top of page

John 17:20-26

There aren’t that many moments where scripture so palpably reaches through the hermeneutical gap as it does in the high-priestly prayer of Jesus. In the first part of the prayer (17:1-19) Jesus’ prayer is for the 12 disciples (even Judas who had already betrayed him is mentioned). In 17:20-26 the same prayer Jesus prays for his disciples is extended to include all who come to believe because of their witness. John’s concern is certainly for those who would receive his gospel and believe because of it. But by nature of Jesus’ prayer, all who come to believe in him should hear this as a call to a particular type of community.

It is for us that the Johannine Jesus prays, and for all who chose to go the way of Jesus. I wonder if the gospel writer knew just how important that this prayer was going to be for the church throughout the centuries and even today when he included it in his account of Jesus.

Disunity has plagued the Church from its beginning. The original readers of John’s gospel were probably dealing with disunity. In his letters to different churches, Paul is constantly dealing with disunity. Today, there are thousands of church denominations most of which were established because of disunity. Often the splintering of the church comes because of the human impulse to only associate with people that are exactly like us. Many church leaders have come along and recognized this habit in people and worked to prevent disunity. Though John Wesley is seen as the father of the Methodist church, he was adamant that he didn’t want to start a new denomination. His concern was certainly the unity of the church. He is often credited with this quote: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”[1]

The primary purpose of the high-priestly prayer is found in 17:21a, “that they may all be one.” John’s concern is for the unity of the churches that his gospel will be distributed to and it is certainly a concern for church leaders today. Unfortunately, the thousands of Christian denominations that exist in the world is proof that this idea of unity is not easily accomplished. While some may find this goal of unity as hopeless and insist on abandoning it, the gospel reading this week is an encouragement as it proclaims that Jesus’ desire for his church is that it be one. To be a part of the Church is to be unified against disunity.

As Jesus prays for oneness for his followers, he is reflecting on his own oneness with the Father: “As you, father, are in me and I am in you.” (v. 21) This is more obvious in the Greek where the words “one” (hen) and “in” (en) are almost identical.[2] This prayer is an invitation to followers of Jesus to be brought into and participate in the life of God. Jesus goes on in his prayer to explain the ultimate purpose of this unity: “that the world may know…” (v. 21). A few chapters before, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to love one another for this same purpose. (13:35)

The purpose of the oneness that Jesus prays for is so that the world will know that it is Jesus who is the ultimate revelation of God and God’s intentions for the world. Jesus prays all of this just before he, the ultimate revelation of God, is about to be tried and killed. “The way” that Thomas and the rest of the disciples so adamantly sought for a few chapters ago (14:6) is about to make his way to the cross. This is the ultimate price of unity with God, and it is the way that we have been invited to take.

Jesus refers to “the world” a lot and usually, it is at odds with him. A shallow reading of this has made it easy for Christians to demonize the world and has oft