If you want to discover the DNA of the Church, read John 17. If you want to understand the Church, it is essential to understand this prayer of Christ. So, taking a closer look at it is vital.
“When Jesus had said this, he raised his eyes to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your Son may glorify you…’” (Jn 17:1). What precedes this prayer, what Jesus “had said,” is John 13-16, which biblical scholars call Christ “farewell” or “last” discourse. It is what Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper, as John records it. Other great figures in history had farewell discourses (Socrates and Moses, for instance), so Jesus is no different in that regard. We often put great importance upon a person’s final words, certainly those of a great person. And that’s what these chapters from John are. This is Christ’s farewell wisdom, farewell hope, his farewell words to the Twelve — one of whom left early to betray him while the rest (except, maybe, for John) would soon run away in fear. Christ’s farewell discourse ends with this prayer, prayed by a man who would soon be alone.
Christ begins his great prayer in John 17 by lifting his eyes in prayer to his Father, the heavenly Father. Now Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, when speaking of his heavenly Father, Abba, means the God of Israel, YHWH, the Holy One. That he calls God his Father immediately says something about the intimacy Jesus claims to have with the God of Israel. We see this earlier in John when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath; his excuse for doing so was that his Father worked on the Sabbath and so must he (Jn 5:17). Jesus is even more blunt later in the gospel when he says, “The Father and I are one,” and also when he tells Philip that whoever has seen Jesus has “seen the Father” (Jn 10:30; 14:9). In this prayer, however — as to be explored more fully below — Jesus describes this relationship in terms of glory.
He says, “the hour has come … ” Now, if you know anything about John’s Gospel, you know that repeatedly Jesus said that his hour had not yet come — as at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12). Yet, at the beginning of the farewell discourse, and again here, the hour has come. It’s the hour of his death, his Passion.
But what does he say the hour is for? The hour has come to give “glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.”Now, at the very least, this reveals something of the character of Jesus. From an earthly perspective, he’s an utter failure. From a worldly view, he’s lost. As John says elsewhere in the Gospel, “it was night” (Jn 13:30). Or, in Luke’s Gospel, the hour of the “power of darkness” (Lk 22:53). From one point of view, one could say Jesus is at the end of his rope, that the movement is over. Yet, in this hour of darkness, betrayal, and failure, what does Jesus talk about? Glory.This reveals something about who this Jesus is. If I were in his situation, I wouldn’t talk about glory. Would you? I would likely curse my terrible predicament and look for any way out.
But not Jesus. He is different. He prays. And it is in his prayer in the darkness that we discover this beautiful theological image of Jesus glorifying his Father while at the same time the Father glorifies him — a mutual giving of glory. Now, thinking of glory in an ordinary sense, as in honor, we can learn something from Jesus here. We often think of the glory of God as if it must take ours away, that if we glorify God, then somehow our glory fades. We think glory is subject to scarcity. But that is not what Jesus’s prayer suggests. “Glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” Jesus’s glory is the Father’s glory and the Father’s glory is Jesus’s glory just as your glory is God’s glory and God’s glory is your glory. Glory is given to God, not at your expense, but for your flourishing. But, really, this is a side point, because Jesus is not talking about just ordinary glory, but about the mutual relationship of “Godness” and grace which the Son and the Father share. Again, within the larger context of John’s Gospel, we understand “glory” here to mean the visible majesty and power of God, in Hebrew his kābōd, which in the Word made flesh such glory was seen (Jn 1:14). Recalling this sense of glory, given that Jesus is praying like this just before his crucifixion, one can wonder what he thinks of the scourging and death that awaits him. Perhaps that it will be not humiliation and defeat, but the manifestation of God: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM,” he said earlier (Jn 8:28). Perhaps that’s what Jesus means by glory here, this strange glory, this murder that’ll make the final Friday of his earthly life forever good.
“…just as you gave him authority over all people, so that you may give eternal life to all you gave him…” (Jn 17:2).Now, again, from a worldly view, this man is a loser. He’s about to meet Pilate who will condemn him to death. Pilate has real authority, not Jesus. Yet, here’s Jesus saying he has “authority over all people.” Paul will talk about this later in the New Testament when he says Jesus is raised up above all “principalities and powers,” and given a “name that is above every name” (Col 1:16; Phil. 2:9). This expresses early Christian belief that Jesus is “Lord,” which as referenced in another of these pieces, is a belief which was remarkably provocative. So, Jesus understands within himself that he’s been given authority over all flesh from the Holy One of Israel. But, what for?
The Greek word translated “authority” is exousia, and it is an interesting word. It is related to “power,” dunamis in Greek. In that exousia describes the ability or right to exercise power, that is, exousia manifests itself in dunamis. Now this is important because exousia often names God’s creative power, and here we see that same power also belongs to Jesus. St. Thomas Aquinas, reading this passage, said that is what all this talk of mutual glorification was about, “that whatever the Son has, he has from the Father.” That is, this authority is not merely delegated to Jesus but is exercised by him personally because the Father and the Son are one. And the purpose of this authority is not to crush you or put you down, or to defeat Pilate once for all. Rather, the authority of Jesus is a life-giving authority, bestowed from his life in the Father to believers for eternal life. Jesus here is talking about the how of new birth (Jn 3:3). “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become the children of God, to those who believe in his name” (Jn 1:12). And, again, to recall the context of this prayer, it is simply remarkable. At the very beginning of this prayer to his Father on this dark night, what Jesus is praying for is not the glory and power that comes from the Pilates of the world, but from God. Jesus sees himself in a relationship of glory with his Father. He is not cursing his fate nor complaining about Pilate. Rather, he is talking about glory and authority and eternal life.
But what is eternal life? Jesus answers the question: “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you the only true God…” (Jn 17:3). This is a very Jewish way of putting it. From the very beginning, the Hebrews wanted to “see” and “know” God. Moses asked to see God’s glory, but God told him he could not see his face and live (Ex 33:20). The prophets talked about the “knowledge” (ydc) of God; it is the same root word used to name sexual intimacy between husband and wife. The Israelites hoped for an analogous intimacy with God. Hosea, for instance, used such imagery to describe the marriage covenant between God and Israel—“I will espouse you in fidelity and you shall know the Lord” (Hos 2:22). Jeremiah dreamed of a new covenant by which all shall know the Lord, “from least to greatest” (Jer 31:34). To talk about knowledge of God was to talk about direct, intimate experience of him. Jesus here is simply praying as a good Jew, acknowledging that knowledge of God means life — eternal life because God is eternal.
But, then Jesus adds something: “ … and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (Jn 17:3). We are nearing now to the radical nature of the Christian claim. St. Gregory of Nazianzus said that this was the verse to “overthrow” the gods.To have eternal life is to know the Holy One of Israel, the Eternal One — and Jesus Christ. This is the very substance of the Gospel, that eternal life is knowing YHWH and his Son. Now, of course, the Church took a long time to describe theologically this relationship between the Son and the Father — using words like Trinitas and homoousios — but that is another story. What matters here — and what must suffice for now — is simply to notice the glory Jesus talks about and prays for, and which he shares with the Father. And that it’s a glory which in turn shines on us — we who believe, who know Jesus, Son of God.
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.