Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 17.20-26
7th Sunday of Easter - Year C

Other texts: 

The Gospel readings for 7 Easter all come from John 17: Year A -- vv. 1-11; Year B -- vv. 6-19; Year C -- vv. 20-26.

While the prayer is a unified whole, it is usually outlined in 3 or 4 subsections, based on whom Jesus is praying for.

Vv. 1-8 Jesus is praying for himself -- "glorify your son" (v. 2) // "glorify me" (v. 5).

In v. 9, Jesus prays "for them" = those God has given to Jesus. This may refer to (a) the original disciples or (b) to all disciples, including us.

Verse 20 -- "those believing through their word in me" -- could refer to (a) believers converted by the original disciples, which would include us (Brown's interpretation); or (b) those not yet converted who will believe because of our witness to them (O'Day's interpretation -- further comments from her below).

Some distinct subsections seen by some commentators are vv. 6-8 and/or vv. 24-26.

An often overlooked theme in this prayer is the word "given" (didomi). This word occurs 17 times in this prayer (4 times in our text).

13 times God gives something to Jesus

4 times Jesus gives something to people

God gives Jesus "the word" and "the glory," which Jesus then gives to us. Two implications: (1) God is the source of everything for Jesus and for the faith community; and (2) The relationship between the Father and the Son as illustrated by the "giving" Father, is the same relationship between the "giving" Jesus and the faith community -- or of the "sent" son and the "sent" community. The "where" of Jesus' prayer in v. 24: "Where I am they also might be with me," refers more to the relationship with the Father than being at a particular place. Among other descriptions, he is the recipient of the Father's gifts; he is the one whom the Father has sent.

Throughout the farewell discourse, Jesus has been teaching the disciples about the future, yet in this chapter, he does not entrust the church's future to the church, but to God.


O'Day (John, The Interpreter's Bible) writes:

The contrast in v. 20 between "these" and "those who believe in me on account of their word" is not between the first generation of believers and all future generations of believers, but between those in any generation who already believe and those who do not believe but may come to believe on account of the witness of the faith community. In vv. 20-23, Jesus turns his attention to the world and expresses his desire that the world will come to share in the knowledge of God that marks the life of the faith community (vv. 21, 23). In these verses, the "world" (kosmos) is not portrayed as actively hating the community (cf. 15:18-19; 17:14), but as receiving the community's witness. [p. 794]

In essence, Jesus is praying for the success of the community's work in the world in all generations. O'Day ponders "how the Christian community's self-definition would be changed if it took as its beginning point, 'We are community for whom Jesus prays.'" Jesus prays for the success of our witness in the world.

Verse 21 contains three hina clauses, which usually denote purpose or result. I think that each clause is dependent upon the previous clause. Thus Jesus prays for the believers:

With this structure, being in Christ (and in the Father) is a corporate act that is the purpose or result of being one. At least from this verse, it may not be as correct to say, "I am in Christ" as "We are in Christ." That is, I can't be "in Christ" without also recognize that you are "in Christ," too.

Verses 22-23 also contain three hina clauses. The purposes of Jesus having given the glory to them -- the glory which God gave Jesus -- are nearly identical to the three clauses in the preceding verse.

a. that God sent Jesus
b. that God loved them even as God loved Jesus

The ultimate purpose of Jesus' prayer in both these lists is the effectiveness of the believers' corporate witness to the world! Thus, this part of the prayer is not about a congregation's fellowship, but their evangelism. Yet what area usually receives more attention in our congregations?

What does it mean to be "one" (heis, mia, & hen in its masculine, feminine, & neuter nominative forms)?

It is clear that the believers' one-ness is patterned after the one-ness of the Father and the Son (17:11, 22, see also 10:30.)

This word is the key word in the Hebrew confession of the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Mk 12:29, quoting Dt 6:4). By stating that he is part of the Father's one-ness, Jesus makes himself equal to God. (See the Jews accusation against Jesus in 10:33.)

An understanding of "being one" is that we are all equal to one another.

The word is also used in the NT quotes of Gn 2:24 about a husband and wife becoming one flesh (Mt 19:5-6; Mk 10:8; Ep 5:31). In this one-ness, there remains a separateness (my wife and I are two distinct people) as well as the unique unity and knowledge we share with each other that is not part of our relationships with any other person. Might this say something about Jesus and the Father being one? They are one, yet they are two distinct beings. Might this say something about the one-ness of the believers? We are all equals, and yet we are all different. I think that it implies a closeness that we share with each other that is not part of our relationships with any "outsiders".

An indication of "unity" can be noted by the subject of sentences. In talking about a congregation or wider Church or all believers, do we talk about "we" or make it an "us" and "them" (or "me" and "you") distinction? Listening for the "we's" can be an important technique in pre-marriage or marriage counseling. Do they talk about themselves as "one" or not? Do we talk (and thus think) about the Church as "one" or not? I talk and write about our ELCA and our Sierra Pacific Synod and our congregation. I talk and write about what we are doing through our churchwide and synodical and congregational expressions of the church. Language conveys unity or separateness.

I want to look more closely at the phrase in v. 23 which NRSV translates "that they may be completely one."

The verb teleioo is usually used in reference to Jesus "completing" or "finishing" the work God has given him to do (4:34; 5:36; 17:40). A related word teleo is the last word Jesus utters from the cross in John, "It has been finished!" (19:30).

Literally, teleioo means "to make teleios' -- that is, "to make perfect, to make complete, to make whole (i.e., unblemished)."

Teleioo in our verse is a perfect passive subjunctive: "so that they might have been made perfect, might have been made complete, might have reached perfection." (see 1 John 2:5; 4:12, 17, 18 where the perfect passive is used -- which may be translated as a present).

The passive in our verse indicates that it is God who is perfecting us ("into" our one-ness). The perfect indicates that it is something that has been accomplished in the past and its effects are still with us, but the subjunctive indicates that it is wish that it "might" or "may" happen -- often pointing to a future event.

Questions related to this are: "Are we to wait for God to perfect our unity?" or "Has our unity already been perfected by God and God is waiting for us to realize it?" What are the roles God plays in creating our unity? What are the roles we need to play in creating (or actualizing) that unity?

However, our unity is not an end in itself. It is means so that we, together, might be a witness to the world, so that they might believe and so that they might know. Here there is a separation: the believers and the world -- an "us" and "them".

Included in their believing and knowing is the fact that God "sent" Jesus (see also 17:25). Forty times (by my count) John indicates that Jesus is the sent one (using both apostello and pempo). A theme throughout John is Jesus' origins. A significant part of believing in John is knowing that Jesus has come from and has been sent by God, rather than just coming from Nazareth and acting on his own volition.

At the same time, we are also sent ones (13:20; 17:18; 20:21).

A book I have read (and recommend) is: Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, edited by Darrell L. Guder (Eerdmans, 1998).

This book offers a new paradigm of the church -- which is actually an old paradigm: has taken us decades to realize that mission is not just a program of the church. It defines the church as God's sent people. Either we are defined by mission, or we reduce the scope of the gospel and the mandate of the church. Thus our challenge today is to move from church with mission to missional church. [p. 6]

"Mission" is not something the church does, a part of its total program. No, the church's essence is missional, for the calling and sending action of God forms its identity. Mission is founded on the mission of God in the world, rather than the church's effort to extend itself. [p. 82]

Perhaps it would be more useful to talk about the Church acting or witnessing as one rather than being one. Our primary purpose for existing, the primary content of Jesus' prayer, is that we, as one body, are effective in our witness to the world. Jesus prays for the success of our witness. As I noted earlier, the prayer for unity is not so much about our fellowship with one another, but about evangelism -- our witness to the world.


Verse 24 has two hina clauses -- more likely the content of Jesus' wish rather than its purpose or result:

  1. Where Jesus is they might be

  2. They might see (theoreo) Jesus' glory

As I commented near the beginning of this note, the "where" of Jesus wish, I think, relates more to his position in relationship to the Father more than a geographical location, i.e., he is the "sent one;" "he is the one who has received the Father's gifts." "He is the son of God." These "positions" are also ones we are to have, e.g., we are sent ones; we have received the Father's gifts; we are children of God.

At the beginning of John's gospel, we were told: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen (theaomai) his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1:14).

Soon after this, Jesus "revealed his glory" at Cana (2:11).

The glory that Jesus has been given, Jesus has given to us (17:22).

Seeing Jesus' glory is presented as a past event -- not necessarily something in the future. Could it be that the place to see Jesus' glory now is among his disciples? Those to whom Jesus has given his divine glory? Perhaps Jesus' wish that we might see his glory is related to the glory that would be revealed in the unity of his disciples to whom he has given his glory for that purpose (v. 22).

Jesus' glorification was based on seeking God's glory rather than his own and so it is to be with us (5:41, 44; 7:18; 8:50, 54; 12:43).

The word used in v. 24 for "seeing" is theoreo which can also mean "to come to understand" and possibly "to experience". Could Jesus' wish be that we come to understand his glory by seeing that it came through his serving and suffering in obedience to his Father's will? As Jesus did and was glorified by God, so we are to do -- and we will see/understand/experience the same glory.

The gift of glory to Jesus came as a result of God's love for him.


Earlier in v. 23, our unity becomes a means by which the world might know that the Father sent and loves Jesus and his disciples. Now we are told that the world does not know God, but that Jesus and his disciples do know God (and that he sent Jesus).

It may be very simple logic, but if the world doesn't know God and Jesus and his disciples know God; that seems to imply that Jesus and his disciples cannot be part of the world. We have to be different from the world -- if nothing else, by the fact that we know God. The word for "know" (ginosko) can mean "to have knowledge about," but here I think it means "to know by direct personal experience." This "knowledge" comes from Jesus who has made God known to us. More than just knowing about Jesus, we have had experiences with Jesus -- events that I find hard to explain to others who have not had them. Sometimes these experiences are feelings that we are certain that have come from God. Sometimes these experiences are events where we are certain that God has spoken through us in our words of witness. More often the events are not so subjective, but taking time to gather together in Jesus' name, believing Jesus is present; hearing the word proclaimed in scripture, song and sermon, knowing that Jesus is the Word; receiving Christ in the bread of wine of holy communion; and being sent, knowing that Jesus promises to be with us always.

I note that this knowledge and God's love and Jesus' presence all have "them" as its object -- a plural pronoun. Throughout this prayer, it is a "we/thou" relationship that is emphasized. It's not "me and God," but "we and God".


Avery and Marsh have an ironic song called I Can Be a Christian By Myself. The first verse goes:

I can be a Christian by myself.
Leave my dusty Bible on the shelf.
I'll sing a hymn and pray a bit.
God can do the rest of it.
My heart's the church, my head's the steeple.
Shut the door and I'm the people.
I can be a Christian by myself.

Some of the other verses include these lines:

I'll break some bread and drink some wine.
Have myself a holy time.
I'll take the off'ring then I'll know
Where that money's gonna go.
So please remember, Lord, when I die,
Give me my own cloud in the sky.
After this life with its labors
Don't bug me with needy neighbors.

One cannot be a Christian by oneself. Neither can a congregation exist by itself. We are dependent upon each other and we are all dependent upon God. It is God who gives us to Jesus. It is God who is creating and perfecting our unity so that we might be effective witnesses to the world.

Perhaps we should ponder: If God were to fully answer Jesus' prayer in John 17, what would the church look like? What would our congregation look like? What would our witness to the world look like? What is my/our role/response in the whole scheme of Jesus' prayer?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901