(My apologies for the belated posting of this Saturday series; next week I hope to return to regular postings on Saturday proper.)
The great prayer-discourse of John 17 serves as the conclusion both to the Last Discourse (ch. 13:31-16:33) and to the Johannine Discourses of Jesus as a whole. As such, in the Gospel narrative, they represent the climax of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples before his death. Many of the themes and ideas in the Discourses are restated and given new significance in chapter 17. For an outline of the prayer-discourse, see my earlier note on 17:3.
Today we will be looking specifically at verses 11-12:
“And (now) I am no longer in the world, and (yet) these [i.e. the disciples] are in the world, and I come toward you. Holy Father, keep watch (over) these in the name which you have given to me, that they might be one, even as we (are). When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me, and I guarded (them) and not one of them came to ruin…”
There are textual and interpretive difficulties throughout chapter 17, including these verses. As I discussed last week, while the language and vocabulary of the Gospel of John (and the Discourses) is relatively simple, the way this language is applied is often quite complex and allusive. Every grammatical detail and nuance of wording can carry special (theological) significance. At the same time, the style and wording of the Johannine discourses is quite consistent, with the same words, phrases, and images often being repeated from one discourse to the next. This means that we can look to earlier usage in the Gospel for reliable information as to what the author (and Jesus as the speaker) intends to convey.
Moreover, it is possible to use the first Johannine letter (1 John) for added insight as to the meaning of passages in the Gospel. Normally it is not wise to rely upon other New Testament writings for the interpretation of a passage in a particular book; however, the case of the Gospel and Letters of John is special. If they were not written by the same author (traditionally, John the Apostle), then they at least must be viewed as the product of a Community, or congregations, which share a common language and thought-world. The vocabulary and mode of expression in the Letters (esp. 1 John) is very close to that of the Gospel (and the Discourses of Jesus). Many passages in 1 John could have been lifted right out of the Discourses.
There are three elements of John 17:11-12 which we will examine:
- The use of the verbs t¢réœ and phylássœ
- The meaning and significance of the “name” (ónoma)
- The relationship between Father and Son (Jesus), and that between Jesus and the believer
1. First, we have the two verbs t¢réœ and phylássœ, which are largely synonymous:
- thre/w (t¢réœ) has the basic meaning “watch”, often in the sense of “keep watch (over)”
- fula/ssw (phylássœ) similarly means “watch, be alert, guard”
Let us look at how these verbs are used in the Gospel (and Letters) of John.
Most commonly they relate to the idea of believers keeping/guarding Jesus’ words. This is expressed three ways, which are more or less synonymous:
- (1) Jesus’ word/account (singular, lógos)—Jn 8:51-52; 14:23; 15:20; 1 Jn 2:5 (all using t¢réœ)
- (2) Jesus’ words (plural, lógoi)—Jn 14:24 (using t¢réœ)
or, similarly, his “utterances [i.e. spoken words]” (rh¢¡mata)—Jn 12:47 (using phylássœ), interchangeable with “word[s]” (lógos, v. 48)
- (3) The things Jesus lays on believers to complete (plur. entolaí), typically translated “command(ment)s”—Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 3:22, 24
This wording is distinctive in the Gospel and letters of John, and must be studied properly in context, as it can be easily misunderstood. The use of the word entol¢¡ (e)ntolh/), especially when translated “commandment”, can give the impression of a religious or ethical commandment such as we find in the Old Testament Law (Torah). To speak thus of “commandments” of Jesus again suggests a collection of authoritative “commands” like many in the Torah, or, more specifically, in something like the Sermon on the Mount. However, a careful study of the Gospel of John reveals nothing of the kind. While Jesus certainly gave much teaching to his disciples, there is really only one “command” as such—the directive that believers love one another (Jn 13:34-35; 15:12ff; and also 1 Jn 3:11ff, etc). It can be fairly well established from the Gospel that the “commands” actually are two (and only two): (1) trust in Jesus, and (2) love for one another, following Christ’s own example. The author of 1 John states this two-fold “commandment” explicitly in 3:23-24.
An important point is that believers are to keep Jesus’ word(s) just as Jesus (the Son) has kept the word(s) of the Father—Jn 8:55; 15:10; 17:6. This chain of relationship between Father, Son and Believer(s) is central to Johannine theology and will be discussed under point 3 below. Jesus’ words are identified as being precisely those of God the Father; thus, if one keeps/guards Jesus‘ words, the believer is also keeping/guarding the Father’s words (John 12:49; 17:6; 1 Jn 5:2-3).
But this is only one aspect of the verb t¢réœ/phylássœ. Part of the reciprocal relationship between Jesus and the believer is that, just as the believer keeps/guards Jesus’ word, so Jesus also keeps/guards the believer. This is the idea expressed here in vv. 11-12. Jesus prays to the Father, asking that He keep watch (over) the disciples—i.e. the elect/believers, the ones given by the Father into Jesus’ care. Jesus states that he himself kept watch over them while he has been with them on earth (v. 12); but now, he is going away, and requests that the Father would keep watch over them. Almost certainly this refers to the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete (see the discussion last week). It is possible to view Jesus’ request here as a fulfillment of 14:16ff.
What is the nature of this protection? It is more or less explained in verse 15:
“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you would keep them out of evil” (or, “…out of [the power of] the Evil [One]”)
God, through the Spirit/Paraclete, which is also the Spirit of Jesus (taking his place with believers), will keep watch over us and guard us from sin and evil. In the same manner, we find exhortations for believers to keep/guard themselves (their souls) from evil—Jn 12:25; 1 Jn 5:21 (“from idols/images”).
2. The second point to examine is the reference to the name (ónoma). Twice in vv. 11-12, Jesus uses the phrase “the name which you have given to me”. Copyists apparently misunderstood the syntax, as we find a number of instances in the manuscripts where it reads a plural accusative form (hoús, ou%$), i.e. referring to the disciples—”these…whom you have given to me”. There is basis for such a formulation in the Gospel, but almost certainly the dative singular (hœ¡, w!|) is original. The reference is to the name which God has given to Jesus, and it is this name which keeps/guards believers—”in the name which you have given to me”.
What is this name? Clearly it belongs to God the Father, since Jesus says “your name”—”in your name which you have given to me”. Elsewhere in the Gospel, the “name” specifically refers to Jesus‘ name, usually with the expression “trust in (Jesus)’ name”. The author speaks of trusting in his name, in Jn 1:12; 2:23; 20:31; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13, while in Jn 3:18 the reference is to trust “in the name of the…Son of God”. The name of Jesus has great power and efficacy, as we see expressed throughout the New Testament. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples (and all believers) that they are to pray/ask of the Father in his [i.e. Jesus’] name—Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26. Moreover, believers experience the release (forgiveness) of sins through Jesus’ name (1 Jn 2:12). Jesus also tells his disciples that the Father will send the Spirit/Paraclete in his name (14:26).
It is overly simplistic (and somewhat inaccurate) to take the view that Jesus’ name is simply the name Jesus/Yeshua itself. This would reduce “in the name of…” to a quasi-magical formula; and, while many Christians have used and understood it this way, the New Testament suggests something deeper (e.g. Phil 2:9-11, and many other passages). The key is in realizing how ancient peoples understood and treated names. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented the person himself (or herself), embodying the person’s essence and power in an almost magical way. To know or have access/control of a person’s name meant knowledge/control of the person (and the power, etc, which he/she possessed). From a religious standpoint, this gave to the name of God an extraordinary importance. To know the name of God, and to “call on” his name, meant that one had an intimate access to God Himself. For more on this topic, see my earlier Christmas season series (“And you shall call his name…”).
This is important because it relates to the Father/Son relationship that is central to the Gospel (and Discourses) in John. Jesus is the Son sent by the Father—thus he comes in his Father’s name (representing) him, working and acting in His name (Jn 5:43; 10:25; cf. also 12:13). As a faithful Son, he does and says what he seen and hears the Father doing/saying—i.e. his words are those of the Father. Moreover, as the Son (and heir), the Father gives to Jesus everything that belongs to Him (3:35, etc), including His name. Jesus, in turn, gives this name to believers, both in the sense of making it known—i.e. manifesting it to us (17:6, 26)—and also in the sense expressed here in vv. 11-12. Believers are kept/guarded in (en/e)n) this name which God the Father gave to Jesus. Is it possible to define or identify this name more precisely? There are several possibilities:
- It is the ancient name represented by the tetragrammaton (YHWH/hwhy)
- It is the ancient name as translated/interpreted in Greek as egœ eimi (e)gw/ ei)mi), “I AM”
- It is to be understood in the fundamental sense of the name representing the person—i.e. the name of God the Father indicates the presence and power of God Himself
The last option is to be preferred, along the lines suggested above. However, serious consideration should also be given to the second option, considering the prominence of the many “I Am” declarations by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. In these statements, Jesus is identifying himself with God the Father (YHWH), as the divine/eternal Son who represents the Father.
3. The third point has already been touched on above—the relationship between Father and Son (Jesus), which is also paralleled in the relationship between Jesus and believers. Central to this two-fold relationship, the key theme of chapter 17, is the presence of the Spirit. While the Spirit/Paraclete (pneúma/parákl¢tos) is not specifically mentioned in chap. 17, it can be inferred at a number of points, based on the earlier references in chaps. 14-16 (and elsewhere in the Gospel). Jesus states clearly in verse 11 that he is departing and “is no longer in the world”. It is fair to conclude that the request in v. 11 relates to the request for the sending of the Spirit (in 14:16, etc). The keeping/guarding done by Jesus in the Father’s name now will be done for believers through the Spirit. The Spirit is also the basis for the unity (between Father/Son/Believers) which is so much emphasized in the prayer-discourse of Jesus in chap. 17.
Special Note on 1 John 5:18
Perhaps the Johannine passage closest to Jn 17:11ff is found in 1 Jn 5:18. The statement made by the author is notoriously difficult to interpret, as evidenced by several key textual variants. Especially problematic is the central phrase, which has been read several ways:
- “the one coming to be (born) out of God keeps/guards him”
ho genn¢theís ek tou Theou t¢reí auton
- “the one coming to be (born) out of God keeps/guards himself”
ho genn¢theís ek tou Theou t¢reí h(e)auton
- “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps/guards him”
ho génn¢sis ek tou Theou t¢reí auton
Each reading has a different emphasis:
- The “one born out of God” (presumably Jesus, the Son) guards the believer
- The believer, as “one born out of God”, guards himself/herself (see verse 21)
- The (spiritual) birth itself guards the believer
The reading with the noun génn¢sis (i.e., “birth”) is almost certainly not original, but reflects a modification of the participle, most likely in an attempt to clarify the meaning of the passage.
Typically, in the Gospel and First Letter of John, the verb gennáœ (“come to be [born]”) is applied to the believer, not to Jesus—see Jn 1:13; 3:3-8; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, and all of these references use the same expression “(born) out of God” [or, “…out of Him”]. It is thus reasonable to assume that both occurrences of the participle in 1 Jn 5:18 apply to the believer. On the other hand, the use of the aorist (genn¢theis) for the second participle is a bit unusual (compare the perfect gegenn¢menos for the first participle). This has led many commentators to suspect that there is an important distinction intended by the author. Though the verb gennáœ only refers to Jesus’ birth (his human birth) only once elsewhere in the Gospel and 1 John (in Jn 18:37), the basic idea of Jesus as the Son makes the idea of a “birth” from God the Father entirely appropriate. Given the wordplay so common in the Johannine writings, it is likely that something similar is intended here in 1 Jn 5:18, with a dual meaning of “the one born out of God”—both the believer (i.e. child of God) and Jesus (the Son of God). If so, then the most likely original reading would be as follows:
“We see that every (one) th(at) has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one who has) come to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil (one) does not touch him.”
The parallels with Jn 17:11-12 (and 15) are obvious. Yet, in that passage, as I indicated above, it would seem that the Spirit is in view. Upon Jesus’ departure (back to the Father), the Spirit takes his place in and among believers—thus it is the Spirit which continues the word of keeping/guarding believers in the Father’s name (which is also the name given to the Son). How might this relate to 1 Jn 5:18? The idea of coming to be “born out of God” is closely related to the Spirit, especially in John 3:3-8, where we read of coming to be born “out of the Spirit”. Now the Spirit comes to believers from the Father, but through Jesus—he is the direct source of the Spirit (Jn 3:34; 7:37-39; 15:26-27; 16:7; 20:22). Thus, it may be that the dual use of gennáœ in 1 Jn 5:18 is meant to indicate the shared birth we have with Jesus as Son/Children of God, a relationship which we have through the Spirit. The importance of the Spirit in earlier in chapter 5 makes such an inference all the more likely.
This concludes our exploration of the Gospel of John in these Saturday discussions. I have used this particular book as a way to demonstrate, inductively, many important aspects of Biblical (i.e., New Testament) criticism. Next week, I will begin introducing some of the special problems and issues involved in study and criticism of the Old Testament. I hope that you will be here to embark on this new area of exploration…next Saturday.