Introduction to John 17
Perhaps chapter 17 of this gospel could be said to be the apex of the theology that John has been narrating for us. That theology, that doctrine which has been so beautifully and in some instances ineffably expounded for us by our Lord in the last few chapters has now come to a point in which we find the Lord breaking from his addresses to the disciples and beginning to address His Father.
There is a sense in which this chapter is so holy, so high, and so magnificent that we must take a step back in wonder that the Lord God would allow us the privilege of listening in on a conversation between the members of the Trinity.
Sinclair Ferguson rightly states that “John 17 is holy ground, and, at least metaphorically, we need to take off our shoes if we are to walk on it.”
I readily admit that in the weeks leading up to my studies on this chapter I had a wariness about it simply because of the depth of the mysteries here. Not necessarily because the concepts are too difficult to understand, but because of the shear weight of the glory and excellency of it. There is an excitement in reading it and wanting to study it, but there is also a holy fear in approaching it in anyway less than Jesus would have us to. I have no adequate words to articulate what I mean to say here, and perhaps my own inadequacy upon the commencement of the study is the only safe place to be.
Therefore I encourage you to look on with me as we examine the chapter together and ask that God would mercifully grant us discernment and right thinking; that we might “think His thoughts after Him” as so many have wisely expressed.
17:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you,  since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.
When John says, “When Jesus had spoken these words” he’s meaning the entirety of the discourses that we’ve just been studying. Jesus is in the garden, in Gethsemane, and He is praying presumably aloud so that His disciples may benefit from what He has to say. Again, we recall that all of what Jesus has been saying to them is with the aim of comforting them and leading them into truth. He is setting them on a course of understanding, and His love for them and their guidance seems to overwhelm any specific care for His own end. Not that He is capricious about His death, far from it, rather He is focused on serving and loving His disciples until the very end (see John 13:1), and this same purpose is born out in His prayer.
His first sentence contains three amazing truths:
1. His Hour Has Come
It’s been mentioned before, but it’s worth repeating, that Jesus was driving toward a goal in His ministry. He has His face set on the cross and was determined to see His mission to its end (Luke 9:51). So when He states “the hour has come” we must understand that Jesus, the man, was not only conscious that He had a mission here to obey, but Jesus as God in the flesh understood that this plan was one of His own devising from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:1-4).
2. Glory is mutually Shared Within the Trinity
Jesus says here “glorify your son, so that your son may glorify you.” It is a distinct characteristic of the Trinity that they all have a passion for one another’s glory. The Spirit exalts the Son and the Son exalts the Father, and the Father takes pleasure in shining a spotlight on the Son, and here for the last few chapters the Son has been lauding the divine work of the Spirit.
The Son’s greatest desires are to magnify the work of the Father, the plan of the Father, the purposes of the Father, the character and attributes of the Father and the love of the Father and so on. Likewise He appeals to His Father’s plan here in that He desires for the Father to glorify Him in order that He will bring glory to His Father. As Bruce Ware notes, “…more than anything else, Jesus cared about doing what the Father wanted him to do.” The intensity of desire to magnify one another cannot be missed.
Specifically, when Jesus in this context is saying, “glorify your son” He’s referencing the cross. How will the cross then glorify the Father? John Piper says that there are at least two ways God will get glory and specifically take pleasure in the cross:
- God’s pleasure is in what the Son accomplishes in dying.
- The depth of the Son’s suffering was the measure of his love for the Father’s glory.
Piper says this, “It was the Father’s righteous allegiance to his own name that made recompense for sin necessary. So when the Son willingly took the suffering of that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe this message: The glory of God is of infinite value! The Glory of God is on infinite value!
Piper ends by saying, “When Jesus died, he glorified the Father’s name and saved his Father’s people. And since the Father has overflowing pleasure in the honor of his name, and since he delights with unbounded joy in the election of a sinful people for himself, how then shall he not delight in the bruising of his Son by which these two magnificent divine joys are reconciled and made one!”
3. Jesus Has All Authority
It is simply an amazing truth that Jesus had all authority vested in Himself, yet did not abuse that authority. His authority extended not only to those around Him (as teacher of a small group of men), not only to his role as an influential public figure (whose popularity with the masses was ever increasing), but to the very expanses of the heavens and the entire universe itself.
The old saying goes that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet Jesus who had absolute power could never be corrupted. When referring to His inevitable triumph over Satan and the world we have recently read the following:
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, (John 14:30)
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
And so for Jesus, power was used at His discretion and it only took one thought, one snap of the figures, one spoken word of “be still” (Mark 4:39) and all of creation would obey. We’re going to see later that the mere mention of His name brings heathens to their knees (John 18:6).
The point is that all authority was vested in Jesus and this authority He used to bring gory to the Father.
Now, how is it that He does this? If we’re not careful we’ll miss it. Jesus says that “since” the Father has given Him all authority “over all flesh” He is able to “give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”
Two points about this: First, Jesus glorifies the Father by giving eternal life to sinful, fallen, spiritually dead human beings and, secondly, Jesus glorifies the Father by giving eternal life to a specific group of human beings and thus fulfilling the plan of election that the Father and the Son have drawn up from before the foundation of the World (again, Eph. 1).
Jesus Glorified In the Salvation of Sinners
There are so many times – many, many times – when the question has come up in seminary or in Sunday School or in a discipleship class that tends to the “why” of God’s method of redemption. The question usually sounds something like this: Why in the world did God create all of us when He knew that sin was going to happen? Why didn’t He just prevent sin in the first place?
From “the ground” (to use Matt Chandler’s vernacular) this seems just as mysterious as it does from God’s perspective (if we were putting ourselves in His seat, that is). From the ground, we see our sin-ravaged world and our fallen miserable state and wonder “why God?”
There are mysteries that go beyond the ability for us to know the heart of “why.” Job asked the same things. He protested that God was not being merciful to him. God didn’t address Job with answers but instead rebuked him over the course of three chapters that basically said in a nutshell “I am God and you are not – who are you to ask why?”
Human theologians have done everything they possibly can to create excuses or ways out for God (theodicies) so that He is not the author of sin and evil and yet somehow still has control over all things. And while I also affirm these two truths, I think the aim is wrong. We don’t need to let God off the hook. The truth is that He ordained the world to be as it is and He ordained that His Son would die for our sins before He ever said “let there be light.”
That still leaves us with the question: why? And though we cannot answer or understand the deepest counsels of God’s will, we do get a very clear purpose statement here as to the broader reason for this, and its couched in the context of salvation.
Jesus tells us plainly here that the reason why He has been granted authority to give salvation is to glorify God. Therefore, all of the purposes of God for this world, which are so intrinsically and beautifully tied up in the mission of Christ, are foundationally to be understood in terms of God’s glory. God sent His son for the same reason He breathed life into Adam and Eve: for His glory. Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension are all basically founded in this principle – God’s glory. At the heart of every breath, every word, ever action of our Lord during His time here on earth was this goal: for His glory.
As John Piper nicely sums up, “When we are dealing with the glory of God, we are dealing with a reality that is not only ultimate in the aim of history, but central to the gospel.”
God Glorified in Jesus’ Salvation of the Elect
The second part of this is that Jesus says this, “to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” He is now speaking in the third person, referring to “him” as himself, Jesus.
At the very heart of this mission of salvation is the salvation of a specific group of people – the elect of God. Jesus’ aim in bringing God glory is founded in the purpose for which He came, namely to die for those whom He had foreordained unto salvation.
This atonement, this sacrifice was not for a faceless, nameless mass of unknown people, but for an elect group of saints chosen from before the foundation of the world. Piper states, “The atonement does not make possible the spiritual quickening of all people; it makes certain and effective the spiritual quickening of the elect.”
Interestingly, when you get into discussions with people in church about the nature of election one of the things that dissenters inevitably bring up is the supposed “unfairness” of election. And, of course, the idea that God would have a specific group of elect people in mind is offensive to many people. Even evangelicals in our own sphere of influence would rather not pause over this verse too long for fear that it might lead them to believe the Jesus actually knew those for whom He was about to die!
Yet we cannot skip over this detail because evidently this is the way Jesus seems to want to bring the most glory to the Father. Remember, Jesus’ aim here is to bring maximum glory to the Father. And in His prayer to the Father in this chapter it will become evident again and again.
So when He says He has come to give eternal life to “all whom you (the Father) have given him (the Son)” He is saying that in His mission to bring the Father the most possible glory, the Father has endued the Son with all of the authority necessary to dispense eternal life. And that eternal life is to be dispersed according to a plan that has been made between the Members of the Trinity from before the foundation of the world. I’ve cited this before but it seems good just to read this passage from Paul here:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,  even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love  he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,  to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)
And so when Paul says here that God predestined those who were chosen “in him before the foundation of the world” the purpose of this was “to the praise of His glorious grace”!
Why does God only save some and not others. We can’t know the hidden councils of the Lord (Romans 11:33-36) for they are past finding out, but we can know that God does things the way He does them in order to achieve maximum fame and glory for Himself. Therefore I conclude that Jesus’ goal in achieving the atonement for his chosen people is grounded in the fact that this will bring the Father maximum glory.
So, as you can see, the end of all things is glory of God. Christ sought us, bought us, and here intercedes for us in order to bring the Father glory.
Edwards puts it this way, “All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works is included in that one phrase, ‘the glory of God’; which is the name by which the last end of God’s works is most commonly called in Scripture.”
17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
There are a few places in the New Testament that the gospel of salvation is laid out with such succinctness and this is one of them. Jesus has already said that His mission here is to give eternal life to those whom God gave to Him. And we’ve talked about how obedience to this plan brings God glory. But what struck me about verse three here is that Jesus is so gracious in His awareness that we would have this verse for centuries to come. He clarifies even more what He was saying.
Therefore this verse is the equivalent of John 14:6 “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
He proclaims that the Father is the only true God – adoration and acknowledgement of the truth of who God is – and ties this to what eternal life means: to “know” God the Father and to “know” Jesus Christ (note that he equates himself to being on par with God, and thus equal with God).
This word “know” is the familiar word for NT scholars ginōskō and carries with it the same close knowledge or understanding that you would have with anyone that you came to know over a period of time.
What Jesus is saying is that eternal life is rooted in having a relationship with God – and this relationship is life-giving. That life, which is not in us for we have fallen, flows from the Holy Spirit who keeps us sealed until the day of Christ’s return.
These are supernatural concepts; they have eternal consequences. So to those who say that Jesus taught merely moral teachings for us to follow as examples, I say that you have missed the entire point of Jesus’ ministry. And its verses like this that make this all the more evident.