Two times in John 17:9 the Lord makes it clear he is praying for his immediate followers, the faithful eleven. He is not praying for the world, that is human society at large, and reason for this is evident. These are men the Father has given him out of the world. They are to prove the nucleus of that new society the Lord Jesus is in the process of forming, a process which proceeds to this day. It is the members of this society which constitute the bride the Lord Jesus will claim for his own when he returns; and this will prove to be the supreme experience for his followers, as the glorious vision of Revelation 21:9-23 shows so wonderfully.
While the prayer necessarily focuses upon the Lord’s apostles, he was far from indifferent to the needs of society at large, for, in Peter’s words, Jesus “went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). No one has ever been more responsive to the various needs of his fellow men than the Lord Jesus. Although he had a full consciousness of what awaited him at the hands of his own people, when he came in sight of the city that was to treat him so cruelly, he grieved over the fate which awaited it (Matt. 23:37-38; Luke 19:41-44). Even on the way to the cross, he said to the women weeping over his fate: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke23:28).
Those who are Christ’s are special
Accordingly, if the prayer of John 17 is on behalf of his apostles, it is no evidence the Lord was insensitive to the needs of the Jewish people or the woes of mankind at large. The reason for the Lord’s concern in the prayer is that all that he has (and this immediately embraces the eleven), he shares with his Father: “all things that are mine are thine, and thine are mine” (v. 10). It is in these men the Lord is to be glorified.
As we have had occasion so often to remark, the apostles lost their nerve when the Lord was arrested. And poor Peter, despite his eloquent protestations, would thrice thrice deny his Lord and was to weep bitterly as a consequence (Luke 22:62). But the Lord knew these men better than they knew themselves and he was fully aware that their failure would be a passing phenomenon. After his ascension, nothing, not even the threat of death itself, would undermine their allegiance to their Lord. By their loyalty and their faithful proclamation of the gospel, they did indeed glorify their Lord.
In these last days of the gentiles, we, too, have the privilege of glorifying our Lord. How much do we owe to the apostles, and to the “one born out of due time” (I Cor. 15:8), when we reflect on their work and writings. Thus we can read with such pleasure and profit Peter’s first epistle, and marvel at the transformation wrought in this impulsive but humble fisherman. All this was the consequence of the grace revealed by our Lord. So often this theme is echoed in the New Testament: we remember Paul’s words: “And the grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly (toward the apostle); with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (I Tim.1:14). This grace is not a spent force and, in our time, every disciple can reveal the power of this grace, if the heart is opened to admit it.
Verse 11 – They needed unity among themselves
In John 17:11, the Lord declares once more that he is going to the Father: he is physically to leave the human scene. Here he speaks of his Father as “holy.” In verse 1, he used simply “Father.” For ourselves, we more appropriately employ “our Father.” The Lord stood in a unique relationship to the Lord God. However, the use of “father” is no token of undue familiarity, or lack of reverence. No one has ever honoured the Father as the Son does and we recall the opening of “the model prayer:” “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name” (Matt. 6:9) So we are taught to pray with the greatest reverence.
The son himself lived in such reverence for his Father, so faithfully carried out His commands and so completely embodied His attributes, that Peter applied the words of Psalm 16:10 to the Lord as God’s “holy one” (Acts 2:27). Again in Acts 3:14 Peter describes our Lord as “the Holy and Righteous One.”
Conscious that he is going to the Father, our Lord prays for those who will assume the burden of witnessing to the world during his absence at the Father’s right hand: he invokes that Name in which the apostles are to be kept. (What is implied in the Name, we have already considered in our last article.) However here the Lord speaks of the Name as having been given to him, not at this stage in the sense of a name of exalted status (as Phil 2:9), but rather it would seem with the implication the Lord Jesus possessed a unique insight into the associations of the name, the insight which enabled him to be the embodiment of that grace revealed to Moses (cf. Ex. 34:6 and John 1:14). Now in John 17:11 the prayer is not so much for the physical safety of the apostles, but that they attain to that unity among themselves which existed between the Lord himself and his Father.
This indeed was a vital subject of prayer; when we reflect upon the behaviour of the twelve during the ministry, we remember there was not always unity between them, but rather the contrary. Even in the upper room, closeted with their Lord, they disputed among themselves which was to be reckoned the greatest (Luke 22:24). Earlier, as they were drawing near to Jerusalem, James and John had clumsily, and lamentably, sought to secure for themselves the most prestigious places in the kingdom, one on the right hand and the other on the left of the Lord (Matt. 20:20-21; Mark 10:35-37). We can understand how this ‘pre-emptive strike’ would displease Peter who occupied so prominent a place among the twelve.1
Verse 12 – only Judas was lost
Significantly in verse 12, the Lord declares he has kept2 the apostles in a manner in keeping with the Name. Indeed, his patience with them must have been moving as they later reflected upon it. The spiritual education of the twelve had been such that there had been but one tragic exception, Judas “the son of perdition.” He was indeed the son of darkness, leaving the light of the world to go into the night to carry out his work of betrayal (13:30). The expression used by our Lord to describe the traitor is the same as that which occurs in II Thessalonians 2:3; Judas thus becomes a kind of prototype of the “son of perdition” to be revealed and destroyed at the second coming. His dark deed of betrayal was a fulfillment of scripture, doubtless of Psalm 41:9, already evoked by the Lord in John 13:18. But the others had remained with him, despite what would seem to them the disappointment of their Messianic hopes. The defection of Judas was the one exception and this in itself testifies to our Lord’s patience and loving forbearance. On the apostles’ part it speaks of their humility in accepting correction and their willingness to learn. Our Lord’s unfailing vigilance in their preservation can be explained in two ways: these men were a gift from his Father (verse 6 and also verse 2), and therefore to be cherished. Then, as already observed, they were to be his successors, carrying on the great work he had initiated with them.
Verse 13 – the future will bring joy
Again in verse 13, the Lord mentions he is going to the Father. This was the joy that sustained him. In Psalm 16, quoted by Peter in Acts 2:25-28, the Revised Version has “gladness” but the AV uses “joy,” as does the NIV: “you will fill me with joy with your presence.” Jesus was perfectly acquainted with Psalm 16, as he was with Psalm 110:1, which spoke of him as being at God’s right hand. This, too, was quoted by Peter (in Acts2:34-35) and by invoking these passages the apostle is demonstrating how much they had learned from the Lord after his resurrection (see Luke 24:45). For the Lord, these words were a constant source of encouragement and strength, knowing that beyond the agony lay not merely the assurance of resurrection but the prospect of ascension to his Father’s right hand.
Yet Gethsemane and the cross still lie ahead of him and he is conscious the eleven are hearing this prayer. They are still in the world and will continue there after he has left them. They will remember his words, especially those which concern themselves. When he has left him, they will cherish his words to the highest degree as they reflect on his concern for them and his unfailing love. As Jesus expresses it: “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”
We note how the Lord speaks of “my joy,” the source of which we have already considered. So, for the apostles also, the time will come when they will marvel in the wonder of his resurrection and his elevation to the Father’s right hand and know that despite their failings, they have been made the accredited representatives of Christ in his glory. Finally, as we leave this verse, we take note of one of the recurring themes of John 13-17 – the theme of joy.
Verse 14 — to be hated for Christ’s sake
In verse 14 we have mention of what was to be the great sustaining force in the apostles’ experience: the word (logos) their Lord has given them. This seems to imply the totality of the divine revelation of which he was the embodiment: And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, see also Rev. 19:13). Furthermore, essential aspects of God’s revelation in his Son were the words he spoke: as he himself testified on one occasion, “the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit, and are life” (John 6:63).
The teaching of our Lord has been conveyed in various ways in the New Testament. Because the apostles received it, came to live by its light and perpetuated it in the gospels and epistles, their witness to the Lord Jesus is indispensable for all succeeding generations. But, thereby they became the objects of implacable hatred as noted in this verse. As so often, the book of Acts bears witness to this hatred and records, among other forms of persecution, the martyrdom of James, John’s brother (in Acts 12:1-2).
While Jesus’ remarks recorded in John 13-17 must have come to occupy a special place in the apostles’ memory, we recall how the Lord, early in his ministry, left the apostles with no illusions as to the consequences of their being his intimate followers: they were being sent forth as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt. 10:16 and following).
As Jesus, the carpenter ofNazareth, became increasingly rejected, especially by the Jewish leaders, so the apostles, by following him, were likewise ostracized: the world hated them, because they were not of the world as their master was not of the world. The time came in the ministry when, if any man acknowledged Jesus to be the Christ, he was automatically banished from the synagogue, a grievous fate to be endured in a closed society as were the Jews (see John9:22).
Tom Barling, Teignmouth, England
1. Matthew reports it was the mother in the company of her sons who presented the request. However, Mark makes it clear the initiative was taken by the brothers and he does not mention the mother (Mk. 10:35). Both record the ten were collectively indignant about the manoeuvre made by the brothers.
2. The Greek word for “kept” has in the view of some commentators military overtones but C.K. Barrett considers “its military meaning is not to be pressed” (The Gospel according to St. John, S.P.C.K., 1958, p.424)