As Jesus continues his prayer in John 17, he is still talking about glory.
“I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do” (Jn 17:4). St. Augustine thought Jesus was speaking prophetically here of his upcoming crucifixion. St. Thomas Aquinas also thought these words referred to his Passion, because, in a sense, it has “already begun.” But St. Thomas also understood it to refer plainly to Jesus’s earthly teaching, that is, all that’s found in the Gospels up to this point — his preaching, his miracles. The glory Jesus is praying for now is of a piece with his entire life. In living and dying, the glory is the same.
“Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began” (Jn 17:5). St. Augustine read this right, and St. Thomas Aquinas agreed: here, Christ, in his human nature, asks the Father to glorify his human nature with the same glory Christ, in his divine nature, already always possesses, from “before the world began.” Earlier Jesus has told them, “I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father” (Jn 16:28). The Gospel writer and other early Christians understood Christ was with the Father before the world existed —pre-temporally, “begotten, not made” we say in the Nicene Creed, eternal with the Father. That’s because the Father and the Son are — again, as we say in the Creed — “consubstantial.”
Jesus intimated this earlier in the Gospel when he said things like, “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.” When Jesus said this, the Gospel says the people wanted “all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath, but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God” (Jn 5:17-18). The reason Jesus’s sabbath miracles were so scandalous, you see, was because only God worked on the sabbath. Saying he worked just as his Father worked, his first listeners knew what he meant. He would speak even plainer later in the Gospel saying, “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). Since the beginning, Christians understood that what you said about the Holy One of Israel you also had to say about Jesus. They did not have the philosophical language the Church would later employ, but they knew Jesus shared glory with the Father from the beginning. Earlier in the Gospel Philip asked Jesus, “Master, show us the Father.” Jesus answered him, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:8-9). Some have suggested Christians invented the idea of the divinity of Jesus only about the fourth century. This, by even a superficial reading of the New Testament, is patent nonsense. Early Christians believed Jesus was God. They certainly did not have the vocabulary of the fourth century, but they believed it nonetheless.
But, back to John 17 itself, what Jesus is asking his Father to do is to exalt him in his human nature. In this hour of darkness and betrayal, Jesus keeps talking about glory, the glory of his preaching, life and death. He is asking his Father, to use Paul’s later language, to greatly exalt him, giving him the name “above every name,” the “name of Jesus,” at which every knee should bend, confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11). Again, at the very least, it is a remarkable thing to pray for so close to scourging and death, so close to events that will seem anything but exaltation — except for believers. They will see. They will believe, finding eternal life (Jn 8:28; 3:14-15).
“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word” (Jn 17:6). Jesus is talking here of the disciples — the Twelve, the seventy, the others. He was faithful in the delivery of the word as were they in keeping it.
“Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me” (Jn 17:7-8). Jesus is talking about his disciples; they accepted, understood and believed. But notice what is beginning to emerge, a movement, a mission that begins in God: “everything … the words,” the Father gives to the Son, the Son in turn gives to the disciples. What is given, of course, is Jesus himself. We should notice the movement, the trajectory, which will be made more explicit later: the Father sent the Son and the Son called and sent the disciples, making them “apostles,” which means “sent.” The disciples understand that their mission is to go and talk about Jesus, to give the word as Jesus gives it to them. The mission is to preach Jesus — whose glory is with the Father from before the beginning of the world — who is one with the Father and who offers eternal life.
And Jesus continues: “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them” (Jn 17:9-10). This is interesting. Jesus does not pray for the world, only his disciples. Is Jesus being exclusionary, bitter toward those who did not accept him? I don’t think so at all. Rather, this tells us something profound about how Jesus saves us, and that’s through a very divine but also a very human way of loving.
Think about it this way, I’ve got a friend named Mark. I love Mark as a brother in Christ. But it is just true that I love my wife more than I love him. No one would think it strange that I love my wife more than I love Mark. What would be strange is if I loved them equally. And that is because in creation there is something very good about the ethically jealous loves we experience. I should love my wife more than anyone else with a love forsaking all others. And you too should forsake all others, loving your wife or husband as you love no one else. But why? Because when you love someone uniquely and individually, you then know how to love other people properly. Your first love orders all your other loves. I love my kids more than your kids, for instance, and that is good. God gave me a unique, intense love for my children which I do not have for your children, and that is so my children can learn what it means to be loved well — all so that they can know how to love well in turn, and so on and so on. Unique, ethically jealous love is the way love spreads in this world. It is simply the natural way love grows. Personal loves always go before more general loves. That is just the way love works.
So let us listen to Jesus’s words again: “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me” (Jn 17:9). Jesus loves with that same sort of unique, jealous, intimate, personal love. He knows that when he loves his disciples that way and when his disciples love other disciples that way, then that love will spread because we have all experienced it, because we have been loved and love in just that personal, intimate way. Christianity, you see, is not some political platform, some credenda, a set of abstract philosophical propositions. Rather, Christianity is simply love grown. So, Jesus here is indeed not praying for the entire world. But there is a good reason for that, because he loves with not just fully divine love, but fully human love, too. Because he loves the disciples, he prays for them with love that will — through the Church, in time — include the whole world. And it is a love that shares in the glory of the Father and the Son, not a worldly love at all. Here we see the very beginnings of the Church, of mission. And it all begins in God and in love in those who believe.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.