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Saturday Series: John 17:12

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(My apologies for the belated posting of this Saturday series; next week I hope to return to regular postings on Saturday proper.)

John 17:11-12

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:

  1. The use of the verbs t¢réœ and phylássœ
  2. The meaning and significance of the “name” (ónoma)
  3. 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:

  1. The “one born out of God” (presumably Jesus, the Son) guards the believer
  2. The believer, as “one born out of God”, guards himself/herself (see verse 21)
  3. 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 gennᜠ(“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 gennᜠonly 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 gennᜠin 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.

December 12: Names of God (Yahweh)

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Having the discussed the principal Hebrew words signifying “God”—°E~l and °E_lœhîm—in the previous two articles, today I will examine the name which came to be used as the exclusive name of God in ancient Israel, that represented by the tetragrammaton (the ‘four letters’), hwhy, and usually rendered in English transliteration by block letters (YHWH). Numerous difficulties are related to this most important name, and need to be discussed in some detail.

YHWH (Yahweh)

The name hwhy (YHWH) occurs more than 6000 times in the Old Testament, as well as in extrabiblical inscriptions from the Kingdom period. A shortened form hy (YH) appears just under 50 times, primarily in poetry (all but 6 occurrences are in the Psalms); however, it is also incorporated frequently as a hypocoristic element in personal names (cf. below). According to Israelite and Jewish tradition, this name was revered and treated as sacred to the point that it was deemed inappropriate to pronounce out loud in all but the most special of circumstances. As a result, the tradition developed of using the word °¦dœn¹y (yn`d)a&, “My Lord”) in its place. The Masorete copyists of the Scriptures indicated this substitution by applying the vowels of °¦dœn¹y (¦ œ ¹) to the letters hwhy, yielding hw`hy+. The familiar English transliteration “Jehovah” is based on a misunderstanding of this scribal practice.

It is generally recognized that hwhy/YHWH is essentially a verbal form, derived from the verb of being—the old Semitic root hwy, represented in Hebrew by the parallel verbs hwh/hyh (hwh/hyh), “be, come to be”. There is some question, however, whether the form hwhy should be regarded as derived from the basic (ground) stem, or as a causative (Hiphil) form. In my view the latter is more likely, though there continues to be debate among scholars. For a good discussion of the subject, cf. Cross, pp. 63-66 and in TDOT, Vol. V pp. 500-21. As a causative (imperfect) form, it would mean essentially “he causes to be”, i.e. he calls/brings (something) into being, gives life, creates, etc. The principal passage in the Old Testament which offers any sort of explanation as to the meaning of the name among early Israelites (in the time of Moses) is Exodus 3:13ff, which has the famous formula (uttered by God himself) in v. 14hyha rva hyha, vocalized by the Masorete scribes to mean something like “I am what I am”, or “I will be what I will be”. However, the same consonants can be vocalized as a causative—i.e., “I call into being what I call into being”—in which case the expression would be pronounced °ahyê °ašer °ahyê. According to one line of interpretation, in Exod 3:13ff, God is identifying himself with a formula that would have been known and in use by the Semitic-speakers in that region (South Palestine, Sinai), which, translating back into the older language of the period, may have been something like yahw£ ¼¥ yahw£: “he creates [i.e. brings into being] that which he creates”, etc. In other words, God may be saying to Moses, “I am that one who creates all things”, who my people worship as Creator. For more detail, cf. Cross, pp. 68-69.

It would seem that the original form of the name was Yaµw£ or Yahw£, and, subsequently in Hebrew, Yahwê. Most scholars and informed Christians today render this simply as Yahweh, and I will so refer to the tetragrammation (hwhy) in the remainder of this article. As I noted in the previous article (on °E~l), the Scriptural evidence strongly suggests that the Patriarchs and ancestors of Israel, along with the earliest Israelites, worshiped the (one) Creator God by the name °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”). The notice in Gen 4:26, as well as the use of Yahweh elsewhere in Genesis, likely reflects a later period when the text as we have it was written—either in the time of Moses or thereafter. The name Yahweh eventually came to be in widespread use all throughout Palestine by at least the early Kingdom period, with Yahweh and °E~l being regarded as equivalent names for the same Creator Deity. This is expressed at various points in the Old Testament, most notably in the formula of Exod 3:15, etc—

Yahweh, God of your Fathers…has sent me to you”

where the more common word °E_lœhîm (cf. yesterday’s article) is used instead of °E~l. As an independent Divine name, Yawheh is attested in extrabiblical texts and inscriptions, such as the 9th-century Moabite (Mesha) stone, and the 7th-6th century letters from Lachish and Arad. It would seem that the earliest recorded use of the name preserved to us comes from Egyptian lists of place names from Southern Palestine in the 14th and 13th centuries, which happens to correspond generally with the time of Moses and the geographical setting of Exodus 3. Most likely, however, the name was a verbal epithet applied to °E~l, emphasizing his role and power as Creator, and which eventually came to be used as a separate and distinct name. Such a title could have been expressed simply as Yahwê °E~l, “God [°E~l] brings/calls into being”. In fact, such an expression is found among the personal names, incorporating the verbal element yahwê (or yahw£), in the texts from Mari (18th century B.C. and earlier), which are roughly contemporary with the time of the Patriarchs (Cross, p. 62). Israelite tradition preserves at least one similar expression, the famous Yahwê ƒ§»¹°ôt (toab*x= hwhy), meaning something like “He (who) creates the (heavenly) armies” (Cross, pp. 69-70). It no doubt derives from the tradition of God (El/Yahweh) as a warrior and the ritual “holy war” beliefs and practices of the ancient Near East (Josh 5:14, etc). God is seen as leading the “hosts of heaven”—sun and moon, wind and storm, et al, and the powers (or “Angels”) associated with them—on behalf of Israel (cf. Josh 10:12ff; Judg 5:20). The expression appears to have been associated specifically with symbolism of the Ark in the sanctuary (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2).

We should take most seriously the Scriptural tradition that associates the ‘introduction’ of Yahweh as the name of God for Israel with the time spent by Moses in Midian. Most of the earliest evidence for the use of Yahweh as a distinct name points in the direction of Southern Palestine (cf. above). By the time the Israelites had left Egypt and became established throughout Palestine, Yahweh had begun to supplant °E~l as the primary name of God. There appears to have been relatively little conflict between these two names, as they essentially referred to the same God (and idea of God)—the Creator Deity, the (one) true God. With the split of Israel into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, older °E~l traditions (in the North) may have reasserted themselves, against the Judean royal theology that associated Yahweh specifically with Jerusalem. Yet, even here, the same basic idea of God is involved. There are very few, if any, instances in the Old Testament where the name °E~l refers to a (Canaanite) deity different from Yahweh.

By the time of the New Testament, the God of Israel would have been understood by the exclusive (Scriptural) name Yahweh. Israelites and Jews would long have been accustomed, when speaking, to use the substitution °A_dœn¹y (“My Lord”)—or its Aramaic equivalent—for that name. Similarly, in Greek, the word Ku/rio$ (Ky¡rios, “Lord”) was commonly used in place of Yahweh, both in speech, and in translation of the Old Testament Scriptures (in the Septuagint [LXX], etc). When the word ku/rio$ is used of God in the New Testament, at least in a Jewish Christian context, we can assume that the name Yahweh is in view. A certain complication was introduced, however, with the regular use of ku/rio$ in referring to Jesus. There is no doubt that this application reflects a belief in Jesus’ divine nature and status in relationship with God the Father (Yahweh), but it also creates a certain ambiguity in a number of passages. When the word ku/rio$ (“Lord”) is used, without any other qualification or explanation, is the reference to God the Father or to Jesus? We find this problem in a couple of places in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:17, 43, 76), which will be discussed in upcoming notes in this series.

There are also examples of names in the New Testament—including several in the Infancy narratives—which preserve the name Yahweh (the shortened hypocoristic Yah[û]) in their transliteration from Hebrew (or Aramaic) into Greek. The names Zechariah (Z§kary¹h, “Yah[weh] has remembered”) and John (µ¹n¹n, “Yah[weh] has shown favor”) will be discussed in the notes on Luke 1:5-6, 13-20, and 57-66. Most notably, of course, is the name Yeshua or Jesus itself (šûa±), which will be examined, in detail, in the note on Luke 2:31.

In the references above, “Cross” = F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973 / 1997). “TDOT” = Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. by G. Johannes Botterweck and H. Ringgren, English translation by John T. Willis (Eerdmans: 1974 / 1977).

Special note on the “name” of the Father

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As I discussed in the previous daily note on John 17:8, the “name” (o&noma), and, in particular, the name of God the Father, is vital for an understanding of the person and work Christ as presented in the Gospel of John. I will be discussing the name (and names) of God in some detail in a series of notes and articles to begin in December during Advent/Christmas season. Here, I will focus on the use of the concept, and expression, in the Gospel of John. It should be pointed out, as I have done on several occasions in the past, that names and naming in the ancient world had a very different significance than in modern (Western) society. To know a person’s name was essentially the same as knowing the person. In the ancient way of thinking, there was a kind of magical quality to the name—it communicated and encapsulated the nature and character of the person. The sacredness and efficacy of the name(s) and epithets applied to God is well established in the Old Testament and Jewish religious tradition, especially with regard to the name signified by the tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh). In early Christian tradition, the name Yeshua/Jesus also had an efficacious quality similar, and parallel, to YHWH. Jesus and God the Father (YHWH) could both be called by the title “Lord” (Ku/rio$), almost interchangeably, giving a dual meaning to Scripture passages such as Joel 2:32 (cf. Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). Calling on the “name of Lord (Jesus)” for early Christians was the same as accepting Jesus, trusting/believing in him, and so the common use of the expression “trust in(to) the name of Jesus”, which we also see in the Gospel of John (1:12; 2:23; 3:18). For early Christians, prayer (for healing, etc) was done “in Jesus’ name” (cf. Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26, and frequently in the book of Acts, etc). From the standpoint of the theology (and Christology) of the Johannine Gospel, trusting the name of Jesus truly meant trusting in the person of Jesus—who he is (Son of God) and where he came from (the Father); cf. especially 3:18; 17:3; 20:31.

The idea of Jesus coming “in the name of the Father” (5:43; 10:25) derives from early Gospel tradition and the application of Psalm 118:26 to Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and coming (Davidic) Ruler expected by many Jews and Israelites of the time (cf. Matt 21:9; 23:39; Mark 11:9; Luke 13:35; 19:38; and John 12:13). The association was given a new interpretation by early Christians, and, in the Gospel of John, the meaning has deepened still further. In the Johannine discourses, we find frequent references to Jesus as the one who comes from the Father, sent by Him, doing and saying what he sees/hears from the Father—on this, cf. the recent article on “Knowledge and Revelation in John” and the previous note on Jn 17:8. Moreover, we also find the distinct Christological view expressed that Jesus (the Son) was with (alongside) the Father in eternity (cf. the Prologue, 1:1-18); this is also indicated throughout the discourses, where Jesus identifies himself, in various ways, with God the Father. This is best seen in the “I am” sayings of Jesus, which use the 1st-person pronoun (e)gw/, “I”) + the verb of being (ei)mi)—e)gw\ ei)mi (“I am”). These all-important sayings punctuate the discourses, often most dramatically—cf. 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 24; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 13:19; 15:1, 5; 18:5; and note also the foreshadowing of the expression in 1:20ff; 3:28, and the distinctive use of the verb of being (ei)mi) in 1:1-15. Cf. also 7:33ff and my earlier note on 14:4-7. It has been suggested that the “name” of the Father in the Johannine discourses is actually e)gw\ ei)mi, “I AM” (cf. Brown, pp. 755-6); if so, it still should be understood in relation to the tetragrammaton (hwhy/YHWH, cf. Exod 3:6, 13-15).

In the Gospel narrative, Jesus’ references to the Father’s name begin to gain prominence following the triumphal entry (in which Jesus comes “in the name of the LORD”, 12:13). Soon after, it is mentioned in verse 28:

“Father, honor/glorify [do/cason] your Name!”

This request echoes the opening of the Lord’s Prayer in the Synoptics (Matt 6:9 par), only here it is associated specifically with the impending death of Jesus. This connection between the Father’s name, the divine glory/splendor/honor (do/ca), and the death (and resurrection) of Jesus, is strengthened, expanding and developing throughout the great Last Discourse of chapters 13-17 (cf. 13:31-32; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14, etc). As Jesus (the Son) was sent in the Father’s name, so, too, the Spirit will be sent by the Father (in the name of the Son)—cf. 14:6, 26; 15:26; 16:7. It is in the prayer-discourse of chapter 17, that the name of the Father becomes a major theme, occurring at three points—at the beginning of the main section (v. 6), at the midpoint (vv. 11-12), and again at the end (v. 26). The first and last (framing) references should be considered in tandem:

  • V. 6: “I made your name (to) shine forth to the ones whom you gave me out of the world”
    —connection with the word [lo/go$] God has given (through Jesus), which believers have kept/guarded (i.e. abides in them)
  • V. 26: “I made known to them your name, and I will make (it) known…”
    —connection with the love which God has for Jesus, and which is in believers

Clearly, this is not a matter of Jesus giving his disciples factual information about the name Yahweh; rather, according to the ancient way of thinking, making the Father’s name known means making the Father Himself known (cf. Exod 23:20-21; Ps 9:10; 22:22, etc). This takes place through the person of the Son, who represents and reflects the Father, and makes Him manifest to believers. The association between the word and love of God naturally brings to mind the “love command” of Gospel tradition (13:34-35, etc), representing the word[s] (lo/go$/r(h/mata) of God which Christ speaks. But it goes deeper than this, for the word (lo/go$) is Christ himself (1:1ff), and, likewise, God’s love is identified with the person of Christ (17:26, cf. also 3:16, etc). This brings us to 17:11-12, where the emphasis is on Jesus keeping/guarding his disciples “in the name” [e)n tw=| o)no/mati] which God gave to him. For the idea of God giving this name to Jesus, cf. the early Christian tradition expressed/preserved by Paul in Phil 2:9-11. In the Philippians hymn, Jesus receives the name following his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of the Father); however, in the Gospel of John, he was given this name even before, and certainly should be so understood in relation to the Son’s pre-existence (and pre-existent glory) shared with the Father. Upon his coming to earth, he was “given” this name, in order to make it known to his followers. It is important to keep in mind the twin aspects of knowing and seeing expressed in 17:6, 26, since, in the Johannine discourses, to know Jesus is the same as seeing; and, if one sees Jesus (the Son) then the believer has also seen the Father. This important chain of logic is best expressed in 14:1-14 (cf. the notes on 14:4-7).

This Johannine understanding of the “name of the Father”, and the relationship between Jesus and the Father, was given a distinctive interpretation in several key Gnostic writings of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. The Gospel of John appears to have quite popular in many Gnostic groups. The earliest NT commentary known to us is the Commentary on John by the Gnostic Heracleon, which, in large part, inspired Origen to embark on his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary. Of the numerous references to the Gospel in the surviving Gnostic texts, two passages are especially relevant and may be cited here—from the so-called Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip (cf. Brown, p. 755):

“Now the name of the Father is the Son. It is he who first gave a name to the one who came forth from him, who was himself, and he begot him as a son. He gave him his name which belonged to him; he is the one to whom belongs all that exists around him, the Father. His is the name; his is the Son. It is possible for him to be seen. But the name is invisible because it alone is the mystery of the invisible which comes to ears that are completely filled with it. For indeed the Father’s name is not spoken, but it is apparent through a Son.” (Gospel of Truth, translation by G. W. MacRae, NHL I.38.6-24, p. 47)

The remainder of the text (39-43) develops the ideas and theology of this passage. The Son speaks of the Father from whom he came forth, and the true believers (Gnostics) respond likewise, recognizing their true nature as having come from God:

“They are the ones who appear in truth since they exist in true and eternal life and speak of the light which is perfect and filled with the seed of the Father…and his children are perfect and worthy of his name, for he is the Father: it is children of this kind that he loves.” (43.9ff)

And, here is a passage from the “Gospel of Philip”:

“One single name is not uttered in the world, the name which the Father gave to the Son, the name above all things: the name of the Father. For the Son would not become Father unless he wears the name of the Father. Those who have this name know it, but they do not speak it. But those who do not have it do not know it.” (translation by W. W. Isenberg, NHL II.54.6-13, p. 133)

A long discussion follows regarding names—hidden and revealed—drawing heavily upon Scripture and various images in the Old and New Testament. It also gives a distinctive interpretation to Baptism and other Christian rituals, using the motif of marriage and the “bridal chamber”. The believer (Gnostic) who “enters” the water and the bridal chamber becomes a “son of the bridal chamber” and will “receive the light”—that is, will experience the mystery, the hidden reality that is revealed in the Son.

Clearly, these Gnostic texts have gone considerably beyond the Old Testament and early Christian tradition regarding Jesus and the “name of the Father”. They draw equally upon ancient religious (and mythological) tradition related to the secret, hidden name of God. The true name and nature of the Deity cannot be spoken or expressed in ordinary human terms. From the Gnostic standpoint, it comes to be known in a spiritual (and mystical) manner—through the saving knowledge (revelation) brought by Jesus to the believer. Through the experience of this revelation, the believer becomes aware of his/her true identity as the offspring of God.

In the references above, “NHL” refers to The Nag Hammadi Library (in English), James M. Robinson, General Editor (Brill: 1978). References marked “Brown” are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29/A.