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John 17.

The prayer uttered by Jesus at the close of His farewell address to His disciples, of unparalleled sublimity, whether we regard its contents or the circumstances amid which it was offered up, it was for years our fixed purpose to pass over in solemn, reverent silence, without note or comment. We reluctantly depart from our intention now, constrained by the considerations that the prayer was not offered up mentally by Jesus, but in the hearing and for the instruction of the eleven men present; that it has been recorded by one of them for the benefit of the Church in all ages; and that what it hath pleased God to preserve for our use we must endeavor to understand, and may attempt to interpret.

The prayer falls naturally into three divisions, in the first of which Jesus prays for Himself, in the second for His disciples, and in the third for the Church which was to be brought into existence by their preaching.

The prayer of Jesus for Himself (vers. 1-5.) contains just one petition, with two reasons annexed. The petition is, “Father, the hour is come, glorify Thy Son;.” in which the manner of address, simple, familiar, confidential, is noteworthy. “Father!” — such is the first word of the prayer, six times repeated in its course, with or without epithet attached, and the name which Jesus gives to Him to whom His prayer is addressed. He speaks to God as if He were already in heaven, as indeed He expressly says He is a little farther on: “Now I am no more in the world.”

The significant phrase, “the hour is come,” is it not less worthy of notice. How much it expresses! — filial obedience, filial intimacy, filial hope and joy. The hour! It is the hour for which He has patiently waited, which He has looked forward to with eager expectation, yet has never sought to hurry on; the hour appointed by His Father, about which Father and Son have always had an understanding, and of which none but they have had any knowledge. That hour is come, and its arrival is intimated as a plea in support of the petition: “Thou knowest, Father, how patiently I have waited for what I now ask, not wearying in well-doing, nor shrinking from the hardships of my earthly lot. Now that my work is finished, grant me the desire of my heart, and glorify me.”

“Glorify me,” that is, “take me to be with Thyself.” The prayer of Jesus is that His Father would be pleased now to translate Him from this world of sin and sorrow into the state of glory He left behind when He became man. Thus He explains His own meaning when He repeats His request in a more expanded form, as given in the fifth verse: “And now, O Father, glorify Thou me with Thine own self, with the glory I had with Thee before the world was,” i. e. with the glory He enjoyed in the bosom of the Father before His incarnation as God’s eternal Son.

It is observable that in this prayer for Himself Jesus makes no allusion to His approaching sufferings. Very shortly after, in Gethsemane, He prayed: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!” But here is no mention of the cup of sorrow, but only of the crown of glory. For the present heaven is in full view, and its anticipated glories make Him oblivious of every thing else. Not till He is gone out into the night do the sulphurous clouds begin to gather which overshadow the sky and shut out the celestial world from sight. Yet the coming passion, though not mentioned, is virtually included in the prayer. Jesus knows that He must pass through suffering to glory, and that He must behave Himself worthily under the last trial, in order to reach the desired goal. Therefore the uttered prayer includes this unuttered one: “Carry me well through the approaching struggle; let me pass through the dark valley to the realms of light without flinching or fear.”600600Reuss (Theologie Chrétienne, ii. 455) maintains that the Gospel of John knows nothing of a state of humiliation, and in proof alludes to the fact that in this Gospel is represented as a glorification. On this view vide The Humiliation of Christ, p. 34, 2d ed. On the theological import of ver. 5, vide the same work, p. 359.

The first reason annexed to the prayer is, “That Thy Son also may glorify Thee.” Jesus seeks His own glorification merely as a means to a higher end, the glorification of God the Father. And in so connecting the two glorifyings as means and end, He but repeats to the Father what He had said to His disciples in His farewell address. He had told them that it was good for them that He should go, as not till His departure would any deep impression be made on the world’s conscience with respect to Himself and His doctrine. He now tells His Father in effect: “It is good for Thy glory that I leave the earth and go to heaven; for henceforth I can promote Thy glory in the world better there than by a prolonged sojourn here.” To enforce the reason, Jesus next declares that what He desires is to glorify the Father in His office as the Saviour of sinners: “As Thou hast given Him power over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as Thou hast given Him.”601601John xvii. 2. The R. V. has “Thou gavest.” The revisers have carried out their views of the rendering of the aorist too rigidly in this chapter. There can be little doubt that some of the aorists are in effect perfects. We may quote the following sentences from Buttmann’s Grammar of the New Testament Greek; “That the aorist may stand for the perfect, has been denied by many grammarians in reference to ordinary Greek usage, and by Winer in reference to the New Testament also, yet with too little qualification. As in so many other instances, the question depends simply upon our connecting the correct idea with the grammatical terminology; that is to say, inasmuch as the relation of time expressed by the perfect is compounded, as it were, of that of the aorist and that of the present, in cases where the aorist is used in the sense of the perfect, we must take this view of the matter, — that the aorist was not intended to express both relations of the perfect at once, but that the writer for the moment withdraws from the present and places himself in the past, consequently in the position of a narrator. This position is uniformly the most natural for the act of composition, and from it there results of itself, if not a positive aversion to the perfect, yet a greater preference for the aorist. The continuance of the action, therefore, and its effect down to the present time, resides, not indeed in the tense, but in the connection; and the necessary insertion of the relation is left in every case to the hearer.” — Pp. 197–8, American Edition. Interpreted in the light of this sentence, the prayer means: “Thou sentest me into the world to save sinners, and hitherto I have been constantly occupied in seeking the lost, and communicating eternal life to such as would receive it. But the time has come when this work can be best carried on by me lifted up. Therefore exalt me to Thy throne, that from thence, as a Prince and a Saviour, I may dispense the blessings of salvation.”

It is important to notice how Jesus defines His commission as the Savior. He represents it at once as concerning all flesh, and as specially concerning a select class, thus ascribing to His work a general and a particular reference, in accordance with the teaching of the whole New Testament, which sets forth Christ at one time as the Saviour of all men, at another as the Saviour of His people, of the elect, of His sheep, of those who believe. This style of speaking concerning the redeeming work of our Saviour it is our duty and our privilege to imitate, avoiding extremes, both that of denying or ignoring the universal aspects of Christ’s mission, and that of maintaining that He is in the same sense the Saviour of all, or that He will and must eventually save all. Both extremes are excluded by the carefully selected words of Jesus in His intercessory prayer. On the one hand, He speaks of all flesh as belonging to His jurisdiction as the Saviour of humanity at large as the mass into which the leaven is to be deposited, with a view to leavening the whole lump. On the other hand, there is an obvious restriction on the universality of the first clause in the terms of the second. The advocates of universal restoration have no support for their tenet here. They may indeed ask: If Jesus has power over all flesh, is it credible that He will not use it to the uttermost? In reply, we shall not seek to evade the question, by resolving the power claimed into a mere mediatorial sovereignty over the whole solely for the sake of a part, because we know that the elect part is chosen not merely for its own sake, but also for the sake of the whole, to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the leaven to leaven the corrupt mass.602602On this see Martensen, Die Christliche Dogmatik, § 215 (translated in Foreign Theological Library). We simply observe that the power of the Saviour is not compulsory. Men are not saved by force as machines, but by love and grace as free beings; and there are many whom brooding love would gather under its wings who prefer remaining outside to their own destruction.

The essence of eternal life is defined in the next sentence of the prayer, and represented as consisting in the knowledge of the only true God, and of Jesus Christ His messenger, knowledge been taken comprehensively as including faith, love, and worship, and the emphasis lying on the objects of such knowledge. The Christian religion is here described in opposition to paganism on the one hand, with its many gods, and to Judaism on the other, which, believing in the one true God, rejected the claims of Jesus to be the Christ. It is further so described as to exclude by anticipation Arian and Socinian views of the person of Christ. The names of God and of Jesus are put on a level as objects of religious regard, whereby an importance is assigned to the latter incompatible with the dogma that Jesus is a mere man. For eternal life cannot depend on knowing any man, however wise and good: the utmost that can be said of the benefit derivable from such knowledge is that it is helpful towards knowing God better, which can be affirmed not only of Jesus, but of Moses, Paul, John, and all the apostles.

It may seem strange that, in addressing His Father, Jesus should deem it needful to explain wherein eternal life consists; and some, to get rid of the difficulty, have supposed that the sentence is an explanatory reflection interwoven into the prayer by the evangelist. Yet the words were perfectly appropriate in the mouth of Jesus Himself. The first clause is a confession by the man Jesus of His own faith in God His Father as the supreme object of knowledge; and the whole sentence is really an argument in support of the prayer, Glorify Thy Son. The force of the declaration lies in what it implies respecting the existing ignorance of men concerning the Father and His Son. It is as if Jesus said: Father, Thou knowest that eternal life consists in knowing Thee and me. Look around, then, and see how few possess such knowledge. The heathen world knoweth Thee not — it worships idols: the Jewish world is equally ignorant of Thee in spirit and in truth; for, while boasting of knowing Thee, it rejects me. The whole world is overspread with a dark veil of ignorance and superstition. Take me out of it, therefore, not because I am weary of its sin and darkness, but that I may become to it a sun. Hitherto my efforts to illuminate the darkness have met with small success. Grant me a position from which I can send forth light over all the earth.

But why does the Saviour here alone, in the whole Gospel history, call Himself Jesus Christ? Some see in this compound name, common in the apostolic age, another proof that this verse is an interpolation. Again, however, without reason, for the style in which Jesus designates Himself exactly suits the object He has in view. He is pleading with the Father to take Him to glory, that He may the more effectually propagate the true religion. What more appropriate in this connection than to speak of Himself objectively under the name by which He should be known among the professors of the true religion?

The second reason pleaded by Jesus in support of His prayer, is that His appointed service has been faithfully accomplished, and now claims its guerdon: “I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do. Now, therefore, glorify Thou me.”603603John xvii. 4. The great Servant of God speaks here not only with reference to the past, but by anticipation with reference to His passion already endured in purpose; so that the “I have finished” of the prayer is equivalent in meaning to the “It is finished” spoken from the cross. And what He says concerning Himself is true; the declaration, though one which no other human being could make without abatement, is on His part no exaggerated, boastful piece of self-laudation, but the sober, humble utterance of a conscience void of offence towards God and towards men. Nor can we say that the statement, though true, was ultroneous and uncalled for. It was necessary that Jesus should be able to make that declaration; and though the fact declared was well known to God, it was desirable to proclaim in the hearing of the eleven, and unto the whole Church through their record, the grounds on which His claim to be rewarded with glory rested, for the strengthening of faith. For as our faith and hope towards God are based on the fact that Jesus Christ was able to make the declaration in question, so they are confirmed by the actual making of it, His protestation that He has kept His covenant of work being to us, as it were, a seal of the covenant of grace, serving the same end as the sacrament of the Supper.

Having offered this brief petition for Himself, Jesus proceeded to pray for His disciples at much greater length, all that follows having reference to them mainly, and from the sixth to the twentieth verse 6-20] referring to them exclusively. The transition is made by a special declaration, applying the general one of the preceding sentence to that part of Christ’s personal work which consisted in the training of these men: “I have manifested Thy name unto the men whom Thou gravest me out of the world.”604604Ver. 6. After this introductory statement follows a short description of the persons about to be prayed for. Jesus gives His disciples a good character. First, scrupulously careful not to exaggerate the importance of the service He has rendered in training them for the apostolate, He acknowledges that they were good when He got them: “Thine they were, and Thou gavest them me:.” they were pious, devout men, God-taught, God-drawn, God-given. Then He testifies that since they had been with Him they had sustained the character they had when they joined His company: “They have kept Thy word.” And finally, He bears witness that the men whom His Father had given Him had been true believers in Himself, and had received all His words as the very truth of God, and Himself as one sent forth into the world by God.605605Vers. 7, 8, cf. Luke xxii. 28, 29. Here, surely, is a generous eulogy on disciples, who, while sincere and devoted to their Master, were, as we know, exceedingly faulty in conduct, and slow to learn.

Having thus generously praised His humble companions, Jesus intimates His intention to pray for them: “I pray for them.” But the prayer comes not just yet; for some prefatory words must be premised, to give the prayer more emphasis when it does come. First, the persons prayed for are singled out as for the moment the sole objects of a concentrated solicitude. “I pray for them: I pray not for the world.”606606Ver. 9. The design of Jesus in making this statement is not, of course, to intimate the absolute exclusion of the world from His sympathies. Not exclusion, but concentration in order to eventual inclusion, is His purpose here. He would have His Father fix His special regards on this small band of men, with whom the fortunes of Christianity are bound up. He prays for them as a mother dying might pray exclusively for her children, — not that she is indifferent to the interest of all beyond, but that her family, in her solemn situation, is for her the natural legitimate object of an absorbing, all-engrossing solicitude. He prays for them as the precious fruit of His life-labor, the hope of the future, the founders of the Church, the Noah’s ark of the Christian faith, the missionaries of the truth to the whole world; for them alone, but for the world’s sake, — it being the best thing He can do for the world meantime to commend them to the Father’s care.

What Jesus means to ask for the men thus singled out, we can now guess for ourselves. It is that His Father would keep them, now that He is about to leave them. But before the request come two reasons why it should be granted. The first is expressed in these terms: “They are Thine: and all mine are Thine, and Thine are mine; and I am glorified in them;.”607607Ver. 10. — and means in effect this: “It is Thy business, Thy interest, to keep these men. They are Thine; Thou gravest them me: keep Thine own. Although since they became my disciples they have been mine, that makes no difference: they are still Thine; for between me and Thee is no distinction of meum and tuum. Then I am glorified in them: my cause, my name, my doctrine, are to be henceforth identified with them; and if they miscarry, my interest will be shipwrecked. Therefore, as Thou values the honor of Thy Son, keep these men.” The other reason why the request about to be proffered should be granted is: “And now I am no more in the world.”608608Ver. 11. The Master, about to depart from the earth, commends to His Father’s care those whom He is leaving behind without a head.

And now at length comes the prayer for the eleven, ushered in with due solemnity by a new emphatic address to the Hearer of prayer: “Holy Father, keep in Thine own name those whom Thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.”609609Ver. 11. The epithet “holy” suits the purport of the prayer, which is that the disciples may be kept pure in faith and practice, separate from all existing error and sin, that they may be eventually a salt to the corrupt world in which their Lord is about to leave them. The prayer itself embraces two particulars. The first is that the disciples may be kept in the name of the Father, which Jesus has manifested to them; that is, that they may continue to believe what He had taught them of God, and so become His instruments for diffusing the knowledge of the true God and the true religion throughout the earth. The second is, that they may be one, that is, that they may be kept in love to each other, as well as in the faith of the divine name; separate from the world, but not divided among themselves.610610Ver. 11. These two things, truth and love, Jesus asks for His own, as of vital moment: truth as the badge of distinction between His Church and the world; love as the bond which unites believers of the truth into a holy brotherhood of witness-bearers to the truth. These two things the Church should ever keep in view as of co-ordinate importance: not sacrificing love to truth, dividing those who should be one by insisting on too minute and detailed a testimony; nor sacrificing truth to love, making the Church a very broad, comprehensive society, but a society without a vocation or raison d’être, having no truth to guard and teach, or testimony to bear.

Having commended His disciples to His Father’s care, Jesus next gives an account of His own stewardship as their Master, and protests that He has faithfully kept them in divine truth.611611Ver. 12. He claims to have done His duty by them all, not even excepting Judas, in whose case He admits failure, but at the same time clears Himself of blame. The reference to the false disciple shows how conscientious He is in rendering His account. He feels, as it were, put on His defense with reference to the apostate; and supposing Himself to be asked the question, What have you to say about this man? He replies in effect: “I admit I have not been able to keep him from falling, but I have done all I could. The son of perdition is not lost through my fault.”612612Ver. 12. We know how well entitled Jesus was to make this protestation.

In the next part of the prayer613613Vers. 14-20. Jesus defines the sense in which He asks that His disciples may be kept, and in doing this virtually offers new reasons why the petition should be heard. He commends them to His Father’s care as the depositaries of truth, worth keeping on that account, and needing to be kept, because of the world’s dislike of the truth.614614Ver. 14. And He explains that by keeping He means not translation out of the world, but preservation in the world from its moral evil, their presence there as a salt being necessary, and their purity not less needful, that the salt might not be without savor and virtue. This explanation He meant not for the ear of His Father alone, but also for the ears of His disciples. He wished them to understand that two things were equally to be shunned, — conformity to the world, and weariness of the world. They must abide in the truth, and they must abide in the world for the truth’s sake; mindful, for their consolation, that when they felt the world’s hatred most, they were doing most good, and that the weight of their cross was the measure of their influence.

The keeping asked by Jesus for His own is but the continuance and perfecting of an existing moral condition. He needs not to ask His Father now for the first time to separate His disciples in spirit and character from the world. That they are already; that they were when first they joined His society; that they have continued to be. This, in justice to them, their Master is careful to state twice over in this portion of His prayer. “They,” He testifies, “are not of the world, even as I am not of the world,”615615John xvii. 14, 16. putting them on a level with Himself with characteristic magnanimity, and not without truth; for the persons thus described, though in many respects defective, were very unworldly, caring nothing for the world’s trinity, — riches, honors, and pleasures, — but only for the words of eternal life.

Yet, notwithstanding their sincerity, the eleven still needed not only keeping, but perfecting; and therefore their Master went on to pray for their sanctification in the truth, having in view not only their perseverance, growth, and maturity in grace as private Christians, but more especially their spiritual equipment for the office of the apostleship. Hence He goes on in the next breath to make mention of their apostolic vocation, showing that that is principally in His eye: “As Thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.”616616Ver. 18. That they may be fitted for their mission is His intense desire. Hence He proceeds to speak of His own sanctification as a means towards their apostolic sanctification as the end, as if His own ministry were merely subordinate to theirs. For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.”617617Ver. 19. Remarkable words, whose meaning is obscure, and has been much debated, but in which we may at least with confidence discover a singular display of condescension and love. Jesus speaks here like a parent who lives for the sake of His children, having a regard to their moral training in all His personal habits, denying Himself pleasures for their benefit, and making it His chief end and care to form their characters, perfect their education, and fit them for the duties of the position which they are destined to fill.

The remainder of the prayer (with exception of the two closing sentences)618618Ver. 20-24. respects the Church at large, — those who should believe in Christ through the word of the apostles, heard from their lips, or reported in their writings. What Jesus desires for the body of believers is partly left to be inferred; for when He says, “I pray not for these alone,” He intimates that He desires for the parties next to be prayed for the same things He has already asked for his disciples: preservation in the truth, and from the evil in the world, and sanctification by the truth. The one blessing He expressly asks for the Church is “unity.” His heart’s desire for believers in Him is “that they all may be one.” His ideal of the Church’s unity is very high, its divine exemplar being the unity subsisting between the persons in the Godhead, and specially between the Father and the Son, and its ground the same divine unity: “one as we are one, and in us who are one,” bound together as closely and harmoniously by the common name into which they are baptized, and by which they are called.619619Ver. 21.

This unity, desirable for its own sake, Jesus specially desiderates, because of the moral power which it will confer on the Church as an institute for propagating the Christian faith: “That the world may believe that Thou hast sent me.”620620Vers. 21, 23. Now this end is one which cannot be promoted unless the unity of believers be in some way made manifest. A unity which is not apparent can have no effect on the world, but must needs be as a candle under a bushel, which gives no light, nay, ceases to be a light, and goes out. There can be no doubt, therefore, that our Lord had a visible unity in view; and the only question is how that is to be reached. The first and most obvious way is by union in one church organization, with appointed means for representing the whole body, and expressing its united mind; such, e.g., as the oecumenical councils of the early centuries. This, the most complete manifestation of unity, was exhibited in the primitive Church.

In our day incorporating union on a great scale621621This remark is meant to apply to the whole visible Church, divided not only by diversity of opinion on doctrines of cardinal importance, but by incompatible forms of church government. Local and partial incorporating unions of bodies really allied in doctrine and government, are not only practicable, but obligatory. is not possible, and other methods of expressing the feeling of catholicity must be resorted to. One method that might be tried is that of confederation, whereby independent church organizations might be united after the fashion of the United States of America, or of the Greek republics, which found a centre of unity in the legislative and judicial assembly called the Amphictyonic Council. But whatever may be thought of that, one thing is certain, that the unity of believers in Christ must be made more manifest as an undeniable fact somehow, if the Church is to realize her vocation as a holy nation called out of darkness to show forth the virtues of Him whose name she bears, and win for Him the world’s homage and faith. It is true, indeed, that the unity of the Church does find expression in its creed; by which we mean not the sectional creed of this or that denomination, but the creed within the creeds, expressive of the catholic orthodoxy of Christendom, and embracing the fundamentals, and only the fundamentals, of the Christian faith. There is a Church within all the churches to which this creed is the thing of value, all else being, in the esteem of its members, but the husk containing the precious kernel. But the existence of that Church is a fact known by faith, not by sight: its influence is little felt by the world; and however thankful we may be for the presence in the midst of ecclesiastical organizations of this holy commonwealth, we cannot accept it as the realization of the ideal which the Saviour had in His mind when He uttered the words, “That they all may be one.”

In the next two sentences622622John xvii. 22, 23. Jesus fondly lingers over this prayer, repeating, expanding, enforcing the petition in language too deep for our fathoming line, but which plainly conveys the truth that without unity the Church can neither glorify Christ, commend Christianity as divine, nor have the glory of Christ abiding on herself. And this is a truth which, on reflection, approves itself to reason. Wrangling is not a divine thing, and it needs no divine influence to bring it about. Anybody can quarrel; and the world, knowing that, has little respect for a quarrelling Church. But the world opens its eyes in wonder at a community in which peace and concord prevail, saying, Here is something out of the common course, — selfishness and self-will rooted out of human nature: nothing but a divine influence could thus subdue the centrifugal forces which tend to separate men from each other.

The endearing name Father, with which the next sentence begins, marks the commencement of a new final paragraph in the prayer of the great High Priest.623623Ver. 24. Jesus at this point casts a glance forward to the end of things, and prays for the final consummation of God’s purpose with regard to the Church: that the Church militant may become the Church triumphant; that the body of saints, imperfectly sanctified on earth, may become perfectly sanctified and glorified in heaven, with Himself where He will be, beholding His glory, and changed into the same image by the Spirit of God.

Then comes the conclusion, in which Jesus returns from the distant future to the present, and gathers in His thoughts from the Church at large to the company assembled in the supper-chamber, Himself and His disciples.624624Vers. 25, 26. These two closing sentences serve the same use in Christ’s prayer that the phrase “for Christ’s sake” serves in ours. They contain two pleas, — the service of the parties prayed for, and the righteousness of the Being prayed to, — the last coming first, embodied in the title, “O righteous Father.” The services, merits, and claims of Jesus and His disciples are specifically mentioned as matters to which the righteous Father will doubtless attach the due weight. The world’s ignorance of God is alluded to, to enhance the value of the acknowledgment which He has received from His Son and His Son’s companions. That ignorance explains why Jesus deems it necessary to say, “I have known Thee.” Even His knowledge was not a thing of course in such a world. It was an effort for the man Jesus to retain God in His knowledge, quite as much as to keep Himself unspotted from the world’s corruptions. It was as hard for Him to know and confess God as Father in a world that in a thousand ways practically denied that Fatherhood, as to live a life of love amid manifold temptations to self-seeking. In truth, the two problems were one. To be light in the midst of darkness, love in the midst of selfishness, holiness in the midst of depravity, are in effect the same thing.

While pleading His own merit, Jesus forgets not the claims of His disciples. Of them He says in effect: They have known Thee at second-hand through me, as I have known Thee at first-hand by direct intuition.625625John xvii. 25. Not content with this statement, He expatiates on the importance of these men as objects of divine care, representing that they are worth keeping, as already possessing the knowledge of God’s name, and destined ere long to know it yet more perfectly, so that they shall be able to make it known as an object of homage to others, and God shall be able to love them even as He loved His own Son, when He was in the world faithfully serving His heavenly Father. “And I have declared unto them Thy name, and will declare it; that the love wherewith Thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.”626626Ver. 26. Wonderful words to be uttered concerning mere earthen vessels!

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