John 17:9 Out of Context
Several months ago, I had the privilege of presenting salvation for all at a church that was doing a class on different views of hell. On the final day, the audience was able to ask questions to all three of the presenters. One man had a question for me that was clearly less of a question than a mini-argument designed to call into doubt that God actually planned to save everyone. You could tell this was the case by the extensive background given. His question regarded what is sometimes referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. Specifically, he asked about John 17:9:
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
He then asked me to explain why God only prayed for some people and not for the world if he truly loved and wanted to save every person in the world. Why did he restrict His prayer to only some if He would ultimately save all? At the time, I think I responded that perhaps Jesus was just specifically praying for his immediate followers at that moment, but that this did not reduce His overall salvific purpose. But, since I was not extremely familiar with John 17, and did not have time to look it up given time constraints and the format of the event, I did not have as complete of an answer as I would have liked.
That has since changed. The answer to the man’s question (or argument) is that an accurate interpretation of the biblical message cannot be made if one takes verses out of context and builds an entire argument around a decontextualized verse. Reading the rest of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 answers his question quite decisively. Let’s now look at the entire prayer. I have separated it into sections that we will analyze.
John 17:1-5 (ESV)
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. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
Notice that Jesus has been given authority over all flesh so that he can give eternal life to all that he’s been given. To me, this seems to indicate that he has been given everyone so that he can give eternal life to everyone. This seems to be the natural meaning of the phrasing. Let’s break it down to see why:
- Who will Jesus give eternal life to? Answer: To all the Father has given Him.
- Who has the Father given to Him? Answer: All flesh (i.e. everyone).
It might be possible to argue that Jesus has authority over all people but that all do not belong to Him, but I think that this is a weak argument. Why would He have authority over flesh that was not given to Him? It seems that he has authority over all flesh precisely because all flesh has been given to him. As an example, I have authority over my children because they are mine and do not have authority over other people’s children because they are not. Additionally, the understanding that all have been given to Jesus is corroborated in John 3:35, which states that “the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” This is a quite direct statement that all have been given to Jesus.
“But many are not following Christ,” some people will object, “how can it be that all are His?” The answer is that we do not yet see the fullness of God’s plan for the ages.
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
These verses in Hebrews make it clear that the cross has a deeper significance than what we can see on the surface. Everything and everyone are subject to Him and within his control, even though we do not see this yet. Jesus tasted death for everyone as a ransom for all people (1 Timothy 2:6). As a ransom for all people, He purchased all people. Therefore, all people are his, and He will give eternal life to all who are his. Such a conclusion seems logically inescapable. Since He purchased everyone, everyone belongs to Him, and He will therefore give eternal life to everyone.
Secondly, it is vital to notice that Jesus defines eternal life, not as an escape from hell as so many people attempt to claim, but as knowing “the only true God and Jesus Christ.” How can we deny that the whole-hearted worship and adoration of “every knee and every tongue” as promised by God fulfills this definition for everyone? As stated in Hebrews 8:11-12, “they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” The fact that this promise was written to the Hebrews about Israel should not cause us to doubt that God’s plan is greater than just saving Israel. We know from Scripture that His plan is for all people. We also see from this verse that it is not only a promise to the righteous but also to the wicked, for God forgives “their wickedness.” Everyone will know Him, and this is the very definition of eternal life, as given by Jesus himself!
This is the big picture, but in the next section of Jesus’ prayer, it seems that He takes a step back from this big picture and focuses on his immediate disciples. This is occurring after the Lord’s supper in the upper room, in which only his twelve closest disciples were present, as Matthew 26:20 tells us, “When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.” They seem to be no longer in the upper room, for in John 14:31 Jesus says, “Come now; let us leave” from the upper room. They have also not yet arrived in the garden of Gethsemane, as John 18:1 tells us that they went there following the prayer. So, in context we are reading a prayer that Jesus prayed with his eleven closest friends (Judas had already left to betray him), somewhere between the upper room and the garden. It is therefore not surprising that Jesus prays specifically for these men, his closest disciples, before His impending death. With this backdrop, we can now soberly examine the next section of John 17.
John 17:6-19 (ESV)
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
It seems very likely that this section of Jesus’ prayer is specifically referring to Jesus’ twelve disciples. There are several contextual clues that indicate this. They kept God’s word, knew everything given to Jesus was from the Father, received His words, knew in truth and believed that He came from God etc. Also, only one of them was lost (Judas). All of these clues indicate that he is referring to the disciples that are presently accompanying Him on the way to Gethsemane. At most Jesus is referring to those people who had fully come to believe in Him (a very small number at that time).
The reason I mention this is that it shows the implausibility of interpreting Jesus’ statement that he is “praying for them” and “not praying for the world,” as a statement of exclusive salvation for those he is praying for. If we read the prayer in such a manner, the gospel is hopelessly narrow: Jesus only cared about saving his eleven best buddies! Such a reading is quite absurd. Instead it seems far more reasonable to read this as a specific prayer for those who were closest to Him, much as you would pray for your family, not because you do not care about the rest of the world, but rather because they are closest to you. I am confident that you also often pray for specific people, and not just for the whole world generally. This appears to be Jesus meaning here. He is praying for the disciples right now. But this prayer, as we shall soon see, was not for the exclusive salvation of those men whom he had been given, but rather for them to be sanctified and prepared for the broader mission of salvation that they would have. He is sending them out to have an impact on the world. The rest of the prayer tells us so.
John 17:20-26 (ESV)
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Here we see Jesus broadening his prayer once again. He was praying specifically for his disciples for a time, but now shifts his focus to show that they are not the only objects of God’s love. “I do not ask for these only,” He begins, clarifying that his prayer for them was not one of exclusivity at the expense of others, but rather a prayer for his disciples to be a light to the rest of the world. The specific focus on the disciples in John 17:6-19 was to build them up in preparation for the job ahead of spreading the good news.
The broad picture is that the disciples will be sanctified and strengthened in order to share the gospel with others who will believe through them, and that the gospel will then spread until the world believes.
Interestingly, the phrase translated as “that they may all be one” in John 17:21 has an added word that is not present in the Greek: “they.” In Greek, it actually says “that all may be one” (hina pantes hen ōsin/ἵνα πάντες ἓν ὦσιν). You can verify this for yourself here and here. The reason why this is significant is that the word “they” implies a specific smaller group of believers as being made one. But since “they” is not present in the Greek, it seems quite reasonable to view this as a statement of ultimate purpose: the final unity of all people under Christ. This echoes Ephesians 1:8-10:
“With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
This interpretation is further bolstered by the fact that Jesus specifically says that his prayers for sanctification and unity of believers are “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” It seems quite obvious to me that my questioner at the “views of hell” class ignored this part of the prayer in order to make his point. But this only serves to demonstrate that he was purposely (or accidentally) ignoring the immediate context of the prayer. Jesus repeats twice that the reason he was praying for his disciples was so that they would be his witnesses, with the end goal being that the world may believe and know. Extracting Jesus’ specific prayer for his disciples from its context causes a person to completely miss the point. As believers, we are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) that bring the good news to everyone and live in such a way that God is glorified so that the world will believe!
The election of believers is for the purpose of spreading the good news with love and unity to the rest of the world. It is not so we can become self-satisfied, judgmental individuals who revel in our own salvation while watching the rest of the world burn.
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