John 17:20-26, The Conclusion of Jesus’ Priestly Prayer

[May 8, 2016] Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the last of the Easter Season. This past Thursday was the Ascension and in one week we will come to the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church in order that Christ may continue the apostolate that he began in the days of his flesh—in the days when his glory, the glory of the divine nature—was hidden from human eyes. We will not anticipate Pentecost. Today I want to focus on his ascension into heaven, and to do so with a very limited scope. I want us to consider this reading from the Gospel according to John.

Unlike the other three gospels, Matthew, Luke and Mark—in which we see Jesus interpreting the Torah (the five books of Moses) through the perspective of the great literary prophets, the prophets of the Exile, and it being interpreted by the gospel writers according to the same perspective—in the Gospel according to John it is the Torah itself that is being opened up to the auditor: the beginning of the world, the liberation of Israel from Egypt, their journey across the desert, and their coming to the Promised Land; the wooing of Israel as YHWH’s bride; the great feasts of Israel: the Sabbath, the Passover, Sukkot, Hanukah, and Yom Kippur; and the priesthood and the Tabernacle itself. The writer of the gospel, John the disciple, later called the Elder, who has significant ties to Jerusalem and is even known to the high priest, used all these aspects of the Torah, which permeated the life of Israel, to paint a picture of Jesus. The gospel is saturated with these images, and John—mentored by Jesus’ mother—has used them to show how the God of Israel is a mothering God, a God who gives birth, and is giving birth to an entirely new creation—through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And John has crafted this story by the use of nested chiasms into the cruciform of a four-directional mandala. Like a walk in a labyrinth, from wherever we are we follow the path inward towards the center of ourselves and then outward again in a spiral back into our lives, and into the church, and into the world.

For example, on the vertical line of the mandala John 3:1-21 corresponds and is opened up by John 13—17. And 13—17 itself is a chiasm nesting further chiasms. Thus:

13:1-32                                                       17:1-26
.            13:33—14:31               15:26—16:33
.                                15:1-25

Chapter 17 unfolding and folded similarly:

17:1-5                                       17:20-26
.         17:6-8                17:14-19
.                    17:9 -13

Unlike in the other gospels where it is the prayer that Jesus prays in Gethsemane that manifests to us what is at the heart of Jesus’ experience on the cross, the prayer that forms chapter 17 of this gospel is a prayer that Jesus offers before he goes to Gethsemane. John does not tell us about the prayer in the Garden. The prayer on the night of his arrest that John does tell us about is different. It is the conclusion of Jesus’ talk with his disciples, in the Upper Room where they all had gathered to celebrate the Passover, that began with the foot-washing in chapter 13 and now comes to a conclusion in chapter 17. That is five chapters in all; much more than the few paragraphs that the other gospels devote to the Last Supper. Moreover, John is missing the account of the Last Supper itself, the very thing on which the other gospels focus. We might say that these five chapters take the place of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In the manner that this gospel works, it should indeed be an explication of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper which the church in John’s day was celebrating each Lord’s Day, on a weekly basis.

The Gospel according to John presents Jesus as the prophet par excellence for he speaks whatever God gives him to speak, and in fact is himself the Word of God, incarnate. He is also a king, anointed by Mary of Bethany on the eve of his procession into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He is also the high priest who alone can enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement with the blood of the atoning sacrifice. He is, indeed, priest and sacrifice. The talk that Jesus gives in chapters 13—17 shows the movement of the high priest from the bronze laver (where the priests wash) on into the house itself—the holy place where there are the seven-branched candlestick and the table of showbread, and then the golden altar of incense of prayer in front of the veil that separates the holy place from the holiest place, the holy of holies, the inner shrine where sits the ark of the covenant beneath overshadowing wings of the cherubim. It moves from the laver to the altar of incense as Jesus’ night with his disciples moves from the washing of their feet to this prayer that he makes before he proceeds into the inner sanctum. Significantly, after Jesus washes his disciple’s feet he speaks of himself as his Father’s house, which according to 2:16 is the Temple. From here Jesus, who is going to his death, says he is going to his Father. Similarly, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest likewise enters the Holy of Holies with blood of the sacrifices—the blood of the covenant—which he proceeds to pour upon the lid of the ark (the mercy-seat) under the overarching wings of the golden cherubim (which are molded into the lid). Before we think we know what this all means—some will immediately see the theory of “substitution” and will read it into this), we need to pay close attention to Jesus’ (and John’s) words.

The words of Jesus’ prayer are the seal on the words he had just spoken in chapters 13—16. As he offers them up at the golden altar of incense, the incense by which his prayer ascends to the Father is the suffering he is about to undergo, suffering which he was here offering up to the Father.

Jesus is going to the cross so that he can be glorified. He began saying this in 12:23 but he makes it very clear in the five chapters that follow (13:31-32; 17:1-2, 5, 22, 24). What does he mean by “glorify”? What is this glory that is already introduced to us in the very beginning of the gospel: “We beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten with the Father” (1:14)? Literally glory means brightness, the brilliance of light. Here it is the shining forth of God, of the divine nature. Jesus glorified the Father by manifesting the divine nature through the seven great signs that he had wrought by the anointing of the Holy Spirit which came upon him at his baptism (see 2:11; 11:4, 40). (Is this an allusion to the seven lamps of oil on the candelabra in the Temple?) When Jesus has completed his obedience by laying down his soul in death on the cross, the Father will manifest the divine nature through Jesus’ own humanity by raising him from the dead. His divine nature will no longer be hidden by his humanity but will now be revealed by it. His human nature will be glorified (12:16). This means it will share in the divine nature: for example, his human body will be omnipresent, everywhere, or his time, the time that he lived, will be—retroactively—always, eternal, simultaneous with all time. In the resurrection he can simply show up behind closed doors because he is, in fact, already there; that sort of thing. Indeed, all the properties or perfections of divinity—not just ubiquity and eternity—are now shared by his humanity.

Before the cross, this was not the case. His divinity was hidden. When the Son in his divinity took on human nature, he emptied himself of the properties of his divine nature so that his divinity was concealed in the limitations of his human nature. He was still divine, but he emptied himself; he deliberately limited himself; he made his divinity invisible. It was only revealed, inwardly, that is, on the interior of other people, and by a special operation of grace. It was not visible on the outside. Though the signs were outward—performed under the divine anointing—it was what they signified that manifested his divine nature, the manifestation of it therefore being inward; not everyone who saw them “got it.”

So, this is the first part of the premise. What has this got to do with anyone else? Well, notice that even though Jesus is the high priest, he does not wash his own feet; he washes the feet of his disciples. Then, when we move into chapter 14, when Jesus says “in my Father’s house,” he is referring to himself. He is the Father’s house as he already told us in 2:19 of which John says explicitly in verse 21: “He spoke of the Temple of his body.” In that context, it is literally his resurrected body. Then what follows here and in the next two chapters (14—16) he spells out how by his death they will enter him and he into them so that whatever he becomes, they can likewise become. He means it too; what we have here is not meant as hyperbole or metaphor.

He teaches them that the Father “dwells” in him and he in the Father, and while he was presently with them, on that day (the day of his resurrection) he will dwell in them. He introduces the Holy Spirit here. Each of the three Persons dwell in the other, completely and entirely, even as they each give themselves entirely to each other and receive entirely from each other. We call this “co-inherence,” this mutual indwelling.

What this means, though, is that if the Son participates fully in the human nature of Jesus—after all, he is Jesus—and the Son dwells completely in the Holy Spirit, then all that Jesus is, all that Jesus went through, all that Jesus attained, and so on, is in the Holy Spirit. Jesus becomes, in this sense—which means fully and completely—the Holy Spirit, even while as the Son there is no confusion of Persons. The Son and the Holy Spirit are two Persons. (The “I” of the Son and the “I” of the Holy Spirit are distinct, what they share is their essence, the essence being one.) Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit fully conveys the Son, his presence, all that the Son is, including all that is human in Jesus.

And Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples. When he says he will no longer just be with them but will be in them, he means the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit within me, giving me life, is the fullness of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God from eternity, before the worlds came to be. This presence already can begin to change us, and will ultimately change us completely so that we become in our humanity all that Jesus’ humanity became in resurrection. Thus the glory that the Father gave to the Son will be given to us.

This is the teaching of John’s gospel, though we have not yet talked about how this becomes actual in us. This is where ascension and Pentecost come in. Now let’s go back and consider the conclusion to Jesus’ prayer. These verses (17:20-26) corresponding chiastically with verses 1-5, themselves are a chiasm:

17:20-21                                    17:25-26
.             17:22a                17:24
.                        17:22b-23

17:20-21

“But (de) I do not ask concerning these only,
rather (alla) [I ask] concerning those also who believe into me through their word,
that they all may be one:
even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us
that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Here John has Jesus pray for those who gather as the church, hear the Gospel read, and believe into Jesus. His prayer is that the they would participate in the mutual indwelling which the Father and Son enjoy with respect to each other. As the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father, Jesus prays that the readers (the auditors who believe) would be in them, sharing this mutual indwelling already shared by the Father and the Son. He prays that this could happen that the world would believe that—and in what manner—the Father sent the Son. In other words, that they would believe that the human being Jesus is the Incarnation of the divine nature. By the new believers coming to participate in the mutual indwelling of the divine Persons (the mutual indwelling by love being the essence of the divine nature)—by this coming to the attention of the world—that the world would come to believe that Jesus’ coming as the Sent One is the incarnation of God.

17:22a

“And the glory which you have given me I have given to them …”

Jesus has been speaking to his disciples about how the Father is going to glorify him in his resurrection. “The glory which you have given me” refers to what Jesus is given in resurrection. His Person being already divine from before the foundation of the world (i.e., eternally), Jesus here says in anticipation that, as his humanity has been divinized (which it will be on Easter), so he has given this glory (this glorification or divinization) to his disciples, and in particular to the hearers of the Gospel who believe into him. This all anticipates Easter. He—in his human nature—will be divinized when he ascends to the Father on Easter Sunday. He will give his glory his glory to the disciples by breathing the Holy Spirit into them. The Holy Spirit becomes the glory of the Father—the glory given to the Lord Jesus—within them.

17:22b-23

“that they may be one, even as we are one:
I in them, and you in me,
that they may be perfected (teteleiōmenoi) into one,
that the world may know that you have sent me
and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

As you can see, this central portion can also be broken down into the familiar five-part chiasm.

Jesus will give them the Holy Spirit so that they would share the co-inherence of the Father and the Son through the co-inherence of the Trinity. This is their oneness: their entering into the mutual co-inherence of the divine Persons.  As Jesus will dwell in them through the Holy Spirit (“I in them”), the divinity of the Father—the divine nature which is also in Jesus (“you in me”)—will dwell in them. This is what perfects them into one. The word “perfect” is translated as complete or finish in the beginning of the prayer (17:4). It refers to bringing something to its goal, its telos, thus to maturity. The ripening of this co-inherence in the disciples—this dwelling of Jesus in the disciples through the Holy Spirit—will cause the world to know the divinity of Jesus, that the coming of Jesus is the Incarnation of the Son, for the disciples will be sharing in the divine nature.

The world will also know that the Father has loved these disciples even as the Father has loved the Son. How does the Father love the Son? By giving the Son everything that the Father is. The Father gives the glory of the divine nature, which is the Father’s own glory, to the Son. The divine Persons love one another by giving all that they are, and they each are loved by receiving from the other all that they are. The divine nature is this mutual self-giving and receiving of love. The Son is the begotten of the Father, the Image and Word of the Father. All that the Son is is received from the Father. Who the Son is not only manifests therefore the Father but is what the Father has given. The Son is as fully divine as the Father because the Son is fully begotten of the Father. The Son is the Son because the Son has received and reflects the glory—the brilliance and shining forth—of the Father. And this is eternal, without beginning or end. It is not a matter of time or sequence but rather it is who God is as the Triune Persons. As the Father loves the Son, giving the Son the divine glory, so the Father loves the disciples when the disciples participate in the divine co-inherence, entering into the mutual indwelling of the divine Persons.

As the disciples manifest the indwelling of the Son through the Holy Spirit, being perfected into one by participation and sharing in this mutual indwelling and love, the world will know that God is divinized in them as God was in incarnated in Jesus.

This is the “even as” part. The Father loves the disciples in the same manner as the Father loves the Son—by giving the divine glory. These words also mean “as much as.” The Father loves us as much as the Father loves the Son. When we believe into the Son, the Son places us in his own place (by the Holy Spirit) as the object of the Father’s love. We become the object of the outpouring of the Father’s infinite love towards the Son.

17:24

“Father, [concerning] those whom you have given me,
I desire that where I AM
they also may be with me,
that they may behold my glory
which you have given me, for you have loved me before the foundation of the world.”

This portion, which correspond to verse 22a, should also be understood chiastically.

When Jesus resurrected, where was he? He told Mary that he was ascending to the Father. He was ascending in his human nature (his human nature was ascending) to divinity. It was about to become divinized when it would share in the properties of the divine nature (the “intercommunication of properties”). It was about, therefore, to become omnipresent and eternal. This happened right after he spoke to her so that by evening, when he reappeared in the upper room, he was already divinized—hence he appeared in the room without having to use the door. “I desire that where I am”—Jesus uses the formula “I am” (eimi e) here as elsewhere to refer to his divinity, and here, the presence of the divine in him. He is the “I am” of God, and desires that his disciples would be with him to behold his glory.

The glory he has in resurrection, in his human nature, is the glory which the Father in love has eternally given to the divine Son, and which the Son has always received from the Father as the expression of the Father’s love from before the foundation of the world (that is, in eternity “before” time).

So, when were the disciples “with him”? They were with him in the Easter appearances. In each instance of the Easter appearances after his ascension, Jesus “manifested” himself to his disciples. He was everywhere but he showed himself in this particular place and at that particular place. Whenever he did so, the disciples saw that he was with them. Indeed, he was already there (as we see in the scene where he was cooking breakfast for them with fish he had already caught). When he would suddenly disappear, he wanted them to know that he was still there. He kept manifesting himself until that day, what we call Ascension Thursday, when he manifested himself so concretely no more but ascended into heaven. That ascension was into the invisible realm of creation (called “heaven” in contrast to the visible realm called “earth”) as compared to the earlier ascension on Easter which was to the Father.

Why does Jesus want them to be with him, and what does it mean “to be with him” when he is no longer visible on earth? He says, “that they may behold my glory.” He wants to be with them, and them with him, that they may “behold” him in his divinization—not apart from his humanity, no, but rather to behold his humanity in this new light. His humanity is everywhere because it is everywhere his divine being is, sharing its properties. Moreover, to behold his glory means to look at his human life—for it has retroactively become eternal. The life that he lived for some thirty-five years is no longer the past but has been taken up into the eternal present of God. The divinization of his life applies retroactively to everything he has ever been or done.

This, then, is the point: to behold him is to look at his human life with new eyes, to see the divine presence in all that he did. We are with him in his ascension when we spend time with him, meditating on the story, beholding there his glory. This means that we are beholding the glory of God in his humility, in his love, in his suffering, in all the ways that he was human. We might think of the glory of God being represented by supreme power and might. But the glory of God is not elsewhere but in the divine self-emptying that composed his life. This is deeply ironic, but it is the truth of John’s gospel.

In the year 1238 Lady Clare wrote in her Third Letter to Agnes of Prague: “Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance and, through contemplation, transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead itself, so that you too may feel what friends feel in tasting the hidden sweetness that, from the beginning, God himself has reserved for his lovers. And, after all who ensnare their blind lovers in a deceitful and turbulent world have been completely passed over, may you totally love him who gave himself totally for your love, at whose beauty the sun and the moon marvel, whose rewards and their uniqueness and grandeur have no limits; I am speaking of him, the Son of the Most High.” She went on at even greater length on this kind of contemplation in her Fourth Letter. This is the idea.

17:25-26

“Righteous Father, though (kai) the world has not known you, yet (de) I have known you,
and these have known that you have sent me.
And I have made known to them your Name and will [yet] make [it] known,
that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, even I in them.”

The disciples are the ones to whom the divinity of Jesus was revealed. They have known that the Father has sent him. It is by his presence and his living and his words that he made known to them the divine Name, the revelation of who God is. In ascension, now that his humanity has been divinized since Easter, he will continue to reveal God by his story, by the gospel that tells his story. When the hearers of the gospel “behold” Jesus, they will become like him, they will begin to participate and will participate more and more in his divinization. They will be “given glory,” not their own glory but the glory of the divine nature. This is what Jesus means when he says, “that the love with which you [Father] have loved me may be in them.” When the love of the Father toward the Son is in the disciples, they are glorified. When the love of the Father is in them, then Jesus himself is in them through the Holy Spirit. What glory looks like now, for us, is for us to not only be in Jesus but for Jesus to be in us, in all his love and humility.

The Gospel according to John several times asserts the importance of the words of the Gospel. Not only in verse 20 when Jesus prays “concerning those also who believe into me through their word,” but already in 6:63 when Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” And in 20:29 when he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (by the word alone). Lest we miss the intention of these words, John adds in verse 31, “These [words] have been written that you [who have not seen] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his Name.”

In a nutshell, Jesus says (I here paraphrase):

“In my story (that is, in the Gospel)
I will yet make known to them
the revelation of you [i.e., the Father’s “Name”],
that by their beholding me through the lens of this revelation
[which is the glory you have given me],
I may be IN them.”

With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us,
mingled with our own spirit,
we become more and more like Jesus
when (and as) we “behold” him in the gospels—
that is, as we meditate on him
when we hear about him and see him
with rapt attention.

[These are the notes I prepared before I preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Passaic this past Sunday. Of course it is not what I said. However, it does convey where I was coming from when I spoke with them. It is the tail end of the longest discourse section of the Gospel according to John, the last few lines of the prayer Jesus prays before he went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he anticipated his arrest. The prayer in fact – like the discourse itself – anticipates his resurrection on the other side of his death. What might be interesting to someone besides myself is that in John’s Gospel Jesus ascends to the Father and breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples on the same day he rose from the dead, that is, on April 9, 30 C.E. In the Acts of the Apostles Jesus ascends into heaven forty days after he rose from the dead (on May 18), and pours the Holy Spirit on the disciples ten days after that (on May 28). I think that the two accounts are both correct but are each talking about different things.]

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