly Prayer and that name has stuck. Zinzendorf often referred to this passage as the conclusion of Jesus’ Last Will and Testament, and Moravians traditionally stand when it is read during Holy Week because this prayer sets forth Jesus’ will for the church.
Several weeks ago I mentioned that John 14-17 belongs to the genre of the Farewell Discourse in Judaism, and modern biblical scholars point out that such Farewell Discourses often ended with a prayer and blessing by the person facing death. This can be seen clearly in the case of Moses in Deuteronomy. By ending Jesus’ farewell to his disciples with a prayer, the evangelist was following the conventions of Jewish literature. His readers would have been surprised if the discourse did not end with such a prayer. The prayer as we have it was written by the author of John’s Gospel to teach the church about faith in Jesus. None of the disciples knew stenography. When the disciples became apostles and founders of churches, they told their followers what they remembered from Jesus’ teachings and actions. This prayer was part of that memory, especially for the Beloved Disciple, but that memory was shaped and refined into the beautiful prayer written into the gospel record. This great prayer serves as a summary of the message of the Gospel. It is Jesus’ last discourse before his death, and it is significant that it is addressed to the Father rather than his followers.
Jesus Final Prayer All four canonical gospels record that Jesus prayed to the Father on the night of his betrayal, but there is a big contrast between this prayer in John and the prayer described in the synoptic gospels. In those gospels, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane rather than at the dinner table. Also, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciples were asleep while Jesus prayed, which begs the question of how they knew what he prayed. More important, in the Synoptic gospels, Jesus prayed in anguish. He longed to be relieved of the burden of death – that the cup would pass from him. You may remember that earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus spoke of his heart being troubled. There were signs of fear and conflict in Jesus, but in John’s Gospel they were resolved before this final prayer.
Jesus’ final prayer in John has no anguish; there is only confidence that the Son and the Father will soon be reunited in heaven. When Jesus looks up to heaven at the start of the prayer, it is the traditional stance for prayer, but it has greater significance in John. It is as if he is gazing toward his true home. His sojourn on earth will soon end. He has already conquered his fear of dying and is setting his face toward the cross. The time for talking is at an end; his final lessons will be visual. Another striking contrast between John and the other gospels is that the disciples are awake in John and hear the prayer. Jesus prays aloud specifically so that they will hear and learn from his final prayer. This is indeed his last will and testament for the church.
Units in the Prayer Scholars agree that this prayer has at least three distinct units, but they cannot agree over how to divide the prayer into sections. Most divide it fairly evenly into three sections, each one introduced by a reference to Jesus’ glory. Jesus prays for himself, his disciples, and the church of the future. I’m not sure that the section divisions are essential to understanding the prayer since there are themes that run throughout all the prayer, especially the idea that the time has come for Jesus’ glorification. The final prayer presses home John’s point that Jesus’ last thoughts before his arrest were on good news of salvation for all who will believe in him after his death. The events about to unfold in the passion story are not a tragedy for John; they are the necessary steps toward the redemption of the world and the reconciliation of humankind with God. He shows Jesus looking beyond the pain of betrayal and torture to the glory of heaven.
Location It is appropriate that this prayer was placed where it is in John’s Gospel since it provides the transition from the Last Supper to the Passion story. At this crucial moment in the story, the prayer recalls the themes of the Prologue to the Gospel: Jesus has come from the Father to bring life to those who dwell in darkness. Now he is returning to the Father having accomplished his task on earth. The author did not want readers to be confused about the terrible events about to unfold. Jesus prays with his disciples so that they will know that he is not a victim being taken to slaughter; he is the Son of God freely fulfilling his mission of bringing light and life to the world. In contrast to Mark’s Gospel, John’s Gospel asserts that Jesus was not abandoned by the Father; he was on a difficult and painful journey back to the Father. More importantly, by taking the hard road of death, Jesus was preparing a path for us all to return to our true home. The end of the gospel is not tragedy and defeat but victory over the forces of ignorance, oppression, and death. We, too, can gaze into heaven longing for reunion with our Creator and Redeemer.
Time Shifts This is a very poetic prayer, but it is confusing for modern readers because the sense of time shifts in it. In this, it is not unlike some modern poetry, such as Gerry reads during communion services in Lent. We have seen this type of shifting time several times in John’s Gospel, but it is very noticeable in this prayer. At times Jesus is speaking of the future as if it is already the past. He says that he is ‘no longer in the world’ but that he “is coming to” the Father. This could be an indication that the passion story reflects a transitional state where Jesus has already left the world mentally but not yet physically. It may also simply be evidence that the prayer was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus by someone who knew how the story ended. Keep in mind that the evangelist believed strongly that Jesus was still alive and was guiding the Christian community through the Holy Spirit.
The author of the prayer was also convinced that Jesus and the Father were united eternally. John’s Gospel, as we have discussed many times, was not concerned about historical accuracy as much as spiritual truth. Jesus came from God and was returning to God. His prayer to the father was part of that journey. He depicts Jesus as already participated in the eternal realm where time no longer has meaning. For God, past, present, and future are all the same. There is another point being made here, though. In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not teach the disciples to pray. This prayer functions like the Lord’s Prayer, and it teaches us that prayer connects us to God. When we pray, we participate fleetingly in eternity as we commune with God. In prayer, past, present, and future flow together.
Liturgy There is another feature of this prayer that is confusing to readers today. At times, Jesus is talking in the third person, referring to himself as Jesus Christ and the Son. Keep in mind that this Gospel was written for people who loved Jesus and worshiped him. Long before there was a Gospel named for John, there was a worshiping community that had been gathered by the Beloved disciple. The memory of Jesus was preserved in worship and liturgy decades before a Gospel was written. Many scholars think that this High Priestly Prayer incorporates some of the liturgy of that early church. We can see some echoes of the Lord’s Prayer in the High Priestly Prayer, but the clearest parallels to early liturgy are found in the Didache, which was written in the early 2nd century. Some of the parenthetical comments that appear rather jarring in the High Priestly Prayer, which we will look at later, may have originally been liturgical responses. It is likely, although not certain, that this High Priestly Prayer was originally a hymn of praise to the Son of God and a prayer for those who believe in him. This would explain why parts of the prayer refer to Jesus in the third person rather than as I. Whether or not this passage originated in worship, it is definitely poetic rather than didactic, and it should be read as poetry.
Father Glorify the Son The prayer begins with the simple word “Father.” We are so accustomed to praying to God as Father that we forget that this was once a new idea. You may have heard about the Jesus’ Seminar’s efforts to determine just what sayings attributed to Jesus were actually said by him. It was largely a futile effort but it did generate a lot of publicity. One thing they agreed on was that Jesus called God “Father.” Most likely he called God “Abba,” which is the Aramaic term for Papa or Daddy, but John records it in the Greek as Pater. This was one of the core teachings of Jesus, that our image of God should be readjusted from that of king to that of Father. We have seen that this was controversial at the time and could be considered blasphemous. It brought God too close to the human level and seemed to undermine his majesty. Today we more concerned about sexist language than blasphemy, but our language for God remains controversial in any case. John’s Gospel stresses the fact that Jesus called God his Father, whether in preaching or praying. Jesus is the Son because God is the Father. In this final prayer, we see Jesus speaking the heavenly Father as one would an earthly father.
Jesus also asserts in this prayer that the Father is the only true God. This was in part an affirmation of Jewish teaching against paganism. Jesus is not the son of a god, like the Greek heroes in Homer. His father is the one true God. There may be more intended by this statement, though. 250 years ago, Zinzendorf made the provocative suggestion that the mission of Jesus was not to reveal himself but to reveal the Father to people. People had not known of God as Father before Jesus began preaching. Only those who worship the Son can truly worship the heavenly Father, according to Zinzendorf. He proposed that in John 14 Jesus revealed that the Holy Spirit is the heavenly mother of the Christian church, but that remains a controversial idea today. The key point for Zinzendorf was that there was no talk of a Trinity before the Last Supper when Jesus revealed the Father and promised to send the Holy Spirit.
The Hour of Glory This prayer to the Father is not a generic prayer to God the heavenly Father; it is a specific prayer by Jesus to his Father. The hour has come for the Son to be glorified in order to glorify the Father. This is the “hour” that has been spoken of repeatedly in the Gospel. This is not a 60-minute hour. It will last three days, but the time is fulfilled. The cosmic time-table has reached its point of crisis. The hour of Glory is at hand.
“Glory” in the Bible usually refers to bright light. In the other gospels, the glorification of Jesus was on the Mount of Olives when he shone like the sun. John is more paradoxical. Jesus will be glorified in death and resurrection, and God the Father will be revealed to those who have the eyes of faith. This is not a glory that the world can see. So far in the Gospel there have been glimpses of this glory in the seven signs, but the true fulfillment is at hand. The prayer moves so quickly from glorification of the Son to eternal life for the believer, that we should see those as related themes. Eternal life is not simply life after death; it is a sharing in the divine life while we live in these earthly bodies. It is sharing in the eternity of God and experiencing God’s own life in us. Eternal life overcomes the forces of fear and destruction that govern so much of human existence. According to this passage, the Son of God has been given authority over all flesh, and he gives life to those whom the Father has given to him. That idea is worth pondering.
Knowing God The prayer states that eternal life is to know God and know Jesus Christ whom God has sent. This is the only time in John’s Gospel that Jesus refers to himself as Jesus Christ, and most scholars think that this is an insertion by the author. It is not a part of the prayer itself, but is an explanatory comment. This has been a problematic verse for theologians for centuries because it makes a distinction between God and Jesus, which seems to contradict other passages in John. We have seen that Jesus asserted his union with the Father, but he always claimed that his authority, power, and glory derived from the Father. Jesus did nothing on his own and never asserted his own will. He was the Son because he obeyed the Father. We should not let the awkwardness of the sentence detract from the message: that to know God and Jesus is to have eternal life. For 1700 years the church has been too concerned about working out the mystery of the Trinity. According to John’s Gospel, it is enough that we know the Father whom Jesus revealed and know the Son whom the Father sent.
Knowing God This “knowing” does not refer to the kind of knowledge you gain studying for a grammar test. Knowing God is different from knowing your traffic laws or how to make lasagna. It is different from knowing the words of the Nicene Creed or the catechism as well. We should think of knowing God more like we thinking of knowing another person. You know your children or your spouse or your best friend in a different way than you know math or science or baseball. Sure, there is a mental aspect to this knowledge, but think of how an infant knows her mother. This knowledge goes to the very depths of your being and cannot be put into words.
This knowledge is a living relationship. It is knowledge that includes trust and obedience, love and the desire to please. To know God and Jesus Christ is not just a matter of the head; it is an affair of the heart, soul, and will. This prayer repeats the parable of the Good Shepherd: Eternal life is to know the voice of the Shepherd and to respond. This knowledge gives life because it brings you into a loving relationship with the source of life, the ground of being. It is because we know God and Jesus Christ that we can enter into a more abundant life that is liberated from fear and anxiety. To know God is to trust him, love him, and serve him even as we face the cross. As Irenaeus wrote centuries ago, “Life is participation in God, and we do this by knowing God and enjoying his goodness.” (Brown, 753) Wherever you go on your pilgrimage through this world, I hope that you will know the Father and Jesus Christ and experience eternal life in the midst of joy and sorrow. Next week we’ll continue with this prayer.