Grace. Truth. Family.

John 17 – Studying Jesus’ Prayer

This week I decided to take you inside my study a bit and show you some of the process that goes into studying a passage of Scripture. I typically do a lot to prep a sermon to ensure I rightly understand the point of the text. This includes translating the passage, doing some word studies, and checking my results with a dozen or so commentaries.

All that before pen touches paper (so to speak).

On occasion, I like to visualize some of the structure and interconnectedness of the text by printing out the Scripture and noting some of the parallel language. Here’s what part of my sermon prep looked like this week (text is in ESV):

When translating through this text, I noticed how many times Jesus referring to God as “Father.” So I underlined that in orange crayon (it was all I had around!). After also circling any verse numbers where Jesus gives a specific, explicit request, I noticed that most of His requests matched up with His use of “Father.” Verses 1 & 5 – that God might be glorified; verse 11 – that the disciples are kept and unified; verse 21 – that the future disciples might be unified to increase their witness; verse 24 – that these disciples might be with Jesus. Verse 26 might be an exception where He uses “Father” without the request, and He makes a request in verses 15 and 17 without using “Father.” It’s not a hard-and-fast pattern, but there’s certainly something there.

I also noticed the abundance of the term “glory.” So I circled all those references. They are particularly heavy in the beginning and end of the prayer. This is the driving force behind Jesus’ prayer: the Father’s glory (and it should be the main purpose of all our prayers as well!).

After my first read-through, I was also impressed by the amount of times that Jesus references the Father “giving” Him out of the world the disciples. I highlighted all these references, and then began to study how Jesus was using these terms. The first reference in verse 2 appears to be quite broad, since it is prefaced with the Father giving Jesus “authority over all flesh.” But verses 6-19 certainly seem to refer primarily to the current disciples (verse 12 makes this clear with the allusion to Judas). Then verse 20 broadens the referent again (which is why I both highlighted and circled it – it’s a key verse).

What I began to see was a clear distinction between three different groups in this passage: 1) The current disciples who were given to Jesus (the eleven); 2) Future disciples given to Jesus (Christians in the Church Age); and 3) The world (those not given to Jesus). I was fascinated by the interplay between these three groups, and especially noted that Jesus eventually prays that “the world may believe that you have sent me” (vs 21). Even though the world is distinguished from those given to Jesus (those who are given eternal life; vs 2), meaning they are unbelievers, Jesus still prays for their belief!

How does this work? Bruce Ware gives an illustration (pg. 34, Perspectives on Election: Five Views) from Winston Churchill in WWII. During the war, Hitler would pass his messages to his frontline troops and U-boats through encrypted text, which the Germans would decode using a special machine. The allies developed their own decoding machine, and unknown to Hitler they were able to intercept his messages and decode them.

On one occasion, Winston Churchill learned that in three days, Hitler intended to send a squadron of bombers to bomb the small city of Coventry. Churchill wanted very badly to call the city and have the people evacuated. But that would have alerted Hitler that the Allies were able to decode his messages, and Churchill was afraid that the bigger picture of the war would be compromised and lost. He felt that he could not both save those people and also win the war.

Three days later, Coventry was bombed and many died. But the Allies went on to win the war.

Churchill desired that the people of that city be saved. And his authority was great enough to have allowed him to save them. But he did not, because his will to win the whole war was greater than his desire to save those people.

Relating this to John 17, how can Jesus pray for “the world” to believe and that “the world may know” that Jesus comes from God, when in fact it is already here established that those who are given to Jesus by the Father (out of the world) are those who believe? Perhaps the Churchill analogy helps here. Jesus desires all to be saved (the whole world – He loves them all), but His sovereign will only determines some to be saved (those whom the Father has given Him).

Remember, none of this negates the human responsibility of belief. This is clearly noted in the text too (especially verses 8 and 20). We are responsible to place our trust in Jesus, and if we do not, we are to blame. At the same time, Jesus was responsible to keep those who were given to Him by the Father, the believers (vs 2).

This interplay between divine election in man’s salvation, man’s responsibility to believe, and Jesus’ desire for the world’s salvation was both intriguing and at times difficult for me to work through this week.


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