Tough Verses in John 17

(A Lection Reflection on John 17: 20-22)

OK, let’s get something on the table right up front: if you want to go beyond just the devotional, then some passages are hard. They raise issues of Christology and the nature of humankind that are both complex and challenging.

So it is with some trepidation that I write a Lection Reflection on John 17: 20-26. I have heard many sermons on the “being one” passages, but not so many on the rest of it. After studying this passage myself, and researching other commentators, I see why.

Nevertheless, there are gems of learning to be had here, if we have eyes to see and minds to grasp. Let’s name the dilemmas, and see what we can figure out together. And if you think I’m full of it (with the it being something other than understanding <g>), then feel free to say so in the comment section.

This passage is part of the Priestly Prayer of Jesus, a wonderfully rich prayer that is part of his Farewell Discourse. Verse 20 starts clearly enough, with Jesus praying for unity across all his followers throughout time. But then we get this interesting sentence:

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

Immediately we run into the problem of English translations of Greek words. For most people, the word “in” conjures  up either “within” or “inside of.” Having the Father in Jesus implies some sort of container relationship, or perhaps a statement of nature or makeup. (“This soup has tomato paste in it.”) That works for God in Christ, but begins to break down for Christ in God — although, depending on your Christology and concept of the Trinity, you could posit that God’s nature is in Jesus and Jesus’s nature — his human experience, his human-ness as it were — is somehow in or informing God.

But this approach completely collapses when we move to the next phrase “may they also be in us.” Is our nature ALSO part of the Trinity? Are we contained in, or within, or somehow “in,” God and Jesus? If we say No — which I think we must — then we are left with some sort of New-Agey formulation of all of us being in all of us, and all of us being in God, and in Jesus, and they in us, and perhaps in the beanbag chair as well. (OK, I was kidding about the chair.)

Fortunately, we can turn to our old study friend, the Blue Letter Bible, and look up the Greek word in Strong’s Concordance to see what we might learn there. (I LOVE online Bible study helps!) And sure enough, we find some tantalizing hints.

First of all, we are reminded that the Greek word is ξν, which is a preposition that can mean “in, by, with, etc.” (Don’t you love that “et cetera” stuck in there?) So, the sentence could also read “as you, Father, are with me, and I with you” and so on. That is certainly some help, and in fact is one acceptable way to handle the verse. God is with Jesus, Jesus is with God, and we are with them both. So far, so good.

But check out the definition in the Strong’s page for ξν (Strong’s # 1722):

A primary preposition denoting (fixed) position (in place, time or state), and (by implication) instrumentality (medially or constructively), i.e. a relation of rest (intermediate between εἰς (G1519) and ἐκ (G1537))

“A fixed position in place, time, or state — a relation of rest, intermediate between entering and leaving.”

Wow.

The relationship between God and Jesus is a relation of rest, a fixed relation, at a state of stasis. They are literally resting in each other, in the relationship. And Jesus is asking that each of us, and all of us, be a part of that rest. That we have a relationship with God and with Jesus that is unchanging, at peace, fixed. And when we have that kind of relationship with God and Jesus, then the world — or even all creation — will believe that Jesus was sent by God.

I don’t know about you, but that meaning of “in” makes MUCH more sense to me. And is much more meaningful and moving, as well.

Ah, but there is more to come. Check out the next sentence.

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Oh my. God’s glory shared with Jesus, I can grasp; but Jesus then passing that glory on to us? I’m not glowing or shining, that’s for sure; and I don’t always feel too glorious. Not to mention that I’m not sure I qualify to share in Jesus’s glory. What’s up with this verse?

The concept of the Greek word for “glory,” and of the extended concept “glory of God,” deserves an entire article, or even book, of its own. Just spend some time, as I have, reading through the commentaries and word studies, and you will see that it is a phrase we often use without considering its meaning.

I think, though, that it is important to understand the meaning. In fact, I think we can best understand it as having not one, but three meanings:

  • The essence of something or someone, including the essence of God
  • The praise and honor due to someone, or to God, because of that essence
  • The physical manifestation of that essence, especially of God’s essence

We can see all three uses in the following verses:

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory (essence), the  glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

“And the glory of the Lord (physical manifestation) shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.”

“He that speaks of himself seeks his own glory (praise).”

Having divided out those three uses of the word “glory,” the meaning of John 17:22 just leaps out:

“Your essence, that you gave to me, I have passed on to them.”

Jesus didn’t pass on the shekinah glory to us (the physical manifestation). And he didn’t just pass on honor and praise. He shared with us, even put within us in some way, a part of God’s essence, God’s character, God’s nature.

And once again, having dug our way through these verses, I find that interpretation both the most plausible, and the most moving.

Here, then, is the beginning of this reading, as I understand it:

Father, I pray not only for these followers, but also for all the followers in the future who will believe through their words, that they may be united as one. Just as you and I, Father, have a relationship that is solid and unmoving, help them to also have that sort of relationship with you and with me, to be at rest in that relationship. And as they live into that sort of relationship with you, with me, and with each other, may the world come to believe that, indeed, you have sent me.

The very essence of yourself, which you gave to me, I have passed on to them, so that they may share in that essence, and that we may all show that essence to the world.

And to that, I can only add “Amen — May it be so.”

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One Response to Tough Verses in John 17

  1. Javier says:

    Thank you,
    This is amazing work.

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