John 17 has been known as the “High Priestly Prayer” of the Lord Jesus Christ for many years. Its opening words make it clear that it was a prayer Jesus himself prayed, and it is essential to give full weight to that fact. But this does not mean that Christians may not use this prayer in appropriate ways. It is important that they should do so. It has significant bearings on the faith and life of the church because the incarnate Son was talking with his own Father about their saving intervention in a fallen world.
It is clear that Jesus is now praying for his disciples. But which ones? Was he thinking only of those who were to become his apostles, or did he have others in mind? The ESV’s translation of “people” (v. 6) opens up the larger possibility, for there were others who had been following him (Luke 8:2, 3) to whom more were added prior to his resurrection and ascension (see Acts 1:15; 1 Cor. 15:6). However, we think the older translation “men” is much better for three reasons. First, Jesus refers to them as being with him and to all of them as having been “guarded” by him, with the single exception of the “son of destruction” (v. 12). Second, what he says about “name,” “word,” and “world”—the three words that dominate this section—better fit that particularity of reference. Third, the final phase of the prayer is prefaced with “I do not ask for these only” (v. 20). Making this specific identification does not, of course, mean that all that Jesus said in these verses referred to them exclusively, any more than that they are excluded from what he says about others in the subsequent verses.
In John 17:6–8 Jesus says, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.”
In our culture, whatever a person’s name may actually mean, it says nothing about his or her character or significance. That is not the case in the Bible, where a name is not just a means of identification but a disclosure of identity in the purpose of God. This is why name changes are of particular importance; for example, “Abram” to “Abraham” (see Gen. 17:5). So it is with God’s “name,” which reveals the kind of deity he is, as does the word glory when used of him. Those two terms are often combined, as in the expression “the glory of his name” or “glorious name.” In the Old Testament, his personal name is “the Lord” (see Gen. 15:7; Exod. 3:13–15). Rendered with more than a touch of mystery as the “I AM THAT I AM,” or the “I will be what I will be,” it combines his eternality and supremacy. These are manifested in covenant commitment to his people by a threefold redemptive activity of (1) hearing/seeing their need, (2) coming down to deliver them, and (3) leading them on (Exod. 6:2–8). This is the rich background to Jesus’ reference to his Father as “the only true God” and to himself as the One “whom [he] has sent” (v. 3).
In John 17:14 Jesus says, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
God is revealed by his word, which Jesus says he has “given” to his disciples just as he had “manifested” God’s “name” to them. Speaking with the same certainty he had about his work having been finished before it was done in time and space history, he declares that his future apostles know his identity as God’s sent one revealed in his word (vv. 6–8). Neither “name” nor “word” can be separated from God himself, and that is why the “word” is said to “keep” (vv. 11–12) and also to “sanctify” (vv. 17–18), both of which are divine activities. His name and his word are equally true (v. 18); and while he is greater than both, he is not something other than either. What is more, this revelation is expressed in “words” (v. 8). Words have edges in the sense that there are limits to their meaning; they do not embrace opposites. The God of whom Christ spoke is real and consistent, and all Jesus said about him—every jot and tittle—is truth. It is expressed predictively and precisely in “Scripture” (v. 12), which “cannot be broken” (10:35). It cannot be falsified.
In John 17:15–16 Jesus says, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
In this chapter (as elsewhere in the Gospel), the word world is used in more than one sense. It refers to the human environment and to the human condition, and the difference has been summed up in the catchphrase “in it but not of it.” In the first sense, Jesus was in it but about to leave it, while the disciples were remaining in it (vv. 11, 15). In the second, he was never “of it” (v. 14), while they had been; but having been chosen and called, they no longer were (vv. 6, 15–16). These two “worlds,” however, are not worlds apart, because of the presence and activity of the evil one, whom Jesus was to meet and conquer (14:30) and whom the disciples were to encounter as well. It is a “world” that hates whatever and whoever is different from it, because it loves itself (16:19) and does not know God (v. 25).
But Jesus’s declaration “I am not praying for the world” (v. 9) does not mean that there is no place for it in the redemptive plan of God. This is monumentally clear by John 3:16, where “world” means humanity as condemned, perishing in the darkness because of its wickedness and yet loved by God. What Jesus meant by the “world” in 17:9 is shown by his immediately preceding and following words, which underlined that it was those the Father had chosen and entrusted to him for whom he was praying. He had been keeping them together while he was with them; but now that he was about to leave them in such an impure and hostile environment, he requests his “Holy Father” to undertake that responsibility. As this is with a view to their being sent into the world in his name, he sets himself apart to God’s will that they might make him known in the world as gladly as he had made the Father known. The world that rejects the Savior is, therefore, neither rejected by him nor by the One who sent him. Nor should it be rejected by those Jesus sends, because his desire is that many should believe in him as God’s Messiah (v. 21) and receive eternal life (v. 2). That astounding story of the gospel in the world begins to be told in the rest of the New Testament.
Adapted from Hywel Jones “The High Priestly Prayer,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2019. Used by permission.