John 17:1-11, The Altar of Incense

[June 1, 2014] Today is Ascension Sunday, the last Sunday of the season of Easter. Once Pentecost marked the end of Easter but at some point in the medieval West it became a season of its own. This past Thursday was actually the fortieth day since Easter Sunday, when Luke tells us Jesus made his ascension departure from Mount Olivet, a Sabbath’s walk from Jerusalem. Today’s text is from the Gospel according to John, written by an unknown disciple about sixty years after the event. It is, according to him, the prayer with which Jesus concluded his Last Supper discourse in which he explains the significance of his coming death and resurrection. He and his disciples may have already left the upper room at this point (see 14:31b). In any case, immediately after this prayer they immediately cross the brook that ran through the Kedron valley and enter the garden where he was arrested (Gethsemane).

John has given a chiastic shape to this final discourse, so that it begins with Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in 13:1-32 and ends with Jesus’ prayer in 17:1-26. Bruno Barnhart suggests that we might see these two pieces as the two vertical sections of a cruciform, the middle section representing the horizontal beam. Thus 13:33—14:31, the central image of which is the Father’s House, forms one end, and approximately chapter 16, the central image of which is the woman in childbirth, forms the other end. The center piece then is chapter 15 with its image of the true vine, hinting at the Tree of Life spreading its branches in four directions. (Where the division should be between 15 and 16 is difficult to determine, Robinson and Piermont along with Peter Ellis placing it between 15:25 and 15:26, though usually, as in Nestle-Aland, it is placed in the middle of 16:4.)

Another way to look at the discourse is to imagine the Temple. The priests must wash in the bronze laver before they enter the sanctuary itself, the Father’s house (introduced at 14:2). The sanctuary consisted of two rooms, the Holy Place and the innermost room of the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was a box that contained the two tablets of the law and was covered (atoned in Hebrew) by the mercy-seat, which in turn was overshadowed by the wings of two golden cherubim. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that only on the Day of Atonement, once a year. Before the veil of the Holy of Holies stood the golden altar of incense at which the priests made intercession for the people. If the foot-washing corresponds to the bronze laver, then Jesus’ prayer corresponds to the altar of incense. The following ordeal then corresponds to the high priest entering the Holy of Holies with the blood of atonement. Now is not, however, the time to go into this typology in detail.

In the middle section, 13:33—16:33, Jesus speaks of his disciples entering the Father by entering himself as the Father’s house. He is going to the cross to make a way for them to abide in him. By his going to the cross and rising again, he will be able to send the Holy Spirit who will abide in them. By this abiding, they will abide in Jesus and he in them, and thus the Father too will abide in them, and they in God. Jesus closes this section by speaking of a woman giving birth to his own resurrected humanity, by which they too are born of God into God.

Verses 1-5: “Father, glorify me.”

“These things Jesus spoke, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, he said, ‘Father …’”

At this point Jesus turns from addressing his disciples to addressing his Father directly. What he had said to his disciples he now applies in his prayer to his Father. It is the epiklēsis (literally a calling upon, or invocation) for the coming of the Holy Spirit that accompanies the breaking of the bread of his body and the pouring out of the wine of his blood—on the actual cross. In this gospel the institution of the Lord’s Supper is missing; what we have in its place is its inner meaning and depth, and the reality that the symbols signify.

This prayer brings fire to all the words that Jesus has ever spoken to his disciples (in this gospel) as if they were the incense which he now ignites into sacrificial smoke. The words of his prayer—emanating from his spirit—become a flame setting the offering of his prior words aglow. The smoke of the sacrifice of his soul—which he lays down in death—rises up to heaven. “It is finished!” he says as his final words on the cross. He rises on Easter morning and when he ascends to his Father and our Father, he presents himself in this accomplishment before the Father. His prayer—the offering up of his life—is then complete.

“Father, the hour has come …” This refers to the coming ordeal of his crucifixion. Within minutes armed men will come to arrest him and they will fail; but he will present himself to them, offering himself up for arrest, and they will take him away.

Verses 1-5 form a little chiasm of their own, with “Father, glorify me” as the thrust of verses 1 and 5, the Father’s giving to him the idea in verses 2 and 4, making verse 3 the center piece. Let’s try to do this justice.

“Father, glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you …” (verse 1) and, “Now, Father, glorify me with that glory I had with you before ever the world existed” (verse 5).

Glory is a shining forth. The “glory” refers in particular to the divine nature. The divinity is all around us (God is omnipresent), but we see the glory of God when God is revealed, when divinity becomes manifest. The Father is glorified when the Father shines forth in the Son. In verse 4 Jesus says, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” When Jesus tells Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (in 14:9), he explains, “What I say to you I do not speak of my own accord: It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his works … At least believe it on the evidence of these works” (14:10-11). Jesus will finish the work that the Father has given him on the cross. In everything that Jesus said and did, it was the Father living in him who was giving him what to say and the Father doing his works. Thus he glorified his Father.

Here, however, Jesus is asking that the Son would glorify the Father in another way. This way is by the Father glorifying the Son. What does this mean? He is talking about the glory of God, the glory of the divine nature. “Glorify me with that glory I had with you before ever the world existed.” As the Son who was in the beginning with God and who was God, he always shared the glory of the divine nature with the Father. This glory was even there before there was anyone else to behold it because the Father beheld the Son’s glory and the Son beheld the Father’s glory. As the Son of God Jesus was never without this glory even if that glory was hidden from human eyes.

What then does Jesus mean when he asks for the Father to glorify him? I think he is asking for his humanity to share his divine glory. He is one Person (hypostasis—one undivided being) with two natures. But in the incarnation, his human nature was limited in space and to time; it participated in the moral qualities but it did not participate in the metaphysical qualities of the divine nature. By his words and deed he manifested the Father, but his human nature was still subject to limitation and even death. On the other hand, his divine nature—because he (his Person) was divine—always participated in his human nature, even dying when he died. The glory that Jesus was asking for was that the Father would glorify his human nature with his divine nature: in other words that the Father would divinize or deify his human nature. Not only would his native divine nature participate in all the experiences of his assumed human nature, but his human nature would participate completely in his divine nature: his human nature would become eternal and omnipresent and divine in every way.

When we speak now of his human nature, we mean, of course, his entire body, soul and spirit, but also his entire history from conception to death, so that it would be a retroactive divinization of all that he had been. It would thus include all that he had accomplished and attained and obtained in his human life and all his human qualities and virtues. His entire created essence, in time and depth and breadth, would be divinized.

Yet we do not mean that his human nature would cease to be human. This is the thing. The two natures would completely share their qualities and properties and perfections. Yet neither would be compromised or lose their integrity. At Chalceon in 451 it was determined that while Jesus is completely divine and completely human, there is in Jesus no confusion of natures and the natures do not change from what they are (they are preserved in the union). At the same time, in him there is no division between his divinity and humanity and no separation or partition, for he is only one Person, one whole.

The difference is that before the resurrection, Jesus’s human nature was “emptied” of his divine nature, his divine nature was hidden from his human nature, even though his Person was always divine, without change. The prayer, “glorify me,” means that this “emptying” would end. Thus in resurrection Jesus—in all of his humanity—is eternal, at all times from the beginning of time, and omnipresent, at all places at once. He manifested himself, it is true, to certain people at certain times, and ate fish in their presence and allowed them to touch and handle him so that they would know his manifestation was not a mere appearance but was physically substantial. But he could appear and disappear as he chose, and presumably could have manifested himself in different places at once.

If the Father would glorify the Son, so that the divine nature was now manifest in his human nature, this would glorify the Father who was manifest in him all the more.

Glorify the Son (in his human nature) “so that, just as you have given (didōmi) him power over all humanity [flesh], he may give (didōmi) eternal life to all those you have entrusted (didōmi) to him” (verse 2) and, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you have given (didōmi) me to do” (verse 4).

There is a subtle parallelism here. In other words, I have glorified you by accomplishing all your will. Now glorify me that I may give eternal life to all whom you have given me. I glorified you by accomplishing all your will because in all that I did, you were living in me doing the deeds, and all that I said were the words that you gave me. Whoever looked at me (what I said and did) was looking at you in me (14:8-11). (Jesus speaks of the accomplishment of his dying as something already done; and thus throughout this prayer.) Now glorify me by divinizing my humanity in resurrection—this is that for which he prays—that by this transformation I will be able to accomplish what I have promised all those who would believe into me, that I would give them eternal life.

Those who believe into Jesus—which includes us—are those whom the Father has given to Jesus. Moreover, the Father has given Jesus authority (jurisdiction and power to rule or freedom to act) over all humanity in order that he may impart eternal life. Notice that there is no limit as to whom the Father has given to Jesus. Jesus’ authority is unlimited. It is over all humanity, globally and past, present and future. The Father has elected people, “giving” them to the Son, but there never is a sense in Scripture that the Father elects people not to give to the Son, that is, to eternally damn them. It is open-ended. We see in historical time that some people are elected, but even among these, some come to the Son early and some late. Beyond the grave we have no knowledge. It is my hope that eventually all people will come to the Son, the Father having given him all people. “That he may give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him”: who knows? People who hate other people and have no sympathy for the suffering of others find it too easy to draw a limit where the divine revelation draws no such limit, for God is love and sees what we cannot see.

Let us consider this matter, however. By glorifying the Son, the Son will be able to give eternal life to those whom the Father has given him. When Jesus manifested himself to his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection (after his ascension to the Father), he breathed into his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). In chapter 14 Jesus said, “I shall ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraklētos (advocate, counselor, protector, patron, comforter) to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth … You know her, because she abides with you and shall be in you. I shall not leave you orphans; I shall come to you. In a short time … you will see that I live and you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you” (verses 16-20). The life with which we will live (14:19) is the eternal life he will give us—the life by which he lives in resurrection—which he gives to us by giving us the Paraklētos, the Holy Spirit. When he gives us the Holy Spirit he is giving us himself. “You know her” Jesus says, “because she abides with you” in himself. When the Holy Spirit comes, it is Jesus himself who comes. When the Holy Spirit “shall be in you” then “I [will be] in you.”

The first point is this: the giving of the Holy Spirit is the giving of eternal life, the divine uncreated life of Jesus with which he raised himself from the dead.

The second point is this: the giving of the Holy Spirit is the giving of Jesus himself. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us.

It is as if the Holy Spirit and the Son were identical. They are not, for the Son is in fact the first Paraklētos and the Holy Spirit is “another” Paraklētos. However, the two co-inhere (all three in the Trinity co-inhere). They dwell in each other. The Persons share all that they are with each other. All that the Son is, the Son shares with the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit dwells in us, so does the Son and the Father (see 14:23). The reason that the Father must glorify the Son’s human nature before the Son can impart eternal life to those whom the Father has given him is because when the Father glorifies the Son, the Son’s human nature now co-inheres in the divine nature of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we receive the Spirit, we receive not only the divine nature but the divinized human nature of the Son (including the accomplishment of his death, the atonement). Not only does “God the Son” dwell in us when the Holy Spirit enters our spirit, but Jesus in all that he was (which he is now eternally) and is. (Without the accomplishment of the atonement, presumably our human nature would be destroyed by this union.)

“And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3).

To have eternal life—by the gift of the Holy Spirit—is to know the Father as Jesus knows him, because to have eternal life is to have Jesus’ own divine Trinitarian life. When we receive the Holy Spirit we are participating in the Trinity in the place of the Son, enjoying the Father as the Son does, through the Holy Spirit. To have eternal life is to know Jesus from the perspective of the Father, as the One whom the Father has sent—and for the same reason, enjoying (through the Holy Spirit) the entire life of the Trinity.

Verses 6-8: “I Have Glorified You on Earth”

In verses 6-8 Jesus introduces those for whom he prays in verse 9. People belong to the Father, and the Father has taken them out of the world and given them to the Son, and the Son has glorified the Father by manifesting the Father’s name to them. The Father has entrusted them to his care and he has accomplished what he was supposed to. “I have given them the teaching you gave to me, and they have indeed accepted it and know for certain that I came from you, and have believed that it was you who sent me” (verse 8), and thus “they have kept your word” by believing this, that you sent me (verse 6). “Now at last they have recognized that all that you have given me comes from you” (verse 7). This recognition is the manifestation of the Father’s name to them.

All that Jesus said and did manifested the Father because it was the Father accomplishing his deeds and giving him his words. If people recognized that it was the Father and not merely Jesus, and that Jesus was in fact sent by the Father and all that he said and did was sent forth from the Father, then the Father was manifested to them. If the Father was manifested as the Father of the Son, the One from whom the Son is sent (and continually being sent), then he is manifested as the Father, and it is the Father’s name that is then manifested. When the Son is manifested as the Son of the Father, then the name of the Father becomes manifest, the “name” being who the Father is.

The manifestation of the Father is not the manifestation of who the Father is with respect to us first (“Fatherly”) but who the Father is with respect to the Son (the One who begets and sends the Son).

These are the people, then, who will be given eternal life when the Son is glorified in his resurrection. They are the ones, because of what has become manifest to them, who are able—it being given to them—to believe into him.

Verses 9-11a, “I Am Praying for Them.”

“It is for them that I pray. I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, because they belong to you” (verse 9).

All whom the Father has given to him leave the world and come to him, and to all who have come to him he has manifested the Father’s name and they have believed into him. It is for them that Jesus now prays. They belonged to the Father, and the Father has given them to the Son that the Son may glorify the Father with respect to them. And now that the Son has done this, the Son prays that the Father’s entire will may be accomplished with respect to them. “Glorify me that I may give them eternal life,” he has prayed. Ultimately it is that the Father may be glorified in them as he was glorified in the humility of Jesus and is now glorified even more in the resurrection of Jesus.

It is a little disturbing when Jesus says “I am not praying for the world” but only for those whom the Father has taken out of the world (see verse 6). The world can be taken in three ways. We can assume that by world he means the cosmos (as in verse 5 and 11), but when he says that the Father has taken them out of the world, this is simply not true. So this is not the sense of the world. We can assume that the world refers to all the people of the world, in which case, the people have now been divided between the world and those who have been taken out of the world: there are the believers and there is everyone else. This is how it is often taken. Or the world can refer to a spiritual gestalt created by the mass of humanity (humanity’s “soul,” as it were): the world as a kind of spiritual culture, a collective mentality by which we are alienated from God (and from creation). This meaning makes the most sense to me.

“All I have is yours and all you have is mine, and in them I am glorified. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you” (verses 10-11a).

Jesus bases his request on the fact of his divine Person. The Father gives to him all that he has and the Son gives to the Father all that he has. The people are the Father’s and they are equally the Son’s. Those whom the Father gives to the Son the Son gives back to the Father. He has accomplished the Father’s intention because “I have been glorified in them.” I think what he means by this is not that they glorify him but that literally he has been glorified in them. In other words, Jesus has manifested himself to them and revealed himself in them. This is similar to the content of verses 6-9. It was Jesus’ apostolate, that for which he was sent, to reveal to his disciples who he is, and in doing so to manifest the Father’s name.

When Jesus says, “I am no longer in the world,” he is speaking of his death as an accomplished fact. He leaves his disciples behind. “I am coming to you” refers to his ascension to the Father on Easter day. Without his “historical” continuation on earth, they need the Holy Spirit. For this reason he prays that the Father would glorify him in his humanity.

Verse 11b: “Keep Them.”

“Holy Father, keep them in your name which you have given me, so that they may be one like us” (17:11b).

Jesus has glorified himself in them by manifesting himself to them, but now he is leaving them. May he not leave them as orphans but may the Holy Spirit keep them in the divine name that has been manifested to them.

I believe the New Jerusalem Bible mistranslates this verse. It reads: “Keep those you have given me true to your name” when the Greek text says, “Keep them in your name which you have given me.” The difference is between “[those] you have given me” and “[your name] which you have given me,” that is, how the relative pronoun (hos) is translated. Its case, gender and number agree with “name.”

The “holy Father,” who sends the Holy Spirit, will keep those who believe by the Holy Spirit whom he will send. The word “holy” means to be set apart from common use. God is holy in God’s absolute uniqueness, the transcendence of the divine over all that the soul perceives. We become holy (sanctified) when we glorify God and even more when we begin to be divinized by our union with Christ. The Spirit of God is called the Holy Spirit in connection to Jesus in the incarnation of his divinity and in connection to our divinization in Jesus by the Spirit’s indwelling. The Holy Spirit is the sanctifying Spirit in this sense. (In orthodox Protestant theology we say that justification leads to sanctification which leads to glorification; in fact, they are given together and only progress in this order: there can be no justification without the glorification, but our glorification is made possible by the justification having been accomplished.)

“Keep” means to keep watch over, to guard and protect, and to hold, preserve, and sustain. To be kept “in your [the Father’s] name” is to be kept in the revelation of Jesus as the Son sent by the Father—as the One being given everything that the Father is and has—for us. To “know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ” is eternal life. Therefore Jesus is asking that the Father would keep them in eternal life, in the enjoyment of the life of the Trinity. The only way that happens is by the gift of the Holy Spirit breathed into them on Easter Sunday. It is, therefore, for this that Jesus prays.

“That they may be one even as we are.” In verses 21-22 Jesus says, “I ask … that they all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us … And the glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one …” Jesus is not referring to merely a social oneness but that our social oneness would have a basis in a metaphysical fact. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit co-inhere: they dwell in each other as they share the entirety of the one divine nature. I have said that the gift of the Holy Spirit is an extension of this co-inherence to include us. The Spirit dwells in us that we may dwell in the Son and the Father and they may dwell in us; and here Jesus prays, “that they also may be in us,” that is, in the Father and the Son. Put 14:23, “We [Father and Son] will come to him [or her] and make an abode with him [or her],” together with 17:21, “that they also may be in us [Father and Son].” There is thus a mutual indwelling. As the Father and Son dwell in each other, by the gift of the Holy Spirit they will dwell in us and we in them. Doing what? Sharing the divine nature. We are thus reminded of 14:1, “Believe into God, believe also into me.”

It is not a symmetrical relationship. Our humanity is a different order than divinity. Our participation in the divine nature is a gift from God and it is sustained by grace, never “possessed” by us as if it were native to us. We remain creatures even if we are divinized. The Son remains divine even if he is incarnate. There is no equality, though. The difference is that the initiative and power comes from only one side of this relation. The Triune God takes the initiative to come to us; our qualification and even our receptivity is given to us. And our “glorification” is still hidden. Like the Son in the days of his humiliation, we go through this veil of tears in the same hiddenness of humiliation. “It has not yet been manifested what we will be” (1 John 3:2). “The Spirit herself witnesses with our spirit that we are [indeed] children of God, and if children, heirs also; on the one hand, heirs of God; on the other, joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:16-17). “We are saved in hope. But a hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he [or she] sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly await it through endurance” (Romans 8:24-25). So, “she who abides in him ought herself also to walk as he walked” (1 John 2:6).

If we understand all this, then we should understand that our social unity ought to reflect our metaphysical oneness (it is more than unity). For us to be one as the church means that we ought to love one another. Indeed, it means we cannot not love one another. “He [the pronoun is generic and includes “she”] who hates his sibling is in the darkness and walks in the darkness and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). “Everyone who hates his sibling is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).

This unity then is not an organizational unity but a unity of love. We are looking for where love is genuine. However, historically “love” has been the rational of so much hypocrisy that I loathe to dwell on it as something we ought to “do.” It is either there or it is not. Trying to love, or loving others as a form of zeal or obligation often produces what turns out to be the opposite of love. It is often an exertion of control. So I do not want to dwell on it. “Love” produces itself from what is genuine life within. Nevertheless, “with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, bearing one another in love, [let us be] diligent to keep the oneness of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-6).

Leave a Reply